Sunday, June 19, 2011

Vous voyez comment nous souffrons? Part 3

Day 8: Tshikapa – 5 kms after a midway police check point (108km)
In the morning we enjoy a few precious private moments, before we expose ourselves again to the hordes of people demanding our attention, time, energy, money or photograph… We want to get away as soon as possible, without being impolite. Although we’re less and less worried about the latter, as people don’t specifically seem to mind being rude to us.

Our host family that appeared plain hospitable at first, later asks for 20$ to prepare a meal (an excessive amount if you consider you can have dinner in a restaurant in Kinshasa for that price), then asks for money to fill up the generator with fuel. I kindly explain to them that if they wanted compensation for expenses they should have said so when I asked about the price to spend the night. We had agreed on 10$ for meals and 10$ for the accommodation, being a mattress on the floor in the living room, shower in a shack on the compound and use of a public toilet a bit further down the road. When I pay them they want more and try to pull off some kind of emotional blackmail on me. An acquaintance of the family disturbs us during breakfast, announcing himself as the real ‘chef de quartier’ (remember we had two similar claims before). He insists that we have to visit his compound as well; if he would have known of our arrival yesterday he would have made us stay there. Now he is just going to take all our personal information and inscribe this into his book (address, telephone number “Tout, tout, tout,…”) so that we can help him with business connections. That we aren’t into trading and don’t want to share any kind of information with him doesn’t seem to matter. He’s quite obnoxious and hard to get rid of. And then there is the endless stream of people who want their picture taken with us. Most of them we have never seen before. We endure for a while, but then make it clear that we have our own agenda and need to leave if we are to get anywhere. But not until after our youngest hostess pulls me aside and asks if I can’t buy her a plane ticket so she could come and visit us…

We ride off feeling very frustrated about all these unrealistic expectations people seem to be having, about all the accusations we endured the night before on how Belgians were the fault of everything that went wrong in the Congo and about the fact that nobody seems to be really interested in us or in exchanging ideas once it becomes clear that we aren’t there to help everybody out.

After leaving our hosts, the next challenge is to actually leave town. Each time we pause, to buy water or bread, we attract a huge crowd of people and a number of vague authority figures, all making various demands. We manage to avoid going to their offices for registration by explaining that someone of the intelligence services already took care of that last night. We make sure to ignore any official and unofficial looking individuals in fluorescent jackets as long as they aren’t throwing themselves in front of our wheels. But some are cunning enough to put up a barrier, which means another hold up of at least half an hour explaining the guys from the “sécurité routière” that there’s no such thing as a “contrôle technique” and “expertise” for foreign motorcycles. 

After getting stuck a couple of times – again – and being asked for money – again – we finally exit this hell hole after noon. But there’s no sight of the good road that was promised to us. So we try our luck with the bicycle detours only to find that we don’t gain time on the very sandy tracks swarming with pedestrians. Must be market day or something. Back on the main road conditions get a bit better, but not as to justify the line “Vous allez très, très bien rouler!!” we heard from so many people.  There’s mud and sand and ruts enough to call this a bad road by the standards of any other African country.

We pass some small patches of forest, but practically no villages. Still every time we stop, there seems to appear somebody out of nowhere. You won’t go without leaving me something, will you? Grrr… This is slowly getting on our nerves! At first we still bothered to ask why they think we should. The answers varied from because I ask over for the glory of God, because you have money or because you’re white to just bland staring, obviously confused why we would even question their demand. Now we usually stick to the tactic of ignoring or just a polite but firm No!. 

We come across another police and road security check point. The registration process takes as much time as I need to buy supplies for tonight’s dinner at a nearby food stall. Now all we need to do is talk ourselves out of paying a bribe. In the end this always proves easier than a lot of people would like to let you believe. Sure corruption is a problem in the Congo, but it’s not so much just the government apparatus that’s diseased or even worst affected, it’s more a state of mind of a whole population. Contemplating all this, we choose a quiet spot a few kilometers down the road to put up our bush camp.


Day 9: 5 kms after a midway police check point – Kananga (180km) 

Surely today we will reach Kananga? We’re hopeful, because according to the Michelin road map it’s only 150kms more. But then only a few kilometers later, in dense and humid rain forest-like vegetation, we meet a road-wide puddle of mud. 
The worst part was a bit further than this...
One of the trucks we met earlier is stuck there and it’s not looking good for them. We take in the scene and advance very carefully, but then Nicolaas gets stuck. A couple of the men accompanying the truck come to our aid. We are reluctant to accept at first, but they assure us they only want to help out a fellow traveler.  It is soon obvious that we will need them anyway to balance on the slippery and bumpy slopes and ridges on the side of the road, the only place where it’s possible to pass without getting trapped in the mud.

