Blog 67 by Tan: Day 5 on the dirt – Reflecting on the Butcher
Day 5 of off road riding
131km from Kananga to an unknown tiny village
Our day’s travel.
So by the time we did all the fuel gathering and money-changing Mick described in the last blog post, we found ourselves leaving Kananga quite late in the morning… but we were not in a hurry. A little bit the opposite actually. After hitting Kananga only 4 days after leaving Kolwezi, we realised that by riding 10hrs a day we were setting a cracking pace along the route, and if we didn’t actively slow down our progress it would be over far faster than we had imagined or indeed wanted. So slow down we did.
We had enough privacy to take a sneaky photo off the bridge out of town. Here we could see the relics of what looked like an old hydroelectric generator.
The bikers who had insulated us from encroaching police officers while we were changing money continued their guard of honour/protective swarm about us as we left town. Yahoo-ing motorbike riders, tooting their horns and goofing off excitedly, surrounded us from all sides. It was obvious they intended to lead us to the edge of town with the intention of keeping any traffic police well away from us. It was so nice we couldn’t help but smile. And it worked; this time not a single copper got the chance to fine us for any real or manufactured wrongdoing. It was a nice end to a less than ideal beginning to our visit to Kananga.
On the outskirts of town.
One of the Congo River’s many tributaries.
It didn’t take long before we were clear of Kananga’s city limits and we were back to the familiar comings and goings of the track. The crowds disappeared, along with most vehicular traffic, the noise was also gone and we found ourselves mostly alone once more. It was instantly relaxing despite the increased difficulty of the riding.
It is quite well known that one of the worst sections of the Lum-Kin crossing is the deep sand section between Kananga and Tshikapa. This is the one section where research had told us a full day’s ride might rack up all of 100km. Pat, riding solo on his very well set up KTM 690, had managed a whopping 98km from sunrise to sunset in this area during his recent crossing. She sounded like a doozy. The next couple of day’s riding was likely to be tough, but we were up for it. Despite mounting fatigue, we had found our DRC groove.
Sand. Everybody’s favourite. I think I was just getting started again hence the bad form.
Keeping up a good pace in the sand was made a bit tricky by the presence of people on the track.
While the road we had ridden north from Kolwezi to Kananga alternated between sand and red clay, we knew from now on it would be sand all the way to the tar. And it wasn’t long before it became increasingly soft and deep. Mick and I have done plenty of off-road riding and are comfortable riding sand. But this jungle sand was not too much like your conventional desert, river, or beach sand. Being the wet season it was quite water logged and heavy, but with the truck traffic constantly churning up the track, it was also quite loose. Normal sand technique of riding in the more consolidated vehicle ruts was just not realistic. They got so deep that if you were unlucky enough to drop in one, you were a pin ball bouncing from one side to another, and they generally weren’t even very consolidated as the very depth of them meant the sides would fall in making a loose bottom. So they were very unattractive, add to that the problems of being in a half meter deep rut when a 6×6 truck came along…
The next best sand riding technique of finding a virgin line to get up on the sand and wide enough to float around on was pure fantasy – the only thing untouched here was impenetrable jungle. So we were constantly picking the best looking lines, generally made by the velo-boys, either side of the truck ruts.
Even out of the ruts, it took a lot of effort on the bike to get through the sand without bogging or deviating from the often very narrow ridable line between the ruts and thick vegetation. Add to that having to keep up speed to avoid bogging whilst dodging pedestrians and velo-boys… it made it tricky. It was like trying to thread a needle while running. It took a heck of a lot of physical effort. And swapping sides of the track for the best line meant crossing the ruts, which was just murder on the poor bikes. But with staying in the ruts even worse for the bikes, there really was little to be done to spare the DR piggies.
In this photo the sand doesn’t look that bad, right? I mean the wheel ruts look fine. They are not.
Me wanting nothing to do with this rut.
We had to ride in the ruts for most of the time on this section of truck and it was slow and frustrating.
But then we found an easier line.
But to be honest it wasn’t until the following day that the sand got its most challenging. Today’s sand riding was just slow and frustrating more than anything. It was either sandy narrow porters track bordered by thick vegetation, or it was wide truck track that was rutted to every hell imagined. We alternated between these two types all day. Just when you were convinced that the deep sand on the narrow porters trails were the worst to ride, we would end up on some wide and rutted truck track; and then you’d realise that “nope, this is definitely worse.” Then it would change back and you would be like “No! What was I thinking? This is clearly more awful.” For me the newest challenge was the worst one. Yet to break up the monotony and momentarily distract from the difficulty, you welcomed the change… then cursed it in the next breath.
We found a nice little side track to pull up and have a rest and a snack.
Belgian waffles in the former Belgian Congo. We grabbed these badboys before leaving Kananga. Wish we had filled our bags with them.
Doing some intercom charging. Being able to chat was especially helpful during the ride – although most exchanges were groans, grunts and profanity.
Finding some sweet beats to ride to.
In the worst of it we sought out walking tracks directly through the villages, often riding within touching distance of huts while dodging villager’s chickens and pigs. It also had the added bonus of giving us more of a look at daily life in the village, from mothers battling to braid their kids hair, men playing cards and young girls pounding the fufu that is the staple of food in these parts. These village tracks were the best of the cheat lines and gave us and the bikes some rest.
The bikes were rising admirably to all challenges but it was clear we were giving them absolute hell. They were rarely getting into 3rd gear and were working hard, which we could see on the temperature gauge. Normal riding on the highway they sit at around 100 deg, but out here they were sitting constantly around 120 to 130C. That’s when you were moving alright, that is. Go through a village or almost get bogged and you we easily running 140C or above.
Our bikes are well set up for this kind of thing but in the end I would say a bike like ours would be about the upper limit of what should be used on DRC’s serious off-road. I think if you are quite decent on a bike off-road, at this size you can still enjoy the ride. But any bigger and it would just be so slow, and involve so much pushing and digging and muscling of the bike, that it honestly wouldn’t be worth the discomfort and lack of enjoyment for me.
We did get some easy and glorious bits of track.
But most of it was this diabolical shit.
Welcome to “Bog City”- population: Us
This was soft and chopped up but not too bad.
This thought was reinforced when we came across a few little China bikes on the track. We hadn’t seen many of them outside of the bigger towns and couldn’t help but look in envy at the comparative ease with which these bikes managed the track. They were lightweight and with such a low centre of gravity they made it look effortless. Our riding on the other hand could hardly have been described as such. Nevertheless, slowly but surely we progressed through the day. No crashes or drops or anything spectacular like that, just the odd bogging.
It was slow, tough toil; a largely uneventful day of determined riding in the peace and quiet of the Congo Jungle. A nice quiet day on the trail was indeed welcome after Kananga, and presents the added benefit to this blog that I get a chance to talk a little about the founding of the Congo Free State by King Leopold II of Belgium. WARNING: Heavy history comin’attcha!
Most of this was rubbish to ride but then the odd easy, flat line appeared. If you were lucky you could get on it. If not you remained stuck in you shitty rut for ages.
Arrgghh! Most of this stuff was awful no matter which line you took. The lines on the left were extremely soft and loose. The deep ruts were firmer but pin-balled the bike like mad. And the firm lines of the middle mound were extremely hard to get on to and harder still to stay on. And the firm line on the far right often ran out and dropped you straight into the ruts. Where you stayed until another option presented itself. That option would invariably be a bit shit too.
Soft and water-logged but far from the trickiest of stuff.
This stuff was really rubbish. And this muddy, foamy sand was really bad for the bikes. So we rode this line on the far left, which was physically more difficult-especially at the end of the day and in the heat and humidity. It was slippery and had a steep camber.
This subject represents another important link in the ‘chain of pain’ of Congo’s history that one of our online AdvRider mates (LotusJones) so profoundly described as being ‘so long as to bind so many’. It is also a good subject to ponder on the back of the last blog post’s overtures of police corruption. Corruption in DRC gets a lot of attention and I would hate people to perhaps be under the impression that this is somehow a problem with the Congolese themselves… like they have an inherent corruptibility or are more disposed to abuse power than any others. Because the fact of the matter is that this behavior, the abuse of power and exploitation, has been the modus operandi here since the first time the Congo was exposed to the outside world.
I figure most of you would have heard of Mobutu who ruled Congo for 32 years from the mid sixties, enriching himself and his cronies fabulously while his country crumbled beneath him. Well, before he came along there was a Belgian king named Leopold the second, who wrote the ‘Autocrats Guide to Pillaging a Nation’ which Mobutu read from and later perfected. Let me tell you few parts of the story of “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of the human conscience” – Joseph Conrad, author of “Heart of Darkness”.
King Leopold II – AKA The Butcher of the Congo.
The story of the founding of the Congo Free State is brilliantly captured in the highly readable book ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ by Adam Hochchild. To summarise: it tells the tale of a tall, awkward, ZZ Top bearded Belgian King with a serious case of ‘little country syndrome’ and raging ‘empire envy’ who went on to dupe the world, enslave a country and kill roughly 10 million Congolese. All rather obscenely, in the name of ‘humanity.’
