From the monthly archives:

April 2010

Conserving Natural Wonders

by Kate on April 30, 2010

Title: Tsumeb to Livingstone, Victoria Falls

Dates: 20th to 27th April GPS:

Distance: 1078km Total Distance: 13,760km

Roads: Good tarmac, pretty flat

Weather: High 20’s – low 30’s Celsius, moderate to slight headwinds on average

1e. Giraffe waterhole conference
Up until Etosha National Park we had seen very few wild animals during our journey, but our two day visit to the 23,000 square kilometre sanctuary has changed all that. Not many wild animals are seen outside the parks because basically there are too many people to accommodate sustainable numbers. Loss of habitat and bushmeat are the two main reasons. Any animal is fair game for local villagers and bushmeat is often for sale on the roadsides and on the menu in restaurants. Namibia is the only African nation with conservation firmly in their constitution. Since independence in 1989 – perhaps an opportunity to create a more practical environmental agenda for the times – I learned that the country has made significant progress with increasing numbers of black rhinoceros and cheetahs in particular. The Etosha National Park, 80km north of Tsumeb, is Namibia’s showpiece. The word ‘etosha’ means ‘Great White Place’ referring to the enormous saltpan (4700km square) around which the animals live and the limestone-based grounds. The park was proclaimed over 100 years ago, which must make it one of the first designated conservation places in Africa (I’d imagine).

1c. Blue wildebeest
We left the bikes and some unneeded equipment at our campsite in Tsumeb and drove back to Etosha. The park is easy to drive through, with good quality roads and plenty of side tracks, which usually lead to waterholes. Of course no one is allowed to get out of their vehicles (except in protected areas), and no cycling is permitted as there are plenty of man-eaters in the park. Once through the eastern gates at Namutoni, we were all amazed at the numbers of grazing animals that we didn’t know where to point the cameras – springboks, zebras, giraffes, impala, hartebeests were immediately on show. Before the expedition I had bought a fantastic 80-400mm lens so I could get some great animal shots, but unfortunately it is back in Australia for repair, so the photos you see are just from a 28-120mm lens. This means, of course, that the animals had to be close for me before taking a photo was worthwhile.

1a Black Rhino Perhaps the highlight of the first afternoon was the rhino sighting. Dan spotted it first in the veldt. Simon stopped the LandRover and the huge bulk wandered behind the vehicle, then started to casually walk towards us before heading across the road. Despite their size, rhinos are quite nervy, timid creatures with very bad eyesight. We stayed at Halali campgrounds and lodge in the middle of the park on our first night. All three main resorts have floodlit waterholes where patrons can sit and watch for animals to do their thing. Halali reportedly has the best one. It’s a bit like going to the theatre while the play is in progress. The audience creep in quietly in the dark, trying not to trip over the rocks or make a sound, not even whisper. The animals are the actors, stars of the show. The main difference is that they haven’t done any rehearsals and rarely turn up on cue. As we arrived, a kudu was munching the grass, nervously hanging back to check for any predators. Then a small rhino appeared on the far side. The two kept us entertained for quite some time. I loved the moment when the rhino, whose belly was pretty close to the ground, found a log which was just the right height for it to scratch its undercarriage. The rhino had a great time rocking back and forth over the log in pure bliss.

3b Gemsboks on Etosha Saltpan
There’s no doubt that the highlight of the following day was spotting lions at Sueda Waterhole. I actually thought the male was a small elephant at first – it was huge! There was a lioness with him. They had probably either just made a kill (breakfast) or were ‘courting’. Almost as soon as we sighted them, they lay 6a. Spot the lions, there is a male and lioness here down for the day using the shade of the long tufts of grass. Later that afternoon we returned, on the way back to Namutoni Resort in the hope that they might still be there. And they were, but on closer inspection through the binoculars, we counted a whole pride of lions. The male had a harem of seven girls. The first two had not moved, except to follow the shade of the bush they were lying under. They were totally relaxed – some lying on their backs, some with paws draped over another. Just as we were about to head off, Dan spotted two more lionesses, one asleep in a much closer location; another arriving from another direction, moving with caution.

7a. Elephants on Fischer's Pan
The highlight of the final morning, as we drove around Fischer’s Pan, was seeing a family of elephants. The huge male made sure we knew who was boss as he walked between us and his group to protect them. Here’s a list of the animals we saw – and identified – in Etosha: Lions, blackbacked jackal, cape fox, spotted hyena, suricate, elephants, warthog, black rhinoceros, giraffe, Burchell’s zebra, steenboks, springboks, gemsboks, blue wildebeests, kudu, hartebeests, impala, ground squirrel, honey badger, ostriches, martial eagle, kori bustards, southern yellow hornbills, lilac-breasted rollers, Swainson’s spurfowl, starlings, owls and a few more. The main animals we missed that were there were cheetahs and leopards – but there has to be some big animals left to see another time!

