Two Wheels Through Africa
Reprinted from American Wheelmen, June 1982.
Spending a summer bicycling in Europe showed me that international touring is fun, easy, and cheap and I soon began making plans for a longer trip. I spent three years saving money, planning routes, studying languages, and learning about other cultures. Requests for world touring companions in Bicycling magazine and American Wheelmen brought in 25 inquiries and the Trans Earth Bicycle Expedition met in Jamestown, Virginia to begin the Bikecentennial crossing of America. By the time we reached the West Coast, individual travel styles had emerged and the group split. Hoyt Eason and Steve Krueger headed south for Panama add New Zealand, while Paul Randall, Venita Plazewski and I flew to Japan, with Paul splitting off to travel at his own pace.
Twenty years earlier Venita had written in her high school yearbook that she wanted to bicycle around the world, but had never done an overnight bike trip. Now she had quit her physical therapy job, sold house and car, and bought a ten-speed to travel around the world with people she had never met. She never committed herself beyond seeing what the next day would bring, but the two of us traveled together for two and a half years. Circumstances could seldom get adverse enough to dampen her cheerfulness. Her self-assurance and outgoing personality smoothed interactions with people and cultures worldwide.
When Venita and I entered Zaire in May 1978 we had already cycled 18,500 miles. We had pedaled the entire 4200 miles of the TransAmerica Trail but overseas our mileages dropped and we ceased to travel exclusively by bicycle. In Africa we would take nine months to bike the distance that we had covered in 82 days in the States.
It was a roundabout journey that got us to the starting point of our African segment. After flying to India we had gone strictly overland. Our route paralleled the trans-Asian highway to Europe, wandered from Greece to Spain via the Arctic, then hopped to Morocco and a trans-Saharan hitchhike brought us into black Africa.
Whilecrossing the Central African Empire we had learned from people listening to BBC broadcasts that Angolan-backed rebels had invaded Shaba province in southern Zaire, massacring any white mine workers they could find. The Zairois army had turned tail and run, and France and Belgium were dispatching paratroopers to restore order. Shaba (formerly known as Katanga) was 1000 miles to the south of the route we would be taking and a check with the U.S. consulate in Bangui verified that the border was still open with no reports of trouble for travelers. Some travelers had warned us that food was unavailable in much of Zaire so we stuffed our panniers with dried European foods purchased from expatriate grocers in the capital. We went to the money changers' stalls in the public market and purchased enough blackmarket Zaire currency to cut expenses by two-thirds.
Meanwhile, Emperor Bokassa, who had recently squandered the treasury of his impoverished nation on a pompous coronation, was making it difficult for us to leave or stay in Bangui. By imperial proclamation the youth of the nation were admonished to avoid the corrupting influences of drug dealers, sorcerers, hardened criminals, charlatans, prestidigitators, and low -budget Western travelers. To ensure the welfare of his subjects the Emperor ordered all inexpensive lodgings, including the Protestant Youth Center where we were staying to close their doors forthwith. Henceforth all tourists would stay only in overpriced government approved hotels. We were ready to leave and worried about a rumor that the Emperor had prohibited tourists from crossing into Zaire. We had managed to arrange a ride down the Ubangi River to the confluence with the Congo on a tugboat used for dredging operations. Unfortunately, Central Africa is possibly the only country in the world that requires a mindless bit of bureaucracy known as an "exit visa" before one is permitted to leave. We went to the immigration office in the morning and presented our passports. The boat sailed at noon without us. By 4 p. m. our exit visas still weren't ready, so we couldn't cross the river to Zaire to find cheap accommodations. We surreptitiously returned to the deserted Centre Protestante to spend the night, being careful to leave at sunrise to avoid a possible police raid.
Immigration had promised that our papers would be ready by 7 a.m., but when they still weren't ready by 10, we went off for cholera booster shots. On our return the passports were ready with exit visas valid for departure on yesterday's date. I didn't like the look of that, so I overwrote it for the current date. When we tried to board the ferry to Zongo, Zaire, the emigration officer suspected that I might have altered the date myself and sent us back to the immigration office. The man who issued our exit visas had just returned from lunch and was in a good mood. Thinking that he had altered the date, he stamped in new exit visas on the spot and signed his approval. Finally we crossed the Ubangi into Zaire.
All photos copyright Ó Tyler Folsom