It was the latter part of the 19th century when imperialism was all the rage and marriage to first cousins de rigueur. Subsequently Europe found its monarchies full of weird looking royals with colonial ambitions considerably deeper than their gene pools. One such royal was Leopold II, King of the Belgians.
Young Leopold was none too pleased with the tiny size of the country he was in charge of, nor the quality of the people who filled it. He never bothered to learn Flemish, the language of the majority of his people; such was his opinion of them. “Belgium – small country, small minds” he was famously quoted as saying.
Leopold, like many at that time, was convinced that a nation’s greatness had much to do with the amount of loot it could hungrily siphon from its colonies. And there he was, with a young, small, unimportant country and NO colonies, surrounded by the might of France, up-and-coming Germany, the Spanish and Portuguese empires and that of his first cousin Queen Victoria of England. Even little ol’ Holland had colonies. ‘Why couldn’t he?’ he (most likely) internally raged.
To add to his woes Belgium was afflicted with one of those pesky parliaments, which were destroying all the fun that once existed for a monarch during the old glory days of absolute power. A politician once delivered Leopold what was meant to be a compliment that ‘he would make a great president of a republic’. He was reported to have turned to his confidant and personal physician with scorn and asked him “What would you say doctor, if someone greeted you as a great veterinarian?”
So with democracy cramping his style at home, Leopold settled on getting a colony of his own so he could stand with the big boys and do whatever he wanted. So desperate was he for colonies that he tried to buy lakes in the Nile delta with the idea of draining them and claiming the land as a colony. He tried and failed to purchase a part of Argentina, then an island off Uruguay, then the Philippines, then Fiji. He even tried to lease the island of Formosa (modern day Taiwan). No luck. So he set his sights on Africa.
The colonial partitioning of the “Great African Cake”.
But just like a millennial trying to break into the Sydney property market, he found everything good was taken by the more established and well-to-do. The south was taken by the British and the Boers, Portugal had the old Kingdom of Kongo and Mozambique, the French, British and Spanish where all over west Africa like a bad smell, and East Africa was likewise taken by the Brits and Germans. But while the picturesque coastal properties were out of his reach, Leopold took heart to know that there still remained some 80% of the African landmass unthinkably (for the time) still under African rule and crying out for ‘protection’ as Leopold would later successfully frame it.
Leopold began following the exploits of African explorers most closely. Then, explorer extraordinaire Henry Morton Stanley came along, and opened up the heart of Africa like a fruit by tracking the Congo River from source to sea. And with that Leopold swooped on Congo with all the greed and grace of a seagull on a hot chip.
Target in sight, there still remained some significant problems for him, namely the Belgian people and parliament had no appetite for colonies. With ambition for power and plunder lacking he had to sell them a different story. He chose one of philanthropy, scientific discovery, moral responsibility, Christian duty and so-on and so-forth.
Working in Leopold’s favour was the warring in Sudan that saw Khartoum sacked, the Brits given the arse and General Charles George ‘China’ Gordon killed. Gordon was a devoted colonialist and had made a name for himself (quite literally) in China by bringing down the Taiping rebellion, which was rather bizarrely led by a Chinese Christian bloke convinced he was Jesus’ younger brother. A story for another time…
Anyhoo, Gordon goes to Sudan in the name of the Empire, feeling pretty shit hot after using far superior weaponry (and grasp on reality) to defeat his last enemy and is keen to do it again there. Only it doesn’t go well, and he finds himself a ‘Game of Thrones’ worthy death.
China Gordon meeting his end. His body was desecrated and thrown down a well, while his head was mounted in a tree by the evil child King Joffery…whoops I mean the Mahidists.
How this worked in Leopold’s favour was that Muslims thereafter were fiercely disliked, especially in England, the Mac Daddy of colonisers. And if killing the beloved China Gordon wasn’t enough, the leader of the Mahidists made himself as popular as a fart in a spacesuit by demanding Queen Victoria take a boat to Sudan, submit to his rule and convert to Islam.
This spurned an anti-Muslim fervor in England, which then caught on in Europe. Leopold was able to utilise this anti-Muslim sentiment for his own purposes… the first and last time in history a politician was ever able to do that… ahem. You see Leopold had found his ‘in’ into the Congo. He was going to oppose the ‘Afro Arab’ slave trade, then centered on the island of Zanzibar and sourcing its human wares from Central Africa. And with bait set, the international community took it hook, line and sinker.
Then with a breathtaking amount of political maneuvering and duplicity on the back of some serious House of Cards/Game of Thrones type scheming, Leopold got his colony. Leopold’s politicking at the time makes Frank Underwood and Little Finger appear positively small fry. Leopold managed to get the Congo Free State not under the name of Belgium, but under his own. An international consensus and stroke of a pen made him the world’s largest landowner, now in possession of a territory 76 times larger than Belgium itself. Leopold for the win!
And what does one do when granted unlimited power? Well, you abuse it… naturally. It started with the veracious plunder of ivory. But as much of the stuff as they took from the place, it wasn’t nearly enough to balance the Free State’s books. It wasn’t an instant success this colony. To help him “civilise” the Congo better he hired the “Afro-Arab” slavers to govern parts of the colony.
Ivory – the plastic of the day. Easy to carve and shape, used for piano keys, chess pieces, combs, canes, snuff boxes, you name it.
However success for Leopold and the real pain for Congo came when a veterinarian in Belfast helped fix his son’s tricycle wheel. Dunlop was his name and he had just invented the pneumatic tyre. The bicycle craze resulted and led headlong into the automobile craze, which ushered in a rubber rush of epic proportions.
Dunlop testing out the innocent innovation of the pneumatic tyre that indirectly led to the deaths of millions. How’s that for a butterfly effect for ya?
Congolese tapping wild rubber vines
Cultivated rubber plantations would eventually spring up in colonies over the globe but these were time consuming and capital intensive to establish. This lag time granted Leopold, in possession of a huge country literally half covered in wild rubber vines, a significant head start in the rubber game. Twenty years, it turned out. In these twenty years Leopold employed the most brutal of tactics and unleashed new standards of cruelty to get as much rubber to Europe as humanly possible.
The world was not fooled by Leopold’s claims of noble intentions. Many saw it for what it was. Newspaper cartoons of 1908 and 1906.
Ever impossible quotas for rubber production were placed on villagers, which resulted in what was essentially enslavement. Villagers would have to spend 24 days a month in the jungle harvesting rubber in order to pay their taxes. This left precious little time or energy for farming. Starvation resulted. Not to mention death by overwork.
The ‘Force Publique’ was the name given to those charged with enforcing Leopold’s will across the colony. The tool of their sadistic trade was the chicotte, a whip made of dried hippopotamus hide with razor sharp ends. To compel the men to continue harvesting rubber, or in the words of the Force Publique, to keep their “volunteers” “motivated”, their wives and children were routinely kidnapped and held in cages, where, if they survived the abuse and starvation, they would be released when the quota was reached. Only to be taken again the following month. And that was the closest thing to a happy outcome for Congolese in the rubber areas.
When quotas weren’t met they faced amputation of hands or feet usually, but ears, noses and lips were also up for grabs. People more often than not did not survive the punishment. Often rather than incapacitate or kill the strong men through amputation the Forces Publique would cut the hands off his wife or children. It was quite simply a reign of terror, the brutality of which led Mark Twain (a fierce protestor against Leopold) to remark on “the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.”
“Nsala of Wala contemplates the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter Boali, in 1904.” A military aide of Leopold’s told a story of how Leopold once saw a newspaper cartoon depicting him cutting off the hands of Congolese. Leopold scoffed saying “Cut off hands, that’s idiotic! I’d cut off all the rest of them, but not the hands. That’s the one thing I need in the Congo.” Years later his second illegitimate son (to his teenage former call girl mistress) was born with a deformed hand. Newspapers wildly critical of Leopold depicted the birth defect as ‘vengeance from on high’.
The movie Apocalypse Now was strongly inspired by the book ‘Heart of Darkness’, written by Joseph Conrad. Conrad had worked a year in the Congo Free State in 1890 and witnessed first hand the greed and human degeneration that later became the themes of his book. Despite one being set in Congo, the other in Vietnam, both explore the notion of a savagery at the heart of man and the violence and turmoil that can result from the imposition of one culture over another; through trade in the case of the book and war in the case of the movie.
The Belgian Force Publique officer, Leon Rom. Both the movie and the book centre around a mysterious, almost God-like/anti-hero figure of Mr Kurtz (book) and Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando’s character in the movie). Leon Rom, is the person some historians think inspired the character. Rom’s barbarity was legendary and he was known to decorate his garden with human skulls, just like Mr Kurtz in the book and like Kurtz in the movie if memory serves. More than a century after his evil exploits Leon Rom became the bad guy in the 2016 movie remake of Tarzan. He has also served as the inspiration for the villian in two separate video games including one from 2012 game Spec Ops: The Line, which is a modernised adaptation of Heart of Darkness and has a similar Kurtz figure named Colonel John Konrad. Weird, hey.