I was determined to cover some decent distance, even catch up a day on the way to Nunda River Lodge, near Divundu, West Caprivi. From Tsumeb I headed south east to Grootfontein, 60km away. Grootfontein has pride of place on this expedition as being the most southerly town we visit. From here, I start heading north east – finally in the right direction towards Somalia! There was something very satisfying about that and with the wind in my favour for the rest of the day I made good ground, covering 192km. The landscape was very open veldt – large privately owned cattle-grazing farms. I spotted a few Southern Cross windmills which made me feel at home. We camped at a roadside truck stop at the border between the Grootfontein and Kavango Regions. The next day, although the physical landscape looked similar, the cultural landscape was quite different. The Kavango Region is much more heavily populated with the original inhabitants. I passed through village after village with all sorts of handicrafts for sale by the side of the road and an overwhelming number of welcoming “hellos”. There is certainly no apartheid here and I learned that Namibian blacks don’t have the same resentment for the white minority as there is in much of South Africa, but there appears to be certain parts of the country which are more heavily populated by one or the other. This, of course is just an observation in northern Namibia, and I don’t know enough to understand how the regions are organised. After Rundu, I cycled due east parallel with the Kavango River, rising to my little personal challenge and reaching Divundu in three days after 532km.

8b. Outside my room, Nunda Lodge, Kavango River  flooded Nunda River Lodge was flooded when we arrived. The Kavango River was the highest it has been, I think they said, for a century. We are now in the tail end of the Rainy Season and heavy falls up in the Angolan mountain catchment area have caused havoc downstream. The Kavango River passes through the west end of the Caprivi Strip and into Botswana, emptying into the sands of the Kalahari Desert forming the renowned wetlands known as the Okavango Delta. To complete the geography lesson for the day, the Caprivi Strip is a long narrow tongue of northern Namibia, dividing Angola and Zambia in the north from Botswana in the south and Zimbabwe to the east. The German colonials wanted access to the Zambezi River so that they could connect with their empire in Tanzania and marked the strip as theirs in the big divide up of Africa.

My former cycling partner, Greg Yeoman had connected me to Nunda Lodge and I planned to have a day off there to meet the Kwe / San people, original inhabitants of the region. Trevor and Eugene, the lodge owners, kindly sponsored our stay. Moira Alberts, (Greg’s contact) had just started management work there a week prior to our arrival. It was great to finally meet them after trading many emails over the last couple of months. Nunda is a top end place to stay and I am particularly impressed with the way they are managing their ecotourism. (

10b.Kwe kids at Omega 1
In the afternoon, Dan, Zdenek, Trevor, Moira and I met with Friedrich Alpers and three Kwe people to learn about their issues, particularly as a marginalised group. Friedrich works for the IRDNC (Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation), which is a Namibian support NGO working the 5000 people (mostly Kwe) who live inside the adjacent Bwabwata National Park (formerly the Caprivi Game Park). The three Kwe whom with we met, Tienie, Vasco and Jack are representatives of the Kyaramacan Association who act for those living in the park.

10c. Kwe Grandmother, wife of blacksmith I first read about the plight of the San people when researching the expedition as UNESCO has identified their need for development assistance as a marginalised group and have a program in the larger community at Tsumkwe. There are about 12 different groups of San (formerly bushmen) living in southern Africa, the Kwe being one of these groups. It is well-documented that these people are genetically closest to the origin of mankind. They have the most diverse range of genes of any group of people on Earth. The Kwe of west Caprivi have had a hard time in recent years. During the war of independence between the South Africa (who were administrating Namibia up until 1989) and the Namibia, the SA military were stationed on the Caprivi Strip. They were also there during the Angolan war. The Kwe were forced to take sides, and as the SA military were there, they chose to work for the South Africans, particularly as trackers because of their amazing bush skills. After independence, the Namibian government has remembered this and they have been marginalised ever since. Tienie, Jack and Vasco gave their side of the story. Tienie said they had been given basic handouts, which has created a feeling of expectation and dependency. Unemployment is very high and alcoholism is a huge problem. He said in schools, even the children are discriminated against and sometimes even sent away. They have two headmen in their community, but stronger leadership is required to pull the communities together (there are 10 communities in the Bwabwata NP) and communicate with the government.

