Day 6 of off road riding
53km from unknown tiny village to unknown slightly larger village
Our progress for the day, all 53kms of it, shown in Red. The 5 previous days of off-road riding are the proceeding coloured tracks.
It was storming when we had gone to sleep and it was still threatening to storm when we woke with the villagers at sun-up. There were a few gusts of wind and the odd splatter of rain as dark and angry clouds passed nearby. If we were anywhere but the middle of DRC, we wouldn’t have even wasted the energy to stick our heads out the tent and confirm what was plainly obvious… this was rest day weather, one were you might mumble “fuck it” before borrowing back down into the comfort of your sleeping bag.
Starting out the day on the N1 River. Nothing like getting up in the morning and hitting some tough muddy trails on an empty stomach.
But this is Congo, you cant just “fuck it” here. We were in the middle of Kasai Province, which historically is one of the most unstable areas in the country, and we just ‘had’ to go. Part of our strategy to minimise risk was to keep moving and to move as fast as we could manage. So we packed quickly and got straight into our wets. We had been supremely lucky with the wet season so far, but it was clear today was the day that our weather luck ran out.
Stopped for a photo of the epic trails in front and realised we had a crowd of children chasing after us.
We thanked the old blind chief one more time for his hospitality on departure, left him a little bit of cash and some small gift as a token of our gratitude, and hit the trail. And within maybe 15 minutes of riding, the heavens opened in a monumental tempest. It seemed like the Congo was making up for lost time and tried it’s upmost to catch up for a slow start to the wet season in one storm. The road became a river in seconds.
Crazy times… I didn’t take too many photos as I was worried about the camera getting really wet.
We soldiered on through the mud and slop and flowing water. The ever-present ruts in the track were now flowing streams and took on a new dimension of difficulty, as it was now impossible to know their depth. Crossing from one side of the track to the other now became a lottery unless we got off the bikes and jumped in; were the ruts a harmless 10-20cm deep or difficult 30-40cm deep?
Dodging ruts on loamy soil. These ones looked deep, but we managed to split them ok. Still pissing rain.
The rain was starting to ease by this point
The rain eased after about 30 minutes, and we found a quiet spot and stopped for a muesli bar. We then settled into the groove of the morning… hard yakka and persistence. In the areas we could get off the track and onto walking trails, the rain drained off into the forest and probably helped firm up the sand. But on the track itself, the water sat in the ruts and turned the sand and occasional sections of loam that is constantly churned up by the 6×6 trucks into horrid slop. And the poor bikes suffered for it…
Stopped for a breather and a breakfast snack. The rain has stopped but the tracks are wet as hell… The rain, weirdly, whipped up this froth that you can see in the low spot about 20m in front of Tanya’s bike.
One of the many Mercedes 6×6 trucks that service most of the country and tear up the tracks in the process. These things are overloaded with tens of people on top and all sorts of stuff strung out the back to maximise the load.
Yet more excited children. You can see the truck covered in plastic drums for fuel and water going through a checkpoint. We had just come through there with no dramas, just a quick “hello, how are you, where are you going, ok fine have a nice trip”. Not all of them are corrupt and menacing.
After yet another bogging in the hellish ruts of the main track, our constant hunt for walking trails lead us into a village, and onto a trail heading north when we should have been heading west. I had the GPX tracks from Pat and some earlier travellers loaded on our GPS so I knew where we should have been heading, and we weren’t. It had been interesting comparing our route to theirs as we went; you’d think that there is only one option when riding the N1, but our tracks were actually not overlapping as often as you would expect. There are just so many little villages on either side of the track with their own walking trails that we were often out by sometimes as much as 100m, but always travelling in more or less the same direction. So when we entered a village on a walking trail and ended up quite a ways north of the GPX track, I wasn’t worried. But when we actually turned north, I was. We had unknowingly changed tracks, and we needed to correct it.
Ruts and ruts and ruts into the distance.
