2 April 2017 by Justine
Cycling in Bas-Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Pool (Republic of Congo) districts – November 2016
It takes guts to go travel in Africa, it seems. What about going to the Congo? Here we are, three weeks in this five-month cycling trip in Central Africa, stuck in the capital of the French Congo, waiting for parts and tools.
Air Moroco dropped us with our bikes in Kinshasa, capital of DRC, the Belgian Congo. At 2AM, just before landing, we got blessed with the encounter of a sympathic deputee who took us under his wing. From there, we observed the pure chaos of Kinshasa without too much suffering, and we watched, perplexed, the results of the 2016 American elections. Kinshasa is dirty, steamy hot, crowded, polluted, but against all ods, the people leave us alone. We know from travelling in Eastern Africa how quickly we can attract curiosity and interest, and we expected it to be a bit crazy in the Congo – not here. We zigzag in the traffic under the boiling sun and between the loaded buses, cars, motobikes, trucks, pedestrians and carts, we get a bit too close from causing accidents, but ALL eyes are on us, two Mundele (White man) cycling in the traffic (plus, being the only cyclists here) so we are safe.
We leave the crazy capital as soon as we can in direction of the Bas-Congo. On our way is the one and only bonobo sanctuary. One word : awkward. There are four apes on this planet and DRC is the only country that holds the bonobos, and the only one that holds three out of the four apes (bonobos, chimpanzee and gorilla – orang-utan being only in Asia). The bonobo has very human-like posture, hands, face, and above all, a very familiar look that leaves no doubt about our common family tree. It’s no joke, they have sex all the time, and are making NO difference between sexes, age, relationships and parenthood. All reasons are good to have few seconds of pleasure and sexual stimulation is their answer to all questions and moods. Watching them is quite awkard… A must!
There aren’t many options to cross the Congo river and to enter the next Congo, the one colonized by the French people. Many years ago, Pioka was a main crossing point over the Congo. The road was well maintained and a ferry was crossing vehicules across. Nowadays, the road is so rough that only motobikes, pedistrians and cyclists can use it, and the crossing of the river can only be done by the odd pirogue. The next crossing points are the ferry of Luozi and the bridge of Matadi – way down South. For us, the choice is simple.
Our way to Pioka turns out to be quite eventfull. When we leave the main road, we have less than 100km of dirtroad before reaching Pioka – “a two-day cycle, right ?! ” (…) First, we get rain. Can’t move an inch without our wheels being stopped by a block of really sticky mud. Second, when the rain stops and we get back on the road, I hit a motobike. My thighs and ego are bruised, but the rest is fine, including my bicycle which is surprising. The motobike’s passenger on the other hand somehow gets a nasty cut on her foot. We want to take her to the closest hospital which is 11km further in our direction, but the driver, who was holding a suspicious bottle on the moment of the impact, has other plans – he wants to keep on going and to bring his passenger to her final destination. We make what we believe a fair arrangement and we leave the poor lady with what we know will be a difficult recovery considering the hygiene realities in here and the chances that she won’t use our donation to go to the clinic – but that’s not in our control.
That evening, still shoked by the incident, we make interesting encounters. Gombe-Matadi is the village where we choose to spend the night and the chief here is quite a character – the ones that truly believe their goverment is flawless and that their status obligates a royal treatment from the ordinary people. A long procedure starts for us the next day in order to securize ourselves – in other words, to let the Gendarmerie, the Police station, the Immigration and the Ministry of Information know that we were in the village for that one night – three hours of our lives that we will never see again. Before they find another ministry that should be concerned about our presence here, we get back on the road. Scared of the possibility that we loose our way, the chief sends two kids running after us to show us the right road to take. But… Thinking they are waving goodbye, we wave back at them and cycle pass the junction. We realize our mistake 10km further but Hey! There is another way to Pioka.
I’m taken in the reading of David Van Reybrouck’s brick “Congo” (which I strongly recommand) and I suspect the mysterious Kimbanguist city-state to be in the area. Without invitation, there is NO chance we can get in so we aim for the shortest way to Pioka until we hit the first check point entry gate at six o’clock at night. And since the Holy father papa Simon, the reincarnation of the founder of the Kimbanguist Church, predicted that people from all around the World would come and visit the city-state, there is no way they would ignore two Mundele, even if it’s late, even if they are hairy, sweaty, muddy and smelly, and even if they don’t seem to know a whole lot of the Kimbanguist movement. From there, we get a royal treatment for the two days we spend there, and get escorted by a dozen of man in suits, either filming us, interviewing us, guiding us or assuring our security and general well-being. Good timing too to be in such conditions because JP’s head gets weirdly infected with pus coming out of his scalp. Yum!
We leave The New Jerusalem well-rested, still intrigued by this religious buzzing town in the middle of nowhere and pumped for the next chapter of our adventures : the crossing. After few dozens of demanding kilometres, here there is, the Congo river. Legendary, majestic and imposing, in the hollow of impressive treeless cliffs, the water here serves as the border between the two Congos.
