The sound of the Lulua river — a constant companion for many days — faded behind us. We’d spent three weeks navigating rapids and fretting about crocodiles or hippos tipping our old dugout canoe but a vast field of waterfalls and churning white water had finally proved too intimidating for us and our leaking craft. We’d have to finish our crossing of the Congo by land.
Each carrying bags, Archie and I followed the two men wheeling our bicycles along the tight, jungle footpath. We ducked low branches and our clothes snagged on the thorns that sprouted rudely from just about every plant. We’d offered our pirogue (dugout canoe) to the small village of Lulua tribespeople in exchange for help portering kit. Two young boys with bamboo fishing rods walked behind us bearing our paddles (now downgraded in status from ‘useful’ to ‘souvenir’). Their quiet chatter was accompanied by the soothing ambience of bird calls, falling leaves and distantly snapping twigs.
We were headed for a track on which we’d be able to cycle to a road and thence to a town. Having been forced to quit the river unexpectedly and maplessly, unsure where we even were, we felt a little like we’d been airdropped in the Congo with old bicycles and tasked with finding a way out. The accumulated exhaustion of the challenges we had faced on the river lapped at our still-standing bodies. Like a tide, it threatened to rear up and force us into involuntary rest before we reached an appropriate place.
The path led us uphill. The tall trees, broad palms and tangles of hanging vines thinned and then gave way to semi-bush with pockets of charred slash-and-burn aftermath. Ninety sweaty minutes had passed when we emerged onto a wider track and traipsed into a village. A jovial, rotund man placed bamboo chairs under a tree for us to rest. A crowd of waist-high children gathered to stare at the clearly-weak white men. We learned that it was 150km to the city of Kananga and that a catholic mission lay at Bilomba, just 40km away.
We decided to push for Bilomba where we could have peace and rest without a curious crowd. Movement was painful. We both bore various infected cuts and insect bites on our feet, hands and legs. One of these made its presence known on my left shin with regular stabbing pain. After a comical slip on a rock that morning while scouting the rapids, and the resultant crashing fall, my right hip had swelled and now throbbed whenever shifted. It was, therefore, unwillingly that we mounted our bicycles and wobbled down the path for the next four hours.
The track was sandy and we were forced to dismount and push for several hundred meters at a time. Our pace slowed as our power waned.
There was a continuous line of villages stretched along the track and a continual exclamation of surprise and amusement followed us.
Although still pitifully poor, the villagers seemed better off and healthier than the river people we’d come to know. They were taller and wore less ragged clothes. They had an occasional goat, chicken or cassava in their diet, rather than just fish like their riverine cousins. However, the village markets we passed never had more than a small heap of tubers and a few clutches of leaves on sale.
Arriving at the mission just before dark, we were taken in and shown to a damp concrete bedroom where I flopped into a sagging bed and fell into a fitful sleep. In the dense, unshifting mist of the following morning it was obvious that we were going nowhere that day. Walking was painful and some of our wounds required opening, draining, cleaning and dressing.
We hobbled to Bilomba’s bare-shelved shop in our dirty clothes and received quizzical looks from people walking to church in their Sunday best. Bilomba is an eerie clutch of poorly-built homes and the people traipsing past us seemed somewhat ghostlike in the lingering fog. Doubtless, they thought the same of us. The village centre hosted an aural collage of catholic song, amplified fire-and-brimstone evangelical preaching, and the incessant drumming of other more African-adapted churches.
In the afternoon we heard a commotion and looked towards the track to see a shirtless man yelling and running with a screaming and crying woman in close pursuit.
The cry was gradually taken up over the following few minutes and more woman ran past, tearing at their clothes and hair. The commotion became a general, wailing lament that hung oppressively in the air.
We couldn’t get anyone to speak sense to us so were at a loss to know the cause. We began to fret that news had reached the village of a coup, or perhaps the president’s death. If that were the case then we were in a potentially perilous situation. Finally, one of the catholic fathers informed us casually that an evangelical minister had died. He added simply “c’est la vie” before wandering happily off. The drumming, wailing and singing of the funeral took place that night in a building a stone’s throw from our room and lasted until after dawn.
Still feeble, but keen to leave Bilomba, we climbed stiffly back onto our bikes and pedalled away. We’d been told that after only 15km there was a new road, recently built by the Chinese. We struggled forwards and finally reached a scene of destruction. The path we’d been following abruptly ended in a crowd of villagers who watched as orange hydraulic diggers tore aggressively at trees, flipping them to the ground like matchsticks.
The passage in the wake of the diggers was not the flat road we’d hoped for. It more closely resembled a 20m-wide stretch of freshly-ploughed beach: an expanse of soft sand with one thin groove dug by the many bicycles pushed along it. The “new road” was harder work than the path we’d left but we pushed on regardless, savouring the seldom short stretches where we could ride. On a brief downhill my bicycle frame snapped where the seat post slots in. It was now impossible to sit when riding. A few kilometres later, we came across a truck headed for Kananga; the first chance of a lift we’d chanced upon.
