Blog 69 by Tan: Day 7 (am) on the Dirt – DRC, Where a Half Day is a Full Blog
Day 7 of off road riding
178km from unknown slightly larger village to ‘the Camp’
Our progress for the day.
We woke to the sound of enthusiastic chatter outside the tent long before the alarm clock chimed. We slept soundly but not nearly enough to fully replenish the batteries, but likely enough to get us through another day’s riding. We groggily started packing up our gear from inside the tent while mentally preparing ourselves for an onslaught of excited villagers the moment we stepped outside.
Sure enough a sizable crowd had amassed once more to greet and gawk at us. Thankfully, it seemed a good amount of the village had already gone off to start their day’s labours so there weren’t nearly as many people as the night we arrived. Once more the mood was friendly and curious and we thought how fortunate we were to have stumbled across this unusually welcoming village right on sundown. Luck had been very much on our side the whole time we’d been in DRC. We couldn’t help but note our good fortune and that if there was ever a place for a good luck spell to strike, DRC was certainly it.
The village chief chilling out front of his hut. They had offered a place for us in the hut last night but we told them we were happy to use our tent, which I think they thought was a bit weird. This was later confirmed by the English teacher (front of frame in the white) he said they thought it was strange we like to sleep outside.
However travel in DRC can conjure up some strange, wildly varying feelings and thoughts, and less than ideal imagined scenarios. And it was after this latest bit of good fortune in a string of good fortune that I started to feel more nervous.
It’s a delicate balance you need to manage when you are there. On one hand you do entertain potential worst case scenarios in order to evaluate risk and make good decisions; like what happens if this guy gets angry, or is drunk/stoned, or blocks the route or takes our passports or demands money etc. This helps us control things that might happen. But on the other hand, to be able to make good decisions in any given moment you need to assess the situation by what is in front of you and how it makes you feel, rather than be reacting from pre-conceived fear… a fear that can easily come when you allow yourself to be too far on edge… which you get if you are always imagining how things can go wrong… which you need to consider just in case they do… which they can… but might not.
The chief and his wife who made us dinner last night (in the yellow).
This is tiring. And it leaves you feeling as though you have been through truly difficult situations even when you haven’t. In this way your imagination and knowledge of other people’s past troubles can contribute to the struggle of the crossing. Don’t get me wrong we weren’t jumping at shadows. Most of the time we were enjoying ourselves. But the truth is that Congo’s has a well-earned reputation and that reputation plays on your mind at times. The rule of law here is basically non-existent and it can be a hairy place, after all. To ignore that is just foolhardy.
The village chief was once again very chilled and watched us pack up camp from his seat in front of his house. The young English teacher was there to greet us and tell us how happy everyone was that we had visited. It wasn’t long before we were all packed up and saying our goodbyes. I can’t remember exactly what we gave the chief of the village but once again we left him with a culturally appropriate amount of money, maybe $5, plus some other odds and ends like needle sets, lighters and razors. They were happy and we shook hands and thanked them for allowing us to spend the night. We also left a few bucks with the young English teacher in the village who had translated for us. But what he really needed was a proper English-French dictionary. Which we obviously didn’t have.
To this day I still think about the essentially fluent young man in the middle of nowhere DRC, flicking through the pages of his note book where he had hand copied a French-English dictionary. At one point we used a word in English he didn’t recognise so he consulted his hand written dictionary. I can’t recall the word but it definitely started with either a G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y or a Z. He hadn’t made it beyond the letter ‘F’ with his time consuming transcribing of the dictionary. He no longer had access to it.
DRC – not a place for non-morning people.
Non-morning people like us.
On seeing the word he sought must lie in the blank pages beyond ‘F’ he said “oh, its not here” and shrugged his shoulders and moved on with the conversation. When I recall the moment now I can remember thinking there is one hell of a metaphor for this poor kid’s existence in this and then thinking I can’t deal with anymore Congo tonight and wanting to sleep the moment/feelings away. I find it interesting that of all we have seen and learned in Africa, of any of the miserable and tragic scenes and stories we have come across, that this memory of an incomplete handwritten dictionary by a poor English teacher is the one that produces the ache. Really… writing this… I could just fucking cry. I guess you had to be there.
Hitting the trail once more. Groan.
After leaving the village we were straight back in the thick of the difficult sand. Sand in this section of Congo took it out of us. By this point we were so focused on getting through it and our GoPro batteries were as exhausted as we were so you will just have to trust us on that in lieu of photographic evidence.
There were few boggings or bike drops to speak of but it was hours or riding with no reprieve. It was physically very demanding and at one point I needed to stop to stretch my ab muscles to stop them cramping. Now that’s when you know you’re doing the good stuff! It was tough on body and bike, both.
This lady wanted a photo.
Southern Africa receives a lot of Australia’s second-hand clothing, like this kid’s shirt. It is nice to see traces of home when you feel so far from it.
Pineapple didn’t stand a chance.
