• Congo journal: Part 4 April 17th, 2011

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

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

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

    Primus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    On the equator

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

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

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

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

    Sayonara Hiromu

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Jungle track to Ubundu

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

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

    Jungle bridge

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

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

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

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

  • Upriver: A boat journey April 6th, 2011

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

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

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

    The MBKALIOPI

    The barges

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

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

    The other passengers

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

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

    Salted fish

    Pole man and fish

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

    Women power

    Mother and child

    Pirogues tied alongside

    Bats in a bowl

    Palm grubs

    Baby crocodile

    Crocodile head

    Preparing dinner

    Pestle and Mortars

    Village crafts for sale

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

    Coffee grinders

    Sleeping above the Congo

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

    The barge scene

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

    Under the tarpaulin

    Hiding from the sun

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

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

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

    Sunrise

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

    Village on the River bank

    Island village

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

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

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

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

    Pirogue on the Congo

    Sunrise on the Congo

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

    Mission on the River bank

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

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

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

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

  • Congo Journal: Part 3 March 23rd, 2011

    15/03/11 Distance cycled 26km Mapasa 02°14.548N      021°40.906E

    It is the maelstrom in the centre, the vortex around which all other countries in Africa revolve. It is a looming presence in all senses of the word, a land to be revered and respected, a place which can easily devour the unsuspecting. It is the true heart of Africa, it always has been and will undoubtedly continue to be”. (Bradt Guide Congo)

    Don’t sleep much due to the heat. The Mission room which we decided to take for second night is large, but there is no air-flow. I take the floor and Hiromu the single bed – his turn given he slept on floor for 2 weeks in Bangui. The Pastor at the Mission wasn’t happy with the arrangement – he clearly expected we would take 2 rooms and receive another $15.

    At some point in the night I wake from a vivid dream. I’m flying back to the UK from South Africa having finished the journey, but I’m panicking as I have no idea what I’ll do when I return. The last part of the journey I cycled quickly and I’m regretting not buying a return ticket to South Africa. But alas, it’s just a dream.

    At around 4.30am I can hear the call to prayer from the town’s mosque. Very bizarre – to be sleeping in a Catholic mission guest house and hear this. Shortly afterwards the Cathedral bells start ringing – equally as bizarre. Almost as if it were some kind of competition for sound space. I’m surrounded by jungle in central Africa. What is it with religion here? It is the only vestige of civilisation, the only window of hope for the millions trapped in poverty here.

    I use the oats that I bought back in Bangui for breakfast – mixed with bananas and sugar, Despite the simplicity it’s very expensive (oats cost $5 for about 4 portions) and Hiromu makes some comment as he chews on a baton of manioc. We’re both eating this every day with lotoba – him more than me.

    At around 9am there is a knock on the door. It’s immigration. How did they find us here? Not hard I suppose. Given previous problems I assume they (it’s only one in actual fact) will demand we go to his shack of a bureau where we’ll fill out forms and be asked to pay, but he merely takes passport details down and goes. Relief.

    I spend the morning finishing ‘Guns Germs and Steel’, by Jared Diamond. Very relevant given my surroundings. As is the next book I start – Blood River . Already read it once, but feel it will take new significance now that I’m here.

    We leave the GH at midday – nice to pack up for once without dozens of prying eyes on us and belongings, as is case when camping out. Although we’ve only been here 2 nights I sense the whole town knows us.

    Road out of town is sandy, then paved for a short stretch (first tarmac in DRC) as it passes a huge abandoned mansion. Well this is Mobutu’s house. I thought he was from Gbadolite up north, but that is where he had his legendary palace. Lisala is where the former Kleptocrat of a President was actually born. The setting above the river is truly palatial, but to think someone ruling this country for 30+ years could build something this extravagant and live the life he did when surrounded by such crippling poverty is quite disturbing. I stop to look at the mansion, which is clearly visible, but hold back from taking a photo. Sure someone is watching me.

    The sand soon returns and track undulates as we follow the course of the river, eventually steering away from it.

    Soon back to familiar village scene – friendly smiles and waves. Constantly calling out Mbote (hello) and Boni (how are you) and waving. People could be a whole lot less happy given their plight. Cross a small stream out in the jungle with an iron bridge. Water is deep so I jump in and fill water bottles up. That’s my shower for the day. Shortly after I cycle up to a police check-post. Hiromu cycled ahead and they obviously didn’t stop him. Officer in charge is completely wasted and his juniors, uniformed and armed, look embarrassed as he struggles to hold and make sense of my photocopied passport page. After 10 minutes I’m waved on.

