Blog 66 by Mick: Day 4 on the Dirt – A Congo Copper’s Welcome to Kananga
Day 4 of off road riding (+ 2 rest days)
204km Luiza to Kananga
Our progress through the DRC, showing the first full day in the country from Lubumbashi to Kolwezi on the tar, then Day 1 on the dirt (Pink), Day 2 (Purple), Day 3 to Luiza (Yellow) and the 4th day though to Kananga (highlighted blue).
We both slept poorly despite our fatigue. When we had arrived at the guesthouse in the late afternoon, it seemed the only tenants would be us, plus the ubiquitous goat that was hanging around and hopping up on everything. But from about 9pm onwards the guesthouse steadily filled until the majority of the rooms were occupied. Our neighbour on the other side of our wafer thin wall spent the night on his phone and, like an old grandpa, thought he needed to shout into it for it to work properly. So our rest was interrupted… to put it mildly.
The bed in the room… what to say about it… it had more in common with a middle aged torture device than a sleeping implement. Someone had “repaired” a bunch of broken slats by putting what looked like part of a packing crate across the bed’s frame, meaning one half of the thin foam mattress was 10cm higher than the other end with a big square ledge in the middle. As, our diary entry stated “the bed is a fuckup”, so it got relegated to storage space and we slept on the ground on our cots after applying a liberal amount of DEET… our surroundings seemed like an ideal breeding ground for malaria.
Getting ready for the days ride… muesli bars for breakfast. A few days in that blue shirt and it is getting pretty cultured now.
Can’t waste anything…
We got away at a relaxed 9am which was no problem as we only had 200km to go and we knew the road conditions around Kananga were good. We topped up with 15l of fuel and paid the highest we had paid on the trip so, 2000 francs (~US$2.15) per litre. That’s the cost of freighting goods along these terrible roads.
Black market fuel in Luiza. It was clean looking but we used our in tank filters anyway, which caught nothing. The guy pouring the fuel thought it was pretty funny we were filtering his fuel.
When we arrived here there was no one. Now, we had a large crowd of onlookers. Everyone was super friendly.
Having a joke with the locals.
Part of the crowd onlookers. The bloke in the straw hat spoke some basic English and was happy to use it.
Getting ready to leave our petrol top up. Congo has a reputation for being a tough and dangerous place, and while it is definitely tough, and sometimes and in some places it can be dangerous; the truth is that most of the locals you will meet in your travels here are like this. Smiling and friendly.
It was a pretty easy run to the outskirts of Kananga. We started off with some sections of rutted sand and fresh mud from the previous afternoon’s storms, but nothing too problematic and it all got easier as we got nearer to Kananga. The checkpoints were also pretty trouble free in comparison to the previous days as well, just the usual requests for ‘gifts’ but nothing menacing and that couldn’t be countered by some smiles and the “I’m a just tourist” defense. But while the riding got progressively easier, the cop situation did the opposite on the outskirts of Kananga… it is a major city in the centre of the country and as we had found so far – the bigger the town, the nastier the cops.
A police checkpoint on the way out of Luiza. These guys were really friendly and pretty professional.
Showing our international driving permits. There is a page in French on these permits and we found it really helpful.
Waving to some cute local kids. Notice the state of the clothes on the little one… they are just rags.
The main checkpoint on the way into town was far more serious than what we were used too. No smiles. No greetings. Just a big log gate, a few scowls and a grumbled demand to see our papers. Tanya is quite good and disarming these grumpy “strong man” types so she went into their roadside hut with our passports and international drivers licenses. Her French is also quite workable too, which left me redundant but to twiddle my thumbs and entertain the masses with my presence.
Some of the ride from Luiza to Kananga. We had glorious weather this day with no storms about.
Stop for a photo and the kids come running.
Thankfully the kids here are just curious and friendly. Kids in Ethiopia would be rudely begging and throwing rocks instead.
She came out of the hut a few minutes later a bit perturbed. The cop had put the heavies on for a gift and was pushing hard for insurance information. She had held firm with the bribe but hadn’t been able to wriggle out of the insurance conundrum, so she came out and gave me the bad news… it was my turn to go inside and have a go. We have found over time that tag teaming guys like this is quite a good tactic, changing the adversary puts them off balance and back to square one in their attempt to intimidate and pressure. And two determined people will always, always have more patience than one. And that is what these games ultimately boil down to… patience.