There is hope though. Friedrich and the IRDNC are working with the Kyaramacan Association on projects which aim to increase benefits from natural resources from within the park, tourism and how to manage the park and resources sustainably. The park was decimated during the military occupation and from poaching. Some of the region was also devastated by landmines. The Kwe however are now managing to reverse the damage. In the 200km-long park two areas have been sectioned off as core conservation areas, where only animals exist and are protected. In the rest of the park, man and animals co-exist. Hunting is essential to the Kwe way of life but the Namibian government has embargoed the practice. The Kwe will manage hunting in the future by only hunting in officially sanctioned groups rather than individuals hunting at will, so that numbers of animals hunted can be controlled and endangered species are not taken. At the moment, Friedrich is assisting them with documenting all the resources in the region using local knowledge (from thousands of interviews) and scientific observation. A fantastic resource map of the region has been created. With all the information, they can negotiate with the government and argue their case for controlled hunting and land management in the park. Friedrich is guiding them so that they have a stronger voice.

There are many parallels with the situation I found visiting the Baka in Cameroon – with Plan’s Rights and Dignity Project. The Kwe are a little further ahead in development. Both groups have been fast losing their incredible bush skills, but the Kwe now have a priority program where the elders are transferring traditional skills to the next generation. One of the most valuable veldt resources in the park is the tuber plant called Devil’s Claw. It is used in the treatment of arthritis and prostate cancer. Devil’s Claw is very much in demand in Europe. Friedrich has helped them gain an ‘organic’ tag (will qualify for this next year), which further increases the value of the product. If the Baka could market their diabetes treatment in the same way, this would surely help them significantly.

Tienie invited us to visit his village and so I just cycled a half day to Omega 1, the largest of the Kwe villages, population approximately 4600 people. Omega 1 was an army base for the South African military. During occupation, many of the Kwe were employed by the army and when they moved out, the villagers inherited the houses and infrastructure. The village is therefore unusual because they don’t live in traditional mud and thatched houses. Tienie was a great host and guide. Once the headman gave us the all clear we toured the town. It was a Saturday afternoon and most activity was either on the soccer field or drinking a strong homemade brew. We saw (and later bought) some traditionally woven baskets, made from reeds and coloured with natural dyes. They are only made in this way by a few ladies in Omega 1. Sport, Tienie explained was very important to the younger folk of the community because it is good for self-esteem, keeps people fit and gives them something to do. They play football, netball and volleyball. There is some farming land which is the result of various projects over the years. Some of the workers however have to walk up to 18km to work on their land. They do make their own tools – the blacksmith was out when we visited, but his wife demonstrated how they were made.

We set up camp, but overnight it rained and when I awoke my tent was virtually floating in a huge puddle. We used the office for shelter, but the rain continued and so we missed the opportunity to see a special honey/bee project. We said our thankyous and goodbyes, but the rain did not stop for most of the day. The aim was to at least get to Kongola just outside the park – a standard day in normal circumstances, but because we left at about 10am and I had a tricky headwind, I struggled to get there. The boys set off mid-afternoon to sort out our campsite with the plan that Simon would return to lead me in. He was held up pulling someone out who was bogged and the last 15km through the second core section of the Bwabwata NP was done after the sun set. It was eerie and I noted a warthog staring at me from about 20metres. Then I started to think what other animals might be watching. I knew there were lions… I started to get nervous and upped the pace. I was so relieved when Simon arrived. He then told me that the guard on the gate had said there were many lions in this end of the park “and you should not leave your wife on her own…” It was not a pleasant experience and I must admit, I was scared.

11a. Flooded Zambezi near Namibian border, 200km from Vic Falls
By the end of the following day we were over the border and in to Zambia, country number 13 of the expedition. Just after the border we crossed the Zambezi River which was also really moving fast, the waters very high. The boys said they were feeling a little burnt out and so I promised them two full days off in Livingstone/Victoria Falls. From Sesheke, however this meant a monster day. Basically to get there involved cycling for at least ten hours at 20km an hour. For most of the day I was held back by a nagging little headwind which made keeping the pace difficult. This also meant very short breaks and just concentrating on 50km sections at a time. I did manage to enjoy the mopane woodland and people’s friendly waves – I had to keep the mind busy and fill my head with positives – the only way to approach such a marathon. I won in the end though, Simon providing the light for the last 20km into Livingstone – 204km done in 10 hours, 20mins at 19.77km an hour!

12a. Mighty Victoria Falls
Victoria Falls was the reward – one of the most amazing natural wonders I have ever seen. The river was so high that the mist cloud impeded much of the view. The power of the water was immense. The photos say it all I think. We’re heading north to Lusaka next where we have a number of project visits to do.


