• And the winner goes to: Reflections from 2011 January 3rd, 2012

    Another year passes by on the roads of Africa; this one spent between the mountains of northern Cameroon and the tranquil shores of Lake Malawi. I managed a modest 12,000km of cycling –  about the same as last year, and crossed through 8 countries.

    There were jungles and big rivers, endless palm-fringed beaches, bribe-demanding immigration officers and chaotic urban traffic. Last year I wrote a post summing up some of the memorable places and experiences of 2010, so here is a similar list of random highlights and lowlights from 2011. Feel free to comment and add a category. And a belated Happy New Year to all those who’ve followed the journey, whether it be from the beginning  or more recently.

    Destination I’d most like to return to: Zanzibar. The famous spice island of the Indian Ocean is popular with tourists for a good reason. It might not be wild, untamed and adventurous Africa, but the authentic Swahili culture and food, beautiful white sand beaches and fascinating history all compacted together make this one great place to cycle.

    Stone town back street

    Most interesting week of the year: The one where I travelled by boat up the mighty Congo river. This was/is the Africa of boyhood imagination. A Conradian journey through the equatorial jungle, and one that very few westerners have taken in recent decades.

    Sunrise on the Congo

    Worst day of the year: 5th July. I returned to what had been the locked room of a Guest House in Kenya to find it open and most of my valuables missing.

    Best new piece of equipment: In light of the above I bought a key-hole blocker. This small piece of metal jams into a keyhole and prevents someone with a spare key from entering a locked room.

    Key-hole blocker

    Most scenic country: Rwanda. I only spent 1 week here, but would have happily spent longer. Wonderfully green, clean, peaceful and challenging to cycle.

    Hardest day on the road: Northern Mozambique: 90km of hot sandy tracks, including two bridge/boat-less river crossing and a lot of mangrove swamps. I pushed the bike for half the day and finished it by falling into the Indian Ocean completely exhausted.

    After the mangroves

    Most expensive/over-priced country: Mozambique. Not quite sure why one of Africa’s poorest countries is also, at least in terms of accommodation, probably one of the most expensive. Paying $10+ per night to pitch a tent in Africa isn’t budget travel.

    Most Awkward moment: Being told by my long-term Japanese cycling companion that he’d read my website and found out what I’d been writing about him.

    Hardest border crossing: Exiting Central African Republic (CAR) for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The CAR immigration officials demanded money to have my passport stamped and returned to me. After an hour or so I settled for buying them beers before crossing the Ubangui River to DRC where a similar experience awaited me.

    Most water consumed in one day: 11 litres. Brutally hot weather on the road south from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania had me continually stopping to drink water with no toilet stops to show for it. The 11 litres doesn’t include the coca-cola stops.

    Country I think about returning to the most: DRC. Every day was an adventure in this huge country. All those unexplored rivers and roads and the villages where foreign faces have never been seen before made this the most exciting of travel destinations.

    Pole man and fish

    Best beer award: Primus in the DRC. There was something distinctly African about drinking one of the continent’s most famous beers with Congolese music playing in the background. I was also a fan of the 720ml bottle size.

    Primus

    Worst beer award: Carlsberg in Malawi. Am as unimpressed by the size of the bottle (the first country in Africa where beer comes in bottles smaller than 500ml) as I am by the taste and lack of alternative beers

    Most unexpected telephone call: Tim Butcher, author of Blood River, calling me from South Africa when I was in Kisangani to ask if I could give a copy of his book to one of the characters in it who helped him organise boat transport on the Congo River.

    Busiest road: Mombasa Highway in Kenya. One constant stream of trucks taking goods from the coast to half a dozen countries. Fortunately I was only on it for 50km.

    Most noiticeable difference when crossing a border: Crossing from DRC to Rwanda. Whilst the former was chaotic, poor and massively underdeveloped, the latter was calm, clean and much more advanced in terms of infrastructure and general development.

    Most worthwhile detour: Cycling around the base of Mt Kilimanjaro. The ride took me from arid Massai-dwelling villages to deeply forested woodlands, all the time with Africa’s highest mountain looming in the background.

    Below Kilimanjaro

    Friendliest country to spend time in: Uganda and Malawi. These two anglophone countries are full of smiling faces and eager to get-to-know-you English speakers.

    Colourful characters: Ugandan school children

    African language I learnt the most of: Swahili. Starting from as far back as eastern Congo, Swahili was spoken in parts of Rwanda and Uganda and then more seriously in Kenya, and particularly Tanzania. I was even able to use it for the first few weeks in northern Mozambique. I learnt and spoke the most during my time in Tanzania.

    Biggest made to feel like an idiot moment: Counting my Malawian money that I’d received in exchange for Mocambican metacais on the the black market and realising that I’d been cheated.

    Best food award: Tanzania: I never seemed to get tired of chappatis, the fried street food, fresh fish on the coast, spicy biriyani and pilau and the road-side fruit and nut sellers.

    Most restless night of sleep: In a maternal clinic in the DRC. During the night someone died and another gave birth a few metres from my tent. It was pitched black and all I can remember was a lot of screaming, crying, the sound of drums outside and rain lashing on the corrugated roof.

    Most over-heard song at the roadside: Nwa baby I don’t think there is a country in sub-Saharan Africa where this Nigerian song has not been played to death during 2011.

  • Top 5 reasons to cycle DRC December 3rd, 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.

    Rivers run through it

    The River Congo evokes all of the adventure and mystery of African travel, and a journey up or down this mighty serpent will be like no other you have taken before. Barges pushed by tug-boats make the 1800km-long journey between Kinshasa and Kisangani, and are effectively floating markets. Families live aboard them for weeks, as that is how long the journey in its entirety will take (there is no schedule and if you travel the whole way you can be aboard for anything between 2-4 weeks).

    Another barge

    Going up that river today is just as Conrad described it over 100 years ago – ‘like going back in time’. River-side villages totally cut off from the modern World transport what they have from the jungle and river (ground-nuts, palm oil, dried fish, bats, monkeys) on small dug-out canoes – paddling out to tie alongside the barge as it slowly creeps up the river. It is an amazing spectacle and one not to be missed.

    Aside from the main river itself, the DRC has thousands of small streams running through the forest. These make wonderful opportunities for a cool off and break from the sweaty cycling.

    Sunrise

    Boldly go: Pick your track

    The bicycle really is the ultimate means of travel in the DRC as there is no public transport in most of the country. Locals load their bicycles with 100kg+ of goods and often walk for days to sell them in the next town. On a bicycle you can pretty much take any track that is marked on your map. Sometimes it will be no more than shoulder-width wide, only to suddenly open and bring you to an old-iron bridge crossing a river. Some of these jungle-tracks used to be actual roads when the Belgians were still in the Congo. Now the jungle has reasserted itself, but because the locals use bicycles to travel along them, you can too. It is an adventure cyclist’s paradise. Should you have a problem you won’t be far from a local with his Chinese-built steed willing to help.

    Through the bamboo tunnel

    Window to the past

    When the Belgians left their only African possession they did so with an impressive network of roads, railways, Catholic Churches and other buildings. Apart from the mission churches, some of which are mighty impressive red-brick edifices, almost everything else is a crumbling and non-functioning reminder of the past. In one sense it is sad, but in another a fascinating window into what life must have been like 60 years ago in the DRC. Uncover some long grass at the roadside and you might find a stone marker denoting mileage to the next town. Poke your head around the cob-web filled rooms of a large mission and you’ll discover old machinery that would be better placed in a museum. Then there are the Portuguese names on river-side warehouses, the rusting train carriages being swallowed by the jungle, and the enormously incongruous houses/palaces where former political leaders such as Mobutu once lived. History is everywhere in this country – a place more developed half a century ago than it is now.

    Cathllic Church in Lisala

    Music and beer

    That’s two things, but they kind of go together in the DRC. Primus beer comes in wonderfully large 720ml bottles and has as good a distribution system as coca-cola (unfortunately they will cost a small fortune in rural areas due to the transport situation). If the beer is cold it means there is electricity, and if there is electricity then there is usually a stereo or TV where Congolese girls hypnotise the drinker and distract him from his beer as they shake their body to the infectious rhythm of Soukous, a music genre listened to far beyond the borders of the country.

    Primus man

    Out in the forest, where there is no electricity and people can’t afford beer, palm-wine and drums make a good replacement. When tapped fresh from the tree palm-wine has a sweet, if somewhat acquired taste. Locals will love it if you drink it (I occasionally filled up a 1.5litre bottle with it). Every village in the DRC will have a church and the rhythmic sound of drums beating in the darkness as you lie sweating in your tent is one that will stay in your memory long after leaving.

