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The Travel Episodes

ACROSS THE DRC

CROSSING CONGO

Ending up at the wrong consu­late. Slee­ping on a volcano. Goril­las, God and a great adven­ture. Domi­nik Mohr hitch-hikes through the Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic of the Congo.

What have I let myself in for? I’m stan­ding on the beach gazing out over the lake. It’s a calm day, and the sand bene­ath my feet is warm. There are people around me, and child­ren play­ing in the water. My ruck­sack nest­les into my back. I’ve been carry­ing its weight on my shoul­ders for months now, and actually I’m feeling pretty good. During those months, I’ve been travel­ling through Africa.

I can look back at some wonder­ful expe­ri­en­ces, but gazing into the future my feelings are mixed. What began a few months earlier as a joke over lunch with a few colleagues, what two weeks ago felt close yet still impos­si­ble, what a few days ago got me a couple of confu­sed looks in Kigali, the Rwan­dan capi­tal, is now coming true: I’m travel­ling through the Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic of the Congo. 

 
 
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Two weeks earlier: I’m lying on a beach on the Tanza­nian side of Lake Tangany­ika, surroun­ded by red sand. A family of zebras passes behind me as I gaze out over the lake, trying to make out the other bank. That’s where the Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic of the Congo is hiding. The Foreign Office doesn’t have many good things to say about the other bank. The conflict between rebel forces and Congo­lese troops is still raging, mainly in the eastern and north-eastern parts of the repu­blic.

My head is buzzing with plans: I’m heading through Tanza­nia to Rwanda, then across Uganda into Kenya. Ethio­pia is going to be the climax of my trip. The Congo wasn’t on my list, and my bus ticket also takes me around Burundi. A few Germans on a driving tour assure me, howe­ver, that condi­ti­ons in the tiny nation of Burundi are safe. 

I set off early the next day, looking for the consu­late to get a visa. Only once I’m alre­ady virtually inside the buil­ding do I realise that I’ve ended up at the wrong one! 

This isn’t where I wanted to go!

Is this the hand of fate becko­n­ing me towards adven­ture?

 

* * *

CHAPTER TWO

GLOWING MOUNTAINS

In Africa it’s impos­si­ble to plan anything, so the whole thing remains exci­ting. Hello, Congo! Can I climb one of your moun­ta­ins?

I’m stan­ding in Gisenyi, Rwanda, on Lake Kivu, only two kilo­metres from the Congo­lese border and the city of Goma. The lake accom­pa­nies me on my left as I walk down the prome­nade towards the ‘Grande Barrière’, the border crossing to Goma. Villas alter­nate with a view of the lake. These are the last few metres of the grea­test adven­ture of my life. My mind whirs. What awaits me on the other side?

The crush of people grows increa­singly dense, and my appre­hen­sion is rising with every second. I only have verbal confir­ma­tion that I’m getting a Congo­lese visa. Nervously, I get through the Rwan­dan forma­li­ties and look past the barrier towards Goma on the other side. There’s a string of Red Cross trucks, plus a mini­bus with four tourists and a flat­bed carry­ing ruined vehi­cles belon­ging to the UN peace­kee­ping forces. I consi­der taking out my camera, but decide against it. Don’t photo­graph any public buil­dings without permis­sion – I want a visa, after all. My contact Joseph meets me at the barrier, leading me to a check­point where they inspect my vacci­na­tion certi­fi­cate and then to a small office. I’m asto­nis­hed when a few minu­tes later my pass­port is handed back to me with an enor­mous red stamp. 

Permis­sion to set out into the unknown.

It doesn’t seem so unfa­mi­liar at first. In Kigali anot­her back­pa­cker told me about an active volcano with a forgett­able name. My inte­rest instantly piqued, I quickly commit­ted the name to memory. Now Nyira­gongo is towering before me in the distant sky – my first goal. Over the follo­wing days I’ll visit the moun­tain goril­las a little furt­her north. That’s the plan. You can’t plan for ever­y­thing in Africa, of course. That’s how it stays exci­ting.
 
