Blog 73 by Tan: Seeing the Wood For the Trees
The Brazzaville side of the river was a breeze in comparison to the Kinshasa side. There were nowhere near the number of police, immigration and customs people around and things were a lot less hectic. One of Boris’s E.C Air employees was already on the Brazza side waiting to help us with our paperwork. After grabbing our passports and documents he disappeared for 20 minutes or so only to emerge with papers in hand and approval for us to move on. We were on our way.
Kinshasa and Brazzaville were like night and day. Brazza’a population at just over 5 million making it positively sleepy in comparison to Kin. While we loved the energy of Kin, the calm vibes of Brazzaville were a welcome change. We were exhausted, both physically and mentally. We had been getting by in Kinshasa by the enthusiasm of our bike club mates and by the need to get things done. Now with visas in order for the road ahead, the bikes running well and our friends in Kin gone, we crashed.
The rival cities of Brazzaville and Kinshasa facing off across the Congo River. One of my favourite authors on Africa Michaela wrong writes: “From Brazzaville to Kinshasa, from Kinshasa to Brazzaville, residents ping-pong irrepressibly from one to another … depending on which capital is judged more dangerous at any given moment.” Net pic.
Our plan was to stay just a couple of days in Brazzaville then get going. A little anxious about the amount of money we spent in Kinshasa we had planned to take advantage of the free camping offered to Overlanders at Hotel Hippocampe. It is not a proper campground, just a space on concrete behind the restaurant with access to showers that the owner generously offers free if you agree to eat in the hotel’s Chinese restaurant.
Sergio and Anders. Anders has a fantastic blog full of great stories and invaluable information for travellers.
However when we got there and the rain started to pour and the prospect of a night in a leaking tent got less attractive by the minute. Instead we wrangled a good deal on a room and took it. That night we slept for more than 14 hours. Our exhaustion was complete. We decided to stay another night….and each morning we decided to do the same again.
One day we finally decided to leave and bought all our bags downstairs only to bump into another Overlander, a Swedish guy named Anders travelling on an old Africa Twin. Anders had recently been reunited with his bike after 10 months of recuperation back in Sweden. He had suffered a broken leg and knee damage in an accident on a slippery mud track in Republic of Congo not far from the Gabon border. Ander’s, with a broken leg and little options, arranged to store his motorbike and belongings in a police compound for however long it took to fix his leg and return. A cynical person might have written off his chances of having anything to return to, but in this case they would have been wrong. The bike was exactly where he left it. Anders is a super interesting and well-traveled guy and before we knew it we’d spent just about the whole day chatting. We lugged all our bags back to the room and spent another night.
Duct tape for the win. Our tent has served us well however the seams had started leaking on us.
It was one false start after another before we realised we’d be best served not trying to force our departure and to just leave when we felt up to it. If it took 5 days or 2 weeks for that to happen, then so be it. We were utterly travel fatigued. And the only cure for that was a bit of down time.
While at Hippocampe we saw to more bike chores. The principal concern was all the metal strewn through the motor. Mick changed his oil and cleaned the filter again and fished out more aluminium. Ridding the motor of it was going to be a slow process.
Mick giving Anders some pointers.
Another oil change and shrapnel retrieved.
And more again.
That day we made the decision move somewhere more modest so we didn’t have to worry about blowing budgets. Just as we were making a plan to do so a super cool Brazilian bloke on a Super Tenere named Sergio spotted our bikes and pulled up to say hi. Like Anders, Sergio was one heck of an adventurer. He has been doing his round the world bike travels over a long period of time and region by region. On this particular trip he had travelled from Japan, through Russia and Europe and to Congo in 4 months. Meanwhile it takes us 4 days to check out of a room. He was going at a cracking pace. It was not our style but we were impressed. Sergio told us he was staying at a simple hotel on the other side of town that had space for the bikes and was only $US16 a night. We made the move.
This bloke showed up with this stunning old Tenere.
Our new budget lodgings.
A day later Anders and Sergio moved on and crossed by boat to Kinshasa together. We found out they didn’t find the crossing too stressful but it was an 8 hour process that set them back $US250 each compared to our relatively quick, $335 for both bikes crossing. Making us grateful once more for the help of the Kinshasa bikers.
After spending several more days taking it easy and hitting Brazzaville’s Lebanese restaurants and fantastic patisseries, we were well fed, well rested and ready to move. Unfortunately however, we had not planned on fuel shortage in the capital. We were told it was a reasonably frequent occurrence for this oil-producing nation. Lines at service stations were so long that cars were spilling into the streets blocking traffic all over town. The police had been called in to supervise the mayhem. One of the coppers must have felt sorry for us waiting in the sun in all the bike gear and waved us in, allowing us to skip the long queue, fuel up and hit the road.
La Mandarine became our second home. It is a Lebanese run French patisserie that knocked my socks off. It was hard to leave. Net pic.
The Basilique Sainte-Anne stands out in a city of few grand structures.
The slow start and roadworks on the way out of the town meant we covered just 150km for the day. It was our first day of riding in Republic of Congo so we had yet to familiarise ourselves with the lay of the land. What our 150km did show us was that the place was a lot less densely populated than we were used to. We were travelling north on a new, lesser-used highway. We were out in the sticks and could see little in the way of accommodation. Even camping didn’t look promising as we rode past mile after mile of tall grassland with deep concrete culverts separating us from subpar but do-in-a-pinch camping locations.
Long lines for fuel had us leaving town late….or should I say later that usual.
We reached a small village at sun down and tried to find a guesthouse. Soon it was dark and we were still searching for somewhere to lay our heads; a first for the trip. Our almost non-existent command of the French language wasn’t helping matters. Eventually a nice car pulled up nearby with a Chinese guy inside, no doubt working on the huge construction project we had passed earlier in the day. He spoke no English so we used Mandarin to communicate our need to find a place to sleep. He spoke French to his local driver who then spoke the local language to someone else. They confirmed there was no guesthouse in the village but found someone to take us to a local priest who might be able to help.
The church in the light of day.
The bikes sanctuary for the night.
We were led by car far off the main road, though a dozen small plots of land past tiny huts made of corrugated iron. Eventually we came upon a big building of corrugated iron. The young priest came out and said we could park the bikes in the church and spend the night in a spare room of the church housing block. It was such incredible luck we’d come upon this place. And if things couldn’t get any better, the room had power and the fan stayed on all night. The next morning we thanked the priest for putting us up and left him with a donation to the church.