The 1970s French military truck had been stranded for two days but the cluster of oil-smeared men leaning over the bonnet felt sure it would be running shortly and that they’d find space for us on the overloaded roof. By dusk the engine had not turned over so we cooked dinner and bedded down under the stars next to the hut of a bewildered villager.
The thickly-misted morning was cool. My head throbbed and my body ached universally. Unsure whether this was the start of a fever or merely exhaustion, Archie and I sat watching the daily life of the surrounding village unfold. A woman weakened by malaria sat stoically on the ground next to a fire. Her companion prepared a concoction with the leaves from a quinine branch. Quinine pills are extremely cheap and relatively widely available in Africa but apparently not here.
By lunchtime the engine had coughed almost into life a couple of times. A 4×4 approached and we flagged a lift. Bikes and bags were unceremoniously dumped on the roof and the driver lurched the car into action. He drove as if chased and very nearly killed a couple of village children. My state deteriorated and when, as asked, the hasty driver dropped us at the Greek Orthodox mission in Kananga, it was all I could do to lie down in the shade and fight off unconsciousness.
We’d been instructed by a friend to go to the mission and say we were sent by a Greek man in Lubumbashi called Michel. They had never heard of him and Archie was left struggling to explain who we were and why we had come to the mission where there was no space for us. Phone calls were made and the head priest, a charming Congolese man called Kallinique, arranged for his brother Stefan to drive us to the Catholic mission.
Unwashed and racked with aching pains, I lay on the bed that I’d been led to. I had two strange and conflicting physical sensations: my body weighed an inestimable amount and was immovable, and yet my limbs had withered to sharp, bony appendages that grated teeth-spinningly against one another. My fevered mind didn’t know what was going on. I had cold sweats and hot shivers. I couldn’t eat and lay inert while Archie sat nearby, torn between sympathy and delight (the mission’s kitchen had provided a hearty meal of chicken, rice and veg — a step up from the pasta, potatoes and tomato paste we’d been living on).
My finger was pricked and a drop of blood squeezed onto the test strip. After a while it was gravely proclaimed: “You are malaria” as the first indication bar showed red.
Seconds later: “Eh! You are very malaria!” The second bar had appeared.
I had ‘malaria plasmodium falciparum’ (AKA ‘malignant malaria’) which can be fatal if untreated.
A quinine drip was plugged roughly into my arm by Martin who didn’t believe in swabbing skin or using a fresh needle for the next drip. He often blew on the needle to remove dust. Four hours of drug infusion ensued while I lay breathing heavily in my sweaty cot. Rolling over in bed left me breathless for minutes.
Another quinine hit in the morning led to the firm belief of Martin and Stefan that I should be up and about that evening: “Malaria go away now. Don’t rest. Don’t sleep more.” Indeed, I did feel stronger for a time and we were taken to Stefan’s home for dinner. His wife prepared a humbling feast but by 9pm (when dinner was served) I was fading again and without appetite. I felt rude and must have appeared ungrateful. In the morning a blood test returned the verdict of typhoid fever. Five more days of Martin’s twice daily, Russian-roulette drips followed.
Slowly appetite returned and I began to feel stronger. I could walk outside to sit in the sunlight and could read a book. After the last drip, we took Stefan and Martin out for some beers to thank them. Their well-intentioned impatience for me to spring back to health had been touching. Before saying goodnight and wishing us farewell, Martin lunged forward and locked his lips onto mine. I awkwardly pulled away and pitied this man — due to be married in two months — living in a country where homosexuality is illegal.
We had planned to take a train onwards and then a barge down the Congo river but we learned that it may take a month to reach Kinshasa this way. Cycling would take similarly long and I was in no condition to do so. The only other option was to take trucks. We climbed onto the roof of an impressively overloaded truck along with 50 others at about 5pm and it set off three and a half hours later.
Our positions on the crowded top were precarious and we had to cling to whatever we could to avoid being thrown clean off when the truck pitched suddenly on the uneven track. Our 6m-high perch was also regularly raked by tree branches which the driver sped under with utter lack of consideration.
We clung on uncomfortably in the moonlight for several hours until the truck stuck in the sand. It had grown cold and many of the passengers clambered down to light fires. Archie and I crawled into sleeping bags and slept in front of the wheels in the two deep sand furrows ploughed by previous trucks. We awoke with a start as the engine roared into life less than a metre above our heads. Several hours later the truck was moving again. We were ushered without choice into the cabin, obviously with the intent of charging us extra upon arrival, and were happy to have escaped the dangerous roof where many people were literally wetting themselves as toilet breaks were erratic.
The appalling road was mesmerising to watch. Charles, the driver, informed us that the five day journey to Kinshasa takes over a month in the rainy season. It is only 1,100km. We broke down several times and often required digging out of the treacherous sand. At 2am on the second night, we stopped among a tiny group of huts and everyone found a patch of dirt to sleep on for the few short hours until sunrise.
