15/03/11 Distance cycled 26km Mapasa 02°14.548N      021°40.906E

It is the maelstrom in the centre, the vortex around which all other countries in Africa revolve. It is a looming presence in all senses of the word, a land to be revered and respected, a place which can easily devour the unsuspecting. It is the true heart of Africa, it always has been and will undoubtedly continue to be”. (Bradt Guide Congo)

Don’t sleep much due to the heat. The Mission room which we decided to take for second night is large, but there is no air-flow. I take the floor and Hiromu the single bed – his turn given he slept on floor for 2 weeks in Bangui. The Pastor at the Mission wasn’t happy with the arrangement – he clearly expected we would take 2 rooms and receive another $15.

At some point in the night I wake from a vivid dream. I’m flying back to the UK from South Africa having finished the journey, but I’m panicking as I have no idea what I’ll do when I return. The last part of the journey I cycled quickly and I’m regretting not buying a return ticket to South Africa. But alas, it’s just a dream.

At around 4.30am I can hear the call to prayer from the town’s mosque. Very bizarre – to be sleeping in a Catholic mission guest house and hear this. Shortly afterwards the Cathedral bells start ringing – equally as bizarre. Almost as if it were some kind of competition for sound space. I’m surrounded by jungle in central Africa. What is it with religion here? It is the only vestige of civilisation, the only window of hope for the millions trapped in poverty here.

I use the oats that I bought back in Bangui for breakfast – mixed with bananas and sugar, Despite the simplicity it’s very expensive (oats cost $5 for about 4 portions) and Hiromu makes some comment as he chews on a baton of manioc. We’re both eating this every day with lotoba – him more than me.

At around 9am there is a knock on the door. It’s immigration. How did they find us here? Not hard I suppose. Given previous problems I assume they (it’s only one in actual fact) will demand we go to his shack of a bureau where we’ll fill out forms and be asked to pay, but he merely takes passport details down and goes. Relief.

I spend the morning finishing ‘Guns Germs and Steel’, by Jared Diamond. Very relevant given my surroundings. As is the next book I start – Blood River . Already read it once, but feel it will take new significance now that I’m here.

We leave the GH at midday – nice to pack up for once without dozens of prying eyes on us and belongings, as is case when camping out. Although we’ve only been here 2 nights I sense the whole town knows us.

Road out of town is sandy, then paved for a short stretch (first tarmac in DRC) as it passes a huge abandoned mansion. Well this is Mobutu’s house. I thought he was from Gbadolite up north, but that is where he had his legendary palace. Lisala is where the former Kleptocrat of a President was actually born. The setting above the river is truly palatial, but to think someone ruling this country for 30+ years could build something this extravagant and live the life he did when surrounded by such crippling poverty is quite disturbing. I stop to look at the mansion, which is clearly visible, but hold back from taking a photo. Sure someone is watching me.

The sand soon returns and track undulates as we follow the course of the river, eventually steering away from it.

Soon back to familiar village scene – friendly smiles and waves. Constantly calling out Mbote (hello) and Boni (how are you) and waving. People could be a whole lot less happy given their plight. Cross a small stream out in the jungle with an iron bridge. Water is deep so I jump in and fill water bottles up. That’s my shower for the day. Shortly after I cycle up to a police check-post. Hiromu cycled ahead and they obviously didn’t stop him. Officer in charge is completely wasted and his juniors, uniformed and armed, look embarrassed as he struggles to hold and make sense of my photocopied passport page. After 10 minutes I’m waved on.

We set up camp in an enclosed kind of gazebo between Church and School. Whole village comes to watch – as usual most people here have never seen foreigners. Thankfully the wall of the gazebo keeps them at a distance. Frequently this situation is on the verge of getting out of control – hectic scenes and lots of shouting. Occasionally an adult will come round with a whip, which forces the children to flee. Most see it as a game of sorts. Only when we retreat into tents do people go home. Pastor somewhat confused/offended that we don’t take a room in his house. I do my best to explain that we prefer to sleep outside as it is cooler. Well it’s now over 30C inside this tent so I imagine several degrees more inside.

Girl biker

17/03/11 Distance cycled 55km Bumba 02°11.092N      022°27.739E

What a splendid piece of cake!” (King Leopold, describing the Congo in a letter to a friend)

Cloudy start to day – looks like a continuation of the rain that fell last night, but within a few hours the sun is breaking through. More bicycle traffic on the track as we approach Bumba. I cycle ahead for most of the way, carrying large pineapple on front rack – this is becoming familiar. After 20km I reach small junction – collection of shacks selling rice, manioc, fish. I take coffee and fried plantain. Swarms of kids soon descend and nearby adults alternate between asking for money and shouting at kids to move away. The latter is seen as a favour, which I guess it is, and therefore payment is expected. No sense of order out here.

We pedal into Bumba accompanied by several cyclists. Never sure how close to befriend these chaps on basis that many will get hopes up that I will give them money for food when we stop. These guys are OK. About 15km from Bumba we come across water pump – first for many hundreds of kms. Water cold and clean so fill all bottles up. Shortly after road passes by a series of identical concrete buildings – remains of what I’m told was a palm oil plantation estate. Nothing happening now. Some kids nearby are selling coconuts beneath a rusted street light for a few pence. As I stand drinking the milk a group of men walk down the road pushing a bicycle with a child-sized coffin on the back. Another several hundred metres up the road I see them disappearing into the jungle with spades.