    Primus

    The eastern rift valley

    The eastern provinces of the DRC may be some of the most unstable, but they are also some of the most beautiful. Lush jungle-clad climbs take you up to 2000metres and above, before you descend to the shimmering blue surfaces of Lake Tanganyika and Lake Kivu. If you’ve got the money for it you can climb up a lava-spewing volcano near Goma or hang out with the mountain gorillas before crossing into Rwanda or Uganda. For those doing it on the cheap, swimming in the lakes comes free.


  • A post without much mileage June 10th, 2011

    “Uganda is from end to end a ‘beautiful garden’ where ‘staple food’ of the people grows almost without labour. Does it not sound like a paradise on earth? It is the Pearl of Africa”. (Sir Winston Churchill)

    I almost wasn’t going to write this post, and I’m still not completely sure why I am. I think it’s my internal blog clock announcing ‘Your audience, whoever and wherever they are, await’. Ten days have passed, but not a whole lot wildly exciting has happened on the road since then.

    Can you believe I saw Hiromu again? Well this deserves a mention. For those who don’t know, this is the Japanese cyclist I travelled with for a number of months in west and central Africa. We parted somewhat awkwardly in the Congo after he’d read some negative comments I’d made about him in several blog posts. I apologised and we made up, but things were never the same again. I guess I couldn’t get over feeling like I’d been a shit, which I had. At the time he asked me to remove the negative comments. It’s about time I got round to doing it.

    I suppose that’s one of the frustrations of having a blog such as this. There are events that take place and people one meets that are best kept secret for reasons of privacy or fear of causing offence. Perhaps those bits fit better in a book.

    Anyhow, this time around we ignored each other. Well actually it was me who did all the ignoring. He was totally unaware that I watched him walk across the road in Fort Portal, minutes after I’d emerged from an Internet Cafe. Had I walked out on the road thirty seconds later I would never have seen him.

    My first instinct was to call out after him, but then I just froze in motion. I think once you’ve said goodbye and parted from someone on slightly awkward terms, then unexpectedly met again and done another painful goodbye, it just seems easier to avoid a confrontation if at all possible, which it was. Cowardly I know. I soon regretted my decision and wished I’d crossed the road or caught his attention. He must have recently entered Uganda from Congo DRC.  When we last met briefly in Bukavu (something I didn’t write about here) his plan had been to head through northern Kivu and follow the Congolese side of the Rwenzori mountain chain. I later e-mailed (although I didn’t explain I’d seen and ignored him) and he replied to say he’d been in Fort Portal for ten days and all was well. Dare I say our paths will cross again between now and South Africa.

    Main highways leading to capital cities are usually unpleasantly busy for the touring cyclist. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to find that the tarmac road which links Fort Portal to Kampala is not. Verdant green hillsides blanketed with tea plantations started the show – very scenic with the Rwenzoris rising high above in the background. I stopped to watch teams of young men and women clip their way through the neatly manicured rows that flanked the roadside. One man told me they received 69 Ugandan Shillings for every kilo, and that the wicker baskets on their backs would hold roughly 20kg. “How many baskets can you fill in a day” I naturally asked. “Between 15 and 20” was the answer. Assuming I got all the figures right that works out at about $8-12 per day. Not bad by African standards.

    Tea plantation near Fort Portal

    Beyond the tea plantations the Ugandan countryside loses none of its lushness, especially so now that the rainy season has just finished. Banana trees dominate the scene. What cassava is to Congo DRC and the Central African Republic, and yams are to Nigeria, bananas, or rather Mattoke, is to Uganda. I read in the paper a few days ago that the average Ugandan consumes between 200-250kg of Mattoke every year. Peeled or unpeeled that’s a lot of bananas – plantain to be more precise. Mattoke in its usual form best resembles mashed potato, and most Ugandans eat a plate of it, accompanying something else, at least once a day. Well at least it has more nutritional value than cassava. I think the sight of an old Chinese single-speed bicycle lugging several branches of plantain on the back is about as common and iconic a Ugandan image as one can find – as evidenced by photos in both this and the last blog post.

    Matoke overload

    But it’s not just bananas that grow in abundance here. I used to get wildly excited when I saw a single pineapple being sold in a Congolese village. Well now they’re everywhere, and just as cheap. I can’t in fact remember the last cycling day when I didn’t consume an entire pineapple. Then there are the mangoes, which are just coming into season, the avocados, which can be a meal in themselves, and that spiky green beast far too large and heavy to strap onto the bike in its entirety – the jack-fruit. It’s hard to find these in an English supermarket. I doubt most people in fact would know what they were. Their internal texture and appearance look more like some kind of alien-form excrement than a succulent and sweet tropical fruit, but then I suppose the inside of a passion fruit does as well. They’re everywhere too. To me jack-fruit has the taste of childhood bubblegum, and it leaves the same sticky residue on my lips as well. Well I think that’s fruit covered, and here straddling the equator Uganda produces plenty of it.

    Pineapple on the road

    Roadside fruit&veg in Uganda

    There are no particularly interesting towns or villages between Fort Portal and Kampala. Shop owners in this country seem to have totally sold themselves out to offers of having their premises emblazoned with the names and garish colours of mobile phone companies and breweries. I wonder if these African multinationals actually pay money or that the offer of free paint is enough for a shop owner to happily find the walls of his premises change from plain grey in colour one day to bright yellow the next? All very colourful in one sense, but it becomes somewhat dull and monotonous after a while. Where is your creativity and defiance in the face of these capitalist bullies you want to say. I don’t think many people really care all that much.

    Town of Mubende: Uganda

    There are a lot of hills on this tarmac road to Kampala. Nothing overly strenuous, but enough to ensure a frequent shift of gearing and some level of interest to an otherwise unremarkable 300km of cycling.

    It gets a bit more interesting and hectic as one enters Kampala. Well at least it did for me. Entering the city I witnessed a motorcyclist being beaten in front of me by a gang of armed policemen. What all this was about I’m not sure. “Welcome to Africa” shouted one passer-by as a crowd of people soon gathered to spectate. Police aren’t short in number on the streets of Kampala that’s for sure. In recent months they’ve been busy quelling protests about food and fuel prices in the wake of the country’s recent elections.

    I got chatting to one of these policemen beside Uganda’s equivalent to Big Ben. “This was donated by your Queen”, explained the journalist interviewing me at the same time. “International Cyclist coming to Kampala: Press Release”, had read the title of an e-mail I’d sent to several leading newspapers before leaving Fort Portal. Nothing like a bit of shameless self-promotion to make you think someone actually cares what you’re doing. “Mzungu cyclist in Kampala” might well be the title of the article when it gets published (a week on Sunday in the paper’s colour magazine I’m told). Well that’s what the photographer had named his file of pictures I copied from him yesterday.

    I’m doing the ex-pat thing again in Kampala. By that I mean I’m staying in an apartment that one would find hard to guess was in Africa. There appear to be lots of mzungus living and working in the city and it’s nice that I know a few of the faces here. Last weekend I found myself getting slightly disorientated inside a shopping mall. There seem to be a lot of these here too.

    Usually it’s the mission for a visa that dominates priorities when I come to an African capital. From now onwards however it appears I can get most of my visas at the border,  and they’re a whole lot cheaper.

    My bags will be a little heavier when I get round to pedalling out of here. A replacement mattress from Thermarest, (which is heavier than my last one and I’m crossing my fingers that there still may be a chance to replace it with a lighter model) an additional camera lens (70-300mm. Well I don’t want to get too close to those elephants in the National Parks) several books and an enormous camera tripod made their way, courtesy of my host, to me here. I’m doing everything I can to sell the tripod. It weighs around 2kg+ and is over 50cm when folded. Why I didn’t read the specifications in more detail when I bought it online a few months ago I don’t know. It has no place in my rig and I’ve already bought a lighter, smaller and cheaper one here (I never knew these malls existed in Uganda).

    Looking ahead, it’s eastwards to Jinja and the slopes of Mt Elgon. Next month I hope to be involved in a distribution of mosquito bednets in Kenya. You can read more about it here. It’s a good opportunity to donate whatever you can to the against malaria foundation. Approximately £3 or $5 guarantees a mosquito net for someone whose life is seriously at risk without one.

    As for that newspaper article, I’ll be sure to post something when it gets published.

