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.
Blog 68 by Mick: Day 6 on the Dirt – I Love the Smell of Burnt Clutch in the Morning
Day 6 of off road riding
53km from unknown tiny village to unknown slightly larger village
Our progress for the day, all 53kms of it, shown in Red. The 5 previous days of off-road riding are the proceeding coloured tracks.
It was storming when we had gone to sleep and it was still threatening to storm when we woke with the villagers at sun-up. There were a few gusts of wind and the odd splatter of rain as dark and angry clouds passed nearby. If we were anywhere but the middle of DRC, we wouldn’t have even wasted the energy to stick our heads out the tent and confirm what was plainly obvious… this was rest day weather, one were you might mumble “fuck it” before borrowing back down into the comfort of your sleeping bag.
Starting out the day on the N1 River. Nothing like getting up in the morning and hitting some tough muddy trails on an empty stomach.
But this is Congo, you cant just “fuck it” here. We were in the middle of Kasai Province, which historically is one of the most unstable areas in the country, and we just ‘had’ to go. Part of our strategy to minimise risk was to keep moving and to move as fast as we could manage. So we packed quickly and got straight into our wets. We had been supremely lucky with the wet season so far, but it was clear today was the day that our weather luck ran out.
Stopped for a photo of the epic trails in front and realised we had a crowd of children chasing after us.
We thanked the old blind chief one more time for his hospitality on departure, left him a little bit of cash and some small gift as a token of our gratitude, and hit the trail. And within maybe 15 minutes of riding, the heavens opened in a monumental tempest. It seemed like the Congo was making up for lost time and tried it’s upmost to catch up for a slow start to the wet season in one storm. The road became a river in seconds.
Crazy times… I didn’t take too many photos as I was worried about the camera getting really wet.
We soldiered on through the mud and slop and flowing water. The ever-present ruts in the track were now flowing streams and took on a new dimension of difficulty, as it was now impossible to know their depth. Crossing from one side of the track to the other now became a lottery unless we got off the bikes and jumped in; were the ruts a harmless 10-20cm deep or difficult 30-40cm deep?
Dodging ruts on loamy soil. These ones looked deep, but we managed to split them ok. Still pissing rain.
The rain was starting to ease by this point
The rain eased after about 30 minutes, and we found a quiet spot and stopped for a muesli bar. We then settled into the groove of the morning… hard yakka and persistence. In the areas we could get off the track and onto walking trails, the rain drained off into the forest and probably helped firm up the sand. But on the track itself, the water sat in the ruts and turned the sand and occasional sections of loam that is constantly churned up by the 6×6 trucks into horrid slop. And the poor bikes suffered for it…
Stopped for a breather and a breakfast snack. The rain has stopped but the tracks are wet as hell… The rain, weirdly, whipped up this froth that you can see in the low spot about 20m in front of Tanya’s bike.
One of the many Mercedes 6×6 trucks that service most of the country and tear up the tracks in the process. These things are overloaded with tens of people on top and all sorts of stuff strung out the back to maximise the load.
Yet more excited children. You can see the truck covered in plastic drums for fuel and water going through a checkpoint. We had just come through there with no dramas, just a quick “hello, how are you, where are you going, ok fine have a nice trip”. Not all of them are corrupt and menacing.
After yet another bogging in the hellish ruts of the main track, our constant hunt for walking trails lead us into a village, and onto a trail heading north when we should have been heading west. I had the GPX tracks from Pat and some earlier travellers loaded on our GPS so I knew where we should have been heading, and we weren’t. It had been interesting comparing our route to theirs as we went; you’d think that there is only one option when riding the N1, but our tracks were actually not overlapping as often as you would expect. There are just so many little villages on either side of the track with their own walking trails that we were often out by sometimes as much as 100m, but always travelling in more or less the same direction. So when we entered a village on a walking trail and ended up quite a ways north of the GPX track, I wasn’t worried. But when we actually turned north, I was. We had unknowingly changed tracks, and we needed to correct it.
Ruts and ruts and ruts into the distance.
