My African sojourn was coming to an end but there would be one last adventure, a two day cruise on the Congo River. It is the deepest river in the world and second only to the Amazon in the water it discharges to the sea. Home of the Mokèlé-mbèmbé, boundary between nations, highway of colonial subjugation, heart of darkness or artery of Africa, take your pick. Mark, my traveling companion, had done all the travel organisation. So far a splendid job. He was a little nervous about this final flourish. It was all organised by email, no receipts, no address, no phone number. Would our guide pick us up at Mikael’s Hotel?
Would the African Queen still be afloat?
The guide was ten minutes late. We took a taxi to the supermarket where we had to buy food for on the boat. Then we took a taxi to the docks. We were walking boldly into the docks when the police picked us up. The police station was very bare. We stood in front of a wooden counter that ran the width of a narrow room, there was a window on our left, no glass just a grill. There was a cage on our right, running the length of the room and about a metre and a half deep. The room was narrow enough for the prisoner on our right to be in conversation via the grill on our left with someone outside. I think he was pleading for someone to post bail.
There were three policemen, we handed over our passports. The largest policeman was in great spirits. Identifying us as Australians he began hooting at us. At the time it made little sense but afterwards I realized he had confused us with New Zealanders and was performing a Haka. A nice touch. Our passports were inspected thoroughly and failed to pass muster. We would have to go see the big boss.
The big boss gestured to some chairs in front of his desk, his office was a room that was bare apart from a bed, a bicycle, his desk and the chairs. Small windows, concrete walls. He inspected our passports carefully … and they failed to pass muster.
The next office belonged to the Chief of Immigration. Also bare, small windows. No bed, perhaps he expected bribes to be in the form of cash. No bicycle. He did have a computer. In a cardboard box, no doubt to be unpacked any day. Our guide explained our intentions. The chief inspected our passports. He explained, at great length, that this was the frontier, we did not have the necessary permit from the necessary bureaucratic entity. We could not board a vessel here. Our guide remonstrated. The chief became angry. Remonstrations became more subdued, anger diminished, time passed, the obstacle remained, the discussion went on. Clearly the exchange of as little as €20 would solve the problem, our problem, but would then pose a continuing problem for the guide who would have to find a small present on every occasion thereafter. Eventually he accepted the chief’s decision and we left.
Outside he explained that we would try another departure point, at Mami Wata, which is quite close to Mikael’s Hotel. He called the boatman on his mobile phone. We took a taxi to Mami Wata’s where we had a beer. After a while the boat turned up. It was not the African Queen, it was a canoe, holes in it had been patched with metal strip. Two plastic garden chairs had been placed amidships for the European guests. It had an outboard motor at the stern, held together by clear sticky tape. And God bless all who sail on her.
We headed up river.
We explained our intense interest in birds, even little brown ones, with limited success.
The Congo is very broad where Brazzaville faces Kinshasa (once known as Leopoldville) across the Stanley Pool. There are numerous islands and the intervening passages are not deep. The world’s deepest river it may be but it’s the shallows and the rapids that determine where it is and isn’t navigable.
Some of the islands are home to fishing folk. Our boatman was keen to show us his village.
Where Mark captivated the youngsters by discovering a bag of bonbons in his pack …
In return, our hosts lit a small fire, practically at his feet, and cooked a fish for him to eat.
We explored the river until late afternoon, landed on an uninhabited island, managed to find a few birds along the way. Ultimately we reached our destination, a hotel on an island. The owner, hotelier, chef and bottle washer was clearly surprised to see us … when she was eventually discovered, but yes, if we liked we could stay. It was clean, we each had a bedroom of our own. We shared a bathroom which did have a shower and a flush toilet. We had a lounge where we would also eat. Cool.
There was no running water, which relegated the shower to decorative status only. There was a line of buckets next to the toilet so no problem there. A generator provided electricity in the evening. And the boatman would be back at eleven the next morning. The evening meal was delicious.
Birding on the island was good. Amongst those prepared to pose were Little Bittern …
… and Yellow-backed Weaver.
Daily life passed by …
Not long after noon the boat man did turn up and we made our way back to Brazzaville. Along the way we encountered the African Lungfish, sadly awaiting an unpleasant fate.
All that was left to do was to find some way of getting ashore without being arrested. We headed first to Mami Wata. For some reason, however, after a close inspection no landing was attempted. We then did an impersonation of a drunk driver crawling along in the gutter, up past the ferry terminal, a sniff around the port, hid behind other boats then back down to Mami Wata an hour or so later. Attempts to elicit an explanation of what we were up to met with no success.
We got off finally at Mami Wata where a little money changed hands to smooth our passage. A taxi ride took us back To Mikael’s for our final night.
Australians take freedom of movement for granted. Without it a small tourist business cannot be sure of being able to provide a service, a small enterprise stifled by a corrupt bureaucracy.