“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances.”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
To travel along the Congo River is to confront a legend. Great tales have been written – Stanley’s Through the Dark Continent, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Gide’s Voyage in the Congo and Naipaul’s A Bend in the River – and they have fired the imagination of generations of readers, no doubt inspiring some to become explorers.
Nearly a century and a half after Stanley crossed central Africa from east to west, we travel here through Africa today, on the edge of the great equatorial forest, where 29 million people live along the grand river and its tributaries.
The Congo River is 4,700 kilometers (2,900 miles) long, but is only navigable over 1,700 kilometers (1,060 miles), between Kinshasa and Kisangani. The river system is the one connection in the Congo Basin. The Congo River plays a key role, for society and for the economy, providing the vital connection across the country.
For most people in the region, the river is the one and only means of transport, and it is a long trip (from five weeks to seven months) aboard one of the many barges carrying goods and passengers. The journey is grueling and dangerous: by day, the sun beats down, heating the metal of the barges packed with travelers, mostly women and children, and by night there are often terrifying storms.
We were caught in a storm one night in the midst of the dark forest; it should perhaps be called a hurricane. It was frightening to be out there as the violent, torrential rain poured down, filling our canoe in a matter of seconds, to hear deafening cracks from the huge trees and the wild wind tearing at the river. It was a feeling of complete vulnerability, as experienced by the people in the Congo Basin. Since 2008, some 6000 people have lost their lives in accidents, on ships sinking or wrecked on the river and its tributaries.
Traveling on a convoy of barges (as many as ten barges lashed together and three tugs pushing, for a total length of up to 450 meters/1,500 feet), is an experience, directly feeling the heart of the Congo – the country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Business on board is busy and goods are traded throughout the journey, and with some quite improbable deals such as dried fish as payment for pharmaceuticals, or a crocodile for trousers, shirts, sexy underwear or a radio, then pigs for cheap perfume, pineapples for salt, grubs for sugar, and so it goes on. Before each stopover in a populated area, dozens of canoes carrying a vast quantity and range of goods lie in wait for the barges, then make a frenzied move as they pull in.
The entire economy of the Congo Basin is tied to the river, and this has been the case for a long time. Oil palm plantations and processing plants are located along the banks; there are also rubber plantations with Para rubber trees which have been revived since the emergence of AIDS because of the demand for latex to make condoms, and precious woods (e.g. Sapele, Sipo and Afromosia). It should be noted that half the logging in the DRC is illegal, (approx. 13,350 metric tons a year). According to Greenpeace, France is Europe’s leading importer of wood from the DRC. Yes, Africa is still being plundered as if there were no rightful owners of the land.
Any human plunged into the heart of this environment, surrounded by nature, by natural grandeur, is immediately conscious of the insignificance of the individual. Landscapes are seen as they pass by: landscapes of silence, nothingness, monotony, loneliness and distance, conjuring up thoughts of eternity, infinity, and the birth of the world, a world bounded by the horizon, the horizon of the river, the point of equilibrium.