A boat journey down
the congo river

In this article I’ll be talking about my experience taking a boat down the Ubangi and Congo Rivers from Impfondo to Brazzaville for 7 days.

STUCK IN IMPFONDO

After deciding to take the bigger boat down the Ubangi and Congo River, we asked the port when the next boat was leaving. It was Monday and he told us the next boat was leaving on Friday that week.

We stayed in a hotel and waited. Long story short, Friday arrived and the boat wasn’t there. Day after day, we were told the boat would arrive the next day.

After a week of waiting, we went to the port to camp as it was getting too expensive to stay in the hotel.

Then after a few days camping at the port we met an American Missionary named John who randomly heard there were some white guys in town. He came and found us on the street invited us to stay at his house.

The next morning we left the port and moved to his house where he had a whole apartment for us to stay in. John had been living there for more than a year with his wife and 3 children

They cooked us amazing western food including tacos and brownies with ice cream.

We really needed it after only eating Manioc and Fish for the past few weeks.

After 1 night had John’s house we got word that the boat had finally arrived at the port.

We were just settling in and feeling relaxed but didn’t want to miss the boat. It had already been over a week later than they said it was going to be.

So the next morning we woke up at 5am and rushed to the port to take the boat.

We quickly stopped at a little shop and stocked up on a weeks worth of food such as rice, pasta, sardines and biscuits.

We arrived at the port and were greeted by a drunk man named Kanga Kanga who worked on the boat. He demanded that we go and buy him whiskey. He was very aggressive and in your face. He then said we had to pay him for the boat but we said no.

Eventually he left us alone.

A few hours later we found the right person to buy tickets from and paid the tickets 20,000xaf ($50AUD) each and boarded the boat.

We pitched our tents on top of the big pile of wood as it was the highest point on the boat, the most private and gave us the best view of the river.

We were told the boat would take 3 days to get to Brazzaville which we knew was almost impossible. We had heard the boat would take anywhere from 5 days to 4 weeks depending on river conditions, engine failures etc.

Finally after waiting all day on the boat and just as we were about to leave, there was a massive fight.

The people that worked in the port were arguing with the people that worked on the boat. It started off as a verbal fight but quickly turned physical. The Police officer that worked at the port got super angry and started hitting people. 

He then sprinted inside to get his gun.

I’d spoken to the police officer only 20 minutes earlier as he wished us a nice journey and asked for a gift. It was obvious that he had been drinking.

In fact, most of the boat staff had been drinking as well. The bar was visible from our position on the boat and we’d been watching them for hours.

A group of 20 people ran after him to stop him, including another police officer and several port staff.

They were literally jumping on him and holding him back.

He came back out a few moments later without a gun, still shrugging off everyone and yelling at people on the boat.

Everyone from the boat was watching as it was the most interesting thing that had happened during the 2 weeks some of them had already been on the boat.

The police officer then started crying and complaining. He then started ripping down the bamboo fence of the police office piece by piece.

Im not sure if he was told he was fired or what but he didn’t like the fact that someone had disrespected him.

Anyway after about an hour things calmed down when another police officer in a different uniform arrived who I assume was he boss.

All the port staff and boat staff were escorted into the main police building in town and were gone for hours.

It was clear that we wouldn’t be leaving the port today.

John came and brought us sandwiches and left over tacos for dinner and lunch. It was really nice of him and his family.

Eventually, the next morning at around 5am, I woke up to the sound of the boat leaving.

It was a really nice feeling. After more than 2 and a half weeks in Impfondo, I was finally leaving!

The boat

The boat itself was privately owned and was transporting massive piles of wood from Bangui in Central African Republic to Brazzaville.

To make more money, they take passengers and merchants.

Apparently it was a Chinese lady living in Brazzaville that owned our boat. She would sell concrete from Brazzaville to people in Bangui and buy wood for the trip back to sell in Brazzaville.

The boat was actually quite small and only had a small cockpit with a toilet at the back. However, it was pushing 4 large barges that held all of the cargo and the passengers.

There were several staff on the boat but it was impossible to know who was actually working on the boat as no one had uniforms and they all sat under their tarps until work had to be done, such as attaching a line to a tree to anchor ourselves for the night.

This task involved the staff jumping into the croc infested water and running a metal cable around a tree.

People would set up their little “houses” on the boat which always involved a tarp attached to cargo and a foam mat to sleep on in the evening.

They would also have some sort of stove that usually ran on charcoal or wood to cook their meals and prepare their fish.

The most prepared ones would have a mosquito net and chairs as well.

The toilet was just a metal box with a hole in the ground. Both Matthias and I were quite happy there was a toilet as we’d heard on other boats you have to poo off the back of the boat and hope you don’t fall in.