Where we could, we got onto walking trails. These were slow, 1st and 2nd gear, but easy to ride. And would have been fun single track if we didn’t have bigger problems to worry about, as you can see in Tanya’s facial expression. Looking back on these photos I can see the stress written all over our faces…
More walking trails, these ones grass lined, is more slow single track (more or less) on the bike
We were in a larger than average village on a crossroads of some sort and were surrounded by many very excited people. I’m sure these villagers only see locals and velo-boys selling goods from the back of their bicycles, so when two foreigners turned up on two big and loud dirt bikes, well, that was just the most incredible thing to ever happen ever and brought everyone out from the huts. I’m sure Martians throwing wads cash from their UFO couldn’t attract a larger crowd.
Getting bogged on the way into the larger village on the crossroads. Crossing these ruts was hard on the bikes… we needed momentum to bounce across but too much speed would just bottom out the suspension and case out the bike on the middle mound. Then you’re stuck. It was a fine balance.
Tan came back to help push me out, and got dirty…
We asked for the road for Tshikapa and were shown the way by an energetic crowd of yelling and screaming kids running back and forth all over the place. The kids didn’t quite compute that the best way to walk to the right track maybe wouldn’t be the best way to ride loaded adventure bikes, and they led us through a very soft section of mud which I quickly sunk into. I managed to direct Tan around the worst of it and she got to the other side without too much trouble, where she got off and walked back to help me push my bike out. That bogging was the first instance I felt my clutch start to go, I could feel it slipping and hoped that if I could get up on the pegs, get some speed and get some air through the oil cooler and cool the motor a bit, I could get some feeling back into the clutch lever. Because at this point of time, it had all the fortitude of a hot marshmallow.
Some of the crazy crowd on the edge of the village. By the time I got stuck in the mud and then got out again, we must have had 40 or 50 people following us. The cool hair doo of the lady in the middle is a very common one in DRC.
With the oil temperature reduced some lever pressure did come back, eventually, but God my clutch was in a fragile state and the trail was remorseless. Soft sand and mud are not good things for any clutch, let alone failing ones, and my poor clutch was given nothing but. It was the factory clutch with 79000kms of spirited use, with a Simpson Desert crossing and Cape York trip under its belt back home in Australia in addition to 51000kms of tough riding in Africa. It had done well, but after riding a few hundred metres of what is best descried as quicksand (no exaggeration… we and the bikes literally just sunk in it) its time was finally up. I conceded defeat and started thinking about where all the stuff I would need was packed, and looking for somewhere shady and quiet to whip the clutch cover off.
We missed a walking trail and ended up on the main truck track. This sand was like nothing else, we just sunk in it, you couldn’t stand still as our boots would sink down. I think it happened like this: the trucks as they drive by grind and throw up loose sand which then sits on the lip of the ruts. This super fine and loose sand then just “falls” into the rut during the storm as the edge of the rut eroded, meaning the ruts fill with very fine, saturated, unconsolidated sand. We stopped because the bikes were working hard and I could feel my clutch slipping, and I was hoping to get over onto an easier walking trail. To move my bike from here, I had to lift the front wheel out of the sand while Tans was at the bars pushing with the bike in gear.
We made that little sand bridge across the second rut to move my bike over onto the walking trail. With the slipping clutch it just couldn’t get enough power to move in the sand. Those blokes in the background help push Tanya’s bike out… I lifted the front wheel out of the quicksand, they pushed and she rode.
Bushbashing over to a walking trail.
I had been carrying a spare set of clutch plates for quite a while in anticipation of this event, and if I’m honest I had thought if we were going to need a spare clutch pack anywhere it would be here. So now was the time… the problem was we were constantly surrounded by people, and if there is one thing I really don’t like it is people looking over my shoulder when I’m trying to work. With the end of each village being the start of the next, people were everywhere, and we couldn’t find a peaceful place that I was hoping for. So I persisted, foolishly.
On a much easier walking trail… we stopped and let the bikes cool off for a bit.
