On the march rain is very disagreeable: it makes the clayey path slippery and the loads heavier by being saturated, while it half ruins the clothes. It makes us dispirited, cold and wet.”(H M Stanley)

20/04/11 Distance Cycled 27km  03°08.292S    026°00.657E    No name village

One of those annoying days when you want to hit yourself for being an idiot. I leave my wallet behind on the road – top of a rear pannier more precisely whilst taking off trousers. Only 15-20km further on do I realise what I’ve done. Fortunately not a huge sum of money– 6000CF or so ($7), but it annoys me and I only have my stupid self to blame. Other than money and wallet there were just contact cards with website written on, a key to padlock (have 2 spares). Could have been much worse.

Back at the beginning of the day things started better. Met Jo -Welsh girl I’d been told was living in Kindu and working for the NGO Merlin. She read my facebook message about doing a book swap. I walk over with Somerset Maugham short stories, A Short History of the World and A Thousand Splendid Sons.

Jo looks like she might have just arrived in Africa rather than having already spent a year in DRC (6 months in Goma and now 6 months in Kindu). This is second time I’m at the Merlin Compound. First was when I arrived and asked the Logistician (whose number I’d been given) if I could pitch my tent in the compound. He refused.

There are a few dozen paperbacks to choose from, but not so easy to read all titles and blurbs whilst having first English conversation with a Brit since that backpacker in Kisangani. End up taking 4 paperbacks – About A Boy, Steppenwolf, (read it before) plus some Haruki Murakami book and another by Ian Banks. Quite a score. I leave 2 books as the other – A Short History of the World, I decide to give to Didier – English speaking Congolese I met when I arrived. Walk to his mobile telephone shop after drinking a cup of earl Grey tea at the Merlin compound – very random. He agrees to change a 50 Euro note, which gives me a brick-sized wad of 130 notes. Use Internet for what might be final time in weeks and somewhat rashly buy camera lens and tripod. Have to be quick with Internet – over $2 per hour so no time to read many reviews of equipment.

Buy 4 tins of sardines on way back to hotel (getting more expensive now) and pack up, wheeling bike down to river after a plate of rice and beans. Shortly after I’m in a motorised pirogue with about 40 other people and crossing the Congo river for the final time. Always somewhat nervous in such places – if it were to capsize that would be it. Somewhat sad to be pedalling away from the river and leaving it for the final time.

Laterite road heading south is smooth but hard under the sun. Storm clouds soon build ahead. Feels good to be pushing pedals as track undulates and passes the usual village scenes – surely too early to get tired of hearing Mzungu being yelled at me? How many times will I hear this in next several months? No motorised traffic, but lots of other cyclists – most also making the 240km trip to Kasongo with more loads than me. A couple are transporting bottles of Primus – 60 bottles carefully held in place over the rear rack. I ask the price and they tell me 4000CF. Who can afford to pay over $4 for a beer out here? Not me. These poor guys probably don’t even make enough profit from one journey to drink more than 1 bottle, and it would be warm!

Heavy weather ahead

Primus man

Village I stop in to hide from rain is tiny – just 7 huts and nowhere to take good shelter. Feel a bit intrusive, but locals soon relax. When rain stops an hour later I realise the road is a mess. Think about stopping here or shortly up ahead, but there is nowhere decent so foolishly carry on. Soon have mud jammed between rear mudguard and tyre – not enough clearance. Mud is truly like clay and a group of kids help push the bike towards some surface water on the road then ask for money. I have little patience for this after losing my wallet. Manage to free wheel but it soon jams again. Now outside school with corrugated iron roof and it will be dark soon. No sign of teacher or village chief. Kids go when it turns dark. Tent is pitched in the school. Bit nervous without having received permission. An hour later 2 men come – well one man and a boy. They’re on a motorbike and doing some hydrological research. Can’t understand all the French. They too plan to spend night in this classroom, which is a surprise. They take the blackboard down from bamboo pole it’s supported on and use it for a bed. I give them a mosquito coil. Poor bastards will be bitten alive. School Principal comes later who has a bad stutter. He brings food – Ugali and manioc leaves. Rain continuing now as I write this in the tent.

21/04/11 Distance Cycled 72km   03°33.722S     026°18.826E   Kimbaiyo

Road still wet and sticky for first few hours. When mud starts to dry it just jams wheel against the mudguard again. Means having to stop every so often to free the wheel. Plenty of other cyclists on the road with me. One has a fan attached to his handlebars, which spins as the front wheel turns – ingenious. I take a picture and this chap – Ramazanni, clings with me for most of the day. I don’t mind so much, but somehow find myself buying food for him – plate of rice and manioc leaves costs very little. There are no other eating options. We stop twice and even at the second place where four different women are selling food each one has the identical dish. I ask why and they laugh.

Sticky mud

Fan man

Bush meat on a bicycle

Once sun comes out the road soon starts to dry. Very very hot again and clothes constantly soaked in sweat. Twice in day I pass a stream with enough moving water to cool off and clean.  Must have crossed hundreds like this in DRC. Road and terrain actually quite hard-going – constantly up and down. Villages appear at the top of hills within a clearing in the jungle and the streams at the bottom. The road has a small crew of men working on it to grade and widen – at the moment this mostly seems to consist of slashing and burning the bamboo.

I sense that having bought breakfast and lunch for Ramazzani he will expect me to buy him dinner. I pedal on ahead, leaving him in some village eating groundnuts. Sun soon sets and shortly after I roll into a small village, spotting a Church which looks like a good place to sleep. A woman nearby is selling manioc, peanuts and bananas – nothing else available here. She tells me that my friend/colleague passed this way earlier. I have to ask again, but sure enough she confirms another foreign cyclist with bags like mine, passed by. Now makes some sense why other people had spoken about my friend being up ahead. The news excites and annoys me. Surely there can’t be another foreign cyclist on this road I’ve chosen? At first I wonder if it’s Hiromu. Maybe he changed his route, or planned to come this way and didn’t want to tell me. When I press the woman for a description of the cyclist she says he had long hair. Well that counts Hiromu out. Who could this be?