More of the red dirt savannah that we rode that day.
Some locals roadworks recently completed here. Local people will do a bit of maintenance here and there; cut back the vegetation and fill in the worst of the holes for tips from passing traffic.
There were many kilometres of sand to ride. All of it was pretty easy though.
The surly cop looked over my passport, and then asked for the insurance for the two bikes. Plan ‘A’ is always to ‘bore and distract’, so I gave him our international drivers permits… but he wasn’t interested in those and again asked for “L’Assurance”. So I move to the next thing he didn’t ask for, and pulled out the Carnet de Passage. I showed him the stamps for all the different countries we have been through including the entry stamp into Congo, and then the second page with all the details for the bikes, being sure he doesn’t look at the first page which undeniably says the documents is for “Douanes”, Customs. Thankfully, he liked the look of what he saw, especially all the official stamps, and started to copy down each vehicles details. Lucky, official bullet officially dodged…
This bit was very muddy recently… thankfully it had dried out significantly before we arrived.
Stopping for a photo – kids chasing after us in the background.
Funnily enough, he never asked for a gift from me (my terrible French aided with that I’m guessing) and we rode away 20 minutes later. We reached the outskirts of town and the road turned to tar, the first we had seen in 980kms, and were quite surprised to see the size of the town and the development. Kananga is actually a proper little city. There are quite a few cars and plenty of Chinese scooters, bicycles, roadside stalls and quite a lot of business going on.
Getting closer to Kananga – this is a beautiful part of Congo.
While some of the mud holes had dried… many hadn’t. Thankfully most weren’t long, only a few metres. Here is some axle deep mud we just had to plow through; there was no cheat line.
Tan nearly through – the michy deserts were decent in the mud (for a hard endure tyre) but they couldn’t clear this sticky shit.
We stopped for a quick lunch under this tree.
The shade was good and there weren’t too many people around. A few people did come past; one fella saw us then disappeared into the grasslands and reappeared on the track a hundred metres past us on the other side. One particular guy came past with an extravagant “Bonjour Mama! Bonjour Papa!” after we had said hello – language like that I think is a bit of a colonial throwback but we did hear it very often between locals as well.
Sending out a midday “we are here and ok” message with our InReach. We usually only send out messages when we are camping for the night, but in Congo we felt we should send a few messages out through the day as we travelled too, just so someone at least knew where we had been…
As we rode further into town we arrived at the edge of a market and there were traffic police controlling the movement of pedestrians and vehicles as they crossed every which way all over the road. One of them held up their hand for Tan to stop, which she did a metre or so in front of the policeman, who then proceeded to go completely ballistic. She gets surrounded by 3 policemen who are all very excited, pointing at her and the bike and the road, and start to grab her arms and the bike. I listen on the intercom as the situation gets further and further out of control, and decided I needed to intervene.
Outskirts of Kananga. The ladies are taking bananas and the fellas are pushing bags of cassava and yams to the markets. The ladies are seriously strong – that is a lot of bananas!
Tan getting nicked by the cops.
My first tactic was to park the bike in the middle of the road and block traffic. Doing this puts enormous pressure on who ever pulls you over to deal with you and get you and the vehicles that starts to block up moving again. It is a great ploy, and it really works… But the cop wouldn’t let me, I tried to stop next to Tan in the middle of the road but he waved at me to move on and get out of the way, and with the current issue we had with Tanya ‘not obeying’ what the cops wanted, I figured I better play his game and not have both of us in the shit.
The very feint “Stop” where she should have stopped.
I got off the bike and he tried to shoo me away, but that wasn’t going to happen. I start to talk to one cop but it doesn’t go well, he starts speaking fast in French and gesticulating at me, my bike, Tanya, the road, the other cops, everywhere… Tan at the same time started to yell at the cops as one of them grabbed her arm, I’m guessing with the intention of pulling her off the bike. The most forceful of the cops (Tan later told me) was stupidly pulling the clutch lever in like it was the brake and was crushing Tan’s fingers between the lever and the bars. With another cop grabbing her right arm she couldn’t release her pinned hand, nor effectively communicate in the mayhem that the cop was hurting her so instead screamed in English “don’t fucking touch me!”
