Democratic Republic of the Congo

26th of January – 14th of Feburary 2020:

Unfortunately, the condition of the narrower road changed and we only moved forward in walking speed. Most of the ascents were so steep that we had to push our bicycles upwards while sweating a lot. 

In the first village of the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo), we got our arrival stamp from the overwhelmed officer. He was so unprofessional that he did not even recognize the visa for his own country. 

We chose a smaller land border on purpose, since the chances of a rigid control of our documents was smaller. Therefore, we could enter with our semi-correct visa and were looking forward for the upcoming adventure. 

The gravel road partly got worse and shook us thoroughly. The ground changed all the time, but a hard, eroded part always stayed. The ground showed deep channels and this made continuing for us extremely difficult. When a thunderstorm approached us, we asked in a village if we could rest a bit. The rum drinking men offered us directly a place to stay for the night. The kids were extremely shy and it took them a while until they approached us. We asked if the villagers had something to eat for us and after we answered all the questions in the style of: “Do you eat this?” With “YES”, they brought us different locals food items. During our whole stay, 22 children and a few adults continuously observed or starred at us. 

The black clouds rolled by and we wanted to continue a bit. In the next village, we thought we should easily reach the next settlement. Unfortunately, an extremely muddy and steep section destroyed our wishful thinking. The sticky mud blocked our wheels and we had to remove the dirt between our tires and the mudguards. We continued like that for a while until we decided to pitch the tent on the side of the road and to continue the next day. Since the insufficient map did not show us the location of the next village.  

The search for drinking water in the nearby river was without success and we had to manage with the little snacks and remaining water. When it was already dark, a motorcyclist told us that the next village was only 2km away. At least it was not far until we would find some breakfast; we thought and hit the sack. 

After we dismantled our front mudguards, we reached the village mentioned by the motorcyclists directly after a hill. The villagers were rather surprised about our visit and were happy. Apparently, we were the first tourists arriving in their village by bicycle and via bush telegraph our arrival spread around. All curiosity-seekers were directly informed after their arrival at the large assemblage of people what the “Mindele” (Whites) do here.  

They offered us a chair immediately and we asked if we could have some water and something to eat. After one of the friendly men asked us what we eat, different women served us peanuts, Safou (a local fruit) and cooked manioc. 

Refueled with enough energy, we said goodbye to all the kids and farmers, who left at the same time for their fields, equipped with guns and machetes. 

During our continuation across the rifty, rocky ground, we met a young local who returned in his home country after eleven years in Germany. Speaking in German, we exchanged shortly, before he had to run after the fully loaded truck. 

After a steep and rocky descent, we finally reached the first town. In the lively city, we asked at the catholic mission if we could pitch our tent in the yard. Many travelers before us stayed there and therefore we knew of this place. Completely exhausted and almost shaken out of our mind, we strengthen ourselves, talked with the open and friendly locals on the dusty and holey roads.  

We needed ten hours sleep, to regain enough energy for the next day. Still with a headache, we discovered the market and controlled the prices of some reference articles, to get a feeling of the new country. 

Despite the extremely hot temperatures, the high humidity and the numerous mosquitoes, we could relax a bit and discuss the route for the following days. We asked truck drivers, businessmen and other locals what they thought of our planned route. As always, they said that the route would not be a problem with a bicycle, since it was possible with the motorbike as well. Apparently was the condition similar like on the road we came from, just much hillier. The other alternative was the crossing of the Congo River and then the distance to the Angolan border was not far anymore. Since we had enough time, we wanted to risk the detour and could turn back in the worst case.  

The hunt for internet or the purchase of mobile data turned out to be a mammoth project and we could not figure it out during the rest day. Instead, we tried all possible dishes of the restaurants and changed money into the local currency. 

Despite the warnings from different people, we continued our journey on the «Route National 12». The name of the road promises a lot, but after two days directly after entering DRC, we set our expectations to the minimum. 

For the first 15km, we made good progress and it seemed that they even fixed the gravel road recently. However, a bit further, we saw two trucks that were stuck in the mud and we knew that the adventure had started. One truck, fully loaded with manioc, tried to pull the other one out of the mud while a few men tried to free the wheels using a pick and their hands. We are always surprised how cheerful and unconcerned those men are, despite already being on the road for four days.  