From the Developing to the Developed

by Kate on April 25, 2010

Title: Luanda (Angola) to Tsumeb (Namibia)

Dates: 4th to 16th April GPS:

Distance: 1703 km Total Distance: 12,677 km

Roads: Mostly good tarmac, 200km of rough gravel and potholed/broken tar sections

Weather: Hot near the coast, cooler at altitude, thunderstorms

7d. Kids I found playing on old war machines
Knowing that we would have mostly decent roads in southern Angola and Namibia, I decided to put in some long days and make up time. Hence I have had my head down and tail up from Luanda to Tsumeb in northern Namibia. I managed 930km in seven days from Luanda to Lubango in the mountains, climbing 1770metres, had a day off in Lubango and then did 773km in five days across the high plains to cross the Namibian border to reach Tsumeb. Even though I was putting in the distance, there was still plenty to see, just not any time to write a decent blog.

Leaving Luanda early in the morning of Easter Sunday, there could not have been more of a contrast with the traffic conditions to when we arrived (in such chaos). I set off from the Marginale – Luanda’s waterfront boulevard, rounded the prison/slave house where so many Angolans were deported as slaves to the Americas, and followed the coastline south. Traffic flowed pretty well along the brand new roads, past corrugated iron fishermen’s shacks and through a chain of luxury developments which are sprawling to accommodate newfound wealth. There was even a golf course! The most striking of these suburbs (appears as any western development) is entirely owned by the president, so we learned.

1b. Developed Luanda, president's development on far right
The coastal strip became more desert-like as I headed south. There were many cactus, yuccas and salt resistant succulent plants growing in the poor sandy ground. Being the rainy season, there was still plenty of heat and humidity to deal with. Apart from regions of badlands, there were few hills. Every so often a river carved its way to the ocean and I would have a short steep descent followed by a climb, otherwise it was easy going. South of Luanda is almost like a separate country compared to the north. Not only were the roads very good, port towns such as Amboim and Sumbe were virtual building sites. Sonangol, Angola’s oil company was pouring their wealth into the developments. In between all this change there were still many small villages set back into the hillsides with houses made of mud bricks with high thatched rooves. One of the most frustrating things as we were travelling through is that no one could speak Portuguese. Simon could manage a little as he can speak Spanish and has travelled through Brazil. Communicating with the locals was impossible unless they spoke English or basic French. Quite a few did speak a little English because the education level is a little better, especially in the more developed regions. They also get more English TV programs with Portuguese subtitles.

2a. Coastal desert flora, 170km south of Luanda
The roads may have been new but that has spelt traffic carnage. The 500km or so from Luanda to Lobito was littered with wrecks from what looked like fatal traffic accidents. Simon estimated that there was a wreck every 300metres. They drive too fast and way too close with their powerful new vehicles.

As we were in Luanda over Easter, we were unable to find out information about Zdenek’s Namibian visas requirements. While in Sumbe, he was able to confirm with the Namibian Embassy that he had to return to Luanda to apply for a visa. He returned via bus and was kindly put up by Adrian Fick again while we sorted out an invitation (thanks to Paladin Energy) and visa. We continued and Zdenek flew to Lubango to rejoin us five days later.

3a. Outskirts of Sumbe
South of Sumbe, the route turned into the foothills – much harder work, but the scenery was rewarding. Jagged limestone peaks formed a stunning backdrop and the land became more wooded and fertile. For the first time since perhaps southern Cameroon people were cultivating the land and producing more of their own food. I passed villages with active markets selling fruit and vegetables.

3b. Kids check out my bike, 40km south Sumbe
It was then back to the Atlantic coast again for the last time on this journey to the port cities of Lobito and Benguela. I did the last 70km before the bustling cities on my own as Simon and Dan had gone ahead to sort out somewhere to stay in Benguela. In navigating my way through Lobito, I asked many people for directions, until a local named Carlos escorted me through the town on his motorbike. He had lived in South Africa for many years and so spoke good English. We had a great conversation as he led me most of the way to Benguela (20km from Lobito). He mentioned that during the war the city looked much greener whereas now it is dry and dusty – a virtual building site. He pointed out a Chinese camp – like a town site built of dongas (as we call then in Australia). He confirmed what we had heard about corruption levels and when I mentioned the president he did not want to talk about the man! He did not think the country would revert to war again. While we were passing along the main highway, a journalist stopped me and interviewed me for Lobito radio – luckily not in Portuguese! We stayed in the cheapest hotel available in Benguela, but you don’t get much for under $200 in Angola. The prices are extortionate for just about everything and so we had to be very careful not to overspend.