  • Anglophone Africa again May 30th, 2011

    When the traveller first enters Uganda, his path seems to be strewn with flowers, greetings with welcome gifts follow one another rapidly, pages and courtiers kneel before him, and the least wish is immediately gratified. (H M Stanley)

    Well that sounds very nice, but things have moved on a bit since 1871. Stanley would now just be another Mzungu in Uganda, and there are quite a lot here, comparatively speaking. But if 10 days in a country counts for anything, this one scores pretty high up on the friendliness counter.

    Banana boy

    The language makes a difference. Re-entering Anglophone Africa definitely eases things for someone whose French might now stretch to a Grade B at GCSE (I managed a C 16 years ago). That said I will boast a grade A at handling the questions Francophone immigration officials (and a whole score of other ‘bureaucratic’ time-wasters) have interrogated me with over the past several months.

    The problem of communicating in Francophone Africa is the same problem a non-native speaker of English would have with travelling throughout Anglophone Africa. A Liberian speaking English sounds very different from a Nigerian, in the same way that a Senegalese market trader sounds different from a Congolese policeman. One might speak slowly, clearly and use the correct grammar, whilst the other blabbers out a lengthy sermon of incoherent gobbledegook and expects you to understand. So you just nod your head and pretend you know what is being said. Well at least that is what I did on occasions where I’d either given up on trying to understand or was too tired to try.

    Now I no longer need to worry. Apart from Mozambique, where the Portuguese staked their imperial interests, I will be cycling through English-speaking Africa (the countries the British Empire painted pink if you were to look at a map of Africa 100 years ago) for the remainder of this trip. Hurrah!

    It is not only the ease of communication that has made a day in the life of The Big Africa Cycle somewhat easier. I remember many days cycling through the Congolese jungle where I dreamed of being able to stop for a cold coke, or finish the day with a chilled Primus beer. Most of the time they were rarely available. As for food – well if something was available it was wise to take it, whatever it might be, for there might be nothing down the road.

    Well travelling in Uganda, at least from this perspective, is a complete doddle. Coke and beer are available almost everywhere, and food, even it is only Matoke (a Ugandan stable which consists of mashed plantain) and beans, is never that hard to find. Accommodation is also a breeze to sort out. Every town seems to have at least one Guest House or Lodge, and the prices for a budget room are a fraction of those I often found in the Congo. Here one can find a clean, if basic room, for $4-5. If I was able to bargain this price for something in the Congo it would be a powerless cell, although I grew to become fond of reading under candle or parafin-lamp light at night.

    My first proper conversation back in Anglophone Africa was not with a Ugandan, but another Englishman. An Englishman riding his bicycle from the UK-South Africa would you believe. I’m not the only one, although there aren’t many of us that I know of to be fair. In the 18 months I’ve now spent cycling through Africa this is the fourth foreign cyclist I’ve met (the others being Hiromu, Mick – an older English chap I wrote about in The Gambia and never heard from again, and a German I also briefly met in The Gambia).

    Rob the English cyclist

    Rob left England a year later than me and has come through the Middle east and East Africa, covering 130-150km on average per day. I can’t remember the last time I cycled more than 100km in a day. He contacted me by e-mail a few weeks ago with questions about the Congo, so we agreed to meet in Kisoro, the first town across the border in Uganda. Rob has another 3 months scheduled before finishing in South Africa, during which he plans to paddle the entire stretch of the Congo river from Kisangani-Kinshasa, and then continue south through Angola and Namibia. It’s not an obvious nor easy route, and I’m interested to see how his experience in the Congo will fair with the rest of his journey.

    We hung out together for a few days, drank beer and played pool in Kisoro and Kabale, another town some 70km away where he’d left his bike. He too knew of a string of other cyclists pedalling different parts of the globe, and it would have been good to have spent a few days on the road together. But we were soon parting ways as I turned north towards two National Parks and he headed south into Rwanda.

    Lake Bunyoni, western Uganda

    Many people imagine Africa to be teeming with lots of large wild animals, but the truth is Uganda is the first country where I’ve really seen anything size-able that isn’t being sold as bush meat.  In places like Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and the Congo, there has been so much conflict and instability in recent decades that most wildlife has disappeared. National Parks aren’t well managed and what animals might once have been present will largely have been poached for their parts or meat. Well East Africa does a better job at conservation and my time cycling through Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park didn’t disappoint.

    Road to Bwindi NP

    Edge of Bwindi Impenetrable forest

    Cattle herder

    The former is one of Africa’s oldest forests and contains over half of the World’s remaining mountain gorillas.  I didn’t see any, but then I didn’t expect to, for $500 is the permit price to hang out for a short time with a family of these beasts. Instead I happily cycled along a scenic track, climbing to above 2500m in altitude. There were plenty of monkeys swinging from the branches above – black and white colobus ones I think, and lots of colourful musical birds. There was no traffic, other than one or two tourist-jeeps transporting fellow Mzungus, and I felt somewhat smug to be cycling through this forest alone and avoiding the $30 park entrance fee. No one asked for it. The road was passing through the forest and I was continuing north to Queen Elizabeth National Park.

    Western Uganda

    Here too I saw plenty of wildlife without opening my wallet, which no longer contains any $ anyhow. There were buffalo, baboons, monkeys, antelopes, and finally towards the end of the day when I thought I wouldn’t see any – elephants and hippos. Encountering a family of wild elephants some 50 metres away from the roadside when you’re alone on a bicycle is a pulse-racing mix of excitement and fear. They look peaceful and nonchalant, but soon recognise your presence. You point your camera and then one turns to you and starts flapping its ears. Danger alert. Elephants can probably run faster than I can cycle, so rather than spending too long watching them graze in the long grass, I decided it wise to continue.

    Elephants in Queen Elizabeth NP

    Many Ugandans, and probably Mzungus, would think it mad to cycle alone through a National Park. “Aren’t you afraid? You know there are lions” they might ask. Well I didn’t see any, which is probably a good thing, but I generally have a greater fear of wild people than I do wild animals.

    Large mountains rise up behind Queen Elizabeth National Park. The largest mountain range in Africa. The Rwenzoris rise just north of the equator and present a formidable barrier and border between Uganda on one side and the Congo on the other. I think Stanley climbed one of these peaks. Well at least he left his name here. At 5109m Mt Stanley is Africa’s 3rd highest peak, and possibly one of the hardest to summit. It rains here a lot, which does a good job of making the surrounding landscape very green and scenic.

    Off road in western Uganda

    Pose on the Equator

    Crater lake, western Uganda

    Bike with bananas

    I’m now writing this from Fort Portal, named after some chap called Gerald Portal who was a consul here when Uganda was a colony. The town sits to the north of the Rwenzoris and is about a 3-4 day cycle from Kampala. I haven’t cycled into a busy urban area in months, and there aren’t many capitals in the World which are enjoyable to cycle into. Lets see how this city of 1.5 million+ fairs in comparison.

    Impressive

    Overloaded bike

  • Into Bukavu May 12th, 2011

    Ascending a lofty hill my eye roved over one of the strangest yet finest portions of Africa – hundreds of square miles of beautiful lake scenes – a great length of gray plateau wall, upright and steep, but indented with exquisite inlets, half surrounded by embowering plantains – hundreds of square miles of pastoral upland dotted thickly with villages and groves of bananas.” (H M Stanley)

    On the way to Bukavu

    My guidebook claims Bukavu to be ‘easily the most scenic town in the whole of the DR Congo’. From where I’m sitting right now that statement might be justified. I’m looking down on a still blue lake backed by green mountains. If I’d been brought here blindfolded I wouldn’t have guessed this view before me was African. Out on the balcony of this colonial villa, which sits on a peninsula jutting into the southern shores of Lake Kivu, it’s easy to forget I’m still in the Congo.

    There are many other similarly large and much larger residences on this peninsula. Many belong to wealthy Congolese and are rented out to foreigners working here. Bukavu is a hub for International organisations operating in the region. Situated at 1500m in altitude the city straddles a mountainous border with Rwanda.  It’s by far the largest urban area I’ve visited in the Congo.

    Arriving here came as a bit of a shock. I envisaged entering the city on a quiet sandy boulevard with the quaint tinkle of bicycle taxis ringing in my ear – a place where it would be easy to find a shady spot to park the bike and drink a cold beer beside the lake. But Bukavu is densely populated, noisy, and altogether something of a sprawling mess, at least if I leave this ex-pat enclave . I never found that peaceful shady spot I was looking for, so called Stefan, the Romanian I met in Baraka who had arranged a place for me to stay here.

