The Log of an Adooma canoe during a voyage undertaken to the rapids of the River Ogowe, with some account of the divers disasters that befell thereon.
Mme. Forget received me most kindly, and, thanks to her ever thoughtful hospitality, I spent a very pleasant time at Talagouga, wandering about the forest and collecting fishes from the native fishermen: and seeing the strange forms of some of these Talagouga region fishes and the marked difference between them and those of Lembarene, I set my heart on going up into the region of the Ogowe rapids. For some time no one whom I could get hold of regarded it as a feasible scheme, but, at last, M. Gacon thought it might be managed; I said I would give a reward of 100 francs to any one who would lend me a canoe and a crew, and I would pay the working expenses, food, wages, etc. M. Gacon had a good canoe and could spare me two English-speaking Igalwas, one of whom had been part of the way with MM. Allegret and Teisseres, when they made their journey up to Franceville and then across to Brazzaville and down the Congo two years ago. He also thought we could get six Fans to complete the crew. I was delighted, packed my small portmanteau with a few things, got some trade goods, wound up my watch, ascertained the date of the day of the month, and borrowed three hair-pins from Mme. Forget, then down came disappointment. On my return from the bush that evening, Mme. Forget said M. Gacon said “it was impossible,” the Fans round Talagouga wouldn’t go at any price above Njole, because they were certain they would be killed and eaten by the up-river Fans. Internally consigning the entire tribe to regions where they will get a rise in temperature, even on this climate, I went with Mme. Forget to M. Gacon, and we talked it over; finally, M. Gacon thought he could let me have two more Igalwas from Hatton and Cookson’s beach across the river. Sending across there we found this could be done, so I now felt I was in for it, and screwed my courage to the sticking point — no easy matter after all the information I had got into my mind regarding the rapids of the River Ogowe.
I establish myself on my portmanteau comfortably in the canoe, my back is against the trade box, and behind that is the usual mound of pillows, sleeping mats, and mosquito-bars of the Igalwa crew; the whole surmounted by the French flag flying from an indifferent stick.
M. and Mme. Forget provide me with everything I can possibly require, and say that the blood of half my crew is half alcohol; on the whole it is patent they don’t expect to see me again, and I forgive them, because they don’t seem cheerful over it; but still it is not reassuring — nothing is about this affair, and it’s going to rain. It does, as we go up the river to Njole, where there is another risk of the affair collapsing, by the French authorities declining to allow me to proceed. On we paddled, M’bo the head man standing in the bows of the canoe in front of me, to steer, then I, then the baggage, then the able-bodied seamen, including the cook also standing and paddling; and at the other extremity of the canoe--it grieves me to speak of it in this unseamanlike way, but in these canoes both ends are alike, and chance alone ordains which is bow and which is stern — stands Pierre, the first officer, also steering; the paddles used are all of the long-handled, leaf-shaped Igalwa type. We get up just past Talagouga Island and then tie up against the bank of M. Gazenget’s plantation, and make a piratical raid on its bush for poles. A gang of his men come down to us, but only to chat. One of them, I notice, has had something happen severely to one side of his face. I ask M’bo what’s the matter, and he answers, with a derisive laugh, “He be fool man, he go for tief plantain and done got shot.” M’bo does not make it clear where the sin in this affair is exactly located; I expect it is in being “fool man.” Having got our supply of long stout poles we push off and paddle on again. Before we reach Njole I recognise my crew have got the grumbles, and at once inquire into the reason. M’bo sadly informs me that “they no got chop,” having been provided only with plantain, and no meat or fish to eat with it. I promise to get them plenty at Njole, and contentment settles on the crew, and they sing. After about three hours we reach Njole, and I proceed to interview the authorities. Dr. Pelessier is away down river, and the two gentlemen in charge don’t understand English; but Pierre translates, and the letter which M. Forget has kindly written for me explains things and so the palaver ends satisfactorily, after a long talk. First, the official says he does not like to take the responsibility of allowing me to endanger myself in those rapids. I explain I will not hold any one responsible but myself, and I urge that a lady has been up before, a Mme. Quinee. He says “Yes, that is true, but Madame had with her a husband and many men, whereas I am alone and have only eight Igalwas and not Adoomas, the proper crew for the rapids, and they are away up river now with the convoy.” “True, oh King!” I answer, “but Madame Quinee went right up to Lestourville, whereas I only want to go sufficiently high up the rapids to get typical fish. And these Igalwas are great men at canoe work, and can go in a canoe anywhere that any mortal man can go” — this to cheer up my Igalwa interpreter — “and as for the husband, neither the Royal Geographical Society’s list, in their ‘Hints to Travellers,’ nor Messrs. Silver, in their elaborate lists of articles necessary for a traveller in tropical climates, make mention of husbands.” However, the official ultimately says Yes, I may go, and parts with me as with one bent on self destruction. This affair being settled I start off, like an old hen with a brood of chickens to provide for, to get chop for my men, and go first to Hatton and Cookson’s factory. I find its white Agent is down river after stores, and John Holt’s Agent says he has got no beef nor fish, and is precious short of provisions for himself; so I go back to Dumas’, where I find a most amiable French gentleman, who says he will let me have as much fish or beef as I want, and to this supply he adds some delightful bread biscuits. M’bo and the crew beam with satisfaction; mine is clouded by finding, when they have carried off the booty to the canoe, that the Frenchman will not let me pay for it. Therefore taking the opportunity of his back being turned for a few minutes, I buy and pay for, across the store counter, some trade things, knives, cloth, etc. Then I say goodbye to the Agent. “Adieu, Mademoiselle,” says he in a for-ever tone of voice. Indeed I am sure I have caught from these kind people a very pretty and becoming mournful manner, and there’s not another white station for 500 miles where I can show it off. Away we go, still damp from the rain we have come through, but drying nicely with the day, and cheerful about the chop.
