Drinking a bottle of Primus in the sweaty heat of Kisangani made me feel more in touch with the country’s recent history than almost anything else I did in the Congo. And another thing – it tasted great.” (Tim Butcher)

05/04/11     00°30.554N     025° 12.247E     Kisangani

Currently sat in what calls itself a ‘Cyber Cafe’ waiting for electricity to come back on. Very frustrating – intermittent power is a daily occurrence in this city – an hour here and an hour there. Would prefer it if there were no power all day then generator in the evening – at least then I’d know when there was power and when there wasn’t. Just finding place to use Internet has been a challenge – that WIFI at the mission in Bumba was pure luxury. Internet not only expensive here, but very slow. Frustration eased by fact that cold Primus is available nearby. At 850 Congo francs this might be the cheapest beer I drink on the journey. Some foreign rule of self-preservation tells me I should wait till midday to take a beer, but here in Africa 10am might as well be 2pm.

Primus

Finally manged to get a reasonable connection yesterday in what is part of an enormous post office. This is the largest post office building I’ve ever seen – apparently Lumumba used to work here. Like going back in time when I walk inside. I ask if they have stamps and get shown several dated from 1994. None very interesting in design. One depicts Olympic rings from the Atlanta games and another a boxing match between Tyson and Holyfield. DRC was Zaire then, as stamps show. Post Office probably not been operational since then too. I ask if I can buy these stamps along with some old bank notes with Mobutu on. Seeing an opportunity the woman asks $2 for each. I laugh and offer what they’re probably worth (nothing really). She puts the stamps back in the file and into the cabinet – her loss.

When power finally comes I sort through mail. Message from Tim Butcher asking a favour of me. He had read my blog and seen I was in Kisangani. Later calls me on phone from South Africa and asks if I can seek out a character from his book, who lives in a fishing village near Stanley falls in Kisangani. Tim had been unable to contact him and provide a book. Well now I’m here he wants to know if this chap called Oggi is still around and whether he has an e-mail address. I explain I have a copy of Blood River with me and if I find this chap who speaks English then I’ll pass it on. Plan was to go this afternoon, but more likely tomorrow now.

Hiromu is sat opposite me waiting for power to come on too. Hardly seen him during the 4 days we’ve been here, even though his room is directly opposite mine. I’ve decided my route plan from here and as far as I’m aware it’s different from his, which is to continue directly to Bukavu and into Rwanda.

Hotel we’re staying in was recommended by English chap I briefly met at the port – Hotel Los Angeles. Manage to bargain room for $8 per night – paying $40 upfront. It’s fine, although my room doesn’t have the light Hiromu’s does and there is nowhere in short walking distance to find food. Kisangani, despite a greater number of bikes and motorbikes on the road, is very quiet. Many large and empty looking buildings line the streets. Hard to imagine thousands of foreigners once lived here – only ones now are the UN and aid-agency workers. They live in a different world. Yet to cross over to it here in DRC as I did in Liberia.

08/04/11  Distance cycled 80km    00° 08.918S 025° 37.865E     Azambao

Congo is a living force, which comes from God.” (African proverb)

A significant day on two accounts. One is that I cross the equator for the first time and the other is my departure from Hiromu. Both moments seem to pass by equally unceremoniously. The morning and most of the day is steamy hot, and should be at this latitude. Rained heavily most of the night and very thankful for the corrugated roof of the mud-brick church. The local curiosity here in the village of Mandoyo is about as low as its ever been – strange, but refreshing. I think being inside the church acts as a kind of barrier, even though it’s their church. The village is a stone’s throw from the river, which I had the idea of pitching the tent beside, but the banks are too steep and probably a good thing with all the rain that we found a roof.

The asphalt, which began in Kisangani, continues a short way before a laterite track leads through the jungle. Almost no 4-wheeled traffic and very few motorbikes. River is in view for some of the time, but mostly obstructed by trees. Fact that the map depicts the road running alongside the river is the main reason I came this way, rather than the more obvious route to Ubundu, which is where I’m headed. I’ve fallen for this cartographical trap in other countries. Many times I’ve followed what I thought to be a coastal road, based on what the map shows, only to discover the sea is hardly ever in view. The long desert road across northern Egypt and Libya was like this.

We stop to take coffee mid-morning. As usual the eating options are almost non-existent, even though this is the principal road east. Bananas at the rescue again. I’m ahead of Hiromu all day and nothing is said about the fact that these are our last kms together. Bizarre really. Off and on we’ve spent 5 months on the road together and communication has seemed to wane as time has gone on. Things never really the same after he read my blog.

Make sure to have GPS switched on as day progresses and I watch numbers drop towards 00° 00.000 as I approach equator. It hits the mark about 2 metres after a wooden post at the roadside shows this to be the point. Whoever marked this probably did it with a GPS. It is dated May 2010 and stands before a couple of huts in which the swelling crowd of locals tell me is the village of Babogombe. Altitude is 449m and longitude 025° 33.988E for the record. Don’t think anyone here has a clue that they are living on the equator. Hiromu and I both take photos, but do so independently with our bikes, rather than together, as might have been the case at another point in our cycling history.

