Kibangou, Congo * January 13, 2009
The term mud puddle doesn’t do it justice. A mud puddle is a small pool of water that a little boy in yellow rubber galoshes jumps into on his way home from school on a rainy April afternoon, for the thrill of the splash.
These were not mere puddles – they were ponds, swamps even, some as long and wide as a Greyhound bus and a good three feet deep. It rained regularly here in northwestern Congo, even in the so-called dry season of mid-January. These ponds were ecosystems unto themselves, with tiny organisms skittering atop the surface and, in at least one, even newts.
I have always enjoyed water fordings, and after we crossed from Gabon into the Congo, at a tiny border settlement called Nyanga, I would have more than my share of fun. I propped my arse up slightly on the waterproof duffel bag lashed up on pillion, steered with my feet, locked my elbows straight on the handlebars, and plowed on through these gigantic ponds.
Great V-shapes of brown water sprayed into the air. The water was warm and fetid and soaked my torso and legs and boots and tank bag and painted an ear-to-ear grin on my dripping wet face. I kept the motorbike in a mid-first gear, ready to gently administer additional throttle if necessary. In the middle, the water could be nearly seat-high and the surface below snotty and thick.
Or bumpy … at the bottom, there would potholes within potholes, or logs or rocks. No one was about to do any deep-pond diving to find out. All of a sudden, in the middle of a crossing, I’d hit some obstacle and vroom! The motorbike would heave, the front wheel would lurch … keep those bars straight and the throttle steady.
I was loving these mud ponds. The early afternoon was bright and warm, with cirrus clouds appointing a pastel blue sky. The piste was lined with elephant grass so tall that parts of the route resembled a tunnel. I hit the mud ponds with enthusiasm, and when I had a moment to think about something other than the next quarter-mile of this piste, I thought: Man … this is adventure riding at its finest, in the freaking Congo!
Migo was the first to crash. It was his second crash of the journey. The slick sole of his boot slipped as he went to stand up on his footpegs, and down went the capable German rider and his big KTM. Then Geoff’s Yamaha XT stalled in the middle of a mud pond, and had to be yanked out.
Not long after, Geoff took the first of two spills for the day, trying to maneuver down a slick footpath along the side of the road to avoid a long mud pond. He would spill later when his front tire got stuck in a rut, the crash busting apart his left Touratech pannier and forcing him to hammer the thin aluminum back into place, cursing the whole time.
Then it was my turn. I was nearly out of a mud pond when the front wheel went haywire. I’d struck something, it seemed, and additional throttle provide futile. The badly worn TKC 80 rear tire fishtailed as I tried to power out of the pond, and down I went, but at least on hard ground.
People from a nearby village gathered and watched as Geoff and I hosted my fallen bike. I relaxed for a moment and took off, running another mud pond about 150 yards away. For my exit, I chose a narrow ledge of terrain … bad choice, it turned out, because the ledge turned out to be slick and sloped and bam! Two spills in five minutes.
The villagers had watched as I pulled away, and a now I heard a great roar of laughter and hooting and catcalls as 15 or so of them came running with big beaming smiles and shouts of tombe! tombe! (“fall” in the French) and happily helped me right the bike. I laughed along with them.
Up ahead was another mud pond. My back-to-back spills didn’t trouble me in the least. I hit the mud pond with relish, delighting in the thrill of the splash like a little boy in yellow galoshes jumping in a mud puddle.
Video: Running the Congo
I have some fun gunning through one of the dozens of large mud puddles on the Congo piste just south of our crossing from Gabon, at a little village called Nyanga.
It rained hard the night before. We had lodged in Ndende, Gabon. It was a tiny town with a single but decent hotel called Le Barbecue, 30 miles from the Congo border. In late afternoon, I marveled at a colossal cumulonimbus storm cloud that sprouted like a mushroom in the tungsten blue sky of the southern horizon.
By 8 p.m., the storm had arrived. It was a monstrous African thunderstorm, theatrical in scope and as riveting as an Oscar-winning film. Lightning flashed behind the low clouds and thunder cracked like cannons. The rain pelted down furiously, and I stood outside my motel-style room and listened to the staccato drumming of raindrops in the sheet metal awning above me and watched as Mother Africa turned the yard into a muddy swamp.
We were nearing the start of a rainy season. It was still technically a dry season in northwestern Congo, but the rains were due to start in February. To the south, it would be rainy as well, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Angola. Rain would mean mud – boue, in the French – and nothing but grief for loaded adventure bikes on a dirt road. Heavy rains a month ago in Gabon, north towards Libreville, had foiled plans of another adventure rider, a German named Michael Koesters.
