Democratic Republic of Congo: Lubumbashi to Kinshasa
Heart of Darkness
and our trusty steed:
Map of congo. Lubumbashi in the bottom right corner. Kinshasa on the left.
Or as depicted on our Michelin 746 map
The Michelin is a pretty good map but it has a few known flaws. One of the biggest flaws is probably the "Route National 1" in DRC.. as we are soon to find out...
I am posting this report as I write, so please be patient :-)
The story starts in Pionee... No, that's not true, it actually starts 2 years earlier, but I will come back to that later. So for now let's start this story at in Pioneer campsite just outside Lusaka (Zambia) where we treat ourselves on some home made French fries (but as you all know, French fries have got nothing to do with France, as they have been invented by the Belgians!)
We deserved it as it had been about 600 days since we last seen set foot in our home country and we missed the food! The other reason was that we were not expecting to be eating good in the next month or two. After all we were about to go deep into the Congo (DRC but in this report I refer to the country as "Congo", not to be confused with Congo-brazzaville)
As supplies would be very hard to get we decided to stock up on supplies. We bought food for an entire month. 3 meals a day. This would prove to be a very good decision
I also gave the Landcruiser a last service, everything was working pretty much as expected, so just the regular oil/filter change. I also stocked up on some good oil (diff + engine) as this would also be hard to get there.
Fully loaded we left Lusaka. We always had a strange anxious/nervous feeling when entering a new country. But this time the feeling was much stronger. Was this the first time we were actualy nervous for entering a country?
The border at Kasumbalesa was the usual chaotic affair. Especially the Zambian side proved to be an annoying experience. Many pushy touts and very crowded. The Congolese side on the other hand had very little touts. It was chaotic too, but much smoother then their neighbours.
We were warned about the "5$ dollar first entry" bribe at the Congolese side.
This conversation was in French ofcourse:
Customs Officer: "Hi, that'll be 5$US"
- Me: "Ofcourse,but what is it for exactly?"
CO: "Tourist tax"
- Me: "Oh, I was not aware of the existance of a tourist tax?"
CO: "Yes, but only on the first entry"
- Me: "Aaaah, ofcourse how could I forget. I already paid this when I entered at by boat in Kinshasa a few months ago" <-- I lied, there is no such tax and I never paid such tax. But I did have the proof of my previous entry in Congo in my passport
Co: *long silence*
Co: *hesitating* "You still have to pay..."
He lost, I won. He knew it but he would not give in ofcourse. I sat there for another 10 minutes before I was let go without any further words. This went smoothly... very smoothly! I was starting to think that all these corruption stories about Congo were overrated. Little did I know at that time...
We actually bought insurance at the border. Not that we believe that it would be of any use in case of an accident. But just to avoid the bribes associated with not having any insurance.
Next obstacle was the road tax for the short distance between the border and Lubumbashi. 50US$ for foreigners! I waited until a lorry was waiting at the barrier and then just drove past it and floored it. 50$ in the pocket :-)
We are normally very principle about official (!!) taxes, we just pay them as they usually benefit the roads, etc.. . In this case it is known that all of the money for this road toll goes directly to Kinsahsa. Nothing ever returns to the maintenance of these roads, or anything remotely related to the province it is in. It shows:
We arrived in Lubumbashi - "Capital du cuivre" (Capital of Coper) and were instantly stopped by the police. Checked all papers, checked vehicle, asked for "Un jus" (cold drink). Very pushy and aggressive. We got rid of them but two blocks further we got stopped again. Same story. This was getting tiring!
We just stopped stopping altogether after a while. It was obvious that our white skin and strange number plates attracted a lot of unwanted attention!
At the border we had been lucky to bump into a Belgian lady. She was living in Lubumbashi together with Soeur Bernadette, a Congolese "Maman" (literally translated = mother). She invited us to stay at her place.
They lived in a lovely little villa called "Bonne Esperance". They take of orphans and constantly have 3 or 4 children living in the house. There was no room in the house, but we could stay in our rtt in the driveway. They were wonderful people, we really enjoyed staying there.
They also had no electricity when we where there. When we inquired about this (after all, this was central Lubumbashi) we were told about the odd system in Lubumbashi. Because the electricy factory is in such a bad state it cannot cope with the demand. Therefore there is always one area that gets no electricity. They change the area every week or so.
