Blog 74 by Tan: Adventures With Opera Jack – Part 1

So there we were in Ouesso in the far northwest of Republic of Congo. We had no plans to stay. We were only there to get enough fuel and oil to see us across the border into Cameroon that same day. We were focused. We were determined. And then we were totally spun out to see a young white guy in a cap, walking down the street.

Smooth tar for the efficient extraction of natural resources. Wow. Cynicism from the first photo.

It really isn’t the part of the world you expect to see tourists so we couldn’t help but wonder what on Earth this guy was doing here. We figured he had to be either an NGO worker or a missionary. However before we got a chance to stop and ask, the fella was gone. It seemed a mystery that would remain unsolved. We got to the service station, filled up, bought a snack and were about to jump on the bikes when mystery young foreign bloke walks through the door.

Not far from Ouesso, our fuel stop before the border.

“We know what we are doing here, what on Earth are you doing here?”

We found out his name was Jack, from Georgia, US of A and he was in this far-flung corner of Republic of Congo for a rather awesome reason. We learned Jack was a trained opera singer on an illustrious fellowship that had him travelling the world experiencing different forms of traditional signing. He’d just spent time in the Torres Straight Islands in the north of Australia and planned to venture to Sweden to learn about the once outlawed form of singing called yoking.  Afterward he would travel to the Tuva Republic to study their traditional throat singing. Jack was in Ouesso in order to gain access to Congo’s Forest People known more commonly as Pygmies (however by all accounts they don’t like to be referred to as this). The forest people are famed(amongst those in the know) for their unique singing. The Egyptians more than 2 millennia ago wrote about the Forest People of Central Africa who they held in high esteem for their singing and dancing abilities. Figuring the Egyptians were on to something, Jack had gone to much time and effort to seek some out.

Fast friends.

We gave Jack his first proper coffee in a long while.

Jack became a big fan of Aussie coffee culture during his recent stay Down Under. But the poor fella was so deprived of proper coffee of late he didn’t seem to notice the coffee grounds had gone bitter with age.

Despite our desire to cross into Cameroon that day we couldn’t resist the temptation of a good chinwag with an interesting person, so we all decided to go to lunch.  Then all of a sudden it was 4:30pm and we were checking into the same guesthouse that Jack was staying at.

That night Jack told us of his present challenges in getting into the forest and finding a group to host and sing for him. Jack’s hurdles to this enterprise were manifold. Not only did he have to get himself to a village on no maps and somehow compel the members of said village to put him up for a couple of months, communicating though no common language; he also had to find a village with intact singing traditions, willing to sing for him. He had been in Ouesso for some time trying to get some direction on where to go and how to get there. He had a few leads but they didn’t seem to be going anywhere in the short term. And of the quotes he had gotten to try to get out to a village that may or may not welcome him was looking very expensive. He was unsure of what he should do. But he did have a name of a village that might fit the bill.

Even nomads have chores.

While Jack was sharing his difficulties in accessing villages to us, Mick and I gave each other a look that communicated very clearly the agreement that we should abandon all plans and help this guy out if we could. We told Jack that if any other vehicle could get to this place then so could our bikes. We told him that if he was up for it, we’d put him on the back of a bike and get him to where he needed going.

Bangui Motaba was the name of the settlement that Jack had been advised may suit his goals. This information was passed onto him by one of the foremost experts on the BaAka people (as the Forest people in this area are known). Louis Sarno is an American who one day heard a recording of BaAka singing and went on to track them down in Central African Republic and ended up living amongst them for more than 30 years. Louis was a committed devotee of BaAka singing traditions and his prolific recordings have made him a famed ethnomusicologist despite his lack of formal training. Sadly Louis Sarno passed away in April 2017.

General store in Ouesso.

An interesting take on the traffic cone.

Forest People are found across Central Africa, through both Congos, the Central African Republic, Rwanda and Uganda. However it is the Forest People of Congo (the BaAka group) that have been most able to preserve their identity and traditions. This is largely the result of the lack of infrastructure and development. Poor quality roads are such an obstacle to movement that they have kept at bay the ills of the modern world, but also its benefits. Education and health services are wanting at best or more commonly non-existent.

But the pristine highway that bought us north to Ouesso has gone and changed things.  Large-scale logging has arrived. And it was those logging roads that would get us to the settlement Jack sought. Bangui Motaba was only accessible by river until just a few years ago. It was with no small sense of sad irony that we would be able to visit the BaAka to hear their singing by way of the very roads hastening its demise.

