Two Wheels Through Africa


On our first full day in Zaire we cycled a respectable 57 miles on the hard, earthen roads, encountering six vehicles all day. Forest alternated with tall grass, and villages were frequent. Men and especially women dressed colorfully although a few men wore only loin cloths and there were a couple of women in grass skirts. At about the halfway point we were joined by an African cyclist who frequently stopped to shake hands with villagers. At one stop we were guided to the stream to fill our water bottles where there was a little fetish altar with food offerings. Butterflies abounded and we sometimes studied columns of ants crossing the road, being careful not to get too close; Canadian missionaries had told us that the big army ants can quickly kill a chicken or rabbit.

At a river crossing we had a new experience in ferries. The motorless pontoon vessel was just big enough to accommodate one truck. The crew hauled on a cable suspended over the water to effect the crossing.

Farther on we inspected a house being constructed by 15 men. They had been working on it for two days and expected to finish in another three or four days. The construction materials were entirely local. The workers drive slender tree trunks into the ground to form the framework to which they lash bamboo or palm stems with vines. Finally they fill in the walls with mud taken from termite mounds and put on a thatched roof. The floor is earthen and there are no windows.

Since windowless houses are dark and unpleasant during the day, Africans live outdoors. In America it is easy to bike through a community and see hardly anyone on the street but this is never the case in Zaire. People are always very evident, sitting, cooking, talking, or playing music in front of their homes. Traffic on the roads is predominantly pedestrians and cyclists.

The weather continued dry as we biked into Gemena. In the morning we looked for a ride to Lisala. In this part of Zaire there is no public transportation; aside from a few Land Rovers the only vehicles are trucks, which take passengers atop the cargo. There was a truck going our direction but it left without making arrangements. We huddled in the hotel during a heavy rain shower, then took off by bike. The clayish soil of the road was slippery but we did well cycling through it and only had to walk short stretches. After passing a pickup with a broken alternator and another truck stuck in the mud, we caught up with the truck that had left Gemena an hour ahead of us and made the mistake of getting on it. I soon discovered that a bike is a lot easier to push through mud than a truck! About sunset it had engine trouble and we gave up on it for the night, leaving it stuck across the road and blocking it.

Later that night a jeep drove around the truck via the front yards of the inhabitants. In the morning the villagers put up barricades to prevent trucks from driving on the bare dirt in front of their huts. A truck that tried to pass without permission was beaten back with sticks, though eventually three trucks made the detour. People rocked our truck back and forth enough to get the engine started and the driver skillfully managed to get it pointing in the right direction and up the hill.

The truck's main cargo was empty oil drums but it made frequent stops in villages to buy stalks of green plantains displayed on stands beside the road. It also carried a few chickens; later two goats were loaded on top of the bananas. The truck reached Akula on the Mongala River about noon, having covered 75 miles in two days.

Pirogues on Congo River

Loading the one-truck ferry was a sight. The ferry ramp didn't quite reach the concrete ramp on the shore, so the truck ahead of us had to splash down and up a "V," making quite a bang and shaking both truck and ferry as it boarded. The crew hauled the vessel across the river and eventually returned with another truck and 29 full oil drums. Two men unloaded the oil drums by hand, pushing them off the boat, through the water, and up onto shore. They had managed only 11 of them when darkness fell and we had to spend the night there. In the morning eight men finished unloading the boat, but then a pickup from a nearby plantation arrived with welding equipment to repair the ferry's ramp. That kept us stuck in town all day. The next morning ferry repairs continued. I noticed that the luggage rack on my bike was broken in three places, so I got that welded and gave up on the truck.

Venita (my cycling companion ), I, and our bikes crossed the river by dug-out canoe and never saw the truck again. I had made up my mind that biking was the fastest and least frustrating way to cross Zaire.

Hot sun and sandy roads slowed our progress, and a young man's invitation to stop sounded good. He brought chairs, papaya and pineapple from his hut. After the sun went down the family lit an oil lamp. We conversed in French and he taught us a few words of Lingali. The next day we greeted people with "mbote!" as we cycled past plantations of oil palms, rubber, and coffee. There were two rain showers that day. I biked through the first and quickly dried out but the second was heavier and we took shelter with a family under a thatched canopy in front of their house. At sunset we stopped in a village, put up the tent, and cooked a dinner of couscous. Then the chief came by with an offer to stay in a house so we folded up the tent and moved in. We encountered similar hospitality in every village we stopped in.