Michael had planned to ride from the Gabonese capital, Libreville, to Cape Town starting on December 1. I had corresponded with him for months, with the idea that he would team up with Geoff and Migo and I. We weren’t in the vicinity of Libreville until early January and missed Michael, but we had kept in touch.
In Ndende, I met a young Congolese truck driver named Fabrice. We had passed each other multiple times on the road from Lambaréné, each time exchanging waves and smiles. He was a handsome and cheerful kid, and told me he was on his way to Dolisie in the Congo, as we were. He had made this run before.
I told Fabrice we figured to make Dolisie in one day. It was a little more than 180 miles. No, Fabrice told me in French. It will take you two days. Once you enter Congo, the roads will be very bad. Beaucoup boue – lots of mud. You’ll see.
Geoff and Migo and I wandered a few hundreds yards into Ndende center for dinner and beers, and seated ourselves outdoors in front of a religious revival. It seemed that all of the town’s few hundred inhabitants were here. Loudspeakers had been set up, and colorfully attired men and women danced and swayed to religious music. The songs were upbeat and in French, but often I could hear “Jesus” amid the verses.
More entertainment awaited back at Hotel Le Barbecue. A staffer had a pet chimpanzee named Toto. Toto was one year old. He was a bonobo chimp, the species closest to mankind in its genetic composition. The man led him over to me, and Toto immediately jumped to my leg, clutching it urgently.
I picked Toto and cradled him. His resemblance to a boy was uncanny and fascinating, what with his flesh-colored face and big ears and brown eyes and even his little fingernails. Toto nuzzled against my neck, and then Migo held him and Geoff held him.
The man said that Toto had been found in the bush. My guess was that his parents had been killed for bush meat by hunters. The man tried to take Toto back, and the little chimp screeched and resisted and held onto Geoff for dear life. It was clear that Toto did not like his owner, and it seemed evident that the baby chimp had suffered cruelty and abuse at this man’s hand.
It saddened me deeply, and for the rest of the night and the next day I would think about that poor little chimpanzee, and the dozens of dead monkeys that I had seen hanging ghoulishly on sticks, for sale as bush meat, on Gabon’s roads.
The early morning was misty and cool, the clouds low like a damp blanket. We rode 30 miles of good, maintained piste to the Congo border. A large metal pole hung horizontally across the road, ballasted by a cement-filled drum painted the colors of the Congo -- red, yellow and green, which, incidentally, are the colors of just about every country in western and west-central Africa.
Nyanga was a small, little-used border crossing. Officials on both sides were friendly and welcoming, if inefficient. In the Congo immigration office, a man had a full-page magazine photo of Barack Obama taped to his wall. “Mon president!” I said, and gave the man an Obama sticker, which delighted him immensely.
It was Sunday morning. The chief of Congolese customs was also Nyanga’s Protestant pastor. He was leading a service at church. We would need to wait. We idled about, bantering with the officials and inquiring about road conditions, which were agreed to be abysmal. Migo lay down on the side of the road. He hadn’t felt well all morning.
After 45 minutes, the pastor appeared. He led me into his shabby little customs shack and invited me to sit. I gave him the motorbike’s carnet document, and he flipped through the pages, sizing up my route through 13 Africa countries. He looked at me and laid his hands palms-down on his desk and began to pray.
The pastor’s prayer was loud and forceful. His voice was deep and melodic. I couldn’t understand all of his French, but I could tell that he was praying for my safe passage. I bowed my head, and unbidden came an electric tingle down my spine and a tear to my eye. I wiped it away when his prayer ended and we looked at each other, punctuating the prayer with an exchange of pregnant gazes. I nodded and told him, “Merci.”
Entering the Congo felt like starting the journey all over again. It felt very, well, African. The name itself, Congo, seemed emblematic of all of Africa. Our next three countries, Congo and DRC and Angola, had endured long and bloody civil wars. They were among Africa’s most notorious for political corruption. Infrastructure would be poor, and the roads difficult.
The road on the other side of the metal pole that separated Gabon and Congo signaled what was to come. The piste on the Gabon side was graded and tailored, right up to the last few yards. On the Congo side, the road was rutted from coursing rainwater and littered with debris, and a few miles from Nyanga, the mud ponds would begin.
We ran the mud ponds for 25 miles. We maneuvered carefully through slippery mud slicks. It was slow going and hard work. Our border crossing had taken nearly two hours, and it became clear that Fabrice was right – the ride to Dolisie would require two days. In one small town, police stopped us for a document check.
I asked the officer about road conditions south towards the next town on the Michelin map, called Kibangou. He said, ”Le route c’est bonne – impeccable. N’est pas probleme.”
