For tens of thousands of years the lava flooded out over the eastern side of India…
It was a hellish time to be alive. The Earth’s atmosphere was polluted with sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and a stew of other noxious gases. The chemicals, compounds and elements that formed this global atmospheric pall were being emitted from a mass of volcanoes, erupting like bubbles in a vast, roiling porridge-pot of molten rock on the planet’s surface. This miasma of poison blotted out the sun and caused the planet’s temperature to plummet. A dreadful, endless winter enveloped the world in its cold grip. And then, as if all of this wasn’t enough, a massive asteroid struck the Earth, filling the already choked and hazy air with a fine, planet-encircling film of iridium. It was a hellish time to be alive. In fact, most of the larger creatures that had, for millions of years, dominated the planet’s ecosystems, would soon not be.
When the block of continental crust that would one day be called India separated from the supercontinent of Gondwana, it began drifting northwards towards the continent of Asia. It was a slow journey, no more than 80 millimetres per year. But there was plenty of time and for the next 100 million years or so India crept along on her raft of crust. Things were, however, about to get busy.
In what is now the South Atlantic Ocean, India passed over a mantle plume: a place where molten magma rose in a great column from deep in the Earth. As the continent passed slowly over the plume (which today still lies beneath the island of La Reunion), two things happened. Firstly, vast amounts of lava spewed out onto the subcontinent, covering the landscape with deep, alternating layers of basalt. And secondly, the heat from the fires beneath melted the underside of India’s crust, like a candle held over a flame.
For tens of thousands of years the lava flooded out over the eastern side of India. Occasionally, the flows would subside for a time and wind-blown dust would accumulate in thin, bright layers. At other times, rivers and shallow seas would cover the lava flows, creating layers of fine gravels and beds of silty clays. Small organisms thrived in these waters and their remains became fossils. But then, the eruptions would begin again and these fine layers would be buried in successive layers of black, fine-grained basalt.
Eventually, the continent moved away from the mantle plume and the eruptions ceased. India, carrying her massive burden of solidified basalt with her, continued her journey northwards towards Asia. But she was lighter now, much lighter, despite the weight of the 100,000 cubic kilometres of new rock that the eruptions had bestowed upon her. The subterranean fires had melted so much of her underside away that she now floated high on the crust upon which she rode.
So she moved fast. Really fast by geological standards. By the time she reached the southern edge of Asia, India was moving at a rate of 150 millimetres per year: breakneck speed. And then, she slammed into Asia. The collision was so violent that a series of massive mountain ranges were pushed up where the edges of the two continents met.
As this slow but monumental collision was going on, the planet continued to cool, screened from the sun’s warmth by the shroud of volcanic gas and pulverized iridium. The big creatures grew cold and began to die. The smaller creatures, the ones that scurried in the bushes and who needed less warmth to survive, evolved into every niche the big creatures – the dinosaurs – had vacated. Some of them became birds, their feathers slowly evolving from scales into feathers.
Some of them became primates, furry creatures that, at first, walked on all fours. But as the climate warmed up again, the rainforests forests disappeared and they began to stand upright in order to see over the tall grasses that now covered the savannah lands where they lived. The descendants of this species would one day come to dominate the planet. And they would one day carve deep and spectacular caves of worship into the hard black basalt of the Deccan Traps.
Suli Ram. Evening is near. Soon the clouds will cool the earth with showers… – South Asian Lullaby
It was winter in India. The dry, cool season. The earth lay parched and brown under the sun. The rivers, full-bodied and fierce during the Monsoon, lay flat and lifeless: muddy trickles between their banks of clay.
Even Mother Ganga, bringer of life, destroyer of men, curled meekly through the landscape, her waters brown and shallow. On either side of her, wide reaches of bare, grey silt stretched away into the haze. In places, the people buried their dead, garlanding the graves with rectangles of orange and yellow flowers. In time, with the coming of the Monsoon, Mother Ganga would come down in spate and carry the dead away into eternity.
Varanasi lay under a pall of smokey haze. The ghats stepped back from the river in steep, crumbling, ancient layers, each layer built on the remains of others. Boats plied to and fro on the wind-chopped water. The sun rose scarlet across the river, casting a ladder of gold across the Ganges, then dissolved into the opaque sky.
