As an avid traveler and cyclist, it’s common to want to ride your bicycle in some of the most exotic and exhilarating places in the world. One can understand wanting to cycle Rovinj on Croatia’s Istrian peninsula or into ancient Patagonian forests on Chile’s Seven Lakes route.
The Congo is undoubtedly one of the last places on earth most people would choose to cycle in. Who would want to ride through a war-torn country that is rife with corruption, genocide, rape and endless violence? The Congo has undergone many changes in government since being under Belgian rule, mostly by coup and/or assassination. Perhaps it’s the very challenge of making it through that drives people to attempt it.
Friendly faces of the locals
Charlie Walker and Archie Leeming had been strongly advised not to ride through the Congo. They decided to do it anyway and did not know what to expect when they set off. Walker relates their story on the Travel Stories website.
The cyclists were surprised to get through the border quite quickly. As they cycled toward the capital of Katanga Province, they encountered many friendly faces. They realized that despite the conflict and politics, the ordinary people were going about their normal daily lives. They did have a few bad moments.
At one point, they were apprehensive when they saw a crowd surging toward them. It turned out to be a funeral procession, and they were let through peacefully.
Malnutrition and desolation despite the great mineral wealth
They came across many trucks on the road, coming and going from the mines. Katanga Province has great mineral wealth (cobalt, uranium, copper, diamonds and gold). Unfortunately, this wealth enriches the government and not the locals.
When they came to the end of the tarmac road, they traveled down a track through the dense forest. The last 25 km to the town of Mutshatsha consisted of sand and loose rubble. Upon reaching the village, they saw a deserted railway station with abandoned steam engines on isolated tracks.
They were told that a train bound for Angola had gone through the day before. It was the first train to go through in five months. The town’s market was pitiful, with most of the women only selling cassava leaves and roots. Ground cassava root cooked with water is the staple food called foufou.
The best and worst roads in Africa
In the 1950s, when it was a Belgian colony, the whole of the Congo had an extensive network of paved roads. Now it has a few of the best and some of the worst roads in Africa. For the most part, bikes have to be dragged or pushed through deep sandy tracks.
Helen Lloyd, an engineer who gave up her job in 2009 to cycle through Africa, speaks about the contrast between the tarmac and sandy roads on which you have to push or pull your bike.
She mentions how surreal it was to go through the village of Oyo, which is connected to the capital by a smooth tarmac road, and then go back to nature and hut villages once you leave. She speaks about the government buildings, Olympic-size sports facilities and grand airport in Oyo and says that if you want to see where government funds go, you need look no further.
In Kasaji, Walker and Leeming encountered a pushy official who tried his best to get money out of them. Later on, when they found a clearing in which to camp for the night, they were confronted by five men who had seen them leave the road.
The ‘chief’ said they were on his land and he wanted to be paid to let them sleep there. They decided to pack up and ride on without delay. They kept quiet and rode stealthily through the next village, which stretched for about 3 km down the road.
An alarming chase
Before they managed to get through the village, the alarm was raised. They knew that if they were caught, they would not have the time to explain that they were tourists rather than rebels, spies or thieves. Adrenalin spurred them on as they were chased down the road and eventually they tore down a footpath into the forest. They found a hidden spot where they could sleep for the night.
They could still hear the villagers, who sounded uncomfortably close. The incident only lasted about 10 minutes, but when they erected their tents, it was with shaky hands. As they warmed their hands over a fire, they realized they felt cowed by the Congo — and this was only the first part of their journey.
They would travel a further 50 km to reach the town of Sandoa, where they planned to begin their next challenge: descending a river on a pirogue (dug out canoe). Some people obviously thrive on the most difficult of challenges.