• Hold ups: Entering DRC March 8th, 2011

    “A major disadvantage of taking this route is that you must pass through awful customs officials who demand stiff matabribes (bribes) and often delay travellers for hours on end.” (Geoff Crowther: Lonely Planet, Central Africa 1991)

    The information might have been twenty years old, but it was still accurate. In hindsight I’m not sure which was more of a hassle: leaving the Central African Republic, entering the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), or leaving the first town in the DRC? We were, as I feared, delayed for hours.

    Our problems, like many in Africa, could have been resolved with money. A middle-aged woman with a terrible wig, and her younger hot-headed male accomplice expected $7 each for the privilege of having our passports stamped at the immigration shack in Bangui. As normal I politely refused. Time passed. They then telephoned their superior. He arrived, seized our passports, more time passed and he disappeared. We continued to wait. I tried to remain calm by watching the tranquil surface of the Ubangui river behind me, but without my passport worry crept in. Where had it been taken? I called one of the many young men eagerly waiting to ferry us across the Ubangui river to DRC to fetch me a beer. “You drink a beer now?” Hiromu exclaimed. “I’m stressed” I replied.

    Well the beer changed the atmosphere. The woman with the wig and her accomplice naturally expected me to buy them one too. Show and return my passport to me and you’ll get your beer I reluctantly replied. It seemed a fair trade-off. Hiromu decided to donate a stainless steel thermos flask; “Pas Chinois” he stressed. It was one of many gifts that was bestowed on him by his Japanese contacts in Bangui.

    Two hours later we were off – loading the bikes into a motorised pirogue and crossing the river. With so many eager oarsmen and so few people crossing the river here bargaining for a cheap fare was in our favour. But then came round 2.

    What made the officer in charge at the immigration post in Zongo so angry I’m not sure. We sat silent as he delivered a 20-minute long soliloquy on DRC and the formalities of entering and travelling through the country. At first I couldn’t take him seriously. His face looked like it had been treated with some kind of whitening cream, which made his cheeks shine with a chestnut gloss. Was this man real or a wax-work? His waistline matched his level of importance, but I sensed even before he refused to shake my hand that we were in for a long round.

    We were to pay $50 each to enter DRC on the basis that if he were to visit Europe he would have to do the same. I politely pointed out that this was not true. ‘Was I challenging his word?’ he retorted. “Have you visited England?” I asked.

    The sparring continued for sometime, but in French I do a better job of looking dumb and innocent than providing a coherent and comprehensible challenge to the authority of Francophone bureaucracy.

    “You are corrupt” I told him. “Your country has a bad reputation because of people like you. You are the first person people meet when they enter DRC and look what impression you are creating”. I continued using this thread with French dictionary in hand. He disappeared and time passed.

    It was now almost sunset and our passports were back in the hands of the chap who’d previously spent 20 minutes examining each one. The DRC is the 19th country I’ve visited with this passport. For Hiromu it is 30-something. We have a lot of stamps and visas and he studied each one like it were a complex equation that needed solving before turning the page. Well now he was reaching for the ink-pad and providing the entry stamps that we needed. This wasn’t the script as I foresaw it. Weren’t we meant to plead and offer a lower sum? The shiny-faced shit had obviously exhausted his efforts and disappeared. Had this all been a game to scare us?

    I too was exhausted and I’d only cycled 6km since leaving the Guest House in Bangui 7 hours previously. But we weren’t quite in the clear. Someone who’d been lingering around the immigration shack like a hungry puppy now pursued us and said he was from the Zongo Tourist Bureau. He pointed at a non-descript concrete block. I laughed. A tourist office in Zongo, DRC? With what remaining ounce of politeness I had left I kindly said we’d finished for the day and ignored him.

    We spent the night at the Catholic Mission in Zongo. It was an oasis of tranquility to pitch the tents on lush grass in an orchard of mango and avocado trees. The white-bearded Italian priest said he’d been in Zongo 15 years and in the country 46. Nothing was said about the problems we’d encountered at the immigration office a few kilometres away. I’m sure he knew, or rather didn’t want to involve himself in any dealings with two foreigners who’d arrived unannounced. I was grateful he’d given us permission to camp with the mission compound.