Eventually we stumbled upon a small collection of huts with a couple of pineapples on display. It was the first thing we had seen for sale during the last two days of riding and I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity for a bit of fresh fruit. When we pulled up there was barely a person in sight. Soon the pineapple lady had recognised us as customers for her 3 pineapples up for sale. We purchased a pineapple for a dollar and I attacked it with relish. I had nearly eaten the entire thing before Michael even got a look in so we went ahead and bought another. As ever we attracted an audience.
This is the pineapple seller.
She was a riot.
This guy was so proud to have a camera. It had no film, there was nowhere to develop it even if he did and the camera was probably broken. He just pretended to us it. Yet it was something he had that others didn’t.
Our pineapple lady front and centre. Note the girl who is no doubt the village beauty in the top right corner with the ‘Congo hairdo’ of choice. And bottom right is the light skinned boy with blue eyes we mention later.
You get used to getting stared at.
I’d guess few if any foreigners had ever stopped here before. It was little more than a tiny collection of huts though the village may have extended further than our view from the track allowed us to see. As we left a couple of women came up to me and asked if I had any clothes to give them. I remember it well as it was then that it struck me we had seldom ever been asked for anything while in Congo.
I had to tell them I didn’t have any clothes to spare and it wasn’t too far off being true. I only have four shirts (two riding, two non-riding) a pair of pants and a dress that Mick had once mentioned was pretty horrible. While I admit it is a bit, his punishment for saying so had to be to see me in it with relative frequency. We hit the trail once more.
A 6-wheeler that had given up the ghost. Usually in the case of such breakdowns the driver stays with the vehicle until it is repaired or until the owner makes the decision to cannibalize it for spare parts. I’ve heard stories of driver’s waiting with the vehicle for months, even a year or more, until spare parts and assistance arrives. Until then they just live at the breakdown site. There was no-one at this truck when we passed.
Pulling off the main trail for a break.
Nice easy sand.
Later in the morning we came across a small village stall. It was the first of its kind we had seen out here in the sticks (i.e. along the trail outside of the major towns). I’d been keen to replenish our crucial sugar stocks for a couple of days after the not so mysterious disappearance of our can of condensed milk (I ate it all). I grabbed a handful of money, jumped off the bike and headed for the shop before my mind had a chance to register its extreme exhaustion. At the stall I grabbed a small bag of sugar. Like many places in Africa regular sized bags are divvied out into smaller bags to meet any persons budgets. You can buy a single spoon’s worth. There is a decent markup on any of these small portions of sugar, or cooking oil, or salt etc. But with money so limited people pay it. This is where being very poor is very expensive. The accumulative cost of these tiny purchases could pay for a regular sized portion many times over. But when you’re that poor these savings are impossible to realise. For our purposes it is good to carry around modest portions to keep the luggage down.
The shop. It had the usual array of sachets of powdered milk, sugar, salt, rice, matches, cigarettes, dried fish and tinned sardines.
We were clearly nearing Tshikapa as the villages here were far richer with more huts of brick and corrugated iron. In the poorer areas we’d been only the chief’s hut would be brick and corrugated iron. This close to Tshipaka it is likely much of the extra money has come from diamond mining.
I asked the shop owner the price for my sugar in French. He responded in French and despite it being perfectly clear I just couldn’t compute. Weirdly, when his words hit my brain I knew I understood but then there was some kind of short circuit that had me unable to conjure up the number from the word. I stared at the pile of money in my hands in a sort of daze. Goodness knows how long for, but eventually I realised I was so exhausted my mental facilities had abandoned me. I couldn’t even manage English and for a few moments I couldn’t hear anything, so I just raised my hands full of cash to the shop owner for him to take what was needed… or I suppose whatever he wanted.
These guys were really gregarious compared to most people we come across who are generally reserved to begin with.
Me and my new mate the shop owner.
Instead of taking advantage of my confused state the guy carefully picked out a couple of small notes from the money pile. As I walked back to the bikes he came after me to deliver the rest of my change. At some stage on the walk back to the bike I came back to Planet Earth and was able to chat a little with the guy and the crowd of friendly villagers that amassed. A few of them started calling someone’s name excitedly. The woman came when summoned and proudly presented her light skinned baby to the white tourists. This had also happened to us while buying the pineapple. There all the villagers had called out to a boy with light skin and blue eyes. The boy was terribly shy at being singled out and ran away.
These sections were great fun.
And gave us a chance to ride fast and cool off.
The track was getting easier.
Can’t tell you how much I loved the trail pigs.
More riding took us though more diabolical sand and then onto some glorious hardpack trails through dense forest. Then to my extreme delight we came across a tiny restaurant on the outskirts of a little village – we were getting closer to civilisation! It was early in the day, we had made good progress, and it was a discrete little place to set ourselves down and grab a cup of tea and a bite. It was my first tea in days and it was divine. We got a few fried dough balls as well. It was like High Tea at the Dorchester… but at a shack and in the Congo. I was thrilled.
