• Top 5 reasons to Cycle Central African Republic November 22nd, 2011

    This was written for and is posted on the World Biking website, which has a great section listing the 5 best reasons for cycling each country on the globe. I was happy to write something for The Gambia, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the last two of which see very few foreign cyclists. Posts on The Gambia and DRC to come.

    1) The challenge

    Not many people have heard of the Central African Republic (CAR), let alone cycled through it. Political instability, terrible infrastructure and countless road-blocks manned by gun-wielding police are just some of the reasons that make CAR a challenge to cycle through. This is Africa at its rawest. People are desperately poor and survive on a diet of cassava. If The Gambia is Africa for beginners then CAR is definitely on the list of Africa for the experienced. But there are some cycle tourers, such as yours truly, who like the challenging places. Cycling through CAR makes even a warm beer in the evening seem refreshing.

    When travel becomes easy, predictable and repetitive it can be boring – CAR is none of these. You might find yourself sampling bush-meat beside a chief’s hut in a small village one evening, then giving an impromptu English lesson to a group of shocked children whose mud-brick school you pitched your tent in the next. At the end of it all you know that you will never ever forget the experience you had travelling through this country. And once you’ve cycled through it, scathed or unscathed, you’ll have the confidence to cycle pretty much anywhere on the continent.

    School camp

    2) Welcome to The Jungle

    What remains of dense jungle in West Africa is tame in comparison to what you will experience in the southern part of CAR. This is the tropical and primeval Africa of boyhood imagination, at least mine. It begins in Cameroon and continues through southern CAR into the Congos.

    Jungle cycling

    Cycling through that humid tunnel of twisted and tangled overgrowth I used to peer into the enveloping darkness and wonder what other life forms existed in there. Sometimes they came out onto the track, like the enormous centipedes and fierce-looking columns of black ants. Much less threatening were the butterflies – thousands of them surrounded the bike for a few days like confetti in the wind.

    And then there were the rivers silently flowing through the forest. They didn’t compare in scale and frequency to what came later in the DRC, but there were many of them – mere tributaries of tributaries to the mighty Congo River, and a tantalising taste of the adventure that was to come.

    Jungle river

    3) People: The Livingstone experience

    The interaction with local people in CAR is like you might expect from a country where most people, particularly children, have never seen a foreigner before. Out in the villages there is no electricity or newspapers. The sight of a white person riding a loaded and unfamiliar looking bicycle naturally draws tremendous curiosity. Stop to say hello and within minutes you will be surrounded by a sea of faces as the inhabitants of an entire village comes to stare at and ask the stranger questions. At times this can be exhausting and intimidating, and for some cyclists who like their solitude it might seem like a complete nightmare. For those who don’t mind the attention and like to imagine what it must have been like for Stanley and Livingstone, (although they were never in this part of Africa) these encounters with the photo-opportunities that often arise, are ones fast disappearing in a World that is so well travelled nowadays.

    CAR is one of the few places in Africa where you can still see pygmies living in the forest. These small-statured people are the original inhabitants of central Africa’s forests, living here long before bantu tribes arrived. The Michellin map to Central and east Africa even writes pygmies across the south-western part of the country. Descending into a village one evening it came as a shock to see several pygmy families emerging out of the forest to walk home. They were as shocked at my appearance as I was theres.

    Poser

    4) Village capital: Bangui

    Most African capitals are best avoided. Pollution, overcrowding, crime and lack of interesting sites typify the scene. Bangui however has something of a time-warped charm, where the pace of life drifts by like the languid surface of the Ubangui River, the Congo River’s largest tributary that flows beside this one time French-controlled outpost. It’s too small, poor and off-the-beaten track to be polluted or swamped with traffic and street-peddlers.

    Of course there’s not much to do here, but if you’re about to cross the river into DRC it offers a last refuge before the jungle commences again.

    5) Entry into DRC

    A long time ago CAR was used by overland trucks and people, like myself, who wanted to travel across central Africa without flying. The Ubangi river, which runs along the south of the country, separates CAR from the DRC. Once you cross that river you’re into DRC, and 500km away from Africa’s greatest river journey – up the Congo river. There are no large cities like Brazzaville and Kinshasa to worry about. It’s an obvious, if intrepid route choice to cross Central Africa, but all the check-posts you dealt with in CAR will have won you your half-stripes for dealing with the worst of African officialdom. You earn your full stripes in the DRC, and can feel smug that very few other people have come this way before on a bicycle.

