Friday, 18 May 2018

DR. CONGO: Mbandaka, If Your Truck Breaks Down, Fixing It May Take Days Or Weeks

Mbandaka, formerly known as Coquilhatville or Coquilhatstad - named after Camille-Aime Coquilhat, is a city on the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo, lying near the confluence of the Congo and Ruki Rivers.

It is the capital of Equateur province.

On 16 May 2018, a case of Ebola occurred in the city, spreading from an outbreak in the countryside.

Mbandaka lies on the east side of the Congo River below the mouth of the Tshuapa River, a tributary of the Congo.

It is south of the Ngiri Reserve on the opposite bank of the Congo, a large area of swamp forest, and is at the center of the Tumba-Ngiri-Maindombe Ramsar wetland.

Mbandaka is the capital of the Equateur province, and located only a few miles from the equator.

It is home to Mbandaka airport and is linked by riverboat to Kinshasa and Boende. The city's population is approximately 729,257 (2004).

Congo Basin is a region in Democratic Republic of the Congo and is made up by the provinces of Equateur, Oriental and Maniema.

Cities near Mbandaka

- Bumba

- Kindu

- Kisangani

- Lisala

- Mbandaka

- Zongo

Parks in Congo Basin

- Garamba National Park

- Maiko National Park

- Okapi Wildlife Reserve

- Salonga National Park

The Congo Basin region composes the majority of the world's second largest jungle after the Amazon.

Because of this, and despite its size, the region is difficult to get around by land, with pirogues and other boats and aircraft the only ways to easily get around.

Most of the region's inhabitants still live in small villages in the jungle, although many have moved to cities like Kisangani, Kindu, Bumba, & Mbandaka.

Mbandaka is largely populated by people of the Mongo ethnic group, although people from many different regions live in the city.

The main languages spoken in Mbandaka are Lingala, French, and Mongo.

Years of war and neglect have taken a heavy toll on the city infrastructure, with no electricity or running water in large sectors of the city. Most of the streets and avenues of the city are dirt roads.

Mbandaka was founded in 1883 by Henry Morton Stanley with the name of Équateurville. The city's town hall is about 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) north of the Geographic Equator Line.

Mbandaka is one of the closest of any substantial city in the world. Stanley placed a large Equator Stone near the riverbank south of the city to mark the point where he believed the Equator to cross the river.

It still remains there today. Due to its symbolic location close to the equator and the Congo River, there were early plans to locate the capital of the Congo Free State in Mbandaka.

Although plans were made, they never came off the drawing board. These plans included infrastructure for an estimated population of 100,000 people, a train station, a Catholic cathedral, a governor's residence, and a palace for future visits of Leopold II.

In 1886, at the beginning of their colonial rule, the Belgians changed the city's name to Coquilhatville.

During the colonial time in 1938, work was started on a bridge over the Congo River connecting Mbandaka with the French Congo.

Work was abandoned at the outbreak of World War II and only the foundations of the bridge pillars remain.

In the 1930s several other projects were started by the Belgian colonial administration, including several factories and a new city hall.

The city hall was completed only after the war in 1947 and was at that time, with a height of 39 meters, the tallest building in the Belgian Congo.

On top of the city hall was a statue of Leopold II. The city hall was destroyed by a fire in 1963.

In 1966, the city's name was changed, this time by the new independent government, to Mbandaka to honor a prominent local leader.

Hundreds of people mainly Hutu refugees, women, and children in the city were massacred on May 13, 1997 near the end of the First Congo War.

The headquarters of the 4th Naval Region of the Navy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is located in Mbandaka.
On 16 May 2018, a case of Ebola occurred in the city, spreading from an outbreak in the countryside.

A large research center for Central African history, originally set up by Fathers Gustaaf Hulstaert (1900–1990) and Honore Vinck, is at the Catholic Mission station of Bamanya or Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC)), 10 kilometres east of Mbandaka.

One of the finest botanical gardens representing central Africa is at nearby Eala, about 7 km east of the town centre.

The Botanic Garden of Eala founded in 1900 contains the floral richness of Central Africa with between 4,000 and 5,000 species.