4a. Interviewed for Lobito radio, with Tony
Benguela to Lubango took three days. Although I gained nearly 1800 metres in altitude, the climb was reasonably gradual, apart from one section, and I was able to enjoy the beautiful ever-changing scenery. I was spoiled by kindness along the way. A number of people stopped to give drinks and food. About an hour before the end of the first day up from Benguela and South African truck driver stopped and waved a bottle of iced water. His name was Teeny (spelling?) and after an initial conversation and a drink with the three of us, we agreed to camp together that night. He was well-equipped with a few more comforts than us – as is normal for someone who spends most of his life on the road. He had a fridge, freezer and he even rigged up a shower for me connecting a shower head to a five litre bucket and setting it up between the cabin and the first of the two trailers. That night he pulled some steaks out of his freezer, cold drinks out of the fridge and we had a good old South African braai. Teeny talked about how he feared for his family’s safety in South Africa. He calls his wife every night while on the road. They are planning to move to Canada for a less stressful life. Being a truckie in Africa is so much more complex and dangerous than it is in Australia or Canada; with dodgy border crossings, corrupt officials, high duty prices and security. He recalled how he was shot at in the DRC. He also mentioned that he chose jobs between South Africa and Angola in more recent times mostly because of safety and developing business, even though expenses were high. He said he found Angola, on the whole, to be a safe country to travel through.

4b. Approaching the mountains
I continued along the new Chinese-made roads. The quality was appalling. Some bitumen was cracking and becoming potholed just three months after being laid. Then the road ran out and that meant some patches of shocking road with wash-aways, sand, mud and heavy traffic. Enormous semi-trailers had to negotiate dips, water traps and steep hills, making even more of a mess and an unpleasant time for all of us.

Lubango, built on the cooler high plains at 1770metres, is an attractive town set with a mountainous backdrop. A huge cross on the mountain above Lubango is reminiscent of the monuments in Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro. The alpine climate was such a relief after sweating it out, day and night in the humid tropics. It was a perfect place to have a day off and re-energise for the next stage.

4d. Baobabs, milder climate
I dropped some altitude gradually over the next couple of days, but stayed above 1100 metres. I really enjoyed the open space after feeling a little claustrophobic in the tropics. I could “breathe again”. The cycling, relative to what I have been doing in recent times, was less challenging and I was able to clock consistently big distances averaging 155km per day for the next five days to reach Tsumeb.

This southern region of Angola is home to nomadic cattle herders and what looks like privately owned farms. The cattle herders, like drovers, grazed their stock over the high ground and moved them along the roadside. They looked very different to the Fulani peoples we met in the Sahel region. The Fulani, including the Mbororo all have a slender build, with fine facial features, however these cattle herders were generally very muscular and ‘thick-set’.

7a. Remnants of battle, near Xangongo
There was a lot of evidence of the war near the border. South of Xangongo, we saw many derelict tanks and military equipment. There was obviously a lot of conflict and Zdenek photographed a war veteran in front of a memorial to the 1987 battle. At Mongua we came across a fenced off area, warning of landmines. One of the villagers explained to Dan that they wanted to expand the main road, but to do so means they have to sweep the entire 20 metre strip of land for mines first. This is an example of the kind of handicap affecting Angola’s development after 27 years of almost constant war.

Crossing into Namibia was a painless process. The border post was efficient. Australians and British can just get a visa on the border – free! The change in culture and level of development was profound. Namibia so far, seems easy. They even drive on the left hand side of the road – and the roads are good! They speak English, which means we don’t have to struggle to communicate. Supermarkets are well-stocked as in a normal Western store. There is plenty of choice of product and prices are much lower. Services seem to be efficient and people are only too pleased to help. Namibia has a population of just two million people. People seem to be more relaxed and there is less pressure.

I’d managed to gain a day over this section, so we are able to spend that day in Etosha National Park. We have been on the go intensively since Yaounde with days off spent getting visas, organising the next legs and writing, so two days in Etosha is going to be the reward.

Expedition Developments

A big thank you to Ericsson and Ascend Sport (Murray Goulburn Cooperative) who have increased their support for BTC. Ericsson has now become a gold sponsor. Their extra support really makes a difference.

imageA New Partner

I’m also very pleased to announce that the organisation, Millennium Promise have just become an expedition partner. ( New York-based Millennium Promise are a major stakeholder in the Millennium Village initiative. You will remember that we visited Millennium Villages in Potou, Senegal and Segou in Mali. These villages (actually they are clusters of villages) are chosen because they are in marginal zones in need of sustainable development. The aim is that they achieve the eight Millennium Development Goals by 2015. The villages are working examples of how the MDGs can be achieved in the set time frame. I was particularly impressed with the development processes I learned about in Segou and how Millennium Promise was facilitating sustainable developmental change. We have been in touch ever since and now, in conjunction with Ericsson, a major sponsor of the Millennium Villages and BTC, we are jointly planning to feature the Millennium Village in Rwanda. Millennium Promise are also investigating how the Breaking the Cycle education program can be used in their School-to-School program in the US.


