Text by Charlie Walker · Photographs by Archie Leeming
This is the second of a three-part Congo story. For part one, click here: Cycling the Congo
The water had become too fast, and the rocks too many. We hadn’t prepared for this, hadn’t had a chance to stop and scout ahead by foot. Having finally fought our way free of a narrow, overgrown channel of quick water running through dense forest, our lumbering dugout canoe suddenly surged out into the open.
Archie and I, already exhausted, looked ahead in panic.
We were speeding towards a churning field of rapids. Boulders littered the wide waterway and each one threatened to undo us. We managed a couple of risky and unplanned 360 degree pirouettes between obstacles before the breaks became too high and we inevitably struck a rock.
Water gushed over the sides and, in a desperate attempt to avoid the pirogue sinking, we leapt overboard. The fierce current dragged us unsympathetically over shallow rocks to the end of the rapids.
The nose of the pirogue had gone under and the rear was only held near the surface by the empty water containers we used as buoyancy aids. Our bags floated off in various directions while we desperately thrashed back and forth in the still-speeding water, shepherding them to the moving ‘base’ of our sinking canoe.
At length, we hauled the nose-dived craft to the steep-sided and thickly-wooded west bank. I looked over my shoulder and noticed my dry bag already fifteen metres downstream and floating away. It contained wallet, passport, electronics, photo backup, cash, diary and all documents. I lunged after it and only reached Archie and the boat again, bag strap in mouth, after a considerable fight with the current.
The sun was setting and we were cold and wet.
Our boat’s nose was caught in underwater tree roots and proving difficult to extricate after several dives. I’d been wet for the last two hours and had begun to shiver uncontrollably. It was evident that we must find soon somewhere to make a fire.
We’d survived the rapids, but were only four days in and had lost our map. From here on it would be exploration into the circumstantially unknown.
In October last year, Archie and I got hold of a couple of dugout canoes on Lake Malawi. Someone took photos from the shore that show us in uncontrollable fits of laughter (admittedly, slightly drunk) largely trying to scramble onto the hull of the upturned canoes, or in the act of capsizing itself. We certainly hadn’t mastered the calm and liquid movements that the Malawian fishermen used to glide smoothly and quickly across the surface.
This memory had somehow eluded us and we were now sat in our own dugout canoe (or ‘pirogue’), with our bicycles and all our possessions loaded in front of us. We’d rounded a few corners and outdistanced the sound of the Congolese crowd that saw us off from our starting point.
We were stubborn, and now we were paddling slowly along, struggling to keep straight, to balance, and to maintain a good stroke rhythm. The slightest ill-advised or uncompensated lean to the left or the right tipped the pirogue alarmingly and water rose close to the gunwale.
We greeted fishermen in Swahili as we passed. Someone from the bank shouted a warning about rapids close at hand. There was a tiny break of ripples, no more than 15cm high, that we happily passed through. Were these the kind of rapids we’d been warned about? We felt heartened. Maybe people had exaggerated…and about the crocodiles and hippos too?
As evening approached, we steered into a little space on the east bank, tied the ‘Lady Lulua’ to a tree, and lugged our kit up to a little clearing. We cooked on a fire and ate with our backs nestled into the bough of a tree. With feet warmed by the fire, we felt satisfied, smug even.
We’d begun. Our outlandish plan had become reality.
A quick coffee and a light breakfast, then out onto the river which slowly shed its dramatic mist-shroud each morning. We paddled hard and soon established the routine that was to see us through all the inter-rapid stretches for the duration of our journey.
The helmsman sat at the back, switching his paddle from side to side as required for steering. The other sat in the middle, with the better of the two paddles, heaving away consistently on one side, providing most of the power. After two hours we would stop for a quick biscuit and a cooling swim before switching seats and grinding on.
Lunches were either taken perched in the shade on the grand and twisting old tree roots that lined the bank, or taken on the water: one eating, one steering. The river twisted and turned back on itself in a fashion reminiscent of those ubiquitous overhead shots of the snaking, jungle-pressed Amazon. It seemed to us that the sun was swinging wildly back and forth across the always-cloudless sky.