Where we could, we got onto walking trails. These were slow, 1st and 2nd gear, but easy to ride. And would have been fun single track if we didn’t have bigger problems to worry about, as you can see in Tanya’s facial expression. Looking back on these photos I can see the stress written all over our faces…
More walking trails, these ones grass lined, is more slow single track (more or less) on the bike
We were in a larger than average village on a crossroads of some sort and were surrounded by many very excited people. I’m sure these villagers only see locals and velo-boys selling goods from the back of their bicycles, so when two foreigners turned up on two big and loud dirt bikes, well, that was just the most incredible thing to ever happen ever and brought everyone out from the huts. I’m sure Martians throwing wads cash from their UFO couldn’t attract a larger crowd.
Getting bogged on the way into the larger village on the crossroads. Crossing these ruts was hard on the bikes… we needed momentum to bounce across but too much speed would just bottom out the suspension and case out the bike on the middle mound. Then you’re stuck. It was a fine balance.
Tan came back to help push me out, and got dirty…
We asked for the road for Tshikapa and were shown the way by an energetic crowd of yelling and screaming kids running back and forth all over the place. The kids didn’t quite compute that the best way to walk to the right track maybe wouldn’t be the best way to ride loaded adventure bikes, and they led us through a very soft section of mud which I quickly sunk into. I managed to direct Tan around the worst of it and she got to the other side without too much trouble, where she got off and walked back to help me push my bike out. That bogging was the first instance I felt my clutch start to go, I could feel it slipping and hoped that if I could get up on the pegs, get some speed and get some air through the oil cooler and cool the motor a bit, I could get some feeling back into the clutch lever. Because at this point of time, it had all the fortitude of a hot marshmallow.
Some of the crazy crowd on the edge of the village. By the time I got stuck in the mud and then got out again, we must have had 40 or 50 people following us. The cool hair doo of the lady in the middle is a very common one in DRC.
With the oil temperature reduced some lever pressure did come back, eventually, but God my clutch was in a fragile state and the trail was remorseless. Soft sand and mud are not good things for any clutch, let alone failing ones, and my poor clutch was given nothing but. It was the factory clutch with 79000kms of spirited use, with a Simpson Desert crossing and Cape York trip under its belt back home in Australia in addition to 51000kms of tough riding in Africa. It had done well, but after riding a few hundred metres of what is best descried as quicksand (no exaggeration… we and the bikes literally just sunk in it) its time was finally up. I conceded defeat and started thinking about where all the stuff I would need was packed, and looking for somewhere shady and quiet to whip the clutch cover off.
We missed a walking trail and ended up on the main truck track. This sand was like nothing else, we just sunk in it, you couldn’t stand still as our boots would sink down. I think it happened like this: the trucks as they drive by grind and throw up loose sand which then sits on the lip of the ruts. This super fine and loose sand then just “falls” into the rut during the storm as the edge of the rut eroded, meaning the ruts fill with very fine, saturated, unconsolidated sand. We stopped because the bikes were working hard and I could feel my clutch slipping, and I was hoping to get over onto an easier walking trail. To move my bike from here, I had to lift the front wheel out of the sand while Tans was at the bars pushing with the bike in gear.
We made that little sand bridge across the second rut to move my bike over onto the walking trail. With the slipping clutch it just couldn’t get enough power to move in the sand. Those blokes in the background help push Tanya’s bike out… I lifted the front wheel out of the quicksand, they pushed and she rode.
Bushbashing over to a walking trail.
I had been carrying a spare set of clutch plates for quite a while in anticipation of this event, and if I’m honest I had thought if we were going to need a spare clutch pack anywhere it would be here. So now was the time… the problem was we were constantly surrounded by people, and if there is one thing I really don’t like it is people looking over my shoulder when I’m trying to work. With the end of each village being the start of the next, people were everywhere, and we couldn’t find a peaceful place that I was hoping for. So I persisted, foolishly.
On a much easier walking trail… we stopped and let the bikes cool off for a bit.
Arthur the Meerkat and the trail ahead.
More single track walking trail. Slow going but easier on the clutch.
