The wise traveller travels only in imagination” (Somerset Maugham)

It’s unlikely you will have heard of Kasongo, unless you have a particular interest in Africa’s slave history. It was here, about 130 years ago, that a Swahili/Arab businessman named Tippu Tip established a headquarters for the shipment of slaves to east Africa. From this small provincial outpost, in what is now Maniema Province in the DRC, thousands of Africans were marched eastwards towards the Indian Ocean and the island of Zanzibar. Those that survived were held in chains and waited to be sold to Arab traders.

A circular column of bricks some ten metres high stands in Kasongo as a memorial to this chapter of history. It’s about as visually interesting to visit as you would imagine a circular column of bricks to be. There is no plague or information and the site looks as neglected as the rest of the town. It was not a huge regret I wasn’t carrying my camera when someone pointed it out to me.

Kasongo is more than a day’s travel from anywhere significant in the DRC. Like most towns in the country there is no public transport to places such as this. One or two overloaded and ancient trucks may leave the provincial capital of Kindu every week to journey here, and inevitably break-down or get stuck along the way, but unless one has a bicycle the only other realistic option of getting here is by motorbike – a 240km journey that will cost a passenger about $150.The price of petrol, $4-5 per litre, is as good an indication of remoteness as that of beer and tinned sardines – both several times the normal price. Most people are trapped here because of the cost and scarcity of transport.

East to Bukavu

Usually when I first arrive in a Congolese town I quickly find myself sitting in an bare-walled office or mud-brick shack whilst someone working for the DGM (Immigration bureau) studies my passport and asks the usual what, why and where questions. At first I used to fear these encounters, for they often involved a bogus ‘registration fee’, which I politely refused to pay, and I would have to explain in detail what my motives for travelling in the country were. More recently, or as I’ve progressed eastwards in the country, the authorities have become softer and the call for payments rarer. In Kindu the chief of immigration wanted to practice his English and tell me about his recent trip to London, and here in Kasongo I seemed to go completely undetected.

It was me in actual fact who went in search of the DGM bureau. I wanted to tell them I was in Kasongo and planning to head east through a region that many people had remarked as being unstable. They reassured me that the road to Kabambare, the next notable town, was calm, but that I should continue to ask locals and seek information along the way.

I briefly met Hiromu again before heading off. He was hobbling towards me with a limp. Walking with tropical ulcers on your ankles is painful. We were probably the only two foreigners that had been in Kasongo for weeks, but we were staying in different places. When I parted from him a few days earlier on the road I’d suggested meeting at the Catholic Mission, which usually has rooms, but instead chose to stay in a cheap guest house close to the market. His plan was to head directly from Kasongo to Bukavu, whereas mine was to follow smaller tracks eastwards to Lake Tanganyika. I never saw him again after this short encounter.

Congo colours

On leaving Kasongo it took me the best part of a week before I caught sight of the lake. The tracks were in a bad state and probably the same ones those slaves had been marched eastwards on. The landscape alternated between jungle and savanna, broken by the usual villages that have probably changed very little in the last century. Here people received me with the same incredulous, but welcoming hospitality I’ve become familiar with now in the Congo. There were no other motorised vehicles on these tracks, and finding food presented the usual challenges. If a village had bananas or groundnuts I bought them. If rice and beans were available I stopped to eat.

Wood collectors

Jungle cycling

Faces at sunrise

Morning departures

As I crossed from Maniema province into South Kivu the military presence became more noticeable in the villages. Here the landscape also changed as green mountains rose high above me. I continued to ask about the road ahead. Yes there had been incursions on the road by Interhamwe, but for the past few months the situation was calm. What danger there might have been was not evident. People smiled, laughed and waved as they have throughout the DRC. For the most part I felt safe and confident. The landscape and views dominated my attention. This was the most scenic part of the Congo I’d seen.  Perhaps if I’d known more I would have been more fearful of my surroundings.

Climbing

Mountain views

Up at 1450m

Descent to Lubondja

Road to Baraka

Morning mist clearing First view of Lake Tanganyika

In a bizarre change of events and environments I found myself wake-boarding, or rather attempting to wake-board, shortly after arriving at Lake Tanganyika. Now this I never would have predicted several days earlier when pedalling though one of those villages in the jungle. I had arrived in Baraka, which looked like another remote village from my map, but is something of a transport/NGO hub for South Kivu. There are even several street lights on the main thoroughfare here, which after a few weeks in rural Maniema province gives the place a more urban feel than I’ve been used to for a while.

The wake-boarding came about through another mzungu. He found me washing my clothes in the courtyard of a $5 per night Guest House.

My Log guy told me there was another cyclist in town so I asked him to find you.”

Stefan is from Romania and has been living in Baraka for the past two years, working for a German development company. At some point in the past I think I stumbled upon his website, for he’s done plenty of cycling touring himself. We had plenty to talk about and I soon moved over to his place.

He raved about the cycling and scenery in Burundi, and for a moment I considered changing my plans and crossing a different border. But it’s Rwanda that’s next up. My time in the DRC is coming to an end, but there’s still another blog post to come.