Towards the end of the second day we approached some islands. The water speed subtly increased and, before we had time to choose otherwise, we were committed to running a small set of rapids.
The breakers were not dangerous but were about 30cm high which proved enough to lap generously over the sides near the ‘stern’ and slowly start to sink us. Archie was at the front and had begun to jubilantly cheer that we’d come safely through when I told him that we were going down, slowly but definitely. He looked around and down we went.
The pirogue submerged but held near the surface due to the buoyancy containers we had wisely decided to attach. Our bags slowly floated in separate directions and we quickly began to chase them.
A confused five minutes ensued until I managed to get to the bank with the rope and haul in the boat, our soaking kit, and my bag-clutching, sodden companion. We bailed out the boat, loaded it up, and found somewhere to land and camp just downriver where we busied ourselves with wood collecting, firelighting and putting up drying lines. We cooked all the water contaminated food and ate uncomfortably much while considering the incident.
It hadn’t been serious: we’d only lost a couple of plastic water bottles. However, it had been a wake up call. If that little blip of non-flat water could sink us, we may have big problems ahead.
In the morning we adjusted our buoyancy system so all 80L worth of empty water containers were fixed near the back of the pirogue and could be easily flipped up (so as not to hinder our speed in calm water) or alternatively down (to help balance and to slightly lift the boat’s low-sitting back for rapids).
Fishermen, an invaluable and yet unreliable source of information, told us that a big set of rapids were ahead and that we couldn’t pass them.
We rounded a few bends and then heard an intimidating roar growing in the distance. Figures were visible on the rocky right bank so we headed that way and landed within sight of the start of the rapids.
The villagers were installing fish nurseries: huge, open-topped, circular baskets (two metres across and one and a half metres tall) woven from vines and with branches placed in them as habitat. Smaller fish are caught and then kept in these for several days until they are bigger.
A couple of the fishermen spoke French and asked us where we were going while a crowd of children gathered. We scouted ahead on land and quickly realised that trying to paddle down this set of rapids would be suicide. (In fact, we later learned that a Congolese journalist died trying to do just that a couple of years earlier.)
The challenge before us was about a kilometre long. It consisted of numerous channels, divided by banks of rock, with various aggressive gauntlets of steeply descending water and even, in places, two metre high waterfalls. It was obvious that we must go around by land.
The help of eight men was enlisted (and ten or so boys who largely got in the way) to haul the pirogue out of the water and drag it up and over a smooth rock bank, depositing it in a lower and sedate stretch of water. We paddled along with a couple of passengers while the rest scampered excitedly along the shore.
Then the poor Lady Lulua was yanked out of the water once again and dragged along for another hundred metres. I gritted my teeth at the sound of the already-damaged hull of our boat scraping on the rock.
Our helpers, as if by pre-arrangement, stopped helping when the pirogue was still ten metres short of the water. Payment was demanded and we handed some money to the chief, explaining that he was to distribute it among the men who had helped. The money was quickly deposited in the chief’s pocket. The chief had not helped but merely been a spectator. More money was demanded. “The chief has received his right. But what about us who helped you?”
We doubled what we thought had been a sufficient sum and this too found its way directly into the unsmiling chief’s pocket. More was demanded and we saw that this game of feigned indignation would be an endless one so we apologised, thanked them for their help and turned to the pirogue. They stepped back and watched, hoping and assuming that we’d be unable to shift our canoe into the water. Obviously, more money would be required for any further help.
We braced ourselves, counted to three and simultaneously shunted the boat. It progressed a little way down the gentle slope. A few more shoves and we were nearly water-borne again. The disappointed watchers quickly melted away.
We paddled on a short distance and stopped to camp on a large, flat boulder in the centre of the river. It had been a physically and mentally draining day. Nothing happens fast in these situations. We were camping only a few kilometres from where we’d slept the previous night.