    The problems continued the next day. FBI would you believe? They found us drinking coke in the market. We’d previously just taken breakfast there (rice and beans) and quickly discovered from all the name-calling that both Jet Li and The Transporter are equally as famous in DRC as they are in CAR. Word had obviously spread quickly that there were two foreigners in town.

    Naturally we had no reason to believe these plain-clothed chaps without ID were anything close to who they said they were. So we pedalled off. Five minutes later they caught us up on motorbikes. We stopped, showed photocopies of our passports and asked to see their ID whilst a large crowd of locals gathered. They produced no ID, so off we pedalled again. They followed, motored ahead to what was clearly a check-post at the end of the town and returned. It was quite obvious we would not be leaving this town. Finally someone arrived with a badge. It wasn’t much more convincing, but there was confirmation that registration at their office was ‘gratuit’, so we reluctantly turned back to the town escorted by several motorbikes.

    The Director of this so-called FBI office spoke English. He wanted to know my mission. I showed him my magic letter, plus my ‘Ordre De Mission’, which puts me as ‘chef’ of ‘The Big Africa Cycle’, explains in brief about the Against Malaria Foundation, and gives me authority to travel throughout all provinces of DRC. It would seem this Ordre de Mission, that I wrote myself, is a vital piece of armour for lessening the problems one encounters when travelling through the DRC. To say one is a tourist is not sufficient. “And where is your Ordre De Mission?” the Director asked Hiromu. “He’s my assistant” I explained, as Hiromu tried to provide a convincing explanation to why he was in the DRC.

    Forms were filled out with our passport details and thumb-prints. This was indeed official, I think, and I felt a little foolish for not knowing so in the first place. There was no call for a bribe. “Tell your men to carry ID next time” I told the Director. It would have saved us all several hours.

    Finally we pedalled out of Zongo under the midday sun. Had there been jungle there might have been shade. Instead an open rolling expanse of green hills and waist-high elephant grass provided my first scenes of the DRC – Africa’s third largest country, or to put things in perspective, a country 77 times larger than its former colonial ruler – Belgium.

    The red laterite track was easy going at first, and we shared it with many other cyclists. Let me introduce you to the Congo bicycle. It is to this country what trucks are to most others. People transport enormous loads on these reinforced Chinese antiques and cover huge distances. Motorbikes are rare and 4-wheel motorised transport even rarer. Bicycles represent the economic lifeline of commerce in rural DRC, which is as good an example as one needs to illustrate the state of infrastructure here. The loads transported on these single-speeds make my 25-30kg of luggage look like I’m going out for a day cycle. For example, two 50kg bags of maize will commonly be purchased in the town of Gemena for 20,000 Congolese Francs ($22), loaded onto the back of a bicycle and pushed/pedalled/freewheeled (depending on the topography – fortunately mostly flat) some 240km to the town of Zongo, where it will be sold for around 25,000 Congolese Francs ($27). This is a round trip journey of 4-5 days for a back-breaking profit of $5. Other common items being transported along these jungle tracks include palm oil, petrol, groundnuts, and seasonal fruits (lots of avocados at the moment).

    Congo cyclist

    And so really the bicycle is the perfect form of transport for an outsider to truly see the Congo. Where there is a broken iron bridge, of which there are two within the first 80km from Zongo, it presents no problem for a bicycle. Should one want a conversation in French, or an opportunity to learn some Lingala, there will be no shortage of willing candidates on the road with you.

    The problems for the outsider in the DRC are the authorities, whoever they may be. Petty police in ragged uniforms occasionally stopped us on the road. They were usually drunk – the little money they did have would have been used to buy whatever cheap alcohol was available (palm or casava wine). With the usual patience and firm but polite refusal to hand over money we would be on our way again, perhaps in exchange for a few cigarettes. The bigger problems exist in the larger towns. Men claiming to be from an immigration or security bureau wish that foreigners register their details with them and pay. It is unnecessary, and merely an opportunity for them to present something official and then expect payment.

