To the End of the Tar

Blog 61 by Tan: DRC – To the End of the Tar

Our last day in Zambia started off in the typical fashion; cruisey and behind a schedule we never expected to stick to anyway. After a final treat of a laid back breakfast and a bunch of gas bagging with people curious of us and our bikes, we hit the road with the intention of getting all the way to Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

On our arrival at Kasumbalese/Kasile border, I was up for dealing with the border shenanigans so I left Michael with the bikes and started the process of checking us out of Zambia. This border was quite dis-organised compared to other Zambian borders we had crossed, but things still went pretty smoothly.

Behold the stamp that cost us a total of $US440 each. Knowing our initial plans for DRC were rather ambitious we thought it pertinent to have a 2 month visa rather than a one month. We wanted more time up our sleeve in the case of worse than expected conditions, a horrendous wet season or mechanical difficulty. The 2 month multi-entry visa cost $US220. It then cost $120 to be granted an invitation letter from DRC Immigration, which we still owe a mate who pitched for us. (If you don’t have a contact and need to go through a travel company it can cost from $175 to $250). Then we had to pay return courier costs to get the passport to Pretoria, South Africa, which was the most convenient place that could legally grant a visa to an Australian passport holder. Then we had to pay for a visa agency to facilitate the process and make sure our passports didn’t get lost or “lost”. All up $US880. Aaarrrgghhhhh!!!!!!!!!

Once on the other side there was plenty of foot traffic transporting goods across from Zambia but there were very few people going through the official entry process. We soon attracted a crowd of people a bit stunned at the sight of us. Once again I was feeling up to taking care of the border shenanigans so left Mick on bike duty. Already the border was much calmer than I was expecting but still I had a lot of reservations.

We had heard some rough stories of DR Congo and the border crossings. Due to DRC being so infrequently visited there were limited positive stories to dilute the bad ones down with. Forefront of my mind was the story of two Aussie boys on KTMs that crossed Congo several years before and had a pretty terrifying experience. Their difficulties started at the border and they ended up paying many hundreds of dollars just to get in. We weren’t keen at all for that.

I walked in to the customs office, which was a very official looking space, with everyone in crisp uniforms. The only downer was I had a tag along; a guy hassling me badly, offering to help me through the entry process.

DRC border building
The swanky digs of the DRC border post. Not what we were expecting at all.

With the office empty and having crossed so many border without assistance, I was not interested. Plus the fella looked dodgy. Sure enough he started to get increasingly aggressive. However I had come up with a method for dealing with these guys who like to get tough when Mick is not around. With this guy I just kept saying, “no, thank you, no thank you, I’m fine” and being meek and unfailingly polite. Once there were people around I just waited for him to invade my personal space and then I went ballistic at him.

When he touched my arm and tried to take my documents I was ready and engaged full angry Chihuahua mode and yelled at him for touching me and told him to back off. It was a strategic over-reaction that worked well. Going from meek to maniac in a fraction of a second stunned him and put him on the back foot. If you flinch or react first you lose the round. He was sufficiently undermined that he immediately left the office… to recoup for a second attempt.

With the tout temporarily out of the picture I could proceed with the formalities. I filled out an entry form and was then directed to a medical office where a man and woman in white coats inspected my yellow fever certificate and took my temperature. Once I was deemed medically fit I was able to line up at the counter for the entry stamp. This was the true test. DRC immigration rules dictate that you must apply for the DRC visa in your home country. There are many cases where people have encountered problems when visa issue locations haven’t matched the country of citizenship. The problem for a lot of people is that DRC doesn’t have diplomatic representations in many countries, Australia included.

tucks at border
The border sees around 600 truck crossings a day. And bugger all overlanders is my guess. (photo credit: random internet pic so your can rest your tired eyes)

Looking online we had seen that Australia officially falls in the jurisdiction of the DRC embassy in Singapore. However, we knew from an Aussie mate who worked in the Congo, that he did all his DRC visa work though South Africa which can act as a surrogate. So we applied and had our visas granted through Pretoria.

But getting the visa is just part one of the process. They still have to let you in and this can be completely up to the feelings of whomever is in charge on the day. The ‘visa not issued in the right country’ thing is one of the most effective ways to extort money from a visitor to the Congo.

The immigration bloke looked at the visa and reached for the stamp. I thought surely we are not that lucky. If old mate were to stamp the passport now this intimidating, anxiety inducing border was about to be the fastest border crossing yet. I held my breath in anticipation.

