Vessel of Last Resort

One of the last tourists to take a barge up the Congo River had arrived, but dead of malaria

The Vessel

JOSEPH Conrad traveled 1,100 miles up the Congo River to find the heart of darkness; I was sure I had seen it at mile one. I stood on the rusty, urine-stained deck of a cargo barge watching Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire, recede into a humid gray haze. The city that from Brazzaville had looked so prosperous, with its skyscrapers and dock cranes, turned out up close to be a farrago of squalor and raucous mayhem: troops of beggars limping on pretzeled legs clogged the multilane Boulevard du 30 Juin; fires smoldered in refuse heaps alive with the ulcerous, emaciated bodies of those too weak to beg; silver Mercedes rocketed through the rubble, scattering crowds, carrying their owners to hush-hush diamond deals in posh Gombe. And outside the confines of the modern district, in the old Cité and beyond, gangs of youths armed with guns and knives patrolled slums four million strong. Someone must have gone mad here to let all this happen: if present-day Kinshasa wasn't Kurtz's "Inner Station," I didn't know what was.

With our barge cabled to its bow, the white-and-blue pousseur, or pusher boat, headed out toward mid-river, and we were free of Kinshasa's stench. It was evening; the day's heat was abating. Ahead, toward the Equator, the sky and water dissolved into a mist of luminous azure.

Travel on the Congo, or Zaire, River has never been easy, and with the chaos prevailing in the country since 1990, when Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire's Through Western Eyes:

President-for-life dictator, declared a transitional period to democracy, it has become more difficult than ever. The army, unpaid, has run amok several times, carrying out huge pillages; the economy has collapsed; and ONATRA, the national transportation company, has gone bankrupt, only rarely sending upriver its one functioning Congo barge -- actually a floating slum of some half a dozen barges lashed to an ailing pusher boat. As a result, merchants have turned to private barges for transport and to conduct trade with the interior, where most of Zaire's 45 million people live, and where roads, if they exist at all, are truck-swallowing quagmires for most of the year. But the barges lack even the skeletal amenities (rat-infested cabins, clogged toilets, starchy food) that the ONATRA boats offered, and travel is brutally basic. For the equivalent of thirty dollars you get a space on a rusty steel deck and no more. That will have to suffice for two to six weeks of floating through some of the steamiest terrain on earth. Zairians wondered what misfortune could have driven me to take the barge, and every expatriate I met in Kinshasa said that such crafts were not for non-Zairians. "When cholera breaks out on board," an American missionary warned me, "people just die and they throw the bodies overboard." A British expat said that the last tourist to take a barge to Kisangani had arrived, but dead of malaria.

I was no old Africa hand when I arrived in Zaire, no seasoned veteran of tropical travel. In fact, I had spent the three previous years in Russia, and a desire to escape the cold and break out of the gray-bureaucracy syndrome I suffered from there had a lot to do with my thoughts' running Equatorward at every idle moment that winter. When, in February, I came upon the British explorer Henry Morton Stanley's account of his voyage down the Congo, I was mesmerized. The desire seized me, possessed me, to quit the northland and travel this greatest of all sub-Saharan Africa's rivers, no matter what the risks or discomforts. I was not a missionary or a naturalist, nor was I a vacationer expecting the civilized pleasures of an all-inclusive Kenyan game-park safari; rather, I was a northerner gripped by a monomania for the primal truth of the Congo, and the only cure would be a crucible on its muddy waters.

THE deck was empty save for a few crew members and a pimpled pastor from Lukolela engrossed in a Jimmy Swaggart tract. But our solitude was not to last: we were drawing toward the port at Selza, a suburb of Kinshasa, where a crowd was scrimmaging on the pier. Even before we docked, people started casting aboard foam mattresses and baskets and bales of cloth, leaping over the watery divide onto our deck. Gendarmes thrashed at the crowd with rope whips, but in vain: by the time we moored, every square inch was occupied. Tinny Zairian pop blared forth from the barge's loudspeakers. The floating river fête had begun.

The owner, Nguma, had taken pity on me and assigned me a crew member's cabin; but with a loudspeaker over the door and no windows, it turned out to be a noisy oven. I gathered up my mosquito net and sheets and billeted myself in solitude above the bridge on the pousseur. Feeling nauseated with shock from the crowds, the heat, and the excitement of the trip, I lay down on my foam mattress and peered through the gauze at the stars, thinking back on the history of this enormous river, the second longest in Africa. Stanley had fought his way down it from Nyangwe in 1876 and 1877, losing many of the members of his expedition to disease, to drowning, and to battles with the tribes that live on the middle and upper banks even today. My trip, tame as it was by comparison, still seemed an impossible feat: this cramped floating crate of steel had to chug up 1,100 miles of jungle river. If I got sick, if anyone got sick, if we broke down, there was nothing to be done about it but hope that Providence, so clearly unmoved by the tableau of mass suffering in Zaire, might decide to make a gesture of divine benevolence toward us. Many merchants, I was to learn, had had friends die on the river, from cholera or malaria or other, nameless fevers -- a fate I hoped to avoid with half a dozen vaccines and a satchel stuffed full of Nivaquine and Paludrine pills, the malaria prophylaxes commonly prescribed in Zaire. The commencement of every voyage up the Congo was thus attended by fervent prayers for Godspeed, by whispered supplications to fetishes, by wailing farewells from relatives on shore. Our voyage was no exception. No one was certain who would arrive alive in Kisangani.

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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

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