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Blog 69 by Tan: Day 7 (am) on the Dirt – DRC, Where a Half Day is a Full Blog

Day 7 of off road riding
178km from unknown slightly larger village to ‘the Camp’

 

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Our progress for the day.

We woke to the sound of enthusiastic chatter outside the tent long before the alarm clock chimed. We slept soundly but not nearly enough to fully replenish the batteries, but likely enough to get us through another day’s riding. We groggily started packing up our gear from inside the tent while mentally preparing ourselves for an onslaught of excited villagers the moment we stepped outside.

Sure enough a sizable crowd had amassed once more to greet and gawk at us. Thankfully, it seemed a good amount of the village had already gone off to start their day’s labours so there weren’t nearly as many people as the night we arrived. Once more the mood was friendly and curious and we thought how fortunate we were to have stumbled across this unusually welcoming village right on sundown. Luck had been very much on our side the whole time we’d been in DRC. We couldn’t help but note our good fortune and that if there was ever a place for a good luck spell to strike, DRC was certainly it.

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The village chief chilling out front of his hut. They had offered a place for us in the hut last night but we told them we were happy to use our tent, which I think they thought was a bit weird. This was later confirmed by the English teacher (front of frame in the white) he said they thought it was strange we like to sleep outside.

However travel in DRC can conjure up some strange, wildly varying feelings and thoughts, and less than ideal imagined scenarios. And it was after this latest bit of good fortune in a string of good fortune that I started to feel more nervous.

It’s a delicate balance you need to manage when you are there. On one hand you do entertain potential worst case scenarios in order to evaluate risk and make good decisions; like what happens if this guy gets angry, or is drunk/stoned, or blocks the route or takes our passports or demands money etc. This helps us control things that might happen. But on the other hand, to be able to make good decisions in any given moment you need to assess the situation by what is in front of you and how it makes you feel, rather than be reacting from pre-conceived fear… a fear that can easily come when you allow yourself to be too far on edge… which you get if you are always imagining how things can go wrong… which you need to consider just in case they do… which they can… but might not.

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The chief and his wife who made us dinner last night (in the yellow).

This is tiring. And it leaves you feeling as though you have been through truly difficult situations even when you haven’t. In this way your imagination and knowledge of other people’s past troubles can contribute to the struggle of the crossing. Don’t get me wrong we weren’t jumping at shadows. Most of the time we were enjoying ourselves. But the truth is that Congo’s has a well-earned reputation and that reputation plays on your mind at times. The rule of law here is basically non-existent and it can be a hairy place, after all. To ignore that is just foolhardy.

The village chief was once again very chilled and watched us pack up camp from his seat in front of his house. The young English teacher was there to greet us and tell us how happy everyone was that we had visited. It wasn’t long before we were all packed up and saying our goodbyes. I can’t remember exactly what we gave the chief of the village but once again we left him with a culturally appropriate amount of money, maybe $5, plus some other odds and ends like needle sets, lighters and razors. They were happy and we shook hands and thanked them for allowing us to spend the night. We also left a few bucks with the young English teacher in the village who had translated for us. But what he really needed was a proper English-French dictionary. Which we obviously didn’t have.

To this day I still think about the essentially fluent young man in the middle of nowhere DRC, flicking through the pages of his note book where he had hand copied a French-English dictionary. At one point we used a word in English he didn’t recognise so he consulted his hand written dictionary. I can’t recall the word but it definitely started with either a G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y or a Z. He hadn’t made it beyond the letter ‘F’ with his time consuming transcribing of the dictionary. He no longer had access to it.

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DRC – not a place for non-morning people.

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Non-morning people like us.

On seeing the word he sought must lie in the blank pages beyond ‘F’ he said “oh, its not here” and shrugged his shoulders and moved on with the conversation. When I recall the moment now I can remember thinking there is one hell of a metaphor for this poor kid’s existence in this and then thinking I can’t deal with anymore Congo tonight and wanting to sleep the moment/feelings away. I find it interesting that of all we have seen and learned in Africa, of any of the miserable and tragic scenes and stories we have come across, that this memory of an incomplete handwritten dictionary by a poor English teacher is the one that produces the ache. Really… writing this… I could just fucking cry. I guess you had to be there.

