On the morning the riverboat was finally ready to depart from Kinshasa, the port came alive. The first of the passengers arrived with the dawn and kept arriving, carrying with them every sort of baggage. They streamed through the gates, across the wharf, down a shaky metal stairway that landed on a stack of plywood pallets, and along a greasy steel dock that floated on the river. They lugged oil drums, metal trunks, bundles, baskets, children, suitcases, chickens, sacks, cartons, wheelbarrows, bolts of cloth, bags of salt and hundreds of other possessions. They wrangled, wrestled, and argued with the stevedores, who could be paid to load the heaviest things. All the passengers were trying simultaneously to get themselves and their goods aboard and stowed safely away in some corner of the riverboat or its flotilla of passenger barges.

The boat itself was a four-deck relic from colonial days named the Major Mudimbi. It was powered by two enormous diesel engines whose task was to drag and push the five barges, which were lashed with steel cables to the Mudimbi's blunt prow and battered sides, each as long as the riverboat itself and each soon crammed with people, animals and merchandise.

About 1,500 steerage-class passengers were going to ride the barges upriver. Two of the barges were flat, but the others were topped with tiers of metal-walled, cell-like rooms that were superior only to the aisleways and open decks where the poorest passengers settled in for the journey. A lucky few found comparative peace in odd niches in the cargo holds below decks. The hundred or so passengers who could afford first-class tickets took cabins on an upper deck of the Mudimbi herself.

We must have looked strange as we boarded, hauling our assorted gear, which now also included a bag stuffed with stacks of Zairian money, and followed by a porter we had hired to carry our five gallons of purified water. But we were soon surrounded by fellow passengers who were too harried to stare at the spectacle we made. We had booked a cabine de luxe, one of two top-class, supposedly luxury cabins originally designed to provide the requisite comforts to high Belgian officials. In the weeks preceding our trip, we had allowed ourselves to imagine that our berths might be pleasant, and perhaps even grand.

Only when we boarded the boat on the day of departure did we realize just how much the Mudimbi had aged since its commission in the Belgian colonial service shortly after World War II. Nothing about the squarish old riverboat was quite shipshape, from the pair of banged-up lifeboats at her stern to the chipped white paint at her prow.

Up on the second deck we found a steward, a short man who wore a starched white uniform but padded down the deck barefoot. He unlocked the door to our cabin. Tim walked in first and looked around.

"Oh no," he said.

Years' worth of cobwebs and dusty gunk hung in the corners. The walls were a malevolent light green splotched with stains of unidentifiable origins. Two sagging cots and a couple of small tables competed for space with an imposing wooden armoire, one of whose scarred doors had come permanently unfastened and hung out over the beds. A door opened onto the bathroom, which had all of the necessary fixtures -- cold-water sink, cold-water bathtub, and toilet -- all of which were filthy. Beneath the inside rim on the toilet bowl cockroaches hid, attracted by the damp semidarkness. They were king-sized and had wings.

I stopped worrying about whether the topnotch accommodations were going to isolate us from the reality of the Congo.

We set about trying to clean up the cabin.

Meanwhile, the steward returned with sheets. I tried to start a conversation.

"We thank you very much," I said in French. "Please, we want to know your name."

He backed toward the door, his boyish face clouded.

"Jimmy," he said, pronouncing it "Jeemee" as a Belgian would.

"Is that your real name? Or is that the name the Belgians gave you?" I asked.

"Jimmy is my name," he said, and sidled toward the door.

"Okay, Jeemee it is," I said, trying to reassure him with a friendly tone. "How many years have you worked on the riverboats?"

"Thirty years," he answered, offering no elaboration, bowing, and making his escape.

Including the luxury cabins, the Mudimbi had five classes. Our cabin, which was at the very stern of the boat, shared a deck with the first-class rooms. These were narrow, unventilatable rooms meant for two, and often occupied by as many as eight, passengers. At the end of the deck was the first-class dining room, whose carved mahogany bar and white tablecloths spoke to its former grandeur and whose warping floor spoke to its current neglect. Second-class tickets bought spaces in bunkrooms on the upper tiers of the barges and third-class in smaller, hotter rooms below, where most of the river merchants, or commerc,ants, established themselves. Fourth class, which seemed to be comprised mainly of threadbare students and itinerant soldiers, entitled the passenger to whatever spot he could claim on an aisleway bench or the unfurnished deck.

