Alaska – Canoeing to the Bering Sea
»Big River« is what the Athabascan Indians call the Yukon. It’s one of the mightiest rivers on the planet. In this episode, Dirk Rohrbach travels the river all the way to the Bering Sea in a self-made canoe.
What have I let myself in for? I’m standing on the beach gazing out over the lake. It’s a calm day, and the sand beneath my feet is warm. There are people around me, and children playing in the water. My rucksack nestles into my back. I’ve been carrying its weight on my shoulders for months now, and actually I’m feeling pretty good. During those months, I’ve been travelling through Africa.
I can look back at some wonderful experiences, but gazing into the future my feelings are mixed. What began a few months earlier as a joke over lunch with a few colleagues, what two weeks ago felt close yet still impossible, what a few days ago got me a couple of confused looks in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, is now coming true: I’m travelling through the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Two weeks earlier: I’m lying on a beach on the Tanzanian side of Lake Tanganyika, surrounded by red sand. A family of zebras passes behind me as I gaze out over the lake, trying to make out the other bank. That’s where the Democratic Republic of the Congo is hiding. The Foreign Office doesn’t have many good things to say about the other bank. The conflict between rebel forces and Congolese troops is still raging, mainly in the eastern and north-eastern parts of the republic.
My head is buzzing with plans: I’m heading through Tanzania to Rwanda, then across Uganda into Kenya. Ethiopia is going to be the climax of my trip. The Congo wasn’t on my list, and my bus ticket also takes me around Burundi. A few Germans on a driving tour assure me, however, that conditions in the tiny nation of Burundi are safe.
I set off early the next day, looking for the consulate to get a visa. Only once I’m already virtually inside the building do I realise that I’ve ended up at the wrong one!
This isn’t where I wanted to go!
Is this the hand of fate beckoning me towards adventure?
* * *
I’m standing in Gisenyi, Rwanda, on Lake Kivu, only two kilometres from the Congolese border and the city of Goma. The lake accompanies me on my left as I walk down the promenade towards the ‘Grande Barrière’, the border crossing to Goma. Villas alternate with a view of the lake. These are the last few metres of the greatest adventure of my life. My mind whirs. What awaits me on the other side?
The crush of people grows increasingly dense, and my apprehension is rising with every second. I only have verbal confirmation that I’m getting a Congolese visa. Nervously, I get through the Rwandan formalities and look past the barrier towards Goma on the other side. There’s a string of Red Cross trucks, plus a minibus with four tourists and a flatbed carrying ruined vehicles belonging to the UN peacekeeping forces. I consider taking out my camera, but decide against it. Don’t photograph any public buildings without permission – I want a visa, after all. My contact Joseph meets me at the barrier, leading me to a checkpoint where they inspect my vaccination certificate and then to a small office. I’m astonished when a few minutes later my passport is handed back to me with an enormous red stamp.
Permission to set out into the unknown.
It doesn’t seem so unfamiliar at first. In Kigali another backpacker told me about an active volcano with a forgettable name. My interest instantly piqued, I quickly committed the name to memory. Now Nyiragongo is towering before me in the distant sky – my first goal. Over the following days I’ll visit the mountain gorillas a little further north. That’s the plan. You can’t plan for everything in Africa, of course. That’s how it stays exciting.
My contact and I buy a few supplies for my trek up Nyiragongo then drive to my hotel. Next morning I eat breakfast between two UN officials. I don’t have to wait long; someone soon comes to fetch me, and we jolt past heavily armed UN patrols as we leave Goma for the north.
Here I meet two Germans, Dirk and Dieter. While we’re climbing the volcano, they tell me what they’re planning:
They’re going to spend the next three weeks journeying down the Congo River, one of the most powerful rivers on earth, nearly 4,400 kilometres long.
Their plan seems as meticulously thought-through as it is unplanned. I don’t know what to think about it, but my fingers are beginning to itch. We’ve just struggled through the deep green forest with our heavy rucksacks, reaching the edge of the trees, when I make my decision, whip out my mobile and call Joseph. I urgently need a visa extension, then a flight to Kisangani in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. For now that’s all I can do.