  • Back to reality February 28th, 2011

    “A traveller journeys not without knowing whither he wanders” (H M Stanley)

    I shall miss the food more than the work. For the last two weeks I’ve eaten better than I might do for a very long time. Sushi in Central Africa I tell you! It was the only thing I really looked forward to whilst holding a tape measure in the scorching sun, wondering what the hell I was doing. That and the interaction with the children, who curious as ever wanted to know more about the schools that were being built for them.

    The Japanese from this construction company remained as inscrutable as ever, and I found myself having to explain to many local staff that their culture was just very different. They work hard, communicate very little, and generally take very long to get to know. Take Suzuki san for example. This is the chap I worked alongside for two weeks. He barely said a word to me, and when he did it was often through Hiromu, my Japanese cycling companion. Locals greeted him in French and tried to shake his hand. Children occasionally shouted Ni hao, assuming he was Chinese. His attention was elsewhere. Was he purposefully ignoring these people? Was he just shy? Did he realise it was rude not to make eye contact, greet and shake hands with important locals? I sometimes imagined how he would react if I threw a bucket of water in his face. Would he flinch? Shout at me? Retaliate? He has been here a month and will stay for up to another year. I doubt he will learn a word of French or Sango, the local dialect. And even if he does, it will be a rare moment when he utters a word. For all I know he might speak fluent English.

    At work in Bangui

    For all my frustration with the job and failure to fully comprehend the Japanese mentality I shouldn’t complain. Yes the work was dull as hell, but the Japanese were paying for my food and lodging, and providing beer money that will probably last until I reach the Indian Ocean. For the others – the local employees, the situation was different. For two weeks work I got paid what many would earn in about 3 months. And lets face it, they were doing far more actual work than me and probably supporting various family members through that measly wage.

    Anyhow. Now it’s back to reality for me too. Tomorrow I hope to load the bike on a canoe and cross the Ubangui river, which divides Bangui and the Central African Republic from Congo DRC. Apparently the route I’m planning to follow used to be popular amongst overland travellers through Africa, but that was more than 20 years ago. Gemena looks like the first town of any size as I head south towards the Congo river. If there is Internet there you’ll know about it, otherwise it may be some time before I get to write here again.

  • Getting away with it: Check posts and magic letters February 10th, 2011

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    “As I got deeper into Africa – the scrub, the desert, the rocky climb up to the mountains, the lakes, the rain in the afternoon, the mud, and then, on the other, wetter side of the mountains, the fern forests and the gorilla forests – as I got deeper I thought: But this is madness. I am going in the wrong direction. There can’t be a new life at the end of this”. (V.S. Naipaul)

    I pretended not to understand the demand for money and just continued to smile. Here I was at the first check post in the Central African Republic and what I’d read and been told about the country seemed accurate. I was being asked to pay 5000CFA ($10) to have my passport details logged in a tattered notebook. The soldier in military fatigues looked serious enough. I wanted to comment on how shiny his black boots were, but my passport in his hands was more of a concern.

    Hiromu performed his normal display of stubbornness for the occasion, pretending like me that he didn’t understand. But it wasn’t working, nor was our explanation that we had already paid 55,000CFA for the visa in Yaounde and would not be paying more to enter the country. I guess most people paid something, but to concede at the first hurdle would be setting a bad precedent for the many check posts that lay ahead.

    So I went to retrieve my magic malaria letter, which states, in brief, that ‘Mr Peter Gostelow is working voluntarily on behalf of the Against Malaria Foundation and requests cooperation for an untroubled passage through the country’. Included at the top of this letter I had written, printed and photocopied several weeks before was a logo of the AMF, which matched that on my dust-covered cycling jersey I was wearing in this airless wooden hut. The soldier read the letter in detail, looked at me and my jersey with a raised brow and loosened his grasp on our passports.