What a treat!
A crappy sneaky photo we took of the restaurant. The stew looked good but fraught with danger.
This time we only attracted a modest audience. These guys were really lovely. The guy in the white was so keen to shake our hands.
As we got ready to leave we met some bike porters who advised us on the way ahead. I regret my French at the time was so poor that we couldn’t really communicate with these true legends of this route. These guys are the lifeblood of trade and enterprise in DRC. Your typical bike porter might be transporting anywhere up to 200-250kg of goods on his bike, which is modified for pushing by removal of cranks and drivetrain, and addition of a long stick to the handle bars which means the porter can steer whilst alongside the loads which hang off the side.
Bike porters aka Velo boys of the Congo. These guys put us to shame for hardwork and toughness.
Seriously think about that weight though! 200-250kg! My bike in normal configuration (front tank full, rear tank empty and luggage on) is about 230-235kg. Load it up for long range adv riding; fill the rear fuel tank and 10l water bag, add a few days of food and it can hit 250kg. Seriously think about that some more… they push the equivalent of a fully loaded DR650 across the Congo! They might be carrying dried fish, charcoal, oil, petrol, all manner of food or anything saleable really. And these goods might be transported sometimes as far as 700km one way from a village into a city. Then once the items are sold they are loaded with goods to sell in the villages and pushed 700km back the other way. All this equated to weeks if not months on the trail. They’ll sleep in villages along the way, eat perhaps just once a day and do it all in a pair of flipflops/thongs for the Aussies out there. Imagine how exhausted they are when they get home and have to jump online and do an elaborate write up of their intense Congo crossing… no, no, sorry that is just us shmucks that do that.
This guy came up to me and asked for a photo. When I took the photo he said to me “When they see me, tell them I’m from Congo.” After they got their photo they waved goodbye and started pushing once more. What a presence this man had. Let me tell you – he’s from Congo.
Getting directions from bike porters. Here are some rigs loaded with charcoal.
We had a lovely run on this nice sand.
Our first sign in a long time of the DRC state. The flag was flying though the buildings look abandoned.
We carried on along single track that was branching all over the place through larger and more closely located villages. We’d lost the track so we were left following a rough bearing and the most well-worn biker porter lines. We confirmed our heading with any porters we met until we found ourselves part of a familiar long precession of people making their way into town.
While riding along we past a tailor and I stopped to collect a bit of fabric. I am collecting a small swatch of fabric from each country we pass though on this trip. The plan is to make a quilt when I get home. It will be my trip souvenir. I’ve got it all figure out. Stage 1: collect fabric. Stage 2: return home. Stage 3: learn to sew. Stage 4: Sew awesome quilt.
The guy was happy to give me a piece of fabric and went through his bag of off-cuts and let me choose. He didn’t want any payment. But took the cash when I insisted. They were a super friendly bunch who wanted photos.
We had hit Tshikapa, a city of some 600,000. Our intention was to keep our visit brief. Like Mubji Mayi, Tshikapa is a major diamond hub and we didn’t want to be taken for dodgy diamond dealers, geologists or journalists. On top of this we were finding it quite a mental challenge going into large towns after days of ‘relative’ quiet along remote sections of route. Going from the wilderness into the kaleidoscopic sensory onslaught of the major towns was getting hard to deal with. The constant contrast from feeling set upon at times to the only people on Earth at others, was contributing further our mentally exhausted states.
Our desire to limit our time in Tshipaka was made more ardent by an unfortunate incident that occurred on the outskirts of town. It’s a sad tale and while I regret our actions, if it happened again in the same context, we would not have acted any differently.
We were surprised to see some work on the road happening.
On the outskirts of Tshikapa we hit a wide, graded proper dirt road into town. The bikes felt the now unfamiliar sensation of being out of 1st and 2nd gear as we rode at what felt insanely fast at the time, but was only about 50-60km/hr. The road was smooth and recently maintained, and wide enough for 4 lanes of traffic. However at that time it was just plenty of people on foot, the odd little motorbike and us.
I was riding in front when another guy on a small motorbike blasted past us at about 60 or 70km an hour. He was swerving all over the place and goofing off for us. After about 30 seconds of this, he moved over to the wrong side of the unmarked road. He was looking over at us, taking his eyes off the road for an imprudent length of time. He had not seen that there was a bike riding towards us on the correct side of the road, and I can only assume that either that guy was also watching our progress too closely or he had simply expected the erratic motorbike rider to eventually turn around and make a correction to his current collision course. Unfortunately for all involved that didn’t happen.
