History is the soil in which we grow new ideas, so before we undertake a mission, it’s critical that we understand the efforts of those explorers who came before us. During training on the White Nile in Uganda, the team met with anthropologist Kara Blackmore. Her expertise lies in African history and she agreed to give the boys a lesson on the Congo.
Kara begins by describing the indigenous Bankongo people, then the early Portuguese navigators who sailed from the Atlantic up the mouth of the Congo – They made it one hundred miles to the modern day city of Matadi, but the Inga rapids halted their progress. They called it the ‘Cauldron of Hell’, and it became the “choking stone of navigation” up or down the river. Following a series of other attempts to navigate the Congo, came the infamous journalist turned explorer Henry Morton Stanley, known best for his phrase, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
In 1871 Stanley tracked down Dr. David Livingstone, a missionary thought lost in Africa. Livingstone, while searching for the source of the Nile, had unknowingly encountered the headwaters of the Congo, and following his death, Stanley mounted an expedition of his own. Our film visits Stanley’s journey starting on the Lukuga River, a tributary that eventually becomes the Congo.
After over nine hundred days, his team reached Isangila Falls, the start of the Inga Rapids. But there, tragedy struck. Stanley writes, “Frank rose to his feet, and now the full danger of the situation burst upon him. But too late! Then came the moment of anguish, regret, and terror.” With his right hand man drowned, Stanley and the rest of his team retired their trusty boat, the ‘Lady Alice’, at the very spot we’ve chosen for our put-in.
Kara reads on: “There is no fear that any other explorer will attempt, what we have done, in the cataract region. It will be insanity in a successor, nor would we have ventured on this terrible task had we the slightest idea that such fearful impediments were before us” – the words of Stanley. He’s over it… But King Leopold II of Belgium, has a different idea. Stanley was sent back to open up the area for commerce. He was to orchestrate the building of a railway line around the Inga Rapids to the town he named Leopoldville, later known as Kinshasa. This would connect the already navigable upper and lower sections of the Congo River, so that Leopold could begin extracting ivory, rubber, and other resources from the African interior.
Under the clever guise of a free society, Leopold became the sovereign king of the ‘Congo Free State’. Nearly five million Congolese died in the early 1900s as he amassed a fortune of eighty million dollars. He enacted brutal labor laws forcing Congolese villagers to meet massive quotas of harvested rubber, now in extremely high demand thanks to mass production of the automobile. Those who failed to reach their quotas had their hands cut off! Following Leopold’s death, the Belgians ruled the Congo, until 1960, when they finally granted the Congolese their independence. Infighting quickly destroyed what little infrastructure the country once had.
With each new leader, came a new name: From Belgian Congo, to the Republic of Congo, to Zaire to the DRC, now notorious for war, rape, and corruption. The never-ending political strife showed no signs of slowing, but that didn’t deter new explorers from attempting their own source-to-sea of the Congo River: In 1974, a British Colonel John Blashford-Snel made a 160 person multinational attempt, marking the centenary of Stanley’s epic expedition. His team successfully navigated the entire Congo River from its source to the Atlantic Ocean, except for one portion, the Inga Rapids! Keen to learn from his vast experience on the river, Steve Fisher visited with Blashford-Snel at his expedition headquarters in England.
In the film, Blashford-Snel has this to say: “To every challenge there should be a purpose. One should go out and do something worthwhile for mankind, or for the fauna and the flora and the environment, or whatever. I’m not against people going on roller-skates to the South Pole or whatever they want to do, because that is a challenge that they are facing themselves. But what I do particularly like is when somebody goes to an area to achieve something, and bring back the results, as of course Stanley did. He came back with knowledge of an unknown area, as Livingstone had done before… But Livingstone unfortunately didn’t come back.”
Indeed Blashford-Snel’s expedition was focused mainly on humanitarian and conservation causes. The team was comprised more by scientists and doctors, than thrill seekers, yet with a number of different craft including giant inflatables and Hamilton jet boats from New Zealand, they took on some serious whitewater. But once they arrived at Inga, they decided to portage. Blashford-Snel writes, “There’s nothing shameful in warping or portaging boats. We’re not here to kill people, so there’s no point in putting them through waters where we’re likely to do so.” As a legacy of their accomplishment, Blashford-Snel and his team painstakingly mapped sixteen cataracts of the Inga region, before finally reaching the Atlantic Ocean in a near complete descent of the mighty Congo, known then as the Zaire River.
Using those very same maps in 1985, a small French team called Africa Raft Expedition decided to retrace Stanley’s route once again. They were the first ever to actually attempt the Inga Rapids… and the last! The team led by popular French television adventurer Philippe de Dieuleveult successfully ran the first few cataracts at Inga. But their mission ended abruptly when seven men mysteriously disappeared.
Some witnesses say the entire team drowned while others claim they were executed by the Congolese military. Whatever the case, their disappearance prompted numerous investigations, intense diplomatic tensions, and massive media tension. In France, the mystery was reported like a Presidential assassination. It was then, in the late 80s that Steve Fisher first heard of the Inga Rapids, but it certainly would not be the last.
During ‘CONGO‘, the team realizes that it’s critical not to try to out-do those who have come before us, but rather to to build on the knowledge and the experience that they have been given. History is added to, not replaced, and it is armed with this knowledge that the team continues on their quest.