Then he looks up and somewhat shyly says “it costs 10 US dollars for the stamp”. I wasn’t surprised to be asked for money, but rather surprised to be asked for so little… and so politely… almost apologetically. Having heard of people fronting big money to cross, $10 seemed a pittance. But either way, I didn’t intend on paying it.

We hadn’t yet needed to pay any bribes on the trip and had scarcely ever been asked until now. But we would soon come to learn that Central Africa is a whole ‘nother Africa than the one we were now used to. Paying bribes has its risks. If you pay too freely you could find yourself in a lot of trouble as more bribes are requested and you are seen a prime pickings. In the age of mobile phones, extensive networks and cheap credit, if you are too forthcoming with your cash you can find your reputation precedes you along your travels. At the very least you need to put up a decent amount of resistance to serve as a disincentive to heavy exploitation.

We had resolved that we’d only ever pay bribes when safety was at stake rather than to have an inconvenience avoided. So I did what I tend to do on those occasions and said that I can’t pay as my husband does not allow me to spend any money. The guy with the stamp told me once more “that is the cost. You must pay.” I told him, “but I don’t understand what it is for. I talked to the embassy and they told me all I need is the visa and I do not need to pay any more. They were very clear.”

“No, ma’am. You have to pay.”

I tell him I can’t as my husband will be so angry with me if I spend money. He goes and gets another higher up guy who is also polite but tells me firmly I have to pay.

I tell him, “I am confused as the embassy told me what to do at the border. Perhaps you have some documents about the fee so I can understand.” The man takes me to his office and has a good look at an old Zambian visa and tells me the dates are invalid. I am now in a tricky situation as I had been using the ‘more flies with honey’ tactic and being very respectful. Now I had to tell the boss man that he was actually looking at the visa of a completely different country, whilst not making him look like a bit of an idiot for not recognising his own countries visa.

Then he says the words I have been dreading, “you are Australian but your visa is from South Africa.” I confidently reply, “yes, you are correct that Australia is the jurisdiction of South Africa.” And he leaves it and never mentions it again.

I once again tell him about a fake conversation I didn’t have with the South Africa embassy telling me I don’t need to pay for a stamp. Strangely enough he says “no, you don’t need to pay for a stamp.” Then he gives me a form to fill out. I fill them out and give them to him. He makes sure that all the information is correct. And then tells me the $10 is for the form. I couldn’t help but chuckle. It was a good move on his part.

I realise I don’t have a counter move and that it is time to swap out for Mick to continue negotiations. I give him the forms back and say I am sorry and confused I have to get my husband. Before I leave he asks how much I can pay, which was a good sign. I told him he could discuss with my husband.

On the way out the tout from earlier had formulated a new tactic to get the un-necessary assistance job out of me… pure aggression. He was really angry with me now but he didn’t have any support base so I wasn’t worried. I told him to leave me alone and he responded by shouting “this isn’t Australia, this is Congo, you know nothing!” He was probably right.

Meanwhile Mick had made friends with the crowd around the bike who were more curious about the bikes than us. The friendly crowd told him to leave and he eventually did.

So I stay with the bikes while Mick goes into the offices and gets his Ebola control temperate test done and gets in line for immigration. Mick hands over his passport and the boss man ask him where we are residents. Damn… we know where this is going. Mick tells him Australia has no embassy and that Pretoria has jurisdiction over Australians.   He ponders for a bit and consults with his buddies, then asks for the passports again. Mick ends up in the same boss man’s office as I had been in. Old mate acts like he is angry with me for writing on his $10 form, leaving and not coming back.

He was soft with me but went all hard arse with Mick. He asks Mick why he doesn’t have this form. Mick apologises and claims it’s the first he’s heard of it.   Mick fills out another form and is asked for $10 for the form and to stamp both passports. “Ahhh here we go”, Mick says to himself. Mick relayed their basic conversation to me as this, which repeated in various alternatives for a good 10 minutes:

“Why do I have to give you $10?
“For the form.”
“But why? Every country we have been to in Africa we don’t have to pay for stamps.”
“But this Congo, not any of the other countries.”
“But this isn’t necessary.” “Could I at least get a receipt?”
“No receipt.”
“But why do I have to pay?”
“Because this is Congo, you need to pay for the form.”
“I don’t want to pay, I shouldn’t have to pay.”
“But you need to pay, this is how Congo works.”
“I don’t want to pay, maybe we will stay here for a while and sort this.”
“Ok, how much do you want to pay?”
“Nothing, I don’t want to pay anything.”
“But you must pay for the form, how much will you pay?”