    In the town of Libenge we reluctantly paid the $4 each for this process. To have made a fuss would have been embarrassing. We had been taken to this immigration office by nuns from the Catholic mission where we were staying. It seems that towns throughout the Congo have missions dating from the colonial period, which are about the only colonial enterprises still functioning.

    Libenge sits on the banks of the Ubangui river and at one time was perhaps a thriving and prosperous place. Direct flights used to connect the town with Brussels, and along many of the mango-lined avenues can be found street lights. These, like most things that depend on electrical power have not been working for decades. And so the colonial buildings and rusted remains of long-abandoned trucks and machines sit like ghostly reminders of another era.

    Were it not for the small population of people who survive here the town would have been swallowed by the jungle. Once we left the mission and pedalled out the track narrowed to become little more than shoulder-width wide. There were lots of villages out here, one-hut deep from the jungle, and they often stretched for many kilometres with no discernible centre. Few contained anything for sale beyond bananas, groundnuts and manioc, and finding fresh water wasn’t always easy.

    Bamboo jungle

    On my map Gemena looked like the first real town of any size. Well I guess it is. There is an airport here providing direct flights to Kinshasa twice a week. But the streets and pace of life are more like a village than a city. We’ve sought refuge in the Catholic Mission again (not sure there is even a hotel) which almost guarantees the authorities can’t come knocking on the door, or tent as is the case (the mission charge $25 per night for a basic room). South from here lies the town of Lisala, where with a bit of luck and perhaps patience I might be able to find a barge heading up the Congo River towards Kisangani.

    Congo truck

  • Lost in translation February 20th, 2011

    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, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look like that) I would say ‘when I grow up I will go there’. (Joseph Conrad)

    My entry into the Congo has been delayed by a Japanese construction company here in Bangui.  They’re helping to build schools – eleven of them I think. One week down with the job and another to go.

    I almost quit on day 1, and again on day 2. Well it’s not particularly interesting to hold a metal pole for most of the day whilst a Japanese man signals with his left or right arm for you to move it to the correct position. He is looking through a computerised instrument that gives him numbers, which he then yells out in Japanese as a distance.

    To observe this man at work is interesting. How he manages to ignore the children that invade his personal space, the litter, the smell, and scenes of daily life that are a world away from his home surroundings in Japan is quite remarkable. Inscrutable is the word that fits the bill.

    To work with this man is both frustrating and hilarious. Communication is not one of his strong points. I’m reminded how it was to live in Japan and work in a Japanese school, which I did for two years. I don’t think I could do it again.

    Were it not for the free lodging, food and probability of a bit of cash after two weeks I might have pushed on alone to DRC and left Hiromu to reconnect with his fellow countrymen and culture. But I’ve decided to stick it out. The Congo is one country I really want to do with company.

    On the job

  • Journal entries from the Central African Republic February 12th, 2011

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    ” A traveller who has just arrived in a new country where everything is new to him is held up by the difficulty of making up his mind” (Andre Gide: Travels in the Congo)

    I continue to keep a hand-written journal of my journey and may include a few more of these excerpts as blog posts over the coming months. Here are several entries from the last 10 days.

    02/02/11: Distance cycled 44km.

    Location Godeambole:   04°04.274N  016° 05.157E

    Don’t get moving till after midday on account of Hiromu disappearing to buy a new shirt. Someone stole his green Cameroon football shirt from the clothes line outside the hotel last night. I made sure to bring my washed clothes inside before going to bed – dry or not. Could tell the place wasn’t 100% secure.  Management unable to do much, but surprisingly they pay or half pay for another. More than an hour before Hiromu returns with a new outfit – red short-sleeved top and matching sweat pants with the Central Africa Repub flag and colours on. I use the time that he’s away to read more of the hardback I’ve been lugging from Limbe and trying to finish – Congo Journey.

    We now have a clearer route for Bangui planned out. Spoke with the British Consul  in Bangui on the phone last night. He seems to know the minor road I’m looking at on the map and gives good advice. There is a much shorter way to Bangui – 450km rather than 600km.

    Buy a few more supplies before leaving – maggi stock cubes and sugar. Wanted to get pepper, but unavailable. Very little to buy here.Take lunch of maize couscous and groundnut sauce before leaving Berberati. Also have CAR flag painted onto the bike – pretty amateur looking, but somehow original. Like this flag – distinctive from the usual red, green, yellow striped ones from west/central Africa.