The Ogowe is broad at Njole and its banks not mountainous, as at Talagouga; but as we go on it soon narrows, the current runs more rapidly than ever, and we are soon again surrounded by the mountain range. Great masses of black rock show among the trees on the hillsides, and under the fringe of fallen trees that hang from the steep banks. Two hours after leaving Njole we are facing our first rapid. Great gray-black masses of smoothed rock rise up out of the whirling water in all directions. These rocks have a peculiar appearance which puzzle me at the time, but in subsequently getting used to it I accepted it quietly and admired. When the sun shines on them they have a soft light blue haze round them, like a halo. The effect produced by this, with the forested hillsides and the little beaches of glistening white sand was one of the most perfect things I have ever seen.
We kept along close to the right-hand bank, dodging out of the way of the swiftest current as much as possible. Ever and again we were unable to force our way round projecting parts of the bank, so we then got up just as far as we could to the point in question, yelling and shouting at the tops of our voices. M’bo said “Jump for bank, sar,” and I “up and jumped,” followed by half the crew. Such banks! sheets, and walls, and rubbish heaps of rock, mixed up with trees fallen and standing. One appalling corner I shall not forget, for I had to jump at a rock wall, and hang on to it in a manner more befitting an insect than an insect-hunter, and then scramble up it into a close-set forest, heavily burdened with boulders of all sizes. I wonder whether the rocks or the trees were there first? there is evidence both ways, for in one place you will see a rock on the top of a tree, the tree creeping out from underneath it, and in another place you will see a tree on the top of a rock, clasping it with a network of roots and getting its nourishment, goodness knows how, for these are by no means tender, digestible sandstones, but uncommon hard gneiss and quartz which has no idea of breaking up into friable small stuff, and which only takes on a high polish when it is vigorously sanded and canvassed by the Ogowe. While I was engaged in climbing across these promontories, the crew would be busy shouting and hauling the canoe round the point by means of the strong chain provided for such emergencies fixed on to the bow. When this was done, in we got again and paddled away until we met our next affliction.
M’bo had advised that we should spend our first night at the same village that M. Allegret did: but when we reached it, a large village on the north bank, we seemed to have a lot of daylight still in hand, and thought it would be better to stay at one a little higher up, so as to make a shorter day’s work for tomorrow, when we wanted to reach Kondo Kondo; so we went against the bank just to ask about the situation and character of the up-river villages. The row of low, bark huts was long, and extended its main frontage close to the edge of the river bank. The inhabitants had been watching us as we came, and when they saw we intended calling that afternoon, they charged down to the river-edge hopeful of excitement. They had a great deal to say, and so had we. After compliments, as they say, in excerpts of diplomatic communications, three of their men took charge of the conversation on their side, and M’bo did ours. To M’bo’s questions they gave a dramatic entertainment as answer, after the manner of these brisk, excitable Fans. One chief, however, soon settled down to definite details, prefacing his remarks with the silence-commanding “Azuna! Azuna!” and his companions grunted approbation of his observations. He took a piece of plantain leaf and tore it up into five different sized bits. These he laid along the edge of our canoe at different intervals of space, while he told M’bo things, mainly scandalous, about the characters of the villages these bits of leaf represented, save of course about bit A, which represented his own. The interval between the bits was proportional to the interval between the villages, and the size of the bits was proportional to the size of the village. Village number four was the only one he should recommend our going to. When all was said, I gave our kindly informants some heads of tobacco and many thanks. Then M’bo sang them a hymn, with the assistance of Pierre, half a line behind him in a different key, but every bit as flat. The Fans seemed impressed, but any crowd would be by the hymn-singing of my crew, unless they were inmates of deaf and dumb asylums. Then we took our farewell, and thanked the village elaborately for its kind invitation to spend the night there on our way home, shoved off and paddled away in great style just to show those Fans what Igalwas could do.
We hadn’t gone 200 yards before we met a current coming round the end of a rock reef that was too strong for us to hold our own in, let alone progress. On to the bank I was ordered and went; it was a low slip of rugged confused boulders and fragments of rocks, carelessly arranged, and evidently under water in the wet season. I scrambled along, the men yelled and shouted and hauled the canoe, and the inhabitants of the village, seeing we were becoming amusing again, came, legging it like lamp-lighters, after us, young and old, male and female, to say nothing of the dogs. Some good souls helped the men haul, while I did my best to amuse the others by diving headlong from a large rock on to which I had elaborately climbed, into a thick clump of willow-leaved shrubs. They applauded my performance vociferously, and then assisted my efforts to extricate myself, and during the rest of my scramble they kept close to me, with keen competition for the front row, in hopes that I would do something like it again. But I refused the encore, because, bashful as I am, I could not but feel that my last performance was carried out with all the superb reckless ABANDON of a Sarah Bernhardt, and a display of art of this order should satisfy any African village for a year at least. At last I got across the rocks on to a lovely little beach of white sand, and stood there talking, surrounded by my audience, until the canoe got over its difficulties and arrived almost as scratched as I; and then we again said farewell and paddled away, to the great grief of the natives, for they don’t get a circus up above Njole every week, poor dears.