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Hitting the trail once more. Groan.

After leaving the village we were straight back in the thick of the difficult sand. Sand in this section of Congo took it out of us. By this point we were so focused on getting through it and our GoPro batteries were as exhausted as we were so you will just have to trust us on that in lieu of photographic evidence.

There were few boggings or bike drops to speak of but it was hours or riding with no reprieve. It was physically very demanding and at one point I needed to stop to stretch my ab muscles to stop them cramping. Now that’s when you know you’re doing the good stuff! It was tough on body and bike, both.

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Pineapple break!

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This lady wanted a photo.

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The crowd.

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Southern Africa receives a lot of Australia’s second-hand clothing, like this kid’s shirt. It is nice to see traces of home when you feel so far from it.

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Pineapple didn’t stand a chance.

Eventually we stumbled upon a small collection of huts with a couple of pineapples on display. It was the first thing we had seen for sale during the last two days of riding and I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity for a bit of fresh fruit. When we pulled up there was barely a person in sight. Soon the pineapple lady had recognised us as customers for her 3 pineapples up for sale. We purchased a pineapple for a dollar and I attacked it with relish. I had nearly eaten the entire thing before Michael even got a look in so we went ahead and bought another. As ever we attracted an audience.

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This is the pineapple seller.

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She was a riot.

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This guy was so proud to have a camera. It had no film, there was nowhere to develop it even if he did and the camera was probably broken. He just pretended to us it. Yet it was something he had that others didn’t.

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Our pineapple lady front and centre. Note the girl who is no doubt the village beauty in the top right corner with the ‘Congo hairdo’ of choice. And bottom right is the light skinned boy with blue eyes we mention later.

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You get used to getting stared at.

I’d guess few if any foreigners had ever stopped here before. It was little more than a tiny collection of huts though the village may have extended further than our view from the track allowed us to see. As we left a couple of women came up to me and asked if I had any clothes to give them. I remember it well as it was then that it struck me we had seldom ever been asked for anything while in Congo.

I had to tell them I didn’t have any clothes to spare and it wasn’t too far off being true. I only have four shirts (two riding, two non-riding) a pair of pants and a dress that Mick had once mentioned was pretty horrible. While I admit it is a bit, his punishment for saying so had to be to see me in it with relative frequency. We hit the trail once more.

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Muddy sand

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Muddy mud 

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A 6-wheeler that had given up the ghost. Usually in the case of such breakdowns the driver stays with the vehicle until it is repaired or until the owner makes the decision to cannibalize it for spare parts. I’ve heard stories of driver’s waiting with the vehicle for months, even a year or more, until spare parts and assistance arrives. Until then they just live at the breakdown site. There was no-one at this truck when we passed.

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Pulling off the main trail for a break.

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Nice easy sand.

Later in the morning we came across a small village stall. It was the first of its kind we had seen out here in the sticks (i.e. along the trail outside of the major towns). I’d been keen to replenish our crucial sugar stocks for a couple of days after the not so mysterious disappearance of our can of condensed milk (I ate it all). I grabbed a handful of money, jumped off the bike and headed for the shop before my mind had a chance to register its extreme exhaustion. At the stall I grabbed a small bag of sugar. Like many places in Africa regular sized bags are divvied out into smaller bags to meet any persons budgets. You can buy a single spoon’s worth. There is a decent markup on any of these small portions of sugar, or cooking oil, or salt etc. But with money so limited people pay it. This is where being very poor is very expensive. The accumulative cost of these tiny purchases could pay for a regular sized portion many times over. But when you’re that poor these savings are impossible to realise. For our purposes it is good to carry around modest portions to keep the luggage down.

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The shop. It had the usual array of sachets of powdered milk, sugar, salt, rice, matches, cigarettes, dried fish and tinned sardines.