The BaAka have had a hard go of things for quite some time. Such is the fate of many traditional semi nomadic groups they are easily dominated by outsiders. The Koi (ie. Kalahari bushman i.e. the fellas with the clicking language in “the Gods must be Crazy” franchise) are another example of this. They are also close relations. Small in stature, traditionally nomadic they are often pushed off their own land and denied their own resources. BaAka traditions have long been under threat but perhaps no more so than with the rise of logging. Logging has opened up access to their areas exposing it to increased hunting, migration, displacement, ready access to alcohol and just the general slow loss of tradition.

At our humble guesthouse.

Mick is still attempting to get rid of metal shards from the oil.

We had agreed to take Jack to a BaAka settlement, now we had to figure out where this place was. With the name of a village to work from and some second-hand verbal descriptions, we set about putting together a rough route map. With no maps to speak of, Michael and Jack headed for the local internet café. It was rough and ready and painfully slow, but the hope was it would be able to crank up Google Earth so they could try to pinpoint the village.

Repairing the collapsed oil filter so we had a back up to the new paper filter.

A dodgy spare is better than no spare.

Jack had a rough description of the place from Louis Sarno from when he visited some 5 years before. Jack was told the village was located at a bend in a river and he had a rough and possibly not reliable distance to get there by road from another source. Mick and Jack got on Google Earth and identified all settlements located on the bend of a river and then guessed the most likely spot based on the assumed distance. It was tricky as only some of the logging roads were visible, they had to just guess and thumb-suck the rest. Foremost in our mind was that whatever we did, we didn’t want to accidently cross over into the nearby Central African Republic. The security situation there was dodgier than a week old curry and we wanted no part of it. On this side of the boarder we would be sure to remain.

Now all of this internet-ing took two nights of attempts as the internet strength was low and it struggled with Google Earth. Mick would zoom and wait for the internet to catch up and then zoom in closer again then repeat. The first night he finally got zoomed in enough to get some relevant information when the guy on the next computer knocked the power board overloaded with extension cords and plugs and it knocked out all the power. Mick couldn’t face going through the tedious process again so put it off until the following night. The next night they got the job done.

The distribution of the different pygmy groups in Central Africa. It should be noted however that it is only the Baka, Aka and Mbuti groups who exhibit the unique polyphonic form of singing that Jack was seeking out.

With a map sorted, it was now a matter of securing supplies and gifts for the trip. Jack had been advised of useful gifts to bring for his prospective hosts. These included machetes (especially those with the flat end that makes them useful to digging), cigarettes, sugar, salt, cooking oil and clothing. Mick joined Jack on his shopping adventures as he had been given strict instruction by me, “for the love of all that is good and holy,” to buy a new shirt. Mick’s principal riding shirt ‘Big Red’ had deteriorated to such an extent it stank just to look at it.

Mick’s mud map. It would then be supplemented by us asking “Bangui Motaba?” whilst shrugging shoulders with much exaggeration to anyone we came across.

Jack stocked up on clothing of all sizes, bought himself a bucket for washing and at our insistence a couple of malaria test kits and treatments. We told Jack of our friend Pat’s recent experiences with malaria and stressed the point that if he tests positive for malaria he needs to get to a logging road and on a logging truck back to town as soon as possible. The treatment for malaria relies on a strict timing schedule for the pills that is very hard to manage while rocking 40 degree malaria fevers and the BaAka wouldn’t be able to help him with that. Jack promised us he would and we stepped out of worried parent mode and got excited for the ride ahead.

After advising Jack to look out for malaria symptoms we thought we better practice what we preached and do a malaria test on me. I had been feeling lethargic for several days now but this day it struck me as an abnormal level of fatigue. I felt utterly drained and at one point it felt a physical effort lifting my arms up.

The results of the test came back negative for malaria, which we knew to take with a grain of salt as results can be unreliable when taking malaria prophylactics. However I was pretty sure it was something else going on with me. I suspected some kind of parasite was at play. We’d been carrying a de-worming treatment for such an eventuality so I went ahead and started it. After what felt like a couple hours worth of some sort of major conflict going on in my guts, I felt utterly fantastic. So much so I can only conclude I had gotten rid of some stomach parasite that had be riding along with me for some time. I therefore highly recommend carrying a de-worming treatment for long-term Africa travel.

