The Congo alongside Lake Tanganyika

Okako, an overloaded ship on Lake Tanganyika

The road leads through the wetlands of tall grass, an ideal habitat for tsetse flies. Out bikes make it through holes and muddy puddles on the road. We reach the first border town of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Three kids, in exchange for three flour donuts, lead us to the compound where old trucks from the colonial era are stored. This is a relatively safe place where we can pitch a tent. Clear sky lit by stars promises calm night in Uvira, a town at the northern tip of Lake Tanganyika.

Tanganyika is the second largest lake in Africa (Lake Victoria is the biggest) and the second deepest in the world (Lake Baikal is the deepest). At the crack of the dawn we visit the port to arrange tickets for the ship to Kalemie. The first difficulties show up. Bureau of Immigration, health control sanitary station, yellow booklets and problems with exchanging U.S. dollars printed before year 2000. Ineffective negotiations, more waiting and yet another immigration office. Every time we experience attempts to extort bribes, withholding passports and coming up with new difficulties and problems to overcome. Another "Mr. Hygienist” attempts to sell us bogus cholera vaccination for $10 a person. He says, “deux, deux, duex” ("ten, ten, ten") indicating the three passports and meaning dollars. During this time his other hand is already soaking the stamp in ink. Mr. Hygienist is unique, it is a completely overt corruption, fraud and abuse of official power. We’re tough, we take it to wait out and make an impression as if any type of arguments like "this vaccine is mandatory" did not reach us at all. It works. The formalities are done. We are told we would set off promptly 7:15 tomorrow morning.

During the free afternoon we visit the city’s narrow streets overcrowded with people. The men are engaged in trafficking, the kids enjoy seeing us and the women are doing laundry in river. It is time to plunge into Tanganyika for swimming. Water is extremely clear and the temperature makes it nicer to be immersed in the water rather than outside. High rocky mountains rise along the lake with wooded hills and intense green areas in the foreground. A hot and damp evening sets in.

Boat along Tanganyika

Tanga, a pirogue on Lake Tanganyika

We get up very early, probably even before 4 am. It is enjoyably cold, below 25 degrees Celsius, thus dark and the city does not reveal the symptoms of life yet. We go to the port, because as someone advised in the port, being well two hours before leaving to take up place on the board is a good idea. On the way we buy all the products available: water, a few avocados, a bunch of bananas and bread.

It turns out that the ship has to wait for another two trucks carrying goods coming from Bukavu. A Moba’s resident I talk to ensures me that it is a normal thing "ship has been set to leave at 7:15 in the morning. In fact, it may leave at 9, maybe at 10, maybe tomorrow”. Being a mzungu has its good sides. The captain lets on board with our three bikes, two trailers and ten yellow bags. While the other passengers are waiting, we can take up available deck room and be pleased to observe the situation.

After a few hours of waiting the two dilapidated trucks arrive. The crew starts to fill the hold with various goods. Bikes, truck wheels, refrigerators, televisions, toilet paper, yellow water tanks, cucumbers, flour bags, suitcases, powdered milk – the one has just been spilled on the floor, never mind, spare tires, bottles of wine, bags of cement and metal rods for construction reinforcement.

Loading the ship in Uvira

I sit comfortably on the bridge overlooking thirty Congolese workers. The first man removes cargo from the container and estimates its weight and fragility. Depending on the measurements, he either carefully hands it forward or recklessly throws it all the way down right next to another person under the deck.

A few more hours of waiting and finally the ship is ready to take the last batch of goods: two mighty power generators, a massive oil drum, plastic bowls and umbrellas tied together in a bunch. The hold shall be closed now. Bags of flour, clothes, rice and shoes are placed on the top. This is not the end.

Apparently the third truck arrives, the next container is to be unloaded in the other hatch. Upon bulk goods are loaded the whole deck is secured by a massive cloth and painstakingly tied with a solid rope.