    We set up camp in an enclosed kind of gazebo between Church and School. Whole village comes to watch – as usual most people here have never seen foreigners. Thankfully the wall of the gazebo keeps them at a distance. Frequently this situation is on the verge of getting out of control – hectic scenes and lots of shouting. Occasionally an adult will come round with a whip, which forces the children to flee. Most see it as a game of sorts. Only when we retreat into tents do people go home. Pastor somewhat confused/offended that we don’t take a room in his house. I do my best to explain that we prefer to sleep outside as it is cooler. Well it’s now over 30C inside this tent so I imagine several degrees more inside.

    Girl biker

    17/03/11 Distance cycled 55km Bumba 02°11.092N      022°27.739E

    What a splendid piece of cake!” (King Leopold, describing the Congo in a letter to a friend)

    Cloudy start to day – looks like a continuation of the rain that fell last night, but within a few hours the sun is breaking through. More bicycle traffic on the track as we approach Bumba. I cycle ahead for most of the way, carrying large pineapple on front rack – this is becoming familiar. After 20km I reach small junction – collection of shacks selling rice, manioc, fish. I take coffee and fried plantain. Swarms of kids soon descend and nearby adults alternate between asking for money and shouting at kids to move away. The latter is seen as a favour, which I guess it is, and therefore payment is expected. No sense of order out here.

    We pedal into Bumba accompanied by several cyclists. Never sure how close to befriend these chaps on basis that many will get hopes up that I will give them money for food when we stop. These guys are OK. About 15km from Bumba we come across water pump – first for many hundreds of kms. Water cold and clean so fill all bottles up. Shortly after road passes by a series of identical concrete buildings – remains of what I’m told was a palm oil plantation estate. Nothing happening now. Some kids nearby are selling coconuts beneath a rusted street light for a few pence. As I stand drinking the milk a group of men walk down the road pushing a bicycle with a child-sized coffin on the back. Another several hundred metres up the road I see them disappearing into the jungle with spades.

    The river comes into view as we approach Bumba. As with all other towns I expect immigration to quickly find me. They don’t. We ask directions to Mission and market – latter on account of needing food. Obviously this causes a scene as crowds rush around us, but atmosphere mostly positive, even if there is sense of things getting out of control.

    Beside the Congo river

    The Mission turns out to be a whole lot more welcoming than the one in Lisala. Meet the Belgian Priest – Carlos – here for 40 years! He has the appearance of a man who has lived his life in the tropics, but he’s upbeat and positive to see us – offering a room when at first there was merely a mention of a place to camp. There is no talk of money, so I’m hoping when we go that $10 a day for both will suffice as a kind of donation. The room has a shower and when the generator starts up in the evening even Internet! It is the first time Hiromu is able to read about the earthquake disaster in Japan. If electricity for 2 hrs per day with Internet weren’t enough there is even cold beer in the fridge within the Mission common room. I could quite happily rest here several days , but much depends on the boat situation to Kisangani.

    18/03/11 Bumba

    The normal laws of development are inverted here in the Congo. The forest, not the town, offers the safest sanctuary and it is grandfathers who have been more exposed to modernity than their grandchildren. I can think of nowhere else on the planet where the same can be true.” (Tim Butcher: Blood River)

    Woken after 6am by men working in yard outside. One can never really lie in in Africa – would get too hot anyhow in places like this. The generator comes on sporadically for an hour or so in the morning, causing me to quickly plug in the laptop to get what charge I can. Eat remainder of rice I cooked last night and prepare to walk down to the port. We get escorted by chap called Tiggy, who works at the mission as a kind of fixer of sorts.

    Bumba is decidedly more commercial and lively than Lisala, although still no traffic other than bicycles on the road. Cross a railway track on way to the river – almost totally covered in sand. After this a nunber of large warehouse-type buildings line the water front and streets running towards it. Plenty of police and military on the way, but most merely greet us – perhaps being with Tiggy helps?

    The Port has more boats and definitely more of atmosphere of commerce, but there is currently no boat heading upriver to Kisangani.

    Some random local says a boat will be coming on Sunday. I think he is some kind of port authority/security, but then there are always so many of these characters hanging around such places that you can’t trust anyone that far. But he seems quite knowledgeable and even names the boat.

    Walk back, stopping to take beer on a terrace overlooking the river. Well I drink a beer anyhow. Hiromu eats a plate of beans and plantain. The bar is really just a shell of a building, like most, but it’s the location looking over the river that gives it the charm. Cold beer is the only drink available, which suits me fine. Yet to see Coca Cola in DRC which is quite remarkable given its global distribution. Even if it were available I guess it would be a similar price to the beer.

    Back at the Mission I crash out for a few hours after finishing Blood River. When I read it for the first time it did a good job of scaring me. The second time round I realise it is the author who was scared. DRC possibly more dangerous when he travelled through, but he has made it his point of continuing the Heart of darkness theme.

