Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Kins in Kinshasa

Having crossed 12 countries on the African continent until now, never have we felt more stressed than at the crossing of the Congo River from Brazzaville (Brazza) to Kinshasa (Kin). We were warned beforehand by others and what they said wasn’t far from the truth. At the entrance to “The Beach”, the autonomous river port of Brazza, we were decidedly charged the entrance fee for a pick-up truck, twice the fee for a taxi or even the fee that is paid by heavily loaded trucks, depending on where we tried to gain access. Our joking and bargaining didn’t help much and the atmosphere was tense from the very start. Luckily, the customs officer was friendly and courteous, wishing us God’s blessing throughout the trip. At the immigration office though, things took so incredibly long that we started worrying about catching the last boat of the day, which was scheduled for 3pm. While we were waiting, an official unsuccessfully solicited a “declaration of goods” fee.

With our stamped passports, we hurried to buy boat tickets for ourselves – no way I was going to obtain a student’s discount, but I tried anyway – and for the motorbikes. To determine the price of the bike ticket, an official would need to have a look at them. While waiting for him, we were surrounded by a gang of loud but quite all right youth, which provided a perfect opportunity for one of the many pickpockets to get a grip on our alarm clock in the one and only unlocked side-bag. When the taxation officer finally arrived, the impending departure of the boat made it virtually impossible to protest against the ridiculously high amount that he named.

And still we weren’t done: we had to choose our pick of dockers to load the bikes onto the boat. They too named a way too high amount at first, but we soon had an agreement. And were we glad to have them around… I don’t know what would have happened if these young guys hadn’t fought for us to get aboard. The rush towards the ship, the bags and loads being tossed around, people falling off the boat or being hit by a cart or by an annoyed policeman’s belt… not to name the narrow alley where the bikes had to be maneuvered in… We were melting away in our protective suits in the middle of a burning beehive.

Surprisingly, calm was restored as soon as the boat sailed off. Despite the chaos, most people had been friendly all through the afternoon, but only now we had the opportunity to really talk. And we soon found out that the Kinois are as warm-hearted, open-minded and good-tempered as so many Africans we’ve met before… and because we’re Belgian they welcomed us “home” as real kinsmen. After all, they said, Belgium is the uncle of DRC, isn’t it? Apart from the fact that I wasn’t allowed to take pictures on board and that we had to ride over piles of concrete reinforcement rods to disembark at the Kinois side, everything went fine now.

The immigration officer clearly wanted to make a good impression, but his people were annoyingly thorough and precise. By the time we were officially admitted to the DRC, customs was closed, so we had to leave our carnets de passage behind and come back the next morning. We reached the catholic mission of the Scheutists after dark. The mission proved to be a nice and quiet haven next to the port. The Belgian origin of its religious founders is clear: furniture made in Leopoldville, antique Stella-Artois ashtrays in the bar and “Belgische frietjes” with “frietsaus” at lunchtime on Sunday. And even I got a little sentimental seeing expensive Spa Reine, Cote d’Or tablets and heaps of Colruyt products at the Lebanese-run Kin-mart at the impressive Boulevard du 30 juin nearby. Unfortunately, it is not allowed to take pictures anywhere near the Congo River or near public buildings, of which there are obviously a lot in the city center, so you will have to imagine the ubiquitous potholes, puddles, piles of trash and destroyed pavement. The atmosphere isn’t all too bad even at night, but we don’t take lightly the serious warnings about violent crime in the central areas of town. Anyway, as soon as we can board a boat along the Congo River to Kisangani, or find out that we can’t, we’ll leave this expensive and tiresome city behind.

For more pics, see album "Kins in Kinshasa".

A first visit to three of the many ports of Kinshasa didn’t give us a specific departure date, but it did provide us with some insight about what to expect from boat travel in DRC. There seem to be roughly three categories. The state-run company ONATRA – only a shadow of its former self – operates twice monthly barge convoys consisting of three pusher boats, nine barges and one passenger floater with very basic cabins. It is clearly the most comfortable option. A private company operating from “Beach Rafi” allows passengers to stay on a pusher boat, where there is at least some shade and maybe rudimentary sanitary facilities. The other river transport companies have only large flat barges, providing nothing but a few tens of square meters of metal deck that are going to be packed with passengers. We can call the director of ONATRA tomorrow to enquire about the departure schedule. He announced that the convoy might leave by the end of the week or maybe next…

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Neo colonialism

When people talk about the Congo - travelers and Africans alike - it seems that all you hear of is corruption and bad people.  At first sight the Congolese seem to live up to their reputation. The customs officer at the river crossing in Ouesso starts an aggressive tirade about how his signature isn’t free. We try to ignore his demands for a bribe as good and friendly as possible. After a couple of minutes he changed the subject himself and handed over our forms. Another four (!) offices later we were done with all the formalities, without opening our wallet. We glanced at one another, shrugged shoulders and took off. Now that wasn’t too difficult was it?