    I half-expected he would laugh and throw the letter back at me, but instead it was our passports that were returned. The magic malaria letter signed by ‘Bob Mather’ had worked, although I feel it needs touching-up with a sentence or two to state something to the effect of: ‘under no circumstances ask Mr Gostelow for payment at your control post’.

    I could spend the rest of this blog post describing something about almost all of the next 17 check-posts that lay ahead of me to the capital Bangui, a distance of 600km. That makes it a check post roughly every 35km.

    I should note that not all of the military-clad officials manning these posts demanded money. The shock and novelty of a European and an Asian (one of them resembling Jet Li and the other The transporter according to many people here) rolling up on bicycles with a brief explanation in broken French to say they had crossed the border from Cameroon and cycled X number of kilometres over the past X months, sometimes diverted attention from the usual procedure which would probably take place when someone arrives in a vehicle at one of these posts. Our passports would be checked and sometimes the vaccination cards, but when they were seen to be in order and there was a lull in the exchange of words I would take my passport back into my hands, say ‘merci beaucoup’, and do my best to casually get back on the bicycle and pedal away as fast as possible before someone changed their mind and thought “Wait a minute. This guy might be on a poor man’s form of transport, but he’s white so must have a lot of money. I’ll call him back and demand $10 by asking for a document he doesn’t have”.

    At a few problematic check posts I let Hiromu produce his own magic letters. These consisted of slips of paper where he used Chinese characters to write down the name of the officers, then presented the paper with an explanation that if they kept these pieces of paper in their shirt pockets they would be protected from any harm. I found it difficult to keep a straight face as one soldier seemed hypnotised by the Chinese characters before carefully slipping the paper into his breast pocket. Traditional/spiritual beliefs are very strong in this part of Africa. Hiromu has since found better paper to write on, the colours of which match those of the Democratic Republic of the Congo flag, the next country where we anticipate more of these problem check posts.

    Entering the capital Bangui proved the biggest headache. Just when I thought that the check posts were becoming easier to negotiate and the keep-it-cool jocular rapport with the bored soldiers was working my passport got taken from me and stamped by the police. ‘But I don’t need I stamp’ I said, ‘I’m not leaving the country yet’. Well apparently I do to enter Bangui, so down it went in my passport, swiftly followed by a serious demand for $20. The magic letter didn’t work on this occasion, but fortunately I already had the passport back in my possession while the call for 10,000CFA was repeated. Hiromu on the other hand didn’t. It took another hour of waiting, explaining and staying calm before we both had our passports back and were free to continue. I think leaving the city might produce similar problems.

    Between the check posts my journey into the Central African Republic has been a positive, but moving experience. Looking back over the last week I keep visualising the sight of half-naked children dressed in rags waving or running away from the roadside in fear. Their mothers, sitting close by in front of small mud-brick huts are peeling casava or stirring a wood-fired pot, smiling and calling out ‘merci’. I was never sure if this was intended as a greeting or some kind of thank you of sorts for visiting a country that sees very few foreigners. I saw similar scenes in Sierra Leone and Liberia, but life here seems more desperate. Nothing looks like it would have changed in centuries.

    Poser

    Some villages, which were never any more than one or two huts deep from the roadside, were totally empty – their residents probably having walked off into the bush to farm. Little else seems to be grown here other than casava. The nation somehow survives on this unnutritious woody shrub. Finding alternative food to buy is hard. No one has money so there is little to be sold. Bushmeat (gazelle, antelope, monkey, rats) has little appeal. I have eaten a lot of papayas, bananas, avocados and pineapples in the last week. I suppose things could be worse.

    Bushmeat for sale

    At night we camped beside schools, following the usual procedure of cycling into a village shortly before sunset and asking where the chief of the village was. Dozens of children would characteristically follow us to watch the procedure of pitching the tent and cooking. For seven continuous nights this consisted of us sharing 3 cups of rice (0.5kg), mixing it with tinned sardines, maggi stock cubes, and if we were lucky some tomatoes and maybe a few cloves of garlic. On one night I couldn’t finish my bowl so offered it to the children silently waiting a few metres away in the darkness. An older boy of about 11 came forward to take the bowl then returned to the darkness. There was a brief report of shouts. A minute later the bowl came back without a grain of rice in it.

