• 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.


  • 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.

  • 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Poser

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

    Bushmeat for sale

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

    Through the school window

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

    School camp

    Village school kids

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

    Rural transport

    Dust storm approaching

    Jungle cycling

    A pause in the jungle

    In the jungle

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

    Small pygmy village

    Bush meat hunters

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

    Butterlies on the road

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

    Jungle river

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

    Walking into Bangui

    East to Bangui

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

    100km to Bangui

  • East to Bertoua January 26th, 2011

    A hangover and two hours sleep is not the best preparation for cycling out of an African city. I kindly let Hiromu lead the way while I tried not to collide with the bumper-to-bumper traffic. There is a certain technique for coping in this urban madness – the weaving between narrow gaps and the holding of one’s position on the road when large vehicles want to squeeze past. After a while it becomes easy, but the risks are always there.

    It was cold coke o-clock by the time the last remnants of urban sprawl gave way to jungle. As with Cameroon’s beer I highly approve of the 650ml bottles Coca Cola comes in here. Why I need to be asked whether I want it cold or not though I have no idea. Who in their right mind is going to ask for a warm drink in this heat?

    We headed east on one of the best roads I’ve found myself on in Africa – smoothly tarred with a fraction of the traffic that existed between Douala and Yaounde. Bliss. Do I have a Chinese road construction crew to thank for this? Probably. There are a lot of Chinese in Cameroon, not that one really meets any of them. They seem to hide away, doing business secretly and efficiently. A bit like snakes, until they reveal themselves on the road.

    Fresh roadkill

    Out in the jungle I feel I ought to see a lot of wildlife. Well most of the sensible creatures stay away from the road.  But if you stop to look there is plenty to see. Birds and butterflies dart across the road in a flashing display of colourful brilliance. Then there are smaller and slower moving creatures,  like these sociable and colourful crickets I interrupted for twenty minutes whilst playing with the macro-function of my camera.

    Crickets in love

    For the next 300km this perfect black ribbon of a road continued through the lush tropical greenery, interspersed by the odd truck-stop town. Then came the pot holes, the gravel and the dirt. Well it might as well start now. I’m guessing that from the town of Bertoua, where we are now, any tarmac for the next few thousand kilometres and more between here and east Africa will come as a bonus.

    Jungle rider

    Logging truck

    Hiromu is currently outside attempting to fix his front rack. One of the brackets attaching it to the forks first broke while bumping along a terrible road in Nigeria. It’s been welded back and re-welded twice again to the point where there is very little strength left. So some chap cut a new piece of metal (by hammer and chisel!) in a welders yard this morning. It might hold across the Congo, but I feel something else may fall apart.

    Broken rack

  • The Grand trunk road January 21st, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Central Africa Republic visa

    DRC visa

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

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

    Hiromu  at the camp

    Overlanders in Yaounde

    Beer o clock

  • Lost Jungle: Into the interior August 28th, 2010

    ‘If you cross this line you may be engaged by fire’, read the sign behind the barbed wire fence. It was almost dark and I had no idea where to sleep the night. “Salaam Aleikum”, I called out to a soldier looking down at me from a watchtower. “Aleikum Salaam” came the reply.

    I was outside a Pakistani UN compound some 120km from Monrovia and looking for a safe spot to pitch my tent. A short distance back down the road the overweight proprietress of a roadside restaurant had refused me permission to camp, preferring instead that I take a room. The place had no electricity or running water. She wanted $50 and wasn’t very interested in bargaining.

    “Are you a Muslim?” asked the moustached soldier after he climbed down from his post and we shook hands across the barbed wire. “No, but I like your country” I replied with a smile.

    Several minutes later I  was introduced to several officers, seated with a cup of tea and shown my private room for the night. The commander came forward to introduce himself, gave a brief history of the battalion and probably wondered what the hell I was doing riding my bicycle through Liberia. He would have thought the same thing had we met in Pakistan.

    “You cycled through Pakistan in 2007?” one of the officers later exclaimed as I scooped up a mouthful of chana masala with a hot fresh chapati.“That was a very bad year for us”. Citing the recent floods I politely asked what year in recent history hadn’t been a bad one for Pakistan, and thought it a far less secure country to be in right now than Liberia. They might have agreed, but the conversation moved on and I was soon showing them pictures of cycling up the Karakorum Highway. What I wouldn’t give for some of that mountain scenery right now.

    On the Karakorum Highway, Pakistan

    Breakfast was served the following morning at 7.30am sharp. I had been asked several times the night before what time I would eat, how I wanted my eggs cooked and whether I preferred chapatis or parathas. The officers didn’t join me. I think they took breakfast at 4am, before the first prayer of the day and the fasting that would follow. I had been reminded that as a non-Muslim I didn’t have to observe Ramadan. Thank God for that.

    Camp for the night

    My over-dose of Muslim hospitality left me feeling a bit disorientated when I said goodbye. As with the ex-pat company in Monrovia it had been easy to forget I was in Liberia. This was another World transplanted into Africa. Organizations working for the people, but often so far away from them. And here I was slipping from one World to another as a matter of choice..

    The next night I chose to stay in a brothel, although I was very tempted to call in at a Bangladeshi UN compound and see how they fared with the Pakistanis in the hospitality stakes. I say brothel in as much as it was the cheapest guest-house around ($7 for a single room in which I could touch all four walls when lying on the  hollow foam mattress) light bulbs in the place were red and it was in a border town. It’s often enough to go on. A few kilometres up the road was Guinea.

    The town of Ganta wasn’t such a bad place though. It had women grilling fresh fish and kebabs on the street at night, people smiled at me and I could drink cold beer without receiving any hassle. Cold beer disappears quickly after cycling 140km, and club beer, Liberia’s own, isn’t too bad.

    The tarmac ends in Ganta, and it’s where I thought the real jungle would begin. My Michellin map of north-west Africa shades Liberia in a pale green, with a key denoting the colour as ‘dense jungle’. How very inaccurate. Some stretches of land outside Monrovia appear more like moorland than tropical jungle – an apocalyptic landscape of bare brown slopes. Very sad. Where there is forestation it is often in the form of rubber and palm plantations. Pretty monotonous on the eyes after a while. I haven’t taken many photos recently.

    UN bridge

    Fortunately, like Sierra Leone the spirit of the people goes a long way to make up for the dull-ness in the landscape. I feel little threat or insecurity out on the road here, although it’s slightly disconcerting when a convoy of UN trucks passes me by. People smile, wave, laugh and look-on with incredulous faces from outside their huts. If I stop or slow down they’ll be sure to ask ‘What is your mission?‘. A few days ago I heard someone announcing that I was an evangelist. People cheered and clapped as I waved back in hysterics. I was actually trying to say I was on an adventure. I guess the words aren’t that dissimilar in sounding.

    The usual suspects

    Road to Zwedru

    I’m writing this from the compound of an NGO in the town of Zwedru. Approximately 200km over an undulating red-laterite road, more dusty than muddy, has brought me here from Ganta. Another 300km lie ahead to the coastal border with the Ivory Coast. This, according to various sources, is a terrible stretch of road. I’m glad the rains have lessened. It will be interesting to see how my new $4 tyre I bought in the market here copes. After 12,500km the front tyre developed a large split several days ago. It’s a pity Schwalbe tyres aren’t available in this part of the World. Anyone wish to donate a spare?

    Tyre spilt