    Young kid follows us barefoot for several  kms out of the town – determined that we give money. I have no small change, but find a 25CFA coin – only because he follows us for so long that I give in – quite sad.

    Short way out of town comes first check post – passports and vaccination cards and a call for 5000CFA. Again we manage to get away without paying – me saying something to the effect of our visas costing 50,000CFA and Hiromu being his usual clueless self.

    There is no traffic on this laterite track, just locals transporting wood in push carts back towards Berberati. All look very poor and I feel CAR displays more signs and a sense of poverty than any other country to date on this trip.

    We continue to pass many small villages which line the road – all identical palm-thatched huts in front of which people sit. Most peoplelfull of smiles and waves. Incredibly friendly and curious. Somehow the smiles make me feel more sympathy and sorrow. They have nothing and I’m just passing by pretty much carefree.

    Another check post down the road has a large officer in green combat trousers and a vest top that reads ‘Certified Muff Diver’ with a picture of a man going down on a woman. Well that just sets the tone. I can’t take what might be another 5000CFA demand seriously and we’re on our way again.

    Hard to spot a suitable place to pitch the tent, but I sight a football pitch behind a row of huts. Soon have permission from chief and set up camp with usual crowd of onlookers. Lightening breaking in the sky above as I write this – rains not far away. Still not completely sure when rainy season is here?

    Painting the flag

    03/02/11 Distance cycled: 59km

    Location: Wodo: 03° 49.551N 016° 26.860E

    Rain comes during the night. All that lightening being followed by rolls of thunder then a steady rain that stops and starts all night. No downpour as I feared and tent holds out  water well. Makes the night cooler and when I wake the sky is still overcast. As expected Hiromu has the idea that he will dry all his gear before we leave, which is ridiculous as there is too much moisture in the air. He is always so methodical, meticulous and slow when it comes to packing up and loading the bike, taking twice as long most of the time. I use this ‘Hiromu time’ in the morning to read and write journal. Eventually he decides to pack his stuff away wet like me (easier to bring it out to dry when sun is stronger later). Children and few elders come to watch us pack up, including the chief, whom we greeted last night. Sense there is an expectation for a gift, which we don’t have. Nothing said. Must remember to buy Kola nuts when I see them.

    After the rains the roadside vegetation is refreshingly green – dust having been washed from the leaves. Track also without dust, but there is hardly any traffic anyhow. After 10km we arrive in Bania, which is on the map. There is a small market here, but practically no food. I buy a plate of boiled manioc, having already eaten bread and last of laughing cow cheese earlier. Hiromu takes rice, which has clearly been cooked the previous day and looks as appetising as he says it is. Cafe owner seems to regard us with distain. I sense it is Hiromu’s tone of ordering stuff – the “donnez moi l’eau” sounding harsher than “avez vous”.  I say nothing.

    On we go, descending from this small town and crossing a large river (Mambere) with a bridge showing it to have been constructed by a German engineering company – no date. On the map this is but another mere tributary of the Ubangui. It is massive at 100m plus in breadth.

    The track continues to pass some small stunted huts, often strung out on the road for several kms before the bush returns. Early in the afternoon we reach a junction where the road heads left towards Bangui, although it is still another 370km. There is a large check post here although to begin with none of the surly looking army fatigued guys sitting on the wooden veranda do anything. This is the 9th check post I’ve counted since entering CAR – we passed another this morning on way into Bania, but surprisingly no problems – hard to predict. Try to find water at this junction but there is no pump – hasn’t been all day and none ahead as far as I can tell. I sense this will be a problem as we head into DRC.  People use river water, which is fine for washing and cooking, but have to be more careful regards drinking.

    I take coffee and avocado puree in a small shack here. The coffee actually very good and from CAR. Avocado is mixed with a maggi stock cube – odd combination – people use it here for everything – discovered it actually makes good soup. Manage to get a little water here, also I’m able to break a 5000CFA note across the road from buying just 100CFA of groundnuts. Finding small change has been almost impossible – now that I have it the idea is to hold onto it as long as possible – breaking 1000CFA notes first before the coins are used. Impossible to get change from a bunch of bananas in a village – these though are about the only things being sold along the road, along with plantain and manioc.