Now there is no doubt that that chief’s plantain-leaf chart was an ingenious idea and a credit to him. There is also no doubt that the Fan mile is a bit Irish, a matter of nine or so of those of ordinary mortals, but I am bound to say I don’t think, even allowing for this, that he put those pieces far enough apart. On we paddled a long way before we picked up village number one, mentioned in that chart. On again, still longer, till we came to village number two. Village number three hove in sight high up on a mountain side soon after, but it was getting dark and the water worse, and the hill-sides growing higher and higher into nobly shaped mountains, forming, with their forest-graced steep sides, a ravine that, in the gathering gloom, looked like an alley-way made of iron, for the foaming Ogowe. Village number four we anxiously looked for; village number four we never saw; for round us came the dark, seeming to come out on to the river from the forests and the side ravines, where for some hours we had seen it sleeping, like a sailor with his clothes on in bad weather. On we paddled, looking for signs of village fires, and seeing them not. The Erd-geist knew we wanted something, and seeing how we personally lacked it, thought it was beauty; and being in a kindly mood, gave it us, sending the lovely lingering flushes of his afterglow across the sky, which, dying, left it that divine deep purple velvet which no one has dared to paint. Out in it came the great stars blazing high above us, and the dark round us was be-gemmed with fire-flies: but we were not as satisfied with these things as we should have been; what we wanted were fires to cook by and dry ourselves by, and all that sort of thing. The Erd-geist did not understand, and so left us when the afterglow had died away, with only enough starlight to see the flying foam of the rapids ahead and around us, and not enough to see the great trees that had fallen from the bank into the water. These, when the rapids were not too noisy, we could listen for, because the black current rushes through their branches with an impatient “lish, swish”; but when there was a rapid roaring close alongside we ran into those trees, and got ourselves mauled, and had ticklish times getting on our course again. Now and again we ran up against great rocks sticking up in the black water — grim, isolated fellows, who seemed to be standing silently watching their fellow rocks noisily fighting in the arena of the white water. Still on we poled and paddled. About 8 P.M. we came to a corner, a bad one; but we were unable to leap on to the bank and haul round, not being able to see either the details or the exact position of the said bank, and we felt, I think naturally, disinclined to spring in the direction of such bits of country as we had had experience of during the afternoon, with nothing but the aid we might have got from a compass hastily viewed by the transitory light of a lucifer match, and even this would not have informed us how many tens of feet of tree fringe lay between us and the land, so we did not attempt it. One must be careful at times, or nasty accidents may follow. We fought our way round that corner, yelling defiance at the water, and dealt with succeeding corners on the vi et armis plan, breaking, ever and anon, a pole. About 9.30 we got into a savage rapid. We fought it inch by inch. The canoe jammed herself on some barely sunken rocks in it. We shoved her off over them. She tilted over and chucked us out. The rocks round being just awash, we survived and got her straight again, and got into her and drove her unmercifully; she struck again and bucked like a broncho, and we fell in heaps upon each other, but stayed inside that time — the men by the aid of their intelligent feet, I by clinching my hands into the bush rope lacing which ran round the rim of the canoe and the meaning of which I did not understand when I left Talagouga. We sorted ourselves out hastily and sent her at it again. Smash went a sorely tried pole and a paddle. Round and round we spun in an exultant whirlpool, which, in a light-hearted, maliciously joking way, hurled us tail first out of it into the current. Now the grand point in these canoes of having both ends alike declared itself; for at this juncture all we had to do was to revolve on our own axis and commence life anew with what had been the bow for the stern. Of course we were defeated, we could not go up any further without the aid of our lost poles and paddles, so we had to go down for shelter somewhere, anywhere, and down at a terrific pace in the white water we went. While hitched among the rocks the arrangement of our crew had been altered, Pierre joining M’bo in the bows; this piece of precaution was frustrated by our getting turned round; so our position was what you might call precarious, until we got into another whirlpool, when we persuaded Nature to start us right end on. This was only a matter of minutes, whirlpools being plentiful, and then M’bo and Pierre, provided with our surviving poles, stood in the bows to fend us off rocks, as we shot towards them; while we midship paddles sat, helping to steer, and when occasion arose, which occasion did with lightning rapidity, to whack the whirlpools with the flat of our paddles, to break their force. Cook crouched in the stern concentrating his mind on steering only. A most excellent arrangement in theory and the safest practical one no doubt, but it did not work out what you might call brilliantly well; though each department did its best. We dashed full tilt towards high rocks, things twenty to fifty feet above water. Midship backed and flapped like fury; M’bo and Pierre received the shock on their poles; sometimes we glanced successfully aside and flew on; sometimes we didn’t. The shock being too much for M’bo and Pierre they were driven back on me, who got flattened on to the cargo of bundles which, being now firmly tied in, couldn’t spread the confusion further aft; but the shock of the canoe’s nose against the rock did so in style, and the rest of the crew fell forward on to the bundles, me, and themselves. So shaken up together were we several times that night, that it’s a wonder to me, considering the hurry, that we sorted ourselves out correctly with our own particular legs and arms. And although we in the middle of the canoe did some very spirited flapping, our whirlpool-breaking was no more successful than M’bo and Pierre’s fending off, and many a wild waltz we danced that night with the waters of the River Ogowe.