The villagers had warned of several more rapids ahead and we set off in the morning expecting a broiling scene of white water around every corner. The first challenge soon became audible. A wide mess of small islands and rushing water came into view. A young boy in a pirogue calmly pointed out an apparently passable route and we had little choice but to trust him.
Thrillingly, we glided unharmed through the waves, slid over a flat rock shelf and shot safely into calmer water beyond the rapids.
At the second set we stopped on the bank and walked ahead to scout a route through the deserted confusion of bleached rocks and roaring rapids. Having tied our six metre rope to the back of the pirogue and a long stick to the front, we managed to slowly guide it through the worst of the danger from the safety of standing on the rocks.
We hopped in and successfully ran the less hazardous final section. Chuffed with our team work and adaptation to the situation, we bore onwards to yet another challenge.
Trying to circumnavigate these rapids (via a channel taking a ‘long way round’) landed us at a dam built by fishermen. Backtracking after this dead end revealed another possible way around to us and we took it. We soon found ourselves snagged in thickening forest with low branches blocking our route and a steadily strengthening current dragging us inexorably into obstacles.
Several times I had to jump out and cling to a branch or root to avoid being swept away while hacking at vines with a machete. Archie manned the pirogue and battled branches valiantly with the paddles.
We were torn between excitement at our intrepid adventure and dismay at the hazardous situation we’d rushed into. Nobody knew where we were.
We scratched, soaked and wielding two broken paddles when we emerged into the aforementioned rapids that bore away the map. Sitting by the fire that night, we were both quiet. My back had been bruised and scratched on the rocks and Archie’s ankle had been hit hard. The painkilling adrenaline had drained from our overworked systems and we were both in considerable pain. Our hands were a mess of cuts with several knuckle caps were torn roughly off. It was only day four.
A few bits of advice from a fisherman about the next stretch of the river. After loosing our map on the second day, we were left never knowing where we were. The only knowledge we could garner was from talking in our basic Swahili and French to the fishermen on the river.
We ate all our remaining food for breakfast (a quarter of a worse-for-wear pineapple and a couple of biscuits) while watching a large tarantula sidle casually out of a hollow log on the fire. After making a temporary repair job on the now-wider crack in the front of the pirogue, we were ready to continue. There were two sets of rapids that morning.
We rope-relayed down the first with a small audience. I’d surprised the two old men on a footpath in the forest and they’d come to watch us down and proffer advice: keep left for the next set and you can safely pass. Their wisdom proved true and we gladly reached the landing place for the small town of Tshibamba at midday.
A metal cable spanned the river but the old ferry was nowhere to be seen and a large pirogue carried pedestrians, bicycles, and occasional motorbikes across the water. The town was two kilometres away and by the time we’d landed, unloaded a bicycle, and played rock-paper-scissors for who would make the supplies run, the town chief and administrator had arrived by bicycle to check our papers.
They were friendly and gave us a rough idea of what lay ahead on the river. Archie pedalled to the town with them and returned later with what meagre supplies could be found, as well as a new wooden paddle.
We slept that night on a quaint natural shelf on the riverbank, made grotto-esque by trees and the labyrinthine spread of roots covering the ground. The morning’s display of red sun and thick, drifting mist was the best possible breakfast entertainment and we boarded our leaky pirogue in high spirits. We’d been told to expect several rapids leading up to Tchala Falls which were “impassable”.
Having made light work of the first rapid by simply charging through its flattest looking section, we were helped down the second by a couple of young fishermen. They had been stood, casting nets, in the strong, waist-deep water before the rapid. The four of us waded the 100m gauntlet, nursing the pirogue down to safer waters. Archie and I continually lost our footing and were nearly washed away.
The sure-footedness of the fishermen was astounding. They were both a foot shorter than us too, so they were considerably further out of their depth.
On their advice, we found the easiest of several route options for the next set and once again relayed the canoe effectively through the obstacle. We’d unthinkingly created a curt vocabulary of instructions to shout over the clamour of crashing water and, mixed with hand signals, we were easily able to act as one.
