31-Aug-2008 -- Second attempt to reach 31E 2N. This is the first successful visit of one of the 189 confluences in D. R. of Congo.
Better prepared this time than last week's failed attempt, I found 3 partners to reach the CP: David, working on a road rehabilitation project in Rimba, Matthieu, newly arrived in Congo, to whom I will soon transfer my duties in Mahagi, and Hassan, David's driver.
I decided to rent for myself a Chinese motorbike, a Senke, whereas my friends preferred to take the Yamaha AG100. Thumi and Ageno are our two drivers.
It's 8:00 a.m. as we all start our journey, on this sunny Sunday morning. Throughout the trip, we see many people walking by the roadside to go to church ('church' is a big word for the little hut in which the Mass is celebrated). However, the drivers know their jobs, and the motorbikes run speedily towards the objective of the day.
We are on the high plateau at the border of the rift valley, and the soil is still damped from the heavy rainfalls of the night. As we ride, surrounded by fields of sweet potatoes, we suddenly bump into a flock of helmeted guineafowls. How can a bird have such a hideous head? By chance, they taste succulent, which is a much better quality than beauty... They run off as we pass them.
The Breakdown (again)
The trip continues and we begin our descent on the rocky and badly eroded road. The Senke is much more comfortable than the Japanese bike. It's a real pleasure to sit on the rear of it and appreciate the landscape. Here, due to tectonic activity, the mountains are highly folded, and the slopes are all very stiff. But soon, we have to stop, because of a flat tire. "One breakdown is usual", says Thumi. Good to know. David and Matthieu now have to share the back seat of the motorbike driven by Hassan, and they all start off again in a rather uncomfortable position. A couple of kilometres later, we enter a small village and ask for a 'colleur' (literally a 'gluer', i.e. someone who puts glue on inner tubes to repair them). Without any single tool the tire is removed from the wheel, the inner tube cleaned with a sharp stone, and fixed with a piece of rubber.
While this is going on I meet the tailor of the village, who is sewing a little girl's dress on his manual sewing machine, regularly ironing it with a coal-heated iron. I try to speak with him, while eating a yam tuber I had bought on the side of the road. Unfortunately it is not very sweet and difficult to finish. Many women wearing colorful loinclothes walk along the road to or from Mahagi, all carrying stuff on their head. My gaze slowly follows them as they pass in front of me. I really find what is called here 'African buttocks', really attractive...
An hour later, the three motorbikes continue the trip down to Apala. We arrive at Kakoyi river, where the bridge had been destroyed by a powerful flood many years ago, leaving the area isolated. The only means of crossing the river is by dugout canoe with the help of the many children working there all day long. After a short bargaining, we agree on a price to cross the river. The Chinese motorbike is carried by 5 youths, whereas the other two motorbikes are loaded onto the small canoe. Everybody here stare at the three whites that cross the river like Congolese people do.
We pay the fee, 6000 Ugandan Shillings (3.70 US-$ / 2.60 €). Note that in this part of Ituri, the Congolese Franc, the official currency of Congo, is unused; people are used to pay in the foreign country's currency.
On the other side of the river, the road leads up to Mokambo, via a long, stiff slope. It is now 12:00 p.m., the sunlight is very bright, and as I look at people pushing their bikes loaded with notebooks, I remember last week's attempt. It is back to school in a couple of days, and many people are bringing school supplies to sell in Mokambo.
The Confluence Point
After Mokambo, the road is in good condition, and we drive quite fast on the dirt road that follows the ridge of the hill, with a scenic view on Lake Albert. Just after Apala, we turn right onto a small footpath scarcely covered by trees. However, the track is very narrow and we soon have to leave the bikes to continue on foot - 900 m to reach the confluence point. We follow a little path that leads right to the river, where the confluence point is supposed to be. We cross all kinds of fields while walking downhill. It's 13:00 p.m., and the sun is becoming stronger. We arrive in the flood zone at the bottom of the valley, being very close to our goal, and we begin our search of 2N 31E. But this time, we don't have a regular GPS, and we must use the Thuraya satellite phone's GPS function. Not very easy, but after many tries, triangulating points in the middle of cotton and rice fields, we succeed in being as close to the confluence point as we can. To progress through the wildest parts of the area, we definitely need to use the machete.
We take a few pictures, and under a bright sun begin our walk back to the motorbikes left on top of the hill. Our two drivers are awaiting us, but during our leave, they met the local FARDC (Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo) soldier, sent by the village chief, to question us on our intentions. Difficult to explain exactly what we are doing... Saying we're just tourists is not much better. So we just say we are here to have an overview of the area. Given that we are working for an international NGO, he seems to believe us and lets us go.
On our way back, we stop in Mokambo for a drink under a straw hut in open air, surrounded by an increasing number of children and passers-by (reaching almost 50 people).
The Lion King Pride Rock
Then, a few kilometres later, I decide to take a walk to see a very odd rock, at the top of a nearby hill. It seems like this rock is just laid there, and should be a perfect point of view on the whole valley. Through wild grass fields, we reach the bottom of the huge rock. It is actually a pile of basalt rock deeply worn out by water. A big rodent (as big as a dog!) runs away when I try to look in a narrow cave-like passage. Being a caver, I must explore this cave. I begin to crawl on bat guano and rodent dungs, and I manage to exit on the other side of the rock. Very nice. David joins me, and after climbing three meters, we stand on top of the Pride Rock. Amazing view! According to locals, this rock is made of Coltan. Coltan is a metallic ore found in commercial quantities in DRC, and used in cellphones and laptops. This ore is believed to finance DRC's ethnic war and is smuggled by Rwanda.
We get back to the bikes. It's very late, the sun is setting, black clouds are gathering above our heads and we are still very far from Mahagi. Our detour to look at Atata rock took us a lot of time.
We reach Mahagi by night. A heavy rain will fall the whole night. However, our sleep won't be disturbed and our dreams will be filled with images of the day.