    The 250km journey north from Baraka to Bukavu involved some climbing, at least after leaving the scenic shores of Lake Tanganyika. It was fine at first, for the track had been recently graded and the views into neighbouring Rwanda were stunning. But then the rain started to fall heavily and for the first time in many months I wished I still had my waterproof clothes. Up above 1000m in altitude rain is more cold and dispiriting than a refreshing cool off from the heat. I looked for shelter and found none, other than a military check-post manned by drunk Congolese soldiers. It was not a good place to pass the night so I continued climbing in the rain.

    Beside Lake Tangayika

    Rain ahead

    DRC/Rwandan border

    Climbing towards Bukavu

    Had there not been this UN camp half-way up the mountain I’m not sure where I would have stayed the night. I stood soaking wet on the muddy track and waved at a soldier in a sentry tower above me. He disappeared and a few minutes later I was sitting in a tent with a cup of tea and some digestive biscuits whilst having a lengthy discussion with the Pakistani officer-in-charge about whether Bin Laden was really dead or not. This is the second time I’ve stayed with a UN Pakistani battalion. Fresh chapatis and warm hospitality weren’t in short supply again. This small team of Pakistanis had temporarily set up camp on the hillside to work on the road.

    Staying with the Pak Bat

    Well it won’t be the road condition I’ll be concerned about when I cross from here into Rwanda. I’m told it’s in excellent condition, which will come as a welcome change after the last few thousand kilometres of bumpy tracks.

    That being said I think I’m going to miss the Congo. Before I came here I received a wealth of mostly negative advice about the dangers and difficulty of crossing the country, but despite the hardships, challenges and potential risks associated with travelling here, the last few months have been like no other on the road. My experience has been overwhelmingly positive. I’d happily come back, for as much as I look forward to Rwanda and east Africa, I somehow sense Africa will not quite be the same again.

    I spy

  • East to Lake Tanganyika May 10th, 2011

    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.

  • Congo Journal: Part 5 May 5th, 2011

    On the march rain is very disagreeable: it makes the clayey path slippery and the loads heavier by being saturated, while it half ruins the clothes. It makes us dispirited, cold and wet.”(H M Stanley)

    20/04/11 Distance Cycled 27km  03°08.292S    026°00.657E    No name village

    One of those annoying days when you want to hit yourself for being an idiot. I leave my wallet behind on the road – top of a rear pannier more precisely whilst taking off trousers. Only 15-20km further on do I realise what I’ve done. Fortunately not a huge sum of money– 6000CF or so ($7), but it annoys me and I only have my stupid self to blame. Other than money and wallet there were just contact cards with website written on, a key to padlock (have 2 spares). Could have been much worse.

    Back at the beginning of the day things started better. Met Jo -Welsh girl I’d been told was living in Kindu and working for the NGO Merlin. She read my facebook message about doing a book swap. I walk over with Somerset Maugham short stories, A Short History of the World and A Thousand Splendid Sons.

    Jo looks like she might have just arrived in Africa rather than having already spent a year in DRC (6 months in Goma and now 6 months in Kindu). This is second time I’m at the Merlin Compound. First was when I arrived and asked the Logistician (whose number I’d been given) if I could pitch my tent in the compound. He refused.

    There are a few dozen paperbacks to choose from, but not so easy to read all titles and blurbs whilst having first English conversation with a Brit since that backpacker in Kisangani. End up taking 4 paperbacks – About A Boy, Steppenwolf, (read it before) plus some Haruki Murakami book and another by Ian Banks. Quite a score. I leave 2 books as the other – A Short History of the World, I decide to give to Didier – English speaking Congolese I met when I arrived. Walk to his mobile telephone shop after drinking a cup of earl Grey tea at the Merlin compound – very random. He agrees to change a 50 Euro note, which gives me a brick-sized wad of 130 notes. Use Internet for what might be final time in weeks and somewhat rashly buy camera lens and tripod. Have to be quick with Internet – over $2 per hour so no time to read many reviews of equipment.

    Buy 4 tins of sardines on way back to hotel (getting more expensive now) and pack up, wheeling bike down to river after a plate of rice and beans. Shortly after I’m in a motorised pirogue with about 40 other people and crossing the Congo river for the final time. Always somewhat nervous in such places – if it were to capsize that would be it. Somewhat sad to be pedalling away from the river and leaving it for the final time.

    Laterite road heading south is smooth but hard under the sun. Storm clouds soon build ahead. Feels good to be pushing pedals as track undulates and passes the usual village scenes – surely too early to get tired of hearing Mzungu being yelled at me? How many times will I hear this in next several months? No motorised traffic, but lots of other cyclists – most also making the 240km trip to Kasongo with more loads than me. A couple are transporting bottles of Primus – 60 bottles carefully held in place over the rear rack. I ask the price and they tell me 4000CF. Who can afford to pay over $4 for a beer out here? Not me. These poor guys probably don’t even make enough profit from one journey to drink more than 1 bottle, and it would be warm!

    Heavy weather ahead

    Primus man

    Village I stop in to hide from rain is tiny – just 7 huts and nowhere to take good shelter. Feel a bit intrusive, but locals soon relax. When rain stops an hour later I realise the road is a mess. Think about stopping here or shortly up ahead, but there is nowhere decent so foolishly carry on. Soon have mud jammed between rear mudguard and tyre – not enough clearance. Mud is truly like clay and a group of kids help push the bike towards some surface water on the road then ask for money. I have little patience for this after losing my wallet. Manage to free wheel but it soon jams again. Now outside school with corrugated iron roof and it will be dark soon. No sign of teacher or village chief. Kids go when it turns dark. Tent is pitched in the school. Bit nervous without having received permission. An hour later 2 men come – well one man and a boy. They’re on a motorbike and doing some hydrological research. Can’t understand all the French. They too plan to spend night in this classroom, which is a surprise. They take the blackboard down from bamboo pole it’s supported on and use it for a bed. I give them a mosquito coil. Poor bastards will be bitten alive. School Principal comes later who has a bad stutter. He brings food – Ugali and manioc leaves. Rain continuing now as I write this in the tent.

    21/04/11 Distance Cycled 72km   03°33.722S     026°18.826E   Kimbaiyo

    Road still wet and sticky for first few hours. When mud starts to dry it just jams wheel against the mudguard again. Means having to stop every so often to free the wheel. Plenty of other cyclists on the road with me. One has a fan attached to his handlebars, which spins as the front wheel turns – ingenious. I take a picture and this chap – Ramazanni, clings with me for most of the day. I don’t mind so much, but somehow find myself buying food for him – plate of rice and manioc leaves costs very little. There are no other eating options. We stop twice and even at the second place where four different women are selling food each one has the identical dish. I ask why and they laugh.

    Sticky mud

    Fan man

    Bush meat on a bicycle

    Once sun comes out the road soon starts to dry. Very very hot again and clothes constantly soaked in sweat. Twice in day I pass a stream with enough moving water to cool off and clean.  Must have crossed hundreds like this in DRC. Road and terrain actually quite hard-going – constantly up and down. Villages appear at the top of hills within a clearing in the jungle and the streams at the bottom. The road has a small crew of men working on it to grade and widen – at the moment this mostly seems to consist of slashing and burning the bamboo.

    I sense that having bought breakfast and lunch for Ramazzani he will expect me to buy him dinner. I pedal on ahead, leaving him in some village eating groundnuts. Sun soon sets and shortly after I roll into a small village, spotting a Church which looks like a good place to sleep. A woman nearby is selling manioc, peanuts and bananas – nothing else available here. She tells me that my friend/colleague passed this way earlier. I have to ask again, but sure enough she confirms another foreign cyclist with bags like mine, passed by. Now makes some sense why other people had spoken about my friend being up ahead. The news excites and annoys me. Surely there can’t be another foreign cyclist on this road I’ve chosen? At first I wonder if it’s Hiromu. Maybe he changed his route, or planned to come this way and didn’t want to tell me. When I press the woman for a description of the cyclist she says he had long hair. Well that counts Hiromu out. Who could this be?

    Don’t camp in the Church in the end as the Pastor explains that people will come in the night to pray and drum. Sure enough I hear them. Instead I get shown a place under a palm-thatched roof. Somehow hesitant to break open a tin of sardines. They cost 1300CF out here and so I wait until late when my spectators have gone to bed to eat in silence and darkness.

