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Blog 71 by Mick: Day 8 on the Dirt – The Last of the N1…

Day 8, and final day, of off-road riding
115km off-road and 102km on-road from the Construction Camp to Kikwit

 

We were relaxed when we left. We had been reliably informed by the guys in the construction camp that Kikwit was only about 8 or 9 hours away by car depending on the efficiency of the many checkpoints, including both the necessary paperwork and inevitable shakedown we would have to endure. We hoped and expected that on the bikes it would only be about 6 hours; we would not only be able to travel faster on the track but expected to weasel our way through the bribery game a little faster than the SinoHydro guys who have such a huge target on their backs. So we gave ourselves a casual morning start and left around 11am, far more pleasant than the 7 and 8am starts we had been enduring on the trail.

We got out the gate and straight into it… some deep sandy ruts which were thankfully reasonably firm from the overnight rain. There was a village in a river valley about 2km away which we had been told would be our first checkpoint and probable shakedown for the day. We had been warned that being so close to the construction camp, they had constant exposure to the construction workers and had gotten accustomed to getting their cut of the action. Oh joy… We were excited…

 

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The trail just outside the construction camp gates. The valley in front was where we were heading.

 

I volunteered to take the bitter pill first up and deal with the checkpoint formalities, in this case both Police and DGM (Department of Immigration, essentially). The coppers waved me up to the DGM hut first and as I entered I managed to fabricate a smile from somewhere. I handed over our passports and showed our visas to the DGM official, and was waved to sit down in the corner like a very naughty boy. I did what I was told but could see where this was heading… old mate was a hardarse and was putting me in my place.

 

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Firm ruts to start the day…

 

A few minutes later he waved me up to his desk again to ask for our invitation letters, which we had used before in our “distract with useless documents” strategy but had never actually been directly ask for. I took it as a bad sign, but showed him the forms and sat down again nonetheless. A few minutes later, what I had been waiting for finally started. He sighed, he looked up at me, he sighed again at the documents, he looked up again and mentioned something about “un problem”. If this had happened in the preceding days of the trip I would have definitely stuck to my “softly softly” approach, but both physically and mentally fatigued, with the Kikwit and Kinshasa finish line in sight, and thoroughly sick of this bullshit, I fought fire with fire.

I got up and walked over his desk, and went through all the documents one by one. “Mate, there is no problem. The passports are valid. The visas are valid. The invitation letters are valid. We have come from Lubumbashi with no problem. There is no problem. Fill in your fucking forms, and let me go”. All in English and all in a tone of outright disrespect, which in fairness was all he deserved. I then went and sat down again.

This pissed him off, majorly; it probably wasn’t a smart move on my behalf but I was completely out of patience with guys like this. Frustration levels aside, it is a valid (if risky) strategy for dealing with hardarses like this. It had worked before for us and in this instance it worked again. The game is essentially one of intimidation; if you can demonstrate that you are not intimidated – they realise you wont be easily manipulated into paying a bribe, the game is thus over and you win. He filled in his forms and gave our documentation back and told me to get out. Fine by me.

 

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Tan waiting out at the bikes with some local people… This lady wanted a photo.

 

Back at the bikes Tan was surrounded by curious and friendly locals, and I told her what had happened in the little hut. We loaded up to go and the DGM guy came down to check us and the bikes. I did my best to smooth over our little confrontation, and said to him “merci, au’revoir” and offered my hand out to shake his. He rejected me, to huge boos and hisses from the crowd. The anti-establishment culture of the local people was not in his favour!

 

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The view more or less for the next few hours. Lots of green…

 

We crossed the river after a quick and easy talk to the police; the usual questions of where we had been, where we were going, plus a double check we had checked in with the DGM, and they cheerfully waved us on. It was strange how these interactions with Police and DGM were a complete mixed bag; sometimes very easy, but sometimes not, sometimes very friendly… but sometimes not.