    Through the school window

    Many of these rural schools consist of little more than mud-brick walls and a tin roof. Some are mere one classroom constructions which would commonly be filled with 100+ children. In one village we packed the tents up in the morning whilst the children lined up outside to enter the class. They joyfully sang what might have been the National Anthem, answered a few arithmetic questions and were dismissed to go home 10 minutes later. The teacher gave me some explanation about the recent elections affecting the school time-table. To be honest most children here receive no education. It is very sad.

    School camp

    Village school kids

    Heading east on a well graded laterite track we entered what might be classified as an area of dense forest. Those logging trucks you saw in the previous few posts still came thundering towards us, but with far less frequency. Occasionally a track would branch off into the forest with a sign marked ‘Acces Interdit’. Somewhere down there a team of men with chainsaws must be selecting the biggest trees and felling them. There was no other traffic on these roads other than the odd motorbike.

    Rural transport

    Dust storm approaching

    Jungle cycling

    A pause in the jungle

    In the jungle

    Written in bold across this section of the Michellin map is a word embedded deep in the history of Central Africa’s forests – PYGMIES. It is an odd thing to write across a map; a bit like someone writing COCKNEYS on a map of east London or TUAREGS across a swath of the Sahara desert. Well sure enough it was pretty accurate. Within clearings of the forest and situated on the outskirts of several large villages I noticed the huts were smaller, rounded and the people sitting within them proportionally stunted in size. They smiled and waved as I paused to look at this Tolkien scene, perhaps as amazed at my colour and appearance as I was at theirs.

    Small pygmy village

    Bush meat hunters

    Equally as fascinating out on this jungle road were the butterflies. Thousands rose up like colourful confetti in the wind as I cycled past them settled on the mud. So many species, sizes, flying styles – where had they all hatched out from? Less enjoyable when I stopped to look at this fluttering frenzy were the bees. Were these killer African bees I had read about? They could smell my sweat no doubt. And when one caught the scent it would return minutes later with a swarm of friends. They didn’t sting, merely wished to taste the exotic perspiration infused with local dirt.

    Butterlies on the road

    There were rivers too. Big swollen volumes of dark water flowing silently southwards. They were significant in their own right, with names on the map to prove it – the Mambere, Mbaere, Lobaye. But these were mere tributaries of the Ubangui, itself just a tributary of the mighty Congo, Africa’s second longest river. When I crossed these rivers, often on surprisingly good iron bridges, I imagined what it would be like to load the bike onto a large pirogue and drift downstream with the current. Now that would be an adventure.

    Jungle river

    The deep forest disappeared all too soon (much like the pygmy communities) to be replaced by a secondary growth/savanna type vegetation, and after 500km+ of dirt tracks the tarmac started again. I expected the road into the capital to increase with traffic. It did, but the traffic was mostly human, not motorised. Men pushed enormous carts loaded with hundreds of kilos of wood towards the city, their chiselled muscular backs glistening with sweat in the afternoon sun. Women walked too, carrying loads on their heads. Many others waited at the roadside beside piles of casava and payaya for what little transport there was. Fuel is about the same cost here as that in my own country. People cannot afford motorised vehicles to transport their produce, even when it does exist. I had the impression that the Africa I was seeing here was little different 30-40 years ago.

    Walking into Bangui

    East to Bangui

    Bangui itself looks like it’s been caught in a time-warp. The city, which sits on a bend of the Ubangui river, is my last stop here in the Central African Republic. Across that brown murky expanse lies the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s an exciting and daunting thought – the hundreds of kilometres of rarely travelled tracks that lie ahead in a country that has occupied my thoughts for many months. I expect more problem check-posts, mud, sand, intense heat, humidity, rain, sweat, bees, flies, mosquitoes, lack of edible food and clean water and scenes of desperate poverty on a scale greater than anywhere else on this journey over the next few months. This is the main course for me. If it isn’t hard I’ll be disappointed. All I hope is that I exit the other side with bike, body and belongings mostly intact and a few good stories to tell. I feel there will be plenty of those, but you might have to be patient to hear them.

    100km to Bangui