Canoeing the Congo
First source to sea descent of the Congo River.
If there was ever a time to produce an efficient forward paddling stroke … this was it!
I was alone in the middle of the Congo and being chased by eight angry tribesmen in two dugout canoes, screaming for money. Unfortunately my vertical paddle shaft and torso rotation were not enough and after half an hour, despite my best efforts they caught me up. Unlike facing an ‘access ignorant’ angry fly-fisherman on the river Wye, I decided stronger tactic’s were needed. Morphing into a raging madman, screaming obscenities and waving my machete around like a lunatic seemed to do the trick and they backed off …
Thanks to winning a fellowship and grant from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, I was on my way to making the first source to sea descent of the Congo River in Central Africa, from the true source in north-eastern Zambia. Just short of 3000 miles long, it took me five months in a 15ft ‘Mad River Explorer’ open canoe, a great boat and tough as old boots.
The Congo River has everything an open boater could want… flat calm swamps complete with lily pads, kingfishers and crocodiles, right through to grade 6 raging torrents and waterfalls with everything else in between. With savannah in the south and dense tropical rainforest in the north, the Congo River crosses the equator twice before draining into the Atlantic Ocean. It’s the deepest river in the world with the second most powerful flow rate after the Amazon. War-torn with endemic corruption throughout, it was the hostility of the criminal minority that proved the biggest headache.
On one stretch of river known as The Abattoir, due to its past history of cannibalism and current reputation for criminal activity, I hired four brothers with a shotgun to accompany me as bodyguards. We paddled and floated for five days and nights on the river without touching land. Common questions from locals were, “why haven’t you cut his throat yet?” and “if you don’t want to do it, tell us where you’re camping and we’ll come and do it for you … we’ll share his money.” The people were mostly friendly however, and I generally received tremendous hospitality from a proud and brave people, especially from the riverside fishermen who helped me wherever they could.
For me, there’s something very special about starting a wilderness river journey, especially in a third world country. Everything becomes clear and uncomplicated, and priorities change. The moneymaking obsessions of the western world melt away and you’re left thinking simply about finding food, firewood, shelter, and not drowning.
The Chambeshi River was the source of the Congo and a beautiful little stream; crystal clear waters, an abundance of birdlife and lovely little rapids to keep me on my toes. The canoeing was fantastic … the sun on my back and not a guide book in sight. Slowly but surely it started widening and the rapids started getting bigger, but never big enough to be life threatening. The only real risks were either being torn to shreds by the razor sharp thorn trees that seemed to lean out over the river from all directions, or getting the canoe pinned against a rock or on one of the many fallen trees crossing the water. On one occasion I rounded a bend in fast water, only to find myself thrust into a wall of tangled vines and thorns. I was well and truly stuck and only by using my machete did I manage to cut my way through. It was a far cry from the Tryweryn. After a few days, fast water gave way to lazy meandering bends that seemed to go on forever.
Crocodiles were another consideration. The environment had now changed again, and where it had once been open and bright, the way became narrow and dark, with gnarled, twisted overhanging trees blotting out the sunlight. As I registered this change in mood two twelve-foot crocodiles came crashing through the undergrowth and launched themselves off a four feet high bank. They belly flopped onto the water with a tremendous splash and disappeared directly under my canoe, the waves causing me to wobble in more ways than one.
Camp spots were scarce in the swamps. In the absence of firm ground, my technique would be to paddle as hard as I could, and ram myself into the thickest area of reeds I could find. I’d then try to somehow drag and push my way further through, until I was securely wedged in with little risk of capsize. Up would go my two poles and mosquito net, and by moving my two pieces of foam buoyancy together, I could stretch out and get my head down. I figured that since I was surrounded by tightly packed six feet high reeds, I’d have to be pretty damn unlucky to get a surprise visit from anything big enough to fit my head in its mouth. On more than one occasion I was awoken in the middle of the night by crashing, splashing sounds, but after a while I got used to it. Crashing, splashing sounds are one thing - something ’orrible ripping your leg off is quite another. Where it was too shallow to paddle, I lashed my poles together with strips of rubber inner-tube and stood up pushing off the bottom.