 

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On the new foundations was generally pretty good, but not always. About 20m back from me there was a big erosion ditch which I only saw a the last moment.

 

Over the river we rolled straight into another checkpoint… Tan volunteered for this one while I chilled with the bikes and chatted (very badly mind you, my French is woeful) with a few moto taxi guys as they came through. When she returned she explained that we had just changed provinces when we crossed the river, hence the checkpoints each side of it. The police were friendly and good natured and came out to check out the bikes and bid us farewell as we left.

 

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I had to pull left and ended up in the mud at speed and went down… more mud on the pants… and everything else. It was sticky shit, the Michelin Deserts struggled to clear it.

 

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More views… more palms.

 

The road was generally pretty decent from here, most of it was actually a formed road and not just wheel tracks bashed through the jungle and savannah, although in some places the foundations had been heavily eroded by the rain while it waited for tarring. And the heavy storm from the night before had reaped significant havoc where it could. Any part of the road that was low or lacked decent drainage was a complete mess.

 

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Moving along, the majority of this section was easy going on well prepped foundation…

 

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…but… there were some massive mud holes to negotiate too.

 

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…and kilometres of slippery red shit like this…

 

We soldiered on without too many dramas, just lots and lots of mud, a spill each, and another checkpoint of note.   We entered a little town and got waved over to the side of the road by an extremely stroppy looking fellow. He was a physically big man who looked like he had a block of concrete for a chest, a length of 2” rebar for a spine and had a voice like a ship’s foghorn, he was built like the proverbial brick shithouse. Simply put, this dude was very intimidating. He demanded we park the bikes on the side of the road exactly as directed, demanded we switch them off, demanded we dismount, demanded we take our helmets off and demanded we follow him into his hut. As anyone sensible would do in such a situation, I volunteered to stay outside and look after the bikes…

 

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Tan grabbing a photo of me

 

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Lots of rain during the night had filled all the little creeks with red silted water.

 

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Red mud… everybody’s favourite.

 

Seriously though, it made sense for Tanya to go in. Firstly, her communication skills in French were orders of magnitude better than mine. But more importantly, talking with a foreign woman seemed to really destabilise these serious officials and in many occasions it seemed to smooth things over quite well. We have had a few situations where the machismo culture meant she struggled to get things done, whereas I could walk in, get people’s attention and start to organise things pretty quickly. But outside of those situations, most times Tanya was able to keep things on the ‘straight and narrow’ and moving along without issue. So when shit got real, our go-to plan was generally to ‘send in the blonde’.

 

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Tan stopped at the bottom of what looked a very slippery climb to scope it out, and realised she just happened to be in an enormous boghole.

 

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… oh well, only one thing for it…

 

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… more roost…

 

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… and more… slowly getting there…

 

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Nearly out!

 

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Local lads liked the show!

 

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The slippery climb up – was fine in the end.

 

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Bluey waiting patiently for Tanya to finish roosting half of Congo into orbit.

 

Interestingly enough, Tanya soon reported this particular fellow who looked as hard as nails and which we guessed would be tough as hell, was actually just incredibly officious and took his profession with extreme seriousness. He asked direct questions, fastidiously reviewed our paperwork and wrote down our details with precision. Tan said the whole time she was in the shack she was mentally rehearsing everything she would say when the kickback demand came… but it never did. Tan was gobsmacked as she had never been so intimidated. In the past our mental response to any request for payment was “get stuffed, I’m not giving you anything.” Not so this time, Tan thought “nup… this guy is getting paid.” But just like that he said we were free to go and wished us well.

 

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More mud and some slippery bits.

 

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The SinoHydro construction crew had moved some mountains.

 

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Lots of this… was nice…

 

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Amazing and seemingly endless savannah.

