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…
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Moving along, the majority of this section was easy going on well prepped foundation…
…but… there were some massive mud holes to negotiate too.
…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…
Tan grabbing a photo of me
Lots of rain during the night had filled all the little creeks with red silted water.
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’.
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.
… oh well, only one thing for it…
… more roost…
… and more… slowly getting there…
Local lads liked the show!
The slippery climb up – was fine in the end.
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.
More mud and some slippery bits.
The SinoHydro construction crew had moved some mountains.
Lots of this… was nice…
Amazing and seemingly endless savannah.
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.
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.
Getting ready to roll.
Little bridge over a creek in the valley bottom.
Lots of this was ridden this day.
Making our way around a bogged 6×6 on the old track.
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.
Tan riding some slimy mud.
Good form for maximum control.
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…
Old track on the right, foundation for the new highway on the left and me in middle.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
Tan posing with the best looking bike we’ve seen since I sold my MV Agusta F4.
“Muahahahaha! Look at those heaps of shit! 40hp? Muahahaha!
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.
Meeting heaps of the BK (Bikers Kinshasa) guys in Kinshasa
Igor, Patrick and his wife Christine
Tan looking a bit malnourished
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!
Joseph and I
Alberto and Chen talking shit.
Patrick, secretary of BK, and his sister.
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.
Checking into our hotel, we were exhausted but everyone was in party mode!
Blog 70 by Tan: Day 7 (pm) on the Dirt – The Great Road of China
Following on from the last post:
But first a bit on the Chinese in Africa. We have previously been asked by blog followers of our opinion on the ‘Chinese in Africa’ and now (and blogs to follow) seems a good time to answer. Chinese activity on the African continent is a hot topic at the moment and a subject I am quite interested in. Unfortunately a lot of what you come across on the subject is remarkably rubbish reporting – totally partial, wracked with hypocrisy and for this day and age surprisingly riddled with borderline or outright race based prejudices.
But what is certain is that China represents an alternative to the status quo of business, power and diplomacy in Africa. This makes them unpopular with many and results in accusations of ‘neo-colonialism’ rather hilariously levelled by actual former colonisers in Africa, aiming to do the same thing as the Chinese. But of course when they do it, it is called business or globalisation.
We stopped for a bit of lunch, crackers and a tin of tuna. And soon enough some bike porters accumulated to check us out. One of them was a fella in a full-length coat and it was a scorcher of a day.
Personally, I am open-minded for the potential benefit of the closening of ties between African and Chinese governments. And this for me mostly boils down to 2 main reasons. Firstly, it seems that China sees and communicates a place for Africa in the world economy. China is in the midst of an ambitious project of physically linking world markets through its One Belt, One Road project. They plan to connect both ends of the Eurasian landmass, Africa and Oceania through an overland route (the road) and a maritime route (the belt.) They say these routes will promote trade and cultural exchange, regional cooperation, growth, development, prosperity and all that jazz. People who like the idea say it will allow poor countries to get infrastructure and a place in world markets. Critics say that it is China’s plan for economic and strategic domination of the countries along these routes and that they are just pursuing their own interests. It’s likely all these things. Given the Chinese plan to spend between 4 and 8 trillion dollars on the project perhaps it is not all that strange to imagine they may want to benefit from it.
Anyway that is all a bit heavy but what it means for Africa is pretty significant. The Chinese see the African market as crucial to their future prosperity and they have a great deal to gain from Africa’s economic development, East Africa especially. In this plan East Africa would become a crucial trade hub of the region.
People miss the mark when they depict China as wanting nothing more than to export Africa’s raw materials. Sure there is that, but then there is the not so small matter of Africa’s predicted population of 2.4 billion people by 2050. The Chinese didn’t fail to notice the Global Financial Crisis curbing Europe and the United States demand for Chinese goods. Relying on these increasingly debt-ridden and stagnating countries to continue their hitherto copious consumption is a risk the Chinese economy can’t bare. So they are looking for other markets. And Africa is a huge market in want of anything cheaply priced the Chinese might have to sell. China has a lot to gain from African’s doing well and with a planned 4-8 trillion worth of chips on the table perhaps we can believe them when they say it.
Mick starting to look a bit rough.
I was no better.