Our trail winds further and further up the enormous volcano. The armed rangers go on ahead with us in tow, as we clamber over small, sharp volcanic rocks. Nyiragongo last erupted in 2002. Several villages were wiped off the map, and more than a hundred people lost their lives. The lava stream caused a good deal of destruction in the city of Goma, too. And we’re planning to spend the night on this volcano! Our accommodation gradually draws nearer. Over the last few metres to the crater we’re taking two steps forward and one step back. Somebody tipped me off that on the upper edge of the crater there are two huts offering a fabulous view. So I storm off ahead, trying to make sure I get the best spot.
But I’m called to an abrupt halt.
In front of me is a vast sea of lava, hot stone bubbling inside it. Cooler slabs shot through with glowing, reddish-orange stripes drift around like ice floes. Fountains of lava appear in a few places, melting the slabs again with a sound like the roaring sea then emerging again elsewhere. Even from a distance of seven hundred metres, I can feel the heat of this force of nature. It doesn’t warm me up, exactly, but for a moment the cold and rain are forgotten.
* * *
I’m hardly back in Goma before one question occupies my mind: how can I extend my visa?
My contact person, Joseph, has another contact at the immigration department, so we drop by. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, I have to speak to the boss. No luck! Then at the visa office. Again, no luck! I try one more time. Moderate success. Unfortunately, for the next item on my agenda – mountain gorillas – I need my passport, so I have to leave empty-handed. I did, however, get a promise: if I give them my passport tomorrow at three I can pick up my renewed visa at eight the next day. It’s got to work: the plane leaves at midday and I’ve got to buy a ticket around nine. I rest at my hotel. Quite a long rest, as thanks to a power cut I simply go to bed. At least there are no tiny visitors in the bathtub and a reasonable amount of running water.
More than in the following weeks combined.
As I shake the security man awake next morning and press my key into his hand, the sun is just rising gently over the horizon, greeting the day, which will turn out to be full of touching moments and encounters. Again we jolt north along the road. We pass Nyiragongo. To our right is the Rwandan border. On the plateau between the volcanoes stretch fields and overgrown buildings, the remnants of refugee camps from the Rwandan genocide.
At the foot of Mount Mikeno, I’m taken to a small military camp. It’s the joint base of the Virunga rangers and the border officials. I’m to wait here for my companions.
Accompanied by Eddy, a gorilla doctor, and Jean Bosco, my ranger guide, I finally set off. We head into the deep mountain forests on the slopes of the volcano. The first traces of the gorillas are already identifiable: trees without bark and large areas of depressed grass where they sleep. Jean clears a path through the thick green foliage with a machete, elegantly avoiding the stinging nettles and thistly plants. Eddy jokes that the burning sensation improves your circulation, and stops after fifteen minutes anyway. I avoid all contact nonetheless.
There they are!
With a brief gorilla noise, Jean announces our presence, and the first mother comes into view with her baby. A few steps further two teenagers are doing gymnastics in a tree, swinging from branch to branch by their arms. We follow them, and from a suitable distance we watch the silverback in the family. He’s grooming one of his ladies. Her baby sits beside her, gazing in my direction with interest.
It’s an astonishing feeling to be so close to these powerful creatures. To know that one spirited squeeze could be fatal and that even a playful movement could have painful consequences …
There’s a lot of cheery coming and going. The time passes much too quickly, and after only an hour we have to say goodbye. But I do get a three-minute delay when I suddenly find myself unable to move forwards or backwards: a mother with her child on her back is blocking my path. I’ve got to stay where I am, letting the lady cross just two metres in front of me.
* * *
I love it when a plan comes together. Clutching my visa excitedly in my hands, all I have to do now is buy the plane ticket. The employee at the consulate has gradually come to recognise me, and a few minutes later I’m dashing off to the hotel to inform Dieter and Dirk of my success. Leaping onto three motorcycle taxis, we set off to the airport. There’s no turning back now.