    22/04/11 Distance cycled 52km 03°52.523S 026°32.660E Kaparangao

    Hello and goodbye again to Hiromu. How very bizarre! Spot him across the road as I’m taking a breakfast of rice and manioc leaves (only ever good when there is chilli). This comes after pedalling 14km. The locals here direct my attention across the road. I watch him wheel his bike onto the road and pedal off. Well if he’s taking the same road I’ll catch him up. Sure enough I do. He’s off the bike walking it thorough a knee-deep trench of muddy water. I too have to push through this 1km long stretch of bog. Actually quite enjoy it – feeling of mud through my toes. Hiromu has someone helping him carry his front panniers, which he’s taken off due to the mud. I plough through with confidence in my waterproof Ortliebs. It is exactly 2 weeks since we parted. He looks to have lost weight and his legs have more ulcers/tropical infections than before. I know how painful these are. We’re not really in a place to chat and do so once we make it through the mud.

    Rice and manioc leaves again

    Knee deep in it

    Bad roads

    Stuck truck

    Hiromu explains that he made it as far as Lubutu, where a driver and then a Doctor from MSF advised him not to continue to Walikale, where there is unrest. So he headed south all the way to Kindu, although didn’t cross the river to enter the town. His plan is to go as far as Kasongo and then head direct to Bukavu, which is slightly different from my route. He also says something about his brake-pads having worn down badly and now he’s walking down hills rather than braking. Looking at the state of his legs and feet I really think he could do with resting off the bike for a week and taking a dose of antibiotics. MSF gave him some but he hasn’t taken them. No point in me telling him to. I don’t think he’d listen. Well we don’t spend long together. About another km further on we both stop to clean the bikes, after which he tells me to go on alone and we’ll meet in Kasongo. Quite glad really. Would be awkward – nice to be moving at my own pace, although I’m not making fast progress on this terrain.

    Road deteriorates and there are lots more hills. Take lunch of ugali and some bush meat. At first apprehensive given its appearance, but it’s actually very good – dark and gamey so take a second piece. Clouds build later in the day, which cools things down and means I can keep going without feeling quite so tired.

    Make it as far as a junction, which is down on my map as Kingombe, but everyone here calls it Kaparangao. There are some Belgian built buildings here – apparently for cotton production.  Like others I’ve seen they’re in a ruinous state. The usual crowd gathers as I stop to rest, then soon decide I might as well stay the night. Well tonight I’m camping in a hospital, which by the sounds of it isn’t going to be all that peaceful as there are several babies here. My host, the Doctor, offered a space on the floor of his room, but it was tiny and not big enough to pitch the tent.

    23/04/11 Distance Cycled 63km  04°15.762S    026°36.541E Sengangenda

    A mistake to sleep in the hospital. My tent is effectively pitched in the waiting room, beside which there is a room with a woman in labour and in the other room someone about to die. Well at least that is what I guess from the wailing of old women right outside my tent. It’s totally dark apart from a palm-oil lamp flickering in the corner. I lie there with my eyes closed hoping it will suddenly stop. Why didn’t the Doctor who showed me this place say something about women in labour and the chance that someone might be rushed in during the night? I feel like a total idiot lying there half-naked in my tent as one person is about to die within metres from me and another is about to give birth. Stupid mzungo they will be thinking. To add to the atmosphere heavy rain pummels onto the corrugated roof and drums can be heard beating loudly in a nearby Church outside. Is this connected with the death I wonder? Fortunately after about 1 hour, although it seems much longer, the noise stops and the hospital is empty again.

    I say nothing in the morning when I see the Doctor. Almost like it was a bad dream.  A bare-breasted teenage girl watches me pack up.  Cycle some 12km to small junction where group of women have food prepared. Surprisingly there are beans and aubergine. I fail to get the girl to understand I want a mix of the three and end up with rice and aubergine. Less mud today and the road generally in a better state. Villages just seem to go on and on – one hut deep along the road and I’m constantly calling Jambo and Habari with a hand waving. These villages are really quite monotonous. Hardly anything to distinguish one from another. I often wonder what the history of these places is. At what point and why did someone decide to say lets build a village here? And who was it? This was always on my mind when those villages appeared on the riverbank – completely cut off by dense jungle. And what do the names mean? Doubt anyone could tell me if I asked them. Perhaps the chief?

    Lunch stop

    The road climbs a fair bit and there are patches of savana between the forest, which I don’t expect to see. Lunch is rice and manioc leaves yet again and I plan to rest here and continue a short way in the afternoon. Problem as normal is that it’s impossible to rest. After a few minutes one gets surrounded by children staring. I half feel obliged to entertain them, but really I just want to shut my eyes for an hour or two.

    Break in the forest

    Home made bicycle

    With the road in a better state it would be possible to make Kasongo today, but I prefer to arrive in the morning. Immigration with the normal delays will be waiting for me I’m sure. So I’m in a Church tonight, which so far looks like it will be more peaceful than last night. Made sure I ate before arriving – meat and Ugali on the way into this village. I ask what the meat is – ‘Monkey’ replies the girl smiling.

    Mud girl

  • Back on board: Up the Lualaba April 20th, 2011

    The sun sinks fast to the western horizon and gloomy is the twilight that now deepens and darkens.” (H.M Stanley)

    It was worth the effort again. The waiting, the inevitable haggling for the fare, the discomfort, the heat, the mosquitoes, and even the hunger that would accompany my journey by boat further up the Congo River.

    Beyond Ubundu, where the last set of rapids make it once more navigable again, the Congo River is referred to as the Lualaba, which is the greatest headstream of  the mighty river. Over 2000km upstream from where it empties into the Atlantic it is still daunting in scale, a silent powerhouse of a river, which for those who think beyond and below its placid brown surface remains wonderfully mysterious and enchanting.

    This time wood replaced metal and the vessel was far smaller than those barges which took me to Kisangani. The HB Safina looked like it had been put together by a couple of apprentice carpenters, but it floated nonetheless and had a quaint charm as I watched it being loaded with crates of Primus and coke at the port in Ubundu. At least I wouldn’t be stuck for something to drink if we ran aground on a sand bank I thought.

    The cargo far outweighed the number of passengers. There were only ten of us, plus another ten crew. This fortunately meant more space to move, but the HB Safina was no more than 50ft in length and 10ft in breadth.

    HB Safina

    I spent most of my time sitting and sleeping on deck – a foam mattress laid over several dozen plus crates of coca cola proving to be very comfortable, at least when the sun, rain, or mosquitoes didn’t force me to seek somewhere covered.

    Prime position

    Top deck

    At first my intention had been to jump ship half way along the 300km journey from Ubundu to Kindu, and as such I’d only paid for a passage as far as the small outpost of Lowa, where my map depicted a small track heading inland. But the river and everything about the journey won me over again. When we passed Lowa on the second day, which was merely a few shacks lining a muddy riverbank, I told the crew there was no need to stop. I would continue all the way to Kindu.

    There was none of the frenetic scenes of river commerce this time round that had made the first trip so interesting. It was merely being out there on the river as the boat cut velvety smooth ripples through that coffee-coloured expanse of water that was enough.

    The boat often kept close to the riverbank as we motored upstream at a steady 5-6km/hr. This mostly presented itself as an impenetrable wall of tangled greenery. Some people might have looked upon this and the journey as monotonous, for the river just seemed to go on and on, and the jungle was always there. But moving slowly past those overhanging branches, with the brush tops of palms and other exotic trees poking through the twisted and luscious cascade of hanging vines was somehow mesmerising. I could happily stare at the riverbank for hours, for every tree was different, and once in a while the leaves would part and out fly a bird of the forest. Black and white casqued hornbills, African grey parrots, kingfishers, harrier hawks, and all number of other different sized and coloured species. My Congo guidebook tells me the DRC has some 1139 recorded species of birds – the highest count for any single African country. In those four days on the river I probably saw several dozen species – a mere fraction, but it seemed a lot.

    Lualaba river bank

    Storm brewing

    I had hopes that one of those submerged logs that broke the river surface would suddenly reveal a tail or a jaw, but it was not to be. Had we passed a crocodile I rather fear the captain would have cut the engines and done everything possible to capture it.

    The crew told me I was unlikely to see a crocodile in the main channel and occasionally pointed to the tributaries we passed, which drained into the Lualaba. Some of these were still of a scale to make the Thames look like a little stream – the Lowa, Ulindi and the Elila for example. I regarded these in the same way that a mountaineer might do an unclimbed 6000 metre peak, and imagined what it would be like to ascend one of these tributaries in a dugout canoe. Adventure plus plus!