When the job’s finally done, we’re sweating like pigs and feeling like we could eat a horse. We sit and share some bananas and peanuts with our rescue team. They expect to be stuck here for a couple of days, so we give them what little food provisions we have before we go on. Again they assure us that this was the worst bit, we’ll make it to Kananga in no time. Hmmm… We’ll see.

The whole road has been redone actually, not so long ago. But since they didn’t bother to surface it, it degrades as soon as the bulldozers are done leveling. We suspect they must have started in Tshikapa, because as we approach Kananga slowly, the road does improve. 
We gain speed and when we find a graveled road after the bridge, suddenly Kananga is within reach again. Although Michelin lied to us, underestimating the distance with at least 25kms, we come to Kananga at last. 

 Arriving in Kananga is certainly a different experience from entering Tshikapa. The first thing we see is an abandoned hydro station, built recently with foreign aid but already dysfunctional. We follow the broad graveled lane going to the town centre. A lot of people are on the road; not only pedestrians, but mopeds, and some cars too, giving the whole a real suburban vibe. But when we actually get to the centre, we’re really disappointed. 

Once upon a time Kananga must have been a very nice and organized city, with many beautiful buildings and pleasant broad tree lined lanes. It was an important administrative centre, being located more or less in the geographic middle of the country. But since the Belgians left, officials haven’t been paid in a long time, depriving Kananga from its reason of existence. And since, traditionally, people weren’t used to execute any other profession, Kananga’s been slowly sliding downhill. Now everything is in decay. Buildings have probable never been renovated or even maintained and the city has cluttered up with loads of small shacks. The giant bill board promoting Kabila’s “Cinq Chantiers” is a mockery of the situation. 

We find the gloomiest hotel we’ve ever seen, but we’re too tired and fed up to look any further. 

We unload the bikes in the court’yard’ while the hotel attendant sweeps away the old condoms and dirt from the floor in a room that could have illustrated a concentration camp picture. No electricity, no running water, no restaurants anywhere near. We have bread, with corned beef, mayonnaise and ridiculously expensive onions – imported from Zambia for crying out loud – for dinner in the next door bar, which is obviously a pick-up place for hookers. To imagine we had hoped to find internet! We shower from the bucket, trying not to touch anything in the bathroom. At night rats are scrambling around with a plastic bag we left on the floor.


Day 10: Kananga – Lac Mukamba (97km)

We try to leave early but are sabotaged again. While buying water and filling up the tanks (€ 1.8/L), we attract a lot of attention. And when we’re finally surrounded by what might have been half the population of Kananga, it’s even harder to go by unnoticed. It’s only a matter of time before we get intercepted by the DGM. We have to come by their office for yet another tedious registration progress, which is in our own interest – according to these officials. So it’s only fair that we should pay for their transportation expenses. 6000 Congolese francs (€ 5) will cover it. Yeah right! We decline repeatedly and leave town with a huge delay. 

The road is tarred at first, but then it becomes interspersed with patches where the tar is completely destroyed. There’s a nice selection of mud, rocky slopes and sand to be had. On one of the mud stretches Nicolaas gets stuck and I have to get myself dirty again by pushing while he accelerates to free the bike. But the Yam takes off with such a leap that one way or another the registration plate hits the ground and brakes off. Great! We pick up the bike and while Nicolaas tries to reattach the scrap of metal (better not give the police anything to legitimately bitch about), I look for an escape route out of this muddy mess. A few kilometers further down the road, we pass by the branch-off to Kisangani. Nicolaas can’t help saying: what if we take… but we don’t have enough time left for another 1200 kms of mud to Kisangani, so we go straight. After a while the tar patches become far and wide in between, and in the end disappear altogether, leaving a narrow sandy track.

The problem with this is that normally one needs to accelerate as much as possible to keep the bike stable in the deep sand. But this is actually supposed to be a road, so it is being used by trucks, pedestrians, mopeds, goats, chickens, dogs, etc. In order not to run over anything and not to be ran over, you need to moderate your speed, which means it’s just very hard work and a mix of riding, paddling, getting stuck, losing balance and tipping over once and a while.

Sadly we’ve entered a region where it’s custom to stand and stare at a fallen white motorcyclist. When the staring exceeds fifteen minutes of time, people suggestively ask if there’s anything they can help you with. That more or less translates into: “Are you willing to pay me to help picking up your bike?”. We plough on ever so slowly, making sure we need as little of these services as possible and taking frequent banana and biscuit breaks. Whenever possible, we bypass the road by taking little side tracks through the villages. 

But this makes us lose time as often as we gain some. Sometimes the villagers don’t like the through traffic and have put up a barrier or dug a pit right across the path, which forces us to track back or take an inconvenient road crossing. We soon give up hope to reach Mbuji-Mayi today. Luckily the man we bought bananas from told us we could find decent accommodation at Lake Mukamba, not even halfway the total distance. Surely we can make it there?