Preparing the Mudimbi for departure was a daylong event, during which order and purpose frequently capitulated to disorder and dispute. The hubbub made slow going of an exploratory walk I took around the boat. At the bottom of the stairway to the riverboat's lower deck, someone had stacked some cylindrical wicker baskets, inside which a couple of dozen yellow and black chickens fluttered. I had to make my way over this obstacle without crushing the chickens and also without hiking my cotton dress, which I wore at mid-calf length to satisfy African propriety. The Zairians who were nearby pretended not to watch, polite above all even when confronted with the sight of a white woman with long blond hair trying to find a path through the hodgepodge they were so familiar with.

To get forward from the Mudimbi proper, I had to leap across a trough of water and onto the end of the first barge. A wide corridor partway along this barge was being transformed into a marketplace by a couple dozen commerc ants, who were laying out the wares they would trade with the people upriver.

I threaded my way through a group of them, nodding my head and saying, "Bonjour, Bonjour."

A young woman with a pretty face and large, almost diamond-shaped eyes nodded in reply but said nothing.

"Mbote," I then said, trying to pronounce the greeting accurately.

The woman jerked her head up and snapped her eyes on me.

"Sango nini?" I asked.

"Sango te," she answered before clapping her hand to her mouth and breaking into laughter. Some other commerc ants who had overheard the exchange laughed, too, and called out explanations for the amusement of those who had not heard.

I had said hello and asked the news in Lingala, a Bantu tongue that is spoken the length of the river and has become Zaire's main commercial and military language. She had given the polite answer, telling me there was nothing going on.

The commerc ants all spoke the rough French that is the lingua franca of this country of more than two hundred tribes and an equal diversity of languages. They were accustomed to foreigners who came speaking French, but to hear me say something in one of their own languages cut close to their hearts. People here are acutely aware of the tribe and the region from which someone comes and language plays a large part in defining tribal and geographical identities. Although my Lingala was limited and halting, the few sentences I could manage never failed to cause a sensation.

Gleaming in the late afternoon sun, near the prow of a lead barge, I spotted a full suite of living-room furniture upholstered with circus-red plastic that would have looked at home in the window of a discount furniture store somewhere in middle America. Several men were sitting on the sofa and chairs arranged in an intimate circle around a coffee table upon which were the dishes left from a meal. They invited me over to have a seat.

I answered their questions about where I was coming from and going to and they taught me some more Lingala. The owner of the furniture, a balding and paunchy man named Simon Kepe, said he was taking the suite to a store he ran in a town near the equator. I couldn't imagine who would be buying it. But, with its occupants, the suite did serve excellently as a living figurehead for the floating jumble on which we had embarked.

Before the Mudimbi pulled away from the dock, I jostled my way back toward the stern, feeling happy about being in Africa again. It was going to be impossible to feel lonely on this boat ride.

Darkness closed in on either side of us as the Mudimbi churned northeast across Malebo Pool. More lake than pool, this is where the river flexes sideways and bulges to a width of 15 miles, frustrated in its onward rush by the Crystal Mountains. A dry and stubborn range, these mountains act like a dam thrust across the river's path, squeezing it below Kinshasa into a chute of water that plunges and twists down toward the Atlantic Ocean. The river drops a full 1,000 feet through a horrendous series of cataracts, 200 miles of white water that end at the river's estuary 100 miles yet from the ocean. It was these cataracts that worked for centuries to keep most of the world ignorant of the regions through which the Congo runs.

On a map, the river looks like a snake and its tributaries like a profusion of tails, curving through the middle of Africa, its head at the Atlantic and its longest tail for miles inland. Malebo Pool resembles the lump a freshly swallowed monkey, or other luckless jungle creature, might make in the gullet of the ophidian river.

