WHEN WE LAST SPOKE to Tracy Angus-Hammond, she was about to set off on a trans-African expedition from South Africa to Tunisia, crossing a number of beautiful — and a number of sketchy — regions on the way. I caught up with her almost a year on to see how the journey had gone, and to find out more about how illness on the Congo River very nearly brought the journey to an early, tragic halt.
Congo River Odyssey: 30 Days + 1 Dangerous Brush With Malaria
RS: When we last spoke, you were in the final stages of planning a trans-African roadtrip. Was it in your plans at the time to end up sailing down the Congo River in the heart of the DRC?
TAH: When we first spoke we were actually planning on getting from East to West Africa via the Central African Republic. As our departure date neared, though, the conflict in CAR escalated and visas stopped being issued to South Africans. We as such had no choice but to change the route and decided to head instead through the DRC, the only way we could find to get across Central Africa.
We knew up front that this would involve some time on a barge floating down the Congo River, since there was no other way to get the 1700km from Kisangani to Kinshasa.
The journey downriver was pretty terrifying, as it turned out. Can you talk a little about what went wrong?
Yeah, the month we spent on the MS Magnificat traveling down the Congo River at an average speed of 8km/h was pretty tough! But the month leading up to the barge trip was no piece of cake either. The state of the roads meant we couldn’t travel faster than 20km/h, the police or army roadblock every 20km (all wanting a bribe) slowed us down considerably too, and the difficulty and expense of getting supplies added to the stress.
We were attacked by some police in Kisangani and one of the cops actually broke our car keys in my hand trying to get them from us — thank goodness we’d packed the spares. We had our car illegitimately impounded, also in Kisangani, and in between all of this we were constantly being hassled by immigration and customs officials, so by the time we finally did get on the barge we were feeling pretty beaten up and weary.
The first problem with the actual barge journey was that a trip we were told would take 10 days ended up taking 30 days and so we were short of food and water. We had packed enough for 14 days but this was all we had space for — 350 litres of water takes up LOTS of space! This meant we were rationing food and water from week two on the barge, and for the last 10 days we were down to one can of food shared between the two of us per day — that’s it!
Conditions on the barge were cramped to say the least. There were 800 of us living between 50 cars and 600 tons of cargo (mainly yams and cassava) in a space of 60m by 60m. There was one toilet (just a small room with a hole in the barge floor) between all 800 of us, and this room also doubled as the ‘shower’ room (where we washed with buckets of water hauled out of the river). And it was hot…really, really hot! The flat metal structure turned into a frying pan during the day, and so the 45 degrees Celsius temps turned into 50 degrees on the barge.
Weeks into the river trip Matthew contracted malaria, and this happened in the most remote part of the Congo where there was no cellphone signal or any small towns or villages where we could get help. Thank goodness we did have malaria treatment with us and, having both had malaria before, we recognised the symptoms and got him on the treatment within three hours of the first symptom. After he completed a full course but had got no better I really started to panic. He had very swollen veins on his head and had incredibly bad headaches, and we began to fear it was cerebral malaria.
At this stage of the journey, we were actually in international waters, with the DRC on our left and Congo Brazzaville on the right, so even though there was no phone signal in the DRC I did manage to find someone with a Congo B sim where there was signal. They let me use their phone, which had one minute of credit on it, and standing on top of the barge, on a chair on a table, was able to get a rushed call out asking for help. Later that day we got a call back saying a speed boat would be leaving at 04:00 the next morning to fetch us and get Matthew to a hospital. Next morning I packed up our tent and stashed all our stuff in our car and started the anxious wait for the rescue boat to arrive.
By this stage there was no signal in either country and so we could not contact any of the people trying to find us and find out where they were or when to expect them. They also couldn’t get hold of us and so didn’t know where exactly we were. The Congo River is 14km wide in some parts and full of large islands that mean there are several channels in the river. We could easily have been in the same area as the rescue boat but simply not seen each other. By late afternoon we realised they weren’t coming, and I now understand the expression “a crushing disappointment” — I literally had chest pain at the realization they weren’t coming, and that didn’t go away until they did eventually find us the next day at 15:30. At that moment we learned the true meaning of knee-buckling relief. Seven hours later we were in Kinshasa and at a hospital where Matt could get proper care.
The DRC was insane from start to finish, and unfortunately it fit all the worst stereotypes of what Africa is — BUT, that said, the constant “well it is Africa” comments really upset us, because Africa is not one place but 54 very diverse countries. Of the nine countries (South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and DRC) we’ve traveled through so far, the DRC was the only one that fit the stereotypes and the only one we were asked for a bribe in — proof that it’s perceptions of the continent that are stereotypical rather than the continent itself. We did also get through the DRC without paying a single bribe and are of the firm opinion that you don’t have to be part of the problem, and you don’t have to say yes just because someone asks.
In the end everything turned out okay, though? When did you realize you were going to make it through safely?
At 15:30 on the 9th of April when the rescue boat arrived. Up until that very second we weren’t sure we would make it — terrifying circumstances to exist under.
On reflection, is there anything you would have done differently in planning to cross the DRC? And were there things you were glad you had thought of beforehand?
There’s nothing about our crossing of the DRC that we could have changed, unfortunately. All the elements that made it difficult and life-threatening were beyond our control.
We were incredibly grateful that we had three courses of malaria meds with us (Matt went through two on the barge and so packing one per person is not enough). The research we’d done, before leaving South Africa, on the best ways to purify water were life saving (we used a sock, charcoal, boiling, and water purifying tablets, which we were also very glad we’d brought with us). And having been on the road for six months before all this definitely meant we were tougher than when we left and more capable of dealing with all the DRC had to throw at us.