Time for an acrobatic show. The two wooden boards are makeshift bridge between the shore and a port of the ship. An off-road Mitsubishi Pajero skillfully makes it on deck. At some point, the bridge moves like a swing. Truly amazed and impressed.

These are the shortcomings of traveling along the Congolese lake. The only alternative is crossing through the dangerous, full of rebels mountains of South Kivu province. Every Congolese having some common sense chooses the water freight. This also explains the choice of transporting the jeep by ship for $300 and twenty-four hour trip instead of just passing 300 km from Uvira to Kalemie by road. While Uvira, Bukavu and Goma are maintained by the United Nations and other international military bodies, you can assume that in these places is at least some kind of order. On the route through the mountains there is a complete, Somalia-style anarchy. Certainly none of the passengers of the ship intends to verify it.

Children on their way to school in Kalemie

I wonder how are all the people waiting outside going to be fit on board. Maybe it’s just a cargo barge? Nothing sort of that. Suddenly an innumerable crowd of the Congolese stampedes on board. Whoever has more strength in his legs keeps searching for a better place. A place where the passenger would spend the next twenty-four hours motionless on the capricious waters of Lake Tanganyika.

At this point I’m not surprised to see a single mother with a child on her back, two bags in her hands and a massive suitcase on her head to pass a gap and board the wobbly vessel on her own. Certainly this maneuver is not feasible in high heels. Resourcefulness and persistence are merits in the Congo.

The last call to make purchases from merchants that offer sugar cane, fresh milk straight from the cow, bagged water and newly baked but already stale flour donuts. Well, it is good to be on time, meaning two and a half hours before 7.15am, the official departure time as we leave with exactly an eight hour delay.

We are splashing against on the bow of the ship. In the worst location are the passengers pooled in front, some of them are completely soaked shortly after departure. Though, no one minds it, even breast-fed babies.

We sleep on the sleeping mats sprawled on deck next to each other. Right next to me a number of Congolese passengers is also falling asleep and each subsequent moment my formerly relaxed position becomes more and more constrained. Later during the night everyone finds a permanent place like a cucumber in a jar. There is a couple of mice running above our bodies, but it’s still way better than harassing malarial mosquitoes and no means to hang a mosquito net.

From above the Tanzanian side of Lake Tanganyika a sub-Saharan sun emerges. It quickly rises above the horizon, changing colors from deep red through orange to bright yellow.

A remote island on Lake Tanganyika

Once in a while as we pass deserted islands with sandy beaches and turquoise water I discern lone crocodiles. Some further islands are inhabited by indigenous tribes engaged in cultivation of cassava, maize and bananas. A large part of nutrition needs they satisfy by fishing, which also gives them the opportunity for barter trade with the outside. In fact, the delegated fisherman travels for a few days by tanga to Kalemie (in Swahili tanga means “pirogue on the Tanganyika”), where he finishes the trade and returns home.

The full moon fishing is difficult, so the fishermen for not having anything better to do, dry and fix their fishing nets while awaiting for dark nights. Using pointed light they would lure the fish shoals.

Right before reaching Kalemie we run aground. At this stage of our travel, an additional half-hour delay makes no difference to anyone. A complete turmoil starts upon anchoring Okako. Roughly two hundreds Congolese at once stand up and using all means try to quickly leave the ship, all at the same time. It is a miracle that we are able to pass over the three bikes and ten sidebags with no property damage. We are on the ground.


Architecture of the Belgian Congo era

Kalemie, the former colonial Albertville, has an interesting architecture. The town is covered with dust and all its colors are faded, but in the air you can still smell a scent of a bygone colonial era and its grandeur.

Last few weeks we have been following the footsteps of Kazimierz Nowak, a Polish traveler. One of our findings here is a post office. Having a conversation with its chief we find out the post office has been built back in 1930. Therefore, we conclude it is exactly the same post office he stopped by to send his mails and receive necessary equipment to continue his adventure across Africa on bike. Judging by the office’s appearance, since then it has not been repainted not to mention reequipped or improved. The chief is keen on placing one of our memorable plaques on the premises, which designate Kazimierz Nowak’s and ours trail across the Africa.