Entrance to Tshikapa city was hindered by 90 minutes at a police checkpoint while bribes were negotiated. When we pulled into the truck park, Charles said we would leave for Kikwit in 30 hours time. We’d paid for passage to Kikwit but decided that the extra $10 fare could cover the privilege of riding in the cabin and so went in search of another truck departing sooner. We quickly found one with no cargo and only people sitting in the metal-walled and floored back. No clinging to the roof? This must be better. This reasoning soon proved flawed.
Our truck takes an unannouced 24 hour stop in Tshikapa to take on new passengers and more cargo. We find another truck heading to Kikwit that leaves soon after our arrival and we jump on.
The back was closed up and we were wedged in but the truck didn’t start. The day’s fading light struggled to shine through the caged roof which was increasingly covered over with water containers and other poorly attached items of cargo. Darkness fell. More and more people continued to clamber over the top and down into our metallic prison. Space was at a premium and soon was simply unavailable. Tempers flared. Men began arguing, and then brawling. When new items of cargo (mostly heavy sacks) were hoisted into the back, they wouldn’t be placed on the floor, and then sat on. These heavy items were instead thrown maliciously across the human press and onto the unsuspecting heads of people; women and children included. And still more people climbed in.
Our cattle cart started on the road with anger still seething in the hell we inhabited. Everybody had just about managed to squeeze into some sort of space but some had considerably more than others and wouldn’t surrender it. There was an absolute absence of community spirit or cooperation — to the detriment of all.
The driver didn’t give a damn and pushed the relatively new and strong truck to its limit. With each violent lurch of the road, the barely-settled human traffic was thrown into disarray.
Sometimes we were all hefted a foot into the fetid air before crashing confusedly down. Spats resumed and fists flew. I saw a man thump an old woman’s head, and a small child was bodily picked up and thrown a couple of meters onto a tangle of knees, heads and elbows.
The only light came from occasionally flashing torches.
The regularly-urinating old woman next to me continually pinched and twisted the flesh on my leg as it was pressed against her. I was simply unable to move as I had a woman and child pressed against me. The bald man (with antisocially sharp-edged shoes) on my left would bash the side of my head with the back of his from time to time to try and win himself more space.
That night of shouts and crying and punching and darkness and the abandonment of human feeling ranks among the worst in my life.
It hacked at my frayed heart strings. In that truck, on that night, I hated all the passengers. I hated their inhumanity. I was disgusted.
We stopped in the small hours and a drunk immigration official tried to extract $30 from Archie and I. In my shaken state, I was the most aggressively forthright I have been with a Congolese official. It didn’t help matters but we eventually got away without paying. We snatched a couple of hours sleep in the glorious space outside the truck. Most of the miserably huddled passengers remained in their crushed positions, not wanting to concede hard-won space. The smell of sweat, piss and vomit was overwhelming but they endured.
The situation was a good analogy for power structure and resource exploitation in Africa: one man at the top (the truck owner) takes everything he can (more and more passenger fares) regardless of the misery caused by his greed (the appalling and dangerous crush in the truck). The little people (the passengers) are left fighting among themselves for the very meagre resources left available to them (precious space).
For the second day, Archie and I bought a cramped spot in the cabin and took turns to escape the back. Thankfully, people were a little less terrible to one another in the accusatory light of day. We stopped often to take on more cargo and passengers. The road was the worst I’ve ever seen. In one place it was a 5m deep canyon, sheer and narrow, carved out of the mud hillside by trucks, and undoubtably impassable during the rains. At a river crossing another truck got stuck in mud and a digger came to the rescue only to get stuck itself. It flayed its two diggers (front and back) wildly like a fish caught in a net, narrowly avoiding clashing with us as we skidded by.
We reached glorious tarmac, darkness fell and we swept into Kikwit. Too late for the onward night bus, we bedded down next to where the truck had parked. Our bicycles had been strapped to the roof cage and sat on severally for many bumpy hours leaving wheels warped, frames bent and gears/brakes a write off. They reluctantly carried us several kilometres to a bus station in the morning and we whiled away the day until evening departure. We were in a bus on tarmac with allocated seats, windows (that didn’t close) and oft-pissing goats tethered on the roof. It seemed like relative luxury.
The aisle filled and then overfilled; fights ensued. People pushed and cursed one another. The conductor allowed more people on, happily bunching his fist around a large wad of filthy banknotes.
Yet further dejected about the state of human affairs in Congo, we arrived in Kinshasa early morning and made our way to the empty apartment of a friend. We had hot showers and shampoo for the first time in two months. That evening we found ourselves smartly dressed (in borrowed clothes) and attending an elegant soirée with a couple of hundred people at the Belgian ambassador’s residence. There are two very disparate sides to The Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Editors Note: Besides riding a motorbike down Africa, crossing the Congo by bicycle or traveling through Iran, Archie Leeming is a photographer and designer based in Cape Town. His visual travel stories show that if you cut out a few of the luxury things in life you can afford to go and see the rest of the world, if you wish. I am more than happy to feature Archies and Charlies works. Please don’t miss out on more fascinating stories on: Archie Leemings Instagram and Charlie Walkers Website.
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Text by Charlie Walker · Photographs by Archie Leeming