    When I wake up there is some guy from immigration waiting for me. Don’t think there will be one town in DRC where immigration won’t find me. He was informed by some nurse I apparently spoke to yesterday. Bit of a mystery. He speaks good English and is polite and courteous, but then there is a mention of a registration fee that his superiors have asked him to collect. It is somehow harder to ignore this when the conversation has all been in English, but I change the subject and after a few silent pauses he gets up to leave. I know that the next time I’m down at the port immigration will find me.

    Late afternoon I take a wander by myself around the town’s market. Everyone very shocked to see the Mandele (foereigner) greeting people in Lingala. The market is closing up, but still lively. I collect then shrug off a few drunken clingers on – moving quite quickly around the stalls. Of interest are the live slimy fish (catfish of a sort) and huge maggots (also alive) squirming around. There is plenty of dried fish and stalls piled high with plantain. I buy coffee, manioc and mibika (pounded pumpkin seeds I think?) which is very good.

    Back at the mission I wait for power to start, then watch some of the news (still dominated by Libya and Japan) before going out on a hunt for beer. Yesterday there was some in the Mission fridge, but now empty. Well it seems beer is in low supply in the city, so at first bar I’m taken to by Tiggy the price has risen from 1500 to 1800CF. He expects the price will be 2000CF tomorrow. He walks with me to another place, where they have a few remaining bottles selling for 1500. I buy 3 and walk back to drink at Mission (if I drank in the bar I’d have to field constant demands to share it with everyone present).

    Use 2 hours of generator/Internet time to speak to Mum on skype, who tells me about her recent Morocco holiday. Unbelievable to get good enough connection to chat. When current stops I go to retrieve ice-cold beer – drinking it in candle light and sorting through hundreds of photos, whilst mosquitoes buzz around screen and my ears. I bought hard-to-find mosquito coils today but seeming how old and cheap they were I’m not sure they’re very effective. There are 2 burning in the room through the night, but I’m still bitten underneath the mosquito net. Even if my body just comes into contact with the net it seems a mosquito can locate the skin and bite through the net.

    Congo faces

  • Hard roads ahead: Crossing Central Africa January 6th, 2011

    Up until quite recently I’ve not given much thought to how I will cross Central Africa. By bicycle obviously, but on what roads and through which borders and countries.? There aren’t many roads, which kind of simplifies things, and those shown on maps are probably no more than muddy tracks through the jungle. Not so simple.

    The road condition is far less of a concern than my personal security though. Bring on the mud, sand, river crossings, sweat, flies; if locals can navigate jungle tracks on a Chinese made bicycle loaded with 100kg+ then so can I, I think. But they’re local, they speak the native dialect and their bags and jerry-cans loaded on their bikes do not contain a laptop, camera, Ipod, cash and other desirables. Mine do, and the countries I’m about to talk about make me rightly hesitant about the roads ahead.

    Finding a recent account of someone travelling through the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is rare. Most people who know anything about the region will say don’t go. Too much insecurity and danger. But it is a vast region I’m talking about, and the reports one hears might be outdated, second-hand or refer to a region thousands of kilometres away from the one I’m intending to go to. It wasn’t until I arrived here in Limbe, Cameroon that I actually met someone who’d been to CAR.

    Let me introduce you to Dave Robertson, who by all accounts is quite a remarkable man. For the past two decades he has devoted his time and energy on the continent to preventing malaria, clocking up almost 200,000 Kilometres in his white land rover. An impressive distance, particularly if you only have one leg and one arm to drive with. How is it possible you ask yourself? Well it’s true.

    Dave Robertson and Drive Against Malaria

    I first stumbled across the Drive Against Malaria website a few years ago, but wasn’t aware until a fellow overlander had contacted me that Dave, who is English, had settled with his Dutch partner, Julia, in Limbe. The missing arm and leg had nothing to do with being in CAR, he lost them in a motor accident before he ever started his travels in Africa.

    I spent an afternoon with them, finding out more about Drive Against Malaria and their views on the most effective means to prevent, cure and tackle the huge problem of malaria on the continent. I also wanted to know more about one of the least visited countries in the World.

    “You went to CAR”? I asked.
    “Yeah, in February this year. No problem, although they’re more aggressive than the Cameroonians. You should be OK on the bike, at least in terms of travelling the roads. Best way to do it.”
    “What about DRC and the road to Kisangani? I want to travel east across northern DRC towards Uganda or Rwanda.”
    “That I haven’t done since 89”, said Dave, thinking back. “Or was it 88? Kisangani had lots of travellers then. No idea what it’s like now. I’ll be really interested to hear how you get on.
    “So will I”, I said.

    The second person I met who’d been to CAR was also staying in Limbe, although for a much shorter time. It was another Dave, also driving a white land rover, but he had his limbs intact. His vehicle had also clocked up a fair bit of mileage, which he’d rescued from the South African embassy in Lagos.