    There were plenty of villages lining the riverbank again, and I wrote down the names of those we stopped at. Dumbadumba, Pene Riba, Katendi. They won’t exist on any map. Forgotten places, like most settlements in this huge country. Children would characteristically yell out ‘Mzungu‘ as the boat motored close by, for that is what I am and will be for the remainder of my time in Swahili speaking Africa. It’s rather frustrating that the word for black person, ‘Mtu Moieusi’, doesn’t roll off the tongue so easily quite yet.

    As we passed women cleaning pots at the water’s edge and men sitting silently under the shade of a tree I kept asking myself the same question I’ve done so many times in Africa – how do people survive out here? The only visible sign of a profit-making activity was that of palm oil production. Middle-aged looking wooden presses existed in a number of villages beside the river. Here several people would walk in a circular motion to squeeze oil out of red palm kernels. The oil would be collected, filtered and emptied into yellow jerry cans to be later transported in dug out canoes and sold at the nearest market.

    The crew and passengers were a good-spirited bunch, although I never felt fully at ease with the Commander. He was effectively the big man, working for the society that chartered the boat and responsible for the safe delivery of merchandise being transported. When I first agreed with him on the fare to travel to Lowa ($15), he did his utmost to solicit extra money by demanding I pay so much for every kilo of my luggage. Well I refused of course. There was plenty of useless clutter on board and an extra 50kg was hardly making a difference. The matter was dropped and brought up again when I explained my wish to continue all the way to Kindu. Really this chap had no interest whatsoever in the river, the villages we passed nor the workings of the boat. His mind was solely on profit, and the only time he seemed to be happy was right after he’d eaten.

    With the Commander

    Crew at the bow

    Well perhaps I should have paid extra. Whenever the crew made food the Commander saw that I ate with him. The fair wasn’t very exciting: fufu (now known as Ugali) provided the stomach-filler, along with smoked fish and perhaps beans or plantain. This act of inclusion and sharing says so much about the true heart of Congolese people, and Africans in general for that matter. Once you get beyond the petty demands for money and gifts that go with being a white face on the continent, the majority of people are far more generous than you might give them credit for at first. No-one was going to let me eat tinned sardines and manioc alone unless I protested that this is what I wanted.

    When I wasn’t watching the river or practicing Swahili with the passengers I was often reading. For an entire year I’ve been carrying two volumes of short stories by Somerset Maugham. I read them first when I lived in Japan. In his tales of colonial life he writes about a time before air travel. Well out on the river as we occasionally passed the crumbling remnants of a red-brick Belgian outpost it was easy to imagine what life might have been like when journeys and news took weeks and months to arrive.

    Like the previous boat the crew possessed absolutely zero navigation equipment. A combination of skill displayed by the Captain and the fact that the river was perhaps naturally deeper meant we never ran aground. I tried to explain what the readings of latitude and longitude from my GPS meant, but the crew were merely interested to know how many kilometres we’d travelled since Ubundu and what our speed was.

    The mood on board became notably livelier when a mobile telecommunications mast came into view in the distance, rising high above the forest canopy. The crew soon had their phones by their ears and even the Commander seemed to hold a smile for more than a brief moment. It signified that Kindu and the end of the journey was close.

    For me the end had come all too soon again. Beyond Kindu the Lualaba continues for another 500km or so, before it rises up to its origins in the Katanga Plateau. There is no regular boat travel, although it would be possible to continue further by dug-out canoe. Now I’m turning my attention east, where another large body of water awaits me.

    For those following my progress on a map, I’m headed south east from here to Kasongo, and then east towards the western shores of Lake Tanganyika. I’ve been unable to update the google map of my journey over recent months due to such terrible Internet speed.

    The plan is to cross into Rwanda at either Bukavu or Goma. If anyone reading this has contacts/friends in either of those towns who wouldn’t mind putting me up for a night or two (and anywhere in Rwanda for that matter) I’d be welcome to hear from you.

    Sunset on the Lualaba

    Pirogue at sunset

  • Congo journal: Part 4 April 17th, 2011

    Drinking a bottle of Primus in the sweaty heat of Kisangani made me feel more in touch with the country’s recent history than almost anything else I did in the Congo. And another thing – it tasted great.” (Tim Butcher)

    05/04/11     00°30.554N     025° 12.247E     Kisangani

    Currently sat in what calls itself a ‘Cyber Cafe’ waiting for electricity to come back on. Very frustrating – intermittent power is a daily occurrence in this city – an hour here and an hour there. Would prefer it if there were no power all day then generator in the evening – at least then I’d know when there was power and when there wasn’t. Just finding place to use Internet has been a challenge – that WIFI at the mission in Bumba was pure luxury. Internet not only expensive here, but very slow. Frustration eased by fact that cold Primus is available nearby. At 850 Congo francs this might be the cheapest beer I drink on the journey. Some foreign rule of self-preservation tells me I should wait till midday to take a beer, but here in Africa 10am might as well be 2pm.

    Primus

    Finally manged to get a reasonable connection yesterday in what is part of an enormous post office. This is the largest post office building I’ve ever seen – apparently Lumumba used to work here. Like going back in time when I walk inside. I ask if they have stamps and get shown several dated from 1994. None very interesting in design. One depicts Olympic rings from the Atlanta games and another a boxing match between Tyson and Holyfield. DRC was Zaire then, as stamps show. Post Office probably not been operational since then too. I ask if I can buy these stamps along with some old bank notes with Mobutu on. Seeing an opportunity the woman asks $2 for each. I laugh and offer what they’re probably worth (nothing really). She puts the stamps back in the file and into the cabinet – her loss.

    When power finally comes I sort through mail. Message from Tim Butcher asking a favour of me. He had read my blog and seen I was in Kisangani. Later calls me on phone from South Africa and asks if I can seek out a character from his book, who lives in a fishing village near Stanley falls in Kisangani. Tim had been unable to contact him and provide a book. Well now I’m here he wants to know if this chap called Oggi is still around and whether he has an e-mail address. I explain I have a copy of Blood River with me and if I find this chap who speaks English then I’ll pass it on. Plan was to go this afternoon, but more likely tomorrow now.

    Hiromu is sat opposite me waiting for power to come on too. Hardly seen him during the 4 days we’ve been here, even though his room is directly opposite mine. I’ve decided my route plan from here and as far as I’m aware it’s different from his, which is to continue directly to Bukavu and into Rwanda.

    Hotel we’re staying in was recommended by English chap I briefly met at the port – Hotel Los Angeles. Manage to bargain room for $8 per night – paying $40 upfront. It’s fine, although my room doesn’t have the light Hiromu’s does and there is nowhere in short walking distance to find food. Kisangani, despite a greater number of bikes and motorbikes on the road, is very quiet. Many large and empty looking buildings line the streets. Hard to imagine thousands of foreigners once lived here – only ones now are the UN and aid-agency workers. They live in a different world. Yet to cross over to it here in DRC as I did in Liberia.

    08/04/11  Distance cycled 80km    00° 08.918S 025° 37.865E     Azambao

    Congo is a living force, which comes from God.” (African proverb)

    A significant day on two accounts. One is that I cross the equator for the first time and the other is my departure from Hiromu. Both moments seem to pass by equally unceremoniously. The morning and most of the day is steamy hot, and should be at this latitude. Rained heavily most of the night and very thankful for the corrugated roof of the mud-brick church. The local curiosity here in the village of Mandoyo is about as low as its ever been – strange, but refreshing. I think being inside the church acts as a kind of barrier, even though it’s their church. The village is a stone’s throw from the river, which I had the idea of pitching the tent beside, but the banks are too steep and probably a good thing with all the rain that we found a roof.

    The asphalt, which began in Kisangani, continues a short way before a laterite track leads through the jungle. Almost no 4-wheeled traffic and very few motorbikes. River is in view for some of the time, but mostly obstructed by trees. Fact that the map depicts the road running alongside the river is the main reason I came this way, rather than the more obvious route to Ubundu, which is where I’m headed. I’ve fallen for this cartographical trap in other countries. Many times I’ve followed what I thought to be a coastal road, based on what the map shows, only to discover the sea is hardly ever in view. The long desert road across northern Egypt and Libya was like this.

    We stop to take coffee mid-morning. As usual the eating options are almost non-existent, even though this is the principal road east. Bananas at the rescue again. I’m ahead of Hiromu all day and nothing is said about the fact that these are our last kms together. Bizarre really. Off and on we’ve spent 5 months on the road together and communication has seemed to wane as time has gone on. Things never really the same after he read my blog.