Unpleasant as going through the rapids was, when circumstances took us into the black current we fared no better. For good all-round inconvenience, give me going full tilt in the dark into the branches of a fallen tree at the pace we were going then — and crash, swish, crackle and there you are, hung up, with a bough pressing against your chest, and your hair being torn out and your clothes ribboned by others, while the wicked river is trying to drag away the canoe from under you. After a good hour and more of these experiences, we went hard on to a large black reef of rocks. So firm was the canoe wedged that we in our rather worn-out state couldn’t move her so we wisely decided to “lef ’em” and see what could be done towards getting food and a fire for the remainder of the night. Our eyes, now trained to the darkness, observed pretty close to us a big lump of land, looming up out of the river. This we subsequently found out was Kembe Island. The rocks and foam on either side stretched away into the darkness, and high above us against the star-lit sky stood out clearly the summits of the mountains of the Sierra del Cristal.
The most interesting question to us now was whether this rock reef communicated sufficiently with the island for us to get to it. Abandoning conjecture; tying very firmly our canoe up to the rocks, a thing that seemed, considering she was jammed hard and immovable, a little unnecessary — but you can never be sufficiently careful in this matter with any kind of boat — off we started among the rock boulders. I would climb up on to a rock table, fall off it on the other side on to rocks again, with more or less water on them — then get a patch of singing sand under my feet, then with varying suddenness get into more water, deep or shallow, broad or narrow pools among the rocks; out of that over more rocks, etc., etc., etc.: my companions, from their noises, evidently were going in for the same kind of thing, but we were quite cheerful, because the probability of reaching the land seemed increasing. Most of us arrived into deep channels of water which here and there cut in between this rock reef and the bank, M’bo was the first to find the way into certainty; he was, and I hope still is, a perfect wonder at this sort of work. I kept close to M’bo, and when we got to the shore, the rest of the wanderers being collected, we said “chances are there’s a village round here”; and started to find it. After a gay time in a rock-encumbered forest, growing in a tangled, matted way on a rough hillside, at an angle of 45 degrees, M’bo sighted the gleam of fires through the tree stems away to the left, and we bore down on it, listening to its drum. Viewed through the bars of the tree stems the scene was very picturesque. The village was just a collection of palm mat-built huts, very low and squalid. In its tiny street, an affair of some sixty feet long and twenty wide, were a succession of small fires. The villagers themselves, however, were the striking features in the picture. They were painted vermilion all over their nearly naked bodies, and were dancing enthusiastically to the good old rump-a-tump-tump-tump tune, played energetically by an old gentleman on a long, high-standing, white-and-black painted drum. They said that as they had been dancing when we arrived they had failed to hear us. M’bo secured a — well, I don’t exactly know what to call it — for my use. It was, I fancy, the remains of the village club-house. It had a certain amount of palm-thatch roof and some of its left-hand side left, the rest of the structure was bare old poles with filaments of palm mat hanging from them here and there; and really if it hadn’t been for the roof one wouldn’t have known whether one was inside or outside it. The floor was trodden earth and in the middle of it a heap of white ash and the usual two bush lights, laid down with their burning ends propped up off the ground with stones, and emitting, as is their wont, a rather mawkish, but not altogether unpleasant smell, and volumes of smoke which finds its way out through the thatch, leaving on the inside of it a rich oily varnish of a bright warm brown colour. They give a very good light, provided some one keeps an eye on them and knocks the ash off the end as it burns gray; the bush lights’ idea of being snuffed. Against one of the open-work sides hung a drum covered with raw hide, and a long hollow bit of tree trunk, which served as a cupboard for a few small articles. I gathered in all these details as I sat on one of the hard wood benches, waiting for my dinner, which Isaac was preparing outside in the street. The atmosphere of the hut, in spite of its remarkable advantages in the way of ventilation, was oppressive, for the smell of the bush lights, my wet clothes, and the natives who crowded into the hut to look at me, made anything but a pleasant combination. The people were evidently exceedingly poor; clothes they had very little of. The two head men had on old French military coats in rags; but they were quite satisfied with their appearance, and evidently felt through them in touch with European culture, for they lectured to the others on the habits and customs of the white man with great self-confidence and superiority. The majority of the village had a slight acquaintance already with this interesting animal, being, I found, Adoomas. They had made a settlement on Kembe Island some two years or so ago. Then the Fans came and attacked them, and killed and ate several. The Adoomas left and fled to the French authority at Njole and remained under its guarding shadow until the French came up and chastised the Fans and burnt their village; and the Adoomas — when things had quieted down again and the Fans had gone off to build themselves a new village for their burnt one — came back to Kembe Island and their plantain patch. They had only done this a few months before my arrival and had not had time to rebuild, hence the dilapidated state of the village. They are, I am told, a Congo region tribe, whose country lies south-west of Franceville, and, as I have already said, are the tribe used by the French authorities to take convoys up and down the Ogowe to Franceville, more to keep this route open than for transport purposes; the rapids rendering it impracticable to take heavy stores this way, and making it a thirty-six days’ journey from Njole with good luck. The practical route is via Loango and Brazzaville. The Adoomas told us the convoy which had gone up with the vivacious Government official had had trouble with the rapids and had spent five days on Kondo Kondo, dragging up the canoes empty by means of ropes and chains, carrying the cargo that was in them along on land until they had passed the worst rapid and then repacking. They added the information that the rapids were at their worst just now, and entertained us with reminiscences of a poor young French official who had been drowned in them last year — indeed they were just as cheering as my white friends. As soon as my dinner arrived they politely cleared out, and I heard the devout M’bo holding a service for them, with hymns, in the street, and this being over they returned to their drum and dance, keeping things up distinctly late, for it was 11.10 P.M. when we first entered the village.