It was during all of these preparations that we all thought we might as well try and see some gorillas while we (and they) were in the general neighbourhood.  Jack suggested we could drop in to the Department of Wildlife office in Ouesso and see if we could swing a good last minute deal, we readily agreed.

The remoteness and sketchiness of the location means Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park only receives a very modest amount of determined tourists…determined and cashed up I should say. Not like us. We were hoping by being on the ground and with access to our own transport for part of the trip we would be able to get an affordable visit. In the end we got them down to $US660 per person by skipping the $400 boat ride up the river and instead taking the bikes until the access to the park. Between the three of us we managed to convince ourselves to ignore the exorbitant expense of the trip and just go for it. We agreed to leave the next day.

We were excited for the gorilla trip but a bit anxious about the money we were laying down. We were finalising our packing the following morning when the parks people called us and cancelled the trip with no real explanation. We figured they probably couldn’t be bothered catering to busted-arse travellers like ourselves. It was disappointing, but budget-wise it was somewhat of a relief at the prospect of dropping over $US1200 had us sweating like the proverbial gypsy with a mortgage. But now writing this whilst gainfully employed once more, I am filled with regret that we didn’t go back and throw more money at the problem.

Nenaphur “Lilypad” became our local. Much shooting the breeze happened at that spot over the coming days.

The piggies stripped and being loaded into the ‘budget’ option dugout canoe.

The next morning we got ready to drop our new friend with a bunch of strangers in perhaps one of Africa’s last nearly untouched wildness areas. We had breakfast and left a bunch of our gear at the hotel for safekeeping so we could fit Jack and his gear on the bikes. We felt a bit uncomfortable to be fully decked out in safety gear when all we could off Jack was a spare pair of gloves. Even though it is very much the norm to ride bike gearless around these parts we still resolved to take it very easy along the route. We didn’t want to break him.

We headed to the river port to arrange for our river crossing. It didn’t take long for a copper of some description to spot us and tell us that we needed to go and lodge our planned movements with them. Jack had already crossed the river before so managed to avoid a second round of bureaucracy. We did the long walk to the police station in all our gear in the stifling heat so weren’t in a great mood when a number of police started to lay the familiar groundwork for requesting/demanding money.

We were really getting worn out by this kind of thing. Republic of Congo had been bad for it, not so much the requests for bribes but the way they went about it. We’d been in Africa over a year by now so were familiar with this kind of thing. However Rep. Congo was the first place where the requests had been menacing, aggressive and very mafia-esque. We were fed-up by the unrelenting nature of it. Like other times we were left just having to sit there and put up with copper after copper having a run at us for payment. In this case it was a non-existent payment for crossing the river.

Not too tough getting them in. Note the barge in the background we had hoped to take.

We stood our ground and gritted our teeth until they nearly cracked. When they saw we wouldn’t be paying to cross the river one of them came up with the idea that our documents needed to photocopied and we’d need to pay someone to go into town and photocopy them. They seemed pleased they’d found their in, but then we went and burst the collective bubble by provided them with our own photocopies. Eventually someone senior came along and said we could go but there were a few police that were really shitty at us as we left. It hardly puts you in a good frame of mind.

We got to the port and started trying to get across the river. There were two options; by canoe or by the barge that took vehicles and logging trucks across. Officially the barge is supposed to allow bikes on for nothing. But not in our case, obviously. The barge guy was licking his lips and quoted us a ridiculous price. The canoe option was a lot more hassle and it would require us paying helpers to get in and out. And while the canoe looked sturdy enough there is always a certain element of nervousness that comes (at least for me) with crossing a big river with the bikes precariously balanced in a dugout. Both the price of the canoe and the barge option were going to be an outlandish 25,000CFA (USD45).

Unlike past dugout rides with the bikes this huge one seemed safe as houses…sort of.

It is a little hard to describe how Mick and I were feeling at that stage. Semi-muted rage might come close to the mark. We were just soooooo over this sort of Congo stuff. The feeling of being set upon everywhere we went combined with big man tactics of police and those of that ilk; having to constantly stifle our frustration in the face of explicit and implicit demands. After weeks of being on edge with guards firmly up we were starting to lose control, starting to get way to worked up to achieve decent resolutions and our decorum was starting to fly out the window at an impressive rate of knots. Jack did well to put up both with us and the hard bargaining bargeman.

Getting the bikes out of the dugout proved trickier.