There were times when it was useful to have extra provisions, but we found ourselves overstocked on food. The local diet is starchy, based on yams, plantains, corn, beans, and especially cassava. Cassava is a large, hard tuber that requires considerable processing to reach an edible state. A characteristic sound of Africa is the thumping of women pounding manioc with large wooden mortars and pestles. Sitting cross-legged by a wooden pot of cassava, a woman raises a three-foot staff and throws the end down on the food, rhythmically repeating and keeping the staff vertical throughout. The finished product is molded into a tubular shape and sold wrapped in large leaves bound with vines. It is a translucent white color with a rubbery consistency and a taste somewhere between bland and tart.

My information was that the weekly river boat for Kisangani left Lisala on Saturday, or maybe Sunday or Monday. We worked hard on some sandy road stretches to bike the last 100 miles to Lisala in two days, arriving Friday evening. We found that the boat usually leaves on Sundays but there was none this week and waiting a week for the next one would probably take no longer than traveling the 500 miles overland; it had taken 10 days to travel the 383 miles from Bangui, and this is via the main highway connecting East and West Africa.

Lisala was not a madly exciting place to spend a week. It had the air of a spreadout ghost town with many of the buildings relics from Belgian administration, hardly any stores, restaurants or bars, no industry, and few houses. We found one hotel which was not functioning; a second had no customers, so we were surprised when they could produce meat and potatoes for lunch. We were given a room with a private bath, but had to haul water from a tap 30 yards away in the morning when it ran. The electricity would come on between 6 and 10 in the evening.

On board the boat

The following Sunday night the Congo River steamer finally arrived. Our second class tickets entitled us to a cabin, but it soon became obvious that these were all taken; finding an empty piece of deck was enough of a challenge. The boat consisted of two two-deck barges for second class pushed by a four-deck tug containing the first class cabins; the whole contraption was 400 yards long. It docked alongside a barge moored to the riverbank. Boarding required threading a path through the crowds down to the riverside, climbing a plank onto the barge, traversing the barge and then climbing from it to the boat. Venita and I took turns carrying bags and bicycles through this maze while the other stood guard over luggage ashore. It was a slow process and we hadn't finished when the departure whistle blew. We rushed to get the last bike but when we reached the moored barge there was ten feet of water between us and the boat. We waved frantically for a pirogue and were rowed to the ship amid cheering. On board we picked our way through stacks of bananas, pineapples, dead monkeys, dried fish, piles of leaf-wrapped manioc, cases of beer, and market women selling cigarettes, matches, needles.

After three days the boat reached Kisangani, formerly Stanleyville. This is the biggest town on the trans-Zaire route and the only one at which gasoline is available. Travelers with vehicles can wait a week here for fuel to arrive up the river from Kinsasha. This was the only place in the country where I was able to get a newspaper. It was a four-page tabloid in French with atrocious typesetting, freely mixing letters of different size and face and making no mention of what was happening in Shaba except for a condemnation of Russian-Cuban aggression and a call to boycott the non-aligned nations conference scheduled for Havana. Except for three baggage searches at military checkposts during our first week in the country, there had been no sign of a war going on. Nobody talked about it or seemed aware of it. Our friends back home were getting all the details on TV news and imagining that we were in the midst of it.

We left town by bike. When we were about ready to stop for the second night, a truck offered a lift. This trucker had things much more together than our previous ride, rolling along at a steady 15 mph and even pulling other trucks out of the mud. At Nia Nia the next day the driver treated us to lunch and we remounted our bikes, but had only started when another truck offered a lift. The driver drove steadily. Before sunset we made a short stop in Epula and witnessed pygmies engaged in a lively tug-of-war.