I heard Mick gasp over the intercom a moment before I heard the incredibly loud impact of metal on metal. I looked in my mirror with enough time to see pieces of motorbike still airborne. Mick got a much closer view of the accident as he was about side by side with the two bikes at about the moment of impact. He looked over his shoulder to see the guy who was goofing off fly about 4 or 5 meters from the bike before crashing hard. Mick suspected he was most likely not too badly injured if he managed not to hit his un-helmetted head too hard. Mick figured he’d only be left with some bruises or scratches, but he couldn’t say the same for the other guy. The guy who got hit either managed to stay on the bike or fell directly to the ground at the impact. Mick thought he may have sustained more significant injuries. We couldn’t say for certain, as the hasty decision was made for us to get the heck away from the accident.
In that moment we consciously prioritised our own wellbeing over being decent human beings. We were uncomfortable to be riding away from accident but our experience, and that of proper Africa-hands, was that it is such an incident that can really get out of hand. With the bikes no doubt both significantly damaged and a couple of riders quite probably upset we felt there was a strong chance we would be blamed for the incident and held responsible for the damage.
It was no fault of our own but we expected that members of the inevitable crowd could potentially not see it the same way. If we were out on the trial it would be different story, but here in a big diamond city, nup. All that would be needed would be for a couple of troublemakers to show up then some Police (uniformed certified troublemakers) and then we could really be in the shit. Then they would see from our documents we are geologists. Then get suspicious, then who knows. Anyone who thinks this line of thinking is far fetched has likely never been to the DRC.
Our decision to get well away from an inevitable scene was instinctual, though backed up by the advice of many a long time resident in these sorts of places. But despite the surety we were making a smart move, it didn’t feel good. Senses peaking, jaw clenched, groaning at the unpleasantness of it all, we hit the gas so we could get the heck out of Tshikapa.
Kids at our water stop in Tshikapa. Kung fu movies are really popular in Africa and the kids like to bust out their kung fu poses for the camera.
It was a sad moment too in that it stripped us of the pretense I think everyone has that they are righteous and have good values and do the right thing no matter the cost. Most people don’t get truly tested on this. We did. And we failed. It would have been quite the blow had our time in Congo not already be hinting at a baseness in ourselves we were previously unaware of.
The outrageous poverty and lack of hope for improvement in DRC was seriously confronting, even with everything we have seen up to now. We’d discuss how, had we been born in DRC, I would be taking care of kids and Mick would be pushing 250kg loads across the Congo and when faced with vulnerable, cashed up foreigners like ourselves, we might not have acted nearly as well to them as so many had to us. Deep down I think a lot of the things we feared happening to us (namely getting shaken down and robbed) were things we could imagine doing to someone like us had roles been reversed. At times of heightened guilt and pity for the Congolese lot I would think how we outright deserved it… which of course we didn’t… right?
These are the diamond trading shops you see in Tshipaka. We saw plenty. Tshikapa is the second most important city in Congo’s most import diamond area. Despite being at the epicentre of an 80 Billion trade there are no tarred roads in town. Though this may have changed by now. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ Getty Images Reportage for Time Magazine).
A picture is worth a thousand words, hey! Many diamond trading shops are owned by Indian, Lebanese and to a lesser extent Isrealis. The artists seems to have captured this in the different skin tones of the guy with the diamond and the guy with the cash. (Random net pic).
But while it was disappointing to learn we were just regular, self-preserving, weak at times humans, it was all the more impressive to experience the goodness of the Congolese who helped us and asked nothing. Or had the opportunity to take us for a ride, like the small stall holder rummaging through my cash, yet didn’t.
So with a compromised conscience and the old saying “Everything is fine in Congo… until it isn’t” playing in our heads, we rode on. But we had one necessary stop to make. When we were further into town we stopped at a roadside stall to buy water. Our experiences in Kananga of Police materialising out of thin air had us dreading the same thing here so we didn’t want to spend time looking for a safe well to fill our water bags from. Instead we purchased an arm full of expensive water bottles and got riding again. When I look now at the photos of that water stop I can see the stress of the moment all over my face.
This is what I look like when I am stressed. Side Note – check out the Brisbane Lions Guernsey
With each kilometer of sand track put between us and Tshipaka, the stress levels lessened. Soon we were back to the part of Congo we felt more comfortable with; the quiet, slow-paced and seemingly untouched sections of trail.
One of the only photos we took while in Tshikapa. This is one of the many impressive old mission buildings. They account for most structures of any consequence in central DRC.
When you see these great buildings and consider their age there is no denying the missionary zeal once applied to the DRC.
But soon we were to find the trail far from untouched. Things were clearly afoot west of Tshikapa. We had our suspicions when we found ourselves on a long straight, wide and sometimes even graded section of road… not track, but road! The passing of a truck carrying rocks and a couple of clearly ‘not’ Congolese fellows confirmed it. The Chinese were at work. Their presence was to prove particularly advantageous for us later that day.
Blog 68 by Mick: Day 6 on the Dirt – I Love the Smell of Burnt Clutch in the Morning
Day 6 of off road riding
53km from unknown tiny village to unknown slightly larger village
Our progress for the day, all 53kms of it, shown in Red. The 5 previous days of off-road riding are the proceeding coloured tracks.