The town of Ouesso looks quite differently from most towns we’ve seen before. Small houses are encircled by neatly swept spacious courtyards with flowery bushes. The Wildlife Conservation Society office is unable to provide us with information on visits to the nearby Parc National Nouabalé-Ndoki, a police officer in town is clearly hoping he could fine us for not having insurance (which we did obviously) and breakfast in a restaurant downtown is expensive. But we didn’t encounter nearly as much hassles as anticipated and the overall atmosphere is agreeable, so by the time we leave for Brazzaville, we feel more at ease, even hopeful.

The first stretch of road isn’t all that good though. While the weather gods prove merciful, we still fail to reach the first town before dusk. Even if we have sufficient food and water, camping in the wild doesn’t seem like a good idea: the beautiful and dense forest we’ve been riding through is part of a national park, which means it’s probably filled with wildlife. So we ask in the first village in miles if we can camp there. 

For the villagers of Epouma it goes without saying that we should. If it weren’t for the continuously moaning horny goats and Chinese roadwork trucks passing through the village at regular intervals – why do they need to transport “sand” in the middle of the night anyway?? – we would have had a peaceful night.

After seventeen more kilometers of bad road we finally reach the long expected road construction works. With the newly built bridges, power plants and temporary worker camps decorated with Chinese flags, Chinese labor men leading the works, Chinese freight containers lying about, local police complaining about the Chinese immigrants stealing pre-pubertal girls from the nearby villages to take them as their wives and small Chinese run shops springing up around the country everywhere rivaling with local businesses, it is hard to underestimate the mark the Chinese are leaving behind on the country. We wonder what they’re gaining from it… Exploitation rights of natural resources

Meanwhile we do profit from the Chinese labor. Before we know it, we cross the equator in Makoua and arrive at the tarred road that starts just before the president’s home town of Oyo. We are impressed by the unusual amount of infrastructure and fancy buildings: the president’s riverside villa including yacht, the pompous grand hotel, the modern airport, the huge football and athletics stadiums, the biggest market building of Congo, an important collection of luxurious villas and an incredible number of tarred streets finished with street lighting and everything… All this for such a small town: delusion of grandeur if you ask us. Because the president is currently visiting, all hotels are fully booked and we get chased by the gendarmerie to neighboring Ollombo.

With no restaurants or respectable shops to buy food and no running water, it is much less appealing, but we don’t want to ride further. We need some time to finally clean the air filters. To our dismay the air boxes are very dirty as well, a result of following the bad advice of a local Yamaha mechanic. He suggested not oiling the filters to try if this would help mount the idling speed.

Totally in distress Nicolaas makes a phone call to our Yamaha dealer in Belgium to ask for advice. Somewhat reassured about the potential damage, we go to bed without a decent shower or meal.

 As we go south the swamps interspersed with forest patches suddenly change into savannah landscapes and more and more villages appear next to the road. We reach the boundaries of Lefini Reserve by the time the light is already growing dim. The eco guards join us on their quad bike and we ride 10kms through the man high elephant grass to reach our destination by sundown. The accommodation is very basic and mice infested but beautifully located at the top of a hill. In fact we are lucky to have found anything at all since we learn that the reserve was neglected for years by the government before locals took it upon themselves to manage the place.

Next day we get up at 4 in the morning. It’s still pitch black when we descend on foot to the nearby watering hole to look for elephants. We find a lot of recent tracks but return to the camp without actual sightings.

Well, at least we have an early start. But the road to Brazzaville is potholed and slow and I’m struggling to keep awake in the midday heat. At last we see Brazzaville and the Congo River in the distance.

At hotel Hippocampe overlanders can camp for free in a hall next to the excellent Vietnamese restaurant, so inevitably we meet again with some familiar faces there. Some of them have been less lucky: not all roads towards Brazzaville are as motorable as ours… We’ve found a safe, comfortable and cheap haven for the next couple of days. Nicolaas takes the time to adjust the valve clearance of the bikes with the help of a local BMW mechanic and we recharge our batteries before we cross the river to Kinshasa.

For more pics see album"New colonialism"

Autoroute du bois

If our bodies have been coping very well with Africa’s heat, dust and humidity until now, our electronical equipment hasn’t. After the camera and the GPS, now it’s time for the external hard disk, the communication system and several cables to cause trouble. Our time in Yaoundé is spent on looking for cables and the like. We leave late one afternoon towards Bertoua, from where a gravel road will lead us to Yokadouma and Congo-Brazzaville. Unfortunately, the tarred road to Bertoua degrades after Abong Mbang and turns into a slippery and dusty nightmare after Doumé. Apparently the sealing of the road is still unfinished… We arrive after dark in Bertoua, luckily the GPS directs us directly to a comfortable hotel. This is probably going to be the last electrical power and running water we’ll encounter for the next week or two.