In the end we went with the canoe option. I just couldn’t bring myself to giving money to the bargeman. The nasty, arrogance sprawled across his face just got me disproportionately angry, it was the same look we had seen on the mugs of anyone with any level of power over others in Congo. I wanted nothing more than to wipe it off for him. I acted like a petulant jerk. It wasn’t such a big deal for us as we did have money and could leave the place. Not so for others, and I was angry for them as well as myself. The difficulty and injustice of the place was wearing us down.

Fortunately we had this bloke’s help who was happy for the payday.

So after spending a lot of futile time arguing with them about the price knowing that we were getting completely shafted we simply had to relent. Jack did really well at dealing with it even though he was obviously annoyed by the openness with which they were ripping us off.

In the end the canoe guy was allowed to load us from the shore and we basically did all the manual labour to get the bike in ourselves. We got the bikes in without too much difficulty but getting them off on the other side of the river was another matter. In the end we paid USD6 for a couple more pair of hands.

We didn’t know it then, but we were in a different world on this side of the Sangha River.

Once the bikes were repacked we were off and rolling. It was to be slow going with Jack on the back and we kept our speed at no more that 60km/h. It was interesting riding and our laid-back pace gave us plenty of time to take in the surrounds which were night and day to the Ouesso side of the river. As soon as we were moving we found ourselves passing people of such diminutive size that we knew they were members of the BaAka group. Apart from one World Wildlife Fund vehicle the road belonged to us…..and the dishearteningly steady stream of logging trucks.

It didn’t take long to encounter logging activity.

One of the many.

After not too much time we hit a small township of Pokola where we bought some deep fried dough balls and confirmed we were heading in the right direction.

This pristine, primary forest had be opened up like a banana.

We only progressed another 80kms down the road before we made it to the outskirts of a timber camp called Ndoki 2. There was a security gate, which I think was manned by people from the department of forestry. The fellas there were nice and helpful and said we could camp next to their offices. It was a pleasant change from how we were generally treated by men in uniform. It was getting late in the day so we took them up on the offer.

Mick had been taking it easy with Jack riding pillion and had seen this sinkhole ahead of time.

We set up camp around the corner of the office in front of the MTN cell phone tower. The security guards of the phone tower were similarly kind and offered us the use of their kitchen area and a place to sit. We made a dinner of noodles and then set about going to bed. But before we did so it was time for Jack get singing. Jack had agreed that as payment for taking him into the forest he would need to sing to us each night of the trip. So Jack paid his day’s debt and impressed us all by belting out a French opera number. After Jack had finished the cell phone security guy started singing what appeared to be bible verses in French. After retiring to our tent we were serenaded to sleep by the sound of singing combined with the dull hum of the tower and a forest full of insects. We couldn’t help but smile to ourselves at how unexpected a day in Africa can be.

Jack got out to inspect it and asked Michael what would have happened it they had hit it. Mick’s reply – “Nothing good.”

The fellas getting nice and acquainted.

Jack was an incredible sport. Our bikes down have pillion foot pegs. In Australia it is cheaper to register a bike as a single-seater so we remove the pillion pegs.

The next morning we packed up and said our goodbyes to the cell phone tower guys and hit the road. We were hoping to find somewhere to get a bite to eat in the nearby logging camp but found it deserted. After downing a couple of biscuits we continued on until coming to yet another logging camp. This one was of considerable size with some impressive looking accommodations that could only have been for foreign management level staff. All the logging operations we passed up until this point appeared to be French or Belgian owned.

“Sorry Jack – I need to get a photo of you like that for you mum.”

At this camp we were able to confirm we were heading in the right direction for Bangui Motaba and get some dough balls for breakfast/lunch. We were also able to stock up on some more food. Jack planned to take some general supplies for his time with the BaAka but apart from that it was his intention to eat as they did. We were worried for the guy and I found myself going into full Italian Nonna mode and wanting to load him up with food to take. Knowing he would be there over Christmas we got Jack  a small gift of a couple of single serve Nescafe sachets and a tiny packet of hazelnut spread. We figured after a month of a forest diet it would be as good as getting an X-box come Christmas.

Our digs for the night. Lots of infrastructure points like this have 24hr guards that live on the site. For what period of time and pay I do not know.

With more riding came more logging trucks and disturbing scenes of pristine wilderness permanently interrupted. As we rode onward Michael and I had the chance to think about all it was that Jack was about to do and we were increasingly impressed, and to be honest, a little nervous for him. He was going to be over 300km and a river from a town, that itself seems a long way from anywhere. At that point we didn’t even know if this village would accept his presence, and if they did, we didn’t know if the village would be at all interested in singing for him. This could be a lot of effort for a potential non-starter. But it was to be his best bet…. and time would tell.