    Once we pedal off on what is a smoother sand track heading east the jungle starts to assert itself more distinctly. Butterflies are everywhere – many different colours. They settle on the sand then fly up as I pedal past. And lots of small black birds dart across road in late afternoon. There is also occasionally a very strong scent of a flower – not sure what. Later in afternoon we pass pygmy camps – tiny little huts for tiny little people. Expect to see more in DRC too.

    Sight of 2 fresh papayas on roadside brings me to a stop. Buy both for 100CFA and Hiromu goes off with my 10Litre water bladder to fill it – water source is some distance and a local goes with him. I sit alongside an elder (drunk?) with a map of the Congo. At some point in the conversation, which I do well to follow with his French being comprehensible, I explain that the papaya I just bought from him for 50CFA would cost upwards of 1000CFA in England, but that tomatoes and veg are cheaper there than here. Later I hear him relaying this info to other locals– probably wishing he had charged me closer to the UK price.

    When Hiromu returns it’s not far off sunset, so we arrange to camp by the school, a few hundred metres away. I enjoy these camps, but sometimes feel that we’re distancing ourselves from the people by doing so. On the other hand I know that interesting as the local company would be, it would also be anything but relaxing and relaxation is what I yearn for at end of the day. There would also be an added onus/expectation of gifts/payment. Now in my tent I realise I’ve pitched it over termites – they’re vibrating under me. Too much hassle to move now.

    12/02/11:  Location: Bangui: 04 ° 22.124 N 018 ° 34.709E

    Things are changing here. When we arrived 4 days ago I planned to be ready to leave CAR by this stage  – pirogue across the river to Zongo, DRC. All the kit is washed, collected DHL parcel (containing spare tubes, pump, Blood River book, packet soups, multi vitamins, maps of Kenya, Tan and Uganda) updated website and feel well rested. But yesterday Hiromu returns from an outing to find a Japanese NGO in the city to say he has been offered work – not with NGO, but a Japanese construction company – wtf! He was keen to leave earlier than me and now he has the idea to stay 2 weeks until the end of our CAR visa to gain what he calls ‘experience’. He was a travel agent before starting his journey. This Jap company are bulding a number of schools in Bangui and require an assistant/translator (Hiromu barely speaks any French). He claims it to be a rare offer and that they will employ me too. That was yesterday. Today I spent 4 hours standing with a hard hat on and holding a tape measure as some Jap guy who speaks zero English or French goes about taking measurements. This was after re-entering Japanese officialdom by sitting in an office in Bangui. Those silent 30 minutes in a room of 7 male Jap  employees took me all the way back to that staff room in Japan where nobody spoke but sat staring at screens – so formal and utterly surreal here in chaotic CAR. Hiromu instantly becomes Japanese again – sitting like someone has shoved a poker up his arse and telling me to not sit cross-legged or use my mobile phone. This transformation is shocking – he left his culture and country nearly 2 years ago but switches straight back into it with a Jap company around him. There I was thinking that he had started to reject the system. Annoys me as he later agrees that this atmosphere is stressful.

    Plan is to move from Giovanni’s pad (Italian EU guy I got put in contact with for a place to stay) tomorrow. This Jap company supposedly going to arrange accommodation for us. I told Hiromu this evening that me staying and waiting in Bangui for 2 weeks is 90% so that we head to DRC together, which was the plan. In two minds about whether I want to be taken on by the company, which will involve wearing a stupid boiler suit uniform and a hard-hat (the latter totally unnecessary).  I suggested the option of helping on an irregular/part-time basis – but this is totally un-Japanese – it is all or nothing – one cannot be part of the team one day and not the next. I find this conformity suffocating. Whether they pay money at the end of two weeks or not (Hiromu won’t ask as it is rude to according to him) is not particularly important (although if I knew it would be a lot there would be some incentive).

