I’ve been eager to post more photos and stories about our trip down the Congo River ever since I wrote up my general impressions in this first post. But because many of my photos identify the company we traveled with — such as the one conspicuously placed above — I agreed to wait, in order to give them plenty of time to pay back our trip leader for the cash they “borrowed.” (Click the link above if you missed the story.) For awhile we remained on standby, poised to unleash the power of the internet to help trash their business reputation. Then another email would surface, more time would be granted, and we waited.
Here’s what eventually happened.
After months of emails back and forth that came to basically nothing, containing excuses from “we haven’t calculated your bar tab yet” (the only thing not included in our all-inclusive tour, and which refers to a bar extremely sparsely stocked) to “I’ve been occupied with my brother’s funeral” (there’s always a brother’s funeral involved in these types of stories), the tour operator finally acknowledged that he did indeed owe us money. But, alas, he didn’t have any disposable cash and couldn’t pay us back. So the best he could do was issue an IOU, which we pretty much already had, or a discount on a future trip.
No way would that be good enough for me! But our trip leader seems satisfied. I therefore won’t try to ruin the company’s reputation online, but I do think I can be completely honest. So here we go:
A NOTE TO ANYONE CONSIDERING BOOKING A TRIP WITH DR-CONGO’S “DANICO TOURS”: Either bring lots of extra cash with you to get the trip moving, knowing you’ll never get it back, or bring your game face. If we had been a smaller group with loads of free time on our hands, it would have been interesting to see what happens when one refuses to pay more. We could still be sitting there in Mbandaka, for all we know.
Better yet, my advice is NOT to pay the tour 100% in advance. Pay the last chunk of it in person, in cash, so they can’t use the excuse that they have no cash for gas or food, nor ATM access (which, outside of Kinshasa, is totally true). But then again, they can always claim to run out of that cash during the trip. You can try to monitor their spending, but the multiple stops for moonshine and cigarettes for the crew along with legitimate purchases of food for you, plus gas, plus bribes paid to officials all behind your back, will soon have your head spinning.
This is not the first time Danico Tours has reportedly played games with other people’s money. There’s not a lot of documentation or trip reviews out there on this company, but one does exist on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum. A customer reported giving money to the company to help him purchase some rather expensive art. After several iterations of sending more money from abroad, supposedly to pay for shipping, then customs, then who knows what else — he never got his art, nor even any replies about what was going on. When we read this review, we laughed when we recognized all the names (they were the same guys on our trip), and cringed when the company director “resolved” the customer’s complaint by saying his employee was a little crooked and basically took advantage of the customer. And then he took over and continued to do more of the same.
The bottom line is this: Here in Congo, if someone takes advantage of you, it’s because you let them. “Fool me once, shame on you,” is not the name of the game here. Here, fools are shamed every time. This is business. You must be suspicious, and from the start.
But who wants to spend their vacation being suspicious all the time? Our trip leader, out of whose pockets all this money came, did well by us to keep it quiet. He didn’t want our trip delayed or made awkward in any way, and he didn’t let on to us, at least not right away, that these requests for cash were being made. As a result, we interacted with our crew happily, which enabled everyone to feel comfortable and have a good time. He had a difficult choice to make, and made the selfless one.
Looking back, as I said before — given the nature of business in Congo, the fact that we got even a portion of what we paid for is rather a miracle. Maybe considering the alternatives, and there are probably very few, Danico Tours is the best company you could possibly book with. Who knows, really.
All right, with that business out of the way, let’s get to the trip already, shall we? Here’s the general schedule of major events. Another prologue, if you will. (Click here for a more detailed overview and map. Links to stories will be active once published, which I hope to finish in the next week.)
Step 1: Somehow get from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa, an adventure in itself. (More on that in the next post.)
Step 2: Fly from Kinshasa to Mbandaka, an historic and major port along the Congo River that sits directly on the Equator. Spend the night in a “hotel” that made the one in Kinshasa look good.
Step 3: Instead of joining the waterway immediately, drive several dusty and bumpy hours from Mbandaka to Lac Tumba to get the first glimpse of our boat, meanwhile enduring one flat tire, many stops for provisions, and one angry man in charge of the Equator.
Step 4: Enjoy smooth sailing for a few hours before inexplicably spending two nights instead of one at a campsite on the lake, thus ensuring there would be no time for any other pleasure stops downriver.
Step 5: Commandeer the boat after various calculations prove we’ll never reach our destination at this rate. Spend several long days doing and seeing nothing, making up for lost time. Spend the nights in various makeshift campsites, including one quickly dubbed “Mosquito Island” and another lovingly nicknamed “Puff Adder Beach.”
Step 6: Pull into the port of Kinkole just outside Kinshasa and run two human gauntlets. Be whisked away in a van to view man’s closest (and ugliest) cousins, while the man who owes us money slips quietly away. Politely decline the last request for cash ($150 for the day’s road transportation) while holing up in the hotel and secretly hiring someone else to escort us through the chaos of the airport the next morning.
If it sounds like I didn’t have a good time, that’s not true. I signed up for an adventure in the classic sense of the word, knowing things would be rough, and in fact they turned out far better than expected! But that doesn’t mean I can’t poke fun at the trip and ourselves for what we got ourselves into. 😉
Here’s a lovely sketch of the trip that our friend Laura made during those long stints on the boat. We all found different roles to play — we had a couple artists, lots of photographers, one expert translator and a few amateur ones, some writers and note-takers, several expert bird watchers, several fishermen (though none were successful), one doctor-slash-herpetologist-slash-author of the world’s most definitive text on African chameleons, one song writer and all-around excellent cruise director, and a couple Go-Pro buffs who put together an awesome video of our trip (but that I surely won’t be able to upload from here). Anyway, I love this little map and will probably refer back to it often.
Next up: Kinshasa: A City of Surprises (Dedicated to Melanie & Steve, who I hope are on their way.)
I’m glad the Congo River Trip worked out for you folks! And yes it undoubtedly was the trip of a lifetime! … probably lots and lots of alligator, croc and hippo pics!
Actually, none at all. The place is animal-less. They’ve all been eaten!
I’m looking forward to reading the next chapters of your adventure. Have a good time in Italy, which should be a much more civilized and comfortable adventure!
Sorry about all of the problems, but at least you are looking at them as part of the overall “adventure.” :-
Great stories, Jen – brings me back! You are definitely more realistic than Barbara Kingsolver – and your juxtapositions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are spot on – so wise. You visited all my old haunts – a year in Mbandaka (dancing at the Hotel Karibu), A summer building houses with Habitat at Lac Tumba and visiting IRSAC – already rundown 35 years ago… Sitting on the shore of Lac Tumba, Rick and I were visited by a green mamba – he raised his head, looked left and then right, decided not to bite us and slithered back into the forest. My river trip was a week on the big river boat (3000+ people) from Kisangani to Mbandaka – a crazy teeming mass of humanity. Despite all the hassles, sooo glad you got to do this – a great escape from the Fungurume bubble – and most TFMers never get near what you did. Wishing you guys many more -thanks so much for sharing!