Chapter 1 – Entering the Congo
One way to enter the Democratic Republic of Congo is at Kinshasa, by taking a boat from Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo. The boat crossing takes only 20 minutes. It will only be 20 minutes late leaving. Sometimes it is good to wait. You will spend five minutes speculating how the officials, touts and hawkers at the Kinshasa port are going to extort money from you. The other fifteen will be spent talking to officials and other locals making the crossing. Before you know it, you will have a small army of Congolese willing to escort you through the port and border formalities. Of course you expect they are only helping because they want money. Because that was the experience at ‘The Beach’ on the Brazzaville side of the river. But you will be pleasantly surprised that not a franc or dollar will be demanded from you. Now you are free to enjoy the crossing; most likely perched atop sackfuls of merchandise along with the local men. The polio-afflicted few are carried to the front and sat upon a jerry can or if they have, a wheelchair.
A ‘bagagiste’ will ensure your baggage is transported safely once you reach port. Don’t worry; your luggage is safe. Barely two steps off the boat and your passport will be demanded by the first uniformed official you see. Be under no illusion; he will have seen you first. The dilemma affronting you is to stay with your luggage or follow the official with the passport – always stay with the passport. Taken into a small office you will shake hands with the boss. He will have at least two young men employed under him. It will take both these men and the best part of an hour to record your passport details onto a piece of paper.
Tip 1: If you passport is nearly full, get a new one before coming to the Congo. Immigration officials love passports. Love paperwork. Love official-looking pieces of paper. Every official will want to make a copy of every detail in your passport. If you have a jumbo pasport full of visas and entry and exit stamps, you are in for a long wait. It doesn’t matter that you may have travelled through Guatemala ten years ago, this information will be recorded. Thankfully my passport is only four months old….
Tip 2: If asked if you have any other paperwork, just say no. The only paperwork you need is a passport and visa. As I said before, immigration officials love paperwork. Of course, if you like waiting, feel free to show the official your expired house insurance or your Tescos shopping receipt from three months ago and by the end of the day, a hand-written copy will have been made and at least twenty friendly but curious Congolese will have scrutinised the documents, asked an array of irrelevant questions and will know more about you than some of your best friends.
Eventually you will be free to leave, passport in hand. You will be relieved to walk outside and see your luggage still there, bagagiste patiently waiting. Tip him if you want. Now just walk through the gates. Easy. Welcome to Kinshasa…
Chapter 2 – Kinshasa
My guidebook says ‘Describing what ‘to do’ in Kinshasa is difficult; this is a city low on sights, but high on atmosphere’. True enough. But frankly, you could say this about many African capital cities.
Kinshasas streets. Busy by day, deserted by night. To celebrate fifty years of independence, the main boulevard has been resurfaced. Now there is an eight-lane highway complete with pedestrian crossings. African drivers are bad drivers. The Congolese are no exception. Generally they drive fast down the centre of the road, regardless of oncoming traffic. Probably because on most ‘roads’ there is no oncoming traffic. But confronted with black and white stripes on the road, the cars will stop. Not because the drivers know the rules. Because they don’t know what else to do. Result – This busy boulevard is one of the safest to cross in Africa. Order among chaos. Don’t be under any illusion though. If you are simply walking along the road side, the chances of being hit by one of the speeding blue-and-yellow minibuses is high. And watch out for the pousse-pousse’s – boys pushing registered carts – Congo’s capital courrier service. They have goods to deliver and pay scant attention to the idle ambler.
Police presence is high. Most are employed in traffic control. At every major junction you will be signalled by a white-gloved, uniformed officer. Exactly what the hand signals mean is a mystery. Better just to follow the other drivers. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that the police are friendly and helpful and there for your safety. It’s only at the end of the month, when their twenty dollar monthly salary has been spent, that they will see any minor incursion as a secondary income. This is when they will stop you in the street. No need to be alarmed. You are not in trouble. They will just politely ask you to help them. You don’t have to. Just say no. They will smile and say thank you and let you continue.