    Other stuff that happened this week: Met the Brit honorary consul for drinks here. Been in the country since 1978 –  said he got bitten by the mosquito and ended up with a black magic woman. Director of a diamond company now. Worked with a mission when he was first here – coffee export for some years after that. Man with stories to tell I’m sure – few secrets in there too. First real social connection with UK diplomat on this trip.

    Last night ended up dancing till 2am in a club full of prostitutes – well they all are in Africa. Went with several MSF peeps – their working regulations seem strict as well – curfews often in place – what I’m doing must break every rule in the book. Had been put in contact with this English guy by various people on facebook – he used to work in DRC and gave me some good advice, particularly regards the check-posts. Will be big advantage to have an ordre d’mission letter – something more specific to state what I’m doing and where I’m travelling between. He disappears early and leaves me on dance floor with a woman whose hands are all over me. Don’t mind at first – then the demands for drinks come and when I move to dance with another girl I’d spotted earlier she comes over and gives me some abuse.

    Tonight I’d been invited to a party by a woman from World Bank, but after last night as well as stress from day and mixed head about whether to work here or push on alone to DRC  I decide to stay in.

    Bike junk

  • Red dust road February 2nd, 2011

    Judging by the colour of their clothes I had a good idea what the road ahead was like. And they were in a vehicle. The tohelandback duo, two young English guys I’d briefly met in Yaounde, who are driving around Africa in a sponsor-emblazoned Land Rover, met us for lunch and kindly donated their dust masks before wishing us well for the road out of Bertoua.

    They were welcome gifts. Once we passed a rare sign post showing Bangui, Central African Republic’s capital to be 841km away, the town’s tarmac soon ended. It wasn’t long before we disappeared into a cloud of red dust, then another, and another, and so on.

    Into the dust

    Hiromu enters the dust

    Road to Batouri

    We were still on one of Central Africa’s main logging truck corridors, but now it was narrower, unpaved and there was no escape as large wheels rumbled over corrugated laterite and transported the loose surface of the road into the air, from where it would settle on whatever object it first came into contact with – often us.

    After the dust storm

    I was glad I hadn’t bothered cleaning the bike, other than the chain, although inside that plastic guard it stays remarkably free of dust. This, I should note, is a worthwhile piece of kit for anyone considering a long tour on poor roads.

    Cameroon takes on a different appearance in its far eastern quarter. Apart from the fact that vegetation at the roadside is a closer shade of red than green, the people living alongside it are predominantly Muslim. This doesn’t mean the end of bars and beer, for we’re still in Africa’s beer drinking capital, but there is a different atmosphere and appearance to those small dust-covered truck-stop towns. Mud brick mosques and market stalls selling unidentifiable slabs of char-grilled meat remind me more of rural Nigeria than the Christian-dominated beer-guzzling nation of Cameroon. I soon discovered people out here speak a Hausa dialect and there is a large fulani population, the latter easily recognisable from their lighter complexion. There are also a lot of refugees from CAR living along this road to the border, having fled the conflict and upheaval in their country over recent years – a comforting scene for someone about to ride a bicycle there.

    Central African refugee

    There was however one minor problem about me leaving Cameroon and entering CAR. My visa for Cameroon had expired two weeks previously. In most parts of the World this should and would mean a fine, calculated on a daily basis for the length of overstaying the visa. It probably would have done in Cameroon, had I not taken a tip-ex correction pen to the date of entry on my Cameroon stamp (written in biro). A foolish thing to do you’d think? Absolutely. Tampering with your passport is a crime and I have no desire of visiting an African prison.

    The tip-ex job was a result of having previously failed to get a visa extension at the immigration office in Yaounde. Here I had been told to pay for an entire new visa. It was partly something about the rudeness of the woman who told me this and partly my mood at the time that had me decide there was no way I was paying another $100 to stay in Cameroon for a few more weeks.

    A few years ago I’d changed the dates on a Libyan visa and exited the country without a problem. Here in the less official and alcohol-induced state that so many things seem to get done in Cameroon I decided the risk of being accused of forgery was preferable to the cost I would encounter for a new visa  in Yaounde.