The word impeccable leapt out at me. It’s the same in French and English. This road, impeccable? It seemed unlikely, but it turned out to be true. The piste had been graded and maintained. Gravel had been laid to minimize mud. The only issue was heavy corrugation, but the road was good enough that much of it could be run at 40 and 45 mph to minimize the pounding from the washboard surface on our motorbikes.
I would later learn that the road was maintained to smooth the passage for the many log trucks hauling old-growth timber from the Congolese rain forest. Those log trucks had created the corrugations.
We reached Kibangou at 4 p.m. after a 120-mile day. A police and army post was situated squarely in the center of this town of 500-some people. Our documents were examined. A crowd of dozens gathered to watch the entertainment. Auberge le Pamela was back down the road, we were told. It was Kibangou’s only hotel.
More dozens of people, nearly all young men and boys, gathered as we relaxed and unloaded our motorbikes in front of Auberge le Pamela. A woman sat unhappily on a step. I was invited to have her, right now if I liked. She is good, I was told. Only 5000 CFA. About $11 USD. A room was the same price.
Kibangou had no municipal electricity or running water. My room had a large bed with a green sheet and a cockeyed wooden table. There was nothing else. The room was dim. I laid out to dry the wet clothing and gear from my soft panniers, which had soaked through in the many mud-pond crossings. I laid my riding jacket on the bed for a pillow, and my sleeping bag for a blanket. I hung my wet riding pants and motocross flak jacket on a few rusty nails in the walls.
The walls were turquoise, the paint cracked and discolored and mildewed and moldy from the Congo humidity. The floor was bare concrete. I closed the wooden slats to the screenless windows to discourage mosquitoes. Down the hall I found a shared shower. It wasn’t a shower per se, given Kibangou’s lack of running water. There was no sink. I poured water from a large yellow jug into a plastic bucket and disrobed.
I lathered and ran water from the bucket over my body. The water was slimy; it was difficult to tell whether I’d washed the soap from my skin. I used the water judiciously. Throughout Africa, I had seen women carrying jugs and buckets of water from wells or streams to their villages. The large yellow jug I had lifted was heavy.
Twilight and then darkness fell. A young man named Bozy, who seemed to be Auberge le Pamela’s lone employee, gave me a lit kerosene lantern. Its pungent and metallic odor filled my room. It cast a faint glow. I got my Petzl headlamp out of my tankbag and anointed myself with insect repellent and found Geoff down the dark hall.
Geoff and I strolled a quarter-mile into the tiny center of Kibangou, past a cell phone tower powered by a noisy diesel generator and beneath a handful of solar-powered streetlamps. Migo remained at the auberge; he still was not feeling well. An open-air bar was squarely in the center, across from the police and army station.
We sat outdoors for cold Ngok beers. Insanely loud music pumped from a pair of massive speakers, trumping the noisy diesel generator that supplied electricity to bar. People danced. We joined a crowd of locals and enjoyed a good banter. I flipped through photos of the day’s ride on my camera, and men and women and children pressed over my shoulders for a look.
A man was roasting chicken on the street over a wood-fuel grill. This was Kibangou’s best restaurant. I ordered chicken for Geoff and I. The chicken came with slivers of onion and hot pimante sauce and salt. We ate at our table at the bar and drank another beer and I danced with a young woman, twirling her about the dirt yard, much to the entertainment of our small crowd.
A man suggested that I should have her for the night. I gazed up at the sky. A pewter moon cast a bright glow behind gauzy clouds.
“That looks like a full moon,” I said to Geoff. “You think?”
He studied the moon and nodded. “Pretty full,” he said.
I scrutinized the moon again, looking for a missing sliver that would betray something other than fullness. I could detect none. No, I thought, that moon is as full as it gets.
A rooster outside my window woke me before 7 a.m. I made my way to the outhouse outside the auberge. When I exited, I encountered two young girls maybe 5 or 6 years old. They screamed at the sight of a bare-chested white man and turned and fled 50 yards to the road, yelping the whole way.
Bozy was up and about. I asked him about hot water for coffee. He shook his head no. The auberge had no kitchen facility. A wood fire would need to be made; Bozy was disinclined to the chore. I tapped Nescafe into my camp pot and added bottled water and shook it and sat outdoors on a green plastic chair and sipped a cup of cold coffee.
I heard Geoff rattling about in his room. Then I heard Geoff and Migo talking in low voices. I heard Migo groan, and more talk that I couldn’t quite hear. Geoff found me outside.
“Migo’s got malaria,” he said.
Video: Lovely Day in the Congo
After a spill on a mud-slick Congo road, Geoff shows off his metal-working prowess and expresses his appreciation for the durability of Touratech aluminum motorbike panniers and Hagon shock absorbers.