The next few days we spent in Lubumbashi arranging all sorts of things. Money, Permits, information, ... The word went round quickly that Belgian tourists had arrived and our network of contact grew by the minute. Soon we were welcome guests in the Belgian Consulate and we moved to another house of Belgians working in Lubumbashi. They worked for CTB, the Belgian aid organisation. These contacts would prove extremely valuable during our trip.
We also got in touch with the director of the big coper mine in Lubumbashi and were invited for a tour of the factory
Congo must be one of the richest countries in the world. They could have been the Dubai of Africa with what they have in the ground. Ever since their independance the biggest mining company in Congo is Gécamines. Once a hugely profitable company it is now only a shadow of its former self. Years of corruption and mismanagement have left Gécamines in a state of defacto bankrupt. All their mines are nothing more but ruins.
Info about Gécamines: Gécamines - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The ruins of these mines are now home to many "creuseurs". Usually young children who are digging in the remains of the mines for whatever is left. They work long days and have to give most of their profit to organised gangs.
The mine in Lubumbashi also has a huge pile of mining waste. The pile is actually still so rich in cobalt and copper that a foreign company (Forest) is running a production factory.
And ofcourse the company car of the director was..
A major showstopper for our trip was a Permit to travel trough Congo.
Nobody really knows what kind of permit one needs, let alone where to apply for it. But everybody agrees that a permit is required. Officially it has got something to do with the many mining areas to be crossed. We contacted the few people who have attempted travelling trough congo but they too never managed to get hold of the permit. One of these guys did get arrested and deported because he could not provide a permit.
Our Belgian Consulate really tried hard to get this stupid little piece of paper for us, but to no avail. They even managed to get us invited with the governer of Katanga, but he too could not give it to us. After many days of trying we asked the consulate to give us some sort of official looking letter with an official looking stamp. We would chance it without the permit!
The permit is on the right. It has no real value, it basicly says no more then "There are tourist from Belgium and they are travelling trough congo, please assist them in their travels". But then in official speak.
On the left are copies of all sorts of other official documents. We had aout 30 copies of all of these.
This is our DRC visa:
It's time to hit the road!
After leaving Lubumbashi one quickly arrives at yet another toll booth. 50$US again (!) for a short piece of horribly potholed tarmac. This time I stop the car a long end before the booth and walk to get my ticket. There is a big "queue" (read: a pile of people). I just stuck my arm trough the window without letting them see myself and give the equivalent amount for locals (1$US). They give me back a receipt and presto. Another 49$ saved!
The road starts out good
But the asphalt soon stops and makes way for a graded dirt road. It is in pretty good condition.
We make good progress until we hit the end of a traffic jam. A seemingly endless series of big lorries stand still on the entire width of the road. We stop and are greeted with demands for "cadeaux", "un jus", etc... Mind you, these are not officials, they are just the truckdrivers.
Josephine stays in the car while I walk to the front of the queue (a kilomter or so). In the valley there is a huge mud pit that just about swallowed an articulated lorry. This obviously happened quite some time ago. Next to it is another lorry stuck, leaning dangerously. Next to that one is yet another stuck lorry. And another, ... There are 5 lorries next to eachother. All stuck. This is now blocking the entire road. 20 man are digging away but when they see me they instantly stop and start shouting at me
"Hé le Blanc!"
"Mundele!' = mzungu
"Le Blanc, Il va payer!" = The white guy, he is going to pay (if I want to pass)
"Donner moi de l'argent" = Give me money
There were about a 100 people on the side of road watching the spectacle and they started laughing at me and shouting all sorts of nasty things.
This entire situation felt very treatening and I just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. While walking back to Josephine some more friendly people talked to me. Apparantly they had been there for 4 days now without any movement. But they said small 4x4's could get past.
Not without hesitation we started negotiating our way trough the parked trucks and around the mudpit. You could see that the crowd was just waiting for us to get stuck.
Fortunately we got trough.
Sorry, no pictures of this mess. The enviroment was just to hostile to start flashing expensive cameras.
When we continued on the same road we would pass other smaller mudpits. These bogholes always had a "crew". When a truck arrived, they would throw in rocks so the truck could pass... for a fee ofcourse. After the truck passed they removed the rocks again. A lucrative occupation!
In our books this is just plain wrong and we refuse to support such behaviour. So we always charged trough in 4x4, hoping we would not get ourself stuck.
We neared the first town: Likasi. At the town border we got stopped by an agressive bunch of policeman. They quickly made it clear that we did not have the necessary permit and therefore we were under arrest!