So here is the thing about foreigners and bribes in Africa… we are the only people that stand a chance of not having to pay up. As a white person in Africa you are advantaged a lot more than you are disadvantaged. Its easy to get the shits at being asked for money by lots of people, targeted by sheisters and given ‘white man’ (i.e. heavily inflated) prices and anti-colonialist attitude. But the fact is as a foreigner in Africa you enjoy a lot more privilege than most of us tend to acknowledge. We often get to the front of lines, get given chairs and tables that locals are chased off from, we can walk into any place we want and use the dunny and clear off. We can sit all day in a fancy hotel restaurant shamelessly stealing wifi for hours while buying a lone soft drink and not be told to get lost. And with careful maneuvering and determination we can get away with not having to pay bribes.

We’d spent a bunch of time trying to wear the immigration guy down but now we couldn’t afford to persist much longer. It was nearing sunset, and arriving into Congo’s second largest city at night and trying to find a place to stay wasn’t the cleverest of options. There is a famous Chinese proverb regarding risk-taking and gambling. It basically says: “If you must play, decide upon three things from the beginning; the rules of the game, the stakes, and the quitting time.” We at least had the last one sorted. The gps said sunset was just after 6.20pm. We had 90km to travel so our bribe cut-off was 5pm.

Five o’clock came so Mick said he would pay $5 for both. The boss man said “no, $5 each, $5 isn’t a lot of money.” Mick argued that it was and held firm. Finally, he agreed. Once the money changed hands the mood when back to a friendly one and they had a nice chat while the passport was stamped. The immigration guys handed Mick the passports and wished us well. And with that our first bribe in Africa was paid.

All that remained was to get the carnet de passages stamped. The aggressive lone tout from earlier kept telling Mick we’d be sleeping at the border if we didn’t use his help. Mick ignored him and within minutes the CdP documents were stamped and we were then ready to enter DR Congo. The whole experience was far easier than we expected, and bar the lone tout, it was a rather alright border crossing. Even though the immigration guys asked for money they were calm and polite about it. We got lucky.

We didn’t have time to waste now. Thankfully the ride was pretty straight forward until the outskirts of the city. There weren’t that many cars or trucks on the road and it was decent tar so we covered the distance easily. As we approached Lubumbashi the traffic started to get a bit manic. There had been a big soccer game on and soon enough revelers were spilling into the streets in team colours, face paint and jumping in the backs of cars, trucks and buses tooting horns and cheering in celebration. We had planned on staying at a Greek Orthodox Mission that we had way pointed from a previous traveller. But when we got there the place was chained up and deserted.

Lubumbashi was the beating heart of DRC’s copper mining and the centre of operations for the large mining companies. It an economy badly suffering from Dutch Disease; its extreme mining wealth, crumb picking or abject poverty. A room here would therefore not come cheap. We struggled through heavy traffic with the bike overheating while looking for a secure looking hotel that would be in our budget.
Our plush digs for the night. Intrepid adventurers indeed.

The next day in front of our hotel…The Fantasy Hotel. We didn’t see anything untoward there.

We went to a few hotels hoping to get a decent priced place for the night. But it wasn’t going to happen, the cheapest we found was US$60 and pretty dodgy. In the end we took a room in a small, secure looking hotel for US$70 with breakfast. Ouch! The room turned out to be blingin’ with an aggressively cold air conditioner and, I kid you not, a jacuzzi. A jacuzzi! This is absolutely not what we were expecting for Congo. We made a conscious effort to squeeze every ounce of comfort out of the room we could. The next couple weeks were bound to be less cozy.

Getting ready to push off.

We arranged for dinner in the hotel and made a plan for the following morning. We had a bunch of things to take care of before leaving Lubumbashi. We needed more Congolese francs, we needed oil for the bike service we had scheduled for Kolwezi, and I wanted to track down a malachite sample. The DRC particularly, Kananga, produces some of the best malachite specimens on Earth. And I wanted me some. A geologist mate of ours working in the Congo gave us a location for the best specimens in Lubumbashi. Mick put me on strict notice about not loading the panniers unnecessarily with mineral samples… or something like that… I wasn’t really listening.

Screen Shot 2016-12-30 at 9.53.56 pm
Random net pics of glorious Katangan malachite.

We woke early the next morning and set about doing the last of the chores before leaving the big smoke. We headed into town and found an ATM so we could get some Congloese francs. In the bigger cities USD is fine but in remote places we expected to use francs more often, which turned out to be the case. However it appears that if you have a foreign bank card the ATM will only allow you to withdraw US dollars, whereas local card give the option of withdrawing either currency.