I walked the day away, lost in the crowds of pilgrims celebrating the festival of Shiva, then climbed the sandstone steps above the Meer Ghat to a bakery where I drank coffee and watched the procession of colours go by outside.
And as I stepped from the cafe, it began to rain: cool, sweet-smelling rain. Indian rain. The clouds were cooling the earth with showers.
Say, porter, when’s the next train down? – Rudyard Kipling, My Sunday at Home
On the platform at Allahabad Railway Station I saw a dog asleep on a pile of luggage. Or perhaps it was bales of cotton, sewn up into jute parcels. Whatever they were, the dog looked very comfortable: stretched out like a cat in front of a fire.
In the linear world of India’s railway platforms life is condensed into the essentials: food, shelter, drink and movement. And cellphones. Everyone has a cellphone, from the lowliest sweeper to the fattest tycoon.
Stalls sell chai and chips, pakoras,and panni, biscuits and books. Hawkers ply the polished flagstones calling “chaiiiii….chaiiiii.” A team of green-shirted men sweep and mop and tidy: cleaning up the endless stream of rubbish dropped from train windows.
I caught a glimpse of another westerner through the open doors of a carriage standing on Platform Two. Or perhaps it was just a trick of the light. The dog slept on, oblivious of the activity around it. I had another two hours to wait until my train to Varanasi departed.
Trains have been an integral part of the Indian transport system since they were introduced by the British in 1837. The first train was named the Red Hills Railway and was opened in 1837. It carried quarried granite from the Red Hills to Madras. The first passenger train began operating in Bombay (now Mumbai) on April 16th, 1853. Today, India’s network of railways is the fourth largest in the world, comprising 121,471 kilometres of track covering a distance of 67,368 kilometres. India Railway operates over 20,000 passenger services per day from 7,349 stations across the subcontinent.
My desire to travel across India by train is heavily influenced by the writing of Paul Theroux, whose book The Great Railway Bazaar was one of the primary inspirations for my becoming a travel writer. The works of the historians Michael Wood, Dan Snow and William Dalrymple have also been pivotal in the development of my interest in India.
From my Second Class air conditioned bunk I watched Uttar Pradesh spool past outside. On the outskirts of the city, filthy suburbs of shanties built from junk gave way to a scrubby, litter-strewn hinterland where pigs, dogs, cows and goats picked through the refuse for digestible tidbits. The train rattled across the Ganges on a steel bridge. On the silty river flats people had buried their dead. Rectangular garlands of orange and yellow surrounded each grave. Mother Ganges would come for them during the Monsoon.
And then the countryside, flat and fecund, gleaming with water. Fields of bright yellow mustard flowers waved on their tall pale green stalks under a sky of featureless silver-grey haze. A girl in a lime green sari pumping water by hand from a well. Stooks of maize stalks and brown domino rows of cow shit, patted into patties and set out too dry. The white exclamation point of a brick kiln chimney. A man in a white dhoti whacking listlessly at the dusty weeds beside a substation. Battalions of pylons marching into the distance. Black and white goats on the edge of a paddy field. Life-giving water shining on the yellow clay.
Some kids were playing cricket on a dirt pitch beside the line where the train stopped for some reason. I climbed down from the carriage and bowled two balls: New Zealand versus India replicated in the dust with a single bat and a pile of bricks for stumps.
I talked to a woman in a beautiful yellow sari. She gave me some jackfruit curry and two chapatis.And then the linear world of the Nandigram Express was at Varanasi Junction and I was back out on another platform.