We manage the chaos at the airport without too much trouble. Only the officials at the immigration desk refuse to believe us when we describe what we’re planning to do. I can understand them, of course. We must be crazy to jump feet first into such an adventure. They ask us to just stay on the plane and fly to Kinshasa. That would be the quicker and safer way. To them, our plan – travelling through the Congo by boat – seems inconvenient, uncomfortable and slow. We’re aware of this, and only once I’ve shown them our route in the guidebook again and assured them that we’re prepared to take the risk do they let us through.
Perhaps it also had something to do with the much more exciting case unfolding at the next table, where it turns out a UN employee doesn’t have a valid visa, causing much merriment.
The plane leaves Goma almost on time, heading for Kisangani. During the approach to the city, we catch our first glimpse of the mighty river. Kisangani is where the hundred-kilometre rapids end. The river becomes navigable by boat again, remaining so until Kinshasa. Kisangani, or Stanleyville, as it was known until 1966, must have been a wonderful city. In the airport, which dates from the 1970s, you can still marvel at the chandeliers and remaining bits of wood panelling. The lay-bys, steps and occasional wall along the riverfront road indicate that the street was once lively with traffic. Today large stretches of asphalt look like they’ve seen better days. In the inner city there are plenty of once magnificent buildings that are sadly becoming increasingly derelict.
With a bit of imagination you can still see Kisangani’s former prosperity, displayed in palm-fringed avenues and beautifully laid-out promenades.
If it floats, we want it to be part of our adventure.
We find a small cargo vessel to take us to Bumba. When it comes to our fellow travellers, that turns out to be a stroke of luck. They’re excellent guides, explaining to us the history of the individual buildings along the river, from colonial period pieces to Congolese historical hotspots to particular factories. Our luck holds later on, too: Mathieu, the ship’s accountant, gives us a mattress on which to lay our weary heads that night. As part of the cargo, we gratefully accept this comfortable alternative to our camping mats. And sleeping under the stars is always best.
We’re reminded of the friendliness, openness and hospitality of the locals every day. We’re offered help every time we set foot on shore. Strangers are introduced to us and our companions are happy to speak candidly about their lives. The village children keep calling out ‘mundele’ (‘whites’) to us. They’re playing football with keen enthusiasm, proudly showing us their large pitch when we’re forced for the thousandth time to take a break due to a motor accident. Women cook on the riverbank while a few men mend the fishing nets.
After three hundred and eighty-one kilometres, we’re nearly at Bumba. We’ve endured the sun, admired the starry nights, coped with broken motors and engines, met lots of people, made friends, shared food and freed ourselves from a sand bank. That only leaves one thing, and it’s a classic: running out of petrol. Precisely two kilometres from Bumba, the motor gives out.
We’re three litres short.
* * *
Three modes of transport and thousands of shredded nerve-endings later, we’ve been coming up with a new ‘plan’ every half hour: the Democratic Republic of the Congo isn’t making progress easy. On the map the route looks quite straightforward. From Bumba to Lisala and from there via Akula to Gemena. From Gemena a plane will take us to Mbandaka. By land it’s a total of four hundred and fifty kilometres along National Route 6.
So we get cracking with our plan. Plan A is to settle down on National Route 6 to Lisala and hope for a lift. The plan sounds very effective for other countries, but not for the Republic of the Congo. After a six-hour wait we’ve budged not a single millimetre. Our only option is mototaxis, but riding shotgun with rucksacks for a hundred and fifty kilometres sounds like a nightmare. I decide to call Captain John from our cargo vessel. Telling him about our enforced stay in Bumba, I ask him for a lift to Lisala on the river. A few minutes later he calls back and informs me that a pirogue will be setting off the next day. Plan P, as in pirogue, is born. A total of seven tonnes plus passengers are coming with us to Lisala. Shortly before departure, an official at the immigration office plays a little trick on us. Trying to get a bit of cash, he attempts to lure us off the pirogue on the pretext that it’s not leaving until the next day. The other passengers only laugh, and we stay sitting in our garden chairs. The night is uncomfortable and loud. The three fifteen-horsepower outboard motors, alternately broken or out of petrol, clatter through the water like sewing machines.
