Day 4: Kilembe – village Treize (75km)
After offering us a breakfast of fufu (pounded cassava), pundu (green leaves) and a bony piece of pork, the head of police asks us for some fuel to escort us a few kilometers out of town with his 125cc motorcycle. With local prices of over 2 euro per liter, he cannot afford to buy fuel. His salary hasn’t been paid by the government since many months, let alone they provide him with a budget to allow him to do his job. We pay another quick but obligatory visit to the village chief on the way out of town. Our escort takes us through narrow side tracks, leading through backyards, maize fields and bush, to avoid the deeply rutted and sandy main road. Not for long though, as soon there are no side tracks anymore and we have no choice but to crawl through the deep sand.
We share the road with cyclists pushing their seriously overloaded bikes, either alone or in small convoys. Once in a while, a truck creeps by. Trucks go so slowly and the ride is so bumpy that their passengers prefer to walk most of the time. They encourage us enthusiastically and, unlike most villagers, don’t constantly ask for money.
After several hours we arrive at the Pont du Cinquantennaire over the Loange River, one of the only but often cited accomplishments of Kabila’s Cinq Chantiers in the interior of the country. A copper plaque commemorates its recent opening and the DGM and police officials suggest we take a photograph of it. That must be about the first time we are allowed – encouraged even – to shoot a pic of a strategic place here in DRC. The friendly officer-in-command of police writes down the itinerary up to Tshikapa: there are a few shortcuts and bypasses and we’ll certainly reach town tomorrow. In the meantime, his colleagues rudely insist Isabel pay them some money, - because they just know she can easily miss a hundred dollars - which she obviously refuses. When we try to ride around the horrible ruts behind the bridge, we get lost in Loange town. A drunken biker and his accomplice try to lure us off the right track, but a bunch of kids run and point in the right direction until we find the main road again.
A few kilometers further, the old piste branches off. Over the last fifty years, it has eroded spectacularly, but still it is a better choice for bikes of all sorts than the severed truck track. However, it is pretty exhausting to steer clear of the ruts and grooves. I still haven’t recovered completely after my illness and drop the bike out of exhaustion. My ankle is stuck under the bike and I shout it out until Isabel arrives. Together with an older lady, she lifts the bike just enough to pull my foot out of its painful position. I need some time to get on my feet again. Lying in the shadow of the bike, I consume another bunch of bananas under the curious but friendly eyes of passers-by. They offer us to spend the night in their village, some kilometers back, but we want to reach the next bridge over the Lovua River, where there supposedly is decent accommodation.
After the break, we manage to speed up a little. We reach Bondo bridge and the next shortcut: the old piste again, that has cut itself a way through the hilly landscape, several meters below the surface. A narrow but relatively decent bicycle trail avoids the worst parts by staying on the edge of the precipice. We progress steadily and approach Village Treize, but sunset is imminent now. If only we’d had more water left, we could avoid camping in a village again. Last night, it cost us a little too many hours of sleep and rest. When we meet 2 young men pushing a bicycle loaded with several 20L barrels, we ask them for water, thinking that they’ve come from a nearby well. The barrels contain palm oil though, but the men readily offer us their personal stash of drinking water. Only now we realize their journey counts hundreds of kilometers and the next village is just a stop-over. It shouldn’t have surprised us, as we have met other people before, walking this distance by lack of other means of transport.
We leave Village Treize behind and find a nice camping spot in the bush along a sandy track. Lightning bolts and stars light the black sky as I cook a simple but copious meal: pasta with half melted cheddar cheese and chillies… All around me, the bush is black and filled with sounds. Better keep my vermin proof boots on…
Day 5: Village Treize – 10 kms before Pont Lovua (30km)
Although we were quite close to a village and to the road, no one disturbed our bush camp. Only a few spectators linger for a few moments in the morning. Some of them greet us enthusiastically, others are content just to stare. We had planned to leave early, but rain started to pour down during the night, which keeps us in our tent for a few extra hours.
The deep sand has changed into mud. Not sticky, but slippery and treacherous. On an eroded descent, Isabel gets surprised and her bike slides away. She’s a bit nervous now. Me too, since I’ve seen where our side track joins the main road: deep ruts, puddles and dangerous repairs with tree branches and rocks.
We slip and slide along stranded trucks, constantly choosing the least destroyed part of the road, until I unintentionally find myself in a puddle of mud. The throttle doesn’t save me, neither any wagging of the bike’s tail, and I have to cut the engine. The bike is stuck. I start to dig it out with my hand and feet, regretting once again that I didn’t take a shovel, when the guys hanging around one of the trucks come to rescue. They are better equipped, but it takes a handful of strong men to lift the bike out of the sucking mud. When one of them asks for a little compensation – “soap” to wash their now dirty clothes – others nod their head in disapproval: one shouldn’t ask money for helping out a fellow traveler…
We carry on, slowly. Even the 125cc motorbike taxis are having trouble getting through here and there, but at least they can let the passenger get off and wade through the mud alone. One of the bikers condescendingly observes that Isabel is slow, ignoring the fact that I am the one keeping the falling record today. We both are exhausted and we are running short of water, despite having collected rain water early this morning. Since Lovua River remains far ahead, we stop in the next village.