I tried to stop here right next to Tan but the copper wouldn’t have a bar of it and waved me on.
That temporarily did the trick, but in the space of about 30 seconds this had quickly descended into, to put it frankly, a really fucked up and scary situation. Cops in DRC are nasty and don’t play by any rules, and the last thing we could allow to happen is being arrested for some questionable traffic infringement and ending up in some back room of a police station.
Four cops crowding all around, you can see how it got stressful quick!
The cop I was talking to pointed at the very very faint, bordering on non-existent, line on the road where Tanya should have stopped and goes off his trolley in French. I counter that the line can’t be seen from a vehicle, but realise soon enough that this is probably a dead end tactic. Arguing over where to stop and whether it is reasonable is just prolonging the issue. These guys don’t care about technicalities. We needed to move on, and quickly. One lesson we had learned from dealing with animated people (like the psycho mini-bus driver way back on the Wild Coast in South Africa), dealing with cops and speaking to many people through our time in Africa, is that you have to stay cool and not escalate any confrontation, and its best to just repeat your message over and over and over again until it is finally heard.
“It’s not a problem.”
“It’s not a problem.”
“It’s not a problem.”
My parked bike and the growing crowd of onlookers. The fella in the red striped shirt looks especially concerned…
I repeated it in a calm manner over and over and over again. Tan by this point had freed her hand, took my suggestion to calm down a bit and not say anything more, and set about ignoring everyone. Finally, the cops started to calm down, and with a considerable crowd gathering around us, pointing their fingers and yelling at the police, honking their vehicle horns; the scene was getting utterly chaotic. It was becoming clear that the wheel was turning, the crowd was either watching impassive or were totally on our side. The cops started to look a little unsure of themselves, and started to back down in the face of the mounting crowd. They clearly know their popularity level. The situation had very quickly gotten way out of hand for both the cops and us and it is these types of situations that you need to avoid because they can take on a life of their own. They just wanted to shake us down for a fine and we just wanted to avoid ever being there. And somewhere along the way both sides and quite a few onlookers had gotten to screaming, shoving and pulling at each other.
Me trying to calm the situation down… Tan meanwhile has retreated back into her shell and is trying to calm down.
Anyway, Tan and I still have our intercom running and I tell her “Lets go, lets get out of here”. In the lull I hop on the bike, and even though the police have not told us we can go, we just start them up and ride away. Once clear of the fracas we both breathe out a massive sigh of relief. In just a few minutes we have gone from cruising the main street, to looking down the barrel of being arrested and bribed, to cruising again. Welcome to Kananga.
We saw our opportunity and just jumped at it and left.
Tan was feeling bad for putting us in a bad situation as she knew she had handled herself poorly. She knew it need not have gone anything like it did. We might have gotten away with the usual smile, patience and apologies. But it started bad and got worse. She said she just struggles to keep her cool when people touch her in these situations, especially when the situation involves being surrounded by 3 hostile cops pulling her arm and crushing her hand. And the cops were so excited by a cashed up freighter breaking a traffic rule that they practically jumped on top of her. If she’d had the ability to say in French, “Calm down, I’m not going anywhere, please release the lever, you are crushing my hand” it might not have coming to both sides losing their shit at each other. But what happened, happened and the good thing was we got it de-escalated and out of the area.
We made our way to a hotel I had way-pointed in my gps from our mate Pat’s recent crossing. But we get a shock at the price, they wanted 80USD per night but even after dropping it to 50USD when we mention we want to stay for 2 nights so we can have a rest day, its still a lot of money, especially when Pat said he paid 20 bucks! We cursed ourselves once more for being really shitty negotiators. So we made like we are going to leave with the hope they will drop the price further as we headed out the door, but they didn’t. Damn, bluff called.
So we jump on the bikes once more in search of another hotel, but in what turned into a bit of a theme, we found more hostile police wanting their cut of the whitie action. At a completely empty intersection, 3 police standing on the footpath saw the bikes coming and ran out into the middle of the road and stop us, surrounding Tanya who is leading. Tan, still stressed from the earlier copper caper reverts to what worked so well just 20 minutes beforehand; shrieking crazy white lady. She was massively on the defensive.
“Why did you stop us? What do you think I have done wrong? You can’t just stop people for no reason! Just because you see foreigners! We were just riding, we did nothing wrong!”