In Nagpur, I found the best Eggs Benedict in the world. And some of the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. Perhaps it was the location. India was the last place that I’d expected to find a café serving such superb food and coffee. I had Googled the phrase “best coffee in Nagpur” and the search engine had returned Corridor Seven Coffee Roasters as the top result. From my hotel, it was a 2.4-kilometre walk. It was the middle of the day, and hot. But I needed a caffeine hit so I set off, guided by the gentle and confident voice of the Google Maps girl…my ever-faithful travel companion
The route lay through back lanes where sacred cows munched on piles of flowers and somnolent dogs lay in the dust, sleeping away the midday heat. I passed temples and townhouses, slums and flower stalls. Beneath a giant flyover, an old lady mixed cow-shit patties beside a mobile crane lifting a section of pre-stressed concrete into the sky. A hawker offered me a pair of sunglasses; another proffered an armful of dangling headphones; a woman with her hand patterned with henna offered flowers at an altar of burning incense. On the wide concrete strip of Temple Bazaar, the sun beat down with almost tactile force on a scene of colourful chaos: beggars, cabbages, cows, clothes, oranges, leather belts, spitting men and chador-shrouded women. The ladies in the bank where I went to change money were eating lunch from stainless steel dabba containers.
“Come back at three,” one of them said, her hand greasy with dhal.
Walking up the lane towards the café I smelt the aroma of roasting coffee. Sunlight fell on chairs and low tables in a tiny courtyard. A row of scooters stood in the shade of an ancient banyan tree. As I walked in the wooden door I heard the Radiohead song Karma Police playing. And I was in heaven!
I dived headlong into the crowded, feculent, rubbish-strewn alleyways…
Evening on Marine Drive. Crowds of locals stroll along the concrete bund overlooking the choppy waters of Back Bay. Hawkers sell water, chai and snacks. A few hustlers try their luck with the occasional tourist…including me. Offshore, the sun is setting in a bright orange ball into the Arabian Sea.
Mumbai, formerly Bombay, is home to at least 20 million people. It could be as high as 26 million. No one knows for sure. Whatever its population, arriving in Mumbai from my small New Zealand town, population 2,600, was like being teleported onto the surface of another world. My hotel, in Colaba District, near the Gateway of India, was right in the heart of the market district. So, I dived headlong into the crowded, feculent, rubbish-strewn alleyways where vendors sold vegetables, flowers, meat, snacks, spice, shoes, garments of all shapes and sizes and, of course, chai.
I walked for hours amongst the confusing, incomprehensible jumble of the city. I navigated with my phone: Google Maps keeping me grounded and in touch with my location in relation to the safe zone of my hotel room. I was occasionally hassled by scam-artists and hustles. One guy followed me around for two days until I told him to fuck off. But mostly, I was invisible: just another face in the crowds.
At sunset each evening, I tried to be near the water. Mumbai evenings are short and as the lower limb of the sun touches the sea, the sky glows momentarily with an incandescent orange then bleeds quickly from pink to mauve to indigo…and it is night.
(This story, written in 1993, was my first attempt at travel writing. It was written on a small portable typewriter in our old house at 28 McKenze Street, Geraldine, New Zealand. I sent the story to The Press, one of New Zealand’s premier newspapers. It was not accepted for publication and it would be a further two years before my first travel story would be published. This is the first time that this story, about our journey down the Zaire (Congo) River, has appeared in public.)
In his novella Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad described the Congo River as “…an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.”
Today, the river is known as the Zaire (a Lingala word meaning “river”) but is largely unchanged from the river Conrad sailed in the early years of this century, as it sweeps through the implacable forest on its 4,300 kilometre journey from its headwaters in Zambia to the Atlantic Ocean. Where it meets the sea, the powerful current carries the discoloured water over 100 kilometres offshore, gouging a 1,200 metre deep canyon in the ocean floor in the process.
As dawn approaches, cool and mist-shrouded, the face of the river is revealed: opaque, inscrutable, an enigma of brown water. Here at Kisangani, where the river bends north-east, the Stanley Falls, named after the explorer Henry Morten Stanley, mark the upstream limit of the 1,900 kilometres of navigable river. Above the falls, the river is navigable in broken stretches for a further 1,600 kilometres, and the entire river, with its myriad of tributaries and branches, offers more than 13,000 kilometres of waterways reaching into every corner of the country.