In Lisala our search for wheels begins anew. Again and again we’re shocked by the price of jeeps. Our plans change more quickly than we can make them. In the end we decide to try and make it to Gemena by land then travel by plane to Mbandaka. We book our tickets via mobile through an NGO office. Just in time, before the generator – and therefore the internet – goes out.
I find God at the harbour. He’s a truck driver called Dieu, and, with his colleagues, he’s in the middle of loading several trucks. I ask for a lift to Gemena, but sadly this wish is not to be fulfilled. The road between Lisala and Gemena is simply too seldom travelled. The surface is poor, and Akula, with its harbour, is vastly better suited to supplying the area around Gemena. Dieu does, however, offer to take us as far as Businga. That’s half the way to Gemena. Dirk and Dieter are keen to accept the opportunity, and Dieu even promises to arrange onward transport in Businga. Shortly before midnight, the trucks get on the move. We climb into the cabin half asleep, making ourselves ‘comfortable’ for the next few hours.
The missing windshield and the cold night leave us shivering.
All the jolting around means we’re barely able to catch more than a few seconds’ sleep. At dawn we suddenly get stuck on a mountain. We’ve lost power. With our combined efforts we get the injection pump going again and can continue our journey to Businga.
Businga consists of one main road and a few side streets: a small outpost of civilisation. Dieu gets to work at once, finding three mototaxis. Fifty dollars to Gemena. At our urging he declares himself willing to try and find a jeep. The only one in the area is in the possession of a Portuguese man. It’s broken, unfortunately, and it belongs to his son. Mototaxis it is, then. A small battle breaks out, and suddenly fifty dollars becomes eighty. Only one driver keeps his word, and he now faces the difficult task of soothing his colleagues.
At crazy speed we drive through the sparse remnants of the rainforest, initially on good gravel and sand tracks – but then the journey morphs into an off-road adventure.
Our driver wants to eat lunch in Karawa. Bad idea. In Karawa the immigration authorities, the police and the judiciary have joined forced to extort bribes from foreigners. Stopping here is a major error. We’ve got to pay ten dollars per person for an irrelevant, useless form, they tell us, otherwise we’ll end up in jail and our journey will be at an end. After much wrangling they let us go. Sadly, however, we celebrate too soon: as we climb back on the bikes we discover that one of our drivers has been arrested. It’s a kind of revenge for the fact that we talked ourselves out of the situation. At first my interventions at the police station come to nothing. We pay the driver for his previous services and add a hefty tip.
They settle the matter in Congolese, and by the time dusk comes we’ve got all three drivers back together. Now totally exhausted, we continue our journey to Gemena.
* * *
Back in a world of asphalted streets, full supermarket shelves and relative cleanliness. Bit of a shock to the system.
Because our journey began in Stanleyville (Kisangani), we want to bid farewell to the British explorer and adventurer Henry Morton Stanley, who scouted a huge area around the Congo during the second half of the nineteenth century, travelling down almost the whole river. Swinging onto three mototaxis in Mbandaka, we drive south. Somewhat outside the city is the ‘Equator Stone’. Stanley placed it there. Although the explorer was off by just under four kilometres, the marker is testimony to his extraordinary feat. And at least you can photograph a stone and a sign.
On the way back to the city we make a brief stop at the most prominent abandoned building in the area: Mobutu’s palace. Not to be confused with his three magnificent, plundered palaces in Gbadolite, the ruin has simply been frozen in time. The location and underlying structure bear witness to the enormity of the original intention. We wander around freely under the watchful gaze of the village youth. You don’t usually see tourists up close around these parts.