Even the lake seems further than promised. Twice in the late afternoon we hope to see it from the top of a hill. But each time there’s a long sandy descent and no lake at the bottom of it. At a checkpoint further down the road we finally get the relieving news that we can find accommodation at the catholic mission by turning off the main road towards the lake. But we have to wait for the better part of an hour first, in the dying light, for them to finish all necessary formalities and the raising of the flag ceremony. 

But it is all worth it. Just before dark we come to the mission through a broad palm-lined drive. “Bienvenue chez nous” it reads at the side of the building. A friendly lady welcomes us and offers a cold beer while we wait for her to get the room keys. Everything is so clean and nicely furnished and the lakeview garden is a gem. 

Normally we should have ordered for dinner but coincidently they have something that’s ready. Immediately after we’ve unloaded the bikes, we can sit down for dinner. We indulge in what’s really more a buffet than a meal, feeling blessed to have found this little piece of lost paradise. Needless to say we have a very sound sleep…


Day 11: Lac Mukamba

Breakfast’s even better than dinner: there are omelets, porridge, pancakes, toasted bread, any kind of spread and any kind of hot drink imaginable, juice and fruits. How do they even get their supplies? At the office we see that it’s even possible to have internet access through the 3G network. Wow… After we meet father Yves, the Haitian priest who is running the place, we decide to stay the day. We need to rest and regain strength, the bikes need some servicing, our clothes need washing and we need to try and prepare things for the upcoming visit of Nicolaas’ parents in Kenya. What better place to do it? 

But first Father Yves shows us around the parish. There’s a school, a hospital, a project to modernize agricultural methods to increase production, organized road maintenance, solar panels for renewable energy and several home stays for paying guests to have revenue apart from donations from the Scheut congregation. He built and renovated most of the infrastructure himself. It’s quite spectacular what this man has managed to accomplish in just three years! And there are more projects down the lane: a waterpump, irrigational system, etc…

The challenges he has to face aren’t hard to imagine. People aren’t educated and stick very rigidly to their traditions. It’s hard for them to do anything, that hasn’t been done already since decades by their ancestors. Not to mention the problem of getting supplies such as building materials. A bag of imported cement costs him up to 60$!! We’re back in time for lunch (duck with lots of ‘accompagnements’) and manage to get everything done in the afternoon, which is a miracle in itself. Except maybe the relaxing part…

Day 12: Lac Mukamba – Mbuji-Mayi (220km) 

We decide to follow the advice of father Yves, to go around the lake instead of following the main ‘highway’. Supposedly this smaller road is in much better condition. Although a detour, it should save us a lot of time.

In the end this proved quite disastrous. Sure enough, the road until the first village, Dimbelenge, was quite good (apparently maintained by the Belgian Technical Cooperation), but after that we encounter just more and more sand. 

On top of it all, we have to ride about a hundred kilometers before we even get back on the main road, while we bypassed only about 40. Luckily instead of sand there are now more rutted tracks, with humps and bumps and a lot of erosion damage, which must be very difficult indeed for a car or a truck, but quite doable on a bike - apart from a few tricky ascends.

To cut the story a bit short: the road was simply bad till about 40kms before Mbuji-Mayi, where they started working on it. No real gravel, but at least solid and level ground. We begin to see more and more traffic: at last Mbuji-Mayi announces itself. 

The DGM which aren’t a pain in the ass for a change direct us to the catholic mission that father Yves recommended. Not that we’re so religious, but most of the time they do tend to offer the best price/quality ratio. We get a warm welcome, a good room, food and internet access at a rock bottom all inclusive price. 

For more pics, see album "Vous voyez comment nous souffrons? Part 3"

But most importantly: good company and interesting discussions. Father Polycarpe tells us about rising criticism against the current government and his expectations for the upcoming elections. Kabila’s Cinq Chantiers are a joke according to him. Electricity power lines from Kinshasa’s Inga dam are running all across the country to deliver electricity to Zambia, but don’t supply any town on the way! The roads could have been tarred thrice over during one presidential term, making the life of a lot of people a lot more comfortable. Farmers would actually be able to sell their produce at some profit, fuel wouldn’t be so ridiculously expensive and maybe there would be less people in need of pushing heavily laden bicycles for hundreds of kilometers – sometimes even coming from Zambia! – to transport goods. Especially when you consider one small truck can transport the charge of thirty bicycles. The list simply doesn’t end. People have been patient for a long time, but not anymore. Not if it were up to Father Polycarpe! In DRC religion and politics still go hand in hand – present Cardinal Monsengwo, archbishop of Kinshasa, criticized Kabila in his inaugural mass – and priests play an important role in the sensibilisation of the people…


  1. Folks
    Great trip & account.
    We are planning similar (4x4) in ~ 3 months.
    Can we make contact to get further details and advice?

  2. Of course!! just send us a post with the email adress on which you'd like us to contact you. (it'll end up in our "to moderate" messages, we won't publish it) We'll be home 14th of August, after that internet connection will be less of an issue so we'll be at your disposal :).