Kinshasa has a massive expat community. You will see them through tinted windows of shining land-cruisers. Or in the supermarkets full of imported goods. Otherwise they spend their time hidden behind crumbling walls. But on the inside are air-conditioned rooms, swimming pools and fully-stocked bars at european prices. Walking along the streets you’d never know these elite enclaves existed. The majority of Kinshasa’s ten million residents live on as little as 500 francs a day. In some households, the boys will eat one day, the girls the next. When they don’t eat, they will be trying to earn money, any way they can.
If you like beer, you will like Kinshasa. Most African countries have one brewery which brews one beer. Castel. Or Flag. Or Star. Kinshasa’s brewery has diversified. Primus is the prime choice. Or you can try Doppel, Turbo King, Simba, Skol or Tembo. The best place to quench your thirst is at a street-side bar with a plate of goat meat, watching the world walk on by. There’s not much else to do in Kinshasa, but it will be a long time before you are bored. Indeed, you will find it hard to leave.
Chapter 3 – Kinshasa to Kikwit
It was a pleasant surprise to discover that the first 500km of my ride across the Congo would be on smooth tarmac across the Bateke plateau. The plateau lies like a flamenco dancers dress; pleats of rich green grassland falling gracefully into valleys fed by the fresh waters of the Congo river basin. Unfortunately, as a cyclist, this means that the days are spent freewheeling down to a river only to cycle back up the other side, without ever gaining any altitude. It’s hot and sweaty and tiring. Fortunately, the views are lovely and the roads are quiet.
Since the Belgians left the Congo over fifty years ago, almost nothing has been done to improve, let alone maintain, buildings or roads. So now the Congo’s concrete roads have all but disappeared. Without good roads, there will be no traffic. There are other ways to get around… rivers don’t need any maintaining. Fast forward fifty years; the Belgians have left, the Chinese are here. The Chinese are good at building roads. So now there lies 500km of tarmac. But there are few vehicles to be driven, and fewer reasons to drive. Of the few decrepit trucks which make the journey, fewer reach the destination. There are far more abandoned skeletons of lorries, and trucks in mid-repair, than there are moving vehicles. If you decide to make the journey by truck, expect to spend most of your time waiting or walking. Waiting for repairs. Walking up the hills. Both because the engines are knackered. The advantage to the cyclist is that on every steep hill there will be willing volunteers to help push your bike.
Despite an abundance of rivers, getting water to drink proved difficult. Inevitably I would run out of water on the plateau. I would ask at a village. Always the same response. Could I have some water? – There is none. Really, no drinking water? I explain I don’t need bottled mineral water. River water or rain water is fine. There are no pumps or wells in Congo’s villages. Women walk for miles to collect water. I feel guilty asking. Now they will have to walk again sooner. If you just want a cupful, ask one of the women. They will go straight to their house and bring you a cool refreshment. If you want to fill your waterbottles, tell the woman it is for cooking – they are generous then. Or ask one of the men. They don’t collect the water and don’t mind handing out as much as you need. They will hand your waterbottles to one of the women to be filled.
Food and Drink
There are not many small villages between Kinshasa and Kikwit. These are simply a collection of simple palm thatch huts lining the roadside. There are a few big villages en route too. A big village is much the same as a small village except that you may also find a couple of shacks selling goods. Soon you will be calling these rickety kiosks ‘shops’. A bit like your local Spar, they are independently run, open all hours and all stock the same cheap supplies. But with these shacks, where they lack in quality they also lack in diversity. If powdered milk, glucose biscuits, cigarettes, sugar, tinned tomato puree or maggi stock cubes are on your shopping list you’ll find them here. Otherwise you’re out of luck.
Where you see a table lined with empty glass coke and beer and pastis bottles, don’t expect to find a bar or be able to quench your thirst. Unless of course you like ‘tchichampa’. A local alcoholic beverage from the ever-abundant palm tree. Tchichampa is a clear fluid, stronger than whiskey, with a smell and taste that will make your face crease as if you had just siphoned fuel from a car. Personally, I would prefer to siphon fuel. For less than the cost of a coke, you will get a coke bottle full of tchihampa, which is enough to anesthetise a herd of cattle or at the very least give you a killer hangover. Now, considering that water supplies are limited and it gets very hot in the sun, I don’t recommend this toxic alcohol at any time of the day but especially before midday, which is when the locals start drinking it.