Back in Mbandaka, taking a walk along the harbour promenade, we get an answer to a question that’s long been bothering us: where have all the old passenger ships got to, the ones aboard which you used to be able to travel the river in such comfort? There are two of them here, rusted and abandoned in a former shipyard. Shipbuilding halls and workers’ houses stand empty. People have erected mud huts in the garden.
Further inland, parallel to the river, runs the city’s most glorious mile: asphalted, cared for, and decorated with colonial buildings from beginning to end. Beside the post office is a row of buildings: the town hall, lots of shops and banks, a lovely park and several public buildings. Worth seeing, but also sad to look at is the botanical garden, laid out around 1900. The biggest garden of its kind in Central Africa has the charm of a well-tended primeval forest. The museum offers us a gruesome hour: in the glass specimen jars the alcohol has evaporated, and a colony of bats has taken up residence in the roof. Once proud, now decaying.
With some respect for Kinshasa, we travel to the airport. The metropolis of eight million people is the last stop on our journey. Upon arrival we have 2,525 kilometres and three weeks of adventure behind us. The city is overwhelming. Suddenly we’re back in the known, albeit somewhat unfamiliar world. Stunned by enormous supermarkets, a superabundance of Western products and, especially, the horrendous prices, we experience an abrupt culture shock. Three or four dollars for a bar of chocolate, fifteen for Nutella and upwards of six dollars for a hundred grams of cheese? Our expectations are dashed. We leave the supermarket empty-handed.
After breakfast the next day, we set off on a walk of epic proportions. The distances are enormous. From the harbour we walk past the eastern railway station, across the Boulevard of 30 June to the central market. Glad that today is Sunday, we elbow our way through thousands of empty wooden huts and mountains of rubbish. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture what market day looks like. We pass the Stade des Martyrs and see the People’s Palace from a distance. A few kilometres later, just before the Presidential Palace, our sightseeing tour is interrupted: a military checkpoint instructs us to turn around. Undaunted, we stroll through the embassy quarter. Outside the German embassy, we cast a quick glance across the border to Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo.
In the 1880s an Italian tried to win the favour of the tribes for the French in the area now covered by the two Congos, while an Englishman did the same for the Belgians. The Italian, Savorgnan de Brazza, founded settlements for the French, including Brazzaville, on the right side of the Congo. Opposite Brazzaville, on the left side of the Congo, the Briton Henry Morton Stanley established the settlement of Léopoldville, today Kinshasa. After the colony of the Belgian Congo declared independence in 1960, the Congo whose capital was Kinshasa changed its name often: from the ‘Republic of the Congo’ and ‘Republic of Zaïre’ to the ‘Democratic Republic of the Congo’, which it has been called since 1997. The first president of the republic, which has been rocked by numerous wars, was Laurent Kabila. His assassination in 2001 marked a turning point in the war as well as in the nation as a whole. Today his mausoleum stands outside the National Palace in Kinshasa.
The monument turns out to be our final highlight of the city. I’m surprised that photos are allowed. The soldiers in the high-security zone argue that tourists and pictures are completely normal. This is the only place in the Congo where people seem to think that. In the rest of the country photos are frowned upon and viewed negatively.
The city doesn’t invite day-dreaming – not least because you’d end up falling into one of the giant manholes.
In the evening we make ourselves comfortable in a restaurant. I still don’t have a flight – I’ve really got to book it. My visa runs out in a few days, and there’s no way I’m spending hundreds of dollars wrangling with the immigration office over an extension. It’s exasperating. But as difficult as it was to enter the country, the country is now making it just as difficult for me to leave. As I try to buy a flight from Kinshasa to Addis Ababa, my credit card freezes. My bank’s security measures are functioning perfectly: a flight within Africa, paid for with a German credit card via a Spanish website, can only be credit card fraud. Only after my sister books the flight from Germany with my spare card, and after a few more security questions, do I finally have the ticket in my hand.
Somehow I’m both glad and sorry to be leaving the Congo. Our journey would certainly have been less arduous on a passenger ship from colonial times, but it was a marvellous experience.
Clear across the Congo, amid people’s lives and the nation’s history.
* * *