Once night had fallen on the river, we could discern little of what was around us, seeing only shadowy intimations of the pool we were traversing. Long silhouettes of marshy island stood out darker than the darkness of the water, their inscrutableness broken here and there by the solitary flares of fishermen's campfires, which lit clumps of wide-bladed river grasses and made them seem to dance.

This first leg of the trip, the thousand miles to Kisangani, was supposed to take nine days, if all went well. By our calculations, this meant that the Mudimbi would heave its way upriver at an uninspiring speed of four or five miles an hour, about as fast as a quick walk or a slow jog. Greater speed was not possible, despite the strength of the diesels that drove the boat, pounding away round-the-clock with a vehemence that shook all of the boat's four decks. That the Mudimbi was able to make any upriver progress at all was impressive. The diesels were hauling a floating contraption more than 200 yards long and 40 wide, weighing who knows how much, while simultaneously fighting the countervailing power of the river.

The Congo's ever-gathering descent to the ocean is so powerful that the river by itself could produce 13 percent of the world's hydroelectricity. Measuring 2,900 miles, the Congo ranks fifth in length among the world's rivers, but it is second greatest in volume, spewing very nearly 1.5 million cubic feet of water every second into the ocean.

The river swings counterclockwise through Zaire beginning with a grand piece of dissemblance. It rises in the Katangan Plateau and runs first northward with unswerving determination, until it takes an unorthodox bend to the west, before bending again, impossibly, toward the south. It crosses the equator twice -- the only major river to cross it at all -- gathering waters from tributaries that originate both north and south of the earth's midline. Part of the Congo's watershed is always under deluge so that a dry season south of the equator is balanced by a rainy season north of the equator and vice versa, giving the river an extraordinarily steady flow. The Congo drains almost a million square miles of the rain forest that grows in the Congo Basin, a topographical saucer of huge proportions, and abounds even today with trees, plants and insects that have not been identified.

Within the country, the river is no longer known as the Congo. It has been renamed the Zaire, along with the country and the currency, in an effort to erase memories of the colonial Belgian Congo. The name Zaire most likely comes from a Portuguese mispronunciation of an old Bantu word, nzadi, which meant "the river that swallows all rivers." Internationally, however, the river continues to be called the Congo.

That first night the engines throbbed away rhythmically and assuringly as the Mudimbi threaded its way through the channels of Malebo Pool, its spotlights the only aid the boat's pilot had in navigating the nighttime river. Their beams swiveled across expanses of water and swept along the edges of the islands, revealing a patch of swampy grass or a mudbank. At the rate we were going, it would take until midnight to travel the pool's 20-mile length. The noise from the barges, a mix of voices, music, clattering, bleating, laughing, shouting and crowing, kept up far into the night as the riverboat chugged deeper and deeper into the forest that stretches more than halfway across Africa.

I jerked up from an uneasy sleep, having lain awake long into the night imagining what lay ahead on the river. The shaking of the diesels made the metal cot legs rattle against the cabin floor and the metal edges of the cots rattle against each other. Tim and I had pushed the cots together, trying in vain to add a touch of romance to the grim interior of the cabin. At least a score of the cockroaches had succumbed to the insecticide Tim had sprayed, although undoubtedly many more still lived. The bodies of the dead roaches crunched underfoot as we dressed and hurried out to the railing.

As it turned out, that dawn was only slightly noisier than those to come. The Mudimbi never quieted. Someone was always dancing, talking, shouting, arguing, bargaining or singing, and usually many people were. Although the sun had barely risen, the music already was going full blast. Rock music, the hypnotically rhythmic tunes of the Zairan electric bands that are the undisputed favorites in Africa, was blaring from beer parlors that had opened overnight on the barges. From early morning into the middle of the night, the music played, amplified to full volume through hoarse sound systems and rasping speakers.

Now that we were moving again, the repetitive thrum-thrum-thrum of the diesels also blended into the music, sounding like big, mechanical bass drums that never stopped beating, pounding out an unchanging rhythm. The engines churned, the speakers scratched, roosters crowed and goats bleated, joining in a timpanic cacophony.