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We were clearly nearing Tshikapa as the villages here were far richer with more huts of brick and corrugated iron. In the poorer areas we’d been only the chief’s hut would be brick and corrugated iron. This close to Tshipaka it is likely much of the extra money has come from diamond mining.

I asked the shop owner the price for my sugar in French. He responded in French and despite it being perfectly clear I just couldn’t compute. Weirdly, when his words hit my brain I knew I understood but then there was some kind of short circuit that had me unable to conjure up the number from the word. I stared at the pile of money in my hands in a sort of daze. Goodness knows how long for, but eventually I realised I was so exhausted my mental facilities had abandoned me. I couldn’t even manage English and for a few moments I couldn’t hear anything, so I just raised my hands full of cash to the shop owner for him to take what was needed… or I suppose whatever he wanted.

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These guys were really gregarious compared to most people we come across who are generally reserved to begin with.

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Me and my new mate the shop owner.

Instead of taking advantage of my confused state the guy carefully picked out a couple of small notes from the money pile. As I walked back to the bikes he came after me to deliver the rest of my change. At some stage on the walk back to the bike I came back to Planet Earth and was able to chat a little with the guy and the crowd of friendly villagers that amassed. A few of them started calling someone’s name excitedly. The woman came when summoned and proudly presented her light skinned baby to the white tourists. This had also happened to us while buying the pineapple. There all the villagers had called out to a boy with light skin and blue eyes. The boy was terribly shy at being singled out and ran away.

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Moto-ninja.

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These sections were great fun.

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And gave us a chance to ride fast and cool off.

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The track was getting easier.

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Can’t tell you how much I loved the trail pigs.

More riding took us though more diabolical sand and then onto some glorious hardpack trails through dense forest. Then to my extreme delight we came across a tiny restaurant on the outskirts of a little village – we were getting closer to civilisation! It was early in the day, we had made good progress, and it was a discrete little place to set ourselves down and grab a cup of tea and a bite. It was my first tea in days and it was divine. We got a few fried dough balls as well. It was like High Tea at the Dorchester… but at a shack and in the Congo. I was thrilled.

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What a treat!

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A crappy sneaky photo we took of the restaurant. The stew looked good but fraught with danger.

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This time we only attracted a modest audience. These guys were really lovely. The guy in the white was so keen to shake our hands.

As we got ready to leave we met some bike porters who advised us on the way ahead. I regret my French at the time was so poor that we couldn’t really communicate with these true legends of this route. These guys are the lifeblood of trade and enterprise in DRC. Your typical bike porter might be transporting anywhere up to 200-250kg of goods on his bike, which is modified for pushing by removal of cranks and drivetrain, and addition of a long stick to the handle bars which means the porter can steer whilst alongside the loads which hang off the side.

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Bike porters aka Velo boys of the Congo. These guys put us to shame for hardwork and toughness.

Seriously think about that weight though! 200-250kg! My bike in normal configuration (front tank full, rear tank empty and luggage on) is about 230-235kg. Load it up for long range adv riding; fill the rear fuel tank and 10l water bag, add a few days of food and it can hit 250kg. Seriously think about that some more… they push the equivalent of a fully loaded DR650 across the Congo! They might be carrying dried fish, charcoal, oil, petrol, all manner of food or anything saleable really. And these goods might be transported sometimes as far as 700km one way from a village into a city. Then once the items are sold they are loaded with goods to sell in the villages and pushed 700km back the other way. All this equated to weeks if not months on the trail. They’ll sleep in villages along the way, eat perhaps just once a day and do it all in a pair of flipflops/thongs for the Aussies out there. Imagine how exhausted they are when they get home and have to jump online and do an elaborate write up of their intense Congo crossing… no, no, sorry that is just us shmucks that do that.

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This guy came up to me and asked for a photo. When I took the photo he said to me “When they see me, tell them I’m from Congo.” After they got their photo they waved goodbye and started pushing once more. What a presence this man had. Let me tell you – he’s from Congo.

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Getting directions from bike porters.  Here are some rigs loaded with charcoal.