Arthur the Meerkat and the trail ahead.
More single track walking trail. Slow going but easier on the clutch.
A car had come through here not too long ago, and had bashed its way across from the main track onto the walking trail aswell. Those ruts must be hell in a 4WD, as they are wider than the track of a normal 4WD and deep. On our travels we did see one 4WD driving the track and it was suffering, it had one side down in a rut and the other up on the soft middle, and was racing along bouncing back and forth as it bottomed out on the middle mount. It was an ugly sight… for a 4WD to do this route, I would set it up with cabin operated diff locks, big wheels and lots and lots of lift.
With Tan riding in the right hand wheel track and me in the left, we entered yet one more village, and all we found were yet more deep and loose ruts, and hundreds of people. On the intercom I heard Tan drop the bike up ahead. A few locals helped her pick it up, but she got bogged trying to get started again in the soft sand. And during this episode I could offer no assistance at all, as 40m back in the left hand rut I had gotten stuck and then managed to bury the bike rear wheel deep trying to get out again. The clutch officially died in that hole.
My bike… it dug this hole and tried to climb inside to die… You can see the crowd 40m or so up front, that is Tan in her own trouble.
Tan came back to help extract my bike; we just had to trust that no one would ransack her luggage while we were gone, and thankfully no one did. I lifted the rear of the bike and then lent the bike over to each side all while she pushed sand in the hole, and we slowly got the bike up and out of its self dug grave. We pushed the bike forward, extracted Tan’s bike from its own hole, and pulled up under a large tree. This was to be the place the clutch would be replaced.
Getting down to business…
Crowd is growing…
People sneaking up… closer and closer…
The amount of people who surrounded us was just incredible… at least a hundred and rising quickly. Pat had told us of a trick he had used during his recent crossing for dealing with crowds. He had many flat tyres on his trip and every time he stopped, he was surrounded. He resorted to marking a line in the sand around his bike and motioning that on the inside of the line was his space and the outside was theirs, and as crazy as it sounds, it works. I marked out a circle and everyone laughed at me but stayed back, giving me some space to get to work. I concede it’s an outrageously obnoxious thing to do, but with all the kids hanging around and getting under your feet it is necessary.
You can see how hot the clutch got, oil is burnt onto the pressure plate and turned it brown.
First drive plate smeared all over the first driven plate.
Pulling the plates out, it was still quite hot. I’ve got a pile of rubbish on the sand next to me, this plate was about to go on the rubbish pile.
I asked some of the adults wandering about if it was ok to work under the tree and they assured us it was fine, and amazingly, a plastic chair appeared out of nowhere for me to sit on while I pulled the bike apart. I was expecting to find one of the friction plates worn away, but instead found one completely in pieces and one of the fingers of the clutch basket broken. But there was nothing for it, other than removing all the broken bits I could find and replace the plates. After a lot of stuffing about, meaning I had to take the clutch cover off due to not cleaning the bits of clutch out of the clutch release pinion gear which left a really notchy action, and then again to try and properly seat a damaged clutch cover gasket, I put it together and test rode the bike to many cheers.
Bits of the first drive plate (fibre plate) and broken clutch basket finger. Ugly sight.
Taking the clutch cover off the 1st time… I adjusted the cable but the actuation was horrid, there was bits of clutch fouling the release pinion gear.
Cleaning out the bits after flicking them out from around the release pinion and shaft.
Part of the crowd, they had gotten comfy to properly enjoy the show.
Clutch cover off another time to check the gasket, it was weeping but I could not find my silicone… so it went back on as it was. A problem for another time! You can see the people crowding around… At one stage I twisted in my seat to grab a tool which I’d put down on the ground next to me and my elbow hit peoples knees…. Everyone was crowding around and I really don’t like that, it drives me nuts, but I just had to block it out.
With the clutch cover on and off a few times, the 8 year old factory gasket had broken and was now leaking. But for the life of me I couldn’t find my tube of gasket silicone anywhere, so I told Tan we would get going and I’d pull the clutch cover off and seal it properly when we stopped that night. I just needed to get out of there, the attention and noise was unrelenting.