The morning had dawned misty, and was surprisingly cool given the fact that we were steaming toward the equator. But the fog soon burned off under a sun that was rising fast and that stung where it hit my skin. At dawn the sky had been colored a rich cobalt but the glaring light soon bleached it to a pale blue. The fog's clearing revealed a series of steep hills, the low outlying ranges of the Crystal Mountains, rising from both banks.

The views unfolding around the boat looked like a dream landscape. Recurring for mile after mile, nearly identical hills crowded the river. Settlements, clusterings of huts, huddled in the scattered shade of palm trees on the riverbanks. Scrubby patches of trees clung to the ridges, but the flanks of the hills were bald and seared. These baking hills mark what used to be the westernmost periphery of the Congo Basin forest, but the original trees have been hacked down and used to stoke cooking fires as far away as Kinshasa.

We had not had time to absorb the view when Jimmy came scuttling down the deck balancing a tray laden with plates of toast, butter and jam, and pots of coffee and tea. "Chop," he said. "Chop, chop," telling us in colonial-era idiom that food was served. Having set the tray down on the low table under the near-defunct air conditioner that occupied onewall of the room, Jimmy made for the door hastily in a sideways hustle. We were too startled to thank him.

"Just look at this," I said, lifting the lid on a pot and delightfully confirming the smell of fresh coffee. "Coffee and cream. Even sugar. Jam. What more could we want?"

"There don't seem to be any weevils anywhere," Tim replied, inspecting the jam pot with equal pleasure. We felt a little smug about our good fortune, on our way into the heart of Africa, eating buttered toast and gazing out onto the Congo.

Although the Mudimbi had not yet traveled a full day upriver, we had crossed to the other side of a gap in time and into a region beyond the reach of all but the most haphazard influences of modernity. On the riverbanks, the tin sheeting used on an occasional hut, instead of the traditional grass and palm-leaf thatch, caught the sun and glinted. The settlements were small, none larger than a couple dozen huts of sun-baked mud crowded together to deny their loneliness. No roads wound through the hills to join them to other places. The river was their sole connection to the outside, to the world of commodities and currency, the world that produced tin sheeting, galvanized pots, bottled beer and the riverboats loaded with tradestuffs. There was only the river, flowing as it always had from one age into the next, navigated since before the time of Christ by fishermen, traders and warriors.

Being less gregarious than I, Tim liked to sit at the prow of the Mudimbi's leading barge and gaze at the river unfolding. This barge was comparatively peaceful. On its flat expanse, neighborhoods of makeshift tents had sprung up in the spaces between pieces of heavy cargo, which included a Volkswagen, barrels of gasoline and diesel fuel, bales of used clothes, and Simon Kepe's red furniture. It was almost quiet up there, far enough away from the straining engines so that it rode smoothly across the water as if pushed by some giant and benevolent hand.

Tim found a spot where he could lean against a low bulkhead and study the river that was wider with each mile we traveled in from the mountains that had choked its passage near Kinshasa. In the mornings the river still was brown, a uniform brown: It had no red tinge, no green hint, no blue possibility, nothing to proclaim it Africa's greatest river. But the rising sun changed its countenance. Under the bombarding light it took on a silvery sheen, and by noontime it gleamed like dirty sheet metal.

The farther we traveled upriver, the more difficult it was to tell where we were and where we had been. The river had become a skein of channels that split and merged and split again around island after island. Some four thousand of these islands interrupt the river, disguising its size, slicing its currents into mere insinuations of the greater watercourse. Each reach of the river looked the same, bend after bend, hour after hour, mile after mile. The only apprehensible change in the scenery was with the forest, which was getting thicker, always thicker. From the mass of foliage, an occasional palm or an old giant of the forest would thrust itself free, shooting straight up into the air and then blossoming into a lofty crown.

Sometimes, villages slid by, insignificant clearings in the greenery, a patch of rubiginous dirt and houses built of sticks and thatch. Sometimes, a few raggedly dressed people would look up from their chores to stare, startled, at the churning riverboat.