 

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Some well and truly rooted highway foundation…

 

This, in retrospect, was one of the reasons we were so off-balance during our time in Congo – you just never knew where you stood. You never knew what to expect. Sure, we could expect and prepare for the worst, but to be then treated very hospitably after pumping yourself up for a “battle of the bribe” only made the fear of being pulled into a side room for some ritual intimidation and a bribe, plus the minutes of mental fortification to prepare, seem bloody silly and destabilised you for the next interaction.

 

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Oh joy, after so much easy riding on the built up highway foundation, to be dumped into some hardcore ruts was pretty demoralising. After this section of old track we missed the turnoff to get back onto the highway foundation on the otherside of the valley, maybe 3 kms away (up ontop of the plain near those powerlines), and ended up riding on the old section for another 10km or so before we ran out of patience and found a good place to bush bash across to it.

 

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Getting ready to roll.

 

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Little bridge over a creek in the valley bottom.

 

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Lots of this was ridden this day.

 

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Making our way around a bogged 6×6 on the old track.

 

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Real stuck…

 

Back on the bikes, the storm of the previous night was obviously very widespread as the road was wet all the way until the end of the dirt, which we arrived at… just like that. It was over. 1500kms of off-road riding through one of the most perennially unstable countries in modern history… and here we found ourselves, at the end of it all. One of the longest and toughest adv routes on the planet and we were finished with it. It was surreal to consider… We had dreamed about this route before even arriving in Africa; I had read about other people’s trips and scoured Google Earth looking at all the trails and all the grass-roofed villages that we might one day ride past… And now we had done it.

 

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Tan riding some slimy mud.

 

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Good form for maximum control.

 

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And then… boom. It was all over.

 

It is hard to explain… to achieve a goal that once seemed so difficult to both access and then achieve, so foreign, so alien, so unimaginable, so… so… many things. And for you to then appear at the end of it all after being so focused in the moment… Yep, difficult to explain. You kinda had to be there…

 

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Old track on the right, foundation for the new highway on the left and me in middle.

 

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Tan was keen for a sit down.

 

Which, very sadly, is an experience I think no other adv riders will get the opportunity to appreciate… granted there will be plenty of other DRC routes available, but the classic Lubumbashi-Kinshasa ‘N1 mudfest’ is essentially at an end. For when we were there in November 2015; of the roughly 450km of track they had been contracted to build between the end of the tar and Kananga, the Chinese Construction crew had completed about 100km of foundations, a few token kilometres or tar, and another 100km or so of pre-work (basically just flattened and widened the track). 240km or so was untouched. However, that should not be the case now, at time of writing.

 

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Tan: “Do something for a photo” Me: “Why?” “Because, you cant just stand there” “Why?” “Because! Just do something” “Like what?” “Look happy” “Meh…”

 

They were scheduled to finish within 2 to 2.5 years, which would mean the highway to Kananga should be completely tarred within 6-12 months from now, more or less. That’s all things going as planned… which let’s face it in DRC is by no means a sure thing. They also told us that on the other side of Kananga, near Mbuji Mayi, there is a second construction crew from a separate Chinese company who is scheduled to finish the Kananga to Kolwezi leg in the same timeframe. It hit us much later, after we had enough time to digest our trip and the words of the SinoHydro management team, and then seeing the degradation of the security situation in Kasai Province, that we were maybe the last overlanders to cross the Congo along that route and to experience it in nearly all of its revered madness. We suspect no-one would have crossed in the weeks after us as the wet season well and truly hit as we were crossing, plus we had a good ear to the ground about overlanders in Central Africa at the time. By the start of the following dry-season in June 2016, Kasai was going well and truly to shit. By the end of the dry season in November 2016, Kasai was a dangerous place and deteriorating into mass violence as the Congo is known to do. We believe the situation is no better now in July 2017.

 

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Before pulling out the compressor, I figured I better quickly check that this was the legitimate start of the tar and not some random short little section like we encountered before the Construction camp.