Congo data bundles

This left us to deal with the informal money-changers that are easy enough to find. They set up shop on street corners, or in our case about 2 metres from the ATM. They are easily identified as they will sit at a desk with a pile of cash and a hand drawn sign with a dollar symbol on them. We agreed on an exchange rate with our changer and he ran off to get more francs. We had been pre-warned in Congo they are very pedantic about the quality of the dollar notes they will accept. We had been advised to ensure our notes were in immaculate conditions and no older than 2006. And they weren’t wrong. We had a few near perfect looking notes rejected due to a tiny crease or smudge. With a mountain of francs in hand it was on to the next chore.

traffic light
The traffic lights of Lumbubashi are a riot. They are proudly made in DRC. When the lights change the robot turns around to face the next lot of traffic and lifts up its arm and shows a green light, while holding up a red light to the other traffic. This is a pic of the net. We tend not to take photos in cities.

We got SIM cards for a dollar each then headed to a huge automotive shop that looked as good as anything back home. Mick got some good quality oil and we were ready to head. With all these little jobs the day got away from us and I made a decision I would come to regret to this day. I decided to not worry about buying the malachite samples I had been dreaming of for years. Madness. But as things would turn out by the end of our time in the DR Congo, we would be certain of one day returning.
A video of riding though the well developed city of Lubumbashi. Vid’s a bit boring but gives you a sense of the place.

We past scarcely another vehicle on the way from Lubumbashi to Kolwezi. With the exception the occasional string of high voltage power lines heading out to some unseen mine or processing facility, there was little to see but open red-dirt savanna. It was strangely quiet and we saw few people at all. Already DRC was proving different from anywhere we had yet been in Africa.

The road from Lubumbashi to Kolwezi runs through the guts of the 70km wide, 250km long Katanga copper belt (aka DRC copper belt). When combined with the nearby Zambian copper belt it accounts for the world’s second largest copper reserves behind Chile. There is big money in this ground… a lot of DR Congo’s ground in fact.

In the DRC there is a popular story to explain the abundance of mineral wealth in their country. They say when God was creating the Earth he had a sack full of mineral riches that he would reach into and sprinkle around the globe. At the end of the process, he simply up-ended what was left in the bottom of the sack into the middle of Africa where nobody would find it… that land was the Democratic Republic of Congo. Now being mining types we are likely to revisit this further down the track, but suffice as to say the mineral riches, concentrated in the Congo in absolutely obscene quantities, have done little to help it development-wise, probably the opposite actually.

DRC’s copper belt plays host to some of the world’s highest grade copper deposits and the region has a more than generous smattering of cobalt reserves to boot. So much cobalt, in fact, it makes you question if the story about God and the sack of minerals might not be true. The stupendous amount of wealth and unique concentrations of minerals contained in the rocks beneath our tyres have had a profound influence of African and world history.

None more so than the rocks mined from Shinkolobwe mine about 20km from the town of Likasi, a town we soon arrived in. I say approximately as the precise location of the mine was removed from maps some time around 1942.

Katanga. Chock-a-blok of mines. This map shows but a few. Don’t take the position of Shinkolobwe mine on this map as gospel. I have seen it marked on other maps as due west of Likasi and north of Likasi on another.

Shinkolobwe was the source of more than two-thirds of the uranium used in the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and most of the plutonium in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

The remaining uranium was sourced from mines within the United States and Canada, which had ores of an average of 0.02 per cent uranium oxide. Shinkolobwe, on the other hand, was a freak of nature deposit on steroids, running an average of 65 percent, and a high of 75 per cent uranium oxide. Were it not for Shinkolobwe’s impossibly high grades of uranium, world history may have followed a different trajectory altogether.

The Shinkolobwe story began in 1915 when a British geologist named Richard Sharp came to investigate an area where locals were known to rub colourful mud on their bodies. He suspected the source of the colour in the mud might be related to the presence of copper. Instead he found that the bright colours were the result of oxidized uranium.

“Smashing, capitol, jolly good!” He must have thought. Uranium itself was viewed as useless but for the fact it was the mother product of radium. At the time of Sharp’s discovery, radium was all the rage, having recently been discovered by Pierre and Marie Curie. At no small cost time themselves I might add i.e. radiation poisoning. At the time radium was seen a wonder of nature; a mineral miracle even. People were doing all kinds of mad stuff with it like bathing in it, drinking radium water for natural vigor and ‘immortal warmth’ (that’s one way to put it), using radium laced blankets for rheumatism, one company even laced chocolate with it while another brewed radium beer, because why not? On the back of all this, in the early 1900s a single gram of radium would set you back US$175000; 30 thousand times the cost of gold.