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We had a lovely run on this nice sand.

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Our first sign in a long time of the DRC state. The flag was flying though the buildings look abandoned.

We carried on along single track that was branching all over the place through larger and more closely located villages. We’d lost the track so we were left following a rough bearing and the most well-worn biker porter lines. We confirmed our heading with any porters we met until we found ourselves part of a familiar long precession of people making their way into town.

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While riding along we past a tailor and I stopped to collect a bit of fabric. I am collecting a small swatch of fabric from each country we pass though on this trip. The plan is to make a quilt when I get home. It will be my trip souvenir.  I’ve got it all figure out. Stage 1: collect fabric. Stage 2: return home. Stage 3: learn to sew. Stage 4: Sew awesome quilt.

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The guy was happy to give me a piece of fabric and went through his bag of off-cuts and let me choose. He didn’t want any payment. But took the cash when I insisted. They were a super friendly bunch who wanted photos.

We had hit Tshikapa, a city of some 600,000. Our intention was to keep our visit brief. Like Mubji Mayi, Tshikapa is a major diamond hub and we didn’t want to be taken for dodgy diamond dealers, geologists or journalists. On top of this we were finding it quite a mental challenge going into large towns after days of ‘relative’ quiet along remote sections of route. Going from the wilderness into the kaleidoscopic sensory onslaught of the major towns was getting hard to deal with. The constant contrast from feeling set upon at times to the only people on Earth at others, was contributing further our mentally exhausted states.

Our desire to limit our time in Tshipaka was made more ardent by an unfortunate incident that occurred on the outskirts of town. It’s a sad tale and while I regret our actions, if it happened again in the same context, we would not have acted any differently.

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We were surprised to see some work on the road happening.

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On the outskirts of Tshikapa we hit a wide, graded proper dirt road into town. The bikes felt the now unfamiliar sensation of being out of 1st and 2nd gear as we rode at what felt insanely fast at the time, but was only about 50-60km/hr. The road was smooth and recently maintained, and wide enough for 4 lanes of traffic. However at that time it was just plenty of people on foot, the odd little motorbike and us.

I was riding in front when another guy on a small motorbike blasted past us at about 60 or 70km an hour. He was swerving all over the place and goofing off for us. After about 30 seconds of this, he moved over to the wrong side of the unmarked road. He was looking over at us, taking his eyes off the road for an imprudent length of time. He had not seen that there was a bike riding towards us on the correct side of the road, and I can only assume that either that guy was also watching our progress too closely or he had simply expected the erratic motorbike rider to eventually turn around and make a correction to his current collision course. Unfortunately for all involved that didn’t happen.

I heard Mick gasp over the intercom a moment before I heard the incredibly loud impact of metal on metal. I looked in my mirror with enough time to see pieces of motorbike still airborne. Mick got a much closer view of the accident as he was about side by side with the two bikes at about the moment of impact. He looked over his shoulder to see the guy who was goofing off fly about 4 or 5 meters from the bike before crashing hard. Mick suspected he was most likely not too badly injured if he managed not to hit his un-helmetted head too hard. Mick figured he’d only be left with some bruises or scratches, but he couldn’t say the same for the other guy. The guy who got hit either managed to stay on the bike or fell directly to the ground at the impact. Mick thought he may have sustained more significant injuries. We couldn’t say for certain, as the hasty decision was made for us to get the heck away from the accident.

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In that moment we consciously prioritised our own wellbeing over being decent human beings. We were uncomfortable to be riding away from accident but our experience, and that of proper Africa-hands, was that it is such an incident that can really get out of hand. With the bikes no doubt both significantly damaged and a couple of riders quite probably upset we felt there was a strong chance we would be blamed for the incident and held responsible for the damage.

It was no fault of our own but we expected that members of the inevitable crowd could potentially not see it the same way. If we were out on the trial it would be different story, but here in a big diamond city, nup. All that would be needed would be for a couple of troublemakers to show up then some Police (uniformed certified troublemakers) and then we could really be in the shit. Then they would see from our documents we are geologists. Then get suspicious, then who knows. Anyone who thinks this line of thinking is far fetched has likely never been to the DRC.