While the men were getting their food I mounted guard over our little possessions, and when they turned up to make things tidy in my hut, I walked off down to the shore by a path, which we had elaborately avoided when coming to the village, a very vertically inclined, slippery little path, but still the one whereby the natives went up and down to their canoes, which were kept tied up amongst the rocks. The moon was rising, illumining the sky, but not yet sending down her light on the foaming, flying Ogowe in its deep ravine. The scene was divinely lovely; on every side out of the formless gloom rose the peaks of the Sierra del Cristal. Lomba-ngawku on the further side of the river surrounded by his companion peaks, looked his grandest, silhouetted hard against the sky. In the higher valleys where the dim light shone faintly, one could see wreaths and clouds of silver-gray mist lying, basking lazily or rolling to and fro. Olangi seemed to stretch right across the river, blocking with his great blunt mass all passage; while away to the N.E. a cone-shaped peak showed conspicuous, which I afterwards knew as Kangwe. In the darkness round me flitted thousands of fire-flies and out beyond this pool of utter night flew by unceasingly the white foam of the rapids; sound there was none save their thunder. The majesty and beauty of the scene fascinated me, and I stood leaning with my back against a rock pinnacle watching it. Do not imagine it gave rise, in what I am pleased to call my mind, to those complicated, poetical reflections natural beauty seems to bring out in other people’s minds. It never works that way with me; I just lose all sense of human individuality, all memory of human life, with its grief and worry and doubt, and become part of the atmosphere. M’bo, I found, had hung up my mosquito-bar over one of the hard wood benches, and going cautiously under it I lit a night-light and read myself asleep with my damp dilapidated old Horace.
Woke at 4 A.M. lying on the ground among the plantain stems, having by a reckless movement fallen out of the house. Thanks be there are no mosquitoes. I don’t know how I escaped the rats which swarm here, running about among the huts and the inhabitants in the evening, with a tameness shocking to see. I turned in again until six o’clock, when we started getting things ready to go up river again, carefully providing ourselves with a new stock of poles, and subsidising a native to come with us and help us to fight the rapids.
The greatest breadth of the river channel we now saw, in the daylight, to be the S.S.W. branch; this was the one we had been swept into, and was almost completely barred by rock. The other one to the N.N.W. was more open, and the river rushed through it, a terrific, swirling mass of water. Had we got caught in this, we should have got past Kembe Island, and gone to Glory. Whenever the shelter of the spits of land or of the reefs was sufficient to allow the water to lay down its sand, strange shaped sandbanks showed, as regular in form as if they had been smoothed by human hands. They rise above the water in a slope, the low end or tail against the current; the down-stream end terminating in an abrupt miniature cliff, sometimes six and seven feet above the water; that they are the same shape when they have not got their heads above water you will find by sticking on them in a canoe, which I did several times, with a sort of automatic devotion to scientific research peculiar to me. Your best way of getting off is to push on in the direction of the current, carefully preparing for the shock of suddenly coming off the cliff end.
We left the landing place rocks of Kembe Island about 8, and no sooner had we got afloat, than, in the twinkling of an eye, we were swept, broadside on, right across the river to the north bank, and then engaged in a heavy fight with a severe rapid. After passing this, the river is fairly uninterrupted by rock for a while, and is silent and swift. When you are ascending such a piece the effect is strange; you see the water flying by the side of your canoe, as you vigorously drive your paddle into it with short rapid strokes, and you forthwith fancy you are travelling at the rate of a North-Western express; but you just raise your eyes, my friend, and look at that bank, which is standing very nearly still, and you will realise that you and your canoe are standing very nearly still too; and that all your exertions are only enabling you to creep on at the pace of a crushed snail, and that it’s the water that is going the pace. It’s a most quaint and unpleasant disillusionment.