At this point we had been in Africa for six months and seen very little wildlife. We could sometimes catch glimpses of baboons or monkeys beside the road and a trip to Ghana's Mole Game Reserve had turned up a few antelope. Thus when we took our bikes off the truck in Beni we were looking forward to Zaire's Virunga National Park, which features Africa's largest herds of hippos. The main road goes through the park, but we weren't sure what to expect or if we would be permitted to cycle. Outside the park we met one of the few other cyclotourists encountered on the continent, a Frenchman heading for Cameroon from South Africa. He was as surprised to see us as we were to see him and told us that biking through Virunga was allowed. I felt peaceful and relaxed after entering the park since now there were no villages and no children to run alongside us and yell, no one to stare at us, and no need to socialize across a language barrier. I was alone with nature, a state of affairs that I consider normal and proper for biking but which is seldom attained in Asia or Africa.

As we emerged from the highlands, a dramatic panorama of hazy savanna appeared 3000 feet below us. The excitement of discovering the plains animals beckoned us down the steeply winding dirt road, though we nearly reached the bottom before our first sighting - a bachelor herd of five waterbuck, a type of antelope featuring long straight, twisted horns. We stopped and watched each other for some time. Continuing lower, we spotted our first African elephants and a baboon who ran into the trees and barked unseen. As we reached the open flatland, we encountered herds of cobs, topis, and other antelope.

Feeling the explorer when I saw a group of big animals at a waterhole some distance from the road, I parked my bike and disregarding park regulations stalked closer for a picture. I walked toward them slowly and made out a herd of 20 African buffalo. As I approached closer, a pack of timid monkeys scampered off. The buffalo held their ground but were keeping me under close surveillance. A few abandoned their mudhole soak to rise to their feet. As I edged closer, some of the egrets perched on the beasts' backs took to the air. The buffalo continued staring and were beginning to look a bit nervous. Not wanting to provoke a charge, I snapped my pictures and retreated to the psychological safety of two lanes of hard earth where man had made his mark.

Elephant in hotel

As we biked on to the park hotel we saw six more elephants and scores of antelope. Toward the end of the day two elephants appeared quite close to the road. We stopped to watch them. The elephants ambled unconcernedlv along, drifting closer to the road. We enjoyed watching them but remembered the advice that a Peace Corps volunteer in Upper Volta had given us - elephants raise their tails and ears when they get ready to charge, but usually stop short. Our pachyderms didn't perk up ears or tails at all and finally wandered off in another direction. The Rwindi Hotel was patterned after local villages and consisted of many separate buildings, though the construction materials were more solid than in the villages. There was no fence around the compound, and during the night a pair of hippos passed by our window. Still, I was a bit surprised while cooking lunch on the porch to glance through the back window and see an elephant. Africans always cook outdoors and this intruder had wandered into the area where the hotel staff were preparing their meals. He stuck his trunk into baskets of flour, knocked over pots, and made a general nuisance of himself, but no one tried to shoo him away. The women quietly stood back and let the bull elephant do his mischief until he tired of it and moved on.

On inquiring we learned that we were permitted to cycle on the main road but not on the side trails. The most dangerous animals were lions and leopards. Leopards are seldom seen, while the park's population of 300 lions could sometimes be seen from the tracks but hardly ever on the main road. No vehicles were available for hire but we managed to bum a ride in a Volkswagen van with a Peace Corps couple on vacation. Driving along bluffs high above the palm-bordered river thick with hippos, we came close to a pride of a dozen lionesses and cubs lazily sunbathing. On this outing we observed almost all the animals found in Virunga: baboons, warthog, cobs, topis, monkeys, waterbuck, buffalo, vultures, and a herd of 20 elephants.

As we biked across the rest of the park the next day we paused to watch hippopotami in the river but were so spoiled that we hardly paid attention to antelopes or elephants. Our picnic site on the edge of the park was the only spot that fulfilled stereotypes of what Africa is "supposed" to look like. A slow river flowed through jungle foliage with a wading elephant munching tree leaves, beyond which the teeming savanna stretched to towering volcanoes. As we crossed out of the park, the idyll rudely gave way to the normal Africa as the road was again populated with natives. Playful children yelled and ran alongside us, women carried the day's marketing home on their heads, and drunks celebrating Independence Day staggered along. Sometimes women and children would howl with laughter as we went by, though I couldn't figure out what was so funny. At one point some children found it amusing to run alongside and help push our bikes as we struggled to pedal up a steep slope; the assistance was welcome.






All photos copyright Ó Tyler Folsom