A car had come through here not too long ago, and had bashed its way across from the main track onto the walking trail aswell. Those ruts must be hell in a 4WD, as they are wider than the track of a normal 4WD and deep. On our travels we did see one 4WD driving the track and it was suffering, it had one side down in a rut and the other up on the soft middle, and was racing along bouncing back and forth as it bottomed out on the middle mount. It was an ugly sight… for a 4WD to do this route, I would set it up with cabin operated diff locks, big wheels and lots and lots of lift.
With Tan riding in the right hand wheel track and me in the left, we entered yet one more village, and all we found were yet more deep and loose ruts, and hundreds of people. On the intercom I heard Tan drop the bike up ahead. A few locals helped her pick it up, but she got bogged trying to get started again in the soft sand. And during this episode I could offer no assistance at all, as 40m back in the left hand rut I had gotten stuck and then managed to bury the bike rear wheel deep trying to get out again. The clutch officially died in that hole.
My bike… it dug this hole and tried to climb inside to die… You can see the crowd 40m or so up front, that is Tan in her own trouble.
Tan came back to help extract my bike; we just had to trust that no one would ransack her luggage while we were gone, and thankfully no one did. I lifted the rear of the bike and then lent the bike over to each side all while she pushed sand in the hole, and we slowly got the bike up and out of its self dug grave. We pushed the bike forward, extracted Tan’s bike from its own hole, and pulled up under a large tree. This was to be the place the clutch would be replaced.
Getting down to business…
Crowd is growing…
People sneaking up… closer and closer…
The amount of people who surrounded us was just incredible… at least a hundred and rising quickly. Pat had told us of a trick he had used during his recent crossing for dealing with crowds. He had many flat tyres on his trip and every time he stopped, he was surrounded. He resorted to marking a line in the sand around his bike and motioning that on the inside of the line was his space and the outside was theirs, and as crazy as it sounds, it works. I marked out a circle and everyone laughed at me but stayed back, giving me some space to get to work. I concede it’s an outrageously obnoxious thing to do, but with all the kids hanging around and getting under your feet it is necessary.
You can see how hot the clutch got, oil is burnt onto the pressure plate and turned it brown.
First drive plate smeared all over the first driven plate.
Pulling the plates out, it was still quite hot. I’ve got a pile of rubbish on the sand next to me, this plate was about to go on the rubbish pile.
I asked some of the adults wandering about if it was ok to work under the tree and they assured us it was fine, and amazingly, a plastic chair appeared out of nowhere for me to sit on while I pulled the bike apart. I was expecting to find one of the friction plates worn away, but instead found one completely in pieces and one of the fingers of the clutch basket broken. But there was nothing for it, other than removing all the broken bits I could find and replace the plates. After a lot of stuffing about, meaning I had to take the clutch cover off due to not cleaning the bits of clutch out of the clutch release pinion gear which left a really notchy action, and then again to try and properly seat a damaged clutch cover gasket, I put it together and test rode the bike to many cheers.
Bits of the first drive plate (fibre plate) and broken clutch basket finger. Ugly sight.
Taking the clutch cover off the 1st time… I adjusted the cable but the actuation was horrid, there was bits of clutch fouling the release pinion gear.
Cleaning out the bits after flicking them out from around the release pinion and shaft.
Part of the crowd, they had gotten comfy to properly enjoy the show.
Clutch cover off another time to check the gasket, it was weeping but I could not find my silicone… so it went back on as it was. A problem for another time! You can see the people crowding around… At one stage I twisted in my seat to grab a tool which I’d put down on the ground next to me and my elbow hit peoples knees…. Everyone was crowding around and I really don’t like that, it drives me nuts, but I just had to block it out.
With the clutch cover on and off a few times, the 8 year old factory gasket had broken and was now leaking. But for the life of me I couldn’t find my tube of gasket silicone anywhere, so I told Tan we would get going and I’d pull the clutch cover off and seal it properly when we stopped that night. I just needed to get out of there, the attention and noise was unrelenting.
