How it all began
In 1993, I set off on an adventure to expand my horizons. My goal was to cross the African continent overland from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean within the span of seven months. All I had was a daypack, the clothes on my back and the craving to break out of my routine and experience something few have experienced before.
I traveled overland — hitchhiking, traveling by Mutatu, boat, walking, and even riding on the backs of bicycles for a section of the journey traveling north from Zimbabwe. I traveled from Kenya to Uganda, across Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or from here on out referred to as “The Congo”), through the Central African Republic, to Cameroon. I traveled with my wife — but at that time she was Susan Richardson — through some of the most adventurous territory in the western province of The Congo called Kivu province.
We had all kinds of adventures in this wild area including getting stuck in a town where we were told the next ride was coming in a week! We got out of it by hiring a couple of guys with motorcycles to drive us to the Ugandan border on roads with potholes as big as trucks. This experience in Eastern Congo with Susan prepared me for my later adventures crossing the continent through Kivu all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
I said goodbye to Susan (temporarily) and set out for the adventure of a lifetime…alone
My solo adventure took place over 51 days across The Congo. I saw no western travelers, met no English speakers, took bucket baths where I could, traveled in a canoe through the world’s second-largest rainforest, The Congo Basin, slept in villages inside the rainforest and traveled down the river until I contracted malaria.
In order to feed me for the journey, I had gone to an outdoor market in Kisangani and bought large palm leaves to store many pounds of rice and beans inside and Gerry cans filled with orange palm oil to cook and trade with. Along the river, I traded for other foods to supplement my diet including fish, cassava, plantains and fufu (a starch made from cassava paste), but generally, I ate very little.
When I arrived at a village, the chief would come out and we would negotiate my stay, which always meant I would feed the chief and his family and friends in exchange for a place to sleep. This was usually on a mat on bricks or a makeshift bed. There were almost always rats climbing around the rafters of the hut which I never got used to.
The sounds of village life are omnipresent. You can hear everything through the thinness of the matted reeds of the hut. However, the sound in the morning was magical with the birdlife waking up and the unseen insects electrifying the forest, which would go completely quiet when I would take a walk. As the sun came up so did village life. The magical golden light would bathe everything so warmly and colors on the clothing of the women would glow against the backdrop of the earthy tones.
The depths of The Congo River
Deep inside the Congo, there are no roads. The Congo River is the lifeline for the people. It is the world’s 10th largest river, at 2,900 miles long. It’s the only major river to cross the equator twice. Henry Morton Stanley, in search of The Nile, thought he was on The Nile until it turned southwest. Much to his surprise, he was on The Congo River and it led him all the way to the Atlantic.
I traveled by pirogue, a dugout canoe I bought from some guys on the river in Kisangani for $35. I hired two young men, about 15 and 16 years old, to guide me down the river — they weren’t guides but they knew the ways of the river, could negotiate with village chiefs for a place for me to stay the night, and trade food and items for places to sleep. They were both married and had children and worked fishing and bringing goods to market on the river. They spoke no English, so I had to use a hodgepodge of the little bits of French, Spanish, Italian and Swahili that I knew. They would understand some words I was trying to say, but not all. I managed to communicate the best through body language, which I found was the best way to communicate my way across Africa.
In the deepest sections of the river, it was like going back to primordial times — back to the Neolithic Period where our ancestors lived for most of human history. I was swept away by the intensity of the rainforest that was so loud it sounded like it was electrified. It seethed with life. The colors, the depth of the great Congo River, the sounds and smells were overwhelming at times. There was a tension in the air that you could cut with a knife. I was truly cut off from civilization for the first time in my life. No phone. No way out. There wasn’t electricity or anything we would find in our world.
And yet, I felt more connected so incredibly connected to life and the people and nature surrounding me.