Brazzaville (ROC) to Luanda (Angola)

by Kate on April 9, 2010

Title: Brazzaville (ROC) to Luanda (Angola)

Dates: 26th March to 1st April GPS:

Distance: 863km Total Distance: 10,974km

Roads: 385km gravel, 478km tarmac; mix of steep hills and rolling hills

Weather: Hot, humid, some rain (typical for rainy season

1a1 Between Songololo and the border
Support from our friends from DMC Mining in Brazzaville extended to helping us with border formalities, crossing the mighty Congo River and seeing us off in Kinshasa. The process all seemed ridiculously complicated and basically caused us to lose a day. We were ready to go at 8am, but no one else seemed to be. It was a day of waiting. I started off from where I arrived in Brazzaville, at the Hotel Cedre. There are faster ferries but we had to put the vehicle on a slow boat – it was the only vehicle, the rest was cargo and foot passengers – hundreds of them! It was absolute chaos. People were squashed in; the disabled in roughly welded homemade mobile chairs. We saw looters going through sacks of goods, taking what they wanted and then sewing the bags up again. The boat set off half an hour late, then had to return to the Brazzaville side three times before finally making the short crossing. When the ferry docked passengers swarmed like a herd of animals crushing each other to get off. Police were heavy handed wielding their batons, beating people indiscriminately. We waited quietly to the side, except Simon who was in the vehicle, guarding our equipment.

It took another hour and a half for the authorities to process our passports and then immigration asked that we have our vehicle disinfected! After insisting on seeing the paperwork which explains that this is a ‘normal’ procedure, we had no choice but to pay $US60 to have the vehicle and my bike sprayed (haphazardly)! We were glad to get out of there! Noel, a friend of Arsene’s (DMC) met us and directed us back to his family’s little hotel, about 15km from the port. At least we had a guide to see us through Kinshasa and a safe place to keep the vehicle for the night.

Given all the travel warnings and reports of robberies, corrupt police and high prices, our objective in the Democratic Republic of Congo was to travel through it as quickly as possible. From Kinshasa it took just two days to cover almost 300km from Kinshasa to Songololo and the Angolan border. I did have the best tarmac strip in the country to savour. There was a fair amount of traffic moving between Kinshasa and the main port of Matadi; quite a contrast to the road we had experienced north of the border between Point Noir and Brazzaville. A big difference between the two countries I felt that the men were much more aggressive in general. Their general attitude did improve however on the second day once we were well away from Kinshasa. When the Simon, Dan and Zdenek stopped to ask police for directions as they did in any other country, the police asked for money. Needless to say they didn’t try that again. I also had a tricky incident with a policeman and his friends, but calmly negotiated my way out of the situation.

1c. On the way to Mbanza Congo
From Songololo we left the smooth road, on to the piste (gravel) and the small border crossing. Unfortunately the computer was down and we had to camp at the border town overnight, wasting good cycling time. About half an hour after we arrived it started to rain so heavily that the thatched roof of the little cafe where we took shelter leaked. Being the rainy season, this should be expected. The rain continued all night. There was precious little there and we helped each other pitch tents in the rain. It was a very uncomfortable night and I was most worried about the state of the road in the morning. The answer – not as bad as I imagined it might be – still wet but navigable by bicycle.

Immigration on the DRC side was hopelessly inefficient the next morning. They had been given a computer system by the British (we think) to make things more efficient, but now they use two systems – they write everything down the old way because they can’t always trust the computer to work, and they scanned our passports through the computer. They opened an hour and a half late. We crossed over into Angola, country number eleven of the expedition, and up the hill to the immigration office. There we really put a spanner in the works because we had unusual visas. Normally overland tourists can only get a five day transit visa, but we had 30 day ‘ordinary’ visas thanks to our friends in Brazzaville. They were perfectly fine about things – we just had to prove that we had enough money and be patient. Angola is a very expensive country and they wanted to know that we had allowed $US200 per person per day! Thank goodness for visa cards.