It was storming when we had gone to sleep and it was still threatening to storm when we woke with the villagers at sun-up. There were a few gusts of wind and the odd splatter of rain as dark and angry clouds passed nearby. If we were anywhere but the middle of DRC, we wouldn’t have even wasted the energy to stick our heads out the tent and confirm what was plainly obvious… this was rest day weather, one were you might mumble “fuck it” before borrowing back down into the comfort of your sleeping bag.
Starting out the day on the N1 River. Nothing like getting up in the morning and hitting some tough muddy trails on an empty stomach.
But this is Congo, you cant just “fuck it” here. We were in the middle of Kasai Province, which historically is one of the most unstable areas in the country, and we just ‘had’ to go. Part of our strategy to minimise risk was to keep moving and to move as fast as we could manage. So we packed quickly and got straight into our wets. We had been supremely lucky with the wet season so far, but it was clear today was the day that our weather luck ran out.
Stopped for a photo of the epic trails in front and realised we had a crowd of children chasing after us.
We thanked the old blind chief one more time for his hospitality on departure, left him a little bit of cash and some small gift as a token of our gratitude, and hit the trail. And within maybe 15 minutes of riding, the heavens opened in a monumental tempest. It seemed like the Congo was making up for lost time and tried it’s upmost to catch up for a slow start to the wet season in one storm. The road became a river in seconds.
Crazy times… I didn’t take too many photos as I was worried about the camera getting really wet.
We soldiered on through the mud and slop and flowing water. The ever-present ruts in the track were now flowing streams and took on a new dimension of difficulty, as it was now impossible to know their depth. Crossing from one side of the track to the other now became a lottery unless we got off the bikes and jumped in; were the ruts a harmless 10-20cm deep or difficult 30-40cm deep?
Dodging ruts on loamy soil. These ones looked deep, but we managed to split them ok. Still pissing rain.
The rain was starting to ease by this point
The rain eased after about 30 minutes, and we found a quiet spot and stopped for a muesli bar. We then settled into the groove of the morning… hard yakka and persistence. In the areas we could get off the track and onto walking trails, the rain drained off into the forest and probably helped firm up the sand. But on the track itself, the water sat in the ruts and turned the sand and occasional sections of loam that is constantly churned up by the 6×6 trucks into horrid slop. And the poor bikes suffered for it…
Stopped for a breather and a breakfast snack. The rain has stopped but the tracks are wet as hell… The rain, weirdly, whipped up this froth that you can see in the low spot about 20m in front of Tanya’s bike.
One of the many Mercedes 6×6 trucks that service most of the country and tear up the tracks in the process. These things are overloaded with tens of people on top and all sorts of stuff strung out the back to maximise the load.
Yet more excited children. You can see the truck covered in plastic drums for fuel and water going through a checkpoint. We had just come through there with no dramas, just a quick “hello, how are you, where are you going, ok fine have a nice trip”. Not all of them are corrupt and menacing.
After yet another bogging in the hellish ruts of the main track, our constant hunt for walking trails lead us into a village, and onto a trail heading north when we should have been heading west. I had the GPX tracks from Pat and some earlier travellers loaded on our GPS so I knew where we should have been heading, and we weren’t. It had been interesting comparing our route to theirs as we went; you’d think that there is only one option when riding the N1, but our tracks were actually not overlapping as often as you would expect. There are just so many little villages on either side of the track with their own walking trails that we were often out by sometimes as much as 100m, but always travelling in more or less the same direction. So when we entered a village on a walking trail and ended up quite a ways north of the GPX track, I wasn’t worried. But when we actually turned north, I was. We had unknowingly changed tracks, and we needed to correct it.
Ruts and ruts and ruts into the distance.
Where we could, we got onto walking trails. These were slow, 1st and 2nd gear, but easy to ride. And would have been fun single track if we didn’t have bigger problems to worry about, as you can see in Tanya’s facial expression. Looking back on these photos I can see the stress written all over our faces…
More walking trails, these ones grass lined, is more slow single track (more or less) on the bike
We were in a larger than average village on a crossroads of some sort and were surrounded by many very excited people. I’m sure these villagers only see locals and velo-boys selling goods from the back of their bicycles, so when two foreigners turned up on two big and loud dirt bikes, well, that was just the most incredible thing to ever happen ever and brought everyone out from the huts. I’m sure Martians throwing wads cash from their UFO couldn’t attract a larger crowd.
Getting bogged on the way into the larger village on the crossroads. Crossing these ruts was hard on the bikes… we needed momentum to bounce across but too much speed would just bottom out the suspension and case out the bike on the middle mound. Then you’re stuck. It was a fine balance.