During the radium craze a lot of fake products appeared on the market. Radithor was not one of them, as proved in 1932 when the famous American playboy industrialist Eben Byers died from radium poisoning. He was a 3-bottle-a-day Radithor drinker. The Wall Street Journal’s story on his death, headlined: “The Radium Water Worked Fine until His Jaw Came Off,” can’t have been good for business. (True headline, true story)

A Belgian company eagerly started mining via open pit. When Shinkolobwe came online with so much uranium ore and at such high grade many of the world’s uranium mines basically packed up and went home. Radium continued to be sourced from the mine for a couple of decades until the easily accessible parts of the mine were exhausted.

At the same time the market for radium began to suffer when people started to question the wisdom of ingesting something potent enough to take x-rays and glow in the dark. This post-radium fad introspection caused the arse to completely fall out of the radium suppository business (this isn’t a joke, well it kind of is, but nonetheless radium suppositories were a real thing). Every dog has its day and it was assumed that Shinkolobwe’s days were over.

radium jockstraps
Radium jockstraps were an actual thing. I’m sure there’s a joke in here but I’m coming up blank…

That was until the 1930s when some clever scientists got to the nitty gritty of chain reactions of uranium. Then came the discovery of nuclear fission in late 1938. Soon scientists were like “say do you have any of that shit-hot Shinkolobwe uranium lying around?…and umm don’t tell anyone we asked.”

And that’s when things got interesting.

On the back of these scientific discoveries, Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt warning of the potential for the Nazi regime to develop an atomic bomb, and explained it was particularly important to protect the uranium of the Belgian Congo (Shinkolobwe mine). Einstein, is also said to have written his friend Elisabeth, who just so happened to be the queen mother of the King of Belgium and the woman for whom Elisabethville (now known as Lubumbashi) was named. He said, “Look Liz, talk to that kid of yours and make sure he doesn’t let those Nazis get their mitts on Shinkolowbe’s goods or shit will get fully real in Europe”… or words to that effect.

Einstein with Leo Slizard. The Jewish- Hungarian physicist, Leo Slizard conceived of the nuclear chain reaction in 1933 and feared what someone (the Nazi’s) could do with that knowledge. With Einstein and another seriously clever dude Enrico Fermi, they drafted a letter to President Roosevelt. Some time later the Manhattan Project was born.

At that time the only major uranium deposit under German control was at St Joachimsthal, in the present day Czech Republic. So the small, low grade, and mostly mined out Joachimsthal suddenly took on enormous strategic importance. The German War Office was understandably keen to produce a bomb many orders of magnitude more destructive than the current ones and started to refine Joachimsthal’s uranium. Those in the know in the US shit collective bricks when Germany then when on to prohibited any export of uranium ores. The race for the nuclear bomb, and the fuel for it, was now on. And it wasn’t just the Germans and Americans paying attention it seemed.

In 1940, Edgar Sengier (the head of the mining company who owned Shinkolobwe mine), had been hearing all this talk about uranium’s potential. Cunning as a shithouse rat he anticipated the Nazi invasion of Belgium and shipped 1,250t of uranium ore from Shinkolobwe to the US in barrels he then stored in an unguarded vegetable oil warehouse on Staten Island, New York. He hated the Nazis and his intention from the start was to sell it all to the United States government. Eventually he did just that and more. The U.S. Army purchased all the uranium stored on Staten Island, all that was still stockpiled at Shinkolobwe and all the mine could produce in the future. All for a price of over $1.04 a pound.

All this power unleashed from the rocks of Shinkolobwe. It was weird to get so close to the source of the uranium for these bombs and to have also visited its final destination, Hiroshima.

With the deal with the US Army struck, the Shinkolobwe mine was back in production but this time it was all secret squirrels. Shinkolobwe’s location was removed from all maps and all outside access denied. Once more poor Congolese were working in the variable nuclear soup, scrounging the earth for rocks that would grant unprecedented destructive power to a government on the other side of the world. Between 1942 and 1944, about 30,000 tons of uranium ore were sold to the US Army. And much of that found its way from the Congo to Japan in the most devastating and history altering of fashions.

