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.
Blog 64 by Tan: Day 2 on the Dirt – Mudholes for Bush Pigs
Day 2 of proper (i.e. off road) riding
Camp 1 in the forest… to some other place
Our day’s route
So after our first night camping we were up at the crack of dawn, and were afforded just enough time to get out of the tent and pee before a few young men and kids arrived at the campsite to get a good look at us. The teenager who we had made some tea for the night before had taddle-taled on us and brought back some of his mates to check out the foreigners sleeping in the jungle. We passed on breakfast and instead decided to pack up camp and getting moving ASAP. Firing up the stove for a brew and eating some food in a morning stupor was never going to be fun while being gawked at. So we were wheels rolling by 7:15am.
Leaving camp the next day.
A gorgeous start to the day 2. And not a rain cloud in sight.
Views of the bush and Arthur, my meerkat totem.
Breakfast was a 5 minute break and a muesli bar.
The morning’s ride took us further north towards the crossing’s rough half way point of Kananga. The trail narrowed and became rougher and wetter than what we’d seen the day before. It varied from some fast gravel, deep eroded track, narrow sandy trail to a fair bit of mud. Nothing too demanding but it was a lot slower going on the muddy sections that had us dodging mud holes and puddles and taking porters lines around the worst of the track’s obstacles. The vegetation was still savannah and woodland but on the whole more dense than the previous day. The weather was stunning and Congo was putting on a show for us. Wet season? What wet season?
A nice old bridge…and clouds gathering.
While we still came across Congolese going about their daily business this section was considerable more remote with smaller and less frequent settlements seen. It is hard to describe the abruptness of the change in scene and feel from the tar to the dirt sections we had been riding. It was like falling through the rabbit hole. It really was a unique phenomena I felt at this juncture, where the change in mood and feel of the place completely belied the short distance we had ventured from the tar road and very minor passage of time.
Usually for us travelling overland; the sights, sounds and feel of the place more often than not tend to gradually bleed into one another. We very rarely notice stark changes inside a country’s borders. Not so for this section of DRC. It was like falling off a cliff. All of a sudden it felt we were somewhere completely different from everywhere we had been until this point. As we ventured further from the mining centres and into the guts of the country the feeling of isolation and uniqueness of experience only became more pronounced.
Apart from us, there was generally little sign of the modern world. No vehicle wheel tracks, no power lines, not a single bit of rubbish for kilometre after kilometre. We had found what had for the most part eluded us in Africa; somewhere that felt remote and untouched. As we rode along the more narrow and unkempt sections of track it became easier than ever to imagine what the DRC would have been like hundreds of years ago.
47 These guys were fixing a puncture when we came along.
They were stoked when we gave them a bunch of patches.
For all my reading about the DRC it is hard to find much discussion as to what Congo was like before the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley arrived on the scene. Now I am quite a fan of Stanley but the fact of the matter is there was a heck of a lot going on in the Congo before Stanley came along and followed the Congo River from start to finish.
In the centuries prior, the Kingdom of Kongo, as it was known then, along with the rest of the territory of modern day DRC, was surprisingly well connected with the global economy of the time. And we have the Atlantic slave trade to thank for that. Prior to this time, slavery within Africa (ie African slaves owned by other Africans) was just as common here as many other parts of the world. Within Kongo, slaves were generally the spoils of war or criminals were made slaves as a form of judicial punishment.
On some nice sand track.
and giving another motorbiker some spare patches.
But slavery in the Kingdom of Kongo got seriously commercial thanks to the Portuguese. If you are one who thinks globalisation is bad now, it was a genuine bitch in the 14th century. The Portuguese rocked up on the scene and then got friendly with the King of the Kongo. A bit of cultural exchange went on with missionaries being accepted into Kongo first (that ol’trick) and some locals went to Portugal. One such local included the eleven year old son of the King Afonso I of Kongo who went on to learn Portuguese and Latin who then moved to Rome where he became history’s first black Catholic bishop.
It was a stunning day to be out riding.
From sandy trails, to red dirt,
Back to sand again.
From the beginning the Portuguese were pretty keen to get their hands on Kongo’s human merchandise. King Afonso helped them out by conducting slave raids for them in neighbouring regions. But the Portuguese desires for slaves increased to the point the Kingdom was becoming destabilised and depopulated. King Alfonso wrote the following letter to the Portuguese King João III:
“Each day the traders are kidnapping our people – children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our own family. This corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated. We need in this kingdom only priests and schoolteachers, and no merchandise, unless it is wine and flour for Mass. It is our wish that this Kingdom not be a place for the trade or transport of slaves.”
He threated to end the slave trade unless the Portuguese submitted to Kongo law regarding slaves. The Portuguese King however talked him around and he instead set up and committee to examine the legality of all slaves presented for purchase. History suggests that didn’t work as intended.