Our decision to get well away from an inevitable scene was instinctual, though backed up by the advice of many a long time resident in these sorts of places. But despite the surety we were making a smart move, it didn’t feel good. Senses peaking, jaw clenched, groaning at the unpleasantness of it all, we hit the gas so we could get the heck out of Tshikapa.

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Kids at our water stop in Tshikapa. Kung fu movies are really popular in Africa and the kids like to bust out their kung fu poses for the camera.

It was a sad moment too in that it stripped us of the pretense I think everyone has that they are righteous and have good values and do the right thing no matter the cost. Most people don’t get truly tested on this. We did. And we failed. It would have been quite the blow had our time in Congo not already be hinting at a baseness in ourselves we were previously unaware of.

The outrageous poverty and lack of hope for improvement in DRC was seriously confronting, even with everything we have seen up to now. We’d discuss how, had we been born in DRC, I would be taking care of kids and Mick would be pushing 250kg loads across the Congo and when faced with vulnerable, cashed up foreigners like ourselves, we might not have acted nearly as well to them as so many had to us. Deep down I think a lot of the things we feared happening to us (namely getting shaken down and robbed) were things we could imagine doing to someone like us had roles been reversed. At times of heightened guilt and pity for the Congolese lot I would think how we outright deserved it… which of course we didn’t… right?

Congolese walk past Jaffar Comptoir, a diamond trading house, in Tshikapa, in Kasai, in the south west region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, August 10, 2015. Diamond buyers and manufacturers in the west are trying to find a way to make the diamond industry cleaner and more responsibly-sourced, in order to combat human rights abuses, child labor, the degradation of the environment, and unfair trade practices. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ Getty Images Reportage for Time Magazine)
These are the diamond trading shops you see in Tshipaka.  We saw plenty.  Tshikapa is the second most important city in Congo’s most import diamond area.  Despite being at the epicentre of an 80 Billion trade there are no tarred roads in town.  Though this may have changed by now. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ Getty Images Reportage for Time Magazine).

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A picture is worth a thousand words, hey! Many diamond trading shops are owned by Indian, Lebanese and to a lesser extent Isrealis. The artists seems to have captured this in the different skin tones of the guy with the diamond and the guy with the cash. (Random net pic).

But while it was disappointing to learn we were just regular, self-preserving, weak at times humans, it was all the more impressive to experience the goodness of the Congolese who helped us and asked nothing. Or had the opportunity to take us for a ride, like the small stall holder rummaging through my cash, yet didn’t.

So with a compromised conscience and the old saying “Everything is fine in Congo… until it isn’t” playing in our heads, we rode on. But we had one necessary stop to make. When we were further into town we stopped at a roadside stall to buy water. Our experiences in Kananga of Police materialising out of thin air had us dreading the same thing here so we didn’t want to spend time looking for a safe well to fill our water bags from. Instead we purchased an arm full of expensive water bottles and got riding again. When I look now at the photos of that water stop I can see the stress of the moment all over my face.

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This is what I look like when I am stressed. Side Note – check out the Brisbane Lions Guernsey

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Epically stressed.

With each kilometer of sand track put between us and Tshipaka, the stress levels lessened. Soon we were back to the part of Congo we felt more comfortable with; the quiet, slow-paced and seemingly untouched sections of trail.

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One of the only photos we took while in Tshikapa. This is one of the many impressive old mission buildings. They account for most structures of any consequence in central DRC.

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When you see these great buildings and consider their age there is no denying the missionary zeal once applied to the DRC.

But soon we were to find the trail far from untouched. Things were clearly afoot west of Tshikapa. We had our suspicions when we found ourselves on a long straight, wide and sometimes even graded section of road… not track, but road! The passing of a truck carrying rocks and a couple of clearly ‘not’ Congolese fellows confirmed it. The Chinese were at work. Their presence was to prove particularly advantageous for us later that day.