• 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.


    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