Shinkolobwe produced uranium for the US until 1960. By 1960 the mine’s reserves were mostly exhausted and alternative sources of uranium had been discovered to satisfy US needs. But the Cold War nuclear arms race was in full swing so Shinkolobwe maintained a position of global strategic importance. At the granting of Congo’s independence by a reluctant Belgium government, the decision was made to close and seal the mine with concrete. And with that, all chance of the high-grade uranium finding its way into the wrong hands was successfully halted. Forever.

CONGO - SEPTEMBER 09: Miners push radioactive pitchblende, used in atomic bombs, in a shaft, Shinkolobwe, Republic of the Congo (Photo by Willis D. Vaughn/National Geographic/Getty Images)
Miners push radioactive pitchblende, used in atomic bombs, in a shaft, Shinkolobwe, Republic of the Congo (Photo by Willis D. Vaughn/National Geographic/Getty Images)

Yeah…Nah. Didn’t work out like that.

If miners had managed to dig their way into solid ground to extract the uranium in the first place, a bit a concrete was hardly going to be a show stopper for a determined miner. You see, Shinkolobwe is not just a source of uranium but also copper and more importantly for now, cobalt.

Do you like turbines, jet engines, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, laptops and electric cars? Well then, you like cobalt. In 2015, DRC supplied 60% of the world’s cobalt. It is estimated to be almost 40% of the world’s known reserves of cobalt are in Katanga province alone. And if that isn’t enough of a statistic for you, consider that up to one quarter of that figure comes from artisanal mining, i.e. countless Congolese, men, women and children, mining with picks, shovels and their bare hands. Apple releasing a new i-phone any chance it gets, means there is plenty of $2-a-day, back-breaking, life-limiting work to go around.

Worldwide, cobalt demand has gone gang-busters, with demand tripling in the last five years. Demand is projected to double again before 2020. Smartphones and other tech stuff has driven a lot of this but most of the projected demand is actually being driven by electric vehicles….you know the ones that are good for the environment.(Net pic).

Shin mine dailey beast
Imagine how many people must be toiling like this if up to 15% of the world’s cobalt in 2015 was sourced this way.(Net pic).

The rocks of Shinkolobwe are to this day being extracted by the determined hands of thousands of artisanal miners. A United Nations report in 2006 found that 15,000 artisanal miners were living in the village of Shinkolobwe and mining the supposedly sealed and guarded mine.

Smuggling of Shinkolobwe’s uranium ore has been confirmed by the United Nations on multiple occasions. It has not been confirmed where it was going but some think it was going to the Middle East. Rumours abound that the mine is a target for Sudanese mercenaries working for Hezbollah, which is supplying Iran with uranium. And then there are the North Koreans to think about.

shink mine
I got this off the net and it is supposed to be the history altering Shikolobwe mine just a couple years ago. Could well be.

And now if all that isn’t enough to induce nuclear fallout ridden nightmares, I should mention that DR Congo has its own nuclear reactor on the outskirts of Kinshasa. Now that is a heck of a story in itself that will have to wait for another time. But just keep the reactor’s existence in mind when you see the attention and resources the government has dedicated to maintaining the only road connecting the two most economically important cities in the country. Haha…then you can be scared.

And people think rocks are boring! But enough history. Let us get back to the ride.

We had progressed about 100km down the road from Lubumbashi to the sizable town of Likasi. And the heavens opened. It absolutely bucketed down and we were soaked through by the time we could get into our wet weather gear. Parts of the town were soon flooded, which saw us at one point riding through front wheel deep water. It seemed clear at this time that we were going to have ourselves a bloody wet and tough crossing of the Congo. Oh well.

Rain in Likasi.

Likasi, formerly known as Jadotville, is an important mining and transport hub not to mention one of DR Congo’s most important mineral processing centers. I have to take yet another side step here to relay a pretty amazing historical tale about Likasi.

We found cover at an empty petrol station. Getting changed into our wets way too late.

Unknown to us at the time, Likasi was the site of a remarkable battle known as the “Siege of Jadotville.” In 1961, a small group of 156 Irish UN soldiers held off 3000 Katangan military and highly experienced foreign mercenaries for 6 days.

It all happened during the Congo Crisis (aka Katanga Crisis) which was right in the thick of Cold War rivalry between the US and USSR. In 1960 the Congo received its independence and things went to shit almost immediately (like, within a week). In no small part due to foreign meddling… to put things mildly. The Congo Crisis thus turned into a proxy conflict for the Cold War rivals. Here is how it essentially went down:

So the power hungry leaders of Katanga with its mineral wealth try to secede from the week-old independent Congo. Secessionist soldiers start fighting in the capital. New democratically elected prime minister Patrice Lumumba asks Belgium, the US and the UN for help with this. They say nup, who wanted independence, you’re on your own. Lumumba then calls on the Soviets for help. Big mistake.