But eventually the nightmare conditions in the Congo Free State reached the outside world. Much of the earlier reports came from missionaries and people with insufficient influence or media savvy to go against the cunning evil genius of Leopold. But eventually Leopold met his match in a principled British shipping clerk and gifted media man named Edmund Morel.
Edmund Morel became one of the greatest humanitarian crusaders of all time. Intelligent, fearless and incorruptible. Also had mad mo’ game.
Morel was working for a shipping company servicing the Free State and he noticed something was off when ship manifests showed untold riches constantly arriving in Belgium but little but arms, ammunition and chains were sent in return. Knowing that Congolese where not permitted to use cash, the only explanation for the trade imbalance was that the Congolese weren’t being paid for their work or commodities extracted; slave labour and wholesale theft in other words; perhaps the largest the world had ever seen. He didn’t take this lying down.
This fascinating Irish character, Rodger Casement, was also integral in exposing Leopold’s crimes in the Congo. Responding to public outcry the British government sent Casement to investigate Leopold’s Free State. Casement went deep into the matter and produced a report that laid bare Leopold’s reign of terror. He was later sent to do the same thing in the Amazon rubber plantation where, you won’t believe it, he uncovered worse atrocities. But his work with the subjugated people of the Congo and Amazon ignited his passion for Irish independence that led him to turn traitor against England when he made an arms and troop deal with the Germans in WW1. He was hung for treason in 1916, just 5 years after receiving a knighthood for his Congo/Amazon humanitarian work. An amazing tale (that becomes a bit sordid) you can read about in ‘The Dream of the Celt” by Mario Vagas Llosa.
One of the many grand constructions built by Leopold with his Congo profits. This is the Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren. Towards the end of his life he gifted all these constructions to the Belgian government – but not out of generosity. By gifting them to Belgium he still got to enjoy them but didn’t have to pay the huge sums to service and maintain them. It also helped him as he had for many years been trying to change Belgian inheritance law so his daughters (who he was not at all fond of) could not inherit any of his assets. He gave the assets away and the daughters missed out. This guy!
Have you ever looked back on horrific periods in history and wondered how ever did people stand by while this was happening? “Why didn’t they do anything?” History tends to record poorly the levels of opposition and resistance to some of its worst periods; the dissent and good intentions of many are often drowned out by the harshness of the episode in question. Well, take comfort in knowing that at the height of criticism for Leopold, the world was standing up to him. In the United States hundreds of protests against Leopold’s Congo were held. In England there were 300 hundred protests a year drawing as many as 5,000 people at a time. In Italy a duel was fought over it, even. Speeches in protests against him swept the world and even made it as far as Australia and New Zealand.
By 1908, the international pressure was so intense that Leopold had no recourse but to handover his Congo Free State to the Belgian government. But he was none too pleased about it so he made Belgium pay handsomely for it. Under Leopold’s orders, 8 full days were spent burning all records of the Congo Free State. Leopold is reported to have said, “I will give them my Congo, but they have no right to know what I did there.” And he did pretty well, for a pretty long time, at keeping much of his activities under wraps.
King Leopold II, commonly known as the ‘Butcher of the Congo’, died peacefully on the 44th anniversary of his coronation in December 1909, less than a year after handing over “his Congo”. In the 23 years of his rule over the Congo Free State, historians conservatively estimate Leopold personally amassed the equivalent of $1.1 billion in today’s money. In the same period it is believed the population of Congo was halved to around 10 million. All this, without ever setting foot in the place.
Belgium hasn’t done a great job of acknowledging the horrors of its past (like at all…at all)…but then again how many countries have? This monument called ‘Gratitude of the Congolese’ resides in the seaside town of Oostende, once beloved by King Leopold. It shows mostly Congolese men, at his feet looking up to Leopold with awe and respect, I guess. In 2004 a protest group removed one of the hands of the Congolese in recognition of the brutal practice that prevailed under Leopold. The council decided not to replace it. Hardly confronting ones history head-on but better than nothing I suppose.
When the Belgians took charge of the Free State they gave it a new name and made it technically illegal to randomly kill Congolese. Wow, much generous! Many humanity! What a time to be alive! However, whippings with the chicotte, terrorising Force Publique tactics and mutilations continued for many years. And just about every cent of profit extracted from the Congo went directly out of the country until independence in 1971.
Then their first democratically elected prime minister was executed.
Then civil war broke out.
And then came Mobutu.
The Horror! The Horror!
But fast-forward to November 2015 (yes, it really was that long ago), two infinitely less ambitious foreigners were getting tired after their day’s toil.
It was getting late into the afternoon and the storm clouds were gathering again. We started looking for a place to park up and camp for the night. But this side of Kananga, things weren’t going to be so easy camp-wise for us. The forest was just too dense to allow for pulling off the track and setting up camp. Any time we found somewhere to leave the track, it was drainage trenches that had been dug for collecting water. With the storm clouds threatening, none of these would do. It seemed bush camping was over and it was time to camp in villages.
After looking for a place to leave the trail for some time we came across what you see in front of me. On inspection we found out they were irrigation ditches with no cover.
Ending the day on some easy…
…yet slippery stuff.
We set about finding a village that gave us good vibes. We’ve read of some pretty scary experiences that had happened with other travellers when they chanced across some unsavory characters in not so hospitable villages. But we weren’t too concerned, as during our year and half on the road we had gained a quite reliable gut feeling and intuition when it came to people and places. For me the first sign of a good village is when you see kids and adults interacting with each other.
Sure enough we soon came upon a place with just that. It was also very small, very low key and shockingly poor. I had instant good feeling about the place so pulled up and asked in French for the chief of the locality. I don’t think much French was spoken in the village but they knew whom I was asking for. I was immediately taken to the old man in charge of the village. He was old and very frail and either mostly or fully blind. I could hear the villagers describing us to him.
As soon as we showed up we were given chairs… and a baby.
He was a cute little fella.
The kids were pretty excited by our presence.
Especially this guy.
The gentle old fella shook our hands and indicated we were welcome to stay the night and they told us we could put up our tent up right next to the chief’s house. We were under his hospitality now and we felt just about completely comfortable in the village and welcomed the thought of a good night’s sleep.
They were far from shy.
And very photogenic.
Our tent was between the chief’s hut and one of the wives huts.
While we still had a tiny bit of energy left we scrubbed away mud from the lower stations with a toothbrush, and cleaned out the fork seals with some WD40.
After serving as the early evening entertainment for the kids of the village the storm clouds started to gather steam and people soon retired to their huts. As usual we hadn’t eaten all that much throughout the day and were looking forward to a quick salt-laden meal before retiring. We opted for the easiest option of a dehydrated space food meal between us and a cup of sweet tea. The rain started. How heavy it was and how long it fell for remained unknown to us. Sleep came within moments of putting head to pillow.
This brick hut with corrugated iron belonged to the old chief. We were too shy to ask for his photo.
Congo storm clouds-a-brewin’
Blog 66 by Mick: Day 4 on the Dirt – A Congo Copper’s Welcome to Kananga
Day 4 of off road riding (+ 2 rest days)
204km Luiza to Kananga
Our progress through the DRC, showing the first full day in the country from Lubumbashi to Kolwezi on the tar, then Day 1 on the dirt (Pink), Day 2 (Purple), Day 3 to Luiza (Yellow) and the 4th day though to Kananga (highlighted blue).
We both slept poorly despite our fatigue. When we had arrived at the guesthouse in the late afternoon, it seemed the only tenants would be us, plus the ubiquitous goat that was hanging around and hopping up on everything. But from about 9pm onwards the guesthouse steadily filled until the majority of the rooms were occupied. Our neighbour on the other side of our wafer thin wall spent the night on his phone and, like an old grandpa, thought he needed to shout into it for it to work properly. So our rest was interrupted… to put it mildly.
The bed in the room… what to say about it… it had more in common with a middle aged torture device than a sleeping implement. Someone had “repaired” a bunch of broken slats by putting what looked like part of a packing crate across the bed’s frame, meaning one half of the thin foam mattress was 10cm higher than the other end with a big square ledge in the middle. As, our diary entry stated “the bed is a fuckup”, so it got relegated to storage space and we slept on the ground on our cots after applying a liberal amount of DEET… our surroundings seemed like an ideal breeding ground for malaria.
Getting ready for the days ride… muesli bars for breakfast. A few days in that blue shirt and it is getting pretty cultured now.
Can’t waste anything…
We got away at a relaxed 9am which was no problem as we only had 200km to go and we knew the road conditions around Kananga were good. We topped up with 15l of fuel and paid the highest we had paid on the trip so, 2000 francs (~US$2.15) per litre. That’s the cost of freighting goods along these terrible roads.
Black market fuel in Luiza. It was clean looking but we used our in tank filters anyway, which caught nothing. The guy pouring the fuel thought it was pretty funny we were filtering his fuel.
When we arrived here there was no one. Now, we had a large crowd of onlookers. Everyone was super friendly.
Having a joke with the locals.
Part of the crowd onlookers. The bloke in the straw hat spoke some basic English and was happy to use it.