The crowd by the end was up on top of us, they just snuck up and snuck up until there was no room to move. At one stage I was trying to move around and look for my silicone but I just couldn’t get to the bikes. I gently pushed people back to make some room and started saying “I need some space, I need some space” and they just started parroting it back at me… “I need some space!” they said over and over and over again.
Everyone was really happy though.
After my quick little test ride. Oil was leaking, but the clutch was working. So we left.
This bloke gave him self the job as chief security officer. When he realised there were so many people I couldn’t even move anymore, he went and found himself a really big stick, must have been 1.5m long, and started swinging it at people. Most people managed to get out of the way, but some didn’t and copped a really full blooded swing from that big stick… it would have hurt like hell. Everyone ran off screaming, a few toddlers got dropped in the sand and started crying… It was bloody crazy. But not long later they had all snuck up again, although this time they stayed a bit further back.
Hundreds of people….
You can see how this got quite stressful… there were people everywhere.
I think this photo sums up the mayhem of it all pretty well. Bit like a Zombie Movie…
Finally ready to roll. Ol’mate on the right is dressed like he just came back from shooting a rap video.
However, when the oil got up to operating temperature a few kilometres later, the leak was much more than I was expecting. A leak that was just a bit of an oil weep back under the tree had now turned into a full drip every 4 or 5 seconds. I had used half a litre of engine oil with the clutch change and only had half a litre left… which meant we didn’t have enough spare to have engine oil leaking all over the sand. So we pulled off the track into some shade in what was a thankfully quiet section with few people about. I pulled the clutch cover off one more time, sealed it up with the silicone which was hiding in Tan’s toolbox and got it all back together, this time not leaking any oil.
Few kilometres later… clutch cover off again. Thankfully it was reasonably quiet here, but people stopped as they came walking by and a crowd slowly built up.
Tans bike parked on the sandy trail ahead…
Everyone was really friendly though, apart from the bloke in the back. He looks a bit grumpy. I think he shat the bed that morning.
We only got another few kilometres down the track when we realised the day was done… it was a bit of a revelation to both of us, “oh shit look at that the sun is about to set!” With so much action we had completely lost track of time and hadn’t eaten since our trailside breakfast muesli bar after the morning storm. So we pulled into the next village and looked around. It was a friendly place, a few of the ladies looked at us and smiled, and a bunch of kids materialised from nowhere to gawk at us, jump around and chatter excitedly.
And this guy is also allergic to smiles…
Ahh that’s not true, some people like to have photos taken, but once in front of the camera they get really serious. This young guy was one fella like that – happy in the flesh, serious in the photo.
When we had met Richard in Nairobi, an experienced British Overlander who had crossed the Congo 4 times, he gave us a bit of advice, that “the time will come when you just have to trust the people around you… there are parts of Congo where there is nowhere to camp, there are too many people and the jungle is too thick, all you can do is find the local Chief, ask him if you can stay in his village and put yourself completely into his trust… that’s all you can do… you are safer in a friendly village than by yourself.
Crowd of kids gathered…
When we were getting ready to leave, this porter family came by… the father is actually in this photo but he is leaning over pushing and a bit difficult to see. Next time someone complains about their work or life opportunities in the developed world, show them this photo for an instant reality check.
We took that advice to heart and had used it the night previous to good effect. In our travels to date we had been through a few villages were we had seen mostly men which didn’t seem very welcoming, but most villages, like this one, had a mix of men, women and children and were friendly. Tan got off the bike, asked in French “où est le chef de localatie?” and quickly disappeared with a large group of singing and clapping ladies and children.
After what felt like 20 minutes, I started to get quite worried… When I was starting to wonder what my next move might be, Tanya thankfully reappeared with a larger group of singing and clapping ladies in tow. I asked her if everything was ok, expecting something must have gone wrong when she had met the Chief.
