10/03/11 Distance cycled 71km Mbata 02°19.031N 020°12.263E

“There is something primordial about Congolese villages. The villagers themselves wear modern clothes, often in tatters, but modern nonetheless in that they are factory-made and delivered by the occasional trader who ventures along the river. But the houses are at the base level of simplicity. There is not a single pane of glass, metal hinge, cement plinth or fitting that connects the place with the modern era. There is no litter, no plastic bags, empty cans or cigarette butts. Without any painted signs, it is a place of browns, greens and duns, a settlement built in the jungle and out of the jungle, utterly separate from the modern world.” (Tim Butcher: Blood River)

Start day finishing last night’s rice, of which there is still too much and I give away to crowd of waiting children. It disappears quickly. Pineapple follows. Bought it yesterday for 500Franc ($0.50) and it’s large enough to feed 5 people.

Nothing new today on the road. Track is sandy, but follow path that other bicycles have made and makes going easier. A few cyclists ride alongside until we reach town of Dondo – it is on my map as a village, but was clearly something more significant in the past. Pass an enormous shell of a building which looks like a warehouse. Says it is a University for Agriculture and Science. I ask a local when it closed, but he tells me it is still open – can’t quite believe this.

Stop to take lunch close by of lotoba and manioc (they are becoming a staple although latter is highly un-nutritious) as well as avocados that I bought on way in. A local drunk tries to help us then follows us out asking for a reward – his persistence and desperation gains 2 cigarettes, which he seems very happy about.

12Km further on we reach Akula, which sits beside a large river – the Mongola – just another tributary of the Congo. Kinshasa is navigable from here, so I guess most of what arrives by truck in say Gemena must be unloaded by boat in Akula after a 2 week journey by river from the capital. No wonder beer costs 3 times the price in Gemena as I heard it does in Kinshasa. Yet to try Congo’s famous Primus.

There is very little to show for the town’s important location – merely a line of wooden shacks along a single street. I spot the small DRC flag I’ve been wanting to buy and as I’m in process of bargaining for it some chap from immigration comes along. He seems angry and agitated at first, perhaps because I half ignore him, but when we go into his shack he’s kind, taking down the passport details without asking for money. Shortly after we’re in a precariously narrow piroque crossing the river (750CF each) and immigration are waiting for us on the other side. I expect problems, but again nothing – definitely calmer here than further north.

Cycle on a short way and the jungle immediately encloses the track to a single-file. We stop early again on account of needing to find water. There is a source close by and most of the village inhabitants follow us. Camp beside a nearby school, although I move the tent inside when the rain suddenly starts to fall.

Pushing through the sand

11/03/11 Distance cycled 72km Mbokutu 02°11.542 N  020°42.041E

Touring the Congo is an unforgettable experience. One may sit in an air-conditioned cocktail bar of an ultra modern hotel in Leopoldville or Elizabethville and yet within a few hours witness primitive dances deep in the virgin jungle” (Belgian government tourist brochure 1951)

Am up early (6am) before school starts and the classroom I’ve hi-jacked for the night is invaded by dozens of children. We stop shortly after for coffee amidst scenes of frenzy as huge crowds gather. Really get the feeling that few foreigners pass along this road. For many children, and adults, it is surely the first time they’ve seen foreigners, something which is confirmed by some of the older adults, who possibly remember an era (1960s and 70s) when there was a trickle of overland traffic coming through central Africa. It is hard to imagine what that must seem like as I cycle past – a mixture of great curiosity and fear. Do children hear stories of how white men used to come to the jungle and chop off the hands of their ancestors who were ordered by Belgian colonial officials to collect rubber?

Zero 4-wheel transport today and only a few motorbikes. No water pumps again and hard to find good quality water. Hard to believe this single-track lane is/was a principle route in DRC. In many villages hoards of children run through with us and there are calls for handouts, both from them and their parents. There is no shame here – life seems cheap and people in this country have been so embedded with the nature of foreigners coming to plunder and pillage the resources that asking for money/gifts is partly a reflection of this and partly a reflection of how acute the poverty is here. Congo definitely not somewhere I would want to land in for the first time visiting Africa.

Day ends finding and filling up with water from a not particularly clean source – really in the jungle here. The village we end up in has no chief or visible sense of authority. Surrounded by vociferous kids and teenagers all evening until we retreat into our tents. The sky is clear but I put the rain sheet on so as to create some privacy. Our local friends will be outside the tent come daybreak.

Local curiosity

13/03/11 Distance cycled 54km Lisala 02°09.121N    021°30.757E

Certainly there is a Congo River, a capricious serpent which unrolls its black, green and greenish yellow rings over six thousand kilometres of mines and plantations, forests and virgin islands, obese cities and brush outposts…” (Helene Tournaire: Livre Nois du Congo)

Day seems to start earlier and earlier – 5am when voices start outside tent. The usual scenes play out as we pack up. Wild hysteria when camera comes out and they realise they can see their faces in the screen. Decide to delay eating the pineapple I bought yesterday. Instead carry it 15km to Mondele, where we’re directed to what is a large mission with cows grazing outside – a marvel that they survive in the heat. There are at least 2 dozen and they all look healthy – no shortage of lush grass here. There is no real market here as instructed, and nowhere to buy coffee or lotaba. Sit outside the mission eating pineapple and listening to the Sunday Mass service inside.

It is another 30km to Lisala. I go ahead as usual and although we stop to swim twice in one of the many small streams that bisect the road, I’m alone – cycling at own speed. Track becomes more sandy as the Congo River comes into view from the crest of a hill for the first time. Surely there should be a sense of awe at seeing this enormous beast that defines the country, but it is midday, the sun is beating down and the sandy track starting to piss me off.

I look for a place to wait for Hiromu as I approach Lisala, but there is none. Instead I take a small track branching off from main road and get semi-lost. Ask lots of children where the route Principal is, but apparently I’m on it. Two young kids show me the way to the mission and don’t seem very grateful when I buy them some sweets – finding the people persistently demanding on a daily basis, which makes hanging around anywhere outside of the missions quite challenging. Everyone wants some kind of handout.

Mission provides the tranquility I need so wait for Hiromu. There is even a bar here with beer for 1500Francs – might be cheapest I find. Someone here directs me to another building with room for $15. Instead we opt to camp. It seems a good set-up at first but chap who was friendly to me when I arrived tries to extract $10 each for security. This would clearly be going in his pocket rather than to the underpaid chaps who actually work as night security. I think the fact that he has seen me drinking beer and eating spaghetti and sardines (all luxury) is enough to know he can demand something. Doesn’t make for relaxing atmosphere.

Jungle at dusk