Even if for only the first eighty-five miles, to reach Matadi I was fortunate to be able to travel the whole length of Liverpool’s famous Overhead Railway on my way to and from school during its last few years.
What I saw out of the windows, usually through a pall of tobacco smoke, was probably responsible for my decision to choose a seafaring career. One particular sight, on the gable end of a dock warehouse south of the Pier Head, was an advertisement for the Booth Line with its memorable slogan of ‘1,000 Miles up the Amazon’. However, my cousin, who had just completed a voyage as Surgeon on an elderly Booth Line passenger ship, the Hilary, told me that this lengthy passage was, for him, one of extreme boredom since it consisted of little more than seemingly endless miles of broad muddy waters flanked by uniformly dull forest. Justifiably or not, I therefore have few regrets that the Amazon never featured on my bucket list of voyages up the world’s great rivers. However, the Congo river certainly did, and on a number of occasions. What that river lacked in miles it more than made up for in providing many memorable experiences.
My first encounter with the Congo was in the summer of 1963 while sailing as Third Mate on Elder Dempster’s Obuasi. We came from a northerly direction and saw the discolouration of the blue ocean with still many miles in the offing. The land at the river mouth, being low, was barely visible even as a radar echo. The Master ordered the echo-sounder to be run, instructing that, when it detected the abyss that the mighty river had scoured out of the Atlantic Ocean’s bed, we should turn sharply to port. Then the south side of the river entrance, marked by the lighthouse at Ponta da Moita Seca, would confirm the accuracy of our chosen easterly course. So it proved, and we were soon welcoming the pilots on board off the small settlement of Banana. Two pilots actually, since both an elderly Belgian and his Congolese trainee had joined us.
The outer stretches of the river proved generally uninteresting as we picked our way between channel buoys, most with tropical greenery caught around their black or red waists. It was nearly fifty miles before two objects of interest appeared on the northern shore. Rocky outcrops of ironstone, bearing the names of Fingal’s Shield and Fetish Rock (who thought up that unlikely name?) lay on either side of the channel leading to the small port of Boma. With the last buoy (no 90) well astern we entered a long stretch of river between green hills that could have passed as a typical Scottish sea loch but for the heat. The absence of settlements or the ubiquitous canoes of African waterways on either the Angolan or Congo banks were an indication of the fierce current that underlay the river’s urge to reach the sea.
Well ahead of us was our first view of the mailboat of the Compagnie Maritime Belge (CMB) that our pilot had told us to expect on this reach of the river. After a short exchange on the VHF, he announced that we would be passing starboard side to starboard side. That decision provoked a peppery reaction from Captain Dunn, who was clearly not impressed with this blatant contradiction of the Collision Regulations. His objection, however, lapsed once the pilot explained to him that this would enable us to keep close to the northern bank where the current was less fierce. When the Albertville passed us, travelling well in excess of 20 knots, a huge Belgian flag was streaming from her mainmast gaff, but there was little sign of any of her passengers who were then probably sleeping off the first lunch of their voyage northwards.
The sight of several red and green flags was a notable feature as we passed the small town of Noqui to starboard. They may well have been indicating that Portugal had no intention of bending to the ‘wind of change’ that was blowing away the other European empires in Africa. In contrast, the adjoining Congolese settlement of Ango-Ango boasted just the one flag that mirrored the courtesy ensign that we were flying.
Now, eighty miles from the river’s mouth, we approached the appropriately named ‘devil’s cauldron’ of the Chaudron d’Enfer. Set within an ampitheatre of 800-foot cliffs, the brown waters of the Congo’s surface were disturbed by a mixture of fierce eddies and whirlpools, only occasionally interspersed with sullen patches of oily calm. Having been reassured that our B&W diesel engine was delivering its maximum 3,750 horses to guarantee our advance, the pilot gave a rapid succession of orders, mostly for carrying a starboard helm in order to prevent the ship from becoming embayed under the wooded cliffs. A general relief was shared by those in charge on the bridge as the Obuasi finally passed under the fragile telephone wires that spanned the river from Pointe Underhill. We soon had an uneventful berthing at the port of Matadi.
We had kept harbour watches since the pilot boarded; that allowed me to be on the bridge for the whole eight hours of our river passage. It was now the turn of the Second Mate to be on call through the night, since no cargo was due to be worked until the following morning. It was also time for a small party of us to hit the town. No local money was available, but we assured ourselves that sterling should meet our entertainment needs. Taxis would not come to the ship since it was considered far too hazardous to cross the huge marshalling yards that lay between the quays and the town. Keeping a sharp lookout for any runaway rakes of goods vans, we were soon in the town and, after a steep climb, we found the Metropole Hotel. Excepting its stone verandahs, this somewhat forbidding grey building would not have looked out of place back in Antwerp. Outside, a prominent memorial to the Belgian monarch King Albert I was a surprising survivor given that it was now three years since a very bitterly achieved independence. It was here that a small group of sharply-dressed dealers competed to exchange our pounds for an encouragingly thick wad of grubby Congolese francs.
The main hotel entrance gave access to a bar and restaurant where prices reflected the generous allowances of UN officials and other foreign aid workers, so we made for the ground floor alternative. First impressions were not good; it looked as if we might have stumbled onto the set of a ‘B’ movie about civil war and illicit diamonds in some tropical hell-hole. At one table was a group of mercenaries, bulky and shavenheaded. Next to them, a group of Lebanese traders then, at another table, some youthful US Peace Corps members. The whole smoke-laden scene was replete with some persistent sellers of tusks of ivory, small animals, reptiles and gemstones of doubtful provenance, along with an equally persistent bevy of patrolling prostitutes. At least the bottles of Beck’s or Heineken were icy cold and the Congolese music being played in the background made for good listening. However, as the evening progressed, it emerged that the ‘mercenaries’ were actually a team of construction workers, some of the Peace Corps also came over to ask about taking passage with us down to Luanda, while the souvenir sellers and ladies of pleasure soon realised we had only very modest funds to spend. This enjoyable evening ashore ended safely, with our alcohol intake not enough to make us easy prey crossing the marshalling yards..
Cargo work the following day was refreshingly simple. We discharged those staples exported to every francophone country – bottles of whisky, cans of Guinness, Land Rovers and bales of textiles. Nothing was available to load except some drums of glycerine and empty gas cylinders, but that was not unexpected as we were already booked for a full cargo from elsewhere. Our progress downriver was in stark contrast to our ascent since, once through the Chaudron d’Enfer, we fairly rocketed along. The 37 miles from Fetish Rock to Matadi had taken nearly four hours whilst the reverse journey was made in just half that time. And so the Obuasi swept out into the Atlantic, bound away south.