8 mins

Phil Harwood: How I conquered the Congo in a canoe

Phil Harwood tells all about his amazing 3,000 mile journey down Africa's most dangerous river

Phil Harwood in his canoe

In October 2008, Phil Harwood made the first ‘source to sea’ descent of the 4,700km Congo River in Central Africa, from the true source in north-eastern Zambia. Arrested, chased, collapsing from malaria he conquered one of the world's mightiest rivers, encountering endemic corruption and death threats the entire way.

Phil made a film of his journey. It's called Mazungu, Canoeing the Congo, and has already been named ‘Best Feature’ at the Llanberis Mountain Film Festival and runner up at the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival. He will be presenting the film at this year's Adventure Travel Film Festival and spoke to Peter Moore about the incredible journey it chronicled.

First up, what are the numbers for the trip? How far? How long did it take you? What was your goal?

From the source to the Atlantic Ocean was 3,000 miles and it took me five months. My goal was to stay sane and paddle as much of it as I could (which I did), only below Kinshasa did I make a major portage as the rapids there are the biggest volume rapids in the world.

It was just you and a canoe. What kind of canoe did you use?

Just me and my 15ft ‘Mad River Explorer’ Canadian Canoe. I did hire some bodyguards for a five day section, and a priest with balls joined me for an extra couple of weeks. The canoe was plastic and tough as old boots, I ended up giving it away to a fisherman at the end of the trip.

Did you camp? Stay in villages?

I mostly camped in the bush but often stayed in small fishing settlements. I tried to stay away from larger villages due to the unsavory element giving me grief. Some of the wilderness was pristine and incredible, but it was nice to have a bit of company now and again and substitute fish for anaconda, deer or snail.

What about food? I remember being offered chargrilled monkey when I went down the Congo on a barge.

Everything is available in the more fortunate markets but I tended to survive almost entirely on fruit, fish and rice… pretty healthy really.

Are the big steamers back on the Congo?

All the steamers I saw were rusting relics, the shores in the towns were often littered with decaying hulks. Though the big barges still run up and down between Kinshasa and Kisangani.

What did the locals make of your journey?

They didn’t really believe what I was doing, and the elders would often take great pleasure in discussing the feasibility of what I was telling them. A few did believe me, but wondered how I hadn't been killed.

The Congo is pretty lawless. Were there any times when you feared for your life?

A few times, the worst of which was being chased by eight tribesmen in two dugout canoes, screaming for money. When they finally caught me up I went berserk with my machete and managed to scare them off.

Were there any examples of people helping you, restoring your faith in humanity?

Plenty. I was almost humbled to tears by their generosity and kindness. We think we’ve got problems, but in reality we're living a life of absolute luxury. Even an unemployed benefit scrounger has a million opportunities for a comfortable and successful life if he is prepared to put in the work. We could learn a lot from the resilience and enterprising nature of the Congolese people.

Congo is basically where all the world’s killer diseases get their start in life. Did you get ill? What precautions did you take?

I collapsed unconscious from malaria and had a few days impersonating a human hosepipe, but apart from that I was as fit as a fiddle, albeit a wee bit tired. I am a qualified Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician, and worked with a medical unit in Iraq, so I carried a decent medical kit. I ended up giving most of it away however.

How difficult was it filming your expedition? What kind of equipment did you use?

I used an off the shelf Canon HD video camera, I couldn’t afford anything better. The most important bit of kit however was a ‘Peli Case’ waterproof case. I had a tripod and stills camera as well. I treated it all like gold dust, as the biggest problem was not damaging it.

Finally what were the highlights of the trip? And the lowlights?

The highlights were the five days and nights I spent with my four bodyguard brothers on the river, and my time spent with Janvier for a couple of weeks. Great people and an inspiration to me, of how you can maintain honour and dignity despite terrible circumstances, ignored by your so called ‘government’.

The flipside to that coin was those locals who didn’t manage the above, and reverted to bullying, intimidation and threats to try to scare me into giving them money.

What’s next?

To find an adventurous woman who loves me! If I'm unlucky on that front, maybe head back to the Congo to explore another river.

Phil will be screening his film, Mazungu, at the 2012 Adventure Travel Film Festival.

Adventure Travel Film FestivalThe 2012 Adventure Travel Film Festival takes place from Friday 17 August–Monday 20 August 2012 at Sherborne Girls School, Bradford Road, Sherborne, Dorset DT9 3QN. Tickets via the website only. A fab free 36-page brochure is sent to anyone who asks for one!


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