Superb travelogue! Looking forward to more (and more).
Thanks Mark. It's always great to get some feedback. A pitty that this part of the hubb is so quiet.
We neared the first town: Likasi. At the town border we got stopped by an agressive bunch of policeman - 12 of them to be exactly. They quickly made it clear that we did not have the necessary permit and therefore we were under arrest!
Come to think of it. It is rather disturbing that I can say that I know what to do in such a situation. First thing to do is to remain calm and - politely - deny that you are under arrest. This may sound strange, but it is a simple test and always worked for me. If they are serious they will just take you to a police station. If they start discussing you know you'll be allright and they are trying to discriminate you but the goal is just to get a bribe.
They started discussing. This was good. It was a heated discussion though and they clearly were not amused. It took us the best part of an hour to make them believe that our "official letter from the embassy" was a valid permit. They probably never saw a "tourist" permit before (does it even exist?) and we could tell they were not sure about their case. The official stamps did the trick.
They turned their attention to the Landcruiser, checked al the lights, windscreen wipers, fire extinguisher (Yes, we had 2 8-) ), emergency triangle (Yes, we had 2 8-) ) and finally found a culprit: we only had 1 reversing light! I explained that in Belgium only 1 reversing light is obligatory (its true) and still refused to pay anything. Then things turned a bit ugly. Without a doubt they just wanted to make a quick buck from us and they were getting impatient. We heard somebody kicking the car, they started shouting and made it very clear that we are in Congo and that they were the boss here and we should listen and pay. They tried opening both doors at the same time (locked) and started shouting we were arrested and we had to go to the "police station". NOW!
This was bad. No more room for negotiations. At all costs did we want to prevent ending up in a police station as that would mean bad news! As a final resort I called our embassy and they talked to the police officers. Their names and ranks were asked - which they refused to give. At the same time Josephine kicked into action. The people here that know Josephine can surely attest that although she is tough as nails, she is truly an incredible sweet girl. She got very angry at the police officers and got very cross. This made an impression. They kept us there for another half hour but lost interest eventually.
Before we were let go one office said "Ce n'est pas la Belgique ici, tu es en Congo!" - "This is not Belgium, you are in Congo". He hissed and gave us a terrifying look
With our adrenaline levels at maximum we continued into Likasi.
We did not even drive for a full kilometer or we were stopped again by the police..
This time it was a jolly fat guy. He laughed when he stopped us, gave us a friendly hello and without skipping a beat continued that we had to pay a fine. "Malchargé" (badly loaded) he claimed. At the same time a truck passed with a dozen people hanging of the back.
That was the funniest thing we heard all day and we burst out laughing. He too joined in the laughing. Anyhow, back to reality so we just said goodbye and started to drive of. He jumped onto the driving boards and asked for "un jus" in a final attempt before letting go.
The good gravel road continued for a short while after Likasi but continues to a mining town. That is ofcourse the reason that this road exists, the mine. The Route National 1 (RN1) - the highway to Kinshasa - forks of at a small village called Tenke. The track immediately changed in a sandy jungle track.
We passed a few small villages. No more trace of Police on this smaller road. What a relief! There was also barely any traffic. We helped a small truck that somehow managed to get stuck next to the road.
The road forked again a short while later at Tshilongo. The main track continued to other villages. The road we took was the RN1. It followed the railway and saw barely any traffic. Sandy and bumpy.
Our goal for our first day was the Catholic mission of Kansenia. About 250 km from Lubumbashi were we left at 7 in the morning. We were 20km away from Kansenia when the sun set at around 6. But we decided to push on.
It had rained a lot lately, but in the sand this caused no real problems. Until we hid some sort of a marsh. We passed many traces of other vehicles who got stuck here. The soil was very sticky pitch black cotton mud. We were tired and it was dark. We got stuck :roll:
3 hours of digging. Sandpates, hi-lift, the whole lot. Sweating like a pig. We could barely hear eachother with all the insect buzzing around our ears. But we managed to get out.
In the dark we were greeted by the priests in the mission. Before we could even say something they said "Il faut rien dire, on comprend!" - "No need to talk, we understand". They were friendly and gave us a bucket of water to wash in. We could park the car in their garden. We closed our tent at midnight. The adrenaline was still rushing trough our veins.
Progress after 1 day of driving. This was supossed to be the easiest part of the entire trip. It would be the last day we would be able to cover that much distance on a single day.
Great report! Thanks for sharing!
Looking forward to the next entrys!
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