Sunday, June 19, 2011

Vous voyez comment nous souffrons? Final

Day 13: Mbuji-Mayi – 20 kms before Kaniama (227km)

If one reads a travel story of DRC, quite often the people of Mbuji-Mayi are mentioned for their loud and annoying behavior, in particular towards foreigners. After the endless solicitations for money on the road near Tshikapa, we had expected the worst. To our surprise, our experience was completely different. Starting with the DGM and police, the people showing directions to the catholic mission and the cathedral, the party rushing by at a short fuel stop in the city center or the officials at the toll bridge, nobody lives up to their bad reputation and we find ourselves joking and chatting until we leave town. The city doesn’t have much reason to cheer, though, since its once thriving diamond industry has taken a serious beating in recent years due to price drops on the world market and stricter regulations. Despite the horrible working circumstances, its giant open-pit mine still attracts a lot of “creuseurs”, hoping to make a small fortune with the precious stones. 

Diamonds are also the reason why Mbuji-Mayi is called the most expensive city of DRC – at least for accommodation, easily exceeding 100 dollars for a simple room – and why a very decent, if little used, tarred road goes more than a 100kms to the south, to connect the city with the railway coming from Lubumbashi in the small town of Mwene Ditu. It’s a pleasure to progress this easily and we easily grant a pardon to the occasional pothole, livestock or pedestrians crossing our path. The zone of friendliness seems to extend itself to Mwene Ditu and beyond. It is quite refreshing to be greeted without being demanded a gift and to be able to have a lunch stop without a few dozens of prying eyes in front of you. 

In the far East of Kasaï Oriental, particularly around Luputa, the presence of formerly Belgian activity becomes much more apparent than in Bandundu or Kasaï Occidental. Although the large farms of the colonial era have seemingly disappeared, nearly every tiny village hosts at least a few beautiful but rundown villas and there are many stations along the still more or less functional railway. 

In Tshilombe, formerly known as Thielen-Saint-Jacques, the church of the well-equipped catholic mission has partially been renovated. Presumably not by the “Fonds voor Inlands Welzijn” (Fund for Indigenous Well-being), that donated a water tower in days long gone by...

The road is acceptable, some parts could even be called a good gravel piste, and maintenance is visible on both the road and bridges on the way. It doesn’t take long though. After Luputa, the RN1 turns again into a battered, dusty highway to hell. 

There are less and less pedestrians and cyclists on the road, until we are completely on our own to face the puddles of mud that take over the road after the crossing of the Lubilanji River, which forms the natural border with Katanga province. Trying to ride around the puddles, checking out the depth if necessary and making a picture of the eventual crossing takes a lot of time and we give up hope of reaching Kaniama. We have no reasons to complain though: it’s been ages since the last time we did 227km in one day…

Day 14: 20 kms before Kaniama – Muleba (157km)

Our bush camp turns out to be noisy because of the nearby palm trees, brushing their leaves against each other. In the morning, we are chased by the sound of a bush fire coming a little too close. The road ahead is muddy and allegedly seldom used. The railway, although in disrepair and not operating regularly, seems to be a much better alternative. It takes us until noon to reach Kaniama via narrow bicycle paths, over ramshackle bridges, through village centers in order to avoid the deepest ruts and along majestic tree-lined drives that once bordered plantations. 

Kaniama has a rather pleasant feel with its wide green lanes, not-so-decrepit villas and hilly surroundings. Just as anywhere else though, drinking water comes from a surface well since there are no water pumps… 

After Kaniama, the road is as desolate and bad. Small convoys of cyclists are practically our sole companions, except for two new 4WD’s that pass by as fish out of water. We have noticed that our bikes’ idling speed has gone down, suggesting that the air filter is clogged. Isabel complains that her bike’s engine has even shut off while riding. 

In the small village of Muleba, we attract the attention of at least a hundred children when we buy nuts, fruits and a few bars of chikwange (cassava paste in banana leaves, almost the Twix among African staple food). We leave the crooked black dried fish for what it is, but don’t forget to take a few deliciously hot red peppers, that lately have been spicing up any dish that would otherwise be much less attractive.  

A few kilometers further, we find a nice camping spot. I have just enough time to clean the air filters before the sun sets in the most spectacular way.

Day 15: Muleba – Kabondo-Dianda (210km)

Early in the morning, a train passes by and proves that the railway is indeed functioning. We pack our stuff and ride off. Strangely, the idling speed is not restored after cleaning the air filters. I wonder whether it might be due to bad fuel. Maybe a spark plug problem? Anyhow, we are not going to waste time on this now, it’ll have to wait until tonight. 

