Democratic Republic of Congo
On our first morning in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we woke early, hoping to slip out from the custody of our host, the village policeman, without further fanfare.
As we wheeled the bikes out of his office in the dark he appeared dressed for the day and eager for a tip for his troubles. It was hard to know if the few dollars we gave him constituted a bribe or a donation.
While we were grateful for a secure place to sleep, we were especially grateful to be back on the road.
On the edge of the village we merged with a steady stream of dark shadows floating through the dim light of dawn.
The ominous flicker of machetes in our headlights was juxtaposed by the warm greetings and smiles the farmers flashed us as we crept past. Still finding our feet in the DRC, it had the effect of filling us with optimism for the day and for what lay ahead.
We made good time along the rough tracks that the DRC is infamous for, reaching the paved road to Kinshasa by mid morning. As we entered the throbbing city of Kinshasa, the intensity grew.
Everything during our trip so far had been building towards navigating the DRC. When we planned the trip, one of the big attractions for us was the crossing from Kinshasa to Lubumbashi, a 2300km stretch of the worst roads in the whole of Africa, through one of the least publicized and generally dangerous regions of the world.
The allure was not to find Joseph Conrad’s “heart of darkness”, but to explore and discover for ourselves a part of the world that has largely been forgotten.
Through the overlander network we had been put in touch with Frank, a Belgian that was born and raised in the Congo who offered us a place to stay and regroup before heading off to Lubumbashi.
He and his wife Samira ran a garage that maintained a steady stream of Toyota Landcruisers run by various NGOs. An avid motorcyclist, Frank had competed in the gruelling Dakar Rally 4 times and had ridden from Kinshasa to Lubumbashi in the past and would be a valuable resource for information.
Frank greeted us at his house before inviting us to the garage to set us up to work on our bikes. Unfortunately the second rocker arm in Richard’s bike decided to fail in the few kilometres to the garage.
Fortunately we weren’t stranded on the side of the road in the middle of the DRC with the issue, but in a garage alongside Moise, a local mechanic that looks after Franks rally bikes.
We spent the afternoon replacing the broken rocker arm with a spare that we carried and swapping out the worn tires on the bikes with fresh and chunky tyres that we had managed to buy and carry from Togo.
The bikes were definitely feeling tired as we worked over them, discovering the bracket on both our front head lights had broken from constant vibration and required some ingenious local fabrication from Moise to repair.
What we hoped would take an afternoon turned into 2 full days of work on the bikes that left us yet to gather ourselves and rest before the next push.
On the third morning we had hoped to leave, but when we woke up it was clear that we weren’t going anywhere. We were exhausted and without any debate, we both rolled over to sleep until lunch.
When we finally rose, we found our way to a French bakery where we were greeted by its generous owner, Noel. He owned a Harley and rode it on the highway west of Kinshasa on 500kms of the only paved roads in the Congo.
When he learnt of our plans to ride to Lubumbashi, he insisted that we reconsider. He warned of the two UN investigators that were murdered and the 29 police that were killed in the Kasai, a region that we would have to pass through.
He was genuinely concerned for our well being and insisted that he would pay for a cargo plane to fly us to Lubumbashi himself.
It was not a unique moment in our travels, but equally as odd. It occurs on a trip like this when someone has your best interests and safety in mind, is treating you to a complimentary meal and you have every intention of not taking their advice.
Before we left on this trip, and during our entire journey, people had warned us against going to Africa and not to travel through each and every one of the cities, regions and countries we had already visited. We heard out Noel’s concerns, but tried to move the conversation along without being rude.
But he had planted some doubt in our mind and it sent us into a spiral of uncertainty.
We were aware of the atrocities he mentioned and the risks before we departed for Africa two months before. We had rationalized that we would be moving in a continuous direction and that would-be kidnappers and people wishing us harm would not know we were coming and would not know where we were headed, largely because we didn’t even know where we would stay each day.
We rationalized that we were not there to investigate or meddle in their business. We would not ride at night and we would seek out secure places to camp before nightfall.
Those were the rules that we had agreed to live by before we left for Africa. Already though, we had encountered a heightened intensity in a country little news reaches the outside world, and the news that does is more often than not heavy.
As best as we might try, Noel’s warnings didn’t roll off of us like previous warning. Richard’s wife Theresa was at home 3 months pregnant with their first child. What were we really thinking we were doing trying to cross the DRC?
It brought the entire trip into question.
We had looked forward to the DRC the entire trip, the anticipation and intensity building as we got closer. And we had over stepped most people risk thresholds just to get here so why should we deviate our course?
If we had got dressed and started riding that morning instead of taking another day to rest, we would have been en route and cautiously confident. But Noel’s genuine concern had given us pause.