Contrast that with what the US and Europe want and imagine for Africa in the future. What vision are they selling? What place in the world do they see for Africa? They just don’t seem to be offering Africa another role other than that of permanent reliance. The Chinese are presenting an alternate to perpetual dependency and the respect of seeing a place for Africa in the global economy. Whether they can pull it off is a whole ‘nother matter all together… but from that point alone I understand the appeal of what the Chinese are proposing for Africa. Let us not forget that 40 years ago China was poorer than almost every African country of the time…
My second reason for being open minded about the Chinese in Africa is the way Chinese infrastructure deals are executed. Such deals are typically funded by a Chinese bank such as China EXIM bank (a government bank that is not run for profit but is supposed to avoid losses). Anyway the bank will come up with a deal to fund an infrastructure project such as a $500 million road project in Ethiopia for example, and that will typically (though not always) get granted to a Chinese construction company. And here is the kicker – the money goes directly from the Chinese bank to the Chinese construction company. The government of that country doesn’t get their hands anywhere near the cash. What they do get, however, is a road.
The Chinese are afoot.
Compare that the experience of the Marsibit-Moyale road in Kenya that had been paid for in full by the IMF and European Union and never got built. What happened to the money, you ask? It disappeared, as large cash sums have been known to do in Kenya from time to time. With the road still wanting, what did the foreign donors do but fund the project once more, this time one would assume with the added request that “umm, seriously don’t just steal the money again, hey!” And guess what happened? That money also disappeared, and the road didn’t get built once more. But as of last year it seems that third time is a charm and the road is recently completed. I’ll let you guess where the money came from and who constructed it. I know the debt involved in these projects could be a huge problem in the future. But rather have debt and a road than debt and no road.
I am not saying that Chinese are benevolent and great and doing totally above board things in Africa. I’m just saying a lot of published opinion is really skewed on the issue. Ask an African what they think on the Chinese and it is bound to be far more reliable. They’ll tell you what’s good (the affordable goods, the infrastructure, that they work hard) and what’s bad (the government back-handers, they often don’t pay the correct wages, they seem to take way more than they give).
And then…we came across a pristine bit of tar. It was as surprising as it was annoying. We had been running low pressures and not knowing how long the tar would go for figured we’d better break out the compressor as the last think we wanted in this heat and humidity was a pinch flat. Thankfully the tar road was about 8km in length so justified the effort of pumping up the tyres.
Anyways back to us. As the day rolled on we came across the centre of Chinese road building activity. The scale of the work was huge and it was clear that the famed Kinshasa-Lubumbashi route was on the verge of never being the same again. A two-lane tar highway is well in the works. We were glad it wasn’t ready for us and we were instead following sandy, muddy tracks past the hive of activity that Sino-Hydro, one of the world’s largest construction companies, had gotten under ways.
Through the afternoon we had passed two 4WDs full of Chinese guys a couple of times. Each time we passed each other we would wave, such was the excitement of having a vehicle to share the trail with. A whiles later we started to scout for a good place to camp before the heavens opened.
Despite the lovely two nights spent with hospitable villagers we were both hoping to avoid another village stay. We really didn’t feel up to the overwhelming experience of excited hosts. After the exhaustion and stress of the day, I wanted nothing more than to find a quiet place to camp in secret. But the populated area we were still in seemed more likely to serve up an audience of a hundred rather than the glorious anonymity our minds needed.
The road building was well underway. Not long now and people will be crossing the DRC on BMW 1200GS and wondering what all the fuss of the route is about.
But then another possibility presented itself as we rode past the Chinese road construction camp. I suggested to Mick that we might be able to camp on their grounds for the night… if we were lucky. I didn’t know if they would go for it as Chinese state owned enterprises in Africa tend to be rigid and privacy focused; fiercely so, which doesn’t help to dispel the ridiculous rumours they are Chinese prisoners at work or that more generally they were up to ‘something’/no good. I’d heard of other travellers making such requests and getting rejected out of hand. However I thought we might be in luck as I speak pretty decent Chinese from years spent living with a Chinese family in China. Mick can understand a lot and can turn more than just the odd phrase too.
Hot and tired and scouting a place to camp for the night.
After Mick had egged me on for a bit “Come one, just go and ask, the worst they can say is No”, I decided to give it a shot and approached the well-dressed Chinese men who could only have been the boss men. Greeting them in Chinese I explained that we needed somewhere to pitch our tent for the night that would give us some privacy and security. I must confess the reference to crowds of locals and concerns for safety was strategically placed to appeal to the average Chinese consciousness abroad. I need not have worried at all. They were only too keen to host us. And if they were shocked at finding an Australian chick on a motorbike in the middle of nowhere Congo speaking to them in their language, they hid it remarkably well, I must say.