Saying goodbye to the priest.
The translator and the Chinese road inspector. The Chinese bloke kindly informed us we were “so cool”.
After saying our goodbyes we headed back to the village to fuel up. While we were there another Chinese construction company vehicle showed up. A young Chinese guy spied our bikes and came out with his translator to say hello. So there we were, a Chinese, a Congolese and an Aussie chatting away in Mandarin in the middle of Congo. The translator told me how he had spent 7 years studying in China on a Chinese government scholarship. His Chinese was excellent. The Chinese guy was from Inner Mongolia and was on his first short trip to Africa and seemed to be stunned by the experience. He was there to inspect the road however construction work hadn’t started due to government delays. Both guys voiced their frustration at the government’s inefficiency and demands.
Plenty of scenes like this on the road north.
And plenty of empty road.
Not long afterward another car showed up with more Chinese speakers inside. These fellows were Malaysian Chinese and once more we got chatting. I asked them if they knew which towns might have accommodation on the way north. We were keen avoid another nighttime scramble for a bed. They gave us some recommendations and then told us that we should stay with them that night at their plantation. He gave us his phone number and told us to call him when we arrived in Marquoa and that he would give us directions to the plantation from there. It seemed too interesting an invite to pass up.
A typical roadside lunch. Central and West Africa is all about the Laughing Cow – a dull yellow goo that claimed some relationship to cheese.
No complaints about the fruit though.
Mick waiting while I hunt down a pineapple.
We had a simple ride up pristine tar with little in the way of towns along the route. As the day wore on we experienced a very rare sensation of getting rained upon. So far, in almost a year and a half of riding in Africa, we had been rained on less than a handful of times. With the storm clouds brewing we had to rack our brains to recall where we had stored our wet weather gear.
While we were searching through bags the heavens opened with a fierce though short-lived downpour. Unfortunately for Mick he discovered that his Jackson Racing WON-Z (which cost an arm and a leg) had a failed zipper. He’d only used it a handful of times so that was disappointing and inconvenient in that moment.
Buying baguettes lathered in nutella type spread.
Ready to roll.
It was poor timing with the wet season threatening us. And the product warranty did us little good in the middle of the Congo. It would have cost a small fortune (probably exceeding the value of the suit) to pay to courier the suit home and back to Africa and pay what would no doubt be ridiculous import taxes on the goods. A big part of the reason that Mick splurged on the suit was to minimise the chances of gear failure during the trip. “No chance of that happening if we purchase top of the line products, right?” This is a myth and we can’t quite believe we fell for it with a fair bit of the gear we purchased. And here we were carting a rain suit with a broken zip worth very near to the per capita GDP of Republic of Congo. You live you learn.
Not exactly waterproof.
After passing nothing but grassland and scarcely a single vehicle we came across a huge airport. We were confused who the airport serviced until we saw this huge 5 star hotel in the middle of nowhere. We knew it could only mean one thing. We had to be in the hometown of the President and this was his hotel. Apparently we were right.
Just outside of Marquoa we were met with an utterly bizarre sight. After hours of riding past nothing but grassland, swamp or forest, we came across a near to full-scale replica of the White House. After confirming that Michael could also see a giant copy of the White House we started to ponder why it was here. It didn’t take long to agree that it was most likely the ridiculous personal vanity project of one of the richest people in the country, who is no doubt a public servant. Sure enough when we asked about it someone told us it was the house of the Republic of Congo Treasurer ,who by the looks of things, might be dodgier than a week old curry. We didn’t want to get spotted taking photos of the place so just shock our heads and rode on.
We were set to arrive at the plantation on sundown however we weren’t counting on hitting a road block ….and being kept there. The Gendarme in charge was a proper jerk to us. Being at the end of the day and pitch black we just weren’t in the mood for this.
He went straight into the stern, rude Mr hardarse mode we had become so familiar with in Central Africa. We were less than a kilometre from the plantation, tired and hungry and without the energy or patience to deal with an aggressive shakedown. Perhaps he sensed that so went in hard.
More views on the empty road north.
After taking our international drivers permit he demanded our insurance. We didn’t want to take out all our documents so tried to blow him off, distract and ignore him so that he’d get tired of us and let us get on the bikes and go. This was generally a successful tactic but was not that night. We explained that we were tourists and going to visit our friends at the plantation and needed to go. We were to discover that admitting to any association with the company guaranteed a hearty extortion attempt. It was no coincidence they were set up so close to the plantation gates.
Approaching sundown and still 70km to go.
He came up of his office with a fine of 10,000CFA (US16.70) each for us not having insurance. We did have insurance (ok it was fraudulent but convincing insurance) but he said too bad I’ve written the fine you have to pay or I am not giving your licenses back. Both of us lost our temper pretty good and proper. And in what can only be described as a bad move, Mick took the fine, scrunched it up and threw in on the ground. Yep. We went feral. The Gendarme, rather predictably, did not like this.
Meanwhile our Malaysian friends showed up looking for us. I am guessing they had figured we were stuck at the roadblock having our pound of flesh extracted. Qian cooled off the situation and we paid the money as any further resistance would have been felt by the fellas at the plantation.
Early morning over the plantation.
The plantation slowly coming to life.
At the plantation Qian, the manager, already had dinner there waiting for us that he had cooked himself. All the foreign workers cooked for themselves as this was no cushy expat job for them. We chatted for a while and learned that the roadblock arrived soon after they did. Despite being residents of the Republic of Congo they are made to pay between $US5-10 for every non-Congolese in the vehicle that passes the checkpoint, no matter how far they intend to travel and no matter that it is a public road. The plantation had become a cash cow for these guys and they never missed and opportunity. We didn’t stay talking for too long as the guys get up at sunrise to start work. They showed us to our cabin for the night and we were soon in bed.
The plantation camp.
We woke up before sunrise. Despite the comfort of our simple lodgings I slept poorly due to nightmares and being angry at the Gendarme from last night. Our time in Brazzaville was supposed to have relaxed and soothed us after some intense weeks. But there we were exercising the patience of a three year old when pressed. The copper was so intense and mafia-esque compared to what we had experienced thus far in Africa, even in DRC. They were fat cats used to getting their cream. And while that was unpleasant the more worrying matter was that we had both handled the confrontation poorly…like really poorly. We can’t be making a habit of such failures in judgment and control. We resolved to keep our shit together.