The crowd by the end was up on top of us, they just snuck up and snuck up until there was no room to move. At one stage I was trying to move around and look for my silicone but I just couldn’t get to the bikes. I gently pushed people back to make some room and started saying “I need some space, I need some space” and they just started parroting it back at me… “I need some space!” they said over and over and over again.
Everyone was really happy though.
After my quick little test ride. Oil was leaking, but the clutch was working. So we left.
This bloke gave him self the job as chief security officer. When he realised there were so many people I couldn’t even move anymore, he went and found himself a really big stick, must have been 1.5m long, and started swinging it at people. Most people managed to get out of the way, but some didn’t and copped a really full blooded swing from that big stick… it would have hurt like hell. Everyone ran off screaming, a few toddlers got dropped in the sand and started crying… It was bloody crazy. But not long later they had all snuck up again, although this time they stayed a bit further back.
Hundreds of people….
You can see how this got quite stressful… there were people everywhere.
I think this photo sums up the mayhem of it all pretty well. Bit like a Zombie Movie…
Finally ready to roll. Ol’mate on the right is dressed like he just came back from shooting a rap video.
However, when the oil got up to operating temperature a few kilometres later, the leak was much more than I was expecting. A leak that was just a bit of an oil weep back under the tree had now turned into a full drip every 4 or 5 seconds. I had used half a litre of engine oil with the clutch change and only had half a litre left… which meant we didn’t have enough spare to have engine oil leaking all over the sand. So we pulled off the track into some shade in what was a thankfully quiet section with few people about. I pulled the clutch cover off one more time, sealed it up with the silicone which was hiding in Tan’s toolbox and got it all back together, this time not leaking any oil.
Few kilometres later… clutch cover off again. Thankfully it was reasonably quiet here, but people stopped as they came walking by and a crowd slowly built up.
Tans bike parked on the sandy trail ahead…
Everyone was really friendly though, apart from the bloke in the back. He looks a bit grumpy. I think he shat the bed that morning.
We only got another few kilometres down the track when we realised the day was done… it was a bit of a revelation to both of us, “oh shit look at that the sun is about to set!” With so much action we had completely lost track of time and hadn’t eaten since our trailside breakfast muesli bar after the morning storm. So we pulled into the next village and looked around. It was a friendly place, a few of the ladies looked at us and smiled, and a bunch of kids materialised from nowhere to gawk at us, jump around and chatter excitedly.
And this guy is also allergic to smiles…
Ahh that’s not true, some people like to have photos taken, but once in front of the camera they get really serious. This young guy was one fella like that – happy in the flesh, serious in the photo.
When we had met Richard in Nairobi, an experienced British Overlander who had crossed the Congo 4 times, he gave us a bit of advice, that “the time will come when you just have to trust the people around you… there are parts of Congo where there is nowhere to camp, there are too many people and the jungle is too thick, all you can do is find the local Chief, ask him if you can stay in his village and put yourself completely into his trust… that’s all you can do… you are safer in a friendly village than by yourself.
Crowd of kids gathered…
When we were getting ready to leave, this porter family came by… the father is actually in this photo but he is leaning over pushing and a bit difficult to see. Next time someone complains about their work or life opportunities in the developed world, show them this photo for an instant reality check.
We took that advice to heart and had used it the night previous to good effect. In our travels to date we had been through a few villages were we had seen mostly men which didn’t seem very welcoming, but most villages, like this one, had a mix of men, women and children and were friendly. Tan got off the bike, asked in French “où est le chef de localatie?” and quickly disappeared with a large group of singing and clapping ladies and children.
After what felt like 20 minutes, I started to get quite worried… When I was starting to wonder what my next move might be, Tanya thankfully reappeared with a larger group of singing and clapping ladies in tow. I asked her if everything was ok, expecting something must have gone wrong when she had met the Chief.
