September 15th to November 15th, 2011: Part 1

I’ve never really considered the phrase “expect the unexpected” in analytical fashion. The expression, I think, suffers from the typical over- and misuse characteristic of the American vernacular, over time losing its significance and gravity. But how can one anticipate the transpiration of an unexpected event? To do so is to expect it, even if acknowledging its unlikelihood. If I condensed my two months in the Congo rainforest and savannas into a single phrase, however, I can’t think of a less-cliché way to say it. Granted, I’m no optimist, but in the end it was usually less frustrating to expect a deviation from what was planned, or what any credible source would suggest as likely, and just go with the flow. In retrospect, therefore, it was fitting that my journey into the literary Heart of Darkness began on the very sunny afternoon of September 15th.

At the sparsely populated Kindu airport, I was greeted Salumu. Salumu is one of the Hart’s employees in Kindu, and he presented an immediate challenge: communication. I had taken four weeks of Swahili classes in Zanzibar and enhanced whatever skills I learned through living in Tanzania another couple months, but I hadn’t spoken Swahili in earnest since. And this was Tanzanian Swahili I had learned; Congolese Swahili is a different dialect. But I fumbled my way through introductions, etc., and found myself on the back of a motorbike winding through the dusty streets of Kindu. After meeting John Hart at his house and getting acquainted with some of his equipment I’d be using, I had my first of about 65 nights in a row sleeping in my tent. That evening must have seen the first rain of the season, because as soon as the drizzle started I heard excited cries from the children all around.


The weather begins to look foreboding as we cross the first large savanna on the motorbike ride.

The next morning, we were ready—albeit a bit late—to get rolling. We loaded up the motorbikes with our gear, climbed on, and started on our 6-hour journey to the village of Chombe Kilima. We drove through savannas and forests, sand, mud, villages, small puddles, big puddles, and even puddles so big a calls them rivers. Some of the rivers had bridges we could drive over, but whether the bridge was sound or not was a crap shoot. One river we crossed, the Kasuku, was big enough to require a boat. So, we loaded up the motorbikes onto a very narrow canoe, which I was sure would tip over. John later told me that in the several hundred times he’s completed this trip, never has a bike tipped over into the river. Mine did.


One of the many bridges we crossed on the walk to Katopa.

After a lengthy delay waiting for my bike to drain, in addition to a few separate motorbike malfunctions, we finally made it…not quite all the way to Chombe Kilima. It had gotten dark and started raining about 5pm, and after over an hour of driving in these conditions—and only my motorbike equipped with a working headlight—we drove into a village where John arranged for us to sleep in the church. I pitched my wet tent and slept in the driest clothes I had (the set I was wearing, which had been rained on for the last hour). Thus I was introduced to the perpetual moistness, and discomfort following, that would accompany me for my entire stay in the forest. The next morning, we continued on for an hour to Chombe Kilima, where we hung out most of our things to dry and bid farewell to the motorbikes. Around 11am, we were off again, this time on foot, to begin the 36km trek to Katopa Camp. We walked through forests and savannas, crossed many rivers via tenuous bridges and swam when there wasn’t a bridge. The savannas I’m mentioning aren’t like the big grasslands characteristic of East Africa, those tremendously large wide-open expanses chalked full of big game. These savannas in the Congo are small islands: open, fallow, and seasonally swampy patches surrounded by expanses of forest. They are quite unproductive, so there isn’t much diversity or richness of fauna. Nevertheless, they are fantastic regions to observe on foot.

We made it to Katopa Camp early afternoon on September 17th. What a cool place: right on the Lomami River, a tributary of the mighty Congo River. Like at Chombe Kilima, the Harts had cordoned off their camp with a fence, and the actual village of Katopa was behind the camp; still, we saw villagers often, as they’d come down the trail along the fence to get to the river. At this main camp was the only source of electricity I’d see: a small generator, capable of powering a fluorescent lamp, several computers, and several battery chargers. This generator was a remarkable piece of equipment, though: our bright light of consistency and veritable Energizer Bunny of workable, non-battery-powered technology in the forest. Until it ran out of gas. Or broke, for some reason we didn’t know.

One of the difficulties in summarizing my time in the Congo is that I can’t recount my thought processes effectively. I can tell you what happened and when it happened, but I cannot connect that to what I was thinking at the time. This is frustrating, since my thoughts were a defining aspect of this experience for me. Timing, as a connection to thought, was very important. For example I’ve been using the length of time “two months” rather lightly in this post so far—I never knew how long I would be in the jungle for, and I certainly didn’t expect an uninterrupted period of two months. What I knew was that I’d be leaving Kinshasa for the United States on December 2nd, and I knew that somehow I’d get back to Kinshasa before then. I cannot effectively describe my thought process upon meeting the Harts at Katopa in early November, having them ask me if I wanted my plane ticket home changed, me asking why, and them replying, “We thought you wanted your ticket changed.” Here I was, a month-and-a-half after speaking to anyone about return travel plans, they assumed I wanted them changed. It turns out Jojo had changed her return ticket about three weeks earlier in anticipation of election trouble in Kinshasa, and “hopefully I’d be able to get on the same flights.” No offense meant to anyone here—it was all a misunderstanding. So, the day I get back to Katopa from a trip to the southern savannas, where almost every drawn-out day I had been counting the minutes to crawling in my tent at night, I switch gears to rushing to find a way to contact someone who can change my ticket home, and cutting my research schedule for the next month in half. Expect the unexpected.

Here’s a more concrete example of this difficulty in transposing time and thought to paper: I could give you a list of all the gear that failed me during my trip. And, in my next post, that’s probably what I’ll end up doing—because it’s a convenient was to summarize it. But a list doesn’t tell you everything I was thinking when I woke up that early October morning to partially-deflated sleeping pad and very sore back. A list can’t convey my complete collapse of trust in Congolese culture with another bullet point: tent unusable, possibly destroyed, because a porter put it in a pack with an open container of cooking oil. A list can’t connect a suddenly inkless pen (which I had come to favor), briefly losing the respite in journal writing I had come to rely on, to the all the reasons I relied on that favorite pen so much, or even that I had no idea how long I would remain pen-less. Virtually every noteworthy occurrence, every action and consequence, was a palimpsest of influential accumulated circumstances.

As promised I’ll continue to describe my escapades, probably with at least two other entries, later on. I’ve also posted a small set of my pictures, just through my arrival at Katopa (the chronology I’ve described in the text above thus far). There will be many more to come, accompanying future posts.

Another note on these Congo blogs—although I’m trying to be careful and not take anything for granted, it’s likely I assume everyone knows some things they don’t. I even had to catch myself and remember to mention the lack of electricity, running water, etc. in the forest. Speaking of which, here is another point of clarification: whenever I use the phrase “in the forest,” I’m referring to the period in between September 15th and November 15th, book-ended by my short stints in Kindu. So if there’s any confusion with something it seems like I’ve taken for granted that everybody knows, please let me know. And, to clarify my timeline, I’ll start out next time by giving an outline of where I was, and when.

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One Response to September 15th to November 15th, 2011: Part 1

  1. Steve Shaffer says:

    You write with style about these amazing adventures!


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