Some of the plantation gear.
The camp mess.
We went to the mess for breakfast and chatted away the morning with some of the Malaysian and Pilipino workers. These guys were mostly mechanics and heavy machinery operators. They told us about their lives there and we were struck once more by the hardworking and isolated existence of these guys. They work every day for 11 months then they get one month a year off which they spend back in their home countries. They cook for themselves, have cold showers for 11 months of the year, and have very unreliable internet access for keeping in touch with family. It is not all that surprising then that they were happy to have us at the camp as we represented a bit of a change from the norm.
Mick setting up shop.
Mick fashioning a makeshift gasket out of old exhaust tape to make his leaking exhaust a bit less obnoxious.
Mick informs me this t-shirt is perfectly fine.
The guys gave Mick the go ahead to use their workshop to try once more to rid the engine of excess aluminium in the oil. Mick’s bike had been running at about 128 degrees even at 90km/h which was about 30 degree off normal. This time Mick wanted to flush out the oil cooler with petrol and compressed air. It worked well and he managed to dislodge a good amount of aluminium. Once all back together the bike appeared to be running closer to its normal temperature range.
Time for another flushing.
Did you know Mick played the oil cooler in his high school band?
The compressor was effective.
The plantation fellas invited us to have lunch with them and suggested we stay another night so that we had time to do a tour of the plantation. We didn’t want to pass up seeing more of the place so happily agreed.
Lunch with one of the Pilipino guys and Mr Wong.
Mr Wong, one of the operators at the timber plantation, took us for a tour the next day. It was a huge operation but was completely empty. We toured both the palm oil plantation and timber yard without seeing a single person…let alone a single person working. It was a bizarre sight but very much the norm according to the foreign workers who said though the locals workers are paid for an 8 hour shift they generally only worked 2-3 hours per day. But today was payday. And they won’t work on payday.
The oil palm plantation.
Seeing my first ever oil palm up close. Mr Wong told us that there were many gorillas in the area. The gorillas come from the forest to eat the palm oil fruits from time to time. I asked what they did when the came down and he said they have to chase them away. “You can’t hurt them, it is forbidden and you will go to jail.” He also said they have seen elephants on the site as well.
The Malaysian guys were frustrated and said they couldn’t understand the local workers refusal to do their 8 hours shifts. They said how they were paid above the government mandated minimum wage and that there were no other jobs in this extremely poor area. These guys were of the mind the locals should be glad for work and income for themselves and their families. The complex attitude to work by Africans under foreign employ was out of their comprehension. The “work hard to get ahead” mentality hasn’t always held true throughout Africa’s history. They asked us somewhat rhetorically “can’t they see that they are destroying the project? Can’t they see that we will close down and there will be nothing for anyone here if they don’t work?”
Qian told us that the Indonesian and Malaysian plantations, an average plantation worker can transplant 120 palm plants a day. On this plantation the workers only do about 40. In the past they say they have tried to push the employees to do 50 transplants a day but they were met with such fierce opposition, often resulting in the workers walking off the job for days. Anyone who wanted to work or do more transplants that the others tended to get hassled or beaten up according to our potentially biased new friends. But this I suppose is not too dissimilar from unions of old in various parts of the world.
Palm oil fruit of the African palm oil tree. You wont go a day in you modern life without using or eating something derived from it. There are over 200 names for palm oil derived ingredients so no wonder we don’t know we are using it.
The food industry is responsible for 72% worldwide usage of palm oil. Personal care and cleaning products account for 18% of usage, with biofuel and feedstock taking up the last 10%.
Either way, at one third the expected productivity and in the face of incessant corruption and significant sovereign risk, it was obvious the economics of the project must be ‘all up the shit’ for lack of better phrasing. The project was far behind schedule and bleeding money.
Palm oil plantations are capital and labour intensive at the early stages. Apart from money from the selling of timber, no money comes through the door until palm oil trees reach maturity which takes between 4 and 7 years. Even then harvests are modest until they reach full maturity at about 15 years. To save money the modest contingent of foreign staff from the Philippines and Malaysia had recently been cut back by almost a dozen. I can’t recall how many foreign staff there were but it seemed less than 20.
Mick clearly not worrying about snakes.
Look closely and you might be able to see the palm oil trees beneath the weeds.
We weren’t surprised to hear they were under significant financial strain. Qian told us just this one plantation was $US40 million in the hole and things weren’t looking good. This presents a real chance of the company abandoning the operation, leaving the area potentially in a worse off situation, rendering all the destruction all for nothing. The company’s infrastructure, quite literally paving the way for even worse destruction at their departure from uncontrolled logging, hunting, wildlife trafficking, mining and land speculation from any and all and sundry.
More mature trees awaiting transplant.
The plantation was approaching the time for their first harvest and it seemed the fate of the entire project was hanging on it. Qian was worried about having enough staff to do the necessary work given the short working days. They seemed at a bit of a loss of how to deal with it all and acknowledged their workers had the upper hand. It was a similar story with the government officials, inspectors, police and gendarmes who would show up looking for cash. If the company wasn’t forthcoming they would threaten to issue fines, order workers to stop work for days or shut down operations. Apparently Christmas day at the plantation would see a precession of officials, government workers, the police and gendarme showed up for their Christmas gifts. The plantation mangers feel they have zero choice in the matter. Corruption is corrupting.
The old and the new.
Not all trees are created equal.
We first inspected the palm oil groves and were surprised to see how nearly completely overgrown they were. In some sections you could scarcely even see the trees for the weeds. My Wong was so disappointed at their state head shake and look at his feet anytime he looked at them.
The timber industry in the Republic of Congo is mainly geared towards the export of logs though the government is trying to encourage secondary processing to see greater economic benefits to the country. It has legislated that 85% of timber exported needs to be processed in country. Hence this timber mill.
I’ve read that this company has been pinged by inspectors for mislabeling logs for export. I’d guess they may have been re-using trunk IDs to get more than their 15% of logs exported and/or avoiding royalties.
We then moved on to the timber harvesting part of the operation. We saw first hand the sad and sobering consequence of the veracious consumption practices that has ensnared the cashed up parts of the planet. Intellectually I knew of such destruction, but that was sitting at home, not standing at ground zero in the Congo forest. And knowing isn’t seeing and feeling. We did both while standing at the junction of beautiful lush forest and the ugly palm groves that have replaced it. It is only the most heartless among us that could be without emotion to be in a place like this, touching the trunk of a tree as wide as you are tall, stamped and ready for export.