The immigration officer said he did not think I would be able to cycle to Mbanza Congo because the road would be too difficult and muddy, but after my experiences in the ROC, my vision about what can be cycled has broadened. It was only 67km through and the road was rough, muddy and very hilly like before, but I knew it was a relatively short section and we arrived in Mbanza Congo in good time. The landscape was stunning and I had really been looking forward to seeing what Angola had to offer. The regular villages were very basic and the people didn’t have much. There were no water pumps – people just collected the rain water from their rooves. The welcomes received as we passed through were overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Everyone would be shouting and kids running to catch me up – difficult to get up any speed on the rough tracks and all the time I had to focus on the surface in front of me. Of course here they all speak Portuguese so there is a new language to contend with. Simon, having spent a few years as a tour driver for Exodus in South America can speak Spanish and a little Portuguese.

2b. Mbanza Congo street
Here’s some background about Angola’s history and why they have suffered 27 years of civil war:

When the Portuguese first landed in northern Angola in 1482, Mbanza Congo, with a population of 50,000 was the capital city of the Kingdom of Kongo which extended north to present day Gabon to just south of Luanda. The Portuguese gradually extended their presence in the region mainly using the populations to bolster their slave trade. In the 16th Century they sourced slaves for Sao Tome and Brazil and by the 19th Century Angola was the largest source of slaves for the Americas, including the US. A massive forced labour system continued until it was outlawed in 1961. Funded by the British, forced labour was used in the 1950’s to build three transcontinental railways, the largest of which was the Benguela railway connecting the port of Lobito (500km south of Luanda) to the copper belt of SE Belguim Congo (DRC) and Zambia through to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

5c. National Front for the Liberation of Angola flag, near Z'neto
This economic development did not translate to social development. When the decolonisation process was occurring elsewhere in Africa in the 1950s, the Portuguese encouraged white immigration and intensified racial antagonisms. The Portuguese rejected independence and treated Angola like another overseas province – they held on too long. Three independence movements emerged: the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The MPLA, which was based in the north east of the country and included Luanda, aligned itself with communist parties in Portugal, Cuba, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries. The FNLA had links with the US and Kinshasa, DRC. UNITA connected with China and apartheid South Africa. Initially all three parties fought against the Portuguese but after the 1974 military coup in Portugal and they agreed to Angolan independence.

Disagreements over ideological differences led to armed conflict; funding and arms supplied by each party’s overseas allies. That’s the short version of how it all began. Almost continuous conflicts devastated Angola for 27 years until peace was brokered and democracy prevailed in 2002. Landmines litter the countryside killing and maiming the innocent. Many regions have been cleared but there is always a risk and this seriously affects the rural population’s ability to farm and grow food. Nearly five million people were internally displaced during the war. All but about 400,000 refugees have now returned. Angola is a country rich in oil and mineral wealth, especially diamonds. Now that the country is at peace there is a huge scramble for the national and international community to get their hands on the resources.

Heading off from the dusty, muddy streets of Mbanza Congo I was very interested to see any evidence of the conflict and how people were recovering from it. There is a whole generation who has grown up knowing of nothing but war. From Mbanza Congo we headed 230km west to reach the coast at Z’neto and then another 260km south to Luanda.

3a. Chinese road building, 45km from Mbanza Congo
Just out of town the good road started. The Chinese are building the road all the way to Z’neto. Out of the 230km, 70km have been completed in different stages so far. The Chinese engineers seemed very friendly, always waving and often stopping to check that we were okay. Sections of jungle that they had cleared to dump their road building materials and equipment served as safe places for us to camp too. We could guarantee there would be no landmines where the land had been recently used. War in the region north of Luanda was propped up by the Soviets and so we were constantly on the lookout for evidence of it. We saw very little however, probably because Angola would like to erase this chapter of their history and move on. About half way along however, after a very steep climb there was the wreckage of a Russian helicopter which warranted inspection. Other than that, there were signs littered with bullet holes, the remnants of bridges and some buildings which had been blown up. All villages flew the national flag and sometimes a number of different ones which I have not yet identified.

4a. Russian helicopter, remnant of the civil war
As we neared the coast the savannah and rainforest changed to a drier landscape. The grasslands were lower and the forest contained many succulent species such as cacti and baobabs. A cold Antarctic ocean current circulates along the coast causing dry conditions. In southern Angola and Namibia the coast becomes desert. Many will have heard of the Skeleton Coast in Namibia. The road from Z’neto was far worse than I had anticipated. Once it had been sealed – probably before the war – but it had not been maintained in any way. The first 50km south from Z’neto had sandy patches which made the going very heavy. The bulk of the road was now unsealed but really rough with constant dips and corrugations. Zdenek did a 20km section and commented that he would have brain damage if he had to continue! I was feeling pretty rough having had to endure all this and nearly 900km in a week. I felt exhausted from the heat – my heat rash returned – and my neck felt as though it had been put through the wringer. On the second last day into Luanda the boys were a real help. After just 22km I was feeling terrible, so after that we just did 10km or 15km at a time. I would then stop for a short rest and cool off. By the end of the day we’d still managed 111km and no damage was done to the schedule. The highlight of the day was seeing monkeys playing on the road, and then again a troop watched over us as we set up camp on the little used track.