 

We have thought many times about the people we met in those villages, that small village of the old blind chief and the second one with the singing ladies and the English teacher with the handwritten dictionary – what has happened to these people? The UN has estimated that 1.3 million people in Kasai Province have been displaced by the violence in the last year. 1,300,000 people. That’s equivalent to the population of Adelaide, all forced to flee… It is quite probable that those people we met are no longer able to safely live in their homes anymore. They possibly have moved away from the N1 and deeper into the jungle, or moved to the villages of family members, or worse. 3000 people are estimated to have been murdered in the chaos in Kasai, mostly between Kananga and Tshikapa, exactly where those villages were. Hopefully our village hosts are not within that 3000.

 

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The bike caked in mud while we pumped up our tyres

 

I should add here that it is not just local Congolese who have been affected. Two foreign UN workers have been murdered in the mayhem, quite probably by members of the government in an attempt to frame and incriminate the local militias. It’s a long story which I wont go into (a quick Google search will dig up the gory details for those who are interested) but it does graphically demonstrate what we had gathered in our research before going and definitely felt while we were there; the middle of the Congo is a wild and lawless place where anything can happen. It can be extremely violent… of the many police who have been caught up in the current fighting; including 40 who were decapitated after an ambush by local militias. What is happening right now in Kasai is essentially guerilla warfare with a strong terrorist flavour; each side (the Kabila Government in Kinshasa and the local political elites/warlords) is fighting for control and innocent people are just a form of blood currency that is traded back and forth. This made travelling this remotely in the Congo, especially in Kasai Province from Kananga to the end of the tar near Kikwit, quite stressful. I’ve never felt so out of control of my immediate situation, nor been so acutely aware that my well-being was dependent on those around me and my ability to maintain whatever relationship we had.

 

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Tans was no better, totally layered in congo mud.

 

Best way I could describe it would maybe like being in a canoe in the middle of ocean with no paddle; sure, you can steer it and even propel it a bit by paddling with your hands with sufficient determination, but in the grand scheme of things you are just a guest of the ocean and she will do with you what she damn well pleases; all you can really do is ride the current and try to pop out the other side. That’s kind of what being in the middle of Congo feels like. Kasai is a disconcerting place… to put it mildly. But shockingly it is historically one of the less unstable parts of the country.

This mental worry really took us by surprise. When leaving Zambia we had prepared for the difficult riding; the ruts, mud and sand which Pat had warned us off in Lusaka. And we had prepared as best we could for the bribery as well; but the mental worry of constantly evaluating the risk of our immediate situation is what we did not anticipate and is what ultimately fatigued us the most. The riding was tough, but not very difficult and definitely ridable for confident intermediate adv riders on a well set up mid-sized adv bike (~650cc). The endurance needed for tackling 1500kms of off-road riding was certainly a factor, especially combined with the lack of decent food. But it was the mental aspect which was most fatiguing; the enormous wealth disparity, the constant crowding of the locals, the considerable cultural differences and communication difficulties, the history of crime especially of extreme violence, the threat of the Police and DGM and the realisation that they aren’t there to help anyone but themselves, in fact its probably safe to say it is the Police who are the most dangerous of all. As I said above – it is a very disconcerting place.

Anyway…. Back at the end of the dirt we tried our best to savour the moment, then pumped up our tyres, saddled up and pushed on the last 100kms or so to Kikwit. The road was pretty woeful, with large sections of deep potholes, but thankfully it was still far quicker than even on the best sections of the dirt we had ridden in the previous days. It wasn’t long before we noticed the level of development and general wealth increased enormously, with little towns full of better dressed people, normal 2WD cars and properly constructed buildings. It was in one of these towns that we had our final checkpoint of the day. Tan took this one after the success of dealing with the last serious fellow, but looked to be in a spot of bother before a toilet related lightning strike came to the rescue.

 

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Riding past many pot-holes… actually the pot-holes all kinda joined up into what might be better described as a pot-canyon.

