Kikwit to Tchikapa – 343km in 5 days

Kikwit – shit, leave quick

Always happy to arrive in a town – Good food, cold drinks, a bed, a shower… Usually happier to be leaving town – peace, and quiet, less hassle, good views, fresh air. Kikwit was no exception.

The hotel, once a luxury establishment; now, not even a shadow of it’s former glory. Crumbling. Falling down. In the last fifty years, only the prices have gone up. More disappointing than the hotel are the shops. Considering their quantity and size, you’d expect a plethora of imported goods. Expensive, but worth it. Not so. Basically, they sell what the kiosks in little villages sell. Only they sell it in bulk. Not helpful for the lone cyclist.

I returned to my hotel room, collapsed on the bed and whiled away the evening in a mosquito-killing spree in between sipping beer. Mosquitoes and beer both being readily available here. I vowed to leave the next day, rested or not.

Not.

Enjoy it while it lasts

But it didn’t matter. I still had 90km of smooth tarmac to ease me through the day. After 500km, I’d mastered the easiest places to get water, the quietest places to stop and when to eat so I can get through those crazy children-chasing-bike villages.

Cycling out of Kikwit was beautiful. Alongside the river Kwilu the road rose and fell with the hills through speckled shadows of the midday sun squinting through the forest leaves.

I was joined by Jean and Joel. Jean was on a bike too. Joel hitched a ride on the back on the downhills. Like every other bike in the Congo, Jean’s bike has no gears. So Joel had to get off and run alongside on the ups. The company was good. Company on the road was something I’d soon get used to. Like it or not.

I left Jean and Joel at the village at the top of the hill. Next village I stopped for bananas. As I cycled out, I heard shouts from across the road. ‘Hello! Stop! Velo tax!’…. Velo tax? Now that was a new one. I turned around and shouted back – ‘There’s no velo tax for me’. They laughed and I continued.

No day on the road in the Congo is complete without an encounter with immigration. After 500km, I thought I had it mastered. Knew all the cons. But there’s always another one.

I nearly managed to cycle past the police sleeping in the shade of the roadside tree. But one spotted me. ‘Come to my office’, he says. His ‘office’ is the front half of a small thatched hut. The back half, partially hidden behind a faded curtain, is his ‘bedroom’. It is the size of the bed. The ‘office’ has a low wooden table covered in papers. I sit on the little wooden bench. Everything here is locally-made. Except the bible, which is being used as a paperweight.

A Resident of the Congo

Yes. My passport is valid. Yes. My visa is valid. ‘What is that?’ – That’s not important. ‘Show it to me anyway.’ – Ok. After several minutes… ‘It is a visa for Ghana.’ – Yes, I told you it’s not important. ‘What is that?’ – (big sigh) My vaccination card (must remember to hide all formal looking pieces of paper). After many more minutes… ‘You’re vaccinations are complete.’ – Yes. None of this was new. ‘You have come from Kikwit?’ – Yes. ‘You went to the immigration there?’ – Yes. When I arrived, the police took my details, called another office and the big boss said I was free to travel (all true). ‘Ah, but you didn’t go to the office. So you didn’t pay the fee.’ – (sigh) What fee? ‘You haven’t paid your resident tax.’ – I am not a resident. ‘Of course you are a resident in Congo. When you arrive in a new country, you become a resident of that country…. you have been to (flicks through my passport again)… Cameroon – when you were in Cameroon, you were a resident there, then when you went to…. where did you go after Cameroon?’ – Gabon. ‘Yes, when you arrived in Gabon, you became a resident of Gabon. Now you are a resident of the Congo. So now you must pay the resident’s tax.’ I slowly and meticulously explained that I am a tourist, not a resident, don’t need to pay a resident tax… And he slowly and meticulously explained that I did. Back and forth. Ping. Pong. It’s match point and neither wants to lose the game. He’s stubborn. But so am I. We both think our logic is correct. We both have all the time in the world to wait. Eventually, we sit in silence. Staring. That’s ok. I’m happy to sit. If only he wasn’t so ugly to look at… Occasionally the three boys sitting outside gain my attention. They smile and wave. I smile back. Slightly more interesting to look at. But back to the ugly officer – I don’t want him thinking I’m about to give up and hand over the money. The game can’t end in a stalemate, so eventually he makes a move to test me. Unexpectedly, he places the passport on the table, equidistant between him and me. Fatal move. The winning shot is mine. I pick up the passport. Game over. I can walk out whenever I want. He knows it. Now that the ‘formalities’ are over, it’s like we’re best friends. And we sit and chat and smile and laugh for a while before I get back on the bike and he wishes me a safe journey.