Getting ready to leave our petrol top up. Congo has a reputation for being a tough and dangerous place, and while it is definitely tough, and sometimes and in some places it can be dangerous; the truth is that most of the locals you will meet in your travels here are like this. Smiling and friendly.
It was a pretty easy run to the outskirts of Kananga. We started off with some sections of rutted sand and fresh mud from the previous afternoon’s storms, but nothing too problematic and it all got easier as we got nearer to Kananga. The checkpoints were also pretty trouble free in comparison to the previous days as well, just the usual requests for ‘gifts’ but nothing menacing and that couldn’t be countered by some smiles and the “I’m a just tourist” defense. But while the riding got progressively easier, the cop situation did the opposite on the outskirts of Kananga… it is a major city in the centre of the country and as we had found so far – the bigger the town, the nastier the cops.
A police checkpoint on the way out of Luiza. These guys were really friendly and pretty professional.
Showing our international driving permits. There is a page in French on these permits and we found it really helpful.
Waving to some cute local kids. Notice the state of the clothes on the little one… they are just rags.
The main checkpoint on the way into town was far more serious than what we were used too. No smiles. No greetings. Just a big log gate, a few scowls and a grumbled demand to see our papers. Tanya is quite good and disarming these grumpy “strong man” types so she went into their roadside hut with our passports and international drivers licenses. Her French is also quite workable too, which left me redundant but to twiddle my thumbs and entertain the masses with my presence.
Some of the ride from Luiza to Kananga. We had glorious weather this day with no storms about.
Stop for a photo and the kids come running.
Thankfully the kids here are just curious and friendly. Kids in Ethiopia would be rudely begging and throwing rocks instead.
She came out of the hut a few minutes later a bit perturbed. The cop had put the heavies on for a gift and was pushing hard for insurance information. She had held firm with the bribe but hadn’t been able to wriggle out of the insurance conundrum, so she came out and gave me the bad news… it was my turn to go inside and have a go. We have found over time that tag teaming guys like this is quite a good tactic, changing the adversary puts them off balance and back to square one in their attempt to intimidate and pressure. And two determined people will always, always have more patience than one. And that is what these games ultimately boil down to… patience.
More of the red dirt savannah that we rode that day.
Some locals roadworks recently completed here. Local people will do a bit of maintenance here and there; cut back the vegetation and fill in the worst of the holes for tips from passing traffic.
There were many kilometres of sand to ride. All of it was pretty easy though.
The surly cop looked over my passport, and then asked for the insurance for the two bikes. Plan ‘A’ is always to ‘bore and distract’, so I gave him our international drivers permits… but he wasn’t interested in those and again asked for “L’Assurance”. So I move to the next thing he didn’t ask for, and pulled out the Carnet de Passage. I showed him the stamps for all the different countries we have been through including the entry stamp into Congo, and then the second page with all the details for the bikes, being sure he doesn’t look at the first page which undeniably says the documents is for “Douanes”, Customs. Thankfully, he liked the look of what he saw, especially all the official stamps, and started to copy down each vehicles details. Lucky, official bullet officially dodged…
This bit was very muddy recently… thankfully it had dried out significantly before we arrived.
Stopping for a photo – kids chasing after us in the background.
Funnily enough, he never asked for a gift from me (my terrible French aided with that I’m guessing) and we rode away 20 minutes later. We reached the outskirts of town and the road turned to tar, the first we had seen in 980kms, and were quite surprised to see the size of the town and the development. Kananga is actually a proper little city. There are quite a few cars and plenty of Chinese scooters, bicycles, roadside stalls and quite a lot of business going on.
Getting closer to Kananga – this is a beautiful part of Congo.
While some of the mud holes had dried… many hadn’t. Thankfully most weren’t long, only a few metres. Here is some axle deep mud we just had to plow through; there was no cheat line.
Tan nearly through – the michy deserts were decent in the mud (for a hard endure tyre) but they couldn’t clear this sticky shit.
We stopped for a quick lunch under this tree.
The shade was good and there weren’t too many people around. A few people did come past; one fella saw us then disappeared into the grasslands and reappeared on the track a hundred metres past us on the other side. One particular guy came past with an extravagant “Bonjour Mama! Bonjour Papa!” after we had said hello – language like that I think is a bit of a colonial throwback but we did hear it very often between locals as well.
Sending out a midday “we are here and ok” message with our InReach. We usually only send out messages when we are camping for the night, but in Congo we felt we should send a few messages out through the day as we travelled too, just so someone at least knew where we had been…
As we rode further into town we arrived at the edge of a market and there were traffic police controlling the movement of pedestrians and vehicles as they crossed every which way all over the road. One of them held up their hand for Tan to stop, which she did a metre or so in front of the policeman, who then proceeded to go completely ballistic. She gets surrounded by 3 policemen who are all very excited, pointing at her and the bike and the road, and start to grab her arms and the bike. I listen on the intercom as the situation gets further and further out of control, and decided I needed to intervene.
Outskirts of Kananga. The ladies are taking bananas and the fellas are pushing bags of cassava and yams to the markets. The ladies are seriously strong – that is a lot of bananas!
Tan getting nicked by the cops.
My first tactic was to park the bike in the middle of the road and block traffic. Doing this puts enormous pressure on who ever pulls you over to deal with you and get you and the vehicles that starts to block up moving again. It is a great ploy, and it really works… But the cop wouldn’t let me, I tried to stop next to Tan in the middle of the road but he waved at me to move on and get out of the way, and with the current issue we had with Tanya ‘not obeying’ what the cops wanted, I figured I better play his game and not have both of us in the shit.
The very feint “Stop” where she should have stopped.
I got off the bike and he tried to shoo me away, but that wasn’t going to happen. I start to talk to one cop but it doesn’t go well, he starts speaking fast in French and gesticulating at me, my bike, Tanya, the road, the other cops, everywhere… Tan at the same time started to yell at the cops as one of them grabbed her arm, I’m guessing with the intention of pulling her off the bike. The most forceful of the cops (Tan later told me) was stupidly pulling the clutch lever in like it was the brake and was crushing Tan’s fingers between the lever and the bars. With another cop grabbing her right arm she couldn’t release her pinned hand, nor effectively communicate in the mayhem that the cop was hurting her so instead screamed in English “don’t fucking touch me!”
I tried to stop here right next to Tan but the copper wouldn’t have a bar of it and waved me on.
That temporarily did the trick, but in the space of about 30 seconds this had quickly descended into, to put it frankly, a really fucked up and scary situation. Cops in DRC are nasty and don’t play by any rules, and the last thing we could allow to happen is being arrested for some questionable traffic infringement and ending up in some back room of a police station.
Four cops crowding all around, you can see how it got stressful quick!
The cop I was talking to pointed at the very very faint, bordering on non-existent, line on the road where Tanya should have stopped and goes off his trolley in French. I counter that the line can’t be seen from a vehicle, but realise soon enough that this is probably a dead end tactic. Arguing over where to stop and whether it is reasonable is just prolonging the issue. These guys don’t care about technicalities. We needed to move on, and quickly. One lesson we had learned from dealing with animated people (like the psycho mini-bus driver way back on the Wild Coast in South Africa), dealing with cops and speaking to many people through our time in Africa, is that you have to stay cool and not escalate any confrontation, and its best to just repeat your message over and over and over again until it is finally heard.
“It’s not a problem.”
“It’s not a problem.”
“It’s not a problem.”
My parked bike and the growing crowd of onlookers. The fella in the red striped shirt looks especially concerned…
I repeated it in a calm manner over and over and over again. Tan by this point had freed her hand, took my suggestion to calm down a bit and not say anything more, and set about ignoring everyone. Finally, the cops started to calm down, and with a considerable crowd gathering around us, pointing their fingers and yelling at the police, honking their vehicle horns; the scene was getting utterly chaotic. It was becoming clear that the wheel was turning, the crowd was either watching impassive or were totally on our side. The cops started to look a little unsure of themselves, and started to back down in the face of the mounting crowd. They clearly know their popularity level. The situation had very quickly gotten way out of hand for both the cops and us and it is these types of situations that you need to avoid because they can take on a life of their own. They just wanted to shake us down for a fine and we just wanted to avoid ever being there. And somewhere along the way both sides and quite a few onlookers had gotten to screaming, shoving and pulling at each other.
Me trying to calm the situation down… Tan meanwhile has retreated back into her shell and is trying to calm down.
Anyway, Tan and I still have our intercom running and I tell her “Lets go, lets get out of here”. In the lull I hop on the bike, and even though the police have not told us we can go, we just start them up and ride away. Once clear of the fracas we both breathe out a massive sigh of relief. In just a few minutes we have gone from cruising the main street, to looking down the barrel of being arrested and bribed, to cruising again. Welcome to Kananga.
We saw our opportunity and just jumped at it and left.