The prow was the place to watch the pirogues coming in. Against the silver immensity of the river, the canoes that lay in wait for the riverboat formed a pattern of dark curves, chiseled to points at the ends like uncertain smiles. They were no different from those crafted by the early Bantu settlers who swept through the Congo Basin in a great migration before the time of Christ. The dugouts, the largest of them wide enough to hold a hippopotamus and long enough to carry 40 people, were made to look impossibly delicate by the sheer size of the river rocking them down its currents. Warned of the riverboat's approach by a system of drum signals passed along the banks, the river people paddled out to the edge of the main boat channel, a pathway up the river that zigzagged around sandbars, muddy shallows and islands. They waited then for the boat to draw abreast, standing with their long paddles still.

At an exactly figured moment, they flashed their paddles, bending from their waists and balancing with a grace practiced down through generations, shooting their canoes toward the boat. As a dugout came sliding toward the side of the boat, veering and slithering in the turbulent water at the boat's side, the front paddler grabbed for a railing or another canoe, anything more stable than the rushing water. The riverboat plowed ahead, paying no heed to the struggling paddlers, not even when an occasional canoe bounced off its side or overturned in the turbulence.

The river people, some of whom travel for days from villages on the Congo's tributaries, came with the bottoms of the pirogues laden with fish, eels, oranges and other fruits. Dying fish flapped and writhed on the lower decks, making it difficult to walk without stepping on the tail of some giant fish whose penny-sized eyes stared, glazing, toward death. A hundred varieties of fish were hauled from the muddy depths of the river to the muddy decks of the riverboat, from the placid carp whose meat is succulently plentiful to the slimy eels that are common riverine fare.

The canoes served up a widening bounty of forest produce. We could buy fresh fruit like bananas, oranges or papayas; mammoth snails, chewy and served in hot pepper sauce; the charcoaled caterpillars that tasted like Fritos; roasted crocodile, a delicacy; flying squirrel; antelope killed that same day in the forest; fat tree grubs, the larvae of beetles that are saute'ed in curry sauce and are a prized source of protein; and monkey.

Every few days the monotony of our progress across the saucer of the Congo Basin was broken by a stopover at a town grown up around one of the original Belgian trading stations. Lisala, situated on the flanks and crest of a rare hill where the river curves back toward the equator for a second time, was one of the bigger such towns. This was the birthplace of Mobutu, who memorialized his 50th birthday by buying hundreds of piglets and having them transported to the town as gifts for the people.

Even with the infusion of presidential pigs, Lisala was another place that had seen better days. A tarmac road cut up the hill from the river, but most of the town's activity was pedestrian. People climbed up and down the hill on a long flight of crumbling stone steps. At the water's edge, a couple of buildings, once places of commerce, were sinking into shambles. An old woman had found shelter on one of the building's porticoes, establishing her hegemony with some bundles of rags she had gathered around her. The rest of the building was empty, its original purpose lost in the flux of years, lost with the departure of the Belgians who had tried so hard to imprint their own order on the Congo. All along the river the scene was the same. The Congo was shrugging off its foreign trappings, turning back toward a past of villages, of simple baked-mud architecture, of small-scale farming, of forest hunting and river fishing.

It was the 12th night on the river, but it could have been the 11th or the 13th, so much did the events of the days melt together. The engines pounded, the decks of the Mudimbi vibrated, the wake spread a fan of turbulence out through the night, caught in the unventilated passages and cubicles of the passenger barges.

Two days later, we both woke with fevers that conspired with a light rain to obscure the outlines of things. We had arrived at Kisangani and the Mudimbi's labors had temporarily ceased. The Congo rushed past the docked riverboat, pulling with it a big pirogue paddled by seven standing men making for the far bank.

This was deepest Africa, the geographic center of the continent, equal distance from Cape Town and Cairo, the Atlantic and the Pacific. This was the place I had longed to see.

From the book "East Along the Equator: A Journey Up the Congo and Into Zaire." Copyright

1987 by Helen Winternitz. Reprinted with permission of the Atlantic Monthly Press.