We set off early morning towards Batouri. We don’t dare to speak it out aloud, but the gravel road seems reasonable and the sky remains more or less blue. Little traffic here, except for aggressively speeding logging trucks and a few heavily overloaded minibuses that creep slowly over the hills. Stretches of dense forest alternate with open tree savannah and there are far more villages bordering the road than we expected in this supposedly remote area of Cameroon. The people are mostly Bantus, but surprisingly there are also quite a lot of cattle-herding muslims that look very much like the Peul or Fulani in the North. Batouri doesn’t count a single square meter of asphalt, not even at the modern fuel station, where we get first-hand information about the road to Yokadouma. It should be a little bumpier than what we rode this morning, but not too bad either. Indeed, the weather remains dry and to our pleasant surprise we make it all the way along the border with the Central African Republic to the dusty logging town of Yokadouma before dark.

After a not so fruitful visit to the joint governmental/WWF office in Yokadouma, we set off for the headquarters of Lobeke national park in the village of Mambele, 160kms south along the road to Congo. Once again it’s a dirt track being used and maintained by the Cameroonese and Congolese logging companies to whom parts of the forest have been conceded. Villages become fewer in number and when we stop for lunch, well-hid monkeys are playing and screaming in the towering trees all around us, while we are hunting the many beautiful butterflies with our camera.

In Mambele, the conservator of Lobeke NP and his team are not inclined to let us ride the bikes for more than 100 km along a narrow forest track to a tourist camp at the Sangha river near the 3-country-point (CAR, Cameroon, Congo) for fear of us being blocked by fallen trees. We finally agree to be taken into the forest by a car next morning and then walk to swampy forest clearings with good chances of seeing elephants, buffalos, gorillas and antelope species. Our guide, the eco-guard and a porter draw our attention to whatever flies by, hangs or stands around and tell us everything they know about medicinal use of tree barks and plants. Rheumatism, by the way, is supposed to be rare here and can best be cured by a calming ointment of elephant dung…

 We spend two nights at the miradors (platforms) with a great view on the stunning landscape and are rewarded with sightings of buffalos, bongo’s, sitatungas, several monkey species, parrots, eagles and other birds, but no elephants or gorillas, although there are abundant signs (dung, traces, sounds) of them being around. On the way back, however, we catch a glimpse of a silverback roaring at us before he flees into the dense bush, following his female and younger family members. Impressive!

Black-and-white colobus monkey;other common species include grey-cheeked mangabey and greater white-nose monkey.

Male sitatunga antelope.
Early-morning view from the mirador at Djangui (Greater Savannah).
After we get back to Mambele, we need a couple of hours to get clean. Isabel dresses up, since we’ve heard there’s a celebration with catwalk defile for (a still badly needed) International Women’s Day (8th March). In town, people are gathering for a drink. We meet up with our guide Betti and porter Valentin and continue the interesting discussions we’ve been having earlier these days. The image of the park’s future being painted by our guide is grim: corruption, bad management, ongoing poaching, little benefit of eco-tourism income for the surrounding population, migration of animals towards Congo… we feel like WWF is not following up well enough on the project they started here years ago. Later that night, it turns into a great dancing party in the local bar. In particular Congolese Werrason sets the place on fire…

For more pics, see album "Autoroute du bois".

With a slight hangover, we leave late for Socambo, the border town at the Sangha river. Luckily, the magnificently scenic road – that goes straight through the park – is even better here, due to less traffic and recent maintenance. When we finally arrive in Socambo, the last ferry is about to leave, so we take our time to arrange the paperwork today (and manage to avoid the repeatedly asked for “tax” or “fee”), spend the night in a very rustic riverside hostel and cross the Ngoko river tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Say no to hardwood furniture and floors!

During the night, a violent thunderstorm rages until early morning. The rain has washed the dirt off our bikes a little, but we fear what it’s done to the road ahead. There’s still a 100 kms or so to cover before we reach the beginning of tarmac in Foumban. 

However, despite some stretches of mud and deep puddles, we have surprisingly few problems, in contrast to some of the trucks that are stuck along the road. 

Our mood is good, the bananas are tasty and the towns are abundant in color and life beaming from between the car wrecks, overgrown houses and smoking dirt. Foumban itself is lively as well, but doesn’t have the same jungle atmosphere. 