A peaceful, serene night camping out under the stars and the next day, after coffee I feel revived. Alive. The day starts with the end of the tarmac. I cycle into a stiff headwind, but the cool air is refreshing. Dark grey clouds are gathering to my left and right. Lightning flashes and strikes with precision at some point on the distant horizon of the flat green plain. Curtains of rain join the clouds with the land. Straight ahead though is a tunnel of clear weather. Perhaps I will be lucky and cycle through these converging storms before they meet the road…

I’m not that lucky.

I get drenched.

Escape from the rain

I cycle on towards the next village. Soaked. I head for the first shelter I see. A woman calls from a hut on the other side of the road. ‘Come. Come!’ I cross the road and run with my bike to the hut.

Soon me, my bags and my bike are all safely installed in the hut. Together with Anne, Kendai her husband, the five children, two rickety wooden beds and a small fire smoldering in the corner for cooking and warmth, there’s not much space to move. I am stripped of my dripping clothes and dried as the rain pelts on down outside. Turning the cleanly swept yard to mud. Three of the children are sharing fufu from a common bowl. Anne is breast-feeding the youngest. I sit quietly and am offered food. This family don’t have much, but still they offer me what they have. After a couple of hours the rain eases. I collect my wet belongings and head out the door. I give them some pasta and nuts. They say thankyou. But what Anne really wants is one of my plastic water bottles. She can use it to make collecting water from the river easier.

Plastic water bottles are in high demand everywhere. I have three of them. I had only just managed to get hold of a third bottle – it was going to make life on the road much easier. I’d have to refill less often. I knew there could be long stretches of bad roads ahead. I might need it. I hesitate. But I’ll manage. Always do. I give one bottle to Anne and wave goodbye.

End of the Road

Follow the sign...Just down the road, the road ends. The deep rutted sand starts. I get off the bike and begin pushing. And dragging. I look ahead and see only more sandy tracks through the sodden landscape. A while later I look back… I really should have topped up my water bottles and bought some extra food. Do I go back? How far to the next village? But I’m not going back. Not through that sand. Nothing to do but keep going. Things usually work out ok.

Eventually I arrive at a village. A brief water stop and I push on. Literally. The men see me struggling and shout to come back. There is a good path that runs through the village. I can follow it all the way to the next village. A motorbike took the path earlier – just follow the tracks. Slightly unsure of where I’m headed, I take their advice. It must be better than following the main route that the trucks have gouged out and destroyed.

The narrow path is easy to cycle on. Not so much ‘easy’, but I can at least cycle. I follow it through the village, weaving between the huts and neatly-kept yards with flowers planted round the edges and wooden fencing marking one household from another. I follow it out into the open and down to a small river which I cross at a small earth bridge. The water flows underneath. Fresh and cool and clear. I refill my water bottles and wash my face. The sun has come out by now. It is hot. Burning. I eat a mango under the shade of a tree. It’s turning out to be a great day. I follow the path alongside the small stream which flows into a larger river. Here I meet the main road again. Still deeply rutted, but solid. A path made by locals with bikes follows alongside the road. I follow the path. And I am followed by the children of the village. They are all smiling. All saying, ‘Hello’ and ‘How are you?’. When the path goes uphill, my bags and bike are covered with tiny hands who all help a little to push me onwards and upwards.

Eventually the hands and voices disappear and I am left to cycle onwards. Now I’m following a path between the giant pylons which scar the landscape. The only man-made feature. Cycling on with the sun fading behind me, I pull off the road and set up camp. Unnoticed, I watch the women returning from their day’s work in the forest and the fields. Returning to where they will begin their evening’s work in their homes. Here, a woman’s work is never finished.

Mayonnaise horror

After weeks of mayonnaise sandwiches in Guinea all those months ago, I thought I would never eat mayonnaise again. So I still don’t know what urged me to buy a jar back in Kikwit. I suppose I thought it would make a change from pasta with tomato sauce.
The first few mouthfuls of pasta mayonnaise were lovely. The next few, not so nice. The rest of the night, downright unpleasant. I am never buying a jar of mayonnaise again! Mayonnaise now does to my stomach what all the river, rain and well water of Africa should but has failed to!