    Make sure to have GPS switched on as day progresses and I watch numbers drop towards 00° 00.000 as I approach equator. It hits the mark about 2 metres after a wooden post at the roadside shows this to be the point. Whoever marked this probably did it with a GPS. It is dated May 2010 and stands before a couple of huts in which the swelling crowd of locals tell me is the village of Babogombe. Altitude is 449m and longitude 025° 33.988E for the record. Don’t think anyone here has a clue that they are living on the equator. Hiromu and I both take photos, but do so independently with our bikes, rather than together, as might have been the case at another point in our cycling history.

    On the equator

    About 400m further on we pass another sign showing it to be the equator. This time it is a large stone marker dated 1953, obviously laid down by the Belgians. Not a bad effort, but they got it wrong. I trust my GPS and tell the villagers this stone marker is wrong. No one cares. More interested in asking what gift I have. Hiromu takes more photos and even though this is the original marker it’s of less interest to me as it’s wrong.

    Some 15km further on we stop in an unmarked village, which surprisingly has 3 shacks selling food. All identical dishes – rice, beans, manioc leaves and fish, and all identically priced. More expensive than it should be, but no other option. Bizarrely the shack has a TV powered by a generator, on which the proprietor is watching Congolese music videos and his children are singing. Somewhat lavish with fuel costing more than $3 a litre.

    I pull the map out again and confirm that I will take the road that branches south and cuts back towards the river. For it is largely the river and the opportunity for more adventure on it that is pulling me off this road that Hiromu will stay on towards Bukavu and the border.

    I cycle ahead again, but miss the turning. There is meant to be a small village marked on the map as Pene Tangu, from which this road branches, but I see nothing. Only when some drunken policeman stops me 6km further on do I realise I have to turn back. And so Hiromu and I part truly in the middle of nowhere, which must seem confusing to these two drunken policemen, neither of whom has any interest in asking something from us. A few photos are taken together and words uttered about the likelihood of meeting again down the road before South Africa, and then that’s it. Hiromu goes one way and I turn back to the village of Azambao, where I’m told I can find the route on the map. Well I cycle past it again, and now having already seen me twice the villagers know I’m lost.

    Sayonara Hiromu

    The road when I find it is nothing more than a tiny track – less than shoulder-width wide, which starts from behind a mud-brick Church. There is no exit onto the road and unless one asked for it it would be impossible to find.

    By this time I realise it’s better to spend the night in the church and start tomorrow. The villagers here are friendly and not obtrusive at all. Now lying in tent whilst a choir of children beat drums and sing outside. If it weren’t for the mosquitoes I’d join them. Despite being alone again I don’t really feel it.

    09/04/11 Distance cycled 55km    00° 21.730S   025° 25.683E    Ubundu

    Never forget that we are the intruders” (Savorgnan de Brazza)

    Truly in the jungle today on the narrowest track imaginable. Pure adventure! This comes after my morning wake-up at 5am by drums inside the Church. The Pastor might have told me he’d be holding a service before day break. It’s still dark when this starts. There I am in my tent in the middle of this mud-brick church and there is a deafening sound of drums which has brought all the villagers inside to dance. I lie there dead still wondering if I should get up, but instead keep my eyes closed as if I were still asleep, which would be impossible. No one says anything. The service takes place, but I keep my eyes closed and listen to the Pastor shouting vehemently in Swahili. Would really love to know what is being said.

    The service finishes after an hour , at which point I get up. There is nothing to buy to eat here other than manioc, which I do before setting off on what I get further confirmation to be a terrible road. Well it is merely a track – only traversable by foot or bicycle. Motorbikes ruled out by the fact that there are many fallen branches requiring the bike to be lifted and carried. There is hardly a soul on this track, which is often a narrow tunnel of vegetation. Villages are tiny – a few shacks.

    Jungle track to Ubundu

    Unbelievably after the first 10km I come across a huge iron bridge. Am I dreaming? At some point trucks must have been able to pass this way. Fact that this road is actually depicted on my map shows at one time it was a route for vehicles. Someone tells me the bridge was built in 1956. I wonder when the last truck to pass this way was? Stop to briefly swim/wash as I’m shin-deep in mud.

    The track undulates and frequently I’m off and pushing the bike – in places too much mud and the slippery surface makes the going hard. There is a lot of bamboo and the fallen leaves jam in the mudguards. Don’t expect to find any food along here, but surprisingly in a village about half-way there is a young girl selling rice rolled up in vine leaves. I eat it with manioc leaves.

    Jungle bridge

    At start of the day I wasn’t sure I’d be able to reach the river, which is 55km, but back on my own I cover ground more quickly. The two villages marked on my map don’t appear to exist. Everyone knows places by the distance from Kisangani, quoting such and such a place to be so many kms from the city. There are many bridges to cross – most just tree trucks that require some balancing. Would hate to do this on a motorbike.

    Clothes are soaked with sweat all day and wearing short sleeve shirt and shorts means I collect a fair few ants along the way – bicycle constantly brushing through long grass and bushes. Many times these ants can be seen crossing the road from a distance – enormous black columns. The scene reminds me of a description in the Poisonwood Bible when an entire village is taken over by one of these marching armies. I film it at a distance.

    As I approach river towards the end of the day I get told the road I was thinking of taking, which follows the river south, is no longer traversable. This gets confirmed by several others. This means if I don’t get a boat from Ubundu I either have to go back to Kisangani or cycle this terrible jungle track again – neither very preferable.

    Decide to wait to cross the river until tomorrow – I know immigration will be waiting for me and I can’t be doing with the hassle now. Somehow soothing to emerge from the jungle and see the expanse of water again – now known as the Lualaba. I pitch tent in mud-brick church again and somewhat annoyingly it seems my thermarest has come to the end of its day. There is no puncture, but whatever lining was inside to keep the air contained and the mattress firm has come away. It begins as a bobble, which as I blow more air into the thermarest balloons out. Impossible to sleep when fully inflated and if I half-deflate it the air is loose and moves around whenever I shift on the mattress. Going to make for some uncomfortable nights in the tent, but will have to make do until I get to Kampala.

  • Upriver: A boat journey April 6th, 2011

    Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the World, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest.” (Joseph Conrad)

    Finding a boat to travel up the Congo River wasn’t easy. Firstly there weren’t many boats on what could and should be a major highway of traffic, and secondly those that did exist had no schedule for when they would depart. But waiting was worth it, for this was a journey like no other.

    The boat itself was essentially a tug, consisting of an engine room, a few small cabins and a rudimentary cockpit for navigation. Nothing spectacular, and had that been it the journey would only have been half as interesting. For it was the barges this tug (so named the MBKALIOPI) was pushing and the scenes upon them that made the vessel what it was: a floating market, a makeshift shanty town and home for hundreds of Congolese.

    The MBKALIOPI

    The barges

    There were two barges being pushed by the tug. Each was approximately 10 metres wide and 50 metres long. They presented a picture of complete chaos as bodies occupied whatever space was available, seeking shade on the hot metal decks with all their baggage and other clutter under a patchwork quilt of tarpaulins. These flat-bottomed barges were merely boxes of sheet metal, the only fittings being the small bollards wrapped with thick steel cables that held the barges and the tug together. Many people had been on board for several weeks. That is how long it had taken the boat to reach Bumba, some 1400km upriver from where it had started in Kinshasa.

    I have no idea how many passengers were on board and neither did the crew. More than 300  at a guess. Then there were all the animals – a dozen or so pigs and goats, as well as countless chickens and ducks. There was no guard rail around the barge and it still seems a miracle that one of the many babies or young children didn’t crawl over the edge. I’m sure many have done on other similar barges in the past. Few would survive, particularly during the night.

    The other passengers

    For all these people to eat, sleep, clean and use the toilet in such a confined space presented a challenge, but life on the river was familiar to many. Most were travelling with the specific purpose of buying and selling goods along the way. This wasn’t their first journey. What was cheaper to purchase in or close to Kinshasa would be transported upriver to be sold for a profit, and what was cheaper in Kisangani where the boat terminated would be bought to transport downstream.

    Fish dominated the scene. Stacks of flat wicker-made baskets containing salted and smoked fish filled the barges. What a smell! I assumed they would be cheap on the understanding that the river contained plenty of fish, but as the boat approached Kisangani people came aboard and paid $15-20 for one of these racks, perhaps containing 20 fish. I personally think tinned sardines are a better deal for money – one gets 3 fish for less than $1.