The next few kilometers, we mostly had to push our bicycles and we already thought about turning back. The road conditions changed all the time and therefore we did not lose hope. Suddenly, a Landcruiser approached us and an Italian said that we were brave, since the route was worse ahead of us. As a motivation, he gave us some cookies. The Venetian works for an agricultural project in the area.  

Indeed, the mud pools got deeper and soon a river blocked the road. The water reached up to our tights and we had to walk several times to transport everything on the other side. 

Finally, we reached a village with a huge church. The locals send us to the catholic mission, where we pitched our tent and a woman cooked a delicious dinner after a complicated negotiation. The cook was happy that we ate huge portions of her food and this without using any cutlery. 

In the night, there was a thunderstorm present and it rained until the morning. We already assumed a rude awakening on the following road and therefore not very motivated to get up. Minimum a hundred kids watched us pack our tent. The teachers had not yet arrived in the school, due to the rain and therefore we were the best attraction.  

We did not come far, until we were stuck in the mud for the first time and we had to remove the mud dozens of times from our bicycles. The sand and the soaked soil formed a sticky mass, which stayed everywhere. At least the strong sun helped the gravel road to dry off.  

An English teacher in a village helped us to search something to eat. Unfortunately, he spoke only a few words of English and confirmed once more the inferior education of the pupils in rural areas.  

Afterwards, we had to climb a mountain using a small trail. Sometimes, we asked us, if it even was possible to drive this route with a truck or a 4×4 vehicle. When we arrived on the top, the chief of the village welcomed us and we talked with the villagers for a while. The strong wind let us search for our sweaters for the first time in a while. When we finished dinner with the chief’s family, which was like what we ate for lunch, we let the village in peace. 

The terrain did not really get better, but we still progressed faster than the day before. With an average of 10km/h, we pedaled through the hilly region. Like the last few days, we had to push through some sections, since we had to manage for example a creek bed, a mini-canyon or a pond. 

Most of the time, we cycled in a forest and heard many interesting noises from the thicket. From time to time, we reached small villages where we greeted the surprised people in a friendly way. Each time we stopped to either refill our water bottles or ask for the next village, it did not take more than two minutes until 20-50 children surrounded us. None of the kids had ever seen a white person before and this explained their natural curiosity. 

In a rather large village, we even found a restaurant and tried to order, despite the deafening music. Strengthened, we wanted to continue a bit, but it started raining and this made this plan impossible, since the road was too slippery and we had to stop for the day. 

Luckily, it did not rain the whole night and in the morning the road was sticky instead of slippery. Passing several hills, we made good progress and came closer to our intermediate destination. On the way, we stopped several times in small villages to eat some bananas or to fill our water bottles.  

Everywhere, people waved at us in a good mood and shouted something in our direction. It was impossible to talk to all the people, which was a pity, since we literally felt the curiosity. 

After a rocky, long downhill, we finally reached Thsela, the first city after 200km with only small villages. There was even electricity and we could sleep in a police station. After a swim in the rather brown, ripping stream, the immigration officer controlled our passports. He had problems reading anything, since he did not find his glasses and this prolonged the verification unnecessary.  

Our legs were heavy and tired from the last days. Many shops and restaurants were closed in the small town since it was Sunday and we only found an open kitchen with difficulties. On the market, many women greeted us with “bonjour Papa” and we greeted back with a big smile “bonjour Mama”. 

Next to the police station, the teachers received their monthly salary and waited in the sun for hours in a queue. Each month the underpaid teaching staff must get their money here.  

A computer specialist from Kinshasa helped us with the purchase of data, so we could use the internet on our phones. Afterwards, he invited us generously for dinner at his place and told us of his unbelievable stories from his time in the military during the war. His atelier was typically African and we could not refrain from laughing. 

Since we entered the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the local language changed once more and sounds like Portuguese. The locals even confirmed that they understand a bit of Portuguese and the influence from Angola was one of the reasons for it.  

Repeatedly, we tried to shake hands with the scared children to interact with them. Mostly, one child dared to approach us and then the others overcame their fear as well. From time to time, the smallest kids looked at their hand afterwards to see if we stained. Those moments were delightful and all locals and us burst out laughing. 

Everywhere in this region the villagers walk extremely far every day. Mostly they walk to their fields or back to their village, get water or sell random products in the nearby villages. We met people who walk 20-40 kilometers every day and this with worn out flip-flops.  

