Tchikapa to Kananga – 286km in 4 days
Diamonds and wetsuits
I rested for the day in Tchikapa. A busy town. Dusty streets lined with small market stalls run by locals selling local produce – fruit and vegetables. Then there are the large buildings with clean compounds and glass-fronted shops – run by foreigners buying local produce – diamonds. Congo is mineral rich. Rich in diamonds. People here live for diamonds. Between the fruit and veg and the Lebanese businesses were small shops selling anything and everything that may be of use. Mostly wetsuits and compressors. Locals are employed to dive in the rivers and gather diamond gravel which is then sifted. A hose pipe is connected to the compressor which supplies the divers with oxygen while they are underwater… with a little fuel mixed in too. Unregulated regulators.
I leave Tchikapa mid-morning. Across the river and up the hill through yet more market stalls. And up hill on out of town. Less houses, occasional huts, still plenty of people. And on into rural Kasai. Sun’s out. Another hot day.
Company on the road
By mid-afternoon I am following paths through villages, weaving between huts and trees. Occasionally I take the wrong path. My path blocked by a wooden fence. I backtrack and find the right path.
I see some boys with bikes, lightly loaded, speeding along the tracks. I pedal furiously to catch them up. For the next two hours I cycle with them from village to village. They know the route. We go fast. I am tired. Really I should stop and rest. I have a fully loaded bike and have been going all day. But not having to find the path myself is a relief. The other advantage… a BIG advantage… to cycling with the locals is that there are less calls of ‘Mutoke’ and ‘le Blanc’. Any children who take up a fruitless chase are fended off by the local bringing up the rear. The locals’ bikes are all kitted out with loud bells which they ring furiously should anyone be blocking the path. We are like a steamroller. Unstoppable.
We freewheel down the rutted main track to a river. The boys are forced to get off and walk up the other side. No gears. Me, I keep pedalling and overtake them. That last hill finishes me. I have to rest. It’s late, I may as well stop for the day.
Too young to be chief
At the village at the top of the hill I ask for the ‘chef du village’. I am pointed to one of the homes. No bigger than any of the others. Nothing suggests ‘man of importance’. Several young men are sat outside, talking. Nothing else for them to do. I look to the oldest of the men, still only in his thirties, and ask if I could speak to the chief. The youngest of the men, perhaps only eighteen says he is the village chief. I return a sceptical look and glance round at the other men’s faces. But there’s no indication this is a joke at the white girl’s expense. Of course I can camp in the village, right by this house. I will be safe and if I need anything I just have to ask. I don’t need anything, have everything I need.
Roman, the young chief, seats me among the men and we talk. He may be young, but he is confident, charismatic and intelligent. I soon forget my doubts. Roman and Jeremy, his friend, translate my answers to their questions for the benefit of the crowd. Curious women and men and children. They tell me about life in the village. There’s no work. Just diamonds to dig for.
Roman asks if I’d like water to wash. Sure. A bucket and soap appear. I look around. The village’s eyes are all upon me. Roman sees my hesitation and soon has Jeremy’s wife clearing the bed from the main room in the house to make space for a makeshift bucket shower. I am relieved for the privacy behind the walls. Several women walk through the dim, unlit home while I’m desperately trying to scrub the dirt from my filthy white body. Standing naked and soapy in a stranger’s living room with the dirty water draining into a puddle in the middle, with the women of the house walking back and forth to the kitchen, smiling and talking, more or less ignoring me besides a short greeting as they pass is not exactly how I would usually shower back home. But it doesn’t feel strange. I am treated as they would treat any stranger – with kindness and hospitality. When I return outside, the men have managed to disperse much of the crowd. We talk and laugh and since now there is space, I put up my tent. Soon I am lying on my back in the darkness. Listening to the men continue talking deep into the night, I drift off into slumber.
Awoken abruptly, not by the storm that is raging outside or the water collecting by my feet, but by Jeremy calling ‘Maman Helene, Maman Helene, ca va?’. Three times that night he comes out into the rain to check I am ok. He wants me to sleep in the house. I would like to, but suspect my tent will blow away if I am not inside it. With daylight, the storm has passed and now it’s just a miserable wet morning.