Lumumba’s capture. He seems to know what is coming next. Many think Lumumba’s explosive speech at the Congo’s Independence ceremony set him up for such a fate. At the ceremony the King of Belgium gave a self-congratulatory speech about Belgium having successfully completed its civilizing mission in the Congo first started by Leopold II (aka The Butcher of the Congo). Lumumba got up and basically reminded them that they’d been a pack of bastards. The speech was an anti-colonialism mike drop moment but it marred the occasion by upsetting a lot of western governments. The Soviet diplomats, however, were said to have had a wonderful time.

His assassination was not long in coming and the Americans, British and Belgians have all been accused of planning it, meaning they were likely all involved. Back in 2002 the Belgian government acknowledged and apologised for their part in the brutal assassination. Their part was hard to deny when a couple of Belgians leading the death squad admitted to killing Lumumba, disposing of his body and extracting teeth from his corpse as a souvenir.

There is ample proof that it was the US who gave orders to the Belgians to eliminate Lumumba. According to Larry Devlin, the CIA station chief in the Congo, he received Lumumba’s elimination order from Eisenhower along with a tube of poisoned toothpaste meant to do the job. In the end the easier, less James Bond-y, option of handing him over to a murderous enemy was pursued. Lumumba was tortured and executed under the orders of Moises Tshombe, the secessionist leader of Katanga.

Amongst all of this low brow and high stakes statecraft came a small contingent of Irish peacekeeping soldiers. The well-trained but completely inexperienced and under-equipped soldiers were ordered to protect residents of Jadotville. But the residents didn’t want them there, nor did the thousands of Katangan soldiers, Belgian settlers and large number of international mercenaries also stationed at the strategically important town. The UN then went on to capture points of strategic interests from the Katangan secessionists and neglected to consider (neglect being a rather poignant word for the UN’s actions) the 156 Irish lads completely surrounded by a now rather upset Katangan army.

The UN placed them in the line of fire, ignored their concerns that it was unsafe, stirred up the Katangan army, didn’t tell them about that, and left them to fend for themselves against a force 20 times their number with air support. The only UN assistance afforded the Irish soldiers during the siege was a single helicopter drop of desperately needed water supplies. The water had been placed in old fuel containers. And was completely contaminated. Way to go UN.


Part of the company at the start of their deployment. Lucky for them Lt Col Patrick Quinlin (left) didn’t trust the UN’s arrogant assurances they would never be attacked. He sensed the mood in Jadotville and ordered the men to stockpile water and ammo, dig trenches and be ready.


The Irish contingent held out for 6 days and 5 nights and managed to kill approximately 300 of the enemy, including 30 foreign mercenaries, while amazingly suffering no loss of life themselves. Eventually running out of food, water and ammunition the soldiers were forced to surrender and were held for a month before being released.

To the UN the Irish soldiers were now an embarrassment and the episode a threat to the UN’s reputation. Things weren’t any better back home where the soldiers were shunned and considered a bunch of cowards for surrendering… not considering that with no bullets and comprehensively outnumbered the alternative was total annihilation, for which they naturally would have been regarded as heroes. The context of their surrender was of little consequence to most. They were ordered not to speak of what had happened and received no recognition for their efforts until just last year… 55 years later. The recognition coincided with the release of a Netflix movie called The Siege at Jadotville, which some helpful person on the internet.


The Irish soldiers, under impossible odds pulled off a textbook defense that to this day is studied by the Australian Army as a perfect ‘perimeter defense’ operation. Here is a picture of them after their ordeal. For all their fighting skill and bravery they would return home as a national embarrassment, derided as the “Jadotville Jacks” (jacks being Irish slang for toilets). Lt Col Quinlin (front and centre) died years before their efforts were ever officially acknowledged. Yet he maintained the eternal respect of his men.

That little sideline was totally for my dad. And it is the last of the historical tangents for this blog entry.

Now back to the ride…again.

We were now sodden and keen to get to Kolwezi before another round of rain. Working from incomplete maps and distracted with the rain we had a hard time finding the right way out of town. We found a road that looked pretty major but it soon turned to gravel. Seeing a grader up ahead we figured the road is just getting resurfaced so continued on. We passed several old, though perhaps still operational mines and processing facilities and started to think we were in a place we shouldn’t be.