There is 0% chance the boat would stop if you fell in the water at any point.

Most people on the boat didn’t know how to swim either, so falling in would certainly be a death sentence.

THE PEOPLE

There was a great mixture of people on the boat from babies to people of around 65 years old.

We were told off straight away after arriving on the boat that we weren’t allowed to take photos of the boat but only photos of the river and the villages we passed.

Some people on the boat had complained to Kanga, the drunk boat staff, who came to tell us off several times and constantly ask me for whiskey.

He was a really loud and obnoxious man and as Matthias put it “the most African guy I’ve ever met”.

Kanga was from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) but over the next few days, as the alcohol had run out, he became more friendly as he realised we weren’t going to give him anything.

Another person I spent a lot of time talking to was Stephen. He was a 20 year old student from the Central African Republic (CAR).

He had been on the boat already for more than 2 weeks from Bangui, the capital of CAR where the boat journey started.

He was moving to Brazzaville to do his Masters in Scientific Finance. He would be staying with his brothers family while he starts his Masters.

In Central African Republic, Cameroon, DRC and Republic of Congo, they are able to live and work in any of those countries for as long as they like. Much like the European Union.

Stephen was extremely friendly and we would speak for a few hours every day. Most of the people on the boat spoke Lingala and were from either DRC or Republic of Congo.

However, there were 5 people from Central African Republic and Matthias and I who were the “outsiders”

We found the CAR people to be the most friendly on the boat.

In fact, some people were being racist towards the people from CAR as they were seen as very poor and not worthy.

Stephen got yelled at because he was talking to a women and told by this woman’s sisters husband to stop talking to her because he was too poor and could never provide for her.

Definitely being able to speak French made the boat journey enjoyable for me. It was nice being able to talk to different people and find out about what their lives were like and why they were taking the boat.

Matthias’s level of french was more basic than mine and he wasn’t able to speak with people very much. But I was able to translate and at least tell him what was happening on the boat.

Often the boat would stop or something would happen on the boat and it would usually be Stephen who explained what had happened or what is going on and then I would tell Matthias.

There were generally 3 reasons why people would take the boat.

Firstly, the CAR people were all taking the boat as it was the cheapest way to get from Bangui to Brazzaville.

It cost them each 25,000xaf ($60AUD) and the whole journey took them 3 weeks and 2 days.

For comparison, to take the bus from Bangui would cost 40,000xaf ($100AUD) and take about 2-3 days.

Stephen told me that when he got on the boat in Bangui, the captain told him it would only take 4 days to get to Brazzaville which was physically impossible.

Secondly, there were people on the boat who were merchants. They would mainly buy bags of Corn in Northern Congo and CAR for 16,000xaf ($40AUD) and would be able to sell it for around 35,000xaf ($87AUD) in Kinshasa which is the capital of DRC opposite Brazzaville.

They would be carrying anywhere from 20-50 bags each family.

These people would mostly be travelling with some members from their family including kids of all ages.

They would spend their lives on the boat essentially. Once they had sold everything in Kinshasa or Brazzaville, they would load up with more merchandise and then take the boat to Bangui where they would sell things there. And the cycle would continue.

The last type of people on the boat were the staff and their families.

These people were also essentially living on the boat full time. The staff would bring along their wives and kids and the boat is esentially their home.

They usually had chairs and a slightly better tarp setup, but still not great.

Matthias and I were both happy with our tents as our little homes because when it was windy and rainy, we were at least fully protected.

Throughout the journey, people would come to Matthias and I multiple times asking for Medicine whenever they got sick. They knew that the “white people” always had medicine.

Small villages along the river

One of the most interesting parts of being on the boat was passing many very small villages that were only accessible by water.

Impfondo was the last town connected by road so almost immediately after leaving, we were admiring some very interesting villages.

From the boat, the mud huts looked like they were completed flooded. We found out after a couple of days that some of the huts were built on stilts and raised above the water level but most were flooded with only the beds raised from the water as they were built on stilts. This meant their floors were completely water.

They would literally paddle their Pirogues into their huts.

Several times a day, villagers would paddle their pirogues as fast as they could towards our boat. They were coming to sell things to the passengers. This was the only way they could sell any merchandise as these villages were only accessible by water.

They would mainly be selling fish they had just caught, antelope and other bush meat they’d killed, sometimes manioc and sometimes fruit.

The fish was either freshly caught, salted or smoked.

Once the Ubangi River joined up with the Congo river, the villages became more frequent which meant there were more pirogues coming to the boat every day selling food.

Now we were starting to see bread and even fruits such as avocados, plantains, pineapples and mangos.