Above the stretch of swift silent water we come to the Isangaladi Islands, and the river here changes its course from N.N.W., S.S.E. to north and south. A bad rapid, called by our ally from Kembe Island “Unfanga,” being surmounted, we seem to be in a mountain-walled lake, and keeping along the left bank of this, we get on famously for twenty whole restful minutes, which lulls us all into a false sense of security, and my crew sing M’pongwe songs, descriptive of how they go to their homes to see their wives, and families, and friends, giving chaffing descriptions of their friends’ characteristics and of their failings, which cause bursts of laughter from those among us who recognise the allusions, and how they go to their boxes, and take out their clothes, and put them on--a long bragging inventory of these things is given by each man as a solo, and then the chorus, taken heartily up by his companions, signifies their admiration and astonishment at his wealth and importance — and then they sing how, being dissatisfied with that last dollar’s worth of goods they got from “Holty’s,” they have decided to take their next trade to Hatton and Cookson, or vice versa; and then comes the chorus, applauding the wisdom of such a decision, and extolling the excellence of Hatton and Cookson’s goods or Holty’s. These M’pongwe and Igalwa boat songs are all very pretty, and have very elaborate tunes in a minor key. I do not believe there are any old words to them; I have tried hard to find out about them, but I believe the tunes, which are of a limited number and quite distinct from each other, are very old. The words are put in by the singer on the spur of the moment, and only restricted in this sense, that there would always be the domestic catalogue — whatever its component details might be — sung to the one fixed tune, the trade information sung to another, and so on. A good singer, in these parts, means the man who can make up the best song — the most impressive, or the most amusing; I have elsewhere mentioned pretty much the same state of things among the Ga’s and Krumen and Bubi, and in all cases the tunes are only voice tunes, not for instrumental performance. The instrumental music consists of that marvellously developed series of drum tunes — the attempt to understand which has taken up much of my time, and led me into queer company — and the many tunes played on the ‘mrimba and the orchid-root-stringed harp: they are, I believe, entirely distinct from the song tunes. And these peaceful tunes my men were now singing were, in their florid elaboration very different from the one they fought the rapids to, of — So Sir — So Sur — So Sir — So Sur — Ush! So Sir, etc.
On we go singing elaborately, thinking no evil of nature, when a current, a quiet devil of a thing, comes round from behind a point of the bank and catches the nose of our canoe; wringing it well, it sends us scuttling right across the river in spite of our ferocious swoops at the water, upsetting us among a lot of rocks with the water boiling over them; this lot of rocks being however of the table-top kind, and not those precious, close-set pinnacles rising up sheer out of profound depths, between which you are so likely to get your canoe wedged in and split. We, up to our knees in water that nearly tears our legs off, push and shove the canoe free, and re-embarking return singing “So Sir” across the river, to have it out with that current. We do; and at its head find a rapid, and notice on the mountain-side a village clearing, the first sign of human habitation we have seen today.
Above this rapid we get a treat of still water, the main current of the Ogowe flying along by the south bank. On our side there are sandbanks with their graceful sloping backs and sudden ends, and there is a very strange and beautiful effect produced by the flakes and balls of foam thrown off the rushing main current into the quiet water. These whirl among the eddies and rush backwards and forwards as though they were still mad with wild haste, until, finding no current to take them down, they drift away into the landlocked bays, where they come to a standstill as if they were bewildered and lost and were trying to remember where they were going to and whence they had come; the foam of which they are composed is yellowish-white, with a spongy sort of solidity about it. In a little bay we pass we see eight native women, Fans clearly, by their bright brown faces, and their loads of brass bracelets and armlets; likely enough they had anklets too, but we could not see them, as the good ladies were pottering about waist-deep in the foam-flecked water, intent on breaking up a stockaded fish-trap. We pause and chat, and watch them collecting the fish in baskets, and I acquire some specimens; and then, shouting farewells when we are well away, in the proper civil way, resume our course.
The middle of the Ogowe here is simply forested with high rocks, looking, as they stand with their grim forms above the foam, like a regiment of strange strong creatures breasting it, with their straight faces up river, and their more flowing curves down, as though they had on black mantles which were swept backwards. Across on the other bank rose the black-forested spurs of Lomba-njaku. Our channel was free until we had to fight round the upper end of our bay into a long rush of strong current with bad whirlpools curving its face; then the river widens out and quiets down and then suddenly contracts — a rocky forested promontory running out from each bank. There is a little village on the north bank’s promontory, and, at the end of each, huge monoliths rise from the water, making what looks like a gateway which had once been barred and through which the Ogowe had burst.
For the first time on this trip I felt discouraged; it seemed so impossible that we, with our small canoe and scanty crew, could force our way up through that gateway, when the whole Ogowe was rushing down through it. But we clung to the bank and rocks with hands, poles, and paddle, and did it; really the worst part was not in the gateway but just before it, for here there is a great whirlpool, its centre hollowed some one or two feet below its rim. It is caused, my Kembe islander says, by a great cave opening beneath the water. Above the gate the river broadens out again and we see the arched opening to a large cave in the south bank; the mountain-side is one mass of rock covered with the unbroken forest; and the entrance to this cave is just on the upper wall of the south bank’s promontory; so, being sheltered from the current here, we rest and examine it leisurely. The river runs into it, and you can easily pass in at this season, but in the height of the wet season, when the river level would be some twenty feet or more above its present one, I doubt if you could. They told me this place is called Boko Boko, and that the cave is a very long one, extending on a level some way into the hill, and then ascending and coming out near a mass of white rock that showed as a speck high up on the mountain.
If you paddle into it you go “far far,” and then “no more water live,” and you get out and go up the tunnel, which is sometimes broad, sometimes narrow, sometimes high, sometimes so low that you have to crawl, and so get out at the other end.
