Monday, 31 October 2016

Basankusu: Race against time on the Congo River

Drifting along on the Lolanga River, the occasional glugging of water against our dugout canoe, a solitary hoot from the unspoilt forest at the riverbank ... apart from that, silence, peace, tranquillity.

The reason for the silence was simple ... we’d broken down.

We were assured that the bandits who had attacked some travellers with guns and robbed them on the river, had already been caught. But with this in mind, we had originally wanted to do the journey in two halves, sleeping in Mampoko for one night and continuing to Mbandaka the following day, during daylight. Our flight for Kinshasa from Mbandaka had already been paid for and we knew that check-in would close at 12 midday, Saturday. The only option in the end was to start the journey very early Friday morning and arrive in Mbandaka the same day, before it became dark again.

Our journey was supposed to begin at 3 in the morning, Fr Stan and myself got up at 2 am. The canoe arrived late, of course, and we didn’t leave Basankusu until a quarter past 5. Stan and I were joined by Sr Vicky’s brother; Sr LaJoie came along too, but was only going to Bonkita, 18km distance from Basankusu.

We chugged along at a moderate pace. The engine was only 15 horsepower, but we were going downstream. Sister LaJoie left us at Bonkita, as planned, and, as she left, chastised the two young men driving the boat for going so slowly. “They’ve got to arrive in Mbandaka by 6 pm,” she said. “You need to go faster than that!”

At 9:30 we’d travelled 65km and the motor spluttered to a halt. That’s how we found ourselves drifting on the river in the middle of the rainforest. After several attempts to restart it, a short surge of life took us to the shore. We were at Luonga, a tiny village, 15 km from Bokakata. The people of the village drifted down the riverbank to see what our problem was. After some discussion, one of them declared that he was a mechanic and climbed down to examine the outboard engine. He told us that it needed a spare part and they didn’t have anything like that there. They had a radio transmitter in the village (no phones here) and they could send a message to have a replacement outboard sent.
On the riverbank waiting for the first replacement outboard

After some hours, a replacement arrived. It was only 8 horsepower. I suggested to Stan that at this rate we would never reach Mbandaka and that we should send word to cancel our tickets and return to Basankusu.

As it happened, the new engine was also a dud, - it didn’t work at all.

Our drivers told us that they had only been told of the trip at 4 am and had come straightaway with the outboard engine they’d been given. Stan wasn’t sure if that was true or not, but at the same time had a lot of sympathy for workers who are bossed about and given very little pay.

We would normally have travelled with a driver called Paul Mobuta, but he hadn’t been available. His son arrived with the new engine and he suggested going to the Daughters of Jesus sisters, 15 km away in Bokakata and asking them for their 25 hp engine. There was one motorbike in Luonga, the village where we were, so he and one of our drivers went off on that.

The riverbank was hard clay and it was quite difficult to climb up bank to firm ground. I stretched my legs for 10 minutes and chatted to a few people in the village before returning to the riverbank. They carried my chair up from the canoe and as I sat down Stan said he would also like to stretch his legs, and could I stay to watch our bags.

Stan went for a walk around the village. Eventually, he returned. 
“They’re bringing the sisters’ outboard, but on the condition that Paul Mobuta’s son, Adebruyaka, acts as our driver, and not the drivers we started with,” he said.

It was now dark and the motorbike they were using to carry the motor along the forest track didn’t have a working headlight. They had an accident, with the engine hitting Adebruyaka’s head – when he got back he had quite a lump on his head. The other driver who was helping him had a big puncture wound on his leg just under his knee.

The people of the village were very supportive and took us to sit in a house, with bags and all, before we eventually set off at just after 10 pm. We would need to travel all night to arrive before check-in at Mbandaka’s little airport closed at noon the following day.

After half an hour, Adebruyaka discovered that one of the big, yellow gerrycans for our journey, was filled with water instead of petrol – we wouldn’t have enough fuel to reach Mbandaka.

Stan was furious. “First they fail to carry out any basic maintenance and we break down and now they try to cheat us by selling us water instead of fuel! What else could possibly happen?”

The river can be very cold at night; the movement of the canoe generates a constant breeze. I was at the front and although I was well dressed in waterproofs I eventually became so cold that I worried I would become ill with hypothermia. I started to lift my cabin-bag up and down to generate some heat in my body.
As the night wore on, we came to a place where we could buy some petrol. At 5 am it was light again and by 7 am we arrived at the last parish of the diocese, the Catholic Mission at Lolanga. It’s at the confluence of the river with the River Congo. They had a phone connection as well and I was able to phone ahead to Mlle Jeanne Marie Abanda who would drive us to the airport once we arrived in Mbandaka. We bought more fuel here and met people that we know from the diocese.

We were very fortunate that the weather was so fine – no rain at all.

We came to where the River Ikelemba joins the Congo. We came into the transmission area for Mbandaka mobile phone networks. I phoned Jeanne Marie to tell her we’d be there in 15 minutes. I’d just finished talking to her, when the outboard spluttered to a halt again. Our fuel was finished. We drifted again.

On the approach to Mbandaka we passed lots of people in canoes – but none had a motor ... they were all propelled by a paddle. The paddle is long like an oar, and as much as half of it can be flattened to form the paddle part. Usually one, but sometimes two people stand up in the canoe and paddle with long strokes to move through the water. Often two or three children will set out on their way to school by themselves – but they would paddle sitting down.

I phoned Jeanne Marie who said she would send someone with fuel.
Eventually, not only did we see a group of people in a canoe with an outboard, but Stan knew the person being carried. They sold us 2 litres of petrol – plenty to finish the journey. It was 10 am. We set off again with a renewed optimism. We would be there in time for the flight after all. I happily phone Jeanne Marie again to cancel our request for fuel.

Adebruyaka fed the fuel into the fuel-tank little by little. He noticed that the engine was drinking it up at a rate of knots. We were in site of the first little riverside port of Mbandaka. Our fuel finished yet again. So close, but drifting helplessly again. I was about to ask Jeanne Marie for help again when we passed a young man with a one year-old child in his canoe. “How much will you sell us you paddle for?” Adebruyaka enquired as they came alongside. “2,000 Francs,” he replied. That’s the same as $2 US.

So with a paddle in hand, Adebruyaka guided us towards the shore. As we bumped up against the sand, I could see the insignia of Caritas on the side of Mlle Jeanne Marie’s white pick-up. The owner of our canoe was also there on the beach, working on one of his boats. He was obviously embarrassed. The immigration police took our passports for their important work of writing down the details of all foreigners in a book that nobody will ever look at once the page has been turned, Stan and the boat owner exchanged a few words about the dire journey we’d endured and we were whisked away towards the Caritas office to change our clothes. We arrived there at 11 o’clock.

Sr Vicky’s sister had brought along our tickets and, after Jeanne Marie dropped us off at the airport, she helped us through the check-in procedure and (yet again) the immigration police.

The plane – as fate would have it – was late. But that didn’t matter. We drank beer and Stan ordered a few plates of omelette for us to share. The plane took off at 3 o’clock and by 4 we were in Kinshasa.

Exhausted but finally on the plane!

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