 

In the office there was a serious senior policeman who seemed to run the station, with a younger policeman who spoke decent English as an offsider. Tan spoke with the younger guy who was pleasant and friendly, but looked a little worried after an exchange with his boss in a local language. He confided with her “my boss says I must ask something from you, some money, to pass”. Tanya replied with our usual spiel about how “we are just tourists and have traveled so far without paying bribes and we travel by bike because we don’t have a lot of money and yada yada yada”.

 

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In Kikwit I fixed an oil leak; there was a bit of sand under the copper washer of the oil line banjo bolt from having the bike apart on the ground. It is impossible to keep stuff clean in such a situation. Pulled it off, cleaned it and put it back together and she was sweet.

 

The young guy seemed ashamed to be asking and apologised that he was doing so. Tanya could see that the “smile and refuse” technique wasn’t going so well as the younger guy politely pressed on regarding the ‘need’ for us to pay. To add to things she also started to experience the tell tale signs of a very crook gut. Tanya bought herself bit of time and told them she wasn’t feeling well. They gave her a seat and there she sat frantically scanning the nearby area for a place that would afford a measure of privacy. No luck…people were everywhere. At the moment of this sad realisation, the large amount of spicy and oily Chinese food we had gorged ourselves on for the previous two meals all seemed to simultaneously arrive at some critical, digestive threshold… with a corresponding expression of panic crossing Tanya’s face. The immediate sweat, expression of shock, and futile looking for a private place well communicated the gravity of her situation.

 

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In Kikwit, Tanya complained that changing gears was really difficult – this is like what I found. This is actually my bike (I cleaned Tans before thinking – oops, that would have been a good photo), but it had more or less the same issue although I could still change gears no dramas. Hers however had dried up nearly solid.

 

The old policeman, probably very well accustomed to the repercussions of poor hygiene, rapidly assessed the potential consequences of the situation and the effects it was about to have on his office. With a perceptible look of sympathy he pushed all of our paperwork into Tanya’s hand and shoo’ed her out of the office. It was a fluked masterstroke; we had by freak chance developed probably the most efficient technique yet for dealing with bribery; in addition to the classic “smile and refuse”, the effective “distract with paperwork/gps/camera etc”, the amusing “good wife/bad husband”, and the risky “play hardball”, we now had discovered the for-experts-only “threaten to shit one’s pants.” Tanya vowed to use it again in the future yet wondered if it was a moment that could ever be successfully acted… perhaps only Meryl Streep was up to the task.

 

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Buying petrol off the black market in Kikwit. They did us in for about 3 litres I’d guess, but at the time I just could be stuffed fighting for it.

 

With such an emergency in motion, we left town hard on the gas. Which was a shame, as it was a hive of activity in comparison to where we had been. There were people cooking food in little roadside stalls, sellers walking up and down selling things like chewing gum and phone chargers, goats being slaughtered and bled into the gutter, scooters overloaded with live chickens and cars so full of fruit that passengers where forced to sit on the roof and even the bonnet. Watching a guy hang on to a bonnet at 80kph while no doubt severely inhibiting the view of the driver was quite unique I can tell you! I should also note: Tan did not shit her pants… a few minutes out of town we made an emergency stop at a secluded roadside location.

 

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Its amazing in Congo – you ride for 1500kms and cross many streams, creeks and decent sized rivers like this one, and due to the shape of the Congo Basin, EVERY ONE of these waterways are actually just tributaries feeding the mighty Congo River. They all drain north (kinda) into the second biggest river on Earth after the Amazon, both in terms of length and girth… oops… I mean volume.

 

We pulled into Kikwit late in the afternoon and started our search for a hotel. Its safe to say that Kikwit doesn’t get a lot of hotel traffic, as after we found 3 hotels on the same intersection, all three managers desperately came out and we ended up running an impromptu dutch auction in the middle of the street. One hotel came down from an optimistic USD170 to $60, another from an idiotic USD220 to $50, while the third modestly quoted in local francs at the equivalent of $42. That is where we went, showered and slept.