Tan was feeling bad for putting us in a bad situation as she knew she had handled herself poorly. She knew it need not have gone anything like it did. We might have gotten away with the usual smile, patience and apologies. But it started bad and got worse. She said she just struggles to keep her cool when people touch her in these situations, especially when the situation involves being surrounded by 3 hostile cops pulling her arm and crushing her hand. And the cops were so excited by a cashed up freighter breaking a traffic rule that they practically jumped on top of her. If she’d had the ability to say in French, “Calm down, I’m not going anywhere, please release the lever, you are crushing my hand” it might not have coming to both sides losing their shit at each other. But what happened, happened and the good thing was we got it de-escalated and out of the area.
We made our way to a hotel I had way-pointed in my gps from our mate Pat’s recent crossing. But we get a shock at the price, they wanted 80USD per night but even after dropping it to 50USD when we mention we want to stay for 2 nights so we can have a rest day, its still a lot of money, especially when Pat said he paid 20 bucks! We cursed ourselves once more for being really shitty negotiators. So we made like we are going to leave with the hope they will drop the price further as we headed out the door, but they didn’t. Damn, bluff called.
So we jump on the bikes once more in search of another hotel, but in what turned into a bit of a theme, we found more hostile police wanting their cut of the whitie action. At a completely empty intersection, 3 police standing on the footpath saw the bikes coming and ran out into the middle of the road and stop us, surrounding Tanya who is leading. Tan, still stressed from the earlier copper caper reverts to what worked so well just 20 minutes beforehand; shrieking crazy white lady. She was massively on the defensive.
“Why did you stop us? What do you think I have done wrong? You can’t just stop people for no reason! Just because you see foreigners! We were just riding, we did nothing wrong!”
The cops pointed at the road and motioned where we had ridden and waggled their fingers at us while jabbering away in bad French, as if riding on the road is some sort of offence. Their insistence that we had committed some unknown traffic offense was proved ineffective as Tan went on to point out 2 of 3 scooters doing the same thing through the same section of intersection that was apparently illegal.
One of the policemen got uncomfortable by the activities of his colleagues and walked the few metres back to me smiling, and we had a very quick and quite civil chat in broken English while I had one ear on the intercom. I got the impression he was the young off-sider and wasn’t comfortable with hounding innocent tourists, so was keen to disengage with what the other 2 were up to.
The 2 other cops started to back off, and in the lull we just started the bikes and rode away. These cops seemed to have no game plan, they just saw some foreigners so ran out on the road to get their piece of the pie, but immediately ran out of ideas when it came to executing and acquiring said pie. So within maybe 40 seconds of being stopped we were riding away. It was that quick.
We did find a much smaller and simpler hotel and while parking the bikes in front of we soon acquired a bunch of onlookers. On such onlooker was an old fella who once worked for some American Missionaries and spoke English well which kept me entertained while Tan was checking out the rooms and getting prices.
Getting off the bikes at the cheaper hotel. The older fella in the grey button up shirt was the guy who spoke English. He told us that there wasn’t really any other hotels in town apart from this one and the expensive one we had been too.
But despite offering a decent price (USD27) and seeming like friendly management we noticed huge speakers being arranged in the courtyard our room would front onto. A closer inspection showed that this night, being the culmination of a day ending in “y”, in true Congolese fashion was shaping up to be a huge party. Despite the legendary reputation of Congolese music we were keen for some decent sleep and not having music pumped directly into our bedroom deep into the wee hours of the morning. While we pondered the oh-so-common ‘money vs comfort’ conundrum, we thought we knock back a cold beer and a soft drink – our first in 5 days.
Beers on the verandah. It was a hot and humid tropical afternoon.
The bar was nice and low key and the staff were cool, and everyone else was more interested in their mates and drinks than us, which suited us perfectly. It was tough going from being on our own and seeing few people along the route to being the centre of attention in the towns. While I sorted out a cold beer and Tan knocked back a local cola (which she stated was awesome, I’m guessing the sugar content was through the roof) we notice two pedestrians walking past, one of whom looked up at the verandah and spotted us. “Le blancs! Le blancs!” he yelled to his mate in excitement. The other one looked up and the both immediately turned around and tried to come up on to the verandah. The manager of the bar stood at the stairs and blocked them from coming up, and they started to have a proper little stoush on the stairs. The manager pointed at them, at us, at them again, then down the road, I’m assuming with detailed instructions on exactly where down the road they might like to go. But the 2 guys would not budge, continuing to point at us and yell at the manager.
Tan and bar’s waitress. She was a cool cat.
These situations seem to be just bloody never ending… we can’t even have a cold drink without finding ourselves being annoyed by cops…
We saw the writing on the wall and immediately started to pack up our stuff. Tan went inside to sort the bill while the manager dragged the 2 guys out into the street to check their IDs. One guy was immediately sent packing and walked off down the road to the howls of onlookers, however the second guy seemed to be an off duty cop, and the manager begrudgingly let him up onto the verandah.
He walked over to me and speaking in French, he said something about him being the police and us taking photos in public. Before coming to Congo though, we had done enough research to know this is just another bullshit scam used to hassle foreigners. Once upon a time, it was illegal to take photographs in towns, however the law was repealed maybe 8 or 10 years ago. Plus, we had only been in town about 45 minutes and hadn’t taken any photos of anything but us at the bar, and that was long before he walked past and saw us.
I didn’t even bother with my terrible French, I just told him in English that it was an old law, and shook my head with a firm “No”. Tan came out from paying the tab and we just picked up our stuff, walked past him and out towards the bikes. He followed us, talking in French and tapping me on the shoulder but I just ignored him. Didn’t turn, didn’t speak, didn’t react in any way. We put our tank bags on the bikes and helmets on our heads while he persisted, but by now all the patrons who had been having a drink at the bar and out on the verandah who had seen all this develop now get involved.
From up on the verandah they are yelling at the cop, pointing at him, pointing at us, yelling at him some more. It is fantastic. There are probably 10 or 12 people absolutely feeding it to him. I gave the manager a wave as we left and I could see the poor bugger was furious at what has just happened, but was powerless to stop it even though he gave it a decent shot. Some of the onlookers told us what the police did was not fair and that they should not do it but that is what they do to everyone.
There seemed to be such a deep frustration at the corruption of the police force that I would have expected to be more below the surface than it actually was. However, it wasn’t suppressed at all, peoples resentment seemed to spill over at any opportunity. We were surprised to see so many people stand up to the police in any group environment and when the cops were outnumbered, they were scarcely tolerated and almost bullied by crowds. It seemed the average Congolese loved any situation that gave them an opportunity to remind cops just how far down the pecking order they were.
With three police interactions in about an hour, we realised we needed somewhere secure and private so resigned ourselves to returning to the first expensive hotel, all the while racking our brains to figure our what Pat said or did or offered to do to get a room for just $20. The hotel was nice and had secure parking behind a big high fence and once we were in there we were confident we would be left alone. I expect that the hotel owner paid for that privilege. That is exactly how it panned out, no one annoyed us and we didn’t leave the place until we left for good.
I read all this now and wish I could go back and tell ourselves to chill the fuck out and to get out an enjoy Kananga despite all this shit. I know we regret not seeing more of the place. But it is hard to be an energetic and inquisitive tourist while busting your gut to get across the country. After all our time on the continent, we knew better and should have played it cool, let it go like a proper Africa overlander and got out and amongst it… but DRC isn’t like the rest of Africa. While with retrospect we now know a lot more about Congo and the Congolese, at the time we had just been harassed 3 times in an hour on top of the normal background levels of common “DRC Stress”. Oh well, one day we will definitely return to DRC. It’s hard to explain but the raw excitement of the place is infectious.
Getting ready to roll after our extra rest day.
After our scheduled rest day, we woke to our alarm clock and pouring rain. By 10am we realised that this day was just not going to be the day we would leave, even if the rain stopped and sun came out, the tracks would be sodden, muddy, and uninviting. On top of this we realised we’d made far faster progress than we expected and should slow down a touch and try and get to know Congo before it was all over. So we checked in for a third night and hoped the following day’s weather would be better. By midday the rain had stopped and when the sun came out the humidity rose to “air-swimming” levels as the moisture was baked out of the town. We slinked away to our room and enjoyed our intermittent air conditioning.
Our hotel on the way out of town.
Leaving Kananga attempt number 2 was far more successful. The weather was great and with half the route from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa already done in only 4 days of riding (and just a couple boggings) we were in high spirits. And once we had done just a few little jobs in town, we would be own our way again. We just had to get some cash and fuel first…
Some local buildings in town. There wasn’t a lot of Kananga that was post-independence era.
The receptionist gave us some directions to a street where the money changers congregated. We went up to the one that was the closest to some convenient parking and quickly negotiated a decent enough rate. Then started the long process of counting. At a bit over 900 francs to the dollar, 100USD was about 150 notes in 1000 and 500 franc denominations, plus some smaller stuff. We are always suspicious of money changers, especially black market changers like this. So he would count out a wad of cash, which I would double check, and then give it to Tanya to hold and keep track off. Once the amount was confirmed, only then will one of us hand over the dollars in exchange. It’s the way we’ve always done transactions like this and means we’ve never ended up with a roll of newspaper like others in Africa have.