    Salted fish

    Pole man and fish

    These scenes of commerce provided the most interesting aspect of the 8-day journey that was to take me 400km from Bumba to Kisangani, where I am now. For many people who live along the river bank the sight of an approaching barge provides an economic lifeline, for there are no roads to these villages. A barge presents the only opportunity, perhaps for a week or more, for them to buy and sell goods. And so out they paddle in dugout canoes to reach the barge, bringing their goods with them and precariously tying alongside. With them might be any number of things: fish, plantain, manioc, avocados, mangoes, pineapples, tomatoes, wicker-made chairs and tables, wooden pestle and mortars, jerry cans of palm oil or palm wine. And then there are the more curious things: monkeys, bats, crocodiles, tortoises, snakes, antelopes, huge grubs and snails. If it moves and has meat on it then it’s food. In some respects the sight of baby crocodiles, tortoises and monkeys being sold and slaughtered sickened me, but out here it is a means of survival. The people have always eaten what the forest provides and nothing is going to stop that.

    Women power

    Mother and child

    Pirogues tied alongside

    Bats in a bowl

    Palm grubs

    Baby crocodile

    Crocodile head

    Preparing dinner

    Pestle and Mortars

    Village crafts for sale

    Finding a comfortable place to occupy my time on the boat was almost impossible. The bicycle was safely stored below deck alongside sacks of ground nuts and coffee, but my panniers filled a space between two families transporting smoked fish. At first I had planned to rest and sleep here, but the smell, heat and lack of space meant I moved to the roof of the tug-boat for much of the time, returning every so often to be sociable and check my panniers were all intact. It was less likely for something to go missing on the way. Very little could be done in secret with so many people on board. It was on the roof of the tug-boat that Hiromu and I slept under the stars, except when the rain fell, which it did on two nights. Then we got wet, for there was no space under the tarpaulins.

    Coffee grinders

    Sleeping above the Congo

    Walking around the edge of the barges was something I did with great caution, and never at night. There would be charcoal stoves to side-step, babies being breast-fed and washed, fish being dried, animals defecating, spilt palm oil, wire cables waiting to trip you up – basically a health and safety inspector’s absolute nightmare.

    The barge scene

    Making friends on board was easy. The only trouble was that almost everyone wanted some kind of gift. If they didn’t demand it then I sensed the expectation for one. “Pasangani mbongo” (give me money) are two words a foreigner will hear often in the DRC. At least it makes a change from “Donnez moi l’argent”. If I opened a pannier to retrieve something eyes quickly descended on me. As much as I like the DRC and its people, it is perhaps the most demanding of African countries I’ve travelled in.

    Under the tarpaulin

    Hiding from the sun

    The people didn’t hold back in reminding me how much they were suffering. Well that was evident. The well-being of the passengers was not a priority for the boat and its crew. Their concern was the safe delivery of the cargo (cement, several vehicles and sacks of various other goods). I really felt that if someone had fallen over the side the boat would not have stopped. The risk was constantly there.

    The Commander didn’t speak to me much. At first I wondered if he regarded me as a nuisance as I clumsily walked around the boat with my camera, but I came to realise he was just someone whose attention was solely focused on the job. The crew numbered about 10, but he was the only one who really knew the river. His eyes were always on it and when a member of crew did something wrong he would suddenly lose his cool temperament and start shouting. This he would also do when there were too many dugouts tied alongside, effectively hitching a free ride upstream and slowing the speed of the barges. An order would then be given for several of the crew to take machetes and slash the twisted vines which acted as painters for the dugouts. Villagers might be in the process of selling something on board at this point. Some would plead with the crew and others would argue. Amongst this fracas of hollowed out tree-trunks bobbing up and down and banging against each other one or two would occasionally roll over. Then I would look back to see several bodies quickly disappearing from sight in the wash of the tug as they held onto the upturned dugout. Poor bastards I thought. They hadn’t finished their sale and they’d lost their produce in the river.

    It impressed me how passengers were able to remain so calm under the circumstances. Occasionally an argument would flair up and voices would be raised, but in general people accepted their plight and endured the hardship. At night the Commander prohibited the use of torches in case one of his crew at the front needed to flash a signal to slow down. And so the boat and all those hundreds of people moved in complete darkness, until dawn. When the night was too dark or we were traversing a particularly tricky part of the river the Commander would steer the boat towards the river bank and gently run it aground until the first signs of light in the sky. Surprisingly there were far fewer mosquitoes than I imagined. I think they found more meat on offer below the tarpaulins.

    Sunrise

    When the night was clear the waning moon provided the only source of light, silhouetting the river bank and the edge of the jungle. Occasionally a torch-light would shine out – most probably a night fisherman in a dugout. Essentially what I was seeing was no different to what men like Stanley and Conrad had seen some 130 years ago, and other than the western clothes most of the villagers were wearing I don’t think their life has changed much at all.

    Village on the River bank

    Island village

    This wearing of second-hand western clothes in the DRC presents something of a cruel reminder of the haves and have nots in this World. Many second-hand clothes sent by charities to the DRC originated in America. Well the problem is that the waist and chest sizes of most of these clothes being sold are far too big for the sinewy torsos of many Congolese. It is not uncommon to see a man with a waist size of say 26” wearing trousers made for someone far larger. Acting as a belt will be a piece of string to bunch up the loose material.

    Despite being given the liberty to sit and sleep on the upper deck of the tug-boat (something the crew would have restricted most people from doing) I too endured my own share of suffering. Throughout the journey I had diarrhoea worse than I can ever remember. Squatting over the edge of the tug-boat amidst clouds of diesel fumes didn’t ease matters. After a few days the engineer gave me access to the crew’s toilet. It could have been any number of things that upset my stomach. After eating sardines and manioc on the first night I was soon invited to eat with a number of people.

    Travelling upstream meant moving very slowly. My GPS recorded the speed at around 4km/hr. What navigation equipment did exist on board wasn’t working. The captain had no chart and received information about the depth of the river from two men standing at the front of the barges with wooden poles. These they lowered into the river until they hit the bottom, after which they would yell out a number. As far as I could understand the draught of the boat was about 2.5m, but as the captain didn’t know exactly what load was on board I think this was very approximate. On a number of occasions the barge ran aground on sandbanks, which often meant several hours or more of reversing and even disconnecting the two barges to move them separately.

    I never tired of watching the river from the top deck of the tug boat. This offered the most commanding viewpoint, and when there was any wind it was also the coolest place to be. All that metal reflecting the sun’s heat made the conditions on those barges cruelly hot. The jungle remained constant, where it had not been cleared to make way for a village of huts, but the river changed its course, narrowing as we passed between large islands before widening again. Some of these islands continued for many kilometres. This was untouched Africa and it was a truly amazing spectacle.

    Pirogue on the Congo

    Sunrise on the Congo

    Signs of life beyond those mud-thatch dwellings slowly came into view as the boat approached the town of Kisangani. This is the furthest navigable point for a boat travelling from Kinshasa. For the next 100km a series of rapids prevent onward travel on the river. It was a shear contrast from the jungle to see large brick buildings lining the riverbank. Arabs and Europeans fought over and developed the town, and as elsewhere in the Congo I could sense even before setting foot that the place has seen much better days.

    Mission on the River bank

    As much as I was looking forward to stepping on terra firma after a week on that boat, I was also sad that the journey was about to end. For many people who’d started from Kinshasa this had meant 1 month on the river. Despite the hardships on board I was slightly envious that I had not travelled the whole way. For a brief moment I even thought of waiting for the boat to head downstream to Kinshasa. I don’t imagine I will ever take a boat journey quite like this again.

    I stayed on board once it docked. As expected their were frantic scenes as people scrambled to get off and others rushed to come aboard. “Watch your bags. There are thieves here” someone cautioned me. There were several other boats and barges moored alongside a muddy stench of a riverbank. To call it a port would be misleading.

    I had to take a second look when up above the moving masses of bodies on another boat I spotted a white face. The first tourist I’ve seen in months, and he was English. He said he’d been waiting in Kisangani 3 weeks for his boat to head downstream and had been sleeping aboard for 10 nights, having paid for a cabin (his boat was twice the size of the one I’d come on). And there I was thinking that a 5 day wait in Bumba was a long time! He had been told daily that his boat would be leaving the next day. I was impressed with his patience. He recommended a cheap hotel in the town and I told him he was about to take the trip of his life.

    The next morning after saying goodbye to familiar faces and the crew I lifted the bike out of the hold and wheeled it off. Kisangani awaited me, but I didn’t get very far. Within minutes of stepping ashore an immigration official seized my passport. It was going to be a long morning.