• Into Bukavu May 12th, 2011

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

    On the way to Bukavu

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

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

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

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

    Beside Lake Tangayika

    Rain ahead

    DRC/Rwandan border

    Climbing towards Bukavu

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

    Staying with the Pak Bat

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

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

    I spy

  • 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.

  • 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

  • Poolside in Monrovia August 12th, 2010

    “To the casual visitor at any rate Monrovia is a more pleasant city than Freetown. Freetown is like an old trading port that has been left to rot along the beach, it is a spectacle of decay. But Monrovia is like a beginning.” (Graham Greene: Journey without maps)

    The air conditioning in this apartment is constantly on, even when nobody is here. “It helps stop the mold from coming on the walls” my host tells me. He doesn’t mind it running all day. The bills for the apartment, like the rent, are covered by his employer. It’s not cheap. The cost of staying one month here would take the average Liberian more than 5 years to earn. That is assuming he had a regular job. Most Liberians don’t. It is a sobering thought. I would feel better if I knew the money was staying in Liberia. It’s not. The landlord is Lebanese.

    If it wasn’t raining I might sit outside on the balcony. It overlooks a pool and the pounding surf of the Atlantic. I have to step out of the high-walled compound to be reminded I’m in Liberia, West Africa, one of the poorest countries in the World.

    A number of other ex-pats live in similar western-furnished apartments, most without this view, here in Monrovia. This city is awash with UN organizations and NGO’s. More than anywhere else I’ve been. Before arriving here I imagined that living and working in the city would be considered as a ‘hardship’ post. Perhaps it is on paper. From the ex-pats I’ve met in the past few days I would say it is anything but.

    There are a number of large supermarkets close to where I’m staying. Most foodstuffs are far more expensive than in supermarkets back home – almost everything is of course imported and then whacked for tax. The cashier seemed surprised when I handed over a small bundle of Liberian dollars to pay for my items. Here most people (foreigners) pay in US $. I can even withdraw them from an ATM, which came as a surprise.

    I planned to only be here a few days. Long enough to get a visa for the Ivory Coast and pick up a package being sent out from the UK. It seems however that I’m going to be here a little longer. I have the visa (they issued it the same day – $75 for 30 days) but the package (a replacement keyboard for my laptop) is taking a while long. ‘Approximately’ next Tuesday I’m told. I can think of worse places I’ve stayed in and had to wait. When that rain stops I might go and read by the pool.

    Poolside in Monrovia

  • Journey without maps August 10th, 2010

    “It would have been easier if I had been able to obtain a map. But the republic is almost entirely covered by forest and has never been properly mapped, mapped that is to say even to the rough extent of the French colonies, which lie on two sides of it”. (Graham Greene: Journey without maps)

    Eighty years on from when Graham Greene travelled on foot through Liberia (in actual fact he was carried much of the time) it appears some things don’t change. I don’t think there is a road map for the country. But then there aren’t many roads. As for the forest, much of that appears to have gone the same way as Sierra Leone – slashed and burnt. What one sees, at least on the 120km journey from the Sierra Leonean border to the capital, Monrovia, is a continuation of secondary growth – unremarkable bush interspersed by toilet-brush palms.

    The road is a good one however, and the people equally as shocked and friendly to greet a white man riding a bicycle past the door step of their mud-thatched abode.

    One of the Liberian immigration officers informed me that a “colleague” of mine crossed through this way several months ago. We continent-crossing cyclists are of course employed by our governments (at least in the minds of many Africans) and receive huge compensation for our efforts. “He was from China.” “Are you sure he wasn’t Japanese?” I questioned. The immigration officer thought for a moment. “Yes maybe”. My colleague I guessed was Hiromu, whom I’d cycled with for a day some 7 months ago. He’d recently e-mailed to say he was in Niamey, Niger, and would be heading to Ivory Coast within the next few months. There is a good chance we’ll meet again. Company on the road would be much appreciated.

    Before riding into country number 11 (12 if I count Western Sahara) on this journey I changed my remaining Leonean currency into Liberian dollars and dined on a plate of ochre soup, unidentifiable meat (goat maybe) and rice, washing it down with several cups of Sierra Leonean palm wine. I’d bought 2.5 litres in Sulima and brought it across the border with me, much to the satisfaction and amusement of several immigration officers.

     Palm wine, it must be said, is an acquired taste. The first time I tried it in Sierra Leone I almost vomited, but subsequent samples of the stuff were either better, or else I just became hardened to the taste. Tapped fresh from the tree this sweet milky-white beverage isn’t all that bad considering it sells for about $0.25 a litre.

    Without a decent map it was difficult to ascertain the distance to Monrovia. In Sierra Leone I found that people were often very accurate in quoting me the distance from their village to the next. Someone might say 7 miles, then another would step forward and say no, it’s 8 miles. Others might then agree with the second speaker that yes, the distance was 8 miles. Much to my surprise they were often right. This goes against the norm in Africa, where time and distance have little measure.

    Well in Liberia it appears no-one knows anything about distances, not even police check-post officers. They will look at their watch, say 3 miles and tell you it will take 40 minutes to drive there.

    One interesting feature about Liberians is that they have their own particular brand of handshake, which involves flicking the middle-finger with the thumb as you release your grip. This Americanism, if that is what it is, complements the calls of “Hey man, what’s up”, that is often called as a greeting from the roadside. Liberia is after all a nation that can point its history to the Americas rather than Europe. During the mid 19th Century thousands of freed slaves from America settled back in what is now Monrovia.

    Liberia these days shares a greater similarity with its northern neighbor. It too suffered a long civil war. Two in fact. There is still a large UN peace-keeping presence here and tourists aren’t likely to be sunning themselves on Monrovia’s beaches any time soon.

    It was almost dark when I entered Liberia’s capital. Much like Freetown, and most African capitals in fact, there is little light on the street at night. This makes seeing the cavernous holes, which can be anything from 1ft-6ft deep, somewhat difficult. A strong dynamo-light would be a useful addition for cycling through Africa.

    My outdated guidebook to west Africa provides scarce detail on Liberia, and like the FCO website, warns against travel outside of Monrovia. Personally I always feel safer in African villages than I do in any of their cities. How long I’m here for I don’t know. Several weeks ago a number of keys on my laptop decided to stop working. Efforts to remove and clean the keyboard have proven unsuccessful. I could of course continue without, but writing a blog update using the on-screen keyboard is really a test of one’s patience (this is being typed on a good old-fashioned Internet Cafe PC). So I’m here waiting in Monrovia whilst a replacement keyboard makes its way from the UK to me. This may also require some patience.

     

    First night in Liberia 

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