Internal borders

I spent the day following the bike paths. Through villages, alongside the truck tracks. Occasionally getting off and pushing. Sometimes dragging. But mostly cycling. Slowly. Bumpy. Concentrating all the while.

I crossed the Luange river, the border between Bandundu and Kasai Occidental provinces. That meant immigration formalities on either side of the river. I expected problems. But there were none. I was reminded never to give money to corrupt officials as I left Bandundu. But there were no corrupt officials on the Kasai side of the river. On the contrary. Once my passport had been checked, the immigration officer bought me a bunch of bananas and sent a boy to refill my water bottles. We walked to various stalls while I restocked my food supplies. And then he pushed my bike up the hill and past the checkpoint to make sure I had no problems. He then guided me to the path that would be easiest to cycle on and explained the villages it passed through before rejoining the main road.

By now I was exhausted. Ten hours on the road and no real stops to rest and eat. I got water in the first village and was chased out by the children. They were only being friendly but tiredness doesn’t make me patient. The number of children had dwindled as I arrived in another village. Calls of ‘Ni Hao’, Chinese for ‘Hello’ (the Chinese are building bridges across the rivers, the roads will be next) from the dozens of new children sounded more like fire-engine sirens. The noise grating on my eardrums. The path through the village was too sandy and I had to push. No escape from the noise. Again, these children followed me through to the next village where the chase began afresh. I was beginning to think I’d never find a quiet spot to camp…

Thankfully this was the last village for a while and eventually I was alone on the road, just as the sun was going down on another day. Peace and quiet at last. Just the stars for company.

The water boys

The local bikes for transporting waterBack on the main road. The going was slow. Pushing through sand for a couple of hours and I came to a steep hill. There were no villages in sight. I was low on water. It was hot. I was sweating profusely. Through the sand I followed other bikes. Local bikes. Fully loaded with six or eight yellow jerry cans of water. Each pushed by two or three local men. The one in front had the hardest job, picking a route. The rest of us, positioned our bike’s wheels in the rut that had been carved out by the one in front. That way, the bike wouldn’t slide sideways. It made life just a little easier. Heads down, we would strain and sweat and heave and push and drag the bikes slowly, so slowly, up the hill. An hour later and we arrived in the village. I stopped to rest and eat in the shade of the tree. Several more bikes were parked under the trees, all loaded with the yellow jerry cans. Either waiting to be unloaded or taken for the return journey to the river. These men have tough jobs. Sometimes their bodies just can’t take it any more. They lie down to rest by the side of the road and never wake up. Heart’s just stop. Just like that. The strain just too much.

Fortunately the bike paths through villages begin again. That means I can cycle. Much easier. Between villages, a single-track path has been cut through the forest which the locals follow. Wide enough for a bike, but no more. It’s fun weaving between the trees, watching out for roots and braking suddenly when you hear a bell ring which means there’s someone cycling towards you and they’re not going to stop.

Sleeping in the village

Towards the end of the day, clouds gather. The wind picks up. It’s going to rain. It’s just one village after another and nowhere to camp. I ask for the village chief. He’s an elderly man and doesn’t understand much French. I ask if I can stay in his village for the night. A stick-thin lady with a broad smile translates and says of course.

And so I spend my first of many nights camping in a village in the Congo. I am watched with intense curiosity by the villagers as I put up my tent next to the chief’s hut where he has swept a space for me. I am watched with intense curiosity and amusement as I light my stove and cook dinner. I am watched with intense curiosity as I enter my tent and zip up the door. Soon after the rain thunders down. I’m fairly sure those curious faces have all left now for the shelter of their huts. But I’m not going to look out and see. I’m too preoccupied moving my bags out of the water that is slowly filling the end of my tent!

The chaseIt’s a windy, thunderous, wet night. I sleep fitfully. By morning it is just drizzle. I pack up my gear and hit the waterlogged road. All watched by curious faces which have reappeared. I am tired and would like to sit and quietly eat breakfast. No chance. For two hours I am followed by children. Like a relay, the chase is passed onto the children of the next village. Their calls are the baton. But their calls can get ahead. There’s no escape. I sit down to rest but am surrounded. Endless noise. Shouting. I’ve had enough – go away. leave me alone. I swear at them. The children back off surprised. But it’s momentary. Soon they are back, surrounding me closer than before.

By midday I arrive in Tchikapa. A town. What a relief! I can check into a hotel room and be alone. Peace. Even if it’s not quiet. And I can get lots of food. And not be watched eating it. And I can buy a beer. And another one….