Some of the smaller logs.
In 2015, 57% of Congo’s timber and wood product exported to China. But at least a third of what China imports ultimately gets exported to the rest of the world.
Raw logs like these ones are the least economically beneficial way for developing countries to exploit their timber resources. They provide less royalties, employment and industrial development but greater profits to foreign timber companies and the manufactures they provide for.
I don’t know the stats for Congo but as an example a cubic meter of the valuable hardwood timber from West Papua yields only about $11 to local communities but around $240 when delivered as raw logs to wood-products manufacturers in China. And that’s before further value added through secondary processing.
After leaving the plantation we did some reading up on the project. The company is criticised and for its secrecy, their proximity to national parks, their use of offshore tax havens and shadowy ownership, where two of the major investors are not known. However it was mentioned to us that the project owners were a huge Malaysian company that owned shopping malls. Conservationists claim that the palm oil plantation is just a cover and that their intention was only ever to log forests and trade timber. This was certainly not the impression we got.
If a tree falls in the Congo forest, and no one hears it, did it still get turn into shitty, flat pack furniture?
This was a monster of a tree. Freshly felled it still looked so alive.
Not sure what this wood is destined for. Possibly high value timber flooring.
According to these guys they don’t do well at all off the sale of timber and actually often run at a loss. I’m inclined to believe them. Qian told us the transport is what wipes out all their profit margin. The port of Pointe Noire is located in the far southwest of the country. The main timber zones in Congo are in the south and the north. Timber from the south is generally transported by a combination of river and road to Pointe Noire, while timber from the north is generally transported to Douala in Cameroon. I don’t know why but these guys could not transport to Cameroon. They were left having to truck all the way from the north to Pointe Noire in the southwest route about 1100km away. They told us that each truck was forced to pay at least $US300 worth of bribes each leg of the trip. The timber side of the business seemed a troublesome disappointment as things stood. They were all about the palm oil.
It was a somber visit, like visiting a cemetery. Suffice as to say I will never approach the purchase of a wood item lightly again.
Mr Wong’s tool of the trade. He told us his is a very dangerous job. I’d believe it.
More remnants of big trees logged.
We were a little worried about peoples’ perceptions of our visit to the palm oil and timber plantation. The guys there were kind and generous to us outsiders and we hated the thought that people would read this blog and see their pictures and think ill of them.
Contemplating the world.
I’d acquired a loyal fan club amongst the plantation dogs.
My favourite of the lot. I named her Pikelet.
The tower was for getting phone signal.
The camp from on high.
The fellas at the plantations aren’t villains and I would argue they bear less responsibly for devastation wrought than the average middle class family from anywhere in the developed world, burning through resources like it was going out of fashion; a new renovation here, an update of the perfectly functional furniture there an “oooh this laundry detergent is so much cheaper than the rest.” The main reason for the prolific use of palm oil is that it is the cheapest form of vegetable oil, which allows for the price cuts we so crave and the profit margins manufacturers and retailers demand. It is all a part of the high cost of a low price culture that stimulates consumption.
Breakfast and cat petting.
When we returned to the camp we saw the workers in high spirits and all lined up, waiting to get paid. Payments were made one-by-one and involved a great deal of arguing according to Qian. He said almost everyone argues about their overtime and holiday pay (even expecting it if they took all their holidays already). It is obviously an exhausting process through which Qian had become an expert peacemaker.
As the afternoon wore on things got noisier and the music got louder, the booze flowed and the salaries were spent. Later we heard enthusiastic partying and then rowdiness and fighting. We found out the next day that the cops came to break up some trouble…and to ask for money. It was a sad but not unfamiliar state of affairs that was repeated at the plantation every month.
Our host Qian who thought nothing of inviting two bikers to stay after a 2-minute chat.
The next morning we had breakfast, got packed and said our goodbyes to the guys. It had been an interesting experience and well worth the two day foray. However it was now time to focus and actually get some distance under the tyres. Before leaving Brazzaville we did something quite out of the ordinary and actually checked the calendar. After confirming what month it was we did some calculations and realised we needed to get our backsides into gear if we were going to get through West Africa and make it to Europe with enough to rebuild the bike motors and hit Central Asia, the Stans, Mongolia and Russia at the right time of year.
Qian and Mr Wong bidding us farewell.
Our plan of making swift progress towards Europe had been immediately derailed by the plantation visit. But we would surely not allow ourselves to be sidetracked again we thought………..and then we met Jack. Schedules were abandoned. Adventures ensued.
Blog 72 by Tan: Kin la Belle
And just like that, we were in Kinshasa. With so much of our efforts and attentions dedicated to getting our bikes and selves to Kinshasa, we realised we hadn’t put all that much thought into what we would actually do there. We knew we needed to sort out a visa for Republic of Congo but beyond that there was little on our agenda.
After our eventful slog across country the most immediate requirement was a long sleep-in in air-conditioned comfort. The next day we woke up just in time to hit the breakfast buffet and soon enough we were once again in the company of some members of what has to be the most enthusiastic and welcoming motorbike club getting around.
Christine and Patrick picked us up and took us to the office of yet another bike club member who works in logistics for an airline and freight company. Boris was going to help us organise getting our bikes across the river to Brazzaville.
We had made the decision to take a pass on riding the off-road route that goes from Kinshasa to Luouzi. This route is a common one for Overlanders as it avoids the excessive cost and inconvenience of transporting the bikes by boat across the Congo River. Now anyone that has been paying even a little attention to this ride report would have noticed it is not like us to avoid a bit of off-road. In fact we are much more likely to travel hundreds of kilometers to some far flung corner in order to do a trail with a lofty reputation. So why not do this route, you ask?
Mick looking super cool while out on a mission in town with Farid.
For some unknown and completely nonsensical reason I had a really bad feeling about doing that section. I just couldn’t fight this feeling that one of us was going to have an injury on it, like suffer a broken leg. The route is pretty rough by all accounts but honestly not on the scale of what we had already done in Congo. Even so, I simply couldn’t shake the foreboding for this inconsequential section of track so pressured Michael to take the boat to Brazzaville instead. Maybe my subconscious had determined we had pushed our luck far enough and it was time for us to move on.