Out in mid-river the current takes the barge in its grip…
Aboard the barge M.B. LOKOLE, the frenzy of pre-departure activity begins with the first glimmer of dawn. Our small group of western travellers, all passengers on an Overland Expedition travelling north form Nairobi to London, mark the boundaries of our section of steel decline a wagon train forming a protective circle. Around us, several hundred native Zairians come aboard laden with luggage, food, animals and children. Several goats are tethered beside us; a monkey on a leash stares down at us from a pole; baskets of blackened and evil-smelling smoked fish; fruit, vegetables, meat and a multitude of other delicacies culled from the forest and sold by the waterfront traders to passengers departing on the irregular ferries and barges which ply the river. The babel of colour and enterprise on the riverbank will disappear before the LOKOLE is out of sight – the traders returning to the main market in town or to their villages in the forest.
By 8:00 AM the sun has burnt the last tendrils of mist away and is already uncomfortably hot. We rig up a crude shelter using tent flies and sticks as the LOKOLE backs away from the waterfront and turns downstream. Out in mid-river the current takes the barge in its grip, insisting that it moves at the river’s swift pace. The river is wide – 2 kilometres at Kisangani – but its glossy surface hides sandbars and snags so the captain, Mr Chimungu, must steer a zig-zag course from bank to bank, guided by his old and dog-eared charts.
The day passes slowly. Heat presses down on the river and forest like a heavy blanket. The M.B. LOKOLE carries a cargo of dried fish, the cloying smell of which emanates from the hold and hangs in the air. Amazingly, people are camped down in the hold amongst the stinking load.
“It’s a lot cooler down here,” a man named Hastings tells me. “The smell is bad but you get used to it.”
Local traders paddle out from each village in pirogues: dugout canoes fashioned from single giant tree trunks. Each trader has something different to sell: mangoes, bananas, fish, a freshly-killed antelope, monkeys with their fur singed and hands cut off. Passengers haggle furiously and usually get the best deal as the LOKOLE carries the pirogues and their owners swiftly downstream necessitating quick sales before the traders are too far from home.
Late afternoon brings an immense thunderstorm. Jagged bolts of lightning leap down into the forest from towering black and gold clouds accompanied by peals of thunder and a wonderfully cooling rain. As the storm clears, night begins to fall. River and forest blend into one.
With a resounding crash the barge is run aground against the riverbank for the night, further navigation impossible in the darkness.
Without the noise of the engine, the night air is full of the sounds of the forest: cicadas and frogs, unseen birds and the occasional scream of an animal falling prey to another animal. The black water whispers against the steel hull and around us the people begin to sing, their rich, harmonious voices a Congo sleepsong.
Loud scraping and banging sounds signal our departure form the riverbank. The morning mist wreaths the forest crowding down to the water’s edge and swallows the tops of the highest trees. Against the mist the forest is deep green. Verdant. Impenetrable.
Soon after first light I go and sit with a group of men at the front of the barge and watch the morning come to life on the river. Fishermen cast weighted nets form their pirogues, each cast yielding several fish form the murky water. Birds glide low over the water catching insects or diving for small fish just below the glassy surface.
I strike up a conversation with a young man called Jacob, French-born to Zairian parents. He has come to Zaire to find his roots.
“This country has everything,” he says, “minerals, oil, fertile soil. It could feed itself and much of the rest of Africa if it was allowed to develop.
“But,” he continues, “this country has been brought to its knees by its corrupt government. It makes me very sad.”
Jacob’s comments echo the unspoken thoughts of most Zairians. Since taking power in 1965, President Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga (the name means “the always victorious warrior who is to be feared”) has squandered billions of dollars in export revenue and foreign aid while the infrastructure of Zaire has crumbled almost beyond belief. With a personal fortune estimated to be as high as five billion US dollars, Mobutu exerts a witch-doctor-like control over his people. His photograph is displayed in every shop, house and office; his official statements refer to Him in the upper case; press photographs always show him to be larger than the people around him.
But here on the river, life seems far removed from the political problems of Zaire. Traders continue to paddle furiously out to the barge, their muscles straining, faces contorted and sweating with the effort of catching the passing vessel and its potential customers.
The cries of the new-born baby girl mingle with the sounds of animals, chattering and laughing people, and the steady beat of the cleansing rain.