With the arrival of the Portuguese, trade was initiated and the face of Kongo’s society changed forever. Portuguese goods meant trade took off and a merchant class emerged to rival the power of chiefs. Merchants acquired wealth… that could then be traded for weapons and gunpowder. At this time gunpowder became the difference between survival and decimation for tribes. It would take on average 5 years for a keg of it to make it from the coast to the interior but when it did it wasn’t put to waste… or good use for that matter. So gunpowder begat more slaves and more slaves beget more gunpowder and so the cycle continued until before you know it; 350 years have passed, 4 million slaves had been sold and transported and millions more left dead in the process.
Taking a break where I stacked the bike after a hitting a big tree stump with my pannier that was hidden in the tall grass.
Mick having a rest and seeing how we were tracking for the day.
Pulling up for a bit of lunch of something like tuna and crackers, nuts and biltong.
Passing a guy on his way to sell a goat.
Dodging pigs was the mornings challenge. Loved riding past mud holes with lounging pigs that would calmly look us as to say “Sup?”
I have heard people wanting to deflect criticism for nations that took part in the slave trade by mentioning how African chiefs sold their own people into slavery. This is true. But a more nuanced look at the slaving economy that arose would reveal an ‘enslave or be enslaved’ situation. While there were African slave traders in it for money and power, there were more chiefs faced with having to sell their own people in order to buy gunpowder and weapons to protect the remaining members of the tribe from being enslaved by neighbouring tribes, who were themselves looking to ensure their own survival. Enslave, or be enslaved.
It went for centuries like this. Communities fought each other while retreating from ever expanding slaving territories and adopted new rigid hierarchical social structures in order to be better protected. What advances the Kongo might have experienced had centuries of energy not been expended hiding in the jungle and defending themselves? The situation the inhabitants of Central Africa found themselves in was not exactly conducive to the rise of great constructions, written language, economic, agricultural, technological advancement and all the other things that serve as proof to some of an inherent lack of capacity as a people.
So in a nutshell, in addition to serving as an indelible stain on humanity the slave trade did an absolute number on the Congo. The Congo was left devastated, centuries behind the eight ball, divided, disorganised and vulnerable. And then King Leopold II of Belgium came along. And there Congo went, from the fire of the Atlantic slave trade to the frying pan of colonialism.
But back to the ride, which incidentally had us travelling west toward the Angola border very closely mirroring one of the main slave caravan routes through Congo.
After some time on the trail we arrive in the small town of Tshimbalanga on the crossroads of the N39 running north to south, and an east-west route connecting central Congo with Angola. We were not far from Sandoa, the largest town in the area by looking at a map, but one we had specifically been warned not to travel to by Pat, the solo Aussie fella on a KTM690 who had been through about 3 weeks before.
Pat was in need of fuel, and decided to head west on the road towards Angola for the 6 or so kilometres needed to reach Sandoa where he was hoping to get reliable fuel. Black market fuel is everywhere but a bit of a risk in terms of quality and cleanliness, plus it is more expensive, so if it is avoidable with a 6km detour… why not? The problem though with bigger towns is the amount of people and the increased likelihood of running into police/immigration types. Thankfully he had is gopro on and managed to capture some of the carnage which was about to play out.
They were happy to sell 40l in one go and the kids were happy to have something interesting to stare at.
He did indeed find a proper service station but was soon overrun with locals gawking at him and his bike. It was impossible to move, so the service station attendant grabbed a big piece of hose and started swinging it wildly at the crowd, which backed off enough after a few indiscriminate blows that the attendant was able to put up a security chain around the fueling area to keep the crowd at bay. This action however created a bigger scene, attracting more people to fuel station mosh pit, one of which was a very drunk cop/DGM official who started to yell at Pat, tried to grab him, and when unsuccessful, tried to take some of his stuff. Pat managed to shout enough and make a big enough scene to get him to back off, managed to pay the bill, get on his bike, push off the drunk cop who lunged one more time at him and then accelerated off straight through the jeering crowd.
Did we mention that Congo can be a pretty wild and crazy place? Well, just in case we didn’t, Congo can be a really wild and crazy place. Based on that story we were not going to Sandoa for fuel lest there still be some bad blood around foreign biker types.
A nice little road side café.
Tea break. Best part of my day.
They were a bit spun out by our presence.
We only saw a couple of these trucks in our travels.
Thankfully the town of Tshimbalanga was very small, but it did have a few shops and few guys selling black market fuel. Even though we were now quite isolated, the fuel here was nearly as cheap as in the last main town of Kolwezi, 1450 francs per litre vs about 1400 (about US1.50). This is because the fuel is smuggled over the border from nearby Angola (a significant oil producer) where it is purchased at low cost. We purchased 20l each, filtered through our in tank filters that we use in such situations and were happy to see the fuel was really quite clean. To my great pleasure the town even boasted a small tea stall where we were able to buy a baguette and down some sweet milky tea. Everything was friendly and chilled and we were soon on our way again.