 
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My contact and I buy a few supplies for my trek up Nyira­gongo then drive to my hotel. Next morning I eat break­fast between two UN offi­ci­als. I don’t have to wait long; someone soon comes to fetch me, and we jolt past heavily armed UN patrols as we leave Goma for the north.

Here I meet two Germans, Dirk and Dieter. While we’re clim­bing the volcano, they tell me what they’re plan­ning:

They’re going to spend the next three weeks jour­ney­ing down the Congo River, one of the most power­ful rivers on earth, nearly 4,400 kilo­metres long.

Their plan seems as meti­cu­lously thought-through as it is unplan­ned. I don’t know what to think about it, but my fingers are begin­ning to itch. We’ve just strugg­led through the deep green forest with our heavy ruck­sacks, reaching the edge of the trees, when I make my deci­sion, whip out my mobile and call Joseph. I urgently need a visa exten­sion, then a flight to Kisangani in the north-east of the Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic of Congo. For now that’s all I can do.

Our trail winds furt­her and furt­her up the enor­mous volcano. The armed rangers go on ahead with us in tow, as we clam­ber over small, sharp volca­nic rocks. Nyira­gongo last erup­ted in 2002. Several villa­ges were wiped off the map, and more than a hund­red people lost their lives. The lava stream caused a good deal of dest­ruc­tion in the city of Goma, too. And we’re plan­ning to spend the night on this volcano! Our accom­mo­da­tion gradually draws nearer. Over the last few metres to the crater we’re taking two steps forward and one step back. Some­body tipped me off that on the upper edge of the crater there are two huts offe­ring a fabu­lous view. So I storm off ahead, trying to make sure I get the best spot.

But I’m called to an abrupt halt.

In front of me is a vast sea of lava, hot stone bubbling inside it. Cooler slabs shot through with glowing, reddish-orange stri­pes drift around like ice floes. Foun­ta­ins of lava appear in a few places, melting the slabs again with a sound like the roaring sea then emer­ging again else­where. Even from a distance of seven hund­red metres, I can feel the heat of this force of nature. It doesn’t warm me up, exactly, but for a moment the cold and rain are forgot­ten.
 
 

 

* * *

CHAPTER THREE

IN THE MIST

The first clues: trees without bark and large areas of depres­sed grass. Deep in the rain­fo­rest, on the slopes of the volcano, we go looking for goril­las.

I’m hardly back in Goma before one ques­tion occu­pies my mind: how can I extend my visa?

My contact person, Joseph, has anot­her contact at the immi­gra­tion depart­ment, so we drop by. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, I have to speak to the boss. No luck! Then at the visa office. Again, no luck! I try one more time. Mode­rate success. Unfor­tu­n­a­tely, for the next item on my agenda – moun­tain goril­las – I need my pass­port, so I have to leave empty-handed. I did, howe­ver, get a promise: if I give them my pass­port tomor­row at three I can pick up my rene­wed visa at eight the next day. It’s got to work: the plane leaves at midday and I’ve got to buy a ticket around nine. I rest at my hotel. Quite a long rest, as thanks to a power cut I simply go to bed. At least there are no tiny visi­tors in the bath­tub and a reason­able amount of running water. 

More than in the follo­wing weeks combi­ned.

As I shake the secu­rity man awake next morning and press my key into his hand, the sun is just rising gently over the hori­zon, gree­ting the day, which will turn out to be full of touching moments and encoun­ters. Again we jolt north along the road. We pass Nyira­gongo. To our right is the Rwan­dan border. On the plateau between the volca­noes stretch fields and over­grown buil­dings, the remnants of refu­gee camps from the Rwan­dan geno­cide.

At the foot of Mount Mikeno, I’m taken to a small mili­tary camp. It’s the joint base of the Virunga rangers and the border offi­ci­als. I’m to wait here for my compa­n­ions.

Accom­pa­nied by Eddy, a gorilla doctor, and Jean Bosco, my ranger guide, I finally set off. We head into the deep moun­tain forests on the slopes of the volcano. The first traces of the goril­las are alre­ady iden­ti­fia­ble: trees without bark and large areas of depres­sed grass where they sleep. Jean clears a path through the thick green foliage with a machete, elegantly avoi­ding the stin­ging nett­les and thistly plants. Eddy jokes that the burning sensa­tion impro­ves your circu­la­tion, and stops after fifteen minu­tes anyway. I avoid all contact none­theless.