We left the helpful police officers and started cycling on the paved road. Soon, we had to search the asphalt and partly, the road looked like a creek bed. Many women and kids approached us with food items or water on their heads and starred at us until we passed them.  

Suddenly, Adrian’s derailleur made strange noises and movements. Shortly after, he could not pedal anymore and we looked at the obviously broken part. We realized that the cassette did not move when pedaling and therefore any continuation was impossible. Luckily, the next village was not that far and Adrian could push his bicycle. We found a mechanic, but he could not really help us with his prehistoric tools. We removed the wheel and took off the disc brake and the cassette. Unfortunately, we could not take off more parts, since we did not have an Allen 11. Soon, the sun set and we decided to ask the chief of the village if we could pitch our tent in his garden. This was as always, no problem und there was even a security guard.  

We asked several mechanics if they had an Allen 11, but they could not find one either. Locals recommended us to continue our hunt in the next city. Spontaneously, we asked two locals who were loading their car, where their destination was. Randomly, the two friendly men had the same destination and said that we could join them for a bit of gasoline money. We were glad, since like that we could travel with only four people in the car instead of ten. 

After a three-hour bumpy ride, we reached the city Boma. We were even driven directly to the port, where the bicycle shops were. Quickly, we realized that we had no chance to find anything useful and walked to the office of Philippe, a friend, whom we knew from a Chat for travelers.  

There, they instantly offered us a room and helped us to plan for the next day. Unfortunately, there was a flooding during the night and in the middle of it was our laptop. Since the laptop was charging all night, it did not work anymore! 

By our standards, we drove to the bus station early, to load the bicycle onto the roof of a car again and start the trip to the next city 120km away. After the door closed with lots of force, we started our trip with four people on the backseat. After a few kilometers, we heard a familiar noise and the driver stopped. A mechanic, who sat in the trunk the whole time, replaced the tire in only a few minutes. 

When we arrived in Matadi, all the vehicles were stuck due to the immense traffic and we had to walk to the meeting point, where a driver of Philippe picked us up and brought us to the house and we met Philippe’s wife Anne. From the beginning, the older French couple treated us like their sons and cooked for us like we were in a luxury restaurant. In addition, we had each our own room with air conditioning and a huge bed.  

In the early morning, we cycled to a flour factory, where a friend of Philippe worked. Not even in this huge workshop, equipped with Swiss machines they had an Allen 11.  

The only option was to take an Allen 12 and reduce it to the right size. Now, we could finally open the free hub further, but realized immediately that we need another tool. A worker, who already worked part of his life in Switzerland, promised us to solve the problem and we left the wheel with him, since we wanted to deal with other things.  

The computer scientist Paul, who worked for Philippe’s company, helped us to buy a secondhand computer. A friend of him presented us several different computers and we decided after a long inspection for a Lenovo. The seller surprisingly even wrote a receipt, so we could come back if we had any problems.  

In the meantime, Albert repaired our free hub and proudly presented the cleaned and flawlessly working piece. He made a specific tool to reach the inner of the hub, cleaned everything, replaced the small pellets and greased the necessary sections. We were overjoyed and thanked him and his boss. 

Early in the morning, Francis, a driver of Philippe’s work drove us to the bus station and made sure that we will find a transport back to the village. Five hours, sweaty and with pain in the legs and hips, we reached Lukula again. The journey was rather uncomfortable and we witnessed for the first time that four people sat in the front seats. Even the driver had to share his seat.  

We packed our material and said goodbye to all the mechanics and the family of the chief. The mud fight continued and the bad road shook us thoroughly once again.  

On the first paved road in this country after more than two weeks, we progressed more efficient again. We planned to cycle a bit further, but suddenly Adrian’s gear shifting cable was broken and we had to search an overnight spot. Nearby, there was a friendly family living in a small house and accepted us as guests immediately. We were happy that we could eat together with the whole family and answer many interesting questions of the poor villagers.  

After a few souvenir photos with the lovely family and the scantier repair of the gear shifter, we left the tiny village in the direction of Matadi. The many hills challenged us and the countless shouts in the villages got on our nerves over time. At least they did not beg most of the time. 