The cops pointed at the road and motioned where we had ridden and waggled their fingers at us while jabbering away in bad French, as if riding on the road is some sort of offence. Their insistence that we had committed some unknown traffic offense was proved ineffective as Tan went on to point out 2 of 3 scooters doing the same thing through the same section of intersection that was apparently illegal.
One of the policemen got uncomfortable by the activities of his colleagues and walked the few metres back to me smiling, and we had a very quick and quite civil chat in broken English while I had one ear on the intercom. I got the impression he was the young off-sider and wasn’t comfortable with hounding innocent tourists, so was keen to disengage with what the other 2 were up to.
The 2 other cops started to back off, and in the lull we just started the bikes and rode away. These cops seemed to have no game plan, they just saw some foreigners so ran out on the road to get their piece of the pie, but immediately ran out of ideas when it came to executing and acquiring said pie. So within maybe 40 seconds of being stopped we were riding away. It was that quick.
We did find a much smaller and simpler hotel and while parking the bikes in front of we soon acquired a bunch of onlookers. On such onlooker was an old fella who once worked for some American Missionaries and spoke English well which kept me entertained while Tan was checking out the rooms and getting prices.
Getting off the bikes at the cheaper hotel. The older fella in the grey button up shirt was the guy who spoke English. He told us that there wasn’t really any other hotels in town apart from this one and the expensive one we had been too.
But despite offering a decent price (USD27) and seeming like friendly management we noticed huge speakers being arranged in the courtyard our room would front onto. A closer inspection showed that this night, being the culmination of a day ending in “y”, in true Congolese fashion was shaping up to be a huge party. Despite the legendary reputation of Congolese music we were keen for some decent sleep and not having music pumped directly into our bedroom deep into the wee hours of the morning. While we pondered the oh-so-common ‘money vs comfort’ conundrum, we thought we knock back a cold beer and a soft drink – our first in 5 days.
Beers on the verandah. It was a hot and humid tropical afternoon.
The bar was nice and low key and the staff were cool, and everyone else was more interested in their mates and drinks than us, which suited us perfectly. It was tough going from being on our own and seeing few people along the route to being the centre of attention in the towns. While I sorted out a cold beer and Tan knocked back a local cola (which she stated was awesome, I’m guessing the sugar content was through the roof) we notice two pedestrians walking past, one of whom looked up at the verandah and spotted us. “Le blancs! Le blancs!” he yelled to his mate in excitement. The other one looked up and the both immediately turned around and tried to come up on to the verandah. The manager of the bar stood at the stairs and blocked them from coming up, and they started to have a proper little stoush on the stairs. The manager pointed at them, at us, at them again, then down the road, I’m assuming with detailed instructions on exactly where down the road they might like to go. But the 2 guys would not budge, continuing to point at us and yell at the manager.
Tan and bar’s waitress. She was a cool cat.
These situations seem to be just bloody never ending… we can’t even have a cold drink without finding ourselves being annoyed by cops…
We saw the writing on the wall and immediately started to pack up our stuff. Tan went inside to sort the bill while the manager dragged the 2 guys out into the street to check their IDs. One guy was immediately sent packing and walked off down the road to the howls of onlookers, however the second guy seemed to be an off duty cop, and the manager begrudgingly let him up onto the verandah.
He walked over to me and speaking in French, he said something about him being the police and us taking photos in public. Before coming to Congo though, we had done enough research to know this is just another bullshit scam used to hassle foreigners. Once upon a time, it was illegal to take photographs in towns, however the law was repealed maybe 8 or 10 years ago. Plus, we had only been in town about 45 minutes and hadn’t taken any photos of anything but us at the bar, and that was long before he walked past and saw us.
I didn’t even bother with my terrible French, I just told him in English that it was an old law, and shook my head with a firm “No”. Tan came out from paying the tab and we just picked up our stuff, walked past him and out towards the bikes. He followed us, talking in French and tapping me on the shoulder but I just ignored him. Didn’t turn, didn’t speak, didn’t react in any way. We put our tank bags on the bikes and helmets on our heads while he persisted, but by now all the patrons who had been having a drink at the bar and out on the verandah who had seen all this develop now get involved.