A lot of people have told us that roads in Katanga Province are better than in Kasaï. I must admit that they were nowhere as horrible as before Tshikapa, but it would still be an overstatement to call them actual “roads”. Most of them haven’t been redone in decades and it is merely due to the slightly drier climate that improvised bypass tracks have a longer lifetime. 

Naively, I had thought that the large military airbase in Kamina would have given the town a push towards proper development, but there is no sign of it at all, unless you count the ubiquitous “Top up your credit here” signposts… If only there would be mobile phone reception out of town. When we leave town (via a police check post with a little more hungry officers than usual), we are surprised to see that the road is good. Nearly as good as asphalt, albeit dustier. Only 18kms later it is bad again. 
We wonder who is responsible for these seemingly random road repair projects. Is it NGO’s, the World Bank, EU or simply a local politician who does more than filling his pockets? Anyhow, through-traffic is not helped a lot by such patches of better road. And as if we have to be punished for enjoying the speed, the road becomes gradually worse than ever. 

There are more rocks now and very bad erosion gullies. Some drunken lads warn us not to try the shortcut to Luena, since it is worse than the road we are taking to Kabondo-Dianda. We wonder whether that is possible. Just when we have decided to look out for a camping spot, one village follows another and the road turns into a complete nightmare. 

In the dark, we climb several slopes, seeded with large rocks that seem designed for the ultimate skid plate test. Exhausted and frustrated, we stop the bikes next to the road as soon as there are no passers-by anymore. A side track tapering into a footpath provides us with a nice camping spot amidst the elephant grass. We set up the tent, go to sleep and then… a flashlight accompanies the footsteps of a farmer and his wife, coming back from voters’ registration in Kabondo-Dianda and on the way to their compound that is only a 100m further down the footpath. He tells us that his compound seems blessed, since it is the third time that he gets foreign visitors here… are there really that many of us travelers? 

Day 16: Kabondo-Dianda – Lubudi (149km)

First thing to do in the morning is changing the spark plugs. It seems to help increasing the idling speed. Second thing is to pump up a flat rear tire. For some or other reason that’s enough and it doesn’t deflate again. Then we visit our hosts in their well-organized farm. Their eight kids are all at school or university. The farm, which comprises 180 hectares of land, produces enough to support their school fees and our host has even been able to get a loan for a tractor. Nevertheless, he complains that the roads are so bad that fuel prices, hiring of a vehicle and various “taxes” and bribes nearly exceed the benefit to be made at the market when selling their crops. It discourages people to set up a business and leaves them with monotonous, unbalanced diets. But in the next elections, he is going to vote for Joseph Kabila, since he’s one of theirs, and up to now he has only had one presidential term, so what could he have achieved yet… 

The landscape gets more and more hilly now, until we are climbing a genuine pass not far from Bukama, where cyclists gather to rest after the strenuous job of pushing their heavily loaded bikes up the boulders. Recently, trees next to the road have been cut and it seems as if preparations are held for badly needed road repair works. 

We leave Bukama and its scenic lake on the left hand’s side before crossing the Lualaba, which is the main contributory, if not the first part of the Congo River. We’re entering the copperbelt now. 

In Luena, we find the first miserable remains of an abandoned copper mine and the neighboring “cité”. The giant underground engines are laying abound next to the road, rusty and overgrown in a post-apocalyptic way. Is this what’s left of Congo’s formerly rich copper mining industry? A part of the installations seems manned. We can only guess in what circumstances these people are continuing the exploitation…

And again the road turns to worse. I am amazed to see the maneuvers that trucks do to pass through. One of the trucks left Lubumbashi three days ago. It is not more than 400 kms from here and the last 100kms is tarred… Let’s hope we can do it a little faster.

In the next village, a bridge has collapsed last year and villagers have constructed a new bridge on their own. They charge a fee for commercial trucks, but after some discussion with a few drunken guys, they let us through for free. We pay them a good tip though for helping to cross the pretty uneven heap of tree trunks. Riding through the river would not have been an option in this hilly landscape.  Again a mountain pass needs to be overcome. The scenery is breathtaking, but sunset is near and we would like to reach Lubudi, where we hope to find fuel and maybe even decent accommodation. So we speed up. 

Suddenly Isabel sees a baby goat hesitate: cross the trail or not… and at the very last moment it does. To her dismay, Isabel rides over the poor little thing with the front wheel before she stands still. The goat is moaning while the villagers are flocking together around us and laughing at the shocked look on Isabel’s face. They put the animal back on its feet and that’s it. I convince Isabel that the cute little thing is going to be oh so fine and that there is no reason to linger around. 