There they are!

With a brief gorilla noise, Jean announ­ces our presence, and the first mother comes into view with her baby. A few steps furt­her two teen­agers are doing gymnastics in a tree, swin­ging from branch to branch by their arms. We follow them, and from a suita­ble distance we watch the silver­back in the family. He’s groo­m­ing one of his ladies. Her baby sits beside her, gazing in my direc­tion with inte­rest.

It’s an asto­nis­hing feeling to be so close to these power­ful crea­tures. To know that one spiri­ted squeeze could be fatal and that even a play­ful move­ment could have pain­ful conse­quen­ces …

There’s a lot of cheery coming and going. The time passes much too quickly, and after only an hour we have to say good­bye. But I do get a three-minute delay when I suddenly find myself unable to move forwards or back­wards: a mother with her child on her back is blocking my path. I’ve got to stay where I am, letting the lady cross just two metres in front of me.
 
 

 

* * *

CHAPTER FOUR

FITZCARRALDO

If it floats, we want it to be part of our adven­ture. So we choose to travel through the Congo by water.

I love it when a plan comes toge­ther. Clut­ching my visa exci­tedly in my hands, all I have to do now is buy the plane ticket. The employee at the consu­late has gradually come to reco­gnise me, and a few minu­tes later I’m dashing off to the hotel to inform Dieter and Dirk of my success. Leaping onto three motor­cy­cle taxis, we set off to the airport. There’s no turning back now.

We manage the chaos at the airport without too much trou­ble. Only the offi­ci­als at the immi­gra­tion desk refuse to believe us when we describe what we’re plan­ning to do. I can under­stand them, of course. We must be crazy to jump feet first into such an adven­ture. They ask us to just stay on the plane and fly to Kinshasa. That would be the quicker and safer way. To them, our plan – travel­ling through the Congo by boat – seems incon­ve­ni­ent, uncom­for­ta­ble and slow. We’re aware of this, and only once I’ve shown them our route in the guide­book again and assu­red them that we’re prepa­red to take the risk do they let us through. 

Perhaps it also had some­thing to do with the much more exci­ting case unfol­ding at the next table, where it turns out a UN employee doesn’t have a valid visa, causing much merri­ment.

 
 
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The plane leaves Goma almost on time, heading for Kisangani. During the approach to the city, we catch our first glim­pse of the mighty river. Kisangani is where the hundred-kilometre rapids end. The river beco­mes navi­gable by boat again, remai­ning so until Kinshasa. Kisangani, or Stan­ley­ville, as it was known until 1966, must have been a wonder­ful city. In the airport, which dates from the 1970s, you can still marvel at the chan­de­liers and remai­ning bits of wood panel­ling. The lay-bys, steps and occa­sio­nal wall along the river­front road indi­cate that the street was once lively with traf­fic. Today large stret­ches of asphalt look like they’ve seen better days. In the inner city there are plenty of once magni­ficent buil­dings that are sadly beco­m­ing increa­singly derelict.
 
 
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With a bit of imagi­na­tion you can still see Kisangani’s former prospe­rity, displayed in palm-fringed avenues and beau­ti­fully laid-out prome­na­des.

If it floats, we want it to be part of our adven­ture.

We find a small cargo vessel to take us to Bumba. When it comes to our fellow travel­lers, that turns out to be a stroke of luck. They’re excel­lent guides, explai­ning to us the history of the indi­vi­dual buil­dings along the river, from colo­nial period pieces to Congo­lese histo­ri­cal hotspots to parti­cu­lar facto­ries. Our luck holds later on, too: Mathieu, the ship’s accoun­tant, gives us a mattress on which to lay our weary heads that night. As part of the cargo, we grate­fully accept this comfor­ta­ble alter­na­tive to our camping mats. And slee­ping under the stars is always best.