I follow one of the young men to the “nearby” well, which is half an hour away by foot. On the spot, fresh palm wine is being distilled. With my sore feet in the cool water, I taste a cup of the liquor, while my companion fills up a 20L jerry can. I can hardly keep up with him carrying it back to the village on his head… We drink several liters before setting off. We had seriously underestimated the availability of water in these parts: people generally rely on clean surface water, which is few and far in between. From now on, we’ll pay attention to this, but today it cost us a lot of time.
A few kilometers before Lovua Bridge, I fall twice, exhausted, and can’t carry on anymore. After some discussion, we decide to stay exactly where we are, leave the bikes on the road and put the tent next to them in the high grass. Again, only a few curious kids feel the need to stand and watch, but at night everything is quiet.
Day 6: 10 kms before Pont Lovua – Kashimba (40km)
Had our courage disappeared completely last night, the rays of the morning sun give us new hope of finally reaching Tshikapa today. What looked like an insurmountable stretch of mud last night, is but a piece of cake now. Soon we reach the police station before the bridge. A friendly squad welcomes us and we feast on nuts, cookies, bananas and delicious avocados. Sadly, the descent towards the river is still much longer than expected and again a horrible challenge. By now, we have lost count of the number of times we had to dig, push or lift the bikes, sometimes helped by other people. This road is endless and we are running out of patience with all the people asking money for every little service or even just like that. Friendliness doesn’t come for free in the Congo… Or is it merely the situation, as it is the first time that we need so much help from so many people? Anyhow, it gets quite annoying after a while and showing your annoyance only increases the chance of more aggressive reactions. Like this loud mob surrounding the bikes in the village of Katanga, demanding money. Do they really think we are going to open our wallet in such a situation?
I have stopped taking pictures. Because of the bad weather, but even more because I’m fed up. With all of it. It’s just a little too much. So this is the first day in many weeks on the road that I don’t feel the need to shoot the beautiful landscape, the spectacularly bad road, the improbable deviations of the bicycle trail through the heart of colorful villages. Because I don’t see the beauty of it. We are but struggling. Somehow, we manage to relax a little and progress more steadily. That’s how we miss the last shortcut to Tshikapa and end up in a horrific stretch of mud.
Friendly truck passengers – the same ones we have met several days ago – and greedy villagers help us out, but it gets dark and again we have no choice but to put the tent next to the road. Only, this time we share the spot with two men guarding the goods left by their overloaded truck a week ago. It was supposed to pick them up soon, but they have run out of matches and food by now and they’re not sure when it will come. At night, the rain pours down on their make-shift shelter and the road turns into a genuine river. It takes quite some engineering to prevent the bikes from slowly tipping over while the sand washes away under the side stands. In the meantime, a bar of soap is all I need to take a shower…
Day 7: Kashimba – Tshikapa (23km)
In the morning, we are told that just a little further down the road, another shortcut leaves for Tshikapa. So instead of turning back through the known nightmare, we decide to carry on. It turns out that the road ahead is at least as bad. And much longer as well. I curse about everyone who lied to us, intentionally or not, and I swear never ever to believe any villager anymore telling me something about a road. We end up accepting help from a group of maybe ten people preparing the road ahead. One of them assures us he’s a very capable biker and Isabel lets him ride her bike, being content to rest while the overconfident man gets taught a lesson in humility. He will later admit that it was much more difficult and tiresome than he’d imagined…
Closer to Tshikapa, sandy side tracks merge into a dense network of trails, and suddenly a city arises from the bush. Which is to say that there are physical remains of urban planning, probably from the colonial era, like tarmac floating 1 meter above street level, lonely curb stones and street lighting. And the odd villa.
While navigating through the sandy streets, Isabels bike suddenly dies. “Panne sèche”. The defective fuel tank sensor didn’t warn her that she’s consumed 23L of fuel in just over 350km… While I go look for some expensive and dirty fuel (EUR 2,4/L) and avoid paying a group of thirsty, hungry and miserable beggars in police uniform, Isabel is invited to a family’s home to wait. Upon my return, we decide to stay the night there, since the atmosphere is good and the family is doing their best sending some of the loudest kids and adults away.
Three hours after we have ordered them, three expensive cans of Angolan-made Coca-Cola arrive at the bar. In the meantime, we learn of Osama Bin Laden’s death and try to explain the Belgian political situation. It feels quite ridiculous in a vast country where four national languages and over 400 tribal languages are spoken, where the capital is more than 2000km away from a major part of the population. While we are sitting and talking, the chef de quartier comes to meet us. Not even half an hour later, another gentleman announces himself as chef de quartier. He has come accompanied by the local DGM guy and is quite upset that the other one abuses of the title and. He needs half an hour to write down all of our details into a UNICEF blocnote, while our dinner is getting cold. And promises to come back next morning to make sure we’ll be fine. Whatever. We’re just tired and definitely need some rest…