Tan came back to help push me out, and got dirty…
We asked for the road for Tshikapa and were shown the way by an energetic crowd of yelling and screaming kids running back and forth all over the place. The kids didn’t quite compute that the best way to walk to the right track maybe wouldn’t be the best way to ride loaded adventure bikes, and they led us through a very soft section of mud which I quickly sunk into. I managed to direct Tan around the worst of it and she got to the other side without too much trouble, where she got off and walked back to help me push my bike out. That bogging was the first instance I felt my clutch start to go, I could feel it slipping and hoped that if I could get up on the pegs, get some speed and get some air through the oil cooler and cool the motor a bit, I could get some feeling back into the clutch lever. Because at this point of time, it had all the fortitude of a hot marshmallow.
Some of the crazy crowd on the edge of the village. By the time I got stuck in the mud and then got out again, we must have had 40 or 50 people following us. The cool hair doo of the lady in the middle is a very common one in DRC.
With the oil temperature reduced some lever pressure did come back, eventually, but God my clutch was in a fragile state and the trail was remorseless. Soft sand and mud are not good things for any clutch, let alone failing ones, and my poor clutch was given nothing but. It was the factory clutch with 79000kms of spirited use, with a Simpson Desert crossing and Cape York trip under its belt back home in Australia in addition to 51000kms of tough riding in Africa. It had done well, but after riding a few hundred metres of what is best descried as quicksand (no exaggeration… we and the bikes literally just sunk in it) its time was finally up. I conceded defeat and started thinking about where all the stuff I would need was packed, and looking for somewhere shady and quiet to whip the clutch cover off.
We missed a walking trail and ended up on the main truck track. This sand was like nothing else, we just sunk in it, you couldn’t stand still as our boots would sink down. I think it happened like this: the trucks as they drive by grind and throw up loose sand which then sits on the lip of the ruts. This super fine and loose sand then just “falls” into the rut during the storm as the edge of the rut eroded, meaning the ruts fill with very fine, saturated, unconsolidated sand. We stopped because the bikes were working hard and I could feel my clutch slipping, and I was hoping to get over onto an easier walking trail. To move my bike from here, I had to lift the front wheel out of the sand while Tans was at the bars pushing with the bike in gear.
We made that little sand bridge across the second rut to move my bike over onto the walking trail. With the slipping clutch it just couldn’t get enough power to move in the sand. Those blokes in the background help push Tanya’s bike out… I lifted the front wheel out of the quicksand, they pushed and she rode.
Bushbashing over to a walking trail.
I had been carrying a spare set of clutch plates for quite a while in anticipation of this event, and if I’m honest I had thought if we were going to need a spare clutch pack anywhere it would be here. So now was the time… the problem was we were constantly surrounded by people, and if there is one thing I really don’t like it is people looking over my shoulder when I’m trying to work. With the end of each village being the start of the next, people were everywhere, and we couldn’t find a peaceful place that I was hoping for. So I persisted, foolishly.
On a much easier walking trail… we stopped and let the bikes cool off for a bit.
Arthur the Meerkat and the trail ahead.
More single track walking trail. Slow going but easier on the clutch.
A car had come through here not too long ago, and had bashed its way across from the main track onto the walking trail aswell. Those ruts must be hell in a 4WD, as they are wider than the track of a normal 4WD and deep. On our travels we did see one 4WD driving the track and it was suffering, it had one side down in a rut and the other up on the soft middle, and was racing along bouncing back and forth as it bottomed out on the middle mount. It was an ugly sight… for a 4WD to do this route, I would set it up with cabin operated diff locks, big wheels and lots and lots of lift.
With Tan riding in the right hand wheel track and me in the left, we entered yet one more village, and all we found were yet more deep and loose ruts, and hundreds of people. On the intercom I heard Tan drop the bike up ahead. A few locals helped her pick it up, but she got bogged trying to get started again in the soft sand. And during this episode I could offer no assistance at all, as 40m back in the left hand rut I had gotten stuck and then managed to bury the bike rear wheel deep trying to get out again. The clutch officially died in that hole.
My bike… it dug this hole and tried to climb inside to die… You can see the crowd 40m or so up front, that is Tan in her own trouble.
Tan came back to help extract my bike; we just had to trust that no one would ransack her luggage while we were gone, and thankfully no one did. I lifted the rear of the bike and then lent the bike over to each side all while she pushed sand in the hole, and we slowly got the bike up and out of its self dug grave. We pushed the bike forward, extracted Tan’s bike from its own hole, and pulled up under a large tree. This was to be the place the clutch would be replaced.
Getting down to business…
Crowd is growing…
People sneaking up… closer and closer…
The amount of people who surrounded us was just incredible… at least a hundred and rising quickly. Pat had told us of a trick he had used during his recent crossing for dealing with crowds. He had many flat tyres on his trip and every time he stopped, he was surrounded. He resorted to marking a line in the sand around his bike and motioning that on the inside of the line was his space and the outside was theirs, and as crazy as it sounds, it works. I marked out a circle and everyone laughed at me but stayed back, giving me some space to get to work. I concede it’s an outrageously obnoxious thing to do, but with all the kids hanging around and getting under your feet it is necessary.