From up on the verandah they are yelling at the cop, pointing at him, pointing at us, yelling at him some more. It is fantastic. There are probably 10 or 12 people absolutely feeding it to him. I gave the manager a wave as we left and I could see the poor bugger was furious at what has just happened, but was powerless to stop it even though he gave it a decent shot. Some of the onlookers told us what the police did was not fair and that they should not do it but that is what they do to everyone.
There seemed to be such a deep frustration at the corruption of the police force that I would have expected to be more below the surface than it actually was. However, it wasn’t suppressed at all, peoples resentment seemed to spill over at any opportunity. We were surprised to see so many people stand up to the police in any group environment and when the cops were outnumbered, they were scarcely tolerated and almost bullied by crowds. It seemed the average Congolese loved any situation that gave them an opportunity to remind cops just how far down the pecking order they were.
With three police interactions in about an hour, we realised we needed somewhere secure and private so resigned ourselves to returning to the first expensive hotel, all the while racking our brains to figure our what Pat said or did or offered to do to get a room for just $20. The hotel was nice and had secure parking behind a big high fence and once we were in there we were confident we would be left alone. I expect that the hotel owner paid for that privilege. That is exactly how it panned out, no one annoyed us and we didn’t leave the place until we left for good.
I read all this now and wish I could go back and tell ourselves to chill the fuck out and to get out an enjoy Kananga despite all this shit. I know we regret not seeing more of the place. But it is hard to be an energetic and inquisitive tourist while busting your gut to get across the country. After all our time on the continent, we knew better and should have played it cool, let it go like a proper Africa overlander and got out and amongst it… but DRC isn’t like the rest of Africa. While with retrospect we now know a lot more about Congo and the Congolese, at the time we had just been harassed 3 times in an hour on top of the normal background levels of common “DRC Stress”. Oh well, one day we will definitely return to DRC. It’s hard to explain but the raw excitement of the place is infectious.
Getting ready to roll after our extra rest day.
After our scheduled rest day, we woke to our alarm clock and pouring rain. By 10am we realised that this day was just not going to be the day we would leave, even if the rain stopped and sun came out, the tracks would be sodden, muddy, and uninviting. On top of this we realised we’d made far faster progress than we expected and should slow down a touch and try and get to know Congo before it was all over. So we checked in for a third night and hoped the following day’s weather would be better. By midday the rain had stopped and when the sun came out the humidity rose to “air-swimming” levels as the moisture was baked out of the town. We slinked away to our room and enjoyed our intermittent air conditioning.
Our hotel on the way out of town.
Leaving Kananga attempt number 2 was far more successful. The weather was great and with half the route from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa already done in only 4 days of riding (and just a couple boggings) we were in high spirits. And once we had done just a few little jobs in town, we would be own our way again. We just had to get some cash and fuel first…
Some local buildings in town. There wasn’t a lot of Kananga that was post-independence era.
The receptionist gave us some directions to a street where the money changers congregated. We went up to the one that was the closest to some convenient parking and quickly negotiated a decent enough rate. Then started the long process of counting. At a bit over 900 francs to the dollar, 100USD was about 150 notes in 1000 and 500 franc denominations, plus some smaller stuff. We are always suspicious of money changers, especially black market changers like this. So he would count out a wad of cash, which I would double check, and then give it to Tanya to hold and keep track off. Once the amount was confirmed, only then will one of us hand over the dollars in exchange. It’s the way we’ve always done transactions like this and means we’ve never ended up with a roll of newspaper like others in Africa have.
A local driving school. Not sure what they teach to need a building so big, but judging by the results out on the street it is not a lot.
But it means it is slow and deliberate process, taking plenty of time to count and double check giving plenty of opportunity for a huge crowd to congregate around us. Which they did, as white people and big bikes are not all that common a sight in these parts. I had planned on changing 200 dollars but after counting out 100 dollars worth of francs, I decided we just had to go. The crowd was just too big and we were starting to get quite uncomfortable counting such large amounts of cash in full view of an ever larger crowd of gawkers.
The Kananga Train Station. Kananga was the end of the transport from Kinshasa for a long time – goods were ferried up the Congo then Kasai River to Ilebo, then put on the train to Kananga. Not anymore though, Kananga is now serviced by 6×6 trucks plowing up the N1 and velo boys.