The DRC is legend for the levels of lawlessness that pervade the country.
While we might well get through without any issue, we would be more exposed than we had been to that point. While some might argue it is an obvious choice not to go, in the context of what we had already come through, it was a decision we wrestled with.
Ultimately, Richard felt he couldn’t responsibly continue through the DRC with a wife and child at home.
As for myself, even if I didn’t have a pregnant wife I knew it was the right decision for us.
The option of flying to Lubumbashi didn’t sit well with us though. We wanted to draw a single, continuous line through Africa.
We would avoid using the cargo plane to leapfrog the dangerous Kasai region, and instead detour through Angola.
The only thing was that we had passed our best chance of getting an Angolan visa in Pointe Noire, in the Republic of Congo.
The following day we began the most frustrating and dizzying bureaucratic drama of our trip. We sat in the Angolan embassy for half the day only to be told we were in the wrong room and to wait in the room next door, only for the man that finally saw us to say it was flat out impossible.
No way. Not going to happen. We tried again the next day to no avail, before consulting with the British Embassy who said they might be able to help us, but it turned out the girl there just wanted to hear about our trip.
Finally our host Frank was able to get an audience with embassy chief whose Landcruiser he services.
It was a break, but even then it was a grantee of nothing. The embassy chief agreed to consider our request and so we left our documents and waited.
Flabbergasted at the lack of clarity and process we decided to spend the time exploring the banks of the Congo River with Frank. No bags. No extra weight.
Just three KTM 690 bikes and a few hundred kilometres of single track.
We left early to beat the traffic out of Kinshasa and followed Frank as he veered off the main road into the high grass toward the river.
Foot paths linking small villages and farming plots zigged and zagged along the river bank, making for some excellent riding and an view into rural life outside Kinshasa.
By the afternoon we had made it as far as Zongo Falls, a tributary of the Congo that drains spectacularly into the mighty river.
Two days later we finally had a visa to enter Angola, however it was a “transit” visa, valid for 5 days only. It would be a push to cover the 2000kms across Angola to the Namibian border and wouldn’t allow us much time to experience the country, but it would allow us to keep the rubber on the road and trace a single line through the continent of Africa.
We would take it.
We departed Frank and Samira’s kind hospitality the next morning and set off towards the Kimpangu border crossing.
We tracked back along the highway for the morning before setting the compass south through the vast sugar cane plantations burning in the rolling hills before the steeper mountains closer to the border.
Off the highway the roads deteriorated to such a state that it seemed improbable that people could receive supplies. We experienced the DRC in relatively dry weather, but one can only imagine how when wet the roads can flood above the axles of the large trucks that ply the rural routes and how slippery the steep mountain roads must become.
As we climbed up into the mountains, the landscape opened up as we were able to see past the tall grass that flanked the road at lower elevations into rugged valleys with the odd farming plot scratched out where the slope angle relaxed enough.
By mid afternoon it became apparent that we would not reach the Angolan border so we began the lookout for a safe place to sleep.
Unlike previous countries, where people always insisted we stay with them when we inquired about a place to camp, the people of the DRC were wary and deferred to the local chief who was invariably absent.
People didn’t want more trouble than it seemed they were already managing. Unable to find an accommodating host, we were forced to consider the corner of a wide field bordered by dense forest.
No sooner did we stop than a dense flock of children surrounded us screaming and cheering. It was jovial, but charged.
Whatever privacy we might have imagined was just that. Imagined. Our cover was blown and before long half of the village had come out to inspect us.
By this point it was getting dark and we were past our rule of finding a secure place to sleep before sunset and were now required to meet the chief.
Turning ourselves over to the whim of the Africa, we followed the parade into the centre of the village, eventually finding ourselves before a local official in a cramped room jammed with onlookers and faces peering in the window.
Not exactly sure what to do with us, the official and his subordinates debated back and forth before directing us to a room behind some shops where we could lay out our sleeping pads.
As we cooked our dinner, the press of children and curious adults only intensified forcing us to retreat to a dark hallway to not lose sight of our own feet. It was unlike anything we had ever experienced.
The DRC was living up to the stories we had heard and punctuated by a group of teenagers who burst through the crowd drumming a collection of pots, dancing and throwing flour.
The crowd managed to finally subdue itself enough to allow us to retire to sleep, capping off our final full day in the DRC.
While it was a shame to alter our plan and miss the opportunity to spend more time in one of Africa’s least understood countries, we ultimately experienced much of what the DRC is notorious for. From bureaucracy to abominable roads, rogue police to swarming crowds , the mighty Congo River to sublime landscapes.
Yet despite the challenges and reputation, if given the opportunity, it is a place we would both return to.
To be continued….
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