On the equator

About 400m further on we pass another sign showing it to be the equator. This time it is a large stone marker dated 1953, obviously laid down by the Belgians. Not a bad effort, but they got it wrong. I trust my GPS and tell the villagers this stone marker is wrong. No one cares. More interested in asking what gift I have. Hiromu takes more photos and even though this is the original marker it’s of less interest to me as it’s wrong.

Some 15km further on we stop in an unmarked village, which surprisingly has 3 shacks selling food. All identical dishes – rice, beans, manioc leaves and fish, and all identically priced. More expensive than it should be, but no other option. Bizarrely the shack has a TV powered by a generator, on which the proprietor is watching Congolese music videos and his children are singing. Somewhat lavish with fuel costing more than $3 a litre.

I pull the map out again and confirm that I will take the road that branches south and cuts back towards the river. For it is largely the river and the opportunity for more adventure on it that is pulling me off this road that Hiromu will stay on towards Bukavu and the border.

I cycle ahead again, but miss the turning. There is meant to be a small village marked on the map as Pene Tangu, from which this road branches, but I see nothing. Only when some drunken policeman stops me 6km further on do I realise I have to turn back. And so Hiromu and I part truly in the middle of nowhere, which must seem confusing to these two drunken policemen, neither of whom has any interest in asking something from us. A few photos are taken together and words uttered about the likelihood of meeting again down the road before South Africa, and then that’s it. Hiromu goes one way and I turn back to the village of Azambao, where I’m told I can find the route on the map. Well I cycle past it again, and now having already seen me twice the villagers know I’m lost.

Sayonara Hiromu

The road when I find it is nothing more than a tiny track – less than shoulder-width wide, which starts from behind a mud-brick Church. There is no exit onto the road and unless one asked for it it would be impossible to find.

By this time I realise it’s better to spend the night in the church and start tomorrow. The villagers here are friendly and not obtrusive at all. Now lying in tent whilst a choir of children beat drums and sing outside. If it weren’t for the mosquitoes I’d join them. Despite being alone again I don’t really feel it.

09/04/11 Distance cycled 55km    00° 21.730S   025° 25.683E    Ubundu

Never forget that we are the intruders” (Savorgnan de Brazza)

Truly in the jungle today on the narrowest track imaginable. Pure adventure! This comes after my morning wake-up at 5am by drums inside the Church. The Pastor might have told me he’d be holding a service before day break. It’s still dark when this starts. There I am in my tent in the middle of this mud-brick church and there is a deafening sound of drums which has brought all the villagers inside to dance. I lie there dead still wondering if I should get up, but instead keep my eyes closed as if I were still asleep, which would be impossible. No one says anything. The service takes place, but I keep my eyes closed and listen to the Pastor shouting vehemently in Swahili. Would really love to know what is being said.

The service finishes after an hour , at which point I get up. There is nothing to buy to eat here other than manioc, which I do before setting off on what I get further confirmation to be a terrible road. Well it is merely a track – only traversable by foot or bicycle. Motorbikes ruled out by the fact that there are many fallen branches requiring the bike to be lifted and carried. There is hardly a soul on this track, which is often a narrow tunnel of vegetation. Villages are tiny – a few shacks.

Jungle track to Ubundu

Unbelievably after the first 10km I come across a huge iron bridge. Am I dreaming? At some point trucks must have been able to pass this way. Fact that this road is actually depicted on my map shows at one time it was a route for vehicles. Someone tells me the bridge was built in 1956. I wonder when the last truck to pass this way was? Stop to briefly swim/wash as I’m shin-deep in mud.

The track undulates and frequently I’m off and pushing the bike – in places too much mud and the slippery surface makes the going hard. There is a lot of bamboo and the fallen leaves jam in the mudguards. Don’t expect to find any food along here, but surprisingly in a village about half-way there is a young girl selling rice rolled up in vine leaves. I eat it with manioc leaves.

Jungle bridge

At start of the day I wasn’t sure I’d be able to reach the river, which is 55km, but back on my own I cover ground more quickly. The two villages marked on my map don’t appear to exist. Everyone knows places by the distance from Kisangani, quoting such and such a place to be so many kms from the city. There are many bridges to cross – most just tree trucks that require some balancing. Would hate to do this on a motorbike.

Clothes are soaked with sweat all day and wearing short sleeve shirt and shorts means I collect a fair few ants along the way – bicycle constantly brushing through long grass and bushes. Many times these ants can be seen crossing the road from a distance – enormous black columns. The scene reminds me of a description in the Poisonwood Bible when an entire village is taken over by one of these marching armies. I film it at a distance.

As I approach river towards the end of the day I get told the road I was thinking of taking, which follows the river south, is no longer traversable. This gets confirmed by several others. This means if I don’t get a boat from Ubundu I either have to go back to Kisangani or cycle this terrible jungle track again – neither very preferable.

Decide to wait to cross the river until tomorrow – I know immigration will be waiting for me and I can’t be doing with the hassle now. Somehow soothing to emerge from the jungle and see the expanse of water again – now known as the Lualaba. I pitch tent in mud-brick church again and somewhat annoyingly it seems my thermarest has come to the end of its day. There is no puncture, but whatever lining was inside to keep the air contained and the mattress firm has come away. It begins as a bobble, which as I blow more air into the thermarest balloons out. Impossible to sleep when fully inflated and if I half-deflate it the air is loose and moves around whenever I shift on the mattress. Going to make for some uncomfortable nights in the tent, but will have to make do until I get to Kampala.