We’re remin­ded of the friend­li­ness, open­ness and hospi­ta­lity of the locals every day. We’re offe­red help every time we set foot on shore. Stran­gers are intro­du­ced to us and our compa­n­ions are happy to speak candidly about their lives. The village child­ren keep calling out ‘mundele’ (‘whites’) to us. They’re play­ing foot­ball with keen enthu­si­asm, proudly showing us their large pitch when we’re forced for the thousandth time to take a break due to a motor acci­dent. Women cook on the river­bank while a few men mend the fishing nets.
 
 

 

After three hund­red and eighty-one kilo­metres, we’re nearly at Bumba. We’ve endu­red the sun, admi­red the starry nights, coped with broken motors and engi­nes, met lots of people, made friends, shared food and freed oursel­ves from a sand bank. That only leaves one thing, and it’s a clas­sic: running out of petrol. Precisely two kilo­metres from Bumba, the motor gives out.

We’re three litres short. 

 

* * *

CHAPTER FIVE

BUSINESS FLUENT

Getting furt­her than Bumba proves diffi­cult.
Luck­ily, I find God at the harbour.

Three modes of trans­port and thousands of shred­ded nerve-endings later, we’ve been coming up with a new ‘plan’ every half hour: the Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic of the Congo isn’t making progress easy. On the map the route looks quite strai­ght­for­ward. From Bumba to Lisala and from there via Akula to Gemena. From Gemena a plane will take us to Mband­aka. By land it’s a total of four hund­red and fifty kilo­metres along Natio­nal Route 6.
 
 
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So we get cracking with our plan. Plan A is to settle down on Natio­nal Route 6 to Lisala and hope for a lift. The plan sounds very effec­tive for other coun­tries, but not for the Repu­blic of the Congo. After a six-hour wait we’ve budged not a single milli­metre. Our only option is moto­ta­xis, but riding shot­gun with ruck­sacks for a hund­red and fifty kilo­metres sounds like a night­mare. I decide to call Captain John from our cargo vessel. Telling him about our enforced stay in Bumba, I ask him for a lift to Lisala on the river. A few minu­tes later he calls back and informs me that a piro­gue will be setting off the next day. Plan P, as in piro­gue, is born. A total of seven tonnes plus passen­gers are coming with us to Lisala. Shortly before depar­ture, an offi­cial at the immi­gra­tion office plays a little trick on us. Trying to get a bit of cash, he attempts to lure us off the piro­gue on the pretext that it’s not leaving until the next day. The other passen­gers only laugh, and we stay sitting in our garden chairs. The night is uncom­for­ta­ble and loud. The three fifteen-horsepower outboard motors, alter­na­tely broken or out of petrol, clat­ter through the water like sewing machi­nes.
 
 
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In Lisala our search for wheels begins anew. Again and again we’re shocked by the price of jeeps. Our plans change more quickly than we can make them. In the end we decide to try and make it to Gemena by land then travel by plane to Mband­aka. We book our tickets via mobile through an NGO office. Just in time, before the gene­ra­tor – and there­fore the inter­net – goes out. 

I find God at the harbour. He’s a truck driver called Dieu, and, with his colleagues, he’s in the middle of loading several trucks. I ask for a lift to Gemena, but sadly this wish is not to be fulfil­led. The road between Lisala and Gemena is simply too seldom travel­led. The surface is poor, and Akula, with its harbour, is vastly better suited to supply­ing the area around Gemena. Dieu does, howe­ver, offer to take us as far as Businga. That’s half the way to Gemena. Dirk and Dieter are keen to accept the oppor­tu­nity, and Dieu even promi­ses to arrange onward trans­port in Businga. Shortly before midni­ght, the trucks get on the move. We climb into the cabin half asleep, making oursel­ves ‘comfor­ta­ble’ for the next few hours.

The missing winds­hield and the cold night leave us shivering.

All the jolting around means we’re barely able to catch more than a few seconds’ sleep. At dawn we suddenly get stuck on a moun­tain. We’ve lost power. With our combi­ned efforts we get the injec­tion pump going again and can conti­nue our jour­ney to Businga.
 