One French gentleman has gone through this performance, and I am told found “plenty plenty” bats, and hedgehogs, and snakes. They could not tell me his name, which I much regretted. As we had no store of bush lights we went no further than the portals; indeed, strictly between ourselves, if I had had every bush light in Congo Francais I personally should not have relished going further. I am terrified of caves; it sends a creaming down my back to think of them.
We went across the river to see another cave entrance on the other bank, where there is a narrow stretch of low rock-covered land at the foot of the mountains, probably under water in the wet season. The mouth of this other cave is low, between tumbled blocks of rock. It looked so suspiciously like a short cut to the lower regions, that I had less exploring enthusiasm about it than even about its opposite neighbour; although they told me no man had gone down “them thing.” Probably that much-to-be-honoured Frenchman who explored the other cave, allowed like myself, that if one did want to go from the Equator to Hades, there were pleasanter ways to go than this. My Kembe Island man said that just hereabouts were five cave openings, the two that we had seen and another one we had not, on land, and two under the water, one of the sub-fluvial ones being responsible for the whirlpool we met outside the gateway of Boko Boko.
The scenery above Boko Boko was exceedingly lovely, the river shut in between its rim of mountains. As you pass up it opens out in front of you and closes in behind, the closely-set confused mass of mountains altering in form as you view them from different angles, save one, Kangwe — a blunt cone, evidently the record of some great volcanic outburst; and the sandbanks show again wherever the current deflects and leaves slack water, their bright glistening colour giving a relief to the scene.
For a long period we paddle by the south bank, and pass a vertical cleft-like valley, the upper end of which seems blocked by a finely shaped mountain, almost as conical as Kangwe. The name of this mountain is Njoko, and the name of the clear small river, that apparently monopolises the valley floor, is the Ovata. Our peace was not of long duration, and we were soon again in the midst of a bristling forest of rock; still the current running was not dangerously strong, for the river-bed comes up in a ridge, too high for much water to come over at this season of the year; but in the wet season this must be one of the worst places. This ridge of rock runs two-thirds across the Ogowe, leaving a narrow deep channel by the north bank. When we had got our canoe over the ridge, mostly by standing in the water and lifting her, we found the water deep and fairly quiet.
On the north bank we passed by the entrance of the Okana River. Its mouth is narrow, but, the natives told me, always deep, even in the height of the dry season. It is a very considerable river, running inland to the E.N.E. Little is known about it, save that it is narrowed into a ravine course above which it expands again; the banks of it are thickly populated by Fans, who send down a considerable trade, and have an evil reputation. In the main stream of the Ogowe below the Okana’s entrance, is a long rocky island called Shandi. When we were getting over our ridge and paddling about the Okana’s entrance my ears recognised a new sound. The rush and roar of the Ogowe we knew well enough, and could locate which particular obstacle to his headlong course was making him say things; it was either those immovable rocks, which threw him back in foam, whirling wildly, or it was that fringe of gaunt skeleton trees hanging from the bank playing a “pull devil, pull baker” contest that made him hiss with vexation. But this was an elemental roar. I said to M’bo: “That’s a thunderstorm away among the mountains.” “No, sir,” says he, “that’s the Alemba.”
We paddled on towards it, hugging the right-hand bank again to avoid the mid-river rocks. For a brief space the mountain wall ceased, and a lovely scene opened before us; we seemed to be looking into the heart of the chain of the Sierra del Cristal, the abruptly shaped mountains encircling a narrow plain or valley before us, each one of them steep in slope, every one of them forest-clad; one, whose name I know not unless it be what is sometimes put down as Mt. Okana on the French maps, had a conical shape which contrasted beautifully with the more irregular curves of its companions. The colour down this gap was superb, and very Japanese in the evening glow. The more distant peaks were soft gray-blues and purples, those nearer, indigo and black. We soon passed this lovely scene and entered the walled-in channel, creeping up what seemed an interminable hill of black water, then through some whirlpools and a rocky channel to the sand and rock shore of our desired island Kondo Kondo, along whose northern side tore in thunder the Alemba. We made our canoe fast in a little cove among the rocks, and landed, pretty stiff and tired and considerably damp. This island, when we were on it, must have been about half a mile or so long, but during the long wet season a good deal of it is covered, and only the higher parts — great heaps of stone, among which grows a long branched willow-like shrub — are above or nearly above water. The Adooma from Kembe Island especially drew my attention to this shrub, telling me his people who worked the rapids always regarded it with an affectionate veneration; for he said it was the only thing that helped a man when his canoe got thrown over in the dreaded Alemba, for its long tough branches swimming in, or close to, the water are veritable life lines, and his best chance; a chance which must have failed some poor fellow, whose knife and leopard-skin belt we found wedged in among the rocks on Kondo Kondo. The main part of the island is sand, with slabs and tables of polished rock sticking up through it; and in between the rocks grew in thousands most beautiful lilies, their white flowers having a very strong scent of vanilla and their bright light-green leaves looking very lovely on the glistening pale sand among the black-gray rock. How they stand the long submersion they must undergo I do not know; the natives tell me they begin to spring up as soon as ever the water falls and leaves the island exposed; that they very soon grow up and flower, and keep on flowering until the Ogowe comes down again and rides roughshod over Kondo Kondo for months. While the men were making their fire I went across the island to see the great Alemba rapid, of which I had heard so much, that lay between it and the north bank. Nobler pens than mine must sing its glory and its grandeur. Its face was like nothing I have seen before. Its voice was like nothing I have heard. Those other rapids are not to be compared to it; they are wild, headstrong, and malignant enough, but the Alemba is not as they. It does not struggle, and writhe, and brawl among the rocks, but comes in a majestic springing dance, a stretch of waltzing foam, triumphant.