“It’s crazy, everyone is really friendly, but it is so crazy. It’s ok for us to stay in the village, I met the Chief and he is happy to have us. On the way to the Chief it turned into a full precession. Kids ran from hut to hut telling everyone there are white people here. Everyone was cheering and singing. Everyone wanted to shake hands with me and high-five… women kept thrusting their babies at me to hold. I dead-set nearly dropped one while trying to keep up with momentum of the crowd… trying to walk on uneven ground in the dark juggling babies. Everyone was so thrilled I can’t even describe it. The Chief was quiet but friendly, when I asked him if it was ok if we could camp in his village, and he said yes, everyone started cheering and dancing and clapping. It’s so crazy, you’re not going to believe it.”
We hopped on the bikes and they led us to the hut of the Chief. People were everywhere, hundreds of them… hundreds of them. Tan got off and took me over and introduced me to the Chief, who was well dressed in a jacket and sitting in a nice looking wooden chair. A few tiny plastic chairs appeared out of thin air and we were invited to sit. These chairs were for kids, so we had our knees up around our ears and felt we were sitting near on the ground.
The 3 of us sat there surrounded by hundreds of standing people. A young man appeared who spoke quite passable English, not great, but very workable. You could tell he had learnt from a book, as his vocab was decent but his delivery was a bit broken and pronunciation was a bit all over the place; half French, half African. But you could tell with a few days of practice he would be more or less fluent. It was a shame that he lived in the middle of bloody nowhere.
He explained that the chief was his uncle and he was the English teacher in the local school. When he mentioned those two words, English Teacher, the crowd erupted.
They went on and on, repeating the words, ever louder and louder. It seems these were the only words that most people knew and they just went on and on. We could barely hear ourselves think…
We made some small talk with the Chief, with the English teacher translating for us, and he offered us some food. We hadn’t eaten all day and were really hungry, but we didn’t want to be taking food away from anyone else when we had our own with us. In these parts eating once a day is the norm for many people, there is food but it’s hardly in surplus. But they were so insistent and made such a fuss about preparing dinner, that in the end we felt we couldn’t refuse. In the end they presented us with 4 small bananas cut into pieces served on floral porcelain plate. I suddenly realised how starved I was, but tried my best to eat in a restrained manner. The young English teacher asked us how dinner was after we had finished, “fantastic, thank you, the bananas were perfect”, and they were.
Everyone looked so outrageously happy with our presence… it was really something else. We asked the English teacher about all the people around us, and he explained that everyone was very happy… very happy for us to staying with them in the village, and that many people, especially the children, had never seen a white person before. It made sense, all the while we had been sitting, people had been touching us. Especially my arms… children would wriggle their way through crowd, spend a second or two touching my forearm, especially running their fingers through my arm hair, then running off shouting and screaming and laughing. This made space for the next kid to come up and stare and touch, maybe look at my beard, pull on some arm hair and run away. It was a near constant procession.
This went on for half an hour or more. There was some idle chit chat with the young English teacher who was polite and welcoming, but all I can remember is the touching… not in an uncomfortable way though, the scene was to happy for that. Everyone was just very curious; people carefully rubbed my head and arms, touched my beard, pushing on our knee braces, our boots… everything for them was new and exciting. And the noise… there was just constant yelling and laughing. Someone would point at something; our clothes, or boots, or Tanya’s blonde hair, or my bald head, and everyone would yell and laugh and point some more. The only light was a tiny lamp that the Chief had, meaning the only thing we could really see were hundreds of smiling white teeth reflecting back at us.
It was a relief when the opportunity presented itself that we could politely retreat from our chat with Chief, put the tent up, climb inside and finally get some personal space again. It was something we had lacked all day, and even though the din continued outside for another 30 minutes or so, we could finally relax in relative peace.
You’d think that blowing your clutch in the middle of Kasai Province, DRC, is pretty full-on… but that night… in the pitch black, in the that immense racket, being surrounded by that many animated people, looking up at all of them looking down on you, was one the most seriously intense things that has happened on this trip. As Richard had wisely pointed out 5 months earlier, “you just have to trust the people around you. That’s all you can do.”