As one, we pulled hard on the paddles and covered long kilometres through the afternoon until we arrived late in the day at what must unmistakably be Tchala Falls. The river picked up speed and splayed into a maze of small, thickly-vegetated islands with countless blind and narrow waterways sprinting between them. Battling currents tugged us this way and that as we approached and managed to land on a rock, closely avoiding being pulled irretrievably into a seething boulder garden.
With a rope on the back and a long stick on the front we were able to guide the pirogue along the edge of rapids where banks weren’t dense with forest.
Half an hour of rock-hopping and risky wading revealed a set of smaller waterfalls that looked like they might not destroy the Lady Lulua entirely.
Having successfully relayed down the first 200m, we stopped before a larger drop and quickly unloaded our kit. Without allowing ourselves time for reflection, we launched the pirogue at the cascade and miraculously managed to lower her unharmed to the flat water beyond. Tchala Falls was behind us.
A few hundred meters ahead was a ring of huts and a smoke stack perched high on a clear bank. We landed and bewildered the small man we found there. M’baz welcomed us and we brewed three cups of sweet tea on his fire while he puffed on the cigarettes we’d produced.
During the last week, we’d been so occupied with learning how to survive and progress on the river that we’d had little time to spend with the people who lived there. Nobody else was around and M’baz showed us to one of the five huts and motioned that we should sleep there. The circular domed huts were two metres across and shoulder-high (for us) inside. They were made from dry grass hung over a wicker-woven frame. The doorway was a metre-high opening.
We were sat in the dark, cooking on the fire when Willie and Baraka returned, dumped their basket of small fish, peeled off their soaking rags and joined us by the fire. Fish constitutes most of the river peoples’ diet and, at certain seasons, all of it. They seemed to understand our basic Swahili but spoke a different dialect that we could make little sense of. Conversation was essentially impossible, but also unnecessary.
In the warm confines of our hut, I had the first of what became nightly anxiety dreams in which we’d be helplessly careering down the river and headed toward either rapids or impenetrable trees.
I’d wake in a confused panic, shouting frantically at Archie to steer left or back-paddle or dodge that tree. He’d wake and patiently talk me down until I plunged back into fitful sleep. These nightmares remained with me until several days after we’d left the river.
Willie and Baraka returned from checking their traps early in the morning. Each carried a fish not far short of one metre. They posed proudly for Archie’s camera while their preys’ gills gulped and flapped for water. We thanked our hosts and embarked on our first full day of tranquil water: ten hours of leaning heavily on our rough-hewn oars, playing word games and listening to music on speakers.
We camped on a soft, sandy platform by the water and were joined at our fire by a fisherman called Joseph who explained the system of fishing rights. The river is split zonally according to the nearest village, and the village chiefs unofficially own their respective stretches. Anyone can arrive and fish but must first visit the chief and pay respects (a small sum of money). After fishing, he must visit the chief again and give a portion (about 20 per cent) of their catch, or equivalent money.
After two light rapids in the morning, we finally arrived at the landing spot for Kapanga — a major milestone for us. The pirogue was quickly unloaded and the bikes burdened in turn. An hour passed in the office of the district administrator (“Why are you here? We don’t have tourists. What minerals are you looking for? Which church do you represent?”) before we continued a few kilometres to the catholic mission.
The mission had been expecting us and we were warmly welcomed in and fed. The 70-year-old mission was arranged like a three-sided cloister and built entirely without cement. The fathers were friendly and interested. They had met foreigners before, so we were temporarily relieved of novelty status.
Père Jacques (a more sober character than ‘Father Jack’, who British readers will be familiar with) came to Kapanga from Belgium in the early 1970s. He was currently (with no formal technical training) approaching completion of his second EU-funded hydro-electric project that will soon power the district. Jacques is therefore somewhat of an authority on the river and warned of many more rapids to come as well as the certainty of hippos and the strong possibility of crocodiles.
Jacques also fed our egos with the strong belief that we were the first foreigners (and perhaps even the first people) stupid enough to attempt a descent of the River Lulua by pirogue.
