23-Aug-2008 -- The beginning of the journey
It all started from Mahagi, a little Congolese city a few kilometres from the Ugandan border, in the province of Ituri, were ethnic war raged a few months ago. I am working there for a humanitarian NGO, and during this sunny weekend in the rainy season, I decided to rent a motorbike and try to reach the Confluence, which is situated near Apala, a village 60 km away from Mahagi.
Nobody around me is able to tell me whether the road is in good or bad condition, nor the approximate time it could take.
Thumi, my driver, used to work there, and will lead me to Apala. The dirt track begins its way amongst the hundreds of hills of the Mahagi territory. We pass several little villages, and all the people we meet turn their head to look at the Muzungu, the White Man. We are only 3 whites in the territory and no one ever took this track only used by motorbikes. Some children run away, frightened. The others shout "Népalais, népalais" (Nepalese, Nepalese).
Though I am French, everyone call me Nepalese here, since the only other whites in the area are the Nepalese soldiers from MONUC (UN peace enforcement mission in Congo), and from an African child point of view, a European and a Asian look very much the same.
Through the African landscape
The little Yamaha AG100 continues its journey, crossing several rivers on weak bridges. We are at an elevation of 1600 m on the plateau that overhang the rift valley, 800 m downward (where the confluence point is) and the slope to rejoin it is quite stiff. The landscape is beautiful: on one side of the road, we can see the wild mountains, with forest and cliffs, whereas on the other side, the land is strongly inhabited, and all the land is cultivated, with corn fields, cassava, sweet potatoes, banana trees, palm trees...
We are almost at the bottom of the rift valley when the problems begin to occur. Suddenly, the motorbike doesn't want to move any further. The driver keeps trying to restart it, but nothing works. We have no tools, the last village was on the plateau, and the next one, Mokambo, is a few kilometres ahead. We reach to bottom of the valley where the river Kakoyi flows. No bridge to cross the river, but a little dugout canoe, with 12 children working there to carry bikes and motorbikes across the river. I phone the base with the satellite telephone, trying to make our mechanic come to repair the bike. But another motorbike had a breakdown 30 minutes ago, and he is already gone to repair it. The driver walks back, trying to find some tools to repair.
I decide to take a nap under the palm trees. It is 11 am, and the sunlight is very bright. At the top of a palm tree not far from me, the children spot a long, green, sleeping snake, and start throwing stones to kill it. But the tree is high, and the stones cannot do harm to the snake which continues its sleep.
Half an hour later, Thumi comes back, without any good news. So we cross the river, and start pushing the bike uphill, to reach Mokambo. It is now 1 pm, and no tree to provide a cool shadow. The hill is quite high, and we sweat profusely. The heat is difficult to stand, but 1h30 later, after many efforts, we finally arrive in the village.
Mokambo is a nice little village, with little houses made of dry mud painted in white with thatched roofs. Women are walking on the side of the road carrying massive loads on their head (water tanks, baskets full of fish, corn, palm oil), while men are chatting under mango trees on bamboo chairs.
We find the only mechanic of the village. He changes the defective part in 45 min, charges us 1000 Ugandan Shillings (0.60 US-$/0.40 €), and we decide to continue, even if it begins to be late.
Apala is 15 min far from Mokambo, and the road goes along Lake Albert. On the side of the road, there are huge termitaria, 5 m high, looking like big boulders. The palm trees, the lake, the mountains, and the little houses make a perfect scenery for tourism.
The Confluence Point
I decide to stop when the GPS indicates the Confluence is at a distance of 900 m. In a football field, I find a little path that leads in the good direction and brings me among cassava fields, and then stops. I need to make my way among the 3 m high elephant grass. Without a machete, it's difficult, and when I manage to have a viewpoint of the whole area, I can see that though the Confluence is less than 800 m away, and I can see it, it would take me an hour or so to reach it. It is located in a field near the river, at the bottom of a nice cultivated valley, and there should be another way to reach it. Unfortunately, it's too late, I am enraged, but the breakdown took us too much time, and we still have more than 2 h of riding back home.
Next time... if I'm still in Congo!