Shortly before the imposing bridge into Matadi, we met a local cyclist who was on the way to Boma, 120km in the other direction. He said that it was not a problem for him to cycle in the dark. We only thought: “Better him than us” and climbed the last hill, before we crossed the only bridge in this region across the Congo River. The next bridge is approximately 2800km upriver. After another long and steep ascent, we reached the familiar home of Anne and Philippe. As already the days before, we were received warmly and spoiled culinary by Anne.  

Since months we could not wash our clothes with a washing machine. In addition, we cleaned our tent, repaired the damaged parts and replaced the rubber band inside the tent poles. Our mattress, shoes, drinking bottles and panniers needed cleaning as well. 

During the last few days, we tested the newly bought laptop and realized that it had several problems. Mostly, the battery was weak, the Bluetooth did not work and the operating system was only available in French. The seller of the laptop promised to search for a better battery. The other problems were not that bad and rather difficult to solve.  

On the second day in the city, Paul, the computer specialist tried to reach the computer retailer, but without success. We had already the feeling that his motivation to help us was rather small, since the two were friends and he did not make any money from the deal.  

Unfortunately, we could not repair the complex gear shifting on Adrian’s bicycle and searched for an alternative system in the streets. Quickly. We found an ideal gear shifter and installed it on the handlebar. Like that we could continue without problems, since the mechanism is simple and less vulnerable for defects. 

The visit of the consulate, to get information for the Angola visa, turned out to be a good idea. Other travelers told us that it took them eight days to get the visa. We wanted to apply for the visa online, since the process was much faster and less complicated. Unfortunately, we could not choose the border we wanted to take and therefore had to find another solution. The friendly woman at the counter said despite all other information that we had to wait a maximum of three days. So, we organized all necessary color copies of our documents, filled out the forms with the help of the woman at the counter and paid each 101 US-Dollars to their bank account. To get Dollars was difficult, so we had to try at several ATM’s and finally only got money using our Visa card. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the Dollar as popular as the local currency and the demand above-average due to the high inflation. The bills in this country were clearly our favorites out of all 16 currencies on this trip up to this point. The traditional motifs convinced us from the first time we saw it. 

Already during our first visit in Matadi, Adrian suffered from Malaria symptoms again and took the usual treatment. After the second arrival, the symptoms returned even stronger and he decided to try another kind of treatment. There is the possibility of doing a therapy using an infusion, which is supposed to be stronger. An unprofessional assistant doctor opened the vials with his teeth and did not dissolve the active agent completely in the saline solution, before he did the infusion. 

Afterwards, Adrian wanted to pay the bill in the hospital, but this was more difficult as expected. The friendly, flirting nurses put drugs and services on the bill, which were not claimed. If it was on purpose or not is not for sure, but in general, everyone thinks we are rich just because of our skin color anyway. 

Another visit at the consulate took more time as anticipated, but at least we got the positive information that we probably could get the visa the next day.  

The computer retailer seemed to not show any interest to change our weak battery or the whole laptop. Therefore, we gave up and could at least get a 10 Dollar refund after an energetic and long argument. From the moment when the Congolese have their money in the pocket, they do not care about anything anymore. This statement approved several locals and this was our experience in other regions as well.  

Well nourished, we left the luxury for another time and thanked the generous couple from France for their support for solving our problems. Despite clouds, the temperature increased to over 40 degrees before noon and we could hardly drink as much as water left our pores.  

Since we stayed longer in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as expected, we had to cycle even more kilometer during the next weeks. The reason for that is the fixed visit of Adrian’s family in Namibia and therefore we should arrive there at the same time.  

Across a hilly terrain, we passed many villages in which all inhabitants screamed something in our direction. Soon, we reached the turn to the border and we slowly cycled the rocky road and tried to find a way through the chaos in the border town. Thousands of people sold their products in small metal huts and lived in them at the same time. One could not see the ground, because it was covered with garbage and it was so loud that we did not feel comfortable at all. After the last mud bath, we got the exit stamp and crossed the border river into Angola. 

Therefore, we left a country which suffered more than 100 years of war, horror and dictatorship and is almost 60 times as large as Switzerland. The Democratic Republic of the Congo tempted us from the beginning and we were welcomed instantly. Against all fears of many of our friends and family, we always felt secure, since the western part of the country is safe since a couple of years. Most people we spoke to, never saw a white person up close and this made countless encounters special for both parties.

 

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