We rested for a day and got a lift into nearby Masumba town to buy supplies. In the morning, repairs on the sadly-battered Lady Lulua were watched by a mischievous gathering of children that were, from time to time, viciously beaten back by adults with sticks. We resumed our journey and soon found the general river current noticeably increased.
Over the next week we passed another twelve sets of large rapids and countless smaller ones. Our routine became slick and we confidently navigated the smaller challenges without fretting or scouting ahead.
We capsized again, but in the morning this time, and soon had our kit drying in the sun. We manhandled the pirogue down a slippery rockface to circumvent a four metre waterfall which was only eight metres wide but through which the normally 80m wide river gushed terrifyingly.
After landing each evening, we automatically and efficiently set about making a fire, brewing tea, pitching tents, cooking and drying. Sometimes we had visits from curious rivermen. One evening, six men landed in the dark and asked us a few questions. One of the quieter men was presented as the chief and tribute was demanded. Archie dug out a new packet cigarettes and half-pulled thee out of it before offering them first to the chief. He opted to snatch the whole pack rather than the few obviously intended as an offering.
The chief then gave one cigarette to each of his underlings and pocketed the remaining fifteen. “We are satisfied with what you have given. We will now leave.” And they left.
I was irritable and Archie tried to placate me… it was only a packet of fags that cost us about 30p. However, it was so much more than that. It was a perfect analogy for one of Africa’s biggest problems: the headman culture. The idea that one man (appointed by birth, not by merit) can take 75% of what is given to several people and not be challenged. What we witnessed time and again at village level is continually enacted, continent-wide, on a national scale at government level. Feudalism; a stranglehold on one billion people’s potential for progression.
A day later we were treated to a much more positive experience when Moïse materialised out of the morning mist and pulled up in his pirogue. He was an endless barrage of French-babbling positivity. He shook our hands repeatedly and didn’t hide his amazement and delight to find two foreigners on his river…in a pirogue…travelling like the Congolese!
He removed a bulky and dated phone from his pocket, unwrapped it from a couple of layers of plastic, switched it on and photographed each of us several times. He spoke nothing of the hardship of life as a fisherman and asked for nothing. When he released my hand for the final time and asked to go, I gave him my spare pair of sunglasses.
Wonder filled his face and he grasped my hand once more. Moïse is what I now strive to mentally conjure when I think of Africa.
One evening we rounded a corner and were assaulted with an unpleasant smell. An intimidating crowd of chanting men on the bank began shouting at us. We paddled past, slipped through a small rapid and then pulled over to ask some other men advice for the river ahead.
They informed us that the men were celebrating because they’d just killed a four metre crocodile. They added that there were three wholly impassable rapids close ahead, that crocodiles and hippos were common from here on, and that no fishermen lived on the next stretch of river for obvious reasons. We cooked silently in our unusually cramped camping spot that night.
The honking of hippos was close at hand and their tracks ran right past our tents. The foul smell of slain crocodile was a living memory in our noses.
We finally spoke frankly about our options: forge on relentlessly, proceed with extreme caution, backtrack to the last crossing and try to reach a road, or abandon the pirogue immediately and strike inland in search of paths and eventually a road of sorts.
We reasoned back and forth for a long time but in the morning eventually settled on proceeding cautiously. It only took thirty minutes to reach the first rapid in the morning and we had indeed seen not a soul. We steered to the left of the many islands and plunged into a dark channel but soon found it blocked and had to laboriously backtrack.
The next attempt was clearer and, stood knee to waist deep in the pummelling water, we carefully relayed down and past the problem. As we paddled on we looked back at where all if the other routes would have led us: a bubbling theatre of spray, chaos and thunderous noise.
Another half hour saw us stood on another rock staring down the barrel of more white water. We picked a route and once again began to relay. However, the water was too fast, too deep, and the rocks were too far apart. We soon had to jump in the pirogue and, hearts in throats, try to run these frenzied waves in our inflexible tree trunk.
All went remarkably well for 100m but then we struck a invisibly submerged rock dead on. We swung and tipped and filled with water.
Somehow, the pirogue held on the rock and we each managed to find precarious footholds in the chest-deep water.
