Miles on the clock: 39,200
The Chinese shopkeeper served his Chinese customer who walked outside, climbed into his Chinese car and drove away on the Chinese built road - presumably to his job on one of the numerous Chinese construction projects in the area. The Republic of Congo was proving to be quite different to how I had expected. To be fair, it was formerly known as "The People's Republic of Congo" so China's interest could be idealogical. However, I suspect that the large, timber-rich country of only 4 million people has other attractions for savvy eastern investors.
Brazzaville struck me as an uninspiring and unattractive little city and held me only one night after I caught a ferry across the Congo river from significantly larger and busier Kinshasa. The way out of town led me past a half-built stadium (with Chinese characters over the entrance) and away from the powerful, brown river to rolling, open land, as yet unfarmed. I felt sluggish and heavy-legged, fighting to shake the malaise that had settled over me while recovering from fever.
Villages of mostly-concrete buildings with sheet metal roofs glided past my periphery. The pitifully poor clusters of adobe, palm-thatched huts in DRC across the river were nowhere to be seen. Yet, I saw a woman selling little twists of torn up plastic bags, each with six or seven pieces of penne pasta in them. This country may seem richer than its vast, self-mutilating southern neighbour, but its three 1990s civil wars are fresh in the memory and it is still fragile and needy.
While watching an orange glowing horizon (slash and burn farming) from my tent on the second evening, I decided I needed a baptism of fire to shake the lethargy; to forcibly roughen myself up a bit and become road-tough once more - to generally get back into the swing of long-distance cycling. I began waking pre-dawn and pulling long, exhaustive days: 65 miles, 80 miles, 95 miles, 105 miles. My angry body resentfully awoke as I fuelled it each morning with slurps of strong, bitter black coffee, drank with pragmatic joylessness. It was filtered through a torn-off scrap of former shirt. My visa was short and the distance had to be covered happily or otherwise.
Village shops are nearly all owned and run by Mauritanian Arabs who sit on high stools behind their counters and usually sneered at my attempts at conversation until I mentioned that I'd visited their country. They would then soliloquise about the beauty of their land and the degradation of their adopted country: a global expat pastime. I kept my vaguely-remembered indifference for their conservative desert nation politely to myself.
After watching a mist-filtered moonset one morning, I descended from the plateau and followed the road into dense rainforest made denser by its humidity. I accidentally ran over the back of a small African vine snake that afternoon as it slithered across the tarmac. Wheeling around and approaching again, aimed at its head to end a pitiful, writhing misery, I missed. Three circles and three attempts later, the serpent stopped moving. I wondered at myself for stopping to perform this strange little service with a (perhaps perverse) sense of charitable duty, and yet I never give money to beggars. Is this sensibility to animal suffering a possible pitstop on a road to misanthropy? The fact that I actually asked myself this question at the time strikes me now as symptomatic off too much time in one's own head. Next thing I know I'll be referring to Charlie in the third person and not even bothering to finish my
Across the Alima river I had expected to find a northern Congolese city. However, I actually found myself in a little replica of the homogenous county towns that dot China and originate from one or two oft-copied civic blueprints. The layout of externally white-tiled government buildings; the knee-high white metal fences; the half-hearted topiary; and the needlessly wide streets. Functional yet almost considered. Apart from the black people milling around, I could have been in a newly-built coal mining town in Hunan province.
Not only the Chinese are investing. I chatted with the night watchman of a huge Malaysian-funded palm oil plantation. Regis said with surprising pride that there were tens of thousands of trees and the project had been running for over 25 years. He liked working for the Malaysians as he thought they made more effort to communicate on common grounds. The Chinese apparently do not deign to learn French or Lingala but prefer to send a selected few Congolese to China to learn basic Mandarin.
A white helmeted blur of squealing engine, light skin and piercingly-blue eyes on the road turned around one afternoon and materialised into Liam: a Yorkshireman on a Honda C90 motorbike eleven months into a round-the-world journey. As we chatted, we expressed frustrations and exhaustion a with travel in Africa. He had been stranded in Ghana for three months after his passport mysteriously "disappeared" in the Benin embassy when he applied for a visa. It never re-surfaced and a replacement was slow to arrive.