I knew by taking the boat we would end up spending a lot of money and be trading the easy and hassle-free land crossing between the two Congos for the difficult and hassle-rich river crossing. Mick, I have to give credit to, was somewhat receptive/resigned to my request. However, the river crossing deal was positively sealed when we learned the extent of Mick’s bike woes and even furthermore when the Bikers Kinshasa said they could help us organise and execute the crossing.
Boris used his network of contacts to get the cheapest possible rate to cross from Kinshasa to Brazzaville. Getting people and goods around Congo was his bread and butter and he knew his stuff. It was great to have him organising all this as he knew people on both sides in customs and immigration.
“The Beach” as the Kinshasa side of the river is known has has a formidable reputation. It is here that the fiercest attempts at extorting foreigners has been known to go down. It is not uncommon to hear of Overland bikers spending the good part of the day, significant reserves of patience, and $400 and up for the 1.8km, 15 minute boat crossing. Others have paid less, others had paid more, and others still have been sent packing (at their own expense) back across the river for failing to meet some real or manufactured immigration requirement and subsequent bribe demand.
Patrick giving us a welcome speech on behalf of the club.
Boris was informed that the best way customs would permit us to cross with the motorbikes was to charter a boat to ourselves. Customs would not allow/make trouble for us if we put the bikes on a boat for ferrying people, and it would be problematic to get on a boat for goods and freight. So it was best to hire a boat specifically for us. Boris did however go to bat for us and negotiated that customs would allow us to take 4 ticket paying passengers on the boat which would slightly offset the cost of our boat charter. Even at the time we were thinking, “that certainly sounds nice, but what’s a bet it doesn’t go down like that at the docks!” Sure enough it didn’t but it was a valiant attempt on Boris’ part regardless.
We had expected the cost of the crossing to be huge, but in the end it was far more reasonable a deal than we would have been able to secure ourselves. Everything included, we paid USD335 for both of us and both bikes. That is pretty dear for a river crossing, but that is as cheap and trouble free as it gets. I felt financially guilty for not wanting to go the cheap route of taking the Luozi road. But Mick said given his current bike issues it was a smarter move to take the river.
He passed on the message that the club president regretted he was out of the country and could not meet us.
Boozing it up at our hotel.
A club member with a rad beard whose name I don’t recall and the lovely Christine, a Belgian who has lived in DRC since she was a child.
What a treat for us to have a group of mates again.
With that we were committed to crossing the river and Boris did us another solid by getting his staff to do all the running around for our Republic of Congo visas. We just filled out the forms and handed over our cash and passports and let someone else do the dirty work. Now this was a style of Overlanding I could get used to.
The club had even gone to the trouble of preparing a welcome slide show for us with all the previous days photos of our ride into town. These guys are legends.
With the wheels in motion for getting over to Brazzavile we were free to get to know Kinshasa a little better. First up we were off to lunch with more of the Bikers Kinshasa crowd and once more they refused to let us pay our way. After socialising the afternoon away it was time to return to the hotel to get ready for more socialising with the bike club there. That night we ate, drank, talked and did a slideshow of our travels thus far in Africa.
With company like this to enjoy it is no wonder we decided to stay on in Kinshasa longer than the couple of days we had initially planned. We mentally expunged from consciousness the $US75 a night we were paying for our hotel and resolved to enjoy our time with the bike club in Kinshasa to the full. Budget be damned! We must explain here, 75 bucks is bloody expensive for us but Kinshasa is one of the most expensive cities in the world for expats, generally coming in second after Luanda, Angola. The cheapest decent hotels going are around USD50 but it was the advice of the Bikers Kinshasa that we wouldn’t be safe in a neighbourhood where those types of hotels are. So they vetted our hotel for us and negotiated a good rate as well (normal price was about 110), and we took their advice onboard and ignored the cost.
How to describe Kinshasa? A random Lonely planet writer actually captured the essence of Kinshasa quite well I think with the following statement:
“Shot through with chaos, music and a lust for life that is as infectious as it is overwhelming, Kinshasa is a city you experience rather than visit.”
We don’t make a habit of taking photos in big cities so here is a pic off the net of a typical Kinshasa scene.
Kinshasa, or just ‘Kin’ as it is locally known, had all of the hallmarks of any of the African capitals we had visited; erratic driving, street hawkers working every traffic light and thoroughfare, prodigious potholes, lack of infrastructure, abundance of rubbish, saddening levels of poverty, and flashes of utterly gratuitous wealth. But there was something else that made Kin stand out from the crowd. I just couldn’t pinpoint exactly what that was. It may have been the frenetic energy of the daily hustle of making life in this tough city; it could have been the world famous music and the vivid colour on display; it could have been our enthusiastic company among the bikers; it could have been the fact we were on a high from our big ride… but whatever it was it was it drew us to the place. Still now I get a buzz from the memory of our time there and wish so much we had stayed longer… or in the very least that we will find our way back there again.
And another loaner from the net.
So much colour. A photo of one of Kin’s markets by Pascal Maitre for Nat Geo.
Kinshasa heaves under the weight of one of the world’s fastest-growing urban populations. The last census conducted in Kinshasa was back in 1984, so no one really knows precisely how many people call it home. Most estimates are between 10 and 11 million. And they say half a million join the throng every year. It is not surprising therefore that Kinshasa is on its way to being the largest French-speaking city in the world, with Paris just a few years from being relegated to second place. Though Lingala is the common tongue in these parts, I’m ashamed to say we didn’t learn a single word of it.
Kinshasa..expanding by the minute.
Kinshasa spreads itself from the banks of the Congo River to its ever-expanding shanty towns on the city’s periphery. The city centre or centre ville as it is called there, displays the greatest concentrations of the city’s wealth and it is where the elites and expats reside, congregate, move and shake. In these parts you’ll find nice cafes, restaurants and Shoprite supermarkets filled with processed food from South Africa and Europe. Outside the city center, you’ll find no such prosperity, and the bulk of Kin residents are left to make do any way they can.
The slick part of town. Internet pic.
Most of those writing and reading this blog would luckily lack any concept of the extent to which the local population is completely left to its own devices. The government fails to provide even the most rudimentary level of services and the people have in turn long abandoned any expectation for government support. Schooling is supposed to be compulsory but its cost remains out of reach for many. Running water, electricity and sanitation are at best unreliable but more generally non-existent. But despite this it would be unfair to characterise the city merely by what it lacks. What struck me and what strikes many who visit is that it is a marvel that the city manages to function as well as it does. And it really is the local populace that deserves the credit for this.