Congo is a rich fertile land and food grows easily. You will therefore have no trouble finding fresh fruit and vegetables. Mangoes; bananas; pineapples; peanuts. They are all readily available to buy at source (and as always, surprisingly lacking in the nearest town market). Good cycling food. If you don’t see any of these foods for sale, just ask. The trick is to ask the right person. Ask the person manning the kiosk if you can buy bananas and he will say no. Explain that you can see he doesn’t have bananas but perhaps somewhere in the village there are some for sale, and he will still say no. Don’t be surprised therefore when you continue 50 metres down the road and see a women with a huge basket full of bananas ripe for your picking. If you then ask her where you can buy onions, she will say there are none. Don’t be surprised therefore if you look up to see a man behind a table hoping to sell some of his produce, which of course includes a large pile of little onions. If you are craving mangoes, simply look out for a mango tree (there is at least one in almost every village), go to the nearest house and ask the elderly lady with the toothless smile if you can buy some mangoes from her. Her smile will widen, but don’t think this means yes. She probably doesn’t understand what you’ve just said because you’re speaking French and she only knows the local language. She’s smiling because you are white and have stopped to speak to her. The best thing to do is resort to the international language of signs. Take out some dirty Congolese francs and point to the mango tree. Instantanously, the toothless lady will have a team of small boys scrambling up the tree with long sticks and soon it will be raining mangoes. Unless you’re a risk-taker and want a headache, don’t stand under the tree.
You can see even the smallest of villages from a long way off. Where you see a cluster of trees on the otherwise sparsely covered horizon, there will be people living there. This is good to know if you are concerned about water. If you are seeking rest in the shade, they are also good to see. But don’t expect a peaceful rest. On entering a village the children, and often the women too, will call out to you ‘Mondele’. That’s Lingala for ‘white’. At least it makes a change from ‘le blanc’, ‘branco’, ‘toubab’ or ‘obroni’. They will shout and wave and run down to the roadside to see you. Big smiles on all their faces. If you stop, you will be surrounded and bombarded with youngsters wanting to practise their French. ‘Bonjour’, ‘Comment ca va?’, ‘Comment t’appeles tu?’. If you reply to one child, all the others will also ask the same question, each wanting an answer. It can be very boring saying that you are fine twenty times. Especially when you really aren’t fine because you are tired and hungry and just want some peace and quiet. If by chance you don’t have a big crowd, taking out some food and eating is sure to swell it. Personally, I hate being watched eating, especially when it’s a particularly juicy but messy mango. Especially uncomfortable because they are hungry eyes watching you. If one boy has the courage to ask for some food, soon they all will. Best thing to do is not stop in a village…
The problem now is that a lot of villages are at the bottom of a hill (closer to water). Leaving the village is therefore an uphill slog. When tired and hungry, not what you want. And because it’s uphill, you are cycling very slowly. Or more likely, walking. Either way, at a pace that the entire village can follow you. Now, you are not only tired and hungry but out of breath too. You cannot outrun the masses. There is no escape. You know everyone is happy to see you but it does not stop the frustration and anger growing. Under no circumstances let the children see this. If you shout to them to go away, they will follow even closer. If you get angry, they will momentarily stop in their tracks, only to take up pursuit with renewed determination. When you do get back on the bike, there will be a cheer and several hands will try to give you a push-start. Finally you will reach the top of the hill and be able to make your escape.
Getting through the larger villages without stopping is hard. If there are immigration officials there, you will have to stop. This takes time and the informalities are always the same. Best thing to do is play along, use the break to rest – so go ahead and get out those bananas and nuts to eat. At least you will be in the shade, out of the prying eyes of the children and noone will bother you. Eventually your passport details will have been copied and before it is handed back, the immigration officer will most likely ask for a beer or a coke. It’s up to you if you do. Don’t worry that up to this point, the officer may have seemed angry, stern or serious. Once the formalities are over and any idea of a beer dismissed, the officer will now be happy, smiling, jovial and your best friend. He’ll be curious about your journey and wish you well. This instantaneous change of attitiude is something the Congolese are adept at. Get used to it, use it and if you can do the same you’ll fit in just fine!
Next update coming soon – all about the ride (which including a lot of walking and pushing and dragging) from Kikwit to Kananga.