Mick disabled our T4A maps on the GPS and switched to the unroutable and inaccurate, but in this case, slightly more helpful default global map and saw that the highway was far away from where we were. When faced with this scenario elsewhere in Africa our usual attitude is that in Africa, all roads tend to meet up so just follow this one and see what happens. DRC really didn’t seem the place for that kind of thing, we could have been on a private mining road, we could have been heading towards who knows what. And to add to that, the heavy rain was turning the red dirt into red mud so we did what we are loathe to do; we doubled back to find the highway. I wonder now if we might have even ended up near Shinkolobwe if we’d kept going.

After finding the highway once more we started making good time. Fortunately the rain was the tropical kind so we were comfortable enough with the off and on showers. We continued on our way until we got to a big bridge with a guard post. We were stopped by someone that claimed some sort of authority. They wanted to see our passports and visas. After carefully examining the visa of a completely different country one of the guys tells us we need to pay them something. We just say “thank you, its okay”, point to the clouds, thumbs ups, head nod and then wave goodbye and they just went with it. Through our time in Africa, we have found that feigned ignorance is by far the most successful tactic against this sort of rubbish.

We arrived in Kolwezi just on dusk and headed straight for the gps location of the Greek Orthodox Mission where we knew several travellers in the past had stayed. Recently we had been in one of our far too rare, careful budgeting moods so were hoping to set the tent up on their grounds for a modest fee. We found the place soon enough, however the priest informed us that they no longer allow people to stay there. My French was far too poor to enquire as to why that was. It was completely dark by the time we were very politely shown the door.

The nice fellow who ran managed the guesthouse.

The priest was a kind enough bloke and seemed concerned about where these clueless bikers were going to spend the night. He got one of his workers to jump in the 4WD and escort us to some nearby hotels. We found one place that was full and had no power, so we then moved on to the casino where were looking at $US120 a night. Despite being tired and hungry and keen to get to bed, the price was a killer so we kept searching.

Eventually we found a place for $US60 including breakfast and figured for a Dutch Disease ridden mining town, it was the cheapest place we were going to get. The Greek priest from the mission called to make sure we had found a place to spend the night. When we told him the price of $60 he thought we meant per person. When we told him it was $60 for the both of us he laughed and said something like “wow, what an incredible bargain!” This assumedly frugal, self-sacrificing priest seeing $60 as cheap had us kissing goodbye any chance of keeping to a reasonable budget. So with that we said bugger it and ordered a roast chicken and chips for $US20. Budget be damned. Let’s just get across this joint in one piece.

First up was tyre changing.

Mick repairing the rim tape.

Despite the small fortune we were paying for the room we needed to stay a second night to give ourselves the following day to do the bike prep and to have a more chilled day before the real riding started.

Then we swapped to a 14-tooth sprocket on the front.

While Mick did the oil changes I went off in search for water supplies for the next few days. While out in town I met a Zambian women named Elisabeth who runs an importing business. Due to the economy distorting affect of all the mining in the south of DRC, the cost of everything here is through the roof. Something we had figured out while chewing on $20 chicken. She told us that items purchased in South Africa can be sold in here for 5 times the price.


Elisabeth the trader. She clearly had a head for business. Next she is looking to start importing secondhand Japanese cars from Durban, South Africa which she is going to drive here herself.

With the bikes ready to go we thought we ought to get on with this whole crossing the Congo thing. To us ‘the crossing’ really meant the off-road section from Kolwezi to Kikwit. We got up before sunrise, which is really not our kind of gig. But we were focused on nailing this Congo crossing and early starts and long days in the saddle were how we planned to do it.


Filling up with the last decent fuel for a while.

Kolwezi is another big copperbelt mining town as you can see from the decorative loader and dumptruck.

We left the hotel by seven and ran into town to grab some toothpaste and fuel. On the way we flagged down a young man sweeping a storefront and ask him if he wanted the worn tyres we had just changed out. By Africa standards there was a whole lot of life left in the tyres and he would get a nice bit of cash for them here. He was over the moon and we could finally get around unhindered. After filling up on fuel it was now time to sink our teeth into this……….

Congo Crossing


2 Comments on “To the End of the Tar

  1. This is the most action-packed blog post I have read on any blog in a while. Best wishes to Elisabeth as she drives the cars from South Africa to DRC. My question is actually about the beautiful image above the title of the post, with the green spiral patterns. Is that a close up of a landmark in DRC?

    • Hi Milton, the banner is actually a close up of a Malachite (a type of copper oxide) mineral specimen. The copper mines in Katanga are really famous for quality malachite samples.


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