Cycling through the Congo

Curious children looking through a window in a bar

A red gravel road ahead heralds hundreds of kilometers pedaling into the Democratic Republic of Congo. For the next few days I expect to become absolutely detached from the outside world, with no mobile phones, no electricity, no running water and at most a few poorly stocked stands with local food. We are about be exposed to the unknown terrain and face our own weaknesses. The African adventure begins right here and at this point.

The bikes with side bags are installed to action at the crack of the dawn. We pass thatched huts made of mud bricks. People react very spontaneously to our presence. The kids dance, jump around, sing and shout njambo mzungu (in Swahili, "welcome white man"). After several hours of pedaling we take a break in the first large village on the way. There is also a sizeable welcoming committee. Just before the dusk and when the crowd is lessening I am able to count 126 pairs of eyes staring at mzungu. It is fairly easy to find a place to sleep. A bar owner allows us to pitch a tent on the premises.

Congolese woman with a child at the only well in a village

As you immerse yourself deeper into the land, the crowds become small groups and these at some point become individuals. This is an unavoidable way of having casual acquaintances. It is already a second guy today throwing his sugar cane loaded bike on a ground to flee into the thicket of plants. The Marengu plateau has recently seen some bloody fighting. The soldiers and rebels are told to have wrenched out hearts of victims here, believing that by doing so they would gain the supernatural power. Either the cult of black magic exists until today or it is my frightening beard, somewhat neglected for a couple of weeks.

I am being constantly impressed by changing landscape of picturesque rivers, giant termite mounds sticking out every now and then on the arable fields and trees where you can pick avocados the size of grapefruit. As we make our way south, the trees turn into savanna and the only hideout from the burning sun become sparse African acacias, trees resembling green umbrellas.

Rustling grasses here and there become neat plots of manioc and cottage scattered hills perfectly fulful the view of the Kirungu mountains. We pass again mango trees, red-ground plateaus and constantly in sweat manhandle our bikes uphill. At the end of the day we gain the altitude of 2,400 meters.

Sunday is supposed to be a day off in Catholic communities. In practice, it is only woman working. They crush manioc for ugari, an evening fare consumed every single day ever since throughout equatorial Africa. The Congolese girls are neatly groomed and attractively dressed. Regardless of the type of activity being done, be it going to church or working with hoe in a field, the Congolese woman wear clean and colorful garments.

It was a near miss, luckily I did not run over a chameleon with my bicycle. So I took him onto my palms and exposed him to some other colors to watch how amazingly changing colors from black to brown, yellow and green. He seems to have problems with reds. I let the colorful lizard go and take a look around. It may sound a bit mundane, but there is absolutely nothing surrounding me. I can hear only dimmed sounds of wildlife and all I see is only the vast undisturbed, limitless land. I totally enjoy this kind of freedom.

Mzungu among the Congolese

A picture with the hospitable host and his closest family

The heat is unbearable and it is already a few hours since we run out of drinkable water. A school boy error. In the dry season even rainwater is not that easy to find. With no success we keep looking for any sort of river or a small stream. The inhabitants of a small settlement help us out. With my dried throat filled with dust I utter polite inquiry towards a Congolese woman. She is so generous to bring us a bowl with water. We pour carefully the water to fill our bottles and put the required amount of purification tablets. The thirst, however, does not let me to withstand the temptation of quenching it before the required full two hours for tablets to work properly pass.

Amazing descends start, the reward for the last few days constantly climbing up. Avoiding sharp rocks, passing ravines and huge loads of sand at full speed on the main Congolese road linking Tanganyika with Lubumbashi is fairly challenging. Going way to fast to call it safe with an equipment itself weighing over 40 kg it makes adrenaline run high.

All of a sudden Światek’s bike breaks down. This time it is a fairly bad mishap. The rear derailleur is being smashed into pieces as it grates together with spokes. The derailleur is to be thrown away (luckily we have a spare one), a few spokes need to be replaced the ring requires major centering.

The following villages are better equipped with water. I manage to fully stock up our water reserves from wells on the way. The Congolese people live very modestly and quietly. Children look after younger siblings while wearing them on back wrapped in a colorful scarf, just like their mothers do.

We buy two-meter long stick of sugar cane. I vigorously cut the cane with a machete into handy pieces and the last part I give to the family to return thanks.

Consumption of the sugar cane adds so much energy that 50 kilometers remaining to Pweto we cover at the speed of Road Runner, the cartoon ostrich. Goes so easily until the the road gets really heavy. The gravel trail turns into a deep and rocky ravine.

We trust a Congolese biker, who imposes an intense pace and follow him. Our guide deftly avoids muddy holes and dried clouds of dust, the habitat of sand fleas. Often we change side of the road and pass the short cut routes known only to local villagers.

Fresh pork supply to market

I swift through a three-feet wide track cut in the dense maze of high crops right through the middle of dried-up fields. After many deep crossings through the arid ground pools my legs are covered with a hard shell of mixed dirt and sweat mortar.

I do not know it yet, but in a few days a yucky sand flea, the size of a big sunflower seed will hatch under my fingernail. I would use a knife to scratch it out. Then the eggs it laid would hatch again.

The final kilometers, yet I know that we are not able to make it before the sunset. We have to put on our headlights and instinctively head southwards. The road turns into an impassible desert. It is only dirt, sand, clumps of grass and all my body covered with a few days old sticky sweat catching any single speck of dust. The sand becomes impossibly deep, there is absolutely no way to ride a bike as it is already way too hard to comfortably push the bike.