Unforutunately for us, none of the fruit was ripe and ready to eat. People on the boat were buying it and then taking it to Brazzaville to sell.

This is how these small villages are able to make money and conduct trade…it was quite an interesting sight.

The only thing that Matthias and I ever bought was Manioc and occassionaly bread. We mainly ate Manioc and sardines for the entire boat journey including some biscuits and nutella we had bought before taking the boat.

The only thing we were able to buy on the boat were Beignet’s which are little donut balls and fried plantains. But it was never sure when or if they would be available.

We didn’t really have the cooking equipment to cook or prepare fish on the boat so canned sardines was the easiest thing to eat.

I did cook rice on 2 occasions when I was sick of Manioc. Matthias was literally eating manioc 3 times a day sometimes. I could never eat it more than twice a day.

what to do on the boat

To be honest, there wasn’t a whole lot to do on the boat but the days seemed to pass by.

It was nice sitting on top of the boat and watching the river and the small villages.

There were people arguing quite loudly several times. Sometimes even people were hitting each other with sticks. I was honestly surprised no one fell in the water.

The women occupy themselves by preparing and cooking food and afterwards cleaning the dishes.

People would wash their clothes in buckets and dry them on the top of the boat.

During the days, the temperatures were so hot that it was quite unbearable at times. It was quite hard to find shade, especially for Matthias and I as we were on the top and didn’t have a tarp.

We would sometimes find a spot in the shade next to some goats or sit under the tarp of some families and talk with them a little.

Most days it rained at some point. It was normally quite heavy and windy which meant everyone got quite wet. Like I said, Matthias and I loved when it rained because we could relax in our tents.

In my case, I could go and watch something on my phone for a little while. Matthias broke his phone right before we got on the boat so he really didn’t have a lot to do.

It was too hot during the day for us to go in our tents when the sun was out.

The rest of the time was spent sitting around.

After the sun went down, we weren’t allowed to use our lights, not even in our tents. The boat staff were navigating the river at night by looking at a small light at the front of the boat. If any other light was on, it would apparently confuse them.

The meant there wasn’t much to do except sit in the tents and try to sleep.

In the evenings, people would come up onto the top deck near our tents and play music from their speakers and stay up late into the night.

It was a little annoying some nights as they put their speaker right next to my head and the music continued until midnight, however, if it rained they would all leave.

I did tell them to move on 2 occasions.

The boat normally stopped on a little island every night from around 11pm to 4am.

Normally at around 4am Kanga would be awake and start shouting as the boat started moving again.

It really was difficult to get a good nights sleep.

The views on the boat were really nice.

On one of the days, we docked on the side of the river to another boat that was going upstream. Both boats belonged to the same owner and we were transferring them a motor of some sort.

This gave us the opportunity to walk onto the other boat. It was a longer, narrower boat with more space. I was even able to buy some soft drink from one of the people. Still no one was willing to sell any water.

Map routes and speed

Everyone on the boat loved the fact that Matthias and I had smartphones with map appications. None of them had ever seen this type of app before.

They couldn’t believe that we could see the distances of how far we’d come and how far it was to the next village.

I could also show them the current speed the boat was moving down the river which was usually around 9km/h.

So when they told us things like “yeah, there’s only 2 days left till we arrive in Brazzaville” we knew they had no idea because it would be physically impossible to get there given the speed we’d been going and the distances left.

Each day, people would come up and ask us how far it was to the next village.

Kanga, the man who worked on the boat, was the most interested.

THINGS TO KNOW IF YOU WANT TO TAKE A SIMILAR JOURNEY

Take lots of food and water!

The river water is not drinkable. It’s black and even after filtering it, it’s not great. Most of the locals don’t even drink it.

I had 14.5 litres that lasted 6 days and luckily on the 6th day we stopped and I was able to buy some more. I felt dehydrated on the boat most of the time because the sun was so intense.

I would bring at least 20 litres next time.

Cooked meals were not available most of the time so make sure you bring enough food.

Worst case, you could always pay someone to cook you food, but no one was willing to sell you their water.

Speaking french will make the trip a lot better

Being able to talk to people is what made the trip interesting. No one spoke more than a couple words of English, so definitely being able to speak some basic French will make your trip a lot more enjoyable

Be prepared to spend a lot of time waiting for the boat and for the boat journey

Like I said, I waited for 2 and a half weeks for the boat in Impfondo after being told it would leave in a few days.

Also, depending on the time of year, the river can be slower and even impossible to pass sometimes due to low water level and potential for getting stuck in the sand

Charging your electronics

There was a battery and solar panel on our boat to charge your phones which cost 100xaf (25cAUD) per charge but won’t be available on every boat.

