“A major disadvantage of taking this route is that you must pass through awful customs officials who demand stiff matabribes (bribes) and often delay travellers for hours on end.” (Geoff Crowther: Lonely Planet, Central Africa 1991)

The information might have been twenty years old, but it was still accurate. In hindsight I’m not sure which was more of a hassle: leaving the Central African Republic, entering the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), or leaving the first town in the DRC? We were, as I feared, delayed for hours.

Our problems, like many in Africa, could have been resolved with money. A middle-aged woman with a terrible wig, and her younger hot-headed male accomplice expected $7 each for the privilege of having our passports stamped at the immigration shack in Bangui. As normal I politely refused. Time passed. They then telephoned their superior. He arrived, seized our passports, more time passed and he disappeared. We continued to wait. I tried to remain calm by watching the tranquil surface of the Ubangui river behind me, but without my passport worry crept in. Where had it been taken? I called one of the many young men eagerly waiting to ferry us across the Ubangui river to DRC to fetch me a beer. “You drink a beer now?” Hiromu exclaimed. “I’m stressed” I replied.

Well the beer changed the atmosphere. The woman with the wig and her accomplice naturally expected me to buy them one too. Show and return my passport to me and you’ll get your beer I reluctantly replied. It seemed a fair trade-off. Hiromu decided to donate a stainless steel thermos flask; “Pas Chinois” he stressed. It was one of many gifts that was bestowed on him by his Japanese contacts in Bangui.

Two hours later we were off – loading the bikes into a motorised pirogue and crossing the river. With so many eager oarsmen and so few people crossing the river here bargaining for a cheap fare was in our favour. But then came round 2.

What made the officer in charge at the immigration post in Zongo so angry I’m not sure. We sat silent as he delivered a 20-minute long soliloquy on DRC and the formalities of entering and travelling through the country. At first I couldn’t take him seriously. His face looked like it had been treated with some kind of whitening cream, which made his cheeks shine with a chestnut gloss. Was this man real or a wax-work? His waistline matched his level of importance, but I sensed even before he refused to shake my hand that we were in for a long round.

We were to pay $50 each to enter DRC on the basis that if he were to visit Europe he would have to do the same. I politely pointed out that this was not true. ‘Was I challenging his word?’ he retorted. “Have you visited England?” I asked.

The sparring continued for sometime, but in French I do a better job of looking dumb and innocent than providing a coherent and comprehensible challenge to the authority of Francophone bureaucracy.

“You are corrupt” I told him. “Your country has a bad reputation because of people like you. You are the first person people meet when they enter DRC and look what impression you are creating”. I continued using this thread with French dictionary in hand. He disappeared and time passed.

It was now almost sunset and our passports were back in the hands of the chap who’d previously spent 20 minutes examining each one. The DRC is the 19th country I’ve visited with this passport. For Hiromu it is 30-something. We have a lot of stamps and visas and he studied each one like it were a complex equation that needed solving before turning the page. Well now he was reaching for the ink-pad and providing the entry stamps that we needed. This wasn’t the script as I foresaw it. Weren’t we meant to plead and offer a lower sum? The shiny-faced shit had obviously exhausted his efforts and disappeared. Had this all been a game to scare us?

I too was exhausted and I’d only cycled 6km since leaving the Guest House in Bangui 7 hours previously. But we weren’t quite in the clear. Someone who’d been lingering around the immigration shack like a hungry puppy now pursued us and said he was from the Zongo Tourist Bureau. He pointed at a non-descript concrete block. I laughed. A tourist office in Zongo, DRC? With what remaining ounce of politeness I had left I kindly said we’d finished for the day and ignored him.

We spent the night at the Catholic Mission in Zongo. It was an oasis of tranquility to pitch the tents on lush grass in an orchard of mango and avocado trees. The white-bearded Italian priest said he’d been in Zongo 15 years and in the country 46. Nothing was said about the problems we’d encountered at the immigration office a few kilometres away. I’m sure he knew, or rather didn’t want to involve himself in any dealings with two foreigners who’d arrived unannounced. I was grateful he’d given us permission to camp with the mission compound.

The problems continued the next day. FBI would you believe? They found us drinking coke in the market. We’d previously just taken breakfast there (rice and beans) and quickly discovered from all the name-calling that both Jet Li and The Transporter are equally as famous in DRC as they are in CAR. Word had obviously spread quickly that there were two foreigners in town.

Naturally we had no reason to believe these plain-clothed chaps without ID were anything close to who they said they were. So we pedalled off. Five minutes later they caught us up on motorbikes. We stopped, showed photocopies of our passports and asked to see their ID whilst a large crowd of locals gathered. They produced no ID, so off we pedalled again. They followed, motored ahead to what was clearly a check-post at the end of the town and returned. It was quite obvious we would not be leaving this town. Finally someone arrived with a badge. It wasn’t much more convincing, but there was confirmation that registration at their office was ‘gratuit’, so we reluctantly turned back to the town escorted by several motorbikes.

