• Congo Journal: Part 2 March 20th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Pushing through the sand

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

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

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

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

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

    Local curiosity

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Jungle at dusk

  • Congo Journal: Part 1 March 19th, 2011

    To behold the full perfection of African beauty, one must visit the regions of Equatorial Africa, where one can view the people under the cool shade of plantains, and amid the luxuriant plenty which those lands produce.” (Henry Morton Stanley)

    Greetings from the river port town of Bumba, which roughly looks to be situated about half-way along the 4700km course of the Congo river. I’m here waiting for a boat to transport me several hundred kilometres upstream to the town of Kisangani. I have no idea when one will leave. There is no schedule. A boat may arrive tomorrow and leave the same day, or it could be another week. There is a road/track through the jungle should I decide to cycle, but this may be my last realistic opportunity to journey on Africa’s second largest river. It is something I have long thought and read about. For the moment I’m content to wait. The Catholic Mission here runs a generator every evening for a few hours and miraculously there is Internet connection. The rest of the town lies in darkness come sunset.

    My journey through the Congo is proving to be every bit the challenge and adventure I expected. I tried to compose my thoughts and impressions into a coherent blog post, but decided that sharing some of my journal entries over the next several posts gives a closer insight. Once I make it out the other side of this enormous country it may be easier to reflect what the Congo has been to me.

    Through the bamboo tunnel

    08/03/11 Gemena 03°14.380N

    019°46.573E

    The news comes as a bit of a shock to me. Hiromu tells me he wants to cycle on alone, on account of reading one of my blog entries where I referred to him as being ‘clueless’. There are other posts where I don’t put him in a good light. He is naturally offended and in reflection is right to be so. It was harsh of me. For me, ‘clueless’ was referring to his vacant expression when confronted by African officialdom. I know he knows what is going on. I don’t explain this at first, but he tells me he read the post back in Bangui and had decided not to say anything until now – 10 days later. I could sense a change in his attitude and behavior towards me on the road. He almost went ahead by himself in Libenge.

    He breaks the news in the market in Gemena, where we eat stodgy rice and beans. I try to apologise and pull myself out of the hole by saying that I enjoy his company and wouldn’t have waited in Bangui if I didn’t, but end up leaving the matter for the rest of the day. Very little is then said between us. We buy individual rice rations (quality here is terrible) and walk to another market.

    I expected Gemena’s branch of the FBI to find us, but there is no one chasing us down for registration. Main market is strung along a hot sandy road. Not sure why I walked here.

    Back at the Mission I type another blog entry up before connecting to the WIFI when the generator comes on for a few hours in evening. I eat in the mission for $5 – in Congo terms this is 5000Francs, which is a huge sum, but I need a change from rice and sardines cooked up over the Primus. Don’t see Hiromu all evening. It would be stupid to part on bad terms having cycled together for 4 months. I formulate my apology in clear English as I lie in the tent. To go on alone is not such a bad thing in reflection – we both started our trips independently and will finish them independently, but it is the parting on bad terms that I must rectify.

    09/03/11 Distance Cycled – 57km  Takaroma II 02°49.769N

    019°57.688E

    The lungs of Africa and the middle of the continent,the Congos are the wild in-between that few manage to visit”. (Bradt Guide: Congo)

    My apology and explanation at the last minute seems to save matters. Hiromu packs up in silence and nothing is said as I also pack up, until he walks over to shake my hand and say goodbye. So I try to explain that clueless shouldn’t be taken too seriously and all the other bits I wrote about him that are negative are me merely venting my frustration and that overall I like the guy. I wouldn’t have spent 4 months on the road together if this weren’t true. Surely there are plenty of small things I do or don’t do that annoy him – it is the nature of relationships between friends. He listens most of the time – guy is clearly hurt and offended and I feel like a shit, but after a pause he agrees that we should carry on together and start afresh. Half of me still expected him to wish to continue alone, but we wheel out of the Mission together, stopping by in the market again for manioc, lotoba (peanut butter) and to change money. Just $40 lands me with a huge wedge of notes. It is 920 Congo Francs to the $ and the highest nomination note is 500 Francs. We don’t hang around long. While I’m buying phone credit Hiromu is approached by some immigration chap, who later goes to find his superior. I realise this is our que to leave straight away.

    Road out of Gemena is busy with pedestrian traffic – 5km along the track is a market and another 15km on a second busy weekly market. Many women are transporting goods between them on their heads and backs. The atmosphere is cheerful and lively as we cycle by. Overhead I hear the sound of a helicopter – looking up I see an enormous UN chopper circling the town. Wonder if they can see me? Gemena has two UN camps – one flying a Jordanian flag the other an Egyptian. It is very incongruous. I tried to engage conversation with an Egyptian teenage sentry yesterday, but he spoke no English or French and was clearly shocked to see a white face walking the mango-lined avenues of the town.

    Walking to Bumba

    Casava carrier

    Out on the road there is the usual police presence, but for the first day in DRC the authorities leave us be – a refreshing change.

    No traffic again on the road, other than a few large trucks, a dozen motorbikes and many cyclists. Stop for rice, beans and chicken in small shack – food here much cheaper and easier to source than CAR. Track is sandy in places, but mostly easy on a bicycle.

    Cycle traffic

    Stop to collect water late afternoon – this is proving to be Congo’s biggest challenge. There are no longer stand-pumps at the roadside. The water is a natural spring in the jungle, reached down a narrow path that several locals show me. There is a woman and child bathing here nearby, but the water source itself (from where it comes out of the ground), is remarkably clean, at least in appearance.

    Shortly after filling the bottles I ask some of the locals about palm wine and end up getting raffia (sweater and lighter) which is actually very good (lilt without the pineapple taste). Costs 400Franc to fill 1.5l bottle. Stop for night in an open-sided Church – one of the locals mutters something about another foreign cyclist coming through here, but hard to clarify who or when.

  • Hold ups: Entering DRC March 8th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Congo cyclist

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

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

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

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

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

    Bamboo jungle

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

    Congo truck