DOWN THE CONGO
 

 

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Down the Congo River in the middle of the night

It was during one of my varsity vacations that a friend Tim Biggs and I decided to try and kayak a section of the Congo River situated in the middle of Africa. The Congo or Zaire River is a massive jungle clad river that even in the upper reaches is larger than the Zambezi in Zimbabwe. The idea materialised from a British source to sea book about the Zaire River that documented this section, called the N`zilo gorge, as un-runable and suicidal. Well guess where we were heading! So armed with a South African broadcasting television crew and our plastic kayaks we boarded a plane for the Congo in central Africa.

Not having any logistical support, let alone any idea of how we were going to travel to this remote eastern highland section of the river we disembarked to be met with the patience testing, money grabbing bureaucracy that characterizes Africa. Should you not have the necessary stamps in the passport "please step over there". Over there were no vaccinations, only stamps. One simply exchanges the desired stamp in the passport for a pre-determined amount of money. (Forex only, of course). On exiting the airport with our entourage of cameras we were met by the hoards of taxi drivers, "guides", thieves and every other conceivable poor excuse of a human being. We certainly couldn't have chosen our arrival at a more appropriate time. Mabuto, then president had that day declared a state of emergency after the slaughter of a number of students for 'unlawful' demonstrations. This very sensitive issue of unease and 'foreign spies' nearly landed us in hot water.

Sitting outside the airport not knowing what on earth to do we were approached by a fairly large rogue looking European who offered to take us in the general direction of a contact we had established from a good mate of mine and world class climber, the late Philip Lloyd. I am still not too sure what this 'white business man' did in the middle of the Congo, however judging by the number of woman 'slaves' running around his abode, along side his 'jewellers' that were diligently working gold into bundles of ivory, we had a good idea. These ex pats lacked nothing and seemed to spend a large amount of time hunting what ever they felt like (including elephant and lion) with various government officials. During one of our day excursions from our safe haven our TV crew was covertly filming the scum and poverty of Africa from the back of the taxi when a peasant for reasons only known to his limited number of obviously deranged genetic make up, took exception.

Well mass hysteria seems to be a characteristic of masses with nothing to lose, which is fuelled by either boredom or hate of a symbol that they deem responsible for their misfortune and 'oppression'. Well word travelled like wild fire. Within a matter of seconds yelling, gyrating savages surrounded our taxi. As far as we could see there was an ocean of violently opposing humans gradually turning animalistic and unreasonable in nature. Our taxi was rocking back and forth while at the same time they were banging on every aspect of the vehicle that would resonate a sound. Well let me tell you, this is one time I didn't need to be near here and certainly would have liked to vaporize or enter into some form of time travel. Typically with no authority around when needed our driver resorted to explanations pertaining to projects relating to government issues. Autocratic rule is another characteristic of Africa and to violate this is a treasonable offence punishable by death. While our lynch mob was in a state of uncertainty we ambled off.

Deciding we should take our chances on the crocodile and hippo infested river we bid farewell to our ever obliging guests, loaded our possessions on the back of the local busses-a converted army truck and headed to the river, a full day trip away. This certainly was no air conditioned Greyhound. Squashed like sardines on hard wooden benches with urinating babies, chicken, goats and every other conceivable household item squashed into overhead racks and the heat reaching 40 degrees, you can imagine the stench emanating from our slowly fermenting companions.

Contact number 2 was about to have us arrive on their doorstep. These were also ex pats however in legitimate mining concerns. We simply arrived on their doorstep well after sundown and announced 'we heard they could help us.' Amazingly they looked at this as more of an adventure than we did. They supplied us with a vehicle, a rubber duck for the flat sections and an entourage of drivers.

The idea was to try and paddle the 10 or so kilometres of the gorge and then go on (if we were still alive!) to longer more manageable sections where we would be on our own for a few days or so. We entered the top of the gorge with cameras and a posse of useless complaining porters that was insistent on killing and eating anything that looked remotely alive. As the gorge steepened, our crew were forced up onto the mountaintops thousands of feet above us. That night was spent camped, by ourselves along side the Congo River that had by now increased it's gradient to an extent that sheer rock faces were cascading directly into the incredibly wild river. This made 'scouting' ahead impossible and we were running rapids and drops blind. This was becoming suicidal and the egress points becoming steeper and way above the river. It was now or never. Trying to vacate the gorge out the near vertical sides with kayaks was probably more desperate than trying to run the complete gorge blind.

After an eventual death-defying climb out and a long trek to the nearest road we made contact with the land crew and decided to drive to the end of the gorge and walk as far up it as possible. What we saw made us realise how close to death we had come. Spanning the entire river was a suicidal waterfall that would have probably meant certain death. We now agreed after consulting a few locals that Tim and I would paddle down river out the gorge and meet up with the land crew at the only place, a full days paddle down stream, where the road intersects the river. What they did mention was another waterfall somewhere down stream. Well it turned out that this intersection was more like two days paddle away. The river by this stage had eased up slightly and became a jungle clad fast flowing massive river with many crocs and hippos. As the sunset and darkness descended we still had not passed even the half way landmarks. What now materialised literally turned into a nightmare.

Paddling down a huge river in the middle of the night with jungle on either side with not much visibility and a waterfall somewhere ahead certainly adds a new meaning to fear. Passing a few wooden canoes was the first sign of civilization we had seen for hours. We decided to try and find where on earth we were. Leaving our boats next to the river we ran inland following a path for around an hour. This eventually brought us to a village where a hostile number of Congolese soldiers who obviously had consumed too much ethanol were looking for other forms of entertainment. This was not a friendly situation and after promises of everything under the sun we disappeared back into the bush and back to the river. Rather take our chances with what lay on the river.

One can only take my word for it that this is utter terror, and brought back memories from my first guiding job on the Orange River gorge where I was woken in the middle of the night and asked by the owner to paddle down stream By moon light) to see if I could find any of the rafts that had broken loose. I had never paddled this section before, however he assured me there was nothing ahead that couldn't be paddled. By sunrise I had found and secured all the rafts. Scary, really scary. .On this jungle-clad river our only visibility came from the moon while every rapid, due to the quietness was being elevated ten fold.

Not being able to see further than about fifteen metres ahead I literally expected to suddenly disappear over a waterfall at any moment. This continued for another couple of hours and suddenly low and behold there on the riverbank was the flicker of a campfire, our campfire and our land crew happily drinking copious quantities of local beer. Not too fazed, they told me this was a common occurrence with Tim (my paddling partner) while paddling the length of the Amazon in South America, which they too had been filming.

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