Shortly after dark we arrive in Lubudi. There is no accommodation in town, but Cimenkat, the formerly CBR-owned cement factory, has a guest house. A moped rider is happy to show us the way. Both the main building with its bar and swimming pool as well as the houses for staff and guests point at a glorious past, but nowadays Cimenkat is shut down – leaving the whole of DRC without any cement production at all – and awaits investments by its new owner Heidelberg, while former employees are doing their best to prevent looting and theft. They are unable to stop termites and cracks in the walls though… We spend the night in a once fashionable apartment, where one remaining bulb and one socket do the trick. The man who brings us buckets of water to shower proposes to cook dinner. We are delighted, until we understand that we have to give him the ingredients. Alas, we did not bring a chicken with us...

Day 17: Lubudi – Lubumbashi (351km)
Lubudi must have flourished in the Cimenkat era, as evidenced by the concrete main road, the stylish villas, post office and fuel station. However, nowadays fuel has to be bought by the jerry can from the local doctor. Bad luck: it’s finished. No panic, we can still find it in about 40 kms. 

The road is – again – so bad 

It was worse than it looks!

that we decide to try our luck and take a 40km long private road over a cattle farm – part of the George Forrest Emporium – that cuts off quite some distance. It is strictly forbidden for unauthorized vehicles, but the guard at the gate assures us that motorcycles have always plied the path without a fuss. We should only watch out for nails, buried at some particular marked points, to discourage trespassers… We set off, quite wary about the nails. At first, we progress steadily over a good but overgrown road, 

but then the soil becomes more and more sandy and we are forced to use bicycle tracks again. 

We soon regret our choice, but probably the continuation of the RN1 is at least as bad, so we go on. Luckily, we are rewarded with beautiful landscapes: grassland, moors, forest and the occasional herd of cows… hard to imagine that this is private property. 

The first village after the farm has a railway station and stocks of fuel, sodas, cookies and potato chips. 

After indulging in these luxuries, we hit the road again. That is to say, we hit the narrow trail clinging to the railway, since the main road is – again indeed – horrible. 

The alternative doesn’t prove very safe though. I almost end up in the ditch at a culvert, and Isabel drops her bike at an unexpected gap in the road. We have no choice but let it down into the ditch, 1.5m below the rails, and find a place where I can ride it back up. 

We need the help of a friendly cyclist to overcome the all too steep slope. Not so long thereafter, we arrive in Tenke, where an Asian group is currently exploiting a copper mine. Decent gravel roads go in all directions and it is hard to pick the right one going the last kilometers to our Holy Grail: the main Kolwezi - Likasi road. 

Oh my. Instead of a smoothly surfaced thoroughfare, we find a large but extremely corrugated plain of red powder-like dust. Monstrous trucks carrying copper, acids, people or whatever else are speeding down the slopes, throwing up impenetrable clouds of dust. No wonder why spectacular accidents are rife. 

Only about 25 kms further, the road improves a little. The combination of heavy traffic and dust remains a pain and it's a real nightmare to overtake the trucks, as there is a certain point just before passing it, when you litteraly don't see anything. One can just pray there's no upcoming traffic without headlights...  But we manage to reach Likasi alive and just before dark. 

From there the road is tarred and we are keen on arriving in Lubumbashi, so we carry on. By now, the cold is creeping into our bones. We’ve gone quite far south, and winter is approaching here. It’s not far now. With a sigh of relief, we ride through the surprisingly attractive boulevards of DRC’s second largest city. Our Japanese friends, who flew in with their bikes from Kinshasa a few days before, welcome us with a cold beer, a hot meal and kind admiration: "You, hero!". We did it! or Yatai!

Oh dear... It's going to take some time to get cleaned up!
For some more pics see album "Vous voyez comment nous souffrons? Final"


  1. Die laatste foto zeg alles LOL Verdomme, ik ben van gedacht verandert, ik wou WEL dat ik erbij was geweest. Dit is iets dat ge van uw leven niet meer gaat vergeten.'You Hero' indeed!

  2. Geweldige reis. Ik heb elke plaatsnaam die je opgaf opgezocht in google earth om jullie route te volgen. Yes, you real hero's! Ik kijk al uit naar de volgdende episode. Noord oostelijk nu Zambia door, Tanzania, Kenia... Groetjes.

  3. Hi guys,
    congrats for doing this trip, awesome RR.

    I'm on my way to Lubumbashi, to cross to Kin. Do you have pointers/waypoints/contacts or any other tip ?

    Cheers, safe riding
    Laurent -