It covers approximately 370 hectares with special collections (125 ha), forest (190 ha), marsh (50 ha) and savanna Euobe (7 ha).

The garden is neglected and unfenced and there is illegal logging. The last catalogue was published in 1924.

Mbandaka is the home of the world's first project of Habitat for Humanity International.

Habitat for Humanity's founder Millard Fuller served as missionary with the Disciples of Christ Church in Mbandaka from 1973-76.

The housing project Fuller started in Mbandaka in 1973 became the original project of Habitat for Humanity when Fuller founded Habitat upon his return to the United States.

The city is located at the center of the Tumba-Ngiri-Maindombe area, designated a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention in 2008.

Mbandaka features a tropical rainforest climate. The city does feature wetter and drier months, with the driest month, January averaging around 80 mm of precipitation per year.

However the city does not have a dry season, all months average above 60 mm of precipitation in a year.

Temperatures are relatively constant throughout the course of the year, with average temperatures ranging from 23-26 degrees Celsius during the course of the year.

The Congo/Lulalaba River is the busiest route through the region. Rapids between Kisangani & Ubundu separate the river into two navigable sections: Kinshasa-Kisangani & Ubundu-Lubumbashi where it is called the Lululaba River.

Travel along the river is one of the great African journeys for the truly adventurous. Boats, ferries, & barges ply the river regularly.

However, there is no scheduled ferry service people pay to ride on passenger boats & cargo boats/barges with the boat leaving the port when full and does not necessarily stick to a tight schedule.

Boats become less frequent the further up the river you travel.

While boats from Kinshasa arrive in Mbandaka almost daily, boats only reach Kisangani every 1-2 weeks with the journey from Kinshasa taking 2-3 weeks.

Boats are even less frequent on the upper section of the river, although you may be able to find one from Lubumbashi to Kindu a couple times a month.

A short portage railroad connects Kisangani & Ubundu, allowing river travel from Kinshasa to Kindu.

There are also a few boats a month connecting Kinshasa or Brazzaville to Bangui, CAR, from where you can easily take a ferry or pirogue across to Zongo. Just be sure to have the right visas.

Small boats which are often dugout tree trunks called pirogues are the most common transport along the rivers of the Congo Basin.

However, finding one to take you where you want may be difficult and is very slow. Although some are motorized, fuel may be hard to find.

As of 2012, the only scheduled services in the region are: Compagnie Africain d'Aviation which serves Kisangani, Mbandaka, & Kindu; FlyCongo which serves Kisangani & Mbandaka; Lignes Aeriennes Congolaises to Kindu & Kisangani; Air Kasai to Bunia.

All of these offer domestic service from other major cities in the DRC. Some airlines will cancel a flight at the last minute because there are not enough passengers to make a profit and pay for fuel, etc.

Don't expect your trip to be on schedule a journey from Kinshasa to Kisangani may only take a couple hours, but plan a whole day for delays.

The only international service to the region has been Kenya Airlines from Nairobi-Kenyatta to Kisangani, which has started & stopped a few times.

Kinshasa is served by Air France & Brussels Airlines from Europe and several African airlines, from which you can transfer to boat or a domestic flight to reach the Congo Basin.

It is also possible to arrive in Brazzaville or Bangui both also served by Air France, Brussels Airlines, & a number of African airlines and then travel by boat to the Congo Basin.

Just be sure to have the right visas. Using the decent by DRC standards, National Route 4, you can transfer by road from Kigali, Rwanda.

It is also possible to fly into Entebbe, Uganda for visits to areas near the Ugandan border, although onward travel is very dangerous.
The only decent option to reach the Congo Basin by road is National Route 4 from Bukavu on the Rwandan border in South Kivu to Kisngani.

The road is sealed for much of its length, although travel may be slow due to people/animals on the road, overloaded trucks traveling slow, & checkpoints.

Safety is improved since the end of major fighting a decade ago, but is still a little iffy. Bunia can be reached by road from Uganda.

It is possible to travel from Cameroon or Congo-Brazzaville to Bangui, CAR on moderately okay roads, but traveling by road in the CAR is very difficult due to notoriously corrupt police/soldiers manning checkpoints along the highways.