In true Chinese style one of our hosts went immediately to the kitchen and told the chef to cook something for us to eat. As we parked the bikes we saw the chef run out of a the kitchen bearing a huge meat cleaver and no small sense of excitement, urgently requesting to know “what flavours do they like?”
So there we found ourselves, within 15 minutes of arriving, in an air-conditioned dining hall, facing a mountain of Chinese food, drinking gloriously cold cokes and thinking we had died and gone to heaven. It was hard to reconcile the scene before us with those of the previous few days. We had been in the depths of Congo travelling thorough mud, sand and rain, sustaining ourselves on little but nuts, biltong and canned sardines and the promise of well-stocked patisseries awaiting us in Kinshasa. And then this! It was utterly unexpected and I was holding back tears of joy.
THIS. ACTUALLY. HAPPENED!!!
Over the meal we spoke about the project and its challenges with the company’s 27-year-old head of logistics for DRC. It was exciting to meet a young member of the China-Africa diaspora and Guan was its embodiment. He worked in Africa throughout his university degree and at 21 came to work in Africa full time. He had worked in Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo, becoming fluent in French in the process. It is partly due to this and his legacy of years in Africa that he has been able to reach such a lofty position at such an early age.
Seriously would you let people that looked like this into your house? Mick looks like a zombie about to tuck into a nice plate o’ brains.
We spoke about our opinions of Africa’s/Congo’s develop prospects. Like most Chinese we met in Africa his opinion fell to the less optimistic end of the spectrum. Guan said the corruption was a huge impediment to Africa’s growth, but also rather astutely I thought, he identified the attitudes of the local population and lack of education as major obstacles to development. Indeed the typical heard ‘black people are lazy’ comment was uttered but it was more nuanced than that. Also I should mention that the average Chinese thinks anyone not willing work 7 days a week and through holidays and perhaps the first few hours of childbirth, are lazy… i.e. all of us.
Anyway Guan said such things as, (and I paraphrase): “How can you motivate people to work hard when they have little concept of how that might pay off for them?” He said, “these people’s lives are so hard and so far from development they can’t imagine a better life because for so long things have been this way?” “How can you tell them work hard and you can one day have a television and nice house if they have never even seen these things before? Many have never even seen electricity?” “How can you tell them you can have a good life when they haven’t seen anyone have a good life before?” “They need education first.”
Where we set up camp for the night.
He also lamented the lack of productivity and the high incidence of theft they had to deal with. He shared that they had had workers crash company’s cars and just run off to avoid the consequences and other workers that had simply taken off with the cars never to return. Guan also spoke how he thought that anything could happen in this country at anytime. He said they were probably safe at the camp but felt that ‘anything-anytime’ could happen to them there too. He said their few security guards would be no help, if they were to remain at all. I asked if he felt unsafe in DRC. He didn’t say yes or no, just said once more ‘anything could happen.’ The phrase in itself was the mark of a real Africa-hand.
Guan told us that the project had recently overcome some opposition from the people of a number of small villages along the route that didn’t want the road constructed. With the road in its current bad state, these villages have come to sustain themselves by selling goods to bike porters and high clearance truck drivers and their human cargo. With so few ways to attract money, another business opportunity is to set up road traps near the village then receive payment to dig people out of their troubles. The new road therefore threatened their livelihoods. But Guan said that opposition had largely settled down. I would have loved to know how this was achieved. Perhaps they communicated that the road might bring more car and truck business and would reduce the cost of goods considerably. Perhaps they agreed to construct public works for the villages or gave the chief some money. I don’t know.
What still concerned Guan however was the broader political climate of the country. He said he was very nervous about the upcoming elections (or potential non-elections). Joseph Kabila, the president of DRC, is in the process of changing the constitution to allow him another term… or two or three… or leadership in perpetuity, who knows. We talked about how many African presidents were currently in the process of fiddling with the constitution in this way (at the very least there were 4, I could immediately think of). I then made what I thought to be the rather hilarious joke of saying “See, you can’t say African’s are lazy… look how much those guys like working, they are going to great effort to keep their jobs.” It went down like a lead balloon. In all my years of grappling with the language I have never successfully cracked a joke in Chinese. I have no idea why I thought now in the middle of Congo would be the time and place and politics with racial undertones would be the subject matter. Anyways…
The construction camp.
Guan said how earlier in the year in DRC the opposition party was using anti-Chinese sentiment to undermine the ruling government by targeting Chinese business people. In the face of this, 50 Chinese businesses were destroyed. He encouraged me to search for these news stories on the Internet.