Sitting in the main room of the house, where the bed has been reinstated and two children are still sleeping on a rug in the corner, I talk with Jeremy while his wife breastfeeds the youngest son in the kitchen. As I am supplied, first with hot milk, then coffee, fried plantain and nuts, the house fills soon fills up. The rain has eased and the rest of the village is slowly returning to see the passing curiosity. Me. Soon I am once again answering a barrage of questions first from the men who are now sat cramped inside and then from peering heads at the doorway. Mid-conversation, one of the men leans forward and reaches for my arm. Unsure what he is doing, I just sit there. Too squashed to move. He delicately picks off a loose blonde hair, examines it closely and coils it up for safe-keeping. Slightly perturbed, I ignore this and continue talking. But now everyone is looking not at me, but at the blond hair wrapped around the man’s hand. It doesn’t last long, soon some eyes are scanning my clothing for another blonde souvenir. I don’t know whether it’s just the blonde hair that is a curiosity – the women comment how they would love hair like mine – or if it will fetch a good price with the local witch-doctor!
Velo tax on the single-track
I leave the village along with half the village’s children. We slowly follow a sodden path running alongside the waterlogged truck tracks. Not soon enough, the children dissipate and I am following the path with several locals also on bikes. None of us talk, concentrating instead on the path ahead. We cover several kilometres in a friendly race. Stopping only when the single-track path cutting through the forest is blocked by a manned barricade.
The locals have cleared their own route because the main ‘road’ is too destroyed to cycle or walk along. Only trucks and determined 4×4’s can use the main road, often getting stuck for days on end. So the locals put up a barrier on the paths they have cleared and charge those with a bicycle transporting goods a fee. Congo’s very own toll roads.
There’s no fixed price and if you don’t have money, you wait at the barrier until someone who does gives a sufficient number of Congolese francs to allow a few people to pass. I hand over a few notes and pass to the front of the queue. The barrier is lifted and a few of us can continue on the journey. I don’t mind paying this ‘velo tax’ as it’s called. I’ve covered enough kilometres pushing and dragging through the rutted sand of the main road to be eternally thankful for these forest paths that have been cleared. Sometimes I arrive at the barrier when the person in front has paid enough to allow me to pass as well.
Here, in the Congo, everybody helps each other out. That’s how you get by. Survive. You have something I need, you give it. Slowly, I’m learning this. I find myself giving away a shirt to a lady who asks for it. In return, from someone else, I am fed, provided shelter for the night. Thanking one village chief for letting me camp, I ask if there’s anything he wants. Nothing he says. It is his duty to ensure I am safe. It is a poor village, the people have little. I offer my machete. That, he says, will be of great use. He’ll use it more than me. And so it goes. In most countries I have passed, the demands for money, presents and my belongings as a relatively rich white traveller have soured my impression of that country. Whereas in the Congo, those same demands, not shouted but instead politely asked, are not made because I am a relatively rich white traveller. Simply because I have something they need more than me. They would still ask if I was black and local. And I know if I ask for something, it will be given willingly.
A rather long detour
At Kamuesha, I cross the main road, which looks relatively smooth. One stage before being paved. There are two police sat under a makeshift shelter. I point along the bike track which crosses the road and continues straight ahead, ‘The path to Kananga?’ Yes, they say. And so I continue.
An hour later, I am back on my feet, pushing my bike in the sand through the forest. A clear tunnel to pass carved through the thick branches, vines and leaves. Surrounded to my left and right and above me by forest I should have felt trapped. On the contrary, a strange serenity. If I followed the path, towards the light at the end of the tunnel, I would arrive at a brighter place. I felt like I was meant to be going this way. Towards what exactly I wasn’t sure. Distracted occasionally by a swirling multitude of fluttering colour – butterflies. Distracted occasionally by a thick black line painted across the sand – an army of ants marching five abreast and two high. Distracted by a local who asks where I’m going. Kananga, I say. Turns out this tunnel is taking me to Luebo. Going somewhere for sure… the wrong way. Shit.
After much discussion with this local and then again with half the inhabitants of the next village we are all finally agreed that I should continue. I can also get to Kananga this way. It won’t be on the nice new smooth fast main road that I unwittingly crossed earlier that day. It will take me deeper into the equatorial region along paths not shown on my maps and through unmarked villages. It will be about 50 kilometres further. I am determined not to retrace my steps along that sand and back up the hill. Besides, it’s not like I’m on a tight schedule. I have food and can always get water. I don’t need anything else.