A wall of jungle
Weeks later after negotiating a couple of waterfalls and days of open rapids up to grade three, a wall of jungle confronted me and the river disappeared into it in a myriad of channels, with no suggestion as to what was the best route, or how long it would last. It was potluck. I’d known these labyrinths existed but hadn’t expected them here. The danger was – as I was soon to discover – that the gradient would often drop away ending with rapids or even waterfalls, and if you went the wrong way you might get sucked in before you could do anything about it. Alternatively there might only be easy rapids in there and after ten minutes you’d be back on the open river again. The hardest thing was not knowing, it could take me a whole day to get through going the wrong way, fighting my way back upstream, jumping out into waist deep water and dragging the canoe – or it could be a piece of cake.
Negotiating my way around one rapid, I inadvertently and unknowingly brushed against a giant spiders web, and only when I was past the main drop did I become aware of a strange sensation. I was covered head to toe in hundreds of arachnids, crawling up my nose and in my ears. Screaming like a little girl, I dived into the water furiously rubbing the little bleeders off of me … luckily no-one was watching. On a couple of occasions snakes also got too close for comfort, and would swim right up to me rearing a couple of feet out of the water and I had to fend them off with my paddle.
With a map of 1:2,000,000 some rapids were marked and some were not. Nafutu falls certainly wasn’t on the map. It wasn’t a waterfall, but it was a decent rapid, and the forest had abruptly disappeared, giving way to a rocky gorge with a unique mushroom shaped rock at the bottom where the water had eroded it for thousands of years. I walked down to inspect it, and it actually looked quite paddle-able, albeit very boily. Basically the whole river was squeezed into a passage of about thirty feet wide. What I didn’t have much experience of was the power of the boils, and just before the end I got slightly off line... and that was enough. Before I could do much about it, a surging rotating boil spun me around like a cork.
Just as I thought I’d had my excitement for one day, after an hour of open river I was confronted by another wall of jungle. It was weird because I started the day surrounded by grass covered hills, then into a jungle labyrinth followed by a rocky gorge, and now I was facing a wall of gnarled and twisted vines and thick greenery. The river of two hundred metres wide had once again dissolved into twenty smaller channels disappearing under the canopy.
In I went, and it felt like a different world. The vegetation hadn’t been this thick before. I could hear a permanent rumbling of rapids somewhere off in the distance, and tried to keep to the left hand side, not wanting to lose my bearings in the middle. Every now and then the rapids would increase so I’d try to backtrack and find the easiest path. I ducked under one vine only to disturb a crocodile slithering off a rock. The canopy at this point was all enveloping, with hardly any visible sky. As uncertain as I was, this was definitely what it was all about, and not having a bloody clue about what lay ahead, made the experience all the more adventurous. At times the current was fast, requiring quick decision-making, and a constant need to read the surface of the water, to choose the best route, along with a need to look ahead to make sure I didn’t get sucked into a tangled thicket. Then, all of a sudden, the flow seemed to stop, and I’d find myself paddling upstream without realising it, all the while hearing the distant rumble of rapids god knows where. Sometimes I’d spot a better channel through the greenery and have to squeeze my way through the tiniest of gaps, taking great care not to cut myself to pieces on the most horrendous thorny vines I’d ever seen.
The rapids below the capital of Kinshasa are the biggest volume rapids in the world, and I thought it might be a good idea to portage around this section. From Matadi to the Atlantic Ocean I had Angola on the left hand bank, and after a couple of days I reached the sea and my journeys end. I gave my canoe to the chief of a tiny village in the coastal mangrove swamp’s, suffice to say he was chuffed to bits as was I to finish. Three stone lighter, I’d still recommend the Congo River as an adventurous canoe trip for anyone wanting to get off the beaten track.
For more information about the book Canoeing the Congo: First source to sea descent of the Congo River and the film that accompanies the book visit: www.canoeingthecongo.com