The beauty of the night on Kondo Kondo was superb; the sun went down and the afterglow flashed across the sky in crimson, purple, and gold, leaving it a deep violet-purple, with the great stars hanging in it like moons, until the moon herself arose, lighting the sky long before she sent her beams down on us in this valley. As she rose, the mountains hiding her face grew harder and harder in outline, and deeper and deeper black, while those opposite were just enough illumined to let one see the wefts and floating veils of blue-white mist upon them, and when at last, and for a short time only, she shone full down on the savage foam of the Alemba, she turned it into a soft silver mist. Around, on all sides, flickered the fire-flies, who had come to see if our fire was not a big relation of their own, and they were the sole representatives, with ourselves, of animal life. When the moon had gone, the sky, still lit by the stars, seeming indeed to be in itself lambent, was very lovely, but it shared none of its light with us, and we sat round our fire surrounded by an utter darkness. Cold, clammy drifts of almost tangible mist encircled us; ever and again came cold faint puffs of wandering wind, weird and grim beyond description.
I will not weary you further with details of our ascent of the Ogowe rapids, for I have done so already sufficiently to make you understand the sort of work going up them entails, and I have no doubt that, could I have given you a more vivid picture of them, you would join me in admiration of the fiery pluck of those few Frenchmen who traverse them on duty bound. I personally deeply regret it was not my good fortune to meet again the French official I had had the pleasure of meeting on the Eclaireur. He would have been truly great in his description of his voyage to Franceville. I wonder how he would have “done” his unpacking of canoes and his experiences on Kondo Kondo, where, by the by, we came across many of the ashes of his expedition’s attributive fires. Well! he must have been a pleasure to Franceville, and I hope also to the good Fathers at Lestourville, for those places must be just slightly sombre for Parisians.
Going down big rapids is always, everywhere, more dangerous than coming up, because when you are coming up and a whirlpool or eddy does jam you on rocks, the current helps you off — certainly only with a view to dashing your brains out and smashing your canoe on another set of rocks it’s got ready below; but for the time being it helps, and when off, you take charge and convert its plan into an incompleted fragment; whereas in going down the current is against your backing off. M’bo had a series of prophetic visions as to what would happen to us on our way down, founded on reminiscence and tradition. I tried to comfort him by pointing out that, were any one of his prophecies fulfilled, it would spare our friends and relations all funeral expenses; and, unless they went and wasted their money on a memorial window, that ought to be a comfort to our well-regulated minds. M’bo did not see this, but was too good a Christian to be troubled by the disagreeable conviction that was in the minds of other members of my crew, namely, that our souls, unliberated by funeral rites from this world, would have to hover for ever over the Ogowe near the scene of our catastrophe. I own this idea was an unpleasant one — fancy having to pass the day in those caves with the bats, and then come out and wander all night in the cold mists! However, like a good many likely-looking prophecies, those of M’bo did not quite come off, and a miss is as good as a mile. Twice we had a near call, by being shot in between two pinnacle rocks, within half an inch of being fatally close to each other for us; but after some alarming scrunching sounds, and creaks from the canoe, we were shot ignominiously out down river. Several times we got on to partially submerged table rocks, and were unceremoniously bundled off them by the Ogowe, irritated at the hindrance we were occasioning; but we never met the rocks of M’bo’s prophetic soul — that lurking, submerged needle, or knife-edge of a pinnacle rock which was to rip our canoe from stem to stern, neat and clean into two pieces.
The course we had to take coming down was different to that we took coming up. Coming up we kept as closely as might be to the most advisable bank, and dodged behind every rock we could, to profit by the shelter it afforded us from the current. Coming down, fallen-tree-fringed banks and rocks were converted from friends to foes; so we kept with all our power in the very centre of the swiftest part of the current in order to avoid them. The grandest part of the whole time was coming down, below the Alemba, where the whole great Ogowe takes a tiger-like spring for about half a mile, I should think, before it strikes a rock reef below. As you come out from among the rocks in the upper rapid it gives you — or I should perhaps confine myself to saying, it gave me — a peculiar internal sensation to see that stretch of black water, shining like a burnished sheet of metal, sloping down before one, at such an angle. All you have got to do is to keep your canoe-head straight — quite straight, you understand — for any failure so to do will land you the other side of the tomb, instead of in a cheerful no-end-of-a-row with the lower rapid’s rocks. This lower rapid is one of the worst in the dry season; maybe it is so in the wet too, for the river’s channel here turns an elbow-sharp curve which infuriates the Ogowe in a most dangerous manner.
I hope to see the Ogowe next time in the wet season — there must be several more of these great sheets of water then over what are rocky rapids now. Just think what coming down over that ridge above Boko Boko will be like! I do not fancy however it would ever be possible to get up the river, when it is at its height, with so small a crew as we were when we went and played our knock-about farce, before King Death, in his amphitheatre in the Sierra del Cristal.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56