I get a detailed account of the villages I need to pass through and the distances between. Some people give the distance in kilometres. The estimates vary wildly. Some people give the distance in hours to get there. The estimates vary wildly and I wonder if they are the hours if I walk or hours if I go by motorbike.
It is several kilometres between villages here, through overgrown forest tunnels and along sandy tracks where I have to push. It is late in the afternoon. Time to stop for the day. The occasional clearing, with the subtle shades of the late afternoon sun are beautiful. Lovely places to camp. But I haven’t filled up with water and I have been warned that there are many snakes in this area.
The Commandant’s house in the unmarked village
Arriving in the next village, I ask where I can stay. For a village not even marked on my Congo map, it is surprisingly large, with busy market, a couple of motorbikes being driven and the radio mast. Directed to the police headquarters, the Commandant says I can stay at his home.
Before I have chance to put my tent up on the veranda of this crumbling old Belgium colonial white-washed building, the Commandant has shown me to a spare room at the front of the house. There is a motorbike and cycle parked in the room. But he has placed in this garage of sorts a bed. This is my room. His house is my house and he wants me to feel safe. And what do I want for dinner? While dinner is cooking, we sit on the veranda. Watching the sun set on the village of Kabemba and the endless green blanket of trees. Watching people return to their homes on this beautiful hillside.
The Commandant’s house, with an aura of past grandeur, still has a large, solid wooden dining table and cabinet alongside one wall. But now there are no light bulbs because there’s no electricity. And there are no taps because there is no running water. And there is no glass in the windows because it broke a long time ago and was never replaced. Bricked up instead. To keep the mosquitoes out.
I notice one bright floodlight shining out over the village. A large generator hums distantly, competing with the sound of the crickets. Large mining companies can afford to provide their own power. This village is here because of diamonds. I’m sure there are some people happy that this village remains unmarked on maps.
The commandant asks for my contact details. Explaining that I don’t carry a phone, he expresses surprise and concern. But what if I get into trouble? What if I fall off and injure myself and need help? My mind flicks back to earlier in the day…
Free-wheeling fast downhill, down the rutted road through a small village. Momentarily distracted by women’s calls, I am too late swerving a pot-hole. Front wheel rams deep into the ground. Bike is halted abruptly. I continue with pace, catapulted straight over the handlebars. The hill is so steep and I am going at such a pace, I clear the handlebars with unintentional ease, one foot just scraping the handlebar bag. I hit the ground with a heavy landing, feet first, at a run. Coming to a stop somewhat downhill, bike now in a heap on the floor. Not a badly executed acrobatic manoeuvre. I jarred my knee slightly, but nothing serious. The left pedal is now dented from the impact, but nothing serious.
So for the second time that day, I remind myself that I need to be more careful cycling in these remote places. There will be no rapid emergency evacuation if I’m seriously injured. Most likely, a bike would be converted into a stretcher and I would be slowly pushed by three locals to Kananga, 150km away, from where I could be flown to a hospital.
Just like the ill father I passed, being taken to hospital by his three sons. Carried on a bike with a blanket to shade from the sun. Carrying with him buzzing black flies and a sombre shadow following closely behind. He would be dead before he saw a doctor. But what else were his sons to do? Perhaps I’ll buy a phone when I get to Kananga…
A cycle partner
An early morning start, with the sun slowly warming this unmarked village in the forest clearing and melting the blankets of clouds in the valleys, I cycle on down to the river. Removing the panniers from the bike and my shoes from my feet, I wade through the muddy river first with my bags and then with the bike. I take the opportunity to wash. It‘s a long time since I saw water run from a tap. But water runs freely in the open.
Here I meet Sylvan. He too is cycling home to Kananga. We decide to go together. Sylvan buys goods in Kananga and then carries them on his bike to these rural outposts to sell for a small profit. There are many men doing this. It’s the only way to stock the markets and shops here. Nothing larger than a motorbike can pass these roads. And bicycles are cheaper to run and can carry heavier loads.
After a long day cycling, covering a hundred kilometres, we have reached the main road. Back on track. It’s only fifty kilometres to Kananga now. But first I must stop to rest for the night. Once again I camp in a village.
Awake early the next day, I have a easy ride into town accompanied by several others on bikes. Nearing Kananga I stop to buy fruit from a lady. When I look up I am surprised to notice ahead of me tarmac on the road and tall buildings. I made it! Time to find a hotel and a bar…