The Director of this so-called FBI office spoke English. He wanted to know my mission. I showed him my magic letter, plus my ‘Ordre De Mission’, which puts me as ‘chef’ of ‘The Big Africa Cycle’, explains in brief about the Against Malaria Foundation, and gives me authority to travel throughout all provinces of DRC. It would seem this Ordre de Mission, that I wrote myself, is a vital piece of armour for lessening the problems one encounters when travelling through the DRC. To say one is a tourist is not sufficient. “And where is your Ordre De Mission?” the Director asked Hiromu. “He’s my assistant” I explained, as Hiromu tried to provide a convincing explanation to why he was in the DRC.

Forms were filled out with our passport details and thumb-prints. This was indeed official, I think, and I felt a little foolish for not knowing so in the first place. There was no call for a bribe. “Tell your men to carry ID next time” I told the Director. It would have saved us all several hours.

Finally we pedalled out of Zongo under the midday sun. Had there been jungle there might have been shade. Instead an open rolling expanse of green hills and waist-high elephant grass provided my first scenes of the DRC – Africa’s third largest country, or to put things in perspective, a country 77 times larger than its former colonial ruler – Belgium.

The red laterite track was easy going at first, and we shared it with many other cyclists. Let me introduce you to the Congo bicycle. It is to this country what trucks are to most others. People transport enormous loads on these reinforced Chinese antiques and cover huge distances. Motorbikes are rare and 4-wheel motorised transport even rarer. Bicycles represent the economic lifeline of commerce in rural DRC, which is as good an example as one needs to illustrate the state of infrastructure here. The loads transported on these single-speeds make my 25-30kg of luggage look like I’m going out for a day cycle. For example, two 50kg bags of maize will commonly be purchased in the town of Gemena for 20,000 Congolese Francs ($22), loaded onto the back of a bicycle and pushed/pedalled/freewheeled (depending on the topography – fortunately mostly flat) some 240km to the town of Zongo, where it will be sold for around 25,000 Congolese Francs ($27). This is a round trip journey of 4-5 days for a back-breaking profit of $5. Other common items being transported along these jungle tracks include palm oil, petrol, groundnuts, and seasonal fruits (lots of avocados at the moment).

Congo cyclist

And so really the bicycle is the perfect form of transport for an outsider to truly see the Congo. Where there is a broken iron bridge, of which there are two within the first 80km from Zongo, it presents no problem for a bicycle. Should one want a conversation in French, or an opportunity to learn some Lingala, there will be no shortage of willing candidates on the road with you.

The problems for the outsider in the DRC are the authorities, whoever they may be. Petty police in ragged uniforms occasionally stopped us on the road. They were usually drunk – the little money they did have would have been used to buy whatever cheap alcohol was available (palm or casava wine). With the usual patience and firm but polite refusal to hand over money we would be on our way again, perhaps in exchange for a few cigarettes. The bigger problems exist in the larger towns. Men claiming to be from an immigration or security bureau wish that foreigners register their details with them and pay. It is unnecessary, and merely an opportunity for them to present something official and then expect payment.

In the town of Libenge we reluctantly paid the $4 each for this process. To have made a fuss would have been embarrassing. We had been taken to this immigration office by nuns from the Catholic mission where we were staying. It seems that towns throughout the Congo have missions dating from the colonial period, which are about the only colonial enterprises still functioning.

Libenge sits on the banks of the Ubangui river and at one time was perhaps a thriving and prosperous place. Direct flights used to connect the town with Brussels, and along many of the mango-lined avenues can be found street lights. These, like most things that depend on electrical power have not been working for decades. And so the colonial buildings and rusted remains of long-abandoned trucks and machines sit like ghostly reminders of another era.

Were it not for the small population of people who survive here the town would have been swallowed by the jungle. Once we left the mission and pedalled out the track narrowed to become little more than shoulder-width wide. There were lots of villages out here, one-hut deep from the jungle, and they often stretched for many kilometres with no discernible centre. Few contained anything for sale beyond bananas, groundnuts and manioc, and finding fresh water wasn’t always easy.

Bamboo jungle

On my map Gemena looked like the first real town of any size. Well I guess it is. There is an airport here providing direct flights to Kinshasa twice a week. But the streets and pace of life are more like a village than a city. We’ve sought refuge in the Catholic Mission again (not sure there is even a hotel) which almost guarantees the authorities can’t come knocking on the door, or tent as is the case (the mission charge $25 per night for a basic room). South from here lies the town of Lisala, where with a bit of luck and perhaps patience I might be able to find a barge heading up the Congo River towards Kisangani.

Congo truck