Mid-morning, we stop at a village to drop off passengers and freight. Wandering through the market, there doesn’t seem to be any food for sale, merely bananas and a few piles of soggy oranges. At the top of a dusty track we find a bar run by the local mission selling cold beer and Coca-cola. It is pleasantly cool and shady inside the bar-room, but soon the sound of the whistle has us running back down to the waterfront to re-join the LOKOLE, berthed alongside the rusting hull of a dis-used river ferry.
The afternoon heat is oppressive, but as afternoon draws into evening and the sun sinks languidly towards the forest, the daily thunderstorm arrives to cool the air. In true African fashion, a baby is born amid the chaos of passengers and cargo. In marked contrast to the drama attached to child-birth in the developed world, the mother simply squats down and with the help of two other women gives birth in just a few minutes. The cries of the new-born baby girl mingle with the sounds of animals, chattering and laughing people, and the steady beat of the cleansing rain.
Aground on the river-bank for a second night, three of us accompany Captain Chimungu up to a nearby village for a drink. The forest is silent and bitch black except for the pale starlight filtering down through the canopy. The Captain seems to be able to see in the dark, but mumurs that he comes this way “pour un bier” on every journey. The village is nothing more than a few huts amid a jungle clearing and we sit around a lantern drinking Primus brand beer and talking to the villagers in French and broken English. They tell us that Queen Elizabeth visited here in 1958 and that she owns some palm oil plantations in the area. I try to imagine Her Majesty and her entourage sitting around on tea chests drinking beer in this humid and isolated placeWhen the beer is all gone, we make our way back down through the stygian forest to the barge where millions of insects are swarming around the single light on the roof of the wheelhouse.
We continue downstream at first light. Slowly, people begin to stir aboard the barge. Women light their cooking fires and prepare the day’s first meal. The men collect in their usual groups around the deck to talk, smoke and play cards. Traders come out from the riverbank with their smoked fish and monkeys. The smoked monkeys are a macabre sight, their faces seared into grisly poses, teeth bared, eyes bulging.
We have almost no food left but Captain Chimungu takes pity on us helpless Muzungu (African slang for “white people”) and gives us some freshly-caught fish, some potatoes and some onions which we cook and eat along with some bully beef and some rice.
By 7:30 AM the sun is beating down from a sky the colour of burnished copper. The river is very wide, more like a shining lake than a river with the forest a thin, dark line on the far bank. Water hyacinths float gently in the current, taking all their nourishment form the river as they drift indolently towards the sea.
At midday the town of Bomba, our destination, comes into view. The scene at the waterfront is reminiscent of that at Kisangani, as traders vie for the best positions and passengers jostle in the queues waiting to disembark.
Captain Chimungu wishes us “Bon Chance” as we gather our tourist paraphernalia and clamber ashore. There is an impromptu “customs check” with the local police. A small bribe changes hands before we can set off up the dusty Main Street to find somewhere to stay.
Behind us, down at the river, a shrill whistle signals the departure of the M.B. LOKOLE on the next leg of its 1,900 kilometre journey around the bend in the river.
FOOTNOTE: Since September 1991, president Mobutu’s iron grip on Zaire has been loosened by civil unrest, rioting and secessionist uprisings.
The latest spate of turmoil, in January this year , was caused by Mr Mobutu’s issue of a virtually worthless five million Zaire banknote (the unit of currency is called the ‘Zaire”) in a vain attempt to keep up with the country’s hyperinflation. Up to 1,000 people, including the French ambassador, were reported to have been killed in the violence, perpetrated mainly by drunken soldiers from the Israeli-trained Elite Guard.
With support growing for the opposition Sacred Union Party, led by Prime Minister Etienne Tshisekedi, Mr Mobutu’s hold on power, and, some would say, reality, is becoming increasingly tenuous. There are fears, however, that with Mr Mobutu deposed, the country would dissolve into civil war. Zaire, four times the size of France, could easily fragment due to secessionist pressure in several parts of the country, especially the south-east.
It appears that Zaire’s future, like the great river in Conrad’s story, flows on “…into the heart of an immense darkness.”