We decide to take the afternoon off to visit the strange palace of the King of Bamoun, an eclectic but stylish home to one of the many remaining traditional chiefs in the region.

From Foumban, we decide to try and ride all the way to the relaxed coastal town of Limbe in one day. Even though we get the inner tube repaired and Isabel’s rear tire properly inflated, visit the “chefferie” at Bandjoun, take a scenic detour over a mountain pass near Bafang, cover 40 kms of wet and rocky track through the banana and rubber plantations and forest near Kumba, all within a marathon ride of over 400kms, … we still succeed. Just after dusk, we arrive at the base of Mt. Cameroon, the 4100m giant volcano rising from sea level near Limbe. 

Next morning, the rain – again – urges us to leave: better not stay at the pool but try to keep ahead (hmm?) of the rainy season. Our first stop on the way to Yaoundé is Douala, the economic center of Cameroon, where we hope to find a new brake disc at the Yamaha store. It turns out they have sold new XT660’s before, but don’t stock spare parts… In the capital they can only recommend us an experienced mechanic, who might have a look at it.

From the outskirts of Douala, we have to cover the rest of the distance in the pouring rain, which leaves us cold to the bone. We try to enjoy the incredibly beautiful rain forest, while our hearts bleed at the sight of the giant logs carried away on trucks, leaving deep scars in the forest. 

For more pics see album "Say no to hardwood furniture and floors!"

The more we progress to Yaoundé, the more farming and villages are weighing in. Though not as big as Douala, Yaoundé spreads far over several green hills. It is truly a metropole and it seems like we are going to find everything we need here, a bit of rest to start with.

Right now, we are waiting for our DRC visa, while giving the equipment a good cleaning and the bikes a well-deserved servicing. We have mounted the Continental TKC80 “mud and snow” tire on my bike and the Michelin T63 mud tire we bought in Ouagadougou on Isabel’s (after 18 000 kms on the Heidenau!!). The brake disc will have to stay as it is, hopefully it won’t affect the wearing of the tire too much. On Wednesday we head for the far South-East of Cameroon, where we will visit the remote national parks near Yokadouma before entering Congo-Brazzaville via the river crossing at Ouesso. In a good two weeks, we might be in Kinshasa. And that is as far as we have been able to plan the trip up to now…

Biting dust and mud

Ngaoundéré has the feel of a border town. Going south, the Sahel shrubbery is suddenly replaced by mango plantations, pine and deciduous forest, while the reasonably good tarmac changes into a not so reasonably dusty dirt road for the next 600 kms or so. The French tourists we met in Waza were going to take the train from Ngaoundéré and we soon understand why. Landscapes are beautiful but deserted. We had not expected that villages would be so few in number and short in supplies. As soon as we realize, we stock up on water and pasta to enable us to camp if we don’t make it to the first larger town, 281km ahead. Luckily we discover that the tiny shortcut south has been upgraded into a decent graveled road. As the quality of the road increases, so do our speed and the clouds of dust that we produce. Tibati is home to a rusty filling station and several hotels. We can wash the “fond de piste” off our faces with running water. Hooray! 

Leave early in the morning, we were told, to stay ahead and out of the dust of the trucks. At a surprisingly early 7.40 am, we are on the road. No trucks yet, only schoolchildren and mopeds. Only 30 kms further, Isabel has a flat tire. Shit! Somewhere in the process of getting the unwilling rear tire off the rim using my bike’s side stand, my bike tips over and my rear view mirror – undamaged for 20k kms! – breaks off.  On top of that we’re under attack from bees that must be coming from a nearby hive. Our raspberry jam doesn’t distract them in the least. I finish the job quickly and we set off. After I have rescued my gloves from the bees, that is.

We have lost 3 hours and a lot of sweat, but are nowhere near our destination yet. Moments later, the sky begins to darken. After Rabat, Kumasi and Abuja, will this be the 4th storm on our trip? At first only drops, then a shower pours down on us. We don’t mind so much for the temperature and for getting wet, but all the more for the road that gradually becomes muddier, making us slide uncontrollably.  Instead of stopping in Banyo, we decide to try to ride another 114 kms to the next town where we will find a hotel: Bankim. Luckily the steepest slopes of the Massif du Mbam are tarred, but the rest is mud. At least the dust is gone…

For more pics, see album "Biting dust and mud".
After a long descent, we suddenly find ourselves in a different world. Palm trees, towering moss- and epiphyte-covered trunks, climbing and hanging lianas, badly weathered earth and wood cabins instead of thatched huts and colors are deeper and brighter than ever. We arrive in Bankim after dark and find Hotel “Le Temple Royal” to be everything but royal: no electricity, no running water, but plenty of mosquitoes and a cockroach.