You can see how hot the clutch got, oil is burnt onto the pressure plate and turned it brown.
First drive plate smeared all over the first driven plate.
Pulling the plates out, it was still quite hot. I’ve got a pile of rubbish on the sand next to me, this plate was about to go on the rubbish pile.
I asked some of the adults wandering about if it was ok to work under the tree and they assured us it was fine, and amazingly, a plastic chair appeared out of nowhere for me to sit on while I pulled the bike apart. I was expecting to find one of the friction plates worn away, but instead found one completely in pieces and one of the fingers of the clutch basket broken. But there was nothing for it, other than removing all the broken bits I could find and replace the plates. After a lot of stuffing about, meaning I had to take the clutch cover off due to not cleaning the bits of clutch out of the clutch release pinion gear which left a really notchy action, and then again to try and properly seat a damaged clutch cover gasket, I put it together and test rode the bike to many cheers.
Bits of the first drive plate (fibre plate) and broken clutch basket finger. Ugly sight.
Taking the clutch cover off the 1st time… I adjusted the cable but the actuation was horrid, there was bits of clutch fouling the release pinion gear.
Cleaning out the bits after flicking them out from around the release pinion and shaft.
Part of the crowd, they had gotten comfy to properly enjoy the show.
Clutch cover off another time to check the gasket, it was weeping but I could not find my silicone… so it went back on as it was. A problem for another time! You can see the people crowding around… At one stage I twisted in my seat to grab a tool which I’d put down on the ground next to me and my elbow hit peoples knees…. Everyone was crowding around and I really don’t like that, it drives me nuts, but I just had to block it out.
With the clutch cover on and off a few times, the 8 year old factory gasket had broken and was now leaking. But for the life of me I couldn’t find my tube of gasket silicone anywhere, so I told Tan we would get going and I’d pull the clutch cover off and seal it properly when we stopped that night. I just needed to get out of there, the attention and noise was unrelenting.
The crowd by the end was up on top of us, they just snuck up and snuck up until there was no room to move. At one stage I was trying to move around and look for my silicone but I just couldn’t get to the bikes. I gently pushed people back to make some room and started saying “I need some space, I need some space” and they just started parroting it back at me… “I need some space!” they said over and over and over again.
Everyone was really happy though.
After my quick little test ride. Oil was leaking, but the clutch was working. So we left.
This bloke gave him self the job as chief security officer. When he realised there were so many people I couldn’t even move anymore, he went and found himself a really big stick, must have been 1.5m long, and started swinging it at people. Most people managed to get out of the way, but some didn’t and copped a really full blooded swing from that big stick… it would have hurt like hell. Everyone ran off screaming, a few toddlers got dropped in the sand and started crying… It was bloody crazy. But not long later they had all snuck up again, although this time they stayed a bit further back.
Hundreds of people….
You can see how this got quite stressful… there were people everywhere.
I think this photo sums up the mayhem of it all pretty well. Bit like a Zombie Movie…
Finally ready to roll. Ol’mate on the right is dressed like he just came back from shooting a rap video.
However, when the oil got up to operating temperature a few kilometres later, the leak was much more than I was expecting. A leak that was just a bit of an oil weep back under the tree had now turned into a full drip every 4 or 5 seconds. I had used half a litre of engine oil with the clutch change and only had half a litre left… which meant we didn’t have enough spare to have engine oil leaking all over the sand. So we pulled off the track into some shade in what was a thankfully quiet section with few people about. I pulled the clutch cover off one more time, sealed it up with the silicone which was hiding in Tan’s toolbox and got it all back together, this time not leaking any oil.
Few kilometres later… clutch cover off again. Thankfully it was reasonably quiet here, but people stopped as they came walking by and a crowd slowly built up.
Tans bike parked on the sandy trail ahead…
Everyone was really friendly though, apart from the bloke in the back. He looks a bit grumpy. I think he shat the bed that morning.
We only got another few kilometres down the track when we realised the day was done… it was a bit of a revelation to both of us, “oh shit look at that the sun is about to set!” With so much action we had completely lost track of time and hadn’t eaten since our trailside breakfast muesli bar after the morning storm. So we pulled into the next village and looked around. It was a friendly place, a few of the ladies looked at us and smiled, and a bunch of kids materialised from nowhere to gawk at us, jump around and chatter excitedly.
And this guy is also allergic to smiles…
Ahh that’s not true, some people like to have photos taken, but once in front of the camera they get really serious. This young guy was one fella like that – happy in the flesh, serious in the photo.
When we had met Richard in Nairobi, an experienced British Overlander who had crossed the Congo 4 times, he gave us a bit of advice, that “the time will come when you just have to trust the people around you… there are parts of Congo where there is nowhere to camp, there are too many people and the jungle is too thick, all you can do is find the local Chief, ask him if you can stay in his village and put yourself completely into his trust… that’s all you can do… you are safer in a friendly village than by yourself.