President Mobutu Sese Seko was chucked out of power, and out of Zaire, in May 1997. He died a few months later in Morocco. Zaire was renamed The Democratic Republic of the Congo following Mobutu’s departure.
West of Duntroon, beyond the limestone caves with their Maori rock art, beyond the fertile river flats where sleek cattle graze and sheep stare stonily from boggy paddocks, the Danseys Pass Road enters the gorge of the Marawhenua River. The hillsides, cloaked in scrub and pine trees, close in until there is only enough room for the river and the road. The Danseys Pass Holiday Park stands on a sunny bend where the river flows through a deep rocky pool, then the road steps across the river on a Bailey bridge and begins its climb up the flanks of the Kakanui Mountains.
There is gold in these here hills. Side creeks, descending in steep gullies, show signs of sluicing from olden days when gold rushes were a regular occurrence in these parts. Prospectors still fossick in the riverbed, looking for traces of colour in their gold pans and clues to the ever-elusive Mother Lode.
The road, surfaced with the fine pink quartzite gravel of North Otago, undulates along a ridgeline past woolsheds and farm buildings. There are rows of baled silage, wrapped in long plastic sausages, and muddy tractors parked in fenced enclosures. Snow posts mark the edges of the road and big, bushy snow tussocks wave in the constant breeze blowing down from the tops.
The Danseys Pass road began life as a stock route for sheep and cattle being driven over into Central Otago from the stations of the Waitaki Valley. Gold miners followed, their pots and pans clanking on the sides of their bullocks as they crossed the ranges en route to the goldfields of the Maniototo. Today, a steady stream of tourists travel the road which is well-maintained and perfectly safe for 2WD vehicles.
Mercurial trickles of water glint in the sunlight as they spill from the snowfields into dark gullies…
The road crosses a dozen small streams – some bridged, others with concrete fords – and rattles over a similar number of cattle grids set into fence-lines which traverse the road and climb the hills on either side. Gateways open onto steep 4WD tracks which zig-zag up the mountain-sides, providing access for shepherds to the high tops. The hillsides – “as steep as a hen’s face” is how shepherds describe precipitous country – fall right to the river. Sheep scuttle off the road at the sound of your approach, leaving piles of poop where they have been sitting. A battalion of power pylons marches across the landscape.
Finally, the road climbs across a vast tussock-clad face towards the pass, winding in and out of narrow gullies and sidling around the muscular flanks of the hillside. Encased in your cocoon of twenty-first-century technology, it’s easy to forget how harsh this environment is. You need to be tough to live up here. Late snows, baking summer heat, floods, landslides, fire: farming in the High Country is a constant struggle with the elements.
…and light takes on a life of its own.
Dansey’s Pass itself occupies a wide saddle slung between shingly peaks. Bare slabs of stone lie scattered amongst the tussocks and traces of winter snow cling to the hollows of the mountaintops all year round. Mercurial trickles of water glint in the sunlight as they spill from the snowfields into dark gullies.
From the pass, the road dips steeply into the catchment of the Kyeburn River. Fangs of black rock protruding from the hillsides, giving the landscape a slightly menacing aspect. It’s the sort of place you would expect a troll or an elf to live. Water seeps from the gravel surface of the road which is hewn through slabs of solid rock in places. The sky up here is dazzling, and on summer days, streaks of tinsel nor’ west cloud stretch out from the distant Southern Alps.
The Kyeburn, another river full of gold, twists out from the hills, beginning its long journey to the coast where the water of the snowfields will be swallowed by the sea. Hereford cows peer at you over rusty fences of flat standards and barbed wire as you pass by. In this landscape of stone and gold, every view is back-dropped by the snowy spines of mountains and light takes on a life of its own.
The Danseys Pass Coaching Inn, deep in the valley, offers superb food and coffee, and overnight lodgings in unique gold rush-era rooms. Travel is always a vanishing act. From the Danseys Pass Coaching Inn, you could get into your vehicle and drive back to the top of the pass, with the world spread out at your feet, and watch the sun set over the hills. Perhaps you could take some other long straight back road and see where it leads, like a prospector following a new reef of gold. Or, you could simply order another cappuccino instead.