We are not floating on a river, we are floating on a forest. Sometimes it seems like if the water level was 20 feet higher, we could look out over the entire Congo Basin , which would have to be renamed the Congo Sea .
The river is by no means ours alone. Pirogues drift downstream, always downstream. Perhaps they sell them at their destination and walk home rather than paddle. Some are small and carry nothing but a small boy and a wicker fish trap. Others are floating huts, taking months to reach town to trade forest goods for city. Sometimes a long boat will have four or five people paddling. Most are too tired to wave but some will signal to us, sometimes to sell a fish, but usually a begging gesture that a bonobo would readily recognise. And the largest will be almost a whole village lashed together to a barge on the week long journey to Kinshasa- goats, rice sacks, families. Like Costner’s Waterworld.
Bonobo (Photo- Arne Schiotz)
In wide flat clearings, thatch huts are built on stilts in the shade of palms. Little children run around in various combinations of rags, underpants and nudity along with the free-range piglets. They wave and smile and beg and throw backflips into the river. Men sleep under shaded paillotes. Women work. Great clumps of South American water weed, of the sort that has carpeted Lake Victoria, also drift by us, some in purple bloom. These clog up the space between the lashed pirogues, skimming river foam up til it burbled up and into the boats.
While night falls quickly here, it doesn't go quietly. For hours, lightning flickered and flashed over the northern bank, a polite reminder that we were guests of the rainy season. A ruder reminder arrived late the next afternoon, when the river led us directly into the maw of a wild storm that made a mockery of the tarp shelter we had optimistically erected. Deciding I could get no wetter, I dove into the river to help secure the tarps, finding it warm and swift flowing. I opened my eyes under water. I could see my hands before me, pulling me through rich tannin red light, as if I were weightless in prehistoric amber.