In the spring of 2012, two childhood friends – Balthazar Sieders and yours truly – survived a 20 year reunion bicycle trip from Lusaka to Kinshasa. The 3,000km journey took us through the highs of misty valleys to the lows of visa administration, straight into a curiosity box on page 514 of Lonely Planet Africa, 2013 edition.
Lonely Planet had asked for BuzzFeed-style top 5 tips. Here are the bits they couldn’t print:
1. Don’t be Scared
“Why? Why would you cycle the Congo?” asked everyone, every time. Our only real response to this was, “Why not?” The DRC is massive, but most international news focuses on the eastern border areas by Goma. We followed the south-western “National Route #1,” which in terms of distance from Goma, is like saying you shouldn’t go and eat waffles in Brussels because of the Mafia in Sicily. Most people we met were very hospitable and/or just extremely curious.
Along the roughest unpaved sections we were accompanied by hundreds of Bianda, the bicycle-men. Laden with hundreds of kilograms of goods, there would often be two guys, usually barefoot, pushing each bicycle along for weeks. A little known phenomenon of the DRC’s neglect, these mules of men – part human, part bicycle – were modern day slaves. Always greeting us despite the sweat and strain, they shared with us their road and shortcuts.
3. Mission Hospitable
The churches in larger towns always offered shelter. In one we met a fascinating Indonesian priest called Jeff. He’d lived in the DRC since the mid-nineties, and was managing the church banana plantation and fish farm. His home-grown banana cake for breakfast was heaven sent.
4. Spare Visas
In Lusaka, a one-month tourist visa for the DRC cost $60. Embassy staff advised it was cheaper to get an extension in-country. Unfortunately this option didn’t actually exist – the same visa cost $120 inside the DRC! So get visas for the duration of your trip before arriving. As for equipment, take spare spares, especially inner tubes and patches. Maybe even a spare sense of humour.
5. Midnight Melodies
During our journey we fell asleep to the sound of explosions from distant mines, songs from nearby villages, the rumbling of a ghostly train in the forest, and the symphonic arrangement between popping pods in the trees above and termites in the ground below. These sounds, along with the hospitality of the people, illuminated the vast “heart of darkness.”