It was a dire situation: too far from anything firm to cling to, stood in the fastest water we’d yet encountered, and with very few options. We watched with futility as a paddle and a sleeping mat rose out of the water-filled pirogue and sped away.
After ten minutes of yelling and discarding various ideas over the clamour, we were starting to realise our only choice. We were weakening and wouldn’t be able to hold our position much longer. I’d already been swept under the pirogue and trapped for a few frightening seconds. There was a nasty looking rock followed by a drop just ahead and the 50m of fast-moving respite before the next white water.
The power of the current was daunting. The pirogue started to shift and we instinctively knew what we had to do. One well-placed shove was enough to dislodge the pirogue and surrender her to her fate before throwing ourselves after her, feet first and fingers crossed. Miraculously we rode through the rapid unharmed and immediately began yanking the rope in the direction of a little island.
We floated our drowned dugout and, using one paddle, managed to cross to the left bank and land without being sucked into the next disaster. Half an hour of swimming across channels (reptiles stubbornly dismissed from our minds) and following jungle footpaths revealed several huge and utterly impossible rapids. There was, however, one huge and potentially (optimistically) passable rapid.
On our way back we wondered why there were footpaths and no people. There was even a deep, cubic hippo trap dug in the middle of the path that had once been deceptively covered over with sticks and grass.
We eventually met three tiny men who agreed to help us. These self-sufficient people are so remote and unconnected from their fellow countrymen that war could come and go, sweeping through the region, without them ever knowing. The pirogue was piloted tentatively towards the start of our chosen death-wish and then unloaded. We carried all the kit ahead to the end of the tumbling mess of rocks and water.
Our carefully developed relay routine wasn’t to our helpers’ taste and the strongest of them quickly launched our delicate canoe into the thrashing current. Clutching the rope, he leaped impressively (and dangerously and utterly out of control) from rock to rock while the unfortunate wooden boat pinballed halfway down before wedging firmly between two rocks. Water instantly sluiced over the rim and filled it. It took ten minutes and all five of us to free the boat before the madman threw her back into the maelstrom and chased her on the rocks until she came to rest past the rapids; underwater and abused.
Two cracks in the front had met, and a wedge had half detached itself. She floated but was now not up to much more than fair weather paddling. We paid our smiling cowboys generously and they gave us a homemade bamboo paddle to be going on with. According to them, that was the last of the big rapids.
The next morning, an hour and a half down a misty, eerily-quiet river and we heard the growing thunder of rapids. None appeared but the thundering rose further. Finally, the river turned a corner and accelerated. We barely managed to land on a small rock of an island. I swam to the shore and rock-hopped further around the corner.
I soon knew our time on the Lulua was at an end. The panorama that spread before me was explicit on that point: countless falls and angry explosions where various currents collided.
The river splayed several hundred meters wide and dropped about 40m in altitude over the course of a truly catastrophic and humbling kilometre. I couldn’t even begin to spot a way down for our crippled pirogue.
There were fishermen, stood on a bank and collecting an edible weed from the shallows. I returned to Archie and, with both sadness and relief, we agreed we’d pushed our luck far enough. We offered the Lady Lulua to the fishermen in exchange for help portering our belongings to some sort of cyclable track.
I took one last look at what had been our world for almost three weeks, and turned away from the river. As we ducked into the forest and plodded uphill, I was torn between remorse, relief and uncertainty over whether we’d proved all the naysayers right or wrong.
It didn’t matter. We’d probably proved something to ourselves.
Editors Note: Besides riding a motorbike down Africa, crossing the Congo by bicycle or traveling through Iran, Archie Leeming is a photographer and designer based in Cape Town. His visual travel stories show that if you cut out a few of the luxury things in life you can afford to go and see the rest of the world, if you wish. I am more than happy to feature Archies and Charlies works. Please don’t miss out on more fascinating stories on: Archie Leemings Instagram and Charlie Walkers Website.
This is the second of a three-part Congo story.
For part one, click here: Cycling the Congo.
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Text by Charlie Walker · Photographs by Archie Leeming