Up until quite recently I’ve not given much thought to how I will cross Central Africa. By bicycle obviously, but on what roads and through which borders and countries.? There aren’t many roads, which kind of simplifies things, and those shown on maps are probably no more than muddy tracks through the jungle. Not so simple.

The road condition is far less of a concern than my personal security though. Bring on the mud, sand, river crossings, sweat, flies; if locals can navigate jungle tracks on a Chinese made bicycle loaded with 100kg+ then so can I, I think. But they’re local, they speak the native dialect and their bags and jerry-cans loaded on their bikes do not contain a laptop, camera, Ipod, cash and other desirables. Mine do, and the countries I’m about to talk about make me rightly hesitant about the roads ahead.

Finding a recent account of someone travelling through the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is rare. Most people who know anything about the region will say don’t go. Too much insecurity and danger. But it is a vast region I’m talking about, and the reports one hears might be outdated, second-hand or refer to a region thousands of kilometres away from the one I’m intending to go to. It wasn’t until I arrived here in Limbe, Cameroon that I actually met someone who’d been to CAR.

Let me introduce you to Dave Robertson, who by all accounts is quite a remarkable man. For the past two decades he has devoted his time and energy on the continent to preventing malaria, clocking up almost 200,000 Kilometres in his white land rover. An impressive distance, particularly if you only have one leg and one arm to drive with. How is it possible you ask yourself? Well it’s true.

Dave Robertson and Drive Against Malaria

I first stumbled across the Drive Against Malaria website a few years ago, but wasn’t aware until a fellow overlander had contacted me that Dave, who is English, had settled with his Dutch partner, Julia, in Limbe. The missing arm and leg had nothing to do with being in CAR, he lost them in a motor accident before he ever started his travels in Africa.

I spent an afternoon with them, finding out more about Drive Against Malaria and their views on the most effective means to prevent, cure and tackle the huge problem of malaria on the continent. I also wanted to know more about one of the least visited countries in the World.

“You went to CAR”? I asked.
“Yeah, in February this year. No problem, although they’re more aggressive than the Cameroonians. You should be OK on the bike, at least in terms of travelling the roads. Best way to do it.”
“What about DRC and the road to Kisangani? I want to travel east across northern DRC towards Uganda or Rwanda.”
“That I haven’t done since 89”, said Dave, thinking back. “Or was it 88? Kisangani had lots of travellers then. No idea what it’s like now. I’ll be really interested to hear how you get on.
“So will I”, I said.

The second person I met who’d been to CAR was also staying in Limbe, although for a much shorter time. It was another Dave, also driving a white land rover, but he had his limbs intact. His vehicle had also clocked up a fair bit of mileage, which he’d rescued from the South African embassy in Lagos.

Dave, also South African, had travelled as far as Nigeria from his home in Cape Town on a motorbike and decided he’d had enough, so bought the bullet proof vehicle, which had been unused for years, then drove it back to South Africa. And now he was travelling north again with his friend, (I wasn’t quite sure what the relationship status was) an older French woman who’d decided to rent out her Paris apartment and give up on European life. As far as I could tell it was the money from this monthly rent that was keeping them both on the road. “The people work work work in my country. And for what”?

Dave and Marion were an interesting couple. I met them having a clean out of their land rover, which was packed and surrounded with a ridiculous amount of clutter: musical instruments (several drums and a guitar) plastic crates full of books, pots, pans, various cooking stoves and bags and other containers of all sizes. Underneath an enormous marquee awning, held up by drainage pipes salvaged from somewhere, Dave launched into his travel stories with gusto.

“I have presents for you by the way”, he said after I’d heard the story of his ‘Manic Mission’, a 10-week tour of 10 countries in southern and east Africa. “Here take this, and these, and you will definitely want these”. Within 10 minutes I’d just become owner of a handheld GPS (he was using another that was given to him free by tracks4africa), two hard back books on the Congo and a pair of foot-straps for my pedals. What a score!

“I miss DRC man, but don’t do it. They’ll fuck you up.”

Dave had ridden his motorbike up through DRC, taken one of the famous Congo River barges, then exited the country into CAR quicker than planned when he got malaria. Why is it so many travellers in Africa opt to not take malarial prophylactics to protect themselves?

“I think you should fly from Doula to Nairobi. Leave the Congo man. Those guys are drunk and armed.”

Despite the bout of malaria and problems with corrupt police, the DRC turned out to be Dave’s favourite country, but here he was recommending I avoid going.


“I miss it man”,
he repeated again as he asked me to plot a route  for them through Nigeria. Dave and Marion had no idea where they were going, Dave literally flipping a coin to decide on a route. The next day they were packed up and leaving. I have no idea where they are now, and I doubt they know much more.

Fellow overlanders

Back at research HQ, which is the enormous and empty house that I’m staying in here in Limbe, I began to read accounts of people travelling the DRC, as well as putting questions on forums to see what the travelling community had to say. As I expected, adventure and danger featured highly. But there have been others – DRC travel agents and the odd adventurous aid worker, who’ve gone a bit further, which one needs when we’re talking about a country 80 times larger than the country that colonised it – Belgium. When one starts to get names of specific towns, the roads between them and advice pertaining to one or the other (some positive, others negative) progress can be made in determining what level of danger/risk is involved.

Of course I won’t be alone. Hiromu, my Japanese colleague as I introduce him, will be alongside, or somewhere behind bargaining over the price of a handful of ground-nuts or bunch of bananas. I told him to come to Limbe rather than stay in Yaounde, where I imagine his room resembles a prison cell, but being Japanese (read stubborn) he has been unable to check-out, throw his bike on a bus or arrange to leave it in the Guest House.

Well it doesn’t matter now. He called yesterday to say his parcel from Japan had finally arrived (the reason we’d split from Bamenda and he rushed ahead). I’d been waiting to hear this news before leaving Limbe and starting on the road to Yaounde, some 350km east of here.

The last of the third crate of beer is currently in the fridge. Other than sharing one or two bottles with the guard during the past 10 days I’ve drunk them by myself. I never did find that drinking partner. It has been an odd situation to find myself in here. Big empty house, four semi-wild dogs (read good security dogs) and an attention-seeking cat have been my surroundings. I won’t meet the tenant who invited me here, unless he gets on his motorbike and continues the journey to South Africa, where I’ll happily buy the rounds.

For those scratching/shaking their heads thinking why does he want to travel these difficult and uncertain/troubled roads the answer is twofold. Firstly I want to reach east Africa overland, rather than fly. It just so happens that there is no easy/safe/recommended route to do so by. And secondly I have a natural curiosity, like any adventurous spirit, to see just what that huge swath of equatorial Africa that few people get to visit is actually like.  In the words of someone who travelled this part of Africa long before people were riding bicycles in it:

“Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look like that) I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there”.

The question is at what point does a road, feared dangerous because of  reports of instability in the area, become safe? I can’t imagine many people would  have recommended the route I followed in Nigeria, Liberia or even Guinea, given my time there during the elections last year. Was I lucky? Maybe. Nothing is definite in terms of my route and I don’t want to put myself in ‘extreme danger’, just to say that I did it. I will apply for a visa for CAR and DRC in Yaounde and continue to seek advice as I proceed eastwards.

New GPS