He is adamant that he will move across the river to Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, in the lead up to the elections and will stay there until it was safe to return to Kinshasa. I learned many foreign business people in Kinshasa kept a house on the other side of the river in ‘Brazza’ in case of any ‘flare-ups’ of DRC’s ever-present troubles. I mentioned that anti-Chinese sentiment has been used as a rather effective political tool in Zambia as well. He nodded in agreement. He knew this already. He had his finger on the pulse of the continent and was far from a hapless opportunist fumbling along in the foreign land. He also spoke of the loneliness and isolation of their lives there.
Second dinner – This time a banquet.
Here I am in the dress Mick loves so much. Funnily enough the Chinese guys commented on how nice it was. See Michael…its fabulous.
Anyway after feeding our faces on authentic Sichuan cuisine and downing a couple of cold cokes each, we went outside and set up our tent on the basketball court. The DRC project manager expressed disappointment that they didn’t have a room to give us in the camp as all the rooms were occupied with the management visit currently taking place. Heads from the Republic of Congo arm of the company were visiting the road-building project and it was all of these guys we had passed in the 4WDs earlier in the afternoon. We told them we were very happy to camp.
That night (a mere 2 or 3 hours later) we were invited to a banquet with the big bosses. It was a night of feasting and stretching my Chinese skills to the limit as the excessive whisky drinking led the conversation down some strange tangents. We went from talking about the company’s mining interests in Australia near the city of Darwin to Darwin’s theory of evolution in the space of 3 seconds. One of the men wanted to know if I believed in Darwin or God? “What was it?” “Monkey or God?” I replied I was a scientist so I had to go with the monkey. Whisky smiles all round.
64 The fellas getting trolleyed.
The most important fella at the banquet was the guy in white Adidas shirt (the DRC head of the company) and the fellow to his right (the Republic of Congo head of the company). You can always tell the seniority of people at a Chinese banquet by the seating position. The big man is always at the head of the table, farthest from the door. The second most important to his right, next to his left with decreasing important closest to the doors – which was us. They meant no offence. We were just ring-ins after all. We were just stoked to get food!
During the banquet we were struck by the pure focus of the Chinese on the project. The men were lamenting the time the project was taking. They spoke not so much of the low productivity but more of the challenges of the weather and the lack of good rock for foundations in the local area that required trucking of rocks from on far. They said that in China the same 500km project could be done in 1 year but here the same job is taking 2 ½ years. I said that to me 2 ½ years seemed fast for a 500km section of terrible sandy track. He shook his head and had a look of seriousness when he said… “No. It is too slow.” He looked to be already thinking of the next section of road they would be moving on to (west toward Mbuji-Mayi) and how slow that work would no doubt go.
The fellow on the left wanted to know our thoughts on the evolution. The rest wanted to know about our time in China and where we had travelled there. When we rattled off the different provinces we had visited the guys couldn’t believe we knew the names of any of these places. They were extremely gratified by this.
They were a super nice bunch of guys.
It started raining and our hosts were getting worried about our plans to sleep in our tent. Once more they expressed regret that they couldn’t give us a room as the camp was full. We assured them we would be perfectly fine in the tent. However when it started to rain more heavily they would hear no more talk of us sleeping in the tent as the big boss man had determined that to stay in the tent in the rain would be ‘uncomfortable’. They inspected the tent in order to confirm. It was unanimous. It would be ‘uncomfortable’. They then arranged to move someone out of their room to share with another so we would have a room for the night. Resistance from us was futile. And with that we found ourselves sleeping on beds, beneath clean sheets and cozy blankets, in air-conditioned comfort and enjoying our first shower in days. A hot shower no less.
Our room for the night! Can you believe it? We found it interesting to note that everything we saw was sourced from China; soap, toilet paper, toothpaste – you name it.
The rooms from the outside. Note the air-conditioner AIR-CONDITIONERRRRRR!!!! INGLISH TEECHAR! AIR-CONDITIONERRRRRR!!!!!!
The room really came into its own later that night when we paid the price for unleashing whisky and copious amounts of authentic, spicy, oily Sichuan cuisine on a digestive system most recently powered on crackers, nuts, biltong and not all that much of it. We made full and extensive use of the en-suite bathroom that night.
Yet despite these personal difficulties we both agreed the booze and two rounds of Chinese meals was worth it. We went to bed exhausted, full as ticks, clean as whistles and pissed as parrots. Both Mick and I reported waking multiple times in the night from the awareness of how incredibly comfortable we were.