Congolese kids on the Lake Tanganyika beach

 We leave the town to find a beach with a few thatched huts and a wooden pirogue. Kids spend their free time playing football made of banana leaves tied with a string. Some of them came here only to fill up the yellow water canister. On leaving the beach a young girl injects a portion of chlorine to purify water in the container.

Housewife ignites the fireplace to prepare the evening fare. It is dusk and in the center of Kalemie there is only one power-producing unit audible from a few hundred meters away, the only source of electricity.

The following day in port we meet the same crew on board as a couple of days ago. The captain, sailors, helmsman and thier helpers. We also know most of the passengers. At this point we are exactly 72 hours, meaning three days behind the schedule. It is due to the fact that the delay caused by the loading of trucks grew to five-, eight- and eventually several or so hours. The ship has already been delayed for so long that now it has had waited another two days to continue our travel towards Moba as the another scheduled shuttle. Otherwise, the delay would have been going on indefinitely. We know well the ship, its payload and avaialbe room to take up. The boarding Okako for the second time goes much easier.

This time we leave nearly on time, meaning we are delayed two hours only. An innicially looking unfriendly and quarrelsome soldier is quickly pacified thanks to lotoko, a Congolese moonshine, which serves as our precaution to organism disinfection.

It is a dark night, so in the morning we meet many tangas returning from night fishing.

Upon arrival, the first major difficulty, besides unloading, is to overcome the migracion officer.

The impassible migration officer

Dusty and faded postcolonial colors

A corrupt officer asks us to show our passports. As he is skimming though he patiently waits until we reattach our bags to the bikes. We go altoghether to the office of the General Directorate of Migration. We are in a room where besides the second official, there is only a bench and four walls around. Numerous fictitious reasons are presented to us to extort bribe. A very meticulous search of our baggage in the desprate hope of finding some dollars is also performed.

We have plenty of time so it won’t be that easy to overstay our patience. We try to delays the process indefinitely to get the officers bored who, hoping they finally would ease off. A simple statement that we do not have any money, because our travel is based on hospitality of the people we meet is not enough. They keep looking for our dollars, which fortunately, we are able to hide in the meantime. The officials seize a notebook, one of our memorable plates, a t-shirt and a couple of pens.

One of the officers takes our passports and goes to another office with a bicycle-taxi. It resembles a farce. Yet another reasons for extorting made-up fees. Even through the kind of our visas. A voyager is not the same as a traveler, or a tourist. We have to make photocopies of our passports. There is yet another troublesome and stubborn mr. Hygienist. Again, we have to convince the officer several times to take a walk to his base rather than to go back by bicycle taxi at our expense.

Three hours later

The three-hour briefing on migration is how we got to Moba in the south of Lake Tanganyika. The sun at its zenith increases the difficulty to climb up the rutty road ruined by the rainy season that has just ended. A harsh ascent to the top makes my body pour sweat in liters. The traverse of every single meter is a constant struggle with sliding feet on small rocks and loose sand on a hard gravel roads.

I’m noticed by a Congolese cyclist loaded with sugar cane. He looks at me, then he looks left and right, thinks for a while and suddenly abandons the bike to run away. I walk a bit closer, but he keeps running further away.

Bicycling through the Congolese wilderness

Some time later I find out what’s going on. It is the primordial cult of black magic, the indigenous peoples of Africa are not accustomed to the presence of mzungu. They flee fearing that their heart would be ripped out alive. Sad, moving, even edifying, but true.

We pitch a tent and prepare the coal-fired fireplace using dried papaya leaves as an ignition. We are located in the heart of the wild Africa. Far beyond the reach of cell phone networks, no electricity and no running water.

An evening with a bottle of lotoko finally gives us a bit of space to reflect. I feel a specific taste in my mouth. It is not only the taste of the top-fermented manioc. It is the taste of an adventure which still goes on.

June 2010

[eazyest_folder folder=”2010/drc-tanganyika”]