Jack had a gift for make friends.

Looking for some food…and coming up empty.

The best way to deal with the logging trucks…

…was to get well out of their way.

Towards the afternoon we arrived at Mbouli village, where Jack would need to negotiate access to the nearby BaAka camp with the Bantu village chief. The fate of the Forest People was such that they were in a feudal-style, semi-ownership status with the Bantu tribes. The BaAka (along with the Koi) are among the first people in this part of Africa. Bantu groups actually originated in the north of the continent and have travelled south over time, overwhelming groups such as the BaAka in the process. Historically BaAka were slaves to members of the Bantu ethnic group. While out-and-out ownership is disappearing, Bantu attitudes of superiority towards the BaAka endure. The BaAka are perceived by many of the Bantu group as wild, hopeless, dirty and simple, and thus has followed a long history of exclusion and ill treatment. It’s the age-old clash of between farmers and hunter gathers at play, with the latter seldom, if ever, coming out on top. With great difficulty I found, rentals in the neighbourhood.

There was no shortage of these trucks. The only bright side of their presence was that Jack would be able to get a ride with one if things went pear shaped in the village.

Me goofing off.

Upon arriving at the village Mick discovered that he was just one river bend off in his estimated location of Bangui Motoba. Not bad for some secondhand verbal details of a guessed location. After arriving there was a bit of waiting around until the village chief showed up and the negotiations began.

The tracks got narrower the closer we got to our destination.

The fellas in good spirits.

We were offered a cup of local booze while someone ran off to grab the head of the nearby BaAka camp. Mick and I sat back and left Jack to negotiate his access to the BaAka. It all felt pretty appalling to be doing so, as though the BaAka were the property of the Bantu village, but that was the way the mop flopped out here. Jack was well acquainted with the BaAka state of affairs. Luckily for Jack there was some semblance of a shared language as he had a decent amount of French to converse with through his opera training. There wasn’t a word of English spoken.

The negotiations begin.

Some BaAka from a neighbouring settlement.

Jenga, the chief of the BaAka that Jack would be staying with.

I don’t recall much of the details now but the initial price demanded for staying with the BaAka, (along with the gifts offered up to the chief) was an outlandish sum that was perhaps feasible to National Geographic photographers and well-funded anthropologists, but not a young, independent bloke like Jack. From very clouded memory they were after something along the lines of $US700, which they said would have given him several years worth of access. Jack explained that he was just a lone person not a rich, funded expert and that he didn’t have that kind of money. The negotiations continued. Once again we were impressed by Jack’s cool nature, patience and more than decent command of French.

Negotiations continued. Mick rummaging the French-English dictionary in order to keep up.

Getting settled for the evening.

Jack – one cool dude. After that ride and hours negotiating he was still in a good mood.

We were the evening’s entertainment for the village children.

Eventually a sum was agreed to that was nowhere the initial sum. Mick thinks in the end it might have been close to $100 that he ended up paying but we could be wrong. During the negotiations a number of BaAka from another community showed up and were dead keen to get the party started there and then. They knew most, if not all, foreign visitors to the BaAka were there to hear their singing. And they knew they could use that to get booze. Alcohol had become ever cheaper and easier to get since the explosion of logging. And in the face of a difficult and oppressive existence alcohol was proving popular source of temporary relief. And it was devastating communities and eroding traditions. We’d see hints of this during our short stay.

They were some cute kids.

The River.

Bath time.

It was at the insistence of the Bantu chief that we spent the night in their village before going on to the BaAka village that lied little more than 500m away. There would be no singing nor boozing that night.

We set up camp near the chief’s hut and swiftly became the source of much amusement to the village kids. We took advantage of a small window of privacy to have a wash in the river, which we later found out was home to a reasonable number of crocodiles.

We got just enough privacy to get washed before these guys showed up to gawk at us.

The only way to get to Bangui Matoba was to arrive by boat here.

Playing with the camera that night.

The village in the light of day.

Cut a pretty quaint picture.

The Chief’s lodgings.

Not a bad spot at all.

Shame about the crocs….but they paid us no mind.

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 and furnitures from EVA 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.

The colour.

Target acquired.

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 surrounds.

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.

The workshop.

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.

A nursery.

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.

Plantation views.

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.

Getting sorted.

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.

Our turn.

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.

Not great….

Also knackered.

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.”