“It’s crazy, everyone is really friendly, but it is so crazy. It’s ok for us to stay in the village, I met the Chief and he is happy to have us. On the way to the Chief it turned into a full precession. Kids ran from hut to hut telling everyone there are white people here. Everyone was cheering and singing. Everyone wanted to shake hands with me and high-five… women kept thrusting their babies at me to hold. I dead-set nearly dropped one while trying to keep up with momentum of the crowd… trying to walk on uneven ground in the dark juggling babies. Everyone was so thrilled I can’t even describe it. The Chief was quiet but friendly, when I asked him if it was ok if we could camp in his village, and he said yes, everyone started cheering and dancing and clapping. It’s so crazy, you’re not going to believe it.”
We hopped on the bikes and they led us to the hut of the Chief. People were everywhere, hundreds of them… hundreds of them. Tan got off and took me over and introduced me to the Chief, who was well dressed in a jacket and sitting in a nice looking wooden chair. A few tiny plastic chairs appeared out of thin air and we were invited to sit. These chairs were for kids, so we had our knees up around our ears and felt we were sitting near on the ground.
The 3 of us sat there surrounded by hundreds of standing people. A young man appeared who spoke quite passable English, not great, but very workable. You could tell he had learnt from a book, as his vocab was decent but his delivery was a bit broken and pronunciation was a bit all over the place; half French, half African. But you could tell with a few days of practice he would be more or less fluent. It was a shame that he lived in the middle of bloody nowhere.
He explained that the chief was his uncle and he was the English teacher in the local school. When he mentioned those two words, English Teacher, the crowd erupted.
They went on and on, repeating the words, ever louder and louder. It seems these were the only words that most people knew and they just went on and on. We could barely hear ourselves think…
We made some small talk with the Chief, with the English teacher translating for us, and he offered us some food. We hadn’t eaten all day and were really hungry, but we didn’t want to be taking food away from anyone else when we had our own with us. In these parts eating once a day is the norm for many people, there is food but it’s hardly in surplus. But they were so insistent and made such a fuss about preparing dinner, that in the end we felt we couldn’t refuse. In the end they presented us with 4 small bananas cut into pieces served on floral porcelain plate. I suddenly realised how starved I was, but tried my best to eat in a restrained manner. The young English teacher asked us how dinner was after we had finished, “fantastic, thank you, the bananas were perfect”, and they were.
Everyone looked so outrageously happy with our presence… it was really something else. We asked the English teacher about all the people around us, and he explained that everyone was very happy… very happy for us to staying with them in the village, and that many people, especially the children, had never seen a white person before. It made sense, all the while we had been sitting, people had been touching us. Especially my arms… children would wriggle their way through crowd, spend a second or two touching my forearm, especially running their fingers through my arm hair, then running off shouting and screaming and laughing. This made space for the next kid to come up and stare and touch, maybe look at my beard, pull on some arm hair and run away. It was a near constant procession.
This went on for half an hour or more. There was some idle chit chat with the young English teacher who was polite and welcoming, but all I can remember is the touching… not in an uncomfortable way though, the scene was to happy for that. Everyone was just very curious; people carefully rubbed my head and arms, touched my beard, pushing on our knee braces, our boots… everything for them was new and exciting. And the noise… there was just constant yelling and laughing. Someone would point at something; our clothes, or boots, or Tanya’s blonde hair, or my bald head, and everyone would yell and laugh and point some more. The only light was a tiny lamp that the Chief had, meaning the only thing we could really see were hundreds of smiling white teeth reflecting back at us.
It was a relief when the opportunity presented itself that we could politely retreat from our chat with Chief, put the tent up, climb inside and finally get some personal space again. It was something we had lacked all day, and even though the din continued outside for another 30 minutes or so, we could finally relax in relative peace.
You’d think that blowing your clutch in the middle of Kasai Province, DRC, is pretty full-on… but that night… in the pitch black, in the that immense racket, being surrounded by that many animated people, looking up at all of them looking down on you, was one the most seriously intense things that has happened on this trip. As Richard had wisely pointed out 5 months earlier, “you just have to trust the people around you. That’s all you can do.”