Facing the Congo in a Dug-Out Canoe
By Helena Wahlstrom
Like many others, Jeffrey Tayler experienced an identity crisis at the turning point of his early
thirties. But unlike many others, he decided to find himself through a danger-filled voyage down theCongo River in a dugout canoe. Tayler details his adventure in his critically acclaimed travel book, “Facing the Congo.”
The Congo has fascinated Westerners since explorer Henry Morton Stanley undertook his brutal journey down the river to the sea, and Joseph Conrad exposed the atrocities of colonization in his novella “The Heart of Darkness.” The parallels between Conrad’s classic and “Facing the Congo” are inevitable, and a reference to the former has even found its way onto the cover of Tayler’s book.
Frustrated and miserable in his dull Moscow life, Tayler left for Africa with the intent of traveling from Kinshasa to Kisangani by boat, and making the trip back in a pirogue, a flat-bottomed canoe. While a century had passed since Marlow’s fictional travels, Tayler found the Congo full of dangers old and new.
In addition to diseases, thieves and dangerous animals, Tayler was forced to deal with corruption and a changed political climate, brought on by the region’s main antagonist, dictator Mobutu.
Tayler takes the reader along with him on this arduous trip through his vivid descriptions and powerful prose. Though non-fiction, “Facing the Congo” reads like an adventure novel, bringing to life all the oppressive heat, suffocating humidity, noise and life of the Congo region.
Tayler’s skillful writing never succumbs to romanticizing: this is a tale of discovery and awakening to an often brutal reality, and the truths the adventurer uncovers are as much within as without, in the depths of the ancient jungle.
An excerpt from the book
Like a chiming valedictory from a world we were leaving behind, the bells of Kisangani’s cathedral came pealing out to us through the darkness as we slipped away from the bank, the bow of our pirogue cutting a pale gray V in the indigo river. Sweat ran into my eyes, soaked through my shirt, and blanched into expanding blotches on the thighs of my cotton trousers.
The bells rang out a fifth time. Their peals lingered and died, leaving us with the swish of our paddles, with our bow silently parting the mists over the Congo’s black currents. We had left the hotel just after four in the morning. The “taxi” Desi had ordered turned out to be a pousse—a two-wheeled cart pushed by a withered and wheezing barefoot old man.
After half an hour of creaky, torch-lit passage down the red dust road, we reached a deserted clearing on the river below the cathedral and halted. “I’ll go get the pirogue,” Desi whispered. He stole upstream along the bank toward the barge, where our pirogue was moored, ducking low and keeping to the shadows to avoid the dock lights.
I waited with the old man, listening to his consumptive lungs crackle above the hiss of the river. Lightning flashed in silence, throwing up the gargoyles of great trees on the other shore, illuminating phantoms of fog wandering over the inky waters. There was soon the faintest sound of an oar, then, in the mists, backlit by the dock lights, appeared the silhouette of a man paddling a pirogue. Desi.
When he neared the bank he stepped out and the pirogue scraped the sand; I grabbed the bow chain and dragged the craft half ashore. Quietly we transferred our belongings from the pousseto the pirogue, extinguishing our flashlights when we perceived someone walking along the road above.
I paid the old man and he left us, wheezing and straining to push his cart up the embankment. Desi and I looked at each other, then turned to the river. Eleven hundred miles to Kinshasa… my heart was thumping and sweat stung my eyes. Raising his hands, Desi faced the blackness and began muttering a prayer, an invocation in Lingala punctuated with the French for salvation, mercy, the grace of God.
I lowered my head—I had never prayed, but now I did, or at least I listened to Desi pray. He finished. We stood for a moment, as if to let the words take effect. Then we grabbed our oars and climbed aboard—I at the bow and Desi astern—and pushed off.
By the time the cathedral bells died, we were coursing out into midriver. Seated, I plunged the paddle into the water and pulled, plunged and pulled, the paddle weighing heavy in my hands. The pirogue was sluggish and tough to turn, and navigation demanded a skilled pilot—which Desi was.
The air was dead-still and thick with humidity, hard to breathe; the mist, rising off the river like steam, bathed us in heat and wet. Soon Kisangani was lost behind the bend, and the sky was paling with the approach of dawn. We slipped into a channel of fast-moving water, and it hurried us along the bank under the overarching trees of an island—Ile Bertha.
Fish bubbled up into the glassy water. The jungle was awakening, ringing with gurgles and caws, echoing with yowls and screams. Monkeys hooted and scampered about unseen, shaking the branches above us. Flamingoes scattered and took flight, fluttering pink against the dark green of the forest; ospreys circled and soared, sharing the lightening sky with egrets.
The brush along the bank was coming alive with blue-crested kingfishers that dove into the river and emerged flapping and splashing with minnows in their bills. We plunged our paddles into the currents and pulled, plunged and pulled, waiting for the sun to rise behind the clouds. It never did.
Later that morning as we were slipping along, carried by the current some fifty yards from the bank, I paused to rest, glancing sternward to see how Desi was coming with the tea he was preparing over the bambula. I recoiled. Behind him in
the east, the sky roiled with advancing black clouds dragging iron-gray skirts of rain.
He glanced over his shoulder, then went back to his teapot.
“That’s not coming our way.”
But it was. Minutes later the winds struck, howling down upon us, swinging round our bow and seeking to blow us out into mid-river, pelting us with leaf-and-twig flotsam from the forest, raising a thrashing surf and a blinding spindrift. Waves pounded the pirogue, and we grabbed our oars and paddled. We got within forty feet of shore when the rain hit.
“Jump out!” shouted Desi. “Jump!”
Simultaneously we quit the craft in a bound as the storm descended. I had the bow rope in a hand and it jerker my elbow socket as I plunged into the churning brown water, but when I regained my footing I found it was only waist deep. I strained to keep my eyes open in the horizontal rain.
Desi pushed from the stern and I dragged, the current and slick clay alluvium keeping our footing tenuous in the shallows. Within ten minutes we were in a narrow-necked cove, struggling to lash our blue tarp over our provisions, which were scantily covered but still dry in plastic sacks.
We sat shivering under umbrellas, watching the river boil white and the sky rage black. Half an hour later the storm passed, leaving low clouds, a silence punctured by the ubiquitous drip-drop-drip of water trickling from leaf to leaf, and the urgent tinkling of new runnels rushing down the bank. The air was clammy and chilled, and the white of mosquitoes arose. After having folded his umbrella, Desi took a plastic scoop and began shoveling out the rain sloshing around in the bottom of the pirogue.
“We need bamboo,” he said.
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