 
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Businga consists of one main road and a few side stre­ets: a small outpost of civi­li­sa­tion. Dieu gets to work at once, finding three moto­ta­xis. Fifty dollars to Gemena. At our urging he decla­res hims­elf willing to try and find a jeep. The only one in the area is in the posses­sion of a Portu­guese man. It’s broken, unfor­tu­n­a­tely, and it belongs to his son. Moto­ta­xis it is, then. A small battle breaks out, and suddenly fifty dollars beco­mes eighty. Only one driver keeps his word, and he now faces the diffi­cult task of soot­hing his colleagues. 

At crazy speed we drive through the sparse remnants of the rain­fo­rest, initi­ally on good gravel and sand tracks – but then the jour­ney morphs into an off-road adven­ture.

Our driver wants to eat lunch in Karawa. Bad idea. In Karawa the immi­gra­tion autho­ri­ties, the police and the judi­ciary have joined forced to extort bribes from foreig­ners. Stop­ping here is a major error. We’ve got to pay ten dollars per person for an irrele­vant, useless form, they tell us, other­wise we’ll end up in jail and our jour­ney will be at an end. After much wrang­ling they let us go. Sadly, howe­ver, we cele­brate too soon: as we climb back on the bikes we disco­ver that one of our drivers has been arrested. It’s a kind of revenge for the fact that we talked oursel­ves out of the situa­tion. At first my inter­ven­ti­ons at the police station come to nothing. We pay the driver for his previous services and add a hefty tip.
 
 
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They settle the matter in Congo­lese, and by the time dusk comes we’ve got all three drivers back toge­ther. Now totally exhausted, we conti­nue our jour­ney to Gemena.
 

* * *

FINAL CHAPTER

FINDING TRACES

The toug­hest part of the adven­ture is behind us. We’re waiting in Gemena for our flight back to the other Congo.

Back in a world of asphalted stre­ets, full super­mar­ket shel­ves and rela­tive clean­li­ness. Bit of a shock to the system.

Mbandaka

Because our jour­ney began in Stan­ley­ville (Kisangani), we want to bid fare­well to the British explo­rer and adven­tu­rer Henry Morton Stan­ley, who scou­ted a huge area around the Congo during the second half of the nine­teenth century, travel­ling down almost the whole river. Swin­ging onto three moto­ta­xis in Mband­aka, we drive south. Some­what outside the city is the ‘Equa­tor Stone’. Stan­ley placed it there. Although the explo­rer was off by just under four kilo­metres, the marker is testi­mony to his extra­or­di­nary feat. And at least you can photo­graph a stone and a sign.

 
 
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On the way back to the city we make a brief stop at the most promi­nent aban­do­ned buil­ding in the area: Mobutu’s palace. Not to be confu­sed with his three magni­ficent, plun­de­red pala­ces in Gbado­lite, the ruin has simply been frozen in time. The loca­tion and under­ly­ing struc­ture bear witness to the enor­mity of the origi­nal inten­tion. We wander around freely under the watch­ful gaze of the village youth. You don’t usually see tourists up close around these parts.
 
 

 

Back in Mband­aka, taking a walk along the harbour prome­nade, we get an answer to a ques­tion that’s long been bothe­ring us: where have all the old passen­ger ships got to, the ones aboard which you used to be able to travel the river in such comfort? There are two of them here, rusted and aban­do­ned in a former ship­y­ard. Ship­buil­ding halls and workers’ houses stand empty. People have erec­ted mud huts in the garden.
 
 
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Furt­her inland, paral­lel to the river, runs the city’s most glorious mile: asphalted, cared for, and deco­ra­ted with colo­nial buil­dings from begin­ning to end. Beside the post office is a row of buil­dings: the town hall, lots of shops and banks, a lovely park and several public buil­dings. Worth seeing, but also sad to look at is the bota­ni­cal garden, laid out around 1900. The biggest garden of its kind in Central Africa has the charm of a well-tended prime­val forest. The museum offers us a grue­some hour: in the glass speci­men jars the alco­hol has evapo­ra­ted, and a colony of bats has taken up resi­dence in the roof. Once proud, now deca­y­ing.
 