You can see here that I missed the porters track while Mick didn’t. It was a mistake we would both make from time to time. On the worst part of the route (that were to come in a few more days riding) you really paid the price for inattention and if you missed the cheat line you could be stuck for a kilometer in the worst sand before the next opportunity came to escape it.
It was during this section where the trail got quite tricky for the first time.
We encountered some thick and slippery mud.
The tyres were awesome…
but even they struggle with Congo mud.
We hit the trail once more and had a good afternoon’s ride and saw scarcely a soul. The trail served up the first challenging off-road section but nothing too difficult; just utterly constant technical riding and maneuvering through deep watery muddy trail. Taking the porter lines was really challenging at times where the mud and flooded track was so deep it required a very abrupt climb on the bike on slippery steep embankments. If you didn’t make it you faced a big drop into some deep mud ultimately putting yourself in a shitty position for then having to ride through the worst of the main trail or worse a muddy near drowning experience if you stack it on the way down.
Here we are pulled up at one of the infrequent flat easy parts of the section of the route I referred to as the Great Puddle Gauntlet. Obviously if there was no time to drink there was no time for photos so you’ll just have to imagine the hard stuff.
We are pretty bike fit so it takes a lot to get us this hot and red faced.
It was really humid in the dense forest and mud sections.
Fortunately that didn’t happen to either of us but the fear of it did run through my head on the occasions I found myself maneuvering my overloaded piggy up a steep greasy mud embankments that would be sufficiently challenging on a mountain bike let alone a 200kg fully loaded, fully fueled bike. The cheat line were also extremely narrow in this section and basically just front tyre width so difficult to see with enough time to take advantage of them let alone assess if they were a better option the obstacle in front. Because sometime they proved more perilous as they were very tight and windy through dense forest full of tall thin trees and nasty pannier height stumps. And then at the end of them you might face a sudden large drop back down to the track. It made for really exciting almost sensory overload inducing riding where you simply couldn’t stop and interrupt the flow. It was the type of riding that didn’t even allow sufficient time to take a hand of the bars to place the camelbak tube in your mouth. Great, great riding. I don’t know how long it was like that for but it felt like several hours and was long enough to get a good ache on in the abs and muscles all down the back.
Then we dealt with some rutted deep sand sections. Once again we were concentrating on riding so we didn’t get pictures of the worst of it. To be honest we hate interrupting the ride to take photos.
In places where the ruts are high enough to hit the panniers you tend to get knocked around like a pinball. From left to right in the same wheel track, then bumped over the middle mound then into the right wheel track and back again. Made for some interesting riding.
It was pretty exciting to see the first sign in a long time. But we wouldn’t make it to Kapanga until the following day.
There were some cheat lines out of the worst of the deep sand but you have to be really careful with these as the tended to be high up from the track and had you riding on a camber then huge deep erosion holes could gobble up a motorbike and rider or leave you stranded with no way to turn around accept for trying turn around in thick grass and vegetation off the trail….or having to drop a meter or more down into the sandy wheel tracks.
Luck for us the previous nights rain put enough moisture in the sand to make it a little easier to ride, but not so much as to waterlog it into a harder challenge. As it was this sand wasn’t much of a hassle.
After a long, tiring and pleasant day in the saddle we started scouting for a nice place to bush camp. Where we found ourselves in the late afternoon was ideal in terms of privacy as there we so few people around. However we struggled to find a practical place to park up due to heavy erosion off the trail. Back and forth along a section of trail we went trying to find a place to get the bikes through. Knowing the comfort of the camp chairs, removal of boots and eating of food was not far off made the 20 minutes of searching for a place seem like hours. Eventually Mick came up with the goods and this time checked to make sure there weren’t obvious tyre tracks leading to our camp for the night.
Taking a breather once we hit some nice hard pack.
That awesome feeling where you find yourself on terrain so easy you have time to play back all the tough stuff you just rode. This is when its nice having the intercom “hey, how about that gnarly bit where…..” “But then there was that insane bit where….”
Then we hit a eroded gravel section (not eroded here) in lovely savannah territory.
There was even a bridge.
We were exhausted but content after a physically demanding though not too challenging ride. We had knocked off another 220kms in 10 hours, a good effort we thought. We pitched the tent and boiled water for tea and to make one of our dehydrated hikers meals for two. I can’t recall what we ate but it was divine. And we were grateful once more to Richard the Congo aficionado who gave us his left over packets. A great day was finished off in style with a mouthful of sweetened condensed milk and reading a brilliant Stanley biography to the sound of the Congo bush, and later in the evening, another Congo storm. While we were close enough for the sheet lightning to light up the night sky, luck was with us yet again as the thunderstorm rolled over to the south of us, while our route beckoned to the north. We had travelled a good distance in 2 days and had no troubles. I was feeling confident now. And was eager to see how the trail would treat us tomorrow.
The view from our campsite.
Parked up for the night.