Packing up our wet and unused tent the next morning.
The next morning we hung out in the kitchen with the chef while the big bosses were sleeping off hangovers from a night that raged on for a long time after we retried to bed. The chef was a gregarious fellow who had good relations with his kitchen staff. He had taught them a lot of Chinese language and proudly told us that his two Congolese assistant cooks knew how to make every Chinese dish he prepared in the camp and their Chinese names. He also spoke French, once again challenging the stereotype that the Chinese don’t learn the language when they settle over here.
Mick, the chef and his top assistant. The chef told us to name anything we wanted cooked.
We observed him sharing jokes and photos on his phone with his assistants throughout the morning. He was a man at ease and appeared to have a dual role of chef and camp manager. He certainly had more seniority than the average chef would have back in China. No doubt a product of being the only Chinese chef for hundreds of kilometres.
Then the quickly got to work on it.
While preparing our favourite Chinese foods for breakfast he told us about his time in Republic of Congo and DRC where he has been working since his son’s birth some seven years. His plan was to stay in Africa for 10 years to earn money to help his family get ahead. At 7 years in, he has had malaria 15 times and it remained his greatest concern about living here. He was worried about the long-term affects of the illness and treatment on his health. When I expressed alarm at his 15 bouts of malaria he told me it was nothing. There were fellas there who were who had had it more often. One fellow Chinese was up to his 18th case of malaria in less than 7 years.
This caused problems later on.
Like most Chinese we meet working on large projects he returns home once a year and works every day outside of that 4 to 6 weeks window. But even that time is up for grabs. He said they get paid double for their holiday time if they choose not to go home. He was just a couple of months off visiting his family for the first time in a year. He told us how he works seven days a week from before sunrise until the evening meal is finished. But he has the chance to rest between meals. We thanked him for everything and wished him well.
The Chef. He has worked in the Congos for 7 years and has a 7 year old son. He told me he had not returned home each year as he is entitled. But if he had, and for the full 6 weeks each time (again he didn’t) it means he has seen his son for a mere 36 weeks of his son’s life. Pretty rough, but migrant workers in China might only see their children (left with parents in the countryside) for less than 2 weeks a year.
82 The end result.
Our experiences at the camp made us regret the narrow view that people have on the Chinese working in Africa. Over dinner I mentioned to the road building managers that after such difficult riding we were extremely thankful for the work they have done on this section of the road. It was a quick comment that I did not expect to gratify them nearly as much as it did. It stuck me that they might not have heard this before. I wondered if they’d hear it again.
If only more people could share similar interactions as ours with Chinese people at work in Africa. I regret the negative discourse of many newspapers and politicians that depicts the Chinese in Africa as little more than the soulless, faceless foot soldiers of the Chinese government’s will. It is inaccurate and de-humanising and obscures the reality of Chinese migration to Africa. Most Chinese come independently to Africa and have no one to prop them up but other members of the Chinese community. If shit hits the fan in these countries they get no support from their government… not like the rest of us. I promise you, you have more in common with the average Chinese worker in Africa than you do anyone that tells you to fear him.
Enjoyed with some Chinese State television.
Me saying goodbye to some of the fellas.
Mick saying goodbye to some of the fellas. Jesus would you look at his pants.
But enough of the Chinese in Africa. What of the Australians? After eating our fill once more and saying our goodbyes to our generous Chinese hosts we were on the road again. This was to be our last day of off-road riding of the crossing. Congo had served us up an intense, sweltering, tiring, supremely unpredictable day the day before. We were excited to see what would come next.
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’
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.
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.
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.
DRC – not a place for non-morning people.
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.
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.
This lady wanted a photo.
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.
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.
This is the pineapple seller.
She was a riot.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pulling off the main trail for a break.
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.
The shop. It had the usual array of sachets of powdered milk, sugar, salt, rice, matches, cigarettes, dried fish and tinned sardines.
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.
These guys were really gregarious compared to most people we come across who are generally reserved to begin with.
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.
These sections were great fun.
And gave us a chance to ride fast and cool off.
The track was getting easier.
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.
What a treat!
A crappy sneaky photo we took of the restaurant. The stew looked good but fraught with danger.
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.
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.
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.
Getting directions from bike porters. Here are some rigs loaded with charcoal.
We had a lovely run on this nice sand.
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.
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.
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.
We were surprised to see some work on the road happening.
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.
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.
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?
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).
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.
This is what I look like when I am stressed. Side Note – check out the Brisbane Lions Guernsey
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.
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.
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.