Expect crocs and killers when paddling down the Congo River in a canoe
With little more than a battered canoe and a machete, Phil Harwood became the first – and so far only – person to paddle down the Congo River from its source to the sea.
During his journey down the 4,700-kilometre central African river two years ago, he navigated the war-torn region through jungle and swamp, paddled alongside hippos and crocodiles and formed friendships that saw him safely through an area known simply as The Abattoir.
“Occasionally the river would stop and there’d be a wall of jungle and little channels going into the jungle and I didn’t know which one to take,” he recalls.
“You get rapids and you get crocodiles and you think, ‘where’s the bloody river gone?’ And the sun would be blotted out. It would be a labyrinth of vines and you turn the corner and there’s a crocodile staring at you.”
In June, Mr Harwood, who has lived in Ras Al Khaimah since 2010, is getting out his paddle once again. This time he plans to canoe through the island of Borneo and is seeking sponsors for the six-week expedition – although he’s determined to go, regardless of how much, or how little, he raises.
It is his first major venture since he returned from the Congo. The former British Royal Marine is an instructor at Al Shaheen Adventures, training Emirati military personnel in hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking and sea kayaking.
He will film the Borneo expedition, following rivers upstream and inland over mountains, carrying his canoe on his shoulders when rapids become too dangerous to paddle through.
“I love wilderness and anything wild with no chip shops,” said Mr Harwood.
“That area for me is the heart of Borneo. I shall try to live off the land, and have a laugh. It is good fun and it is adventurous, and it is better than sitting on the beach.
“The adventure for me is not knowing whether you’re going to succeed or not.”
Mr Harwood’s first venture to Borneo in 1987 ended after two weeks when his dugout canoe was stolen while he was sleeping, stranding him on an island in the middle of a river.
Inspiration for his five-month Congo trip came during an overland journey with a friend from London to Cape Town, South Africa.
“I first set eyes on the Congo River and I sat there and I had my cup of tea looking at the river and I thought to myself, ‘that would be a good adventure one day’,” he said.
“The seed was planted in my head and eventually I summoned the courage to do it ... I was a bit scared, really, because of all the wars. You hear of all the wars.”
Over the following years Mr Harwood, who speaks Arabic and French, served in Iraq and worked as an overland expedition leader in Africa. It prepared him, he says, for threats at gunpoint and honed his intuition.
Before departure, he strengthened his mental determination by boxing and cold-water swimming.
After securing a grant from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, Harwood shipped out his canoe and flew to Zambia. Unable to secure a visa for the Democratic Republic of the Congo from London, he travelled to the border.
Upon arrival in Lusaka, his first task was to make his 4.5-metre Canadian canoe look worthless. He scratched it, sprayed it black and covered it in bits of masking tape. In its hidden compartments he packed a tarpaulin, two wooden poles, a mosquito net, a cooking pot, rice and tins of fish.
Mr Harwood chose not to carry a firearm but wore a sheath knife around his neck and carried a machete sharpened on both sides. He had it engraved with the name Sting, after the sword carried by Bilbo Baggins and Frodo Baggins, the diminutive heroes of JRR Tolkien’s novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
The journey began at the river’s source, a small bubbling spring in Zambia. Mr Harwood launched his canoe a few miles downstream, where it was wide enough to paddle.
Using a compass and intuition he navigated through swamps filled with three-metre tall walls of papyrus reeds. There were many false trails. Sometimes, Mr Harwood would spend hours retracing his path, mindful of being swept over waterfalls.
Crocodiles rustled in the reeds around him each night as he prepared for bed. Mr Harwood made his campfires from scavenged wood and ate fresh fish, wild boar, antelope and sometimes snake meat, bought from villagers along the way.
He would bathe in the river with a bar of soap before retiring.
Without dry land to camp, he would ram his canoe into the reeds each night and drape a mosquito net over two pieces of foam that served as his bed.
On the rare occasions when he found land, the ground was covered in hippo tracks. “That was more scary than in the water because they’d be more dangerous on the land, and there were loads of snakes. I’ve never seen so many snakes. You see them on the bank, writhing around.”
Halfway through the trip, Mr Harwood collapsed in a village, unconscious. Malaria had struck. He took medicine and a day off to rest. “Then the next day I went off.”
He carried a satellite phone for emergencies, while knowing it would be of little use. “There’s no one to help you anyway,” he said. “There’s no police. No authorities. I just phoned my mum a couple of times because she was worried about me.”
When Mr Harwood eventually reached The Abattoir, named because of all the blood shed there, he knew he needed help. “For the first three and a half months, I was on my own and then there was one section which is famous for, you know, criminal activity,” he explained. “Westerners before have been down there and turned back because they got so many threats. So I thought, you know, I’ll hire some bodyguards.”
Pulling into the village of Ubundu, Mr Harwood asked where he could stay the night. He was directed to a Catholic church where he met Janvier, a priest and builder fluent in French, Swahili and Lingala. He struck Mr Harwood as open, sincere and genuine. “He was a great guy, you know, and he told me that I wouldn’t make it on my own.”
The next day, Janvier joined him at the front of his canoe and stayed with him for three weeks until they reached Kinshasa.
On a daily basis, people asked Janvier, in local dialect, why he had not slit his friend’s throat.
“They asked him why he hadn’t cut my throat yet and if he didn’t want to do it, then ask him where we were camping and they’d offer to do it and split the money. In one region it was happening a lot, two or three times a day.”
When they slept in villages, Janvier quickly become the centre of attention, pulling out his Bible and regaling crowds with his stories. “He was a natural entertainer, he’d crack jokes but you could tell he wasn’t full of himself,” said Mr Harwood. “He was humble and he genuinely cared about people.”
A few days later, during a big rainstorm, they pulled into a hamlet consisting of a single family. Four brothers welcomed the pair into their home, Leonardo, John, Maurice and Valatay, a muscular man with an expressive face and gentle temperament.
“We told them what we were doing and they said, ‘you’ll be killed’.”
The four brothers, one shotgun between them, joined the men in a six-metre hardwood dugout canoe tied to the Canadian canoe.
When they approached settlements, Mr Harwood would lay low. They floated undetected for five days and five nights before the brothers knew it was safe for Mr Harwood and Janvier to continue.
Of all the characters he met on his epic voyage Mr Harwood says: “You get good people and you get bad people. And there were also some remarkably inspiring people, because they don’t have anything and they have to fend for themselves.”
When he departs for Borneo, it will be a return to a precarious – yet for him, peaceful – lifestyle.
“It’s like a way of life. You forget about your troubles. Your girlfriend problems, your money problems, you completely forget about them. It’s just you and the river. All you have to do is find a place to camp and not get eaten by a crocodile and that’s it.
“That’s why I’m looking forward to Borneo. Getting some peace. It’s really spiritual really.”
• Phil Harwood’s book and DVD are available at www.canoeingthecongo.com.
Updated: April 14, 2014 04:00 AM