Don’t camp in the Church in the end as the Pastor explains that people will come in the night to pray and drum. Sure enough I hear them. Instead I get shown a place under a palm-thatched roof. Somehow hesitant to break open a tin of sardines. They cost 1300CF out here and so I wait until late when my spectators have gone to bed to eat in silence and darkness.

22/04/11 Distance cycled 52km 03°52.523S 026°32.660E Kaparangao

Hello and goodbye again to Hiromu. How very bizarre! Spot him across the road as I’m taking a breakfast of rice and manioc leaves (only ever good when there is chilli). This comes after pedalling 14km. The locals here direct my attention across the road. I watch him wheel his bike onto the road and pedal off. Well if he’s taking the same road I’ll catch him up. Sure enough I do. He’s off the bike walking it thorough a knee-deep trench of muddy water. I too have to push through this 1km long stretch of bog. Actually quite enjoy it – feeling of mud through my toes. Hiromu has someone helping him carry his front panniers, which he’s taken off due to the mud. I plough through with confidence in my waterproof Ortliebs. It is exactly 2 weeks since we parted. He looks to have lost weight and his legs have more ulcers/tropical infections than before. I know how painful these are. We’re not really in a place to chat and do so once we make it through the mud.

Rice and manioc leaves again

Knee deep in it

Bad roads

Stuck truck

Hiromu explains that he made it as far as Lubutu, where a driver and then a Doctor from MSF advised him not to continue to Walikale, where there is unrest. So he headed south all the way to Kindu, although didn’t cross the river to enter the town. His plan is to go as far as Kasongo and then head direct to Bukavu, which is slightly different from my route. He also says something about his brake-pads having worn down badly and now he’s walking down hills rather than braking. Looking at the state of his legs and feet I really think he could do with resting off the bike for a week and taking a dose of antibiotics. MSF gave him some but he hasn’t taken them. No point in me telling him to. I don’t think he’d listen. Well we don’t spend long together. About another km further on we both stop to clean the bikes, after which he tells me to go on alone and we’ll meet in Kasongo. Quite glad really. Would be awkward – nice to be moving at my own pace, although I’m not making fast progress on this terrain.

Road deteriorates and there are lots more hills. Take lunch of ugali and some bush meat. At first apprehensive given its appearance, but it’s actually very good – dark and gamey so take a second piece. Clouds build later in the day, which cools things down and means I can keep going without feeling quite so tired.

Make it as far as a junction, which is down on my map as Kingombe, but everyone here calls it Kaparangao. There are some Belgian built buildings here – apparently for cotton production.  Like others I’ve seen they’re in a ruinous state. The usual crowd gathers as I stop to rest, then soon decide I might as well stay the night. Well tonight I’m camping in a hospital, which by the sounds of it isn’t going to be all that peaceful as there are several babies here. My host, the Doctor, offered a space on the floor of his room, but it was tiny and not big enough to pitch the tent.

23/04/11 Distance Cycled 63km  04°15.762S    026°36.541E Sengangenda

A mistake to sleep in the hospital. My tent is effectively pitched in the waiting room, beside which there is a room with a woman in labour and in the other room someone about to die. Well at least that is what I guess from the wailing of old women right outside my tent. It’s totally dark apart from a palm-oil lamp flickering in the corner. I lie there with my eyes closed hoping it will suddenly stop. Why didn’t the Doctor who showed me this place say something about women in labour and the chance that someone might be rushed in during the night? I feel like a total idiot lying there half-naked in my tent as one person is about to die within metres from me and another is about to give birth. Stupid mzungo they will be thinking. To add to the atmosphere heavy rain pummels onto the corrugated roof and drums can be heard beating loudly in a nearby Church outside. Is this connected with the death I wonder? Fortunately after about 1 hour, although it seems much longer, the noise stops and the hospital is empty again.

I say nothing in the morning when I see the Doctor. Almost like it was a bad dream.  A bare-breasted teenage girl watches me pack up.  Cycle some 12km to small junction where group of women have food prepared. Surprisingly there are beans and aubergine. I fail to get the girl to understand I want a mix of the three and end up with rice and aubergine. Less mud today and the road generally in a better state. Villages just seem to go on and on – one hut deep along the road and I’m constantly calling Jambo and Habari with a hand waving. These villages are really quite monotonous. Hardly anything to distinguish one from another. I often wonder what the history of these places is. At what point and why did someone decide to say lets build a village here? And who was it? This was always on my mind when those villages appeared on the riverbank – completely cut off by dense jungle. And what do the names mean? Doubt anyone could tell me if I asked them. Perhaps the chief?

Lunch stop

The road climbs a fair bit and there are patches of savana between the forest, which I don’t expect to see. Lunch is rice and manioc leaves yet again and I plan to rest here and continue a short way in the afternoon. Problem as normal is that it’s impossible to rest. After a few minutes one gets surrounded by children staring. I half feel obliged to entertain them, but really I just want to shut my eyes for an hour or two.

Break in the forest

Home made bicycle

With the road in a better state it would be possible to make Kasongo today, but I prefer to arrive in the morning. Immigration with the normal delays will be waiting for me I’m sure. So I’m in a Church tonight, which so far looks like it will be more peaceful than last night. Made sure I ate before arriving – meat and Ugali on the way into this village. I ask what the meat is – ‘Monkey’ replies the girl smiling.

Mud girl