    Dave, also South African, had travelled as far as Nigeria from his home in Cape Town on a motorbike and decided he’d had enough, so bought the bullet proof vehicle, which had been unused for years, then drove it back to South Africa. And now he was travelling north again with his friend, (I wasn’t quite sure what the relationship status was) an older French woman who’d decided to rent out her Paris apartment and give up on European life. As far as I could tell it was the money from this monthly rent that was keeping them both on the road. “The people work work work in my country. And for what”?

    Dave and Marion were an interesting couple. I met them having a clean out of their land rover, which was packed and surrounded with a ridiculous amount of clutter: musical instruments (several drums and a guitar) plastic crates full of books, pots, pans, various cooking stoves and bags and other containers of all sizes. Underneath an enormous marquee awning, held up by drainage pipes salvaged from somewhere, Dave launched into his travel stories with gusto.

    “I have presents for you by the way”, he said after I’d heard the story of his ‘Manic Mission’, a 10-week tour of 10 countries in southern and east Africa. “Here take this, and these, and you will definitely want these”. Within 10 minutes I’d just become owner of a handheld GPS (he was using another that was given to him free by tracks4africa), two hard back books on the Congo and a pair of foot-straps for my pedals. What a score!

    “I miss DRC man, but don’t do it. They’ll fuck you up.”

    Dave had ridden his motorbike up through DRC, taken one of the famous Congo River barges, then exited the country into CAR quicker than planned when he got malaria. Why is it so many travellers in Africa opt to not take malarial prophylactics to protect themselves?

    “I think you should fly from Doula to Nairobi. Leave the Congo man. Those guys are drunk and armed.”

    Despite the bout of malaria and problems with corrupt police, the DRC turned out to be Dave’s favourite country, but here he was recommending I avoid going.


    “I miss it man”,
    he repeated again as he asked me to plot a route  for them through Nigeria. Dave and Marion had no idea where they were going, Dave literally flipping a coin to decide on a route. The next day they were packed up and leaving. I have no idea where they are now, and I doubt they know much more.

    Fellow overlanders

    Back at research HQ, which is the enormous and empty house that I’m staying in here in Limbe, I began to read accounts of people travelling the DRC, as well as putting questions on forums to see what the travelling community had to say. As I expected, adventure and danger featured highly. But there have been others – DRC travel agents and the odd adventurous aid worker, who’ve gone a bit further, which one needs when we’re talking about a country 80 times larger than the country that colonised it – Belgium. When one starts to get names of specific towns, the roads between them and advice pertaining to one or the other (some positive, others negative) progress can be made in determining what level of danger/risk is involved.

    Of course I won’t be alone. Hiromu, my Japanese colleague as I introduce him, will be alongside, or somewhere behind bargaining over the price of a handful of ground-nuts or bunch of bananas. I told him to come to Limbe rather than stay in Yaounde, where I imagine his room resembles a prison cell, but being Japanese (read stubborn) he has been unable to check-out, throw his bike on a bus or arrange to leave it in the Guest House.

    Well it doesn’t matter now. He called yesterday to say his parcel from Japan had finally arrived (the reason we’d split from Bamenda and he rushed ahead). I’d been waiting to hear this news before leaving Limbe and starting on the road to Yaounde, some 350km east of here.

    The last of the third crate of beer is currently in the fridge. Other than sharing one or two bottles with the guard during the past 10 days I’ve drunk them by myself. I never did find that drinking partner. It has been an odd situation to find myself in here. Big empty house, four semi-wild dogs (read good security dogs) and an attention-seeking cat have been my surroundings. I won’t meet the tenant who invited me here, unless he gets on his motorbike and continues the journey to South Africa, where I’ll happily buy the rounds.

    For those scratching/shaking their heads thinking why does he want to travel these difficult and uncertain/troubled roads the answer is twofold. Firstly I want to reach east Africa overland, rather than fly. It just so happens that there is no easy/safe/recommended route to do so by. And secondly I have a natural curiosity, like any adventurous spirit, to see just what that huge swath of equatorial Africa that few people get to visit is actually like.  In the words of someone who travelled this part of Africa long before people were riding bicycles in it:

    “Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look like that) I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there”.

    The question is at what point does a road, feared dangerous because of  reports of instability in the area, become safe? I can’t imagine many people would  have recommended the route I followed in Nigeria, Liberia or even Guinea, given my time there during the elections last year. Was I lucky? Maybe. Nothing is definite in terms of my route and I don’t want to put myself in ‘extreme danger’, just to say that I did it. I will apply for a visa for CAR and DRC in Yaounde and continue to seek advice as I proceed eastwards.

    New GPS