Crowd of kids gathered…
When we were getting ready to leave, this porter family came by… the father is actually in this photo but he is leaning over pushing and a bit difficult to see. Next time someone complains about their work or life opportunities in the developed world, show them this photo for an instant reality check.
We took that advice to heart and had used it the night previous to good effect. In our travels to date we had been through a few villages were we had seen mostly men which didn’t seem very welcoming, but most villages, like this one, had a mix of men, women and children and were friendly. Tan got off the bike, asked in French “où est le chef de localatie?” and quickly disappeared with a large group of singing and clapping ladies and children.
After what felt like 20 minutes, I started to get quite worried… When I was starting to wonder what my next move might be, Tanya thankfully reappeared with a larger group of singing and clapping ladies in tow. I asked her if everything was ok, expecting something must have gone wrong when she had met the Chief.
“It’s crazy, everyone is really friendly, but it is so crazy. It’s ok for us to stay in the village, I met the Chief and he is happy to have us. On the way to the Chief it turned into a full precession. Kids ran from hut to hut telling everyone there are white people here. Everyone was cheering and singing. Everyone wanted to shake hands with me and high-five… women kept thrusting their babies at me to hold. I dead-set nearly dropped one while trying to keep up with momentum of the crowd… trying to walk on uneven ground in the dark juggling babies. Everyone was so thrilled I can’t even describe it. The Chief was quiet but friendly, when I asked him if it was ok if we could camp in his village, and he said yes, everyone started cheering and dancing and clapping. It’s so crazy, you’re not going to believe it.”
We hopped on the bikes and they led us to the hut of the Chief. People were everywhere, hundreds of them… hundreds of them. Tan got off and took me over and introduced me to the Chief, who was well dressed in a jacket and sitting in a nice looking wooden chair. A few tiny plastic chairs appeared out of thin air and we were invited to sit. These chairs were for kids, so we had our knees up around our ears and felt we were sitting near on the ground.
The 3 of us sat there surrounded by hundreds of standing people. A young man appeared who spoke quite passable English, not great, but very workable. You could tell he had learnt from a book, as his vocab was decent but his delivery was a bit broken and pronunciation was a bit all over the place; half French, half African. But you could tell with a few days of practice he would be more or less fluent. It was a shame that he lived in the middle of bloody nowhere.
He explained that the chief was his uncle and he was the English teacher in the local school. When he mentioned those two words, English Teacher, the crowd erupted.
They went on and on, repeating the words, ever louder and louder. It seems these were the only words that most people knew and they just went on and on. We could barely hear ourselves think…
We made some small talk with the Chief, with the English teacher translating for us, and he offered us some food. We hadn’t eaten all day and were really hungry, but we didn’t want to be taking food away from anyone else when we had our own with us. In these parts eating once a day is the norm for many people, there is food but it’s hardly in surplus. But they were so insistent and made such a fuss about preparing dinner, that in the end we felt we couldn’t refuse. In the end they presented us with 4 small bananas cut into pieces served on floral porcelain plate. I suddenly realised how starved I was, but tried my best to eat in a restrained manner. The young English teacher asked us how dinner was after we had finished, “fantastic, thank you, the bananas were perfect”, and they were.
Everyone looked so outrageously happy with our presence… it was really something else. We asked the English teacher about all the people around us, and he explained that everyone was very happy… very happy for us to staying with them in the village, and that many people, especially the children, had never seen a white person before. It made sense, all the while we had been sitting, people had been touching us. Especially my arms… children would wriggle their way through crowd, spend a second or two touching my forearm, especially running their fingers through my arm hair, then running off shouting and screaming and laughing. This made space for the next kid to come up and stare and touch, maybe look at my beard, pull on some arm hair and run away. It was a near constant procession.
This went on for half an hour or more. There was some idle chit chat with the young English teacher who was polite and welcoming, but all I can remember is the touching… not in an uncomfortable way though, the scene was to happy for that. Everyone was just very curious; people carefully rubbed my head and arms, touched my beard, pushing on our knee braces, our boots… everything for them was new and exciting. And the noise… there was just constant yelling and laughing. Someone would point at something; our clothes, or boots, or Tanya’s blonde hair, or my bald head, and everyone would yell and laugh and point some more. The only light was a tiny lamp that the Chief had, meaning the only thing we could really see were hundreds of smiling white teeth reflecting back at us.
It was a relief when the opportunity presented itself that we could politely retreat from our chat with Chief, put the tent up, climb inside and finally get some personal space again. It was something we had lacked all day, and even though the din continued outside for another 30 minutes or so, we could finally relax in relative peace.
You’d think that blowing your clutch in the middle of Kasai Province, DRC, is pretty full-on… but that night… in the pitch black, in the that immense racket, being surrounded by that many animated people, looking up at all of them looking down on you, was one the most seriously intense things that has happened on this trip. As Richard had wisely pointed out 5 months earlier, “you just have to trust the people around you. That’s all you can do.”
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’