With the nasty condition of the road, Pioka is completely left to itself. Villagers are pretty surprised to see us (like anywhere in this country) but quickly see the business opportunity. We start negociating. We offer 15$US, they ask 150. Great. “You need to give enough so that the paddlers are motivated. You don’t want them to stop paddling in the middle of the river, do you? The crossing sometimes takes 50 minutes!” says the guy. Shit. That’s a hell of an argument! Don’t want any unmotivated or hesitant paddlers on MY team crossing THAT ! We agree on a very sufficient and motivating amount and start loading the pirogues. Wait a second… We thought we would use the big wooden pirogues… Not those little ones! “The big ones are on the other side of the river. It will take too long to go get them. Let’s use those ones – no problem“. No problem? Well in that case ! (…) They put our two bikes side by side with all the luggage in one pirogue and three guys, standing, start paddling. Under the weight, we only see about four inches of the pirogue, which is less than two feet wide. They install us face to face, sitting crossed-legged and two guys are paddling (standing of course). JP and I have round eyes, sweaty hands and tight ass. Then followed the longuest 25 minutes of my life.
I wasn’t scared for my life – I know how to swim… I was more concerned about how fast our fully loaded steel bicycles would disapear forever, along with our five-month Central Africa cycling trip, with only two weeks in. So I close my eyes and start counting… One Congo. Two Congos. Three Congos… Until I hear JP shout in a releaved voice : “Hey guys, you’re so strong! We made it!“… In a sigh of relief, I notice a new stress sore on my lip. On the other side, after a steep climb, a ciment block indicates us our arrival to Congo-Brazzaville. This is a great feeling…
The difference betzeen the two Congos is noticeable, starting with all the communication towers we can see on the French Congo side from the hills. The road is better but still completely eroded by the rain. On the second day, we choose to walk. Not that the road was too slippery, no. We ran (cycling) into a men in the middle of nowhere. He was too coming from Gombe-Matadi and traveling in the same direction of us – but without eyesight. The poor young blind man had follen in the morning and had started walking back on his steps since there was no one to direct him – we were now late in the afternoon. And WE thought we were hardcore for cycling this road?! Oh, tourists.
So we hit the pavement on the third day and two weeks of dirtroad and… BLOAW! JP’s freewheel blocks and almost takes the rear derailleur down. Our amazing mechanic skills aren’t good enough to outline the problem. Crossing fingers, we try to make it to Brazzaville without jumping in a truck but JP HAS to keep cycling. All the time – even while going down. Hey. He’s hyperactive. Could be worst.
That day, the villages we pass are bizarrely quiet. Schools, churches, houses – all empty, with wide open doors. Maybe they are all in the fields, we think. Then, convoies of militaries start passing us. At the point where I’m counting over a hundred soldiers and as many machine guns, I start wondering what the hell is going on. But as JP says… They all go in the opposite way so we’re good !
The night comes and we need a place to pitch the tent. We locate what looks like a decent quiet hidden spot. All buildings of this little village are open, with piles of pots, piles of clothes and piles of plastic jugs on the floor. Frames are still on the walls and bats have taken over. We collect firewood for cooking and eventhough it’s really spooky, we try to stay cool. Anyways, we don’t have a lot of options and there is no way we are cycling in the dark on that highway. Within ten minutes, we hear voices calling from the road. We turn off our head lamps and freeze as a deep voice calls :
– Who’s there? Show yourself
– We are just tourists! We are here, behind the house!
– How many? Are you the ones on the bicycle?
As we speak, we start walking on the side of the house and try to put what should be a friendly armless smile on our face, but meet four sweaty militaries pointing AK47s at us.
– You were planning to sleep here? Do you want to get killed?! There is no way we are leaving you here. You are coming with us right now and DON’T pretend you don’t know what’s going on !
– Let’s move ! Pack your stuff, says the leader, while the three others go through the piles of stuff in the house.
The next morning, the lieutenant is in better mood and briefely explains that the Ninja rebels have been sporadically disturbing the Pool district since the civil war (1993-2002), and that they had been active in the last days by setting cars on fire and destroying a bridge, explaining the big presence of militaries around. On that happy note, we leave for Brazzaville where we make a new friend, Olivier, the co-owner of the very friendly Hotel Hippocampe.
Olivier is an ex tourer and knows how great it is to find a nice spot where to pitch the tent for few days and get some rest, with a shower, cold beer and decent Internet connexion – especially in a place where there are good chances you’ll have to wait few days or few weeks, either for visas, parts or in order to recover from an illness. Our health is top shape, but we need to order (and receive) the parts and tools that we’ll need once we figure what’s happening on JP’s wheel AND we need to apply for Cameroon and Central African Republic’s visas. Yeah, you read right. We are three weeks in our five-month cycling trip and we need tools and parts shipped. From Canada. Shouldn’t be that complicated, right ?
Next stop : Plateaux Batéké of the French Congo