 

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Amazingly fertile savannah as far as the eye can see. If Congo ever got its shit together it could be an Agricultural POWERHOUSE!

 

We had 525kms of tar to go to Kinshasa, so left after a cruisy breakfast and a visit to the fuel black market. On the way into Kikwit I had actually run completely out of fuel and was forced to empty the stove bottle into the tank so we could look for some hotels. Tanya had an extra litre or 2 than me so I’m guessing with the bike on its side fixing the clutch I must have lost some fuel out the breather. Anyway, we were basically dead empty so got 30 litres per bike after negotiating a decent rate, and realised straight away we were getting ripped off with the measurements. I put up a bit of a protest but to be honest we were so fatigued by this point I just could not be arsed arguing anymore; I guessed we were about 3 litres short but we just paid up and left.

 

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Once on the tar… we saw a lot of things like this. Overloaded Trucks trying to get up hills and stall, lack brakes and roll back and roll over. You can see the guy on the left in the bush is actually there to guard the truck.

 

We had prepared ourselves for many checkpoints as we neared the capital, but we never saw another one. Maybe the older policeman from the last one had rung ahead and warned them about the foreign chick with intestinal issues? Not sure, but we were relieved nonetheless. Along the way we grabbed a few extra litres of fuel to make up for what we were missing and made it to the outskirts of Kinshasa where we had organised to meet up with the Bikers Kinshasa, the local biker club. We had been chatting with them a bit and they were keen to hear of our experiences after crossing the country without an airplane – the usual mode of transport for Congo.

 

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We stopped on the side of the road for a snack when I heard an Inline 4 ripping down the hill with serious intent… I waved him down and out of a helmet popped this fellow, Arsene, on a bling’n S1000RR. Arsene spoke really good English and we had a roadside chat. Turns out Arsene was a member of Bikers Kinshasa and was on his way to the rendezvous on the outskirts of Kinshasa, but at a considerably higher rate of knots than us. “For you, it will be 2 hours” he said, “but for me, only 1 hour… maybe 55 minutes”.

 

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Tan posing with the best looking bike we’ve seen since I sold my MV Agusta F4.

 

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“Muahahahaha! Look at those heaps of shit! 40hp? Muahahaha!

 

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Arsene on the move…

 

After some introductions, we hit the road as the sun was getting low and Kinshasa traffic is mad enough in the daylight, to be entering the city in the dark was an extra level of risk we didn’t really need, but did end up experiencing. It is a sprawling city of 10 million people (likely more with informal settlements) with old infrastructure and a distinct lack of road rules, or at very least adherence to road rules. Everyone hit some unseen pot holes, including one of the members on a lovely Moto Guzzi who managed to put a massive dent in each of his rims on a square edged crater.

 

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Meeting heaps of the BK (Bikers Kinshasa) guys in Kinshasa

 

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Igor, Patrick and his wife Christine

 

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Tan looking a bit malnourished

 

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So excited for proper food…

 

But entering the city under the protection of the Bikers Kinshasa was a revelation, the lead bike would enter a busy intersection, revving his motor like mad to attract attention, hold up a hand to stop traffic and we would all roll through. They would then race past us in traffic to make sure we didn’t end up at the front of the procession… it was a well practiced and coordinated maneuver. And just like that, we were at a Congolese Restaurant in downtown Kinshasa, surrounded by bikers and getting filled up with beer and local food. What a welcome!

 

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Joseph and I

 

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Alberto and Chen talking shit.

 

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Patrick, secretary of BK, and his sister.

 

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On the way to our Hotel, Chen on his R6 and Igor on his older GSX750. The old Suzi had a great note – heaps of induction noise through those carbies.

 

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Checking into our hotel, we were exhausted but everyone was in party mode!