The Boulevard 30 June in Downtown Kin. This 8km stretch of road was refurbished by Chinese companies for a cost of $US43.4 million. This project was just a small part of a $US3 billion infrastructure for minerals deal between China and DRC. The construction of the road from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa we came across is also part of the deal along with a heck of a lot more infrastructure DRC desperately needs.
The DRC has long teetered on the edge of full and official state failure. The ever-resourceful Kinois therefore have had no recourse but to create their own opportunities, which they do through frenzied entrepreneurship and the reliance on community networks and relationships with friends and family. What the state denies the informal system does its best to provide.
On that note, this seems a good time to mention that Kinshasa has its own nuclear reactor. Yes, this sprawling metropolis of indeterminable millions, lacking reliable running water, sewerage and electricity, shockingly has a nuclear reactor. Two actually. Back in the 1950’s a Belgian priest was running the University of Kinshasa and thought it would be great if he had a reactor on hand to indulge his amateur interest in nuclear research. He lobbied the Belgians to lobby the Americans to give them a their own nuclear facility to commemorate DR Congo’s part in the birth of the nuclear age. The US obliged.
The reactor building in question.
In 1958 Congo’s first nuclear reactor was constructed at the University of Kinshasa with the second coming in 1972; ample time to rethink the wisdom of the decision one would think. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that the US seemed to acknowledge the non-ideal nature of having a couple of nuclear reactors in a state of decline in the perennially unstable Congo. The US cut off access to spare parts hoping that would convince them to shut up shop. They did not, and instead were just pushed to improvise their own ingenious solutions – DIY nuclear reactor maintenance, if you will. One reactor has been out of action since 1970, while the second stopped functioning in 1992 after electrical problems rendered the reactor impossible to control. At last count the reactors held 138 nuclear fuel rods. The result being huge risk for zero gain, beyond being able to puff our your chest at having your own nuclear reactors.
Naturally the International Atomic Energy Agency sees the existence of the reactors as a disaster waiting to happen. One such disaster would be having radiation contaminate the water supply of the 11 million people living on the reactors’ doorstep. The fact that the reactors are built in an area known for subsidence means it is a real possibility. The reactors however aren’t just at risk from below, in 2000 one of the reactor walls was struck by a piece of metal that either came from a missile or metal that fell from a plane flying overhead.
And if the accidental release of nuclear material isn’t concerning enough, consider the intentional stealing of it. Security at the facility is lax to say the least. There is no video surveillance and the fences around the facilities have holes and large gaps that many university students use as a shortcut across campus. Farmers grow vegetables in the reactor facility next to the nuclear waste storage building.
In the late 1970s a previous director of the facility lent someone his keys, apparently not realising the master key to the reactor was on it. The key disappeared along with two rods of enriched uranium. Back in 1998 Italian authorities found one of the rods in Rome. The rod was seized from the Sicilian Mafia who were looking to sell it to buyers in the Middle East for almost $20 million apparently. The other fuel rod is still unaccounted for. True story.
The same building but with the old paint job. Fort Knox it ain’t.
According to the most recent reports on Kinshasa nuclear reactors I could find, at the moment one could access these fuel rods with just three snips of a bolt cutter. Or by paying off a guard or technical who receive on average a months salary of $100. It is no surprise then that the US government has been trying to persuade Congo to handover much of their enriched uranium. I don’t know how they have gone with that.
The following day we were helped once more by the bikers to line up our Cameroon visas. For travelling up the West Coast we have heard (and later found it to be the case) that it is generally easier to secure a visa for a country from at least one country away. Strangely it can often be a hassle trying to get a visa for a country from its neighbouring country. The capital cities of Democratic Republic of Congo (Kinshasa) and Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) are separated by the Congo River and no more than 1.8 km. These world’s closest capital cities were our last options for getting our Cameroon visas. On one side of the river we had friends to hang out with. On the other side we didn’t. It was a no brainer to get the visa in Kin.
Word was put out amongst the bikers looking for anyone who had any good contacts with the Cameroon embassy that could facilitate us getting our visas with minimal hassle. Sure enough someone in the group knew a woman who works for an African wildlife fund who regularly deals with the Cameroon embassy when securing the visas for researchers that go to Cameroonian side of the Congo jungle to study bonobos and low-land gorillas.
Getting an awesome feed with Farid and Joseph at one of Kin’s most popular Lebanese restaurants.
This place was pumping….and surprisingly cheap for these parts.
The lady came with us to the embassy and through her we got an audience with the advisor to the consul and he basically said ‘no worries’ we could get the visa despite not having an air ticket, address or invitation letter as if officially required. All we then had to do was pay the small fortune for the visas (US$150 each plus a little USD10 “payment” to the front desk administrator to not decelerate the process) and pick them up the next day.
We went to celebrate our visa win with yet more pizza. Once we hit the first bit of tar after our Congo crossing Mick and I had started discussing in detail all the food we were going to eat when we got to Kinshasa. We had lofty food goals. We agreed we would eat one entire pizza after the next before hitting some French patisseries hard. It therefore came as a surprise when it came to it we could only get 2/3 of the way through one thin crust pizza, working together. Our stomachs had shrunk that much on the trip. That night we caught a look at ourselves and noted how much weight we’d lost in the last 10 days. We’d guess we had both lost more than 5kg.
Patrick and Alberto
When the group found out we were engaged they fashion some rings out of tin foil and insisted on a very public faux marriage in the restaurant.
Farid sporting a South Sydney Rabbitohs cap
With most of the logistics sorted Mick then set about getting the bikes in order while I got a blog uploaded while the wifi was good. We were quite impressed with ourselves managing to get two blogs written and uploaded while in DRC. Oh how our discipline has waned since.
The bike work required was more extensive than we had expected. The off-road crossing did an absolute number on the bikes. Mick changed the old chains and sprockets over as they were completely trashed. Mick was gob-smacked at the condition of the chains in particular. Mick ordered new chains and sprockets while we were in Ethiopia to pick up in Zambia (the challenges of overlanding logistics in Africa), the intention being to pick up the chains and sprockets in Lusaka and put them on before crossing into DRC.