A local driving school. Not sure what they teach to need a building so big, but judging by the results out on the street it is not a lot.
But it means it is slow and deliberate process, taking plenty of time to count and double check giving plenty of opportunity for a huge crowd to congregate around us. Which they did, as white people and big bikes are not all that common a sight in these parts. I had planned on changing 200 dollars but after counting out 100 dollars worth of francs, I decided we just had to go. The crowd was just too big and we were starting to get quite uncomfortable counting such large amounts of cash in full view of an ever larger crowd of gawkers.
The Kananga Train Station. Kananga was the end of the transport from Kinshasa for a long time – goods were ferried up the Congo then Kasai River to Ilebo, then put on the train to Kananga. Not anymore though, Kananga is now serviced by 6×6 trucks plowing up the N1 and velo boys.
So we got onto the bikes and went to sort out errand #2: buying some fuel. Kananga was blessed with what looked like a proper service station, from the outside at least anyway. It had ancient but functional bowsers with the old rotating number wheels that clicked around counting the litres and the francs as they accumulated. The price on the bowser was 1650 francs, which was a nice reduction from the 2000 francs (US$2.15) per litre we paid on the black market in Luiza.
Some of the crowds we attracted that morning.
That was until we went to pay of course. The bowser attendant was asking for 2000 francs per litre even though the bowser clearly stated otherwise… and this is one significant problem with travelling in this part of the world… the scams and hustling are just constant, it is completely unrelenting, and it is hard to not be slowly weighed down by it. Even buying fuel from a proper service station is not easy.
By now of course we had been stationary for about 10 minutes while filling the bikes, and the standard crowd of people was gathering around us, staring at us, pointing at us, shouting at us in French, most of it excited and friendly but with the odd demand for money. Bikes and cars driving down the road pulled into the service station and parked to watch the show of the strange “le blanc” putting petrol in their motorbikes. Little Chinese scooters buzzed through the crowd and in between the bowsers, all while beeping their horns and with the attendant hot on their tails chasing them away, all adding to the chaos.
The station security guard got fed up with the crowds and tracked down a bloody big stick to whack people with. Ahh Congo… the madness just never ends… Naturally this amused the people agile enough to avoid the swipes; they would jump out the way and the crowd would celebrate with cheers and applause. He then started to steal the keys out of the ignition of the moto taxi drivers hanging around, trying especially hard to get the ones driving through crowd honking their horns. He’d grab their keys and throw them into the garden. The guard got more and more riled up as he set his sights on one particularly cheeky moto taxi rider who would accelerate just out of reach every time the guard got close to grabbing the keys. It was complete and utter pandemonium but most people were enjoying themselves… except the security guard.
Everything in this part of Congo turns into a massive scene by our mere presence. And shit just starts to get out of hand. The stress caused by this constant mayhem is hard to explain. It’s not your conventional overworked first world stress… It’s not stress from being physically at risk… or culture shock, or anything else that we were familiar with. Pressure and overstimulation from the constant and unrelenting attention, noise and mayhem maybe is a better way to explain it. And while you feel this stress, you’re not worried about being at physical risk, or being robbed, or being under any sort of direct threat; it is a type of background pressure by being surrounded by all sorts of animated people yelling in languages you can’t understand, pointing and laughing, the mounting havoc from people crowding around, honking horns, racing scooters, flying ignition keys and sticks swinging through the air at people makes you fully aware of the fact you aren’t at all in control of what’s going on around you, all in a country which you know is quite lawless. And there is nothing at all you can do about it. It is unnerving, but you do get used to it after a while.
I decided to use the crowd to my advantage and walked into our “mosh pit” and asked a few people the price of petrol in my broken French… the answer came back multiple times at 2000 francs. So I figured the money counting wheels on the old bowser were broken and went back and paid the man what he was owed. With that done we legged it to another main street where we hoped we could change some more money… our last chore for the morning, as we weren’t able to change everything we needed the first time.
We found a money changer with plenty of room to park, and had an instant crowd as about 10 or 15 motorcycles who had followed us from the service station pulled in in front of us. We had done a bit of a loop through town scoping out the changers and they had followed us the whole way… riding past us and all around us beeping their horns and showing off, sitting side saddle, standing up and jumping around, trying to do wheelies, and swerving all over the road.
Some of the crowd at money changer number 2.
We were far quicker this time around and got the exchange done efficiently. But there was still enough time to a crowd to congregate and spill out on to the main road. And of course, there was still enough time for one more run in with the fuzz… it all came to nothing and we had our mobile cheer squad of scooter riders to thank for that.
Tan getting ready to go, this was just before the police turned up.
A police women turned up to the party on the back of a moto taxi, and the second she got off, all the scooter and motorbike riders around us started beeping their horns like crazy. They pushed their bikes in close and swarmed forward around the police women, all the while revving their engines and blasting their little Chinese horns, which in isolation aren’t loud but when there are 15… well, its gets really loud. The police woman shouted at us but we honestly couldn’t hear a thing. She was struggling to make her way through the crowd and get near us, which was just the way we liked it. This allowed us some time to just hop on our bikes, all the scooters moved out of our path and the policewomen stood there watching as we just rode away…
Blog 65 by Mick: Day 3 on the Dirt – Closing in on a bit of Civilisation
Day 3 of off road riding
Camp 2 to Luiza
Map of our days action, from our roadside camp #2, through the town of Kapanga, across the Lulua River and to the town of Luiza 223km to the north.
With no onlookers on this second morning we were afforded some time and privacy for a more normal start to the day, including some tea and breakfast before packing up to leave. We hit the trail about a quarter to nine in a bit of a state… as the sun warmed up we found ourselves bombarded by a swarm of tiny flies which were attracted to any moisture, meaning they ended up all over our skin including in our eyes and nose… and by ‘in’ I really do mean IN, the flies were small, like midgies, and would land on our eyeballs and then would get stuck behind the eyelid when we blinked. Before leaving I had to carefully extract 2 dead flies from Tanya’s eye while making sure no more went in before we could even go anywhere.
Packing up in the morning and trying to get a bit more sunlight into our moist socks and riding gear. Today would be day 3 and the socks especially were getting bad…
Sun’s out, flies are out… shit we gotta go! They were maddening.
The road was decent and we took an hour to ride the 40kms left to the first major town we had seen since leaving Kolwezi, Kapanga. With a bigger town we come across cops more determined than the usual “stuck out in the sticks” variety we had met so far in DRC who we had been quite successful in dealing with. These ones were more savvy though… on the edge of town they stop us and we go through the usual shit… Where are you from? Where are you going? Blah blah blah. We answer these common questions and show our passports and visas when requested and then they start to knuckle down…
The road north to Kapanga – easy gravel in good condition. It was clear we were near a town as the “roads” actually were road-like.
They next requested to see our bike papers, including insurance. We weren’t real keen on doing this for 2 reasons; firstly, it is likely just a one-way street to some fabricated paperwork problem that would ultimately result in a request for a bribe to resolve. We invariably wouldn’t have the right form or the right stamp or some such thing, and we would be stung for it. Up until a few years ago when the laws were relaxed, permits were needed for movement between provinces within DRC. But even though they are no longer needed, Cops are known to pressure and intimidate foreigners who aren’t aware of the law change. So, we figured our best defense would be to not start the process of showing any papers at all and simply not give them an opportunity.
Easy roads with some nice tropical views, a great way to start the day
The second reason we didn’t want to show papers was more important though, we did have a genuine paperwork problem. Our COMESA insurance that had covered us through eastern and southern Africa had expired. We had unsuccessfully tried to renew it in Lusaka, but Zambia had stopped issuing insurance to foreign registered vehicles… So with no options, we did the African insurance equivalent of a school kid’s D- miraculously turning to an A+… we had modified the validity dates on our hand written insurance with a pen. Instead of a useless bit of paper that had once been valid from 06/06/2015-06/08/2015, we now had COMESA insurance from 06/08/2015-06/08/2016. It looked ok, in-fact it actually looked pretty decent, but it wasn’t a perfect forgery and with a very long 12 months validity it was suspicious, so I wasn’t keen on using it if I didn’t have too.
So when asked if we had insurance, I answered that we did… but didn’t offer to show it. When he asked again, some cat and mouse ensued… I went from (really) bad French to English and he went to sign language. I tried to change the topic to the road conditions, then distract him with the gps and the intercom (both often successful strategies), then tried to send him on to Tanya when none of that worked.
When he reverted to blatantly demanding money, we had a novel and quite heartening experience. A vendor selling a few things from an informal stall on the side of the road starting shouting out the coppers in the local language. We didn’t understand a thing except for a few uses of the French “touriste” and a lot of wild gesticulating, which translated basically to “leave them alone and get back in your box you greedy bastard”. Which he then did; the cop backed off and waved us through… We gave the vendor a nod of gratitude on our way past and made our way into town.
We stopped at this little stall in what we thought was Kapanga, but was actually Musumba, and bought some bread and a few other little snacks.