 
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Kinshasa

With some respect for Kinshasa, we travel to the airport. The metro­po­lis of eight million people is the last stop on our jour­ney. Upon arri­val we have 2,525 kilo­metres and three weeks of adven­ture behind us. The city is over­whel­ming. Suddenly we’re back in the known, albeit some­what unfa­mi­liar world. Stun­ned by enor­mous super­mar­kets, a supera­bundance of Western products and, espe­ci­ally, the horren­dous prices, we expe­ri­ence an abrupt culture shock. Three or four dollars for a bar of choco­late, fifteen for Nutella and upwards of six dollars for a hund­red grams of cheese? Our expec­ta­ti­ons are dashed. We leave the super­mar­ket empty-handed.

 
 
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After break­fast the next day, we set off on a walk of epic propor­ti­ons. The distan­ces are enor­mous. From the harbour we walk past the eastern rail­way station, across the Boule­vard of 30 June to the central market. Glad that today is Sunday, we elbow our way through thousands of empty wooden huts and moun­ta­ins of rubbish. It doesn’t take much imagi­na­tion to picture what market day looks like. We pass the Stade des Martyrs and see the People’s Palace from a distance. A few kilo­metres later, just before the Presi­den­tial Palace, our sight­see­ing tour is inter­rup­ted: a mili­tary check­point inst­ructs us to turn around. Unda­un­ted, we stroll through the embassy quar­ter. Outside the German embassy, we cast a quick glance across the border to Braz­za­ville in the Repu­blic of the Congo. 

In the 1880s an Italian tried to win the favour of the tribes for the French in the area now cove­red by the two Congos, while an English­man did the same for the Belgi­ans. The Italian, Savor­g­nan de Brazza, foun­ded sett­le­ments for the French, inclu­ding Braz­za­ville, on the right side of the Congo. Oppo­site Braz­za­ville, on the left side of the Congo, the Briton Henry Morton Stan­ley esta­blished the sett­le­ment of Léopold­ville, today Kinshasa. After the colony of the Belgian Congo decla­red inde­pen­dence in 1960, the Congo whose capi­tal was Kinshasa chan­ged its name often: from the ‘Repu­blic of the Congo’ and ‘Repu­blic of Zaïre’ to the ‘Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic of the Congo’, which it has been called since 1997. The first presi­dent of the repu­blic, which has been rocked by nume­rous wars, was Laurent Kabila. His assas­si­na­tion in 2001 marked a turning point in the war as well as in the nation as a whole. Today his mauso­leum stands outside the Natio­nal Palace in Kinshasa.
 
 
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The monu­ment turns out to be our final high­light of the city. I’m surpri­sed that photos are allo­wed. The soldi­ers in the high-security zone argue that tourists and pictures are comple­tely normal. This is the only place in the Congo where people seem to think that. In the rest of the coun­try photos are frow­ned upon and viewed nega­tively.

The city doesn’t invite day-dreaming – not least because you’d end up falling into one of the giant manho­les.

In the evening we make oursel­ves comfor­ta­ble in a restau­rant. I still don’t have a flight – I’ve really got to book it. My visa runs out in a few days, and there’s no way I’m spen­ding hund­reds of dollars wrang­ling with the immi­gra­tion office over an exten­sion. It’s exaspe­ra­ting. But as diffi­cult as it was to enter the coun­try, the coun­try is now making it just as diffi­cult for me to leave. As I try to buy a flight from Kinshasa to Addis Ababa, my credit card free­zes. My bank’s secu­rity measu­res are func­tio­n­ing perfectly: a flight within Africa, paid for with a German credit card via a Spanish website, can only be credit card fraud. Only after my sister books the flight from Germany with my spare card, and after a few more secu­rity ques­ti­ons, do I finally have the ticket in my hand.

Somehow I’m both glad and sorry to be leaving the Congo. Our jour­ney would certainly have been less arduous on a passen­ger ship from colo­nial times, but it was a marvell­ous expe­ri­ence.

Clear across the Congo, amid people’s lives and the nation’s history.

 

* * *

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  • Tommy Schneider on 20. Mai 2020

    super, da halten sich viele erin­ne­run­gen nach­drück­lich wach, ich war 1989 von Kisangani bis Mband­aka 3 Wochen auf dem Fluss, sehr präzise deine Schil­de­run­gen was die Umstände betrifft.. wann datiert deine reise ?

    danke, mit besten grüs­sen
    Tommy

    Reply

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