However, in Impfondo there were many places selling solar panels of different sizes for a reasonable price that you could buy before the trip.

Entertainment on the boat

If you can, bring a deck of cards or a book or at least something that can entertain you that doesn’t involve electricity

Medication

Make sure you are prepared with Malaria medication and other medication. You are days away from any hospital or medical centre so you need to be prepared.

Because there are no roads at any of the villages, there is also no way to get off the boat and to a bigger town. The only option is to continue down river

Congo River

There are more frequent boats once you reach the Congo River so you won’t be waiting as long. There are many other rivers you could do this journey along, especially in the DRC. There is even a boat that leaves ever 2 weeks from Epena to Loukuela down the Likouala Aux Herbes River.

River Direction

We were going down stream in rainy season and it took us 7 days with no boat complications.

If you travel in the opposite direction upstream it will be a lot slower.

ARRIVING IN BRAZZAVILLE

On the last morning, everyone started packing down their tarps and beds and dressing up in their best clothes.

For a lot of people, this was their first time going to the “big city”

This isn’t the type of journey you can do every year. Some of them were going to see family they hadn’t seen in 10 years.

The weather was quite bad as we arrived into Brazzaville port which meant the boat was having a hard time docking.

It crashed into some of the other boats already docked and needed another small boat to literally ram it into the port as the waves were too big.

Once we eventually stopped, a storm started. Many people jumped on the boat to try and take your gear in exchange for money. They were quite aggressive even after repeatedly telling them no.

To get the bikes off the boat there was a small ramp about 15cm wide. We carried the bikes over into a sea of thousands of people screaming at us for money.

Some were pretending to be officials and others saying they helped us with the bikes and wanted $10 each.

I just yelled back and told them to leave me alone. After yelling at one man, he told me he was immigration. He wasn’t in uniform so I didn’t believe him but he pointed to the immigration office and we went in.

Meanwhile there were 20 “baggage handlers” following us wanting money. Matthias and I took turns in the immigration office while the other stayed with the bikes.

The immigration officials were actually very friendly and didn’t ask for any money.

Some man, also not in uniform came around with 2 tickets claiming to be from the port asking for port fees.

I refused to pay as the tickets were printed at 6.30am and it was 11am. He also wasn’t in uniform and could have been anyone.

He yelled to get the police and eventually i followed him to an office and saw it was legitimate.

I told him it’s not my fault, he wasn’t in uniform and I have 200 people screaming at me since I got off the boat asking for money claiming to be some sort of official.

He agreed and then the baggage handlers cornered me in the office and got aggressive.

I told them “I said to all of you many times that we don’t want your help and to leave us alone, you can’t then physically take the bike out of my hands when I keep saying no, then give it back to me and ask for money. You are literally stealing the bike out of my hands and asking for a ransom to get it back. It doesn’t work like that.”

They literally touched the bikes for less than 10 seconds and 15 of them were asking for $10AUD each even though only 2 of them touched the bikes.

People assume white people just have infinite money and it is their right to get it from us.

The arguments continued and I literally just forced my way out towards the police again.

The police told all the guys to calm down, then it started pouring with rain and we saw this as a good opportunity to leave as they weren’t going to follow.

We rode 1km from the port in the heavy rain and found somewhere to stop. Once we left the port things were alot more calm.

That was our welcome to Brazzaville…imagine what it would have been like arriving into Kinshasa!

Brazzaville itself is a very relaxed place with not too much traffic and a pretty relaxed African City. I like it here.

It’s nice to have food options other than fish and Manioc.

We are staying in a Catholic Mission for a good price that John from Impfondo recommended to us.

Matthias and I have news that it may be possible to get the DRC visa from the embassy in Point Noire so we are going to take a bus there and hopefully apply this week.

The DRC dream isn’t dead yet!

Conclusion

Taking a boat down the Congo River is a once in a lifetime experience. I’d been dreaming about doing something like this since I was a kid.

You really are getting to quite remote places that are only accessible via boat which takes several days to get to.

I definitely recommend this experience to anyone as long as they understand what they’re getting themselves into. It’s not for the faint of heart as there is no escape once you’re on there.

Make sure you have an infinite time limit as some boats can take more than 4 weeks.

As one of the passengers told me “You are really experiencing the true life of an African on this boat”

If you are planning to do something similar, feel free to reach out and I can give you some more advice.

Route down the congo river

Route through Africa so far

Matthias watching the sunset
Africa
Lewi

A Boat Journey Down the Congo River

A boat journey downthe congo river In this article I’ll be talking about my experience taking a boat down the Ubangi and Congo Rivers from Impfondo to Brazzaville for 7

Read More »

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top