After a few days on the road we needed water, and after a false start trying to get free water from a (what looked) closed mission, we were directed to a small market. While Tan went inside to buy water, a bloke walked up and said something that sounded like “blahblah blahblahblah bureau du Direction Générale de Migration”… the dreaded Department of Immigration known locally as the DGM. Technically, all foreigners in DRC are required to present to the offices of the DGM as they pass through towns (thankfully the DGM only has offices in big towns) and register their presence. This is supposed to be for their safety, but the reality is it is just another opportunity for corruption. We had heard and read of enough horror stories of DGM officials holding passports hostage that when I heard those three words – Direction Générale de Migration – I pulled the oldest trick in the book: the dumb-tourist-no-speakie-the-language card. I love that card.
“Je ne comprends francais, je suis touriste”
He got the message and walked off. I didn’t feel too bad about blowing him off as it wasn’t so much of a lie, my French really is bloody abysmal, probably best described as a heinous crime against language, especially one like French. That said, while I didn’t grasp all the words I did understand his message quite well that he wanted us to follow him to the DGM. However, that just was not going to happen. But old mate wouldn’t give up so easy. As we packed our water and were about to saddle up he returned, this time with an English speaker in tow…
This new fella went on to explain in quite clear English that we needed to follow him to the DGM…. “Sure” we said, “we will hop on the bikes and follow you to the office”. He led the way while we got on the bikes, coordinated on the intercom and blasted past him side by side and onwards down the road. There was quite simply no way in hell we were going to that fucking DGM office. Just straight up not bloody happening, not without a rope to tie me up and a tractor to pull me there. Old mate tried to wave us down and then he chased after us on foot, but he gave up quite quickly when the futility of running after motorbikes hit home.
Tans bike loaded in Congo mode
On the way out of town we ran into a missionary working on the side of the road. The opportunity to speak to a foreigner who was living in this environment was just to good pass up, so we stopped for a chat. Turns out this bloke was Belgian and worked at the Kapanga Catholic Mission, which wasn’t actually the town we were in as I thought we were; we were in Kapanga’s sister town of Musumba. The things you learn when you travel without proper maps. Also turns out the mission we had just gone to looking for water was a Methodist Mission which wasn’t closed at all, it was just an enormous complex with one lonely bloke living in it. It seems that attracting missionaries to towns in the middle of nowhere like this one is pretty hard work. Especially as missionaries come in and work for 12-18 months on projects, like this guy who was working on some water reticulation for the town.
Getting some water from a local well. The water from the shop was really dear, USD2 for 1.5 litres, so we bought enough to drink for the day and hoped we would get some for free later. The Belgian missionary told us about this one, it was safe and everyone drank from it so we filled our water bags. Co-ords are S8° 22.335′ E22° 36.812′ for anyone who needs it.
Imagine if you need work done on the town water pipes and you had to wait for some generous missionary to come from Belgium to do something about it? Yeah, that’s Congo.
Loading up our supply and a local drinking from the well. We had double checked from some locals standing around hat it was safe to drink, which they had, but it is always reassuring to see someone actually drink it!
We had a chat about road conditions and he mentioned that they only drive within the immediate region, if they need to get out of Kapanga they fly. So he couldn’t give me much info other than we would have to catch a ferry over the Lulua River about 20kms north. He also mentioned that they very very rarely see foreigners at all and especially not travelling across the country like we were, just a handful a year, so he was pretty surprised to see us. When the missionary went on to mention something about the local DGM, I got a reminder that there may well be a quite pissed off government official in town looking for us, so we bid farewell and legged it, but only after getting a tip for a nearby well we could get some safe drinking water.
Pond filled from the well that was constantly running – there were lots of locals washing themselves and their clothes in here.
The small section between Musumba and Kapanga, we came across the mobile vendor selling all sorts of stuff from his bicycle. The Landrover in the background was the Belgian missionary driving back to Kapanga.
Ok, coming up now is the last checkpoint story for this post… promise.
So on the way out of Kapanga we see the obligatory police checkpoint – there is always one on both sides of towns any bigger than a small village. So we rock up all friendly like we try to do but guarded as you tend to be in situations like this, and are greeted with some really friendly guys. It was a nice change. We chat about the bikes and how fast they go and ‘yes, we really are riding all the way to Kinshasa’. We show them our passports and share a few cigarettes, which they appreciated. One of the junior guys comes out of the office and logs our ID and also the bike’s details in a grotty old ledger, writing down the rego numbers which was an uncommon experience. He then wanted to write down the chassis number… shit these guys are on it! First time in Africa someone has wanted that!
We bought some sugar and a few little supplies from this guy. You can see it’s a motley collection of things to sell. Tootpaste. Cloth. He had needles and thread. Panadol. Matches. All for sale as he rode by.
So I show him the Compliance Plate on the headstem with the VIN code on it, and he gets busy with the pencil. I have a bit of a look and get confused… I look closer and old mate has just written down the first number he has seen on the plate which just so happens to be the approval code for compliance with the Australian Design Regulations that all motorbikes must comply with, “10847”. I have a bit of a chuckle in my helmet, but he is happy with what has just happened so I leave him be. He then proceeds to do exactly the same thing on Tanya’s bike, and is equally happy there, even though he has just written down the same 5 digit “chassis” number for both bikes…
Anyway… moving on.
The Kapanga Catholic Mission. There are heaps of these missions throughout Congo, all the bigger towns have one, or more.
The road was in decent enough condition so it was a relatively quick trip up to the Lulua River, which was a surprising site when we arrived. The river is pretty substantial, at a guess I’d say 40m bank to bank, maybe 50. There was a collection of guys sitting under a grass roof nearby, a few dug-out canoes moving people back and forth and a single vehicle diesel ferry parked and boarded up on the bank. Situations like this are never great… you need to cross the river and there is only one-way to go about it. They’ve got you by the balls and everybody knows it… the best you can hope for is to keep the squeezing to a minimum.
Arriving at the Lulua River and checking the GPS… “so where the fuck are we, actually?”
We never really rush at places like this. Borders are the same. You are at the mercy of others so it is best to play it cool. So the first thing we do is park up the bikes, take off our helmets, put on a hat, and have a drink and a snack. A few minutes later, one of the blokes under the grass roof has had enough of the curiosity and walks up and starts to chat. He says the cost to use the ferry is 5000 francs per bike, about USD11 all up. Not a great deal of money, however probably a little more than I was expecting and nevertheless, our reflex response when negotiating in Africa is always “no its too much”. Even if had said the cost was “half your navel’s current accumulation of lint”, being Africa, the response would always be “no its too much, my belly button is really chockers right now, its full, and its everything I’ve got, I really need that lint, its good lint, I’ll give you a fifth of it, no more”. It’s just instinct – you have to learn to put up a fight and haggle otherwise you’re just fodder in the African meat grinder.
There used to be a proper cable operated ferry here, obviously now destroyed. In the previous photo you can see the corresponding tower on the other bank. That’s one frustrating thing about Congo, once upon a time it did at least have “some” infrastructure. Now though…. Nope.
I offer him 5000 francs for both bikes, but he balks at that. I tell him 10000 is way too much, and we don’t even know if we really want to cross the river or not, we are just here for a look and might go back to our friend the Belgian guy at the Kapanga Catholic Mission. It’s a blatant lie, and not even a good one as it’s quite obvious we are there to cross, and the ferryman is not at all perturbed. He sticks to his guns of 5000 per bike… a stale mate, and he walks away.
Chatting with the fellas operating the dug-outs ferrying a constant trickle of people and goods back and forth over the river. That little Chinese scooter had just come south and all the bicycles were now heading north.
After some more time waiting I figured I’d try out the guys paddling the dug-out canoes over the river and ferrying locals back and forth. The dugouts were big and sturdy and in the time we’d been there we’d seen one or two little Chinese scooters cross over. Based on our experience back at Lake Eyasi in Tanzania where we used a tiny little dugout to cross a river, its clear our bikes would fit in these dug-outs no problem at all. But the canoe guys wouldn’t have a bar of it, they wouldn’t even consider considering it, which made me think they were concerned about the reaction of the ferry operator. Bummer. This option was out the window, we would have to negotiate some more with the ferryman.
The dug-outs going over… this is how “infrastructure” works for average Congolese. Remember, this is the N39 – a major National Highway.
We are back to square one when a fellow appears out of a dug-out which has come from the other side. He approaches and says he will take us across on the ferry for 10000 francs per bike, double what the first bloke told us! “Nah mate”, we tell him we know that is not the price, so he suggests we pay with 10 litres of diesel to run the ferry… Diesel? Now, I know the DRs are low tech and tractor-like, but, no, we do not have any diesel. By now 40 minutes has gone by and we are starting to run out options.
Old mate washing his jocks in the Lulua. Considering the smell of mine and with not much else to do while waiting I was tempted to do the same….
One thing we had learnt quite well here over the previous 16 months was that people in Africa won’t do any work at all with out a deal agreed to, and often, money put down in advance. Which, I think at least, is bloody prudent considering Africa’s general deficiency in money and prevalence of people trying to take advantage. So when the ferry driver turned up and started to take the boards of the cabin of the ferry, I realised we had been gifted something quite extraordinary – the negotiating “box seat”. The driver had come to take us over and started getting ready to do so, and we hadn’t even settled on a deal yet… We had gone from a position of utter weakness to one of significant power.