Mick getting my bike in order. Swapping chains and sprockets.
At the time of arranging for our mate to bring a bunch of new consumables to Lusaka from South Africa, our current chains had 22,000km on them. By the time we got to Zambia they’d have about 30,000km and Mick figured they would be ready for a change. Yet when we arrived in Zambia the chains were in extremely good nick. They looked like they could easily go another 4,5 maybe even 7000km, no worries.
So we were faced with two unattractive options; carry about 9kg worth of new chains and sprockets across DRC, or save weight and ditch expensive consumables earlier than necessary, and then rapidly wear brand new chains and sprockets through 1500kms of sand and mud. In the end Mick opted to take the weight hit and squeeze all the life from our current chains and sprockets while preserving our new gear for the other-side of the Congo. However, just 2500km later in Kinshasa, they were completely and utterly knackered. It appears 2500kms of DR Congo does 3 times damage of regular riding.
Mick also changed both our front and rear brakes. Once again they were in great condition when we started the crossing. Now they were totally shot. My rear brakes were utterly gone, the mud not only took the pads but took the rear caliper rubber slide pin bushes as well, damaging the caliper and the slide pins in the process. Mick replaced these bushes, plus both bikes rear brake pads and my front pads all from spares he’d been carrying.
After getting my bike in a respectable state, Mick took his bike apart to inspect the damage wrought on the trail. His bike had been getting hotter than normal while riding into town, which pointed to trouble. Cleaning the mud out of he oil cooler helped, but didn’t resolve the problem. On top of that, his new clutch was slipping.
Not the first or last time we would sully a nice hotel car park by turning it into a workshop.
First up he took out the clutch and cleaned up all the grooves in the clutch fingers with sandpaper, and also filed off the sharp edges of the clutch basket’s broken finger. We also roughed up the clutch plates with sandpaper. Next up Mick pulled out the oil filter and immediately realised something he had failed to consider while undertaking his roadside clutch repair days back. The heat, crowds and exhaustion led to a lapse in judgment that went on to dog Mick’s bike for months and months.
Stuffed oil filter full of bits of clutch. It is pulled apart a bit here as Mick wanted to see if anything got past the screen.
The filter was completely destroyed, having become so full of debris from the damaged clutch that it blocked the filter to the point the pressure collapsed it. It certainly explained why the bike was getting uncharacteristically hot. Mick kicked himself for not doing a proper oil change and removing the metal filled oil while we had the chance in Kikwit. Instead we somehow forgot about it and rode the 525km to Kin. Mick couldn’t believe his oversight, I could – we were just so physically and mentally exhausted and not thinking properly. First things first then; we needed a new oil filter.
Mick seriously thinking this shirt is still has good life in it.
I went off with Patrick and Christine to try and source a new filter. We hit a few of the Kinshasa’s bike shops with no success – Africa, in general, simply does not provide service to bikes bigger than about 150cc. The oil filter search granted the opportunity to see that less polished parts of Kinshasa than what we were exposed to in the glossy centre ville. We drove past markets and down streets full of secondhand clothing stalls. The individual stores were immaculately organised and all specialised in a different type of clothing. Stores were perhaps 2.5m wide with their wares displayed prominently on propped up sections of canvas that extended high above, creating 12ft walls of clothing. I saw stall after stall of high-visibility work uniforms, domestic staff uniforms, school uniforms then walls of countless, pristine white martial arts uniforms; tae kwon do uniforms from a club in Miami, a Karate uniform from another club from Germany.
Absolutely everywhere you go in Kinshasa you see members of the ‘marche ambulant’ – the walking market place. This would have to be the most common form of employment in the city. It’s a tough existence that has people spending all day walking the city with a collection of goods and the hope of running into a person looking to purchase that precise item. You see this kind of thing all over Africa, but like with everything, the Kinshasa version is more extreme.
You’d see people selling sunglasses, a pair of dress pants, some straw baskets, phone chargers, belts, steering wheel covers, bottles of water, packets of tissues… anything you could imagine really.
We saw one man selling a huge oil painting of a river scene. His instincts for a sale were so strongly developed he seemed to sense the moment I looked at him from the second floor of an open-air restaurant on the other side of the street. He looked up at me and raised the painting in view of a sale. I couldn’t help but wonder what his chances were of coming across someone in town who happened to be in the market for a 4-foot oil painting. Would be trying to sell this thing for weeks? Months? Or would fate smile kindly and line him up with someone who just so happened to be in the market for a huge ass painting of the Congo River?
A downtown road side toy shop.
One of the best books on the DRC is David Van Reybrouck’s, Congo: The Epic History of a People. In it he shares a story of the daily life of a mobile phone credit seller that is so illustrative of the hard work and difficult existence of a member of Kinshasa’s walking market place.
The story centers around a guy named Beko, in his early twenties. He is one of Kin’s many mobile phone credit sellers. He works from 6am to 8pm, 6 days a week. On Sunday he attends church so only works from 11am to 8pm. On a good day he might sell $100 worth of credit of which $8 would go to him. But he has to pay off police up to 4 times a day to turn a blind eye to his selling in the street, which is not officially permitted. He either pays the bribes that can total up to $1.50 a day or he has his phone credit confiscated.
His bus trips to and from the city costs hours of his time and about $1.50. A simple meal for lunch might also cost him about a dollar or dollar fifty. He pays his aunt $1 a day in rent… leaving him with what now… around 3 to 4 bucks depending on bribes.. which he uses to support his brothers and sisters of whom he is the sole breadwinner. And remember – this is all on a good day. He has a university degree in education. Stories like this conflict with our general reality of effort yielding reward. That’s just not how things go here in DRC. Fate (and connections) seems to play a greater part in determining what opportunities someone has.
Farid taking my tired old bike for a spin. And another club member dropping in for a visit and to offer any mechanical help. This guy is DRC’s top BMW mechanic and takes care of the government’s fleet of bikes.
Anyway back to the oil filter search. It didn’t take long before we discovered a member of the bike group who was prepared to give us of his own oil filters from his Suzuki XF650 Freewind, which uses the same filter. He and his bike are based in Kisangani, far in the interior of DRC, but he was going to use his ample influence to get the oil filter on the morning plane to Kinshasa for us. There is nothing like the solidarity among bikers. We were touched. But we told him to hold on to his filter for a day or so while we continue to scout the second-hand bike markets. We didn’t want him left without spares of his own.