With the final remnants of energy we reach Pweto. From this point there is still 550 kilometers south to Lubumbashi, again through the unknown.

Gifts of Pweto

Oil drums being transported by road

I buy some cakes, fruit, vegetables and a dried fish from Lake Mweru at the marketplace in Pweto. The fish seems to be fresh and tastes good, but I change my mind, when having the next bite I realize there is a fat big black worm inside it.

Having spent a night at the UNHCR compound we meet Tristan, an English guy working for MAG. We move to base the Miners Advisory Group, the humanitarian agency clearing landmines in the areas of the world affected by war. Grilled mutton and cold beer (finally!) easily make it a truly indulging evening, by far exceeding the Congolese standard we already used to.

I admire the impressive collection of local findings. Hand-held grenade launcher, all sorts of machine guns, rocket launchers and an absolutely unique item among the Congolese wilderness, a hand-held antiaircraft rocket launcher. A shell of a mortar is used as a stand at the door and the walls are decorated with rusty, decades old rifles. The arsenal is constantly getting bigger.

Further the route we often pass the scattered remnants of war, such as armed river boats, amphibious or wreck of a Brazilian tank with an easily rotating barrel.

No control. This is Africa

The MAG’s three boats tied up together with a deck put on top help us to overcome the major obstacle. As we cross the river flowing into Lake Mweru the new stage of our journey begins. The road becomes substantially narrower and its often flooded parts require wading through the mud. The framework of iron bridge we pass is in a good shape, but is lacks many cross-beams. At some points a bunch of sticks put together serves as a replacement, sometimes there is a half-meter gap or a loose plank to provide a temporary patch. In fact, the whole surface of a bridge is a patchwork.

The village of Lukonzolwa is a place where we take a long-awaited break for a beer. Being a white man, as anywhere else in the Congo I guess, arouses a sensation here. We take a sit in the only bar and soon all the notables of the village including the police chief and all sorts of "persons responsible" show up. I like this special meeting along with a whole bunch of curious kids peeping from the outside through a large hole in a wall, here a window.

Completely deserted, but actually open post office in Kasomeno

At dusk we stop in Nombo by a friendly looking house, next to which the family gathered around the fireplace. We are invited to diner. The diner is consumed from a common boiler with hands, mixing the hand-formed ball of ugari with a piece of broiled and oily capitan fish. The cassava leaves serve as vegetable salad. Traditionally, for a good night’s sleep we drink lotoko, the local moonshine from fermented corn and cassava.

In the nearby forest I see huge flames of fire. I ask the owner Edgar “Fire. Under control? “. I hear only “No. No control. This is Africa“.

In the morning, we stock up with a huge bunch of bananas, they are still green, but at that strong sunlight during the day by the evening they would begin to rot. At the village stand we get a hearty serving of cooked sweet potatoes seasoned with an extract of incredibly hot pili-pili pepper.

Today there is an increased cyclists traffic on the road. During the day we see traders with fresh meat, fried fish and durable goods such as sofas and mattresses, all of the merchandise being carried on bikes. In fact, most of the Congolese bikes have a large loading capacity. Having no bicycle means carrying the payload on your head. Thus, transportation of a big metal barrel is not an issue, even for an elderly Congolese woman.

A touch of magic

A juicy orange

We come across various terrain difficulties, such as damaged bridges, strenuous ascends, mountain brooks and sharp rocks. I take no notice of a decent gravel section of the road, because I know it quickly would turn into a narrow bumpy path again, the kind of surface I am already used to.

At every step there are also various problems and barriers in communicating with the Congolese folks. Today is by far the most remarkable day to underline the aforementioned. It is impossible to get along in any language, my broken French with elements of Swahili does not help. We sit quietly by the fire, with no mutual verbal understanding, I feel only the positive energy beaming from these people. I feel that just as we are happy to be here, so are they, also happy to be with us. The night in Katoka village is one of these magical African nights, inspired by the sense of mysterious sounds of nature and darkness.

Accommodation tend to be at very random locations. Fortunately most of the time it is relatively easy to explain to people that we want to pitch next to their “big house” our “small house“. Every evening we sit together by the fire and we are often invited to a joint diner.

We pass countless villages, where children and teenagers go crazy at the sight of two white newcomers. They would shake our hands, give us five, smile and clap their hands with joy. Some young girls shy away after returning a glimpse. Quite often teenagers and even adults see a non-black person for the first time in their lives.

We stop at the bar, where two men play checkers with the two types of beer. Behind a makeshift thatched fence another group of guys sip freshly distilled lotoko. I help a pretty woman with child wrapped in a scarf on her back to draw water from a well. I ask the head of the village “when was the last time a white tourist visited your village?". He ponders deeply and after a while with a firm tone in his voice, he provides me with a simple answer “never“. I have just realized that I am ib the absolute wilderness, hidden beyond the maps, somewhere at the end of the world in deep Africa.

Will it be continued?

Crossing a Congolese bridge

Few days later and several hundred miles away at the border with Zambia I notice the first high-voltage lines over the heads of the Congolese. I wonder how many decades will pass before the electricity will reach also those remote villages. This beautiful adventure can not simply come to an end.

We already made a plan to repeat exactly the same route on motorbikes in the near future. Traveling together with the developed images of people we got to know and trying to find them again in the scattered, full of magic Congolese villages is an another idea for an African adventure.

drc trip