Starting to squeeze the ferryman pretty hard…
So when the first guy comes back to talk about us going over the river, I stick to my guns and offer him 5000 francs for both bikes. But he sticks to his and the price of 5000 francs each. Around and around we go, all while the ferry driver is checking out the motor and hooking up the battery. I walk away and over to the ferry to check it all out and see what is going on – the driver is checking out the motor; it is some 3cyl diesel sitting in a bath of oily water floating around in the engine compartment. Back with the ferryman I tell him 10000 is too much for us we might head back to Kapanga and talk to the missionary there.
Tan playing it cool: Hat on head… Smile on face… Don’t give up, don’t get desperate and don’t try and force the pace. You gotta stay determined but you gotta be patient. This is good mentality to deal with any situation in Africa and often takes us westerners a while to get our head around it and accept it. Africa works on Africa time.
The driver cranks the boat’s motor over a few times and the fella in front of me looks over his shoulder at it worryingly… a few more cranks and the boat comes to life with a puff of black smoke and the small motor idles nicely: dak dak dak like a good little tractor. 5000 for both bikes I ask one more time. The tables have completely turned… I’ve got a handful of ferryman knackers and am squeezing with vigour. It’s a novel experience and I gotta admit, it was a really damn nice feeling after been taken advantage off so much. He is nervous and squirming hard, but he again says no, it is 5000 francs each. He then goes on to quickly explain that to cross the river in a canoe is 1000 per person, 1000 for a large piece of luggage and 3000 for a small motorcycle. While that sounds like a lot, the way he says it leads me to believe him.
Driver prepping the single vehicle diesel ferry. Cabin boards off… battery connected and motor checked over… This is when the tables turned.
When I see the look of nervousness and genuine worry in his eyes again, I realise that, yeah, the price must really be 5000 francs per bike. This poor bloke is now shit scared that we are going to turn around and head back to Kapanga, and he will have to suffer the wrath of the ferry driver for waking him from his siesta and starting his boat up. “No worries mate” I tell him, “I was just pullin ya leg, 5000 per bike no dramas”. He is relieved, we load the bikes and a bunch of free loaders with bicycles get on board as well. I joke with the ferry driver that we should charge them all 1000 per person and 3000 per bike and split the profit, but the idea sails over his head. I didn’t see any money change hands, I think these guys wait and wait and wait for a ferry and when it crosses with a paying customer they get a free ride.
Tan looking happy that we are getting somewhere finally.
Our destination: the northern side of the Lulua.
All our freeloaders… Not sure why old mate in the green shirt was frowning so much… I should have charged him 4000 francs!
We paid the ferryman once we got to the other side, just like the song says we should, and went on merry way not thinking too much more about our river crossing. But looking back on this little episode with the benefit of hindsight, this was a good first lesson for us and one we really only fully grasped when we were leaving Kinshasa 2.5 weeks later: most Congolese, especially at lower level, are actually quite gracious and somewhat trustworthy. The cops and other government officials I wouldn’t trust with an extended and electrified barge pole, and any kind of high level business where corruption if rife I would be extremely cautious, but commerce at this low level was just people trying get by doing business with people also just trying to get by.
Over the other side and Tanya struggling to get the camera out and get a photo in time. I’m like “well, you shoulda said!”, she’s like “I want a photo, go back and do it again”
Heading back down to stage a “Mick getting of the Lulua Ferry Photo”
We very very very rarely stage photos, we just don’t really give enough of a shit to do it, but this is one time where we did – we wanted a good photo record of crossing the Congo because its not done often. Anyway, even though it is staged I can assure when I did get off the ferry for real it really looked an awful lot like this.
At this low level, there are so many people out there with more power and/or money trying to screw them that it seemed to us (granted, from the outside) that average people look out for average people. The first ferry guy we spoke with actually wasn’t trying to rip us off (the second fella who came along certainly did, but we will ignore him for now), he told us the price and it was the actual price. The street side vendor telling off the cops for trying bribe us on the way into Musumba/Kapanga was another recent example of that – most average people are sick of being taken advantage of and are actually looking out for average people.
Roads on the north side… not much evidence of vehicle traffic here.
But as I said, that observation was only made with further future examples to support it and enough time looking back to process it all; so you the reader are getting a bit of a look into the future there. At the time we were riding off the ferry in this post, we were still very cautious, very suspicious of others, and looking out for one thing and one thing only… us. Ok ok, “us” is really two things, but you get the idea, we were number one… both of us… ah fuckit. Anyway, moving on…
No cars, but lots of pushies though… this is the staple means of transport for Congolese. The humble bicycle.
In the early afternoon the weather was still decent, and the riding was slow but easy for the most of it.
Getting narrow and slippery in a few sections.
Eroded sand trough savannah
And more of the same. The National Highway N39 reduced to basically single track for kilometre after kilomtre.
North of the river got noticeably less vehicle traffic and the “road” deteriorated quickly to “track” of various quality. Mostly sand, quite a lot of it eroded, and lots of it very narrow. But as we headed further north, sand and savannah made way for red clay and jungle, although as we are still in the transition between the two we frequently seem to be switching back and forth; sandy savannah, muddy jungle, muddy savannah, sandy jungle… With storm clouds brewing all around us, and one stage even starting to dump on us, we picked up the pace to try to make it Luiza before the rains started properly. The last thing we wanted was for the moist and slippery, but still ridable clay, to turn into a hellish red slime quagmire.
Ah mud… there was lots and lots of this as we got further north…
Slippery evil shit on a big bike…
Puddle dodging as we got further north. The mud in the jungle was generally still wet but on the savannah there was sun to dry it. We generally rode around puddles where we could to keep mud out of the chain/sprockets/brakes, but also because some of the puddles were deeper than the looked like they would be and generally always damn slippery.
Slow going… riding like this. When moving we were moving we were averaging about 35km per hour. With stops about 30kph. Later in the afternoon we upped the pace a bit but only to an average of about 40kph… we wanted to beat the rain but we were never going to go silly. Not out here.
5 hours after getting off the ferry we had knocked of 160kms and we made it into Luiza before the rain did. Another day done with the weather gods smiling down on us. We sorted somewhere to stay, cooked up some food and readied ourselves for a final 200km push to Katanga, our first proper city since Kolwezi, the rough halfway point of the crossing and a planned rest day we were really looking forward to, and judging by the smell of us, really needed.
A few smaller villages and clouds brewing in the background.
Some easy savannah riding after a bunch of jungle mud.
Back in the jungle, and with storms all around. About 500m after this photo was taken, we hit the edge of a storm and got a little wet, but gambled that we should keep going and hopefully pop out the other side of the storm which we could see wasn’t so far away. Better to push on and risk getting wet then stopping and guaranteeing having to ride on greasy red clay trails. Which is what happened in the end thankfully – we got away with it, we and the roads didn’t get too wet.
Late in the arv and storms, storms, storms. Riding in the Congo in the wet season isn’t so smart.
We pulled into Luiza and found the catholic mission where we were hoping we could get a spare room. They told Tan their rooms were all full as they had a “hygiene” workshop on for all the medical clinic workers in the area. So they gave us some directions to a small local guesthouse.
Stop the bikes anywhere, and crowds gather…
They love to pose for the camera. That machete is shaped like that because they use the end of it to dig for root vegetables like yams and cassava.
The guesthouse in Luiza where we spent the night. Co-ords S7° 12.245′ E22° 23.59’. Cost 10000 francs for the 2 of us for the night.
As I said, the bikes stop and crowds gather. People just don’t see foreigners in places like this. Not unless they are missionaries. Weird how this photo has got this line down it… dunno.
The gawkers… the ladies had been out collecting yams and now were coming back into town. The majority of the Congolese population survive on a combination of subsistance farming and gathering foods from the forest.
It wouldn’t be an African Guesthouse without a bloody goat hanging around somewhere.
Bringing water up from the well for a bucket shower. It was cold but I needed it.
The fella on the right ran the guesthouse, the fella on the left was Luiza’s DGM official. When we arrived at the guesthouse we got told we would have to register with the DGM, but we kinda just ignored them and hoped they would give up. Then this guy arrived with his DGM ledger, but he was polite and didn’t request any money from us. He recoreded our details and registered us and that was it. All very painless… with this DGM guy at least.
When we had started the ride in the morning, I’d found one side of one of my knee braces broken. We needed to go so I just put it on as is, and when I took it off that night I found both sides broken. 16 months of continual use I suppose something has to give. So… I needed a repair, to make them at least usable again.
The repair… A piece of shoelace. It was finicky but got it done and made the brace at least useable again. I had to tie a knot in the shoelace but within the hinge there simply wasn’t enough room for a knot. So I trimmed back the shoelace ‘outer’ and then tied a knot only with the core of the shoelace.
This worked well and for a long time, this is the repair 15000kms later about to be replaced with proper spare parts I’d brought back from Australia.