Our not like new second hand replacement. Beggars can’t be choosers.
As luck would have it another member of the bike club, Farid, spent the next morning successfully chasing a secondhand oil filter. It was over-used and utterly filthy and set us back an outrageous $US30, beaten done from a truly criminal $40. But this is Kinshasa and that’s what you pay. The stench of our desperation wouldn’t have helped.
That afternoon Farid delivered our passports complete with our new Cameroon visas. I cannot stress to you what an extreme achievement it is getting two Central/West African visas sorted in 2 days. Nothing in this part of the world is ever that easy! We shouldn’t have been all that surprised as there were indicators here and there that our new biker mates had some impressive connections in this town. One such friend of the club is none other that President Joseph Kabila himself. Kabila is a motorbike enthusiast but hitting the streets on Kinshasa on one of his fleet of bikes has long been off the cards for him. However he still appreciates bikes and it is for this reason the club has been known to pull up out front of Kabila’s residence before a group ride and rev their engines for him and get the big fella’s wave before setting off. He obviously likes this gesture, because if he didn’t…
Bike club members Alberto and Farid took us out to one of Kin’s best restaurants. We were embarrassed by our overly casual attire but excited for Italian food.
With so much in order it was time to celebrate. That night we were picked up by some bikers and taken to a niteclub of Farid’s friend. We stayed at the club until a little after 2am, which was a pretty epic achievement for us as we are total non-party types.
While at the club we met an English husband and wife that are getting involved in gold mining over here. We were both impressed and befuddled that they would jump into such a specialised industry in a complicated country with no previous experience in DRC or even Africa, no established network of contacts and no background whatsoever in gold or mining to speak of. Despite appearing to have no idea what they were doing, Mick seemed to think their actual business model was sound… so good luck to them we thought. We had a feeling they’d need it, we never asked if they liked rollercoasters, but we hope they do because with no technical knowledge they were going to get taken for a serious ride. Without good sampling data and a strong background in geo-statistics, production reconciliations would be impossible and their business partners would be free to take as big a part of the pie as they dared. Blind Freddie could see DRC is the kind of place that chews up and spits out the uninitiated, naïve or even the experienced expert. I’d imaging the chances were much higher for losing your shirt (if not more) than making your fortune here.
A bunch of the club members came out to see us off.
Still we couldn’t deny being utterly drawn to the place; the opportunity, the risk, the knowledge that this place might be too tough for us. We will never be the types to chase fortune, but chasing an adventure or a challenge is a different matter altogether. We started to daydream of what we might be able to do as experienced mining people here. We couldn’t help but be excited by one of the biker’s upcoming gold dredging project and enjoyed giving advice on what he should be doing with it. He offered us jobs, but we were still enjoying being unemployed… and we weren’t silly enough to think working in DRC would be easy.
While our paperwork was getting processed we just chatted….
..and posed with nicer bikes than our own.
Another member of the bike club entertained us with stories of the artisanal mining exploits (in this case, panning and dredging for alluvial gold) of friends of his in the DR Congo. He spoke about how he knew or knew-of people that had made a lot of money and others that had lost a lot of money… that is really how gold fossicking tends to go when people literally just run on luck. And with that another day in Kinshasa passed.
After more time and toil the bikes were in ok condition once more. And with Kinshasa burning a hole in our pocket it seemed the time to move on to Republic of Congo, our 15th African country.
More waiting at the port.
Continuing their campaign of incredible hospitality, a bunch of the bike club members met us at ‘the beach’ to see us off. Boris had arranged for a contact to help us on each side of the crossing and I am embarrassed to say we didn’t even lift a finger to get our paperwork settled. So with no effort on our side we were soon on the boat with the bikes and making our way to Republic of Congo.
Now the interesting part of getting the bike on to the boat.
Not easy work in this heat.
Our private charter boat.
It was a little emotional (for me at least) to be leaving such warm company and the country that had provided us with some of the most rewarding and vivid moments of the trip, if not our lives. Melancholy descended on the boat ride, though Mick might never admit to such a thing.
That Congo River has some current to it.
Yet more man-handling.
Our gloomy mood was not just a matter of struggling to say goodbye but also struggling to imagine a better outcome for this place that captured our imagination so completely. As ever the political climate in DRC at that time was not inspiring confidence and hinted at yet more turmoil and bloodshed in the near future. When we were there, rumours abounded that President Kabila’s was going to alter the constitution to allow him to serve more terms at the helm of government. Early protests to the move were met with fierce retaliation by the military with reports of up to almost 50 killed (but rumours of hundreds killed) along Kinshasa’s pristine new Chinese built boulevard we had so admired 10 months later. The fact that as I write a year and a half later the election has still not been held has confirmed the truth of Kabila’s intent to stay in power. Little good, therefore, can be expected to come from this situation. The most likely of outcomes are too sad to ponder really.
Look how hard that bloke is working. I think the guys were paid $5 each to get the bikes on and off.
Getting the bikes as secure as possible with one old rope.
Ready to roll….or should I say cruise?
As I think about the crossing now I can’t help but recall the tale of the Crocodile and the Scorpion that we have come across a number of times in our DRC background research. The tale is a popular parable for DRC problems but has been used to illustrate similar and varying problems elsewhere in the world. The original author is said to be Roald Dahl who wrote it to describe the situation in the Middle East.
Congo River scenes.
Last pics with members of our favourite motorbike club.
And just like that….we were gone.
It goes like this:
One day a scorpion on Kin side of the Congo River desired nothing more than to travel to the Brazza side of the river. He flagged down a passing crocodile and requested a lift to the other side. The crocodile was having none of it and told the scorpion he wouldn’t dream of taking him on his back across the river. “I know all about you scorpions, I’m not going to take you on my back only for you to sting me and drown me along the way.” The Scorpion responds that he would never think of doing such a thing, “why, if I stung you then not only would you drown but so would I. I would never do that.” Convinced by the Scorpion’s logic he relented and agreed to take him to the other bank.
The crossing was passing merrily as they approached the other bank when suddenly the crocodile felt a sharp sting in his neck. The crocodile yelled at the scorpion, demanding to know why he had done this. “Now we will both surely drown,” cried the crocodile. As the venom overwhelmed the crocodile and he started to sink beneath the river, the scorpion whispered into his ear, “this is Congo, don’t try to understand.”
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!