So we got onto the bikes and went to sort out errand #2: buying some fuel. Kananga was blessed with what looked like a proper service station, from the outside at least anyway. It had ancient but functional bowsers with the old rotating number wheels that clicked around counting the litres and the francs as they accumulated. The price on the bowser was 1650 francs, which was a nice reduction from the 2000 francs (US$2.15) per litre we paid on the black market in Luiza.
Some of the crowds we attracted that morning.
That was until we went to pay of course. The bowser attendant was asking for 2000 francs per litre even though the bowser clearly stated otherwise… and this is one significant problem with travelling in this part of the world… the scams and hustling are just constant, it is completely unrelenting, and it is hard to not be slowly weighed down by it. Even buying fuel from a proper service station is not easy.
By now of course we had been stationary for about 10 minutes while filling the bikes, and the standard crowd of people was gathering around us, staring at us, pointing at us, shouting at us in French, most of it excited and friendly but with the odd demand for money. Bikes and cars driving down the road pulled into the service station and parked to watch the show of the strange “le blanc” putting petrol in their motorbikes. Little Chinese scooters buzzed through the crowd and in between the bowsers, all while beeping their horns and with the attendant hot on their tails chasing them away, all adding to the chaos.
The station security guard got fed up with the crowds and tracked down a bloody big stick to whack people with. Ahh Congo… the madness just never ends… Naturally this amused the people agile enough to avoid the swipes; they would jump out the way and the crowd would celebrate with cheers and applause. He then started to steal the keys out of the ignition of the moto taxi drivers hanging around, trying especially hard to get the ones driving through crowd honking their horns. He’d grab their keys and throw them into the garden. The guard got more and more riled up as he set his sights on one particularly cheeky moto taxi rider who would accelerate just out of reach every time the guard got close to grabbing the keys. It was complete and utter pandemonium but most people were enjoying themselves… except the security guard.
Everything in this part of Congo turns into a massive scene by our mere presence. And shit just starts to get out of hand. The stress caused by this constant mayhem is hard to explain. It’s not your conventional overworked first world stress… It’s not stress from being physically at risk… or culture shock, or anything else that we were familiar with. Pressure and overstimulation from the constant and unrelenting attention, noise and mayhem maybe is a better way to explain it. And while you feel this stress, you’re not worried about being at physical risk, or being robbed, or being under any sort of direct threat; it is a type of background pressure by being surrounded by all sorts of animated people yelling in languages you can’t understand, pointing and laughing, the mounting havoc from people crowding around, honking horns, racing scooters, flying ignition keys and sticks swinging through the air at people makes you fully aware of the fact you aren’t at all in control of what’s going on around you, all in a country which you know is quite lawless. And there is nothing at all you can do about it. It is unnerving, but you do get used to it after a while.
I decided to use the crowd to my advantage and walked into our “mosh pit” and asked a few people the price of petrol in my broken French… the answer came back multiple times at 2000 francs. So I figured the money counting wheels on the old bowser were broken and went back and paid the man what he was owed. With that done we legged it to another main street where we hoped we could change some more money… our last chore for the morning, as we weren’t able to change everything we needed the first time.
We found a money changer with plenty of room to park, and had an instant crowd as about 10 or 15 motorcycles who had followed us from the service station pulled in in front of us. We had done a bit of a loop through town scoping out the changers and they had followed us the whole way… riding past us and all around us beeping their horns and showing off, sitting side saddle, standing up and jumping around, trying to do wheelies, and swerving all over the road.
Some of the crowd at money changer number 2.
We were far quicker this time around and got the exchange done efficiently. But there was still enough time to a crowd to congregate and spill out on to the main road. And of course, there was still enough time for one more run in with the fuzz… it all came to nothing and we had our mobile cheer squad of scooter riders to thank for that.
Tan getting ready to go, this was just before the police turned up.
A police women turned up to the party on the back of a moto taxi, and the second she got off, all the scooter and motorbike riders around us started beeping their horns like crazy. They pushed their bikes in close and swarmed forward around the police women, all the while revving their engines and blasting their little Chinese horns, which in isolation aren’t loud but when there are 15… well, its gets really loud. The police woman shouted at us but we honestly couldn’t hear a thing. She was struggling to make her way through the crowd and get near us, which was just the way we liked it. This allowed us some time to just hop on our bikes, all the scooters moved out of our path and the policewomen stood there watching as we just rode away…