To behold the full perfection of African beauty, one must visit the regions of Equatorial Africa, where one can view the people under the cool shade of plantains, and amid the luxuriant plenty which those lands produce.” (Henry Morton Stanley)

Greetings from the river port town of Bumba, which roughly looks to be situated about half-way along the 4700km course of the Congo river. I’m here waiting for a boat to transport me several hundred kilometres upstream to the town of Kisangani. I have no idea when one will leave. There is no schedule. A boat may arrive tomorrow and leave the same day, or it could be another week. There is a road/track through the jungle should I decide to cycle, but this may be my last realistic opportunity to journey on Africa’s second largest river. It is something I have long thought and read about. For the moment I’m content to wait. The Catholic Mission here runs a generator every evening for a few hours and miraculously there is Internet connection. The rest of the town lies in darkness come sunset.

My journey through the Congo is proving to be every bit the challenge and adventure I expected. I tried to compose my thoughts and impressions into a coherent blog post, but decided that sharing some of my journal entries over the next several posts gives a closer insight. Once I make it out the other side of this enormous country it may be easier to reflect what the Congo has been to me.

Through the bamboo tunnel

08/03/11 Gemena 03°14.380N

019°46.573E

The news comes as a bit of a shock to me. Hiromu tells me he wants to cycle on alone, on account of reading one of my blog entries where I referred to him as being ‘clueless’. There are other posts where I don’t put him in a good light. He is naturally offended and in reflection is right to be so. It was harsh of me. For me, ‘clueless’ was referring to his vacant expression when confronted by African officialdom. I know he knows what is going on. I don’t explain this at first, but he tells me he read the post back in Bangui and had decided not to say anything until now – 10 days later. I could sense a change in his attitude and behavior towards me on the road. He almost went ahead by himself in Libenge.

He breaks the news in the market in Gemena, where we eat stodgy rice and beans. I try to apologise and pull myself out of the hole by saying that I enjoy his company and wouldn’t have waited in Bangui if I didn’t, but end up leaving the matter for the rest of the day. Very little is then said between us. We buy individual rice rations (quality here is terrible) and walk to another market.

I expected Gemena’s branch of the FBI to find us, but there is no one chasing us down for registration. Main market is strung along a hot sandy road. Not sure why I walked here.

Back at the Mission I type another blog entry up before connecting to the WIFI when the generator comes on for a few hours in evening. I eat in the mission for $5 – in Congo terms this is 5000Francs, which is a huge sum, but I need a change from rice and sardines cooked up over the Primus. Don’t see Hiromu all evening. It would be stupid to part on bad terms having cycled together for 4 months. I formulate my apology in clear English as I lie in the tent. To go on alone is not such a bad thing in reflection – we both started our trips independently and will finish them independently, but it is the parting on bad terms that I must rectify.

09/03/11 Distance Cycled – 57km  Takaroma II 02°49.769N

019°57.688E

The lungs of Africa and the middle of the continent,the Congos are the wild in-between that few manage to visit”. (Bradt Guide: Congo)

My apology and explanation at the last minute seems to save matters. Hiromu packs up in silence and nothing is said as I also pack up, until he walks over to shake my hand and say goodbye. So I try to explain that clueless shouldn’t be taken too seriously and all the other bits I wrote about him that are negative are me merely venting my frustration and that overall I like the guy. I wouldn’t have spent 4 months on the road together if this weren’t true. Surely there are plenty of small things I do or don’t do that annoy him – it is the nature of relationships between friends. He listens most of the time – guy is clearly hurt and offended and I feel like a shit, but after a pause he agrees that we should carry on together and start afresh. Half of me still expected him to wish to continue alone, but we wheel out of the Mission together, stopping by in the market again for manioc, lotoba (peanut butter) and to change money. Just $40 lands me with a huge wedge of notes. It is 920 Congo Francs to the $ and the highest nomination note is 500 Francs. We don’t hang around long. While I’m buying phone credit Hiromu is approached by some immigration chap, who later goes to find his superior. I realise this is our que to leave straight away.

Road out of Gemena is busy with pedestrian traffic – 5km along the track is a market and another 15km on a second busy weekly market. Many women are transporting goods between them on their heads and backs. The atmosphere is cheerful and lively as we cycle by. Overhead I hear the sound of a helicopter – looking up I see an enormous UN chopper circling the town. Wonder if they can see me? Gemena has two UN camps – one flying a Jordanian flag the other an Egyptian. It is very incongruous. I tried to engage conversation with an Egyptian teenage sentry yesterday, but he spoke no English or French and was clearly shocked to see a white face walking the mango-lined avenues of the town.

Walking to Bumba

Casava carrier

Out on the road there is the usual police presence, but for the first day in DRC the authorities leave us be – a refreshing change.

No traffic again on the road, other than a few large trucks, a dozen motorbikes and many cyclists. Stop for rice, beans and chicken in small shack – food here much cheaper and easier to source than CAR. Track is sandy in places, but mostly easy on a bicycle.

Cycle traffic

Stop to collect water late afternoon – this is proving to be Congo’s biggest challenge. There are no longer stand-pumps at the roadside. The water is a natural spring in the jungle, reached down a narrow path that several locals show me. There is a woman and child bathing here nearby, but the water source itself (from where it comes out of the ground), is remarkably clean, at least in appearance.

Shortly after filling the bottles I ask some of the locals about palm wine and end up getting raffia (sweater and lighter) which is actually very good (lilt without the pineapple taste). Costs 400Franc to fill 1.5l bottle. Stop for night in an open-sided Church – one of the locals mutters something about another foreign cyclist coming through here, but hard to clarify who or when.