    So when Hiromu and I rolled up to the immigration office in the border town of Kentzou I was relieved to find the official in charge was from the Anglophone part of Cameroon. He was also sober and more interested in hearing about our journey than checking the dates we had entered Cameroon. A few minutes later another official in another office was giving us the exit stamps without having even looked at the entry stamp and my DIY tip-ex job. Another big relief. I hoped entering CAR would be as easy as leaving Cameroon, but something had me thinking otherwise.

    Jim'll fix it

  • The Grand trunk road January 21st, 2011

    Should you want evidence that central Africa’s jungles are being destroyed I highly recommend driving between Douala and Yaounde in Cameroon. Actually I don’t recommend driving, even less so cycling. Just stand on the roadside, but not too close, and observe. This is a highway dominated by trucks. Trucks transporting enormous tree trunks – their 20-metre long trailers loaded as they hurtle towards you and the coast and empty as they journey back towards what remains of the continent’s equatorial rain forests. It’s a sad and scary sight, these speeding monsters helping to bleed Africa of its lungs, but it’s been going on for years and seems unlikely to stop or be reduced any time soon.

    This 300km highway between Cameroon’s two largest cities needs to be wider. Better still another road should be built, but that would only destroy more forest.  With its location on the coast Douala is the end point for traffic coming not just from the capital Yaounde, but northern Cameroon, as well as landlocked Chad, the Central African Republic and probably the jungles of Congo and parts of Gabon. So it’s an important road, and needless to say a busy one.  It’s also well-paved, at least by African standards. This is a problem for the cyclist – traffic moves as fast as humanely possible. One stays in the hard shoulder, when it’s there.

    There are few towns or even villages along this highway. It cuts through the jungle, which is the only interesting thing about it. But with the deafening roar of a logging truck approaching you there is little opportunity to hear or look into that twisted tangle of greenery. The jungle feels close around you, yet distant at the same time. Why could there not be a cycle lane winding its way through that other World where engines don’t exist? That comes in the Congo perhaps. Everyone using the highway wishes to leave it as quickly as possible. In a vehicle the journey is a 3 hour drive, or less, on a bicycle 3 days.

    I stayed in unadvertised rooms along this road. They were small and and cheap ($5-10 US) and I found them behind roadside bars, of which there are many in the small towns that do exist. In the day time such establishments might get used by the hour – “for a siesta” as one truck-driver told me. Very convenient if you want to get drunk and, well, I think you know what I’m talking about.

    I don’t have any photos from this stretch of road. Partly the traffic, but also the dust-filled skies provided little inspiration. I just wanted to arrive in Yaounde, like everyone else, and after that long and relaxing stay in Limbe the road was tiring – both physically and mentally.

    And so here I am, passport back in my hands this morning with a visa from the Embassy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Two days ago I also collected a visa for the Central Africa Republic. I had anticipated problems of the ‘letter of introduction/invitation’ type, but it appears money is all that really matters. Neither visa is cheap, particularly if you request a 90-day stay, which I have done for DRC. I don’t anticipate spending 3 months there, but I want time on my side in what will be Africa’s largest  and most challenging country on this journey.  Just for the record, a visa for CAR costs 55,000 CFA ($110) and is issued in 48 hours, and a 90-day visa for DRC is 105,000 CFA.

    Central Africa Republic visa

    DRC visa

    Hiromu is here. I met him outside the Central Africa Republic embassy in his favourite hole-ridden shirt. I made some comment to how suitably addressed he was, but translating sarcasm often doesn’t work. On his head was a new sun hat with “kiss me quick, squeeze me slow” written across the front. ‘Why did you buy this hat?’ I asked. Well I already knew the answer.

    He is staying over at the Foyer Presbyterian, which is a Church run guest-house/camp site,  along with several other overlanders, whereas I’m surrounded by more western furnishings in a teacher’s apartment belonging to the International School I spoke at yesterday. I hardly seem to have gone anywhere in the last several weeks. Really keen to start moving. There is however, one problem remaining. My Cameroon visa expired earlier this week, which will present problems if I don’t do something about it when I arrive at the border. More about that in a future post.

    Hiromu  at the camp

    Overlanders in Yaounde

    Beer o clock

  • Hard roads ahead: Crossing Central Africa January 6th, 2011

    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