From Bangui, vehicles can be taken by ferry across the river to Zongo.

Pretty much every other option to reach the Congo Basin by road is very difficult and consists of muddy dirt tracks that are impassible during and shortly after the rainy season.

The only train line entering the Congo Basin connects Kindu with Lubumbashi in the Katanga region. The line was rehabilitated in the late 2000s, although the rolling stock is second hand from Europe & India.

Stops at a number of towns along the line—some as long as a day—make the journey from Lubumbashi to Kindu a 4-8 day ordeal. Do not expect sleeper compartments, a dining car, or even comfortable seats.

You will most likely have a seat in an aging passenger car at best or have to stand or sit atop in an empty freight car at worst. Train schedules are erratic, and at times there may be 2-3 weeks between departures.

Contact the station master at any station to inquire about the next scheduled train, but expect delays. Pay only on the day of departure & bring plenty of snacks, food, & bottled water for the ride.

Waterways are the main form of transport in the region. A great number of pirogues, some motorized, ply these rivers and can be hired or you can pay to ride with others/cargo.

However, finding a pirogue going where you want to go is difficult and the journey can take weeks.

Aside from travel on the Congo or Ubangui Rivers and tourist rides around Kisangani, travel by pirogue as well as most travel in the region is best left for only the most adventurous and hardcore travelers with adequate preparation.

Solo travelers should never venture into the jungles alone.

There are no scheduled, commercial flights within the region except for, possibly, Mbandanka-Kisangani or Kisangani-Kindu.

Be careful, as some airlines run a multi-city route and you may have to make a few connections on return.

Kinshasa-Kisangani-Kindu-Lubumbashi-Kinshasa flown on one day a week. It may be easy to travel from Kisangani to Kindu, but to return to Kindu may require traveling to Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, or Goma and connecting to a different flight, perhaps with a layover for a couple days.

The UN has a large presence in the region and operates scheduled flights throughout the Congo Basin, but if you are not associated with a UN agency or another aid agency it may be difficult to hitch a ride but worth a try.

A large number of small planes travel the region and are worth trying to hitch a ride.

Almost all of the roads away from the cities are nothing more than muddy tracks.

Travel can take weeks, especially if your ride breaks down and may not be possible during and shortly after the rainy season. Many trucks will carry paying passengers. Be very careful in selecting your ride.

Nearly all are overloaded and passengers sit atop a pile of carefully loaded cargo. Falling off or the truck overturning are very real dangers.

Try to get a ride in the cab if at all possible, maybe offer a little more money than the driver asks and point to the cabin.

The trucks traveling around the Congo Basin are old and usually the driver and a helper or two have the knowledge to fix problems and navigate mudholes and makeshift log bridges.

Do not expect stops to relieve yourself simply do your business off the side of the moving truck. If your truck breaks down, a fix may take days or even a week or more.

Same goes for getting stuck in mud. Definitely an experience left only for the most hardcore travelers.

There are three lines in the Congo Basin. The line connecting Kindu with the Katanga region will make stops at some of the towns along the line.

The portage line bypassing the Congo's rapids runs from Kisangani to Ubundu and only travels when there is cargo to carry meaning it may be a couple week between runs.

A third line runs from Bumba eastward to Isiro. This is a narrow-gauge line damaged during the war and in a very degraded state.

It seems service has restarted on a small western section from Bumba-Aketi and possibly Buta and, while there were reports of trains running in the eastern section, the track eastwards of Aketi or Buta is most likely abandoned.

Boyoma Falls. On the edge of Kisangani, these are the last cataracts on the Congo until Kinshasa/Brazzaville.

Fishermen set up conical traps for fish and can be seen tending to these traps.

Some have realized that tourists want to see them and there are reports that they will charge Dollars to see them, stopping you before reaching the river and/or photographing them.

Congo boat rides. A trip by boat along the Congo is one of the world's greatest wild adventures.

Trips by pirogue for a few hours or a few days can be arranged in most cities along the river.

Only a couple tour operators in the country offer these rides, but if you speak good enough French or Swahili, you can probably talk a pirogue owner into a short trip, make sure you understand what you're doing & where you're going.


Tourism Observer
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