Tale of an epic river journey
Francis Hannaway, Mill Hill Lay Associate, travelled with Fr Stan Bondoko MHM on the river from Basankusu, where they work, to Mbandaka, to fly to Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The increasing decline of the country’s infrastructure has led to this being the only way to travel to the capital city. Things did not go according to plan.
Drifting along on the Lulonga 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. With this in mind, we had originally wanted to do the journey in two halves, sleeping at the Catholic mission in the village of 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 and Sr LaJoie from our local Basankusu convent 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. As Sister LaJoie left us at Bonkita, as planned, she 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 when 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 Loanga, 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.
After some hours, a replacement arrived. It was only an 8 horsepower engine. 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 different driver called Paul, 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 horsepower engine. There was one motorbike in Loanga, 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 the 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.
I sat there for almost 5 hours. Alone. I wondered what had happened to Stan. Eventually, he returned.
“They’re bringing the sisters’ outboard, but on the condition that Paul’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 on the river – much faster than before, 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?”
Francis Hannaway. Stuck!
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 phoned 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 sight 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 your 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.
Francis Hannaway mhm
On the plane!!!