The river comes into view as we approach Bumba. As with all other towns I expect immigration to quickly find me. They don’t. We ask directions to Mission and market – latter on account of needing food. Obviously this causes a scene as crowds rush around us, but atmosphere mostly positive, even if there is sense of things getting out of control.

Beside the Congo river

The Mission turns out to be a whole lot more welcoming than the one in Lisala. Meet the Belgian Priest – Carlos – here for 40 years! He has the appearance of a man who has lived his life in the tropics, but he’s upbeat and positive to see us – offering a room when at first there was merely a mention of a place to camp. There is no talk of money, so I’m hoping when we go that $10 a day for both will suffice as a kind of donation. The room has a shower and when the generator starts up in the evening even Internet! It is the first time Hiromu is able to read about the earthquake disaster in Japan. If electricity for 2 hrs per day with Internet weren’t enough there is even cold beer in the fridge within the Mission common room. I could quite happily rest here several days , but much depends on the boat situation to Kisangani.

18/03/11 Bumba

The normal laws of development are inverted here in the Congo. The forest, not the town, offers the safest sanctuary and it is grandfathers who have been more exposed to modernity than their grandchildren. I can think of nowhere else on the planet where the same can be true.” (Tim Butcher: Blood River)

Woken after 6am by men working in yard outside. One can never really lie in in Africa – would get too hot anyhow in places like this. The generator comes on sporadically for an hour or so in the morning, causing me to quickly plug in the laptop to get what charge I can. Eat remainder of rice I cooked last night and prepare to walk down to the port. We get escorted by chap called Tiggy, who works at the mission as a kind of fixer of sorts.

Bumba is decidedly more commercial and lively than Lisala, although still no traffic other than bicycles on the road. Cross a railway track on way to the river – almost totally covered in sand. After this a nunber of large warehouse-type buildings line the water front and streets running towards it. Plenty of police and military on the way, but most merely greet us – perhaps being with Tiggy helps?

The Port has more boats and definitely more of atmosphere of commerce, but there is currently no boat heading upriver to Kisangani.

Some random local says a boat will be coming on Sunday. I think he is some kind of port authority/security, but then there are always so many of these characters hanging around such places that you can’t trust anyone that far. But he seems quite knowledgeable and even names the boat.

Walk back, stopping to take beer on a terrace overlooking the river. Well I drink a beer anyhow. Hiromu eats a plate of beans and plantain. The bar is really just a shell of a building, like most, but it’s the location looking over the river that gives it the charm. Cold beer is the only drink available, which suits me fine. Yet to see Coca Cola in DRC which is quite remarkable given its global distribution. Even if it were available I guess it would be a similar price to the beer.

Back at the Mission I crash out for a few hours after finishing Blood River. When I read it for the first time it did a good job of scaring me. The second time round I realise it is the author who was scared. DRC possibly more dangerous when he travelled through, but he has made it his point of continuing the Heart of darkness theme.

When I wake up there is some guy from immigration waiting for me. Don’t think there will be one town in DRC where immigration won’t find me. He was informed by some nurse I apparently spoke to yesterday. Bit of a mystery. He speaks good English and is polite and courteous, but then there is a mention of a registration fee that his superiors have asked him to collect. It is somehow harder to ignore this when the conversation has all been in English, but I change the subject and after a few silent pauses he gets up to leave. I know that the next time I’m down at the port immigration will find me.

Late afternoon I take a wander by myself around the town’s market. Everyone very shocked to see the Mandele (foereigner) greeting people in Lingala. The market is closing up, but still lively. I collect then shrug off a few drunken clingers on – moving quite quickly around the stalls. Of interest are the live slimy fish (catfish of a sort) and huge maggots (also alive) squirming around. There is plenty of dried fish and stalls piled high with plantain. I buy coffee, manioc and mibika (pounded pumpkin seeds I think?) which is very good.

Back at the mission I wait for power to start, then watch some of the news (still dominated by Libya and Japan) before going out on a hunt for beer. Yesterday there was some in the Mission fridge, but now empty. Well it seems beer is in low supply in the city, so at first bar I’m taken to by Tiggy the price has risen from 1500 to 1800CF. He expects the price will be 2000CF tomorrow. He walks with me to another place, where they have a few remaining bottles selling for 1500. I buy 3 and walk back to drink at Mission (if I drank in the bar I’d have to field constant demands to share it with everyone present).

Use 2 hours of generator/Internet time to speak to Mum on skype, who tells me about her recent Morocco holiday. Unbelievable to get good enough connection to chat. When current stops I go to retrieve ice-cold beer – drinking it in candle light and sorting through hundreds of photos, whilst mosquitoes buzz around screen and my ears. I bought hard-to-find mosquito coils today but seeming how old and cheap they were I’m not sure they’re very effective. There are 2 burning in the room through the night, but I’m still bitten underneath the mosquito net. Even if my body just comes into contact with the net it seems a mosquito can locate the skin and bite through the net.

Congo faces