Liam warned me of dire jungle tracks ahead of me in Cameroon and I warned him of dire jungle tracks ahead in DRC. Liam had set out a couple of years ago on a bicycle to make a world circumnavigation. After eleven days he had to swallow his pride and fly home with a bust knee. Two weeks after I met him, he somehow fell (along with his bike and all his belongings) off the ferry across the Congo river. The bike sank without a trace and he bravely swallowed his pride once more. Perhaps my journey has run me low at times but, relatively speaking, my luck has run high. I am still cycling and haven't been forced off my chosen path. Could I ever swallow my pride as Liam now has twice? How much of what has driven my journey has been wanderlust and how much simply stubborn pride?
My 27th birthday was remembered mid-morning when I stopped into a roadbuilding worker's camp for water. The Chinese drivers and managers gave me a beer and chuckled at my mispronounced and misremembered efforts at their language. They were interested to see a European passport and when I obliged one pointed out that today was my special day. We drank another beer and I cycled on in a cheery mood. Whatever the policies of the Chinese government, the individuals shipped overseas, convicts or not, are just people and are as friendly as any of the simply smiling villagers I met in China.
Roadside Pygmy villages nestled in small, carefully maintained forest clearings. The short, jaunty people marvelled and grinned at me while carrying cassava, bushmeat or firewood to and fro in small backpacks made from sticks and vine. I never received the brusque shouts for attention in Pygmy villages that I'd become used to in most of Africa. There is a quietness and gentleness about them that is quite endearing. Next to most villages is an area of recently logged space which (on first instinct) saddened me until I saw it is being used to grow crops. This is the other side to deforestation: if the population expands, the forest must recede if the people are to live anything other than a hunter-gatherer existence. This is how Europe lost it's once-predominant forests and how Europeans advanced as they did.
I picked my way along bumpy "road pending" tracks, only stopping briefly to rest or eat as flying ants harangued me when stationary; seeking out nostrils, eyes and aural passages. Young boys with rudimentary hunting spears made mock-threatening gestures as I passed and returned my broad grin. They were always accompanied by hunting dogs and often had their formerly-nimble prizes slung across their backs.
In one village a mud-caked old car stood with its yawning boot displaying a range of bushmeat on sale: tiny antelopes, various monkeys, jungle cats, slender ferret-like creatures, snakes and porcupines. The monkeys were smoked to the point where the flesh was burned back from the now-grimacing teeth and were hard to distinguish from a human child. The charred gums and sinister, silent scream haunted my mind's eye for a couple of days hence.
The first heavy rain of the monsoon season caught me unaware so I sat on the forest floor with my tent flysheet draped over my increasingly shivering body for 90 minutes. Camping spots were easy enough to find but large ants would vigilantly find any holes in the tent and troop inside for a bite. Their mandibles would remain locked resolutely in my skin when I plucked them off.
While the daytime jungle tends to have a pleasant soundscape, soothing even, the nighttime plays host to an unnerving cacophony of shrieks, hoots, screeches and grunts of every kind imaginable. All seemed locked in competition for decibel supremacy and were often accompanied by a thunderous crashing through the branches. The sheer volume and density of life is as impressive as it is intimidating. The frenzied calls in the darkness seemed to encapsulate a claustrophobic element of insanity and I was often glad of the familiar confines of my tent's interior.
The second downpour of the season effectively wrote off the track. A slippery course of deep, churned, red clay was left and I soon had to porter my bags on foot in two loads and then return again, barefeet plunging and squelching in the sucking surface, to carry the bike. I walked five miles for every one mile of progress. The final six miles to the border post took a day.
The tired immigration official quickly passed his eyes over my illicitly-altered visa in the fading light and logged my details in a dusty ledger using the light from his mobile phone. His dilapidated hut had no power. I carried my kit with relief a few hundred yards down the twenty mile track through no mans land, again in three loads, before pitching my tent.
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