6c. Monkey watches over our campsite, 120km from Luanda
Ninety kilometres out of Luanda, we finally hit good tar road. I cycled through the fishing village of Barra do Dande and across the open grassy plains to connect with the main highway into Luanda –the capital city of about 5 million. There couldn’t be more of a contrast between arriving in Brazzaville with a police escort and Luanda, which Simon claimed was on par with driving into Bombay. The beautiful Chinese-made road stopped about 20km out of the city and the highway disintegrated into patches of dips and sand. There was a constant stream of trucks heading for the busy port, most of them being driven by Chinese. Traffic was constricted by hopeless bottlenecks of bad road and the air was thick with dust. Drivers became impatient and drove on the wrong side of the road, so I had to be aware of vehicles coming in all directions. There were sirens sounding and vehicle racing in all directions. Even though I was exhausted I had to concentrate, not panic and be very alert to remain safe. In these conditions I am quicker on my bike than the vehicle which gets stuck in traffic. I think Simon had really had enough by the time we arrived too. All this time, Dan had been trying to get instructions over the phone of where to go. I had made two contacts in Luanda. Eventually we connected with Adrian Fick through our Nando’s South Africa connection – the company he works for, AngoAlissar had invited us into the country (necessary to qualify to receive visas). Adrian has very kindly put us up in his flat, so we are very fortunate to have secure accommodation in the world’s most expensive city.

8b. A fast growing city
The city centre is completely different to any other African city – it is more like a Spanish city. There are cranes working around the clock, old buildings are being restored and all the cars are new. Money is everywhere in the city centre, but the cost of living makes eating out unrealistic for us. We’ve learned of the extreme levels of corruption which result in the huge discrepancy between rich and poor. In the country, there are no facilities, hospitals do not have enough medicines and people have little. In Luanda we see shops with designer clothes. The president reportedly receives a cut of every barrel of oil pumped out of the offshore rigs (2-3 million barrels per day) and is apparently the biggest land owner in Brazil. On one hand we see investment in infrastructure and every village seems to have a new school, yet I worry what will happen when the oil runs out and the Chinese will no longer be interested in building their roads (which are not made to last). The IMF has approved a huge loan to help Angola recover – I hope they can repay it.

For now we will benefit from the smooth bitumen which runs all the way down the coast to Lobito, Benguela and pretty much to the Namibian border (apart from one bad section in the mountains near Lubango). All going well it should take about 12 days to reach the border.

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The Ten Thousandth Kilometre

by Kate on April 3, 2010

Title: Mayoko to Brazzaville

Dates: 15 to 20 March GPS:

Distance: 663km Total Distance: 10,111km

Roads: Very rough clay, gravel, sand. Mostly steep sharp hills. 75km tarmac

Weather: Very hot and humid, regular rainfall

2b. Shocking conditions on the ROC's main road to Brazzaville
Fortunately Simon recovered quickly from his allergic reaction to an insect bite and we were able to set off early on the 15th, therefore only losing one day. It had rained the previous evening and I was worried that the first section of road in particular would be a repeat of the stint we had just completed. Our sponsors, DMC Mining had ensured our security for the journey to Brazzaville and so while I set off the boys went to the gendarmerie station to collect Richard, our armed security escort. Richard sat in the front seat all the way to Dolisie in military uniform with an AK47 slung over his shoulder. After about 20km, it was evident that my chain had suddenly worn out and Dan set to and changed it very efficiently. Roughly 10km further on the road condition improved due to the regular logging trucks which compacted the clay. I made pretty good progress on this surface but had to be alert to the huge trucks from a Malaysian logging company which frequently passed. I reached my minimum goal, Mossendjo (102km from Mayoko) by 3pm, the team checked in to the Commissariat, as was the protocol for this section of the journey, and then managed a further 26km to Tsimba. Again we checked in to the Commissariat and were able to stay there the night.

1c. Being passed by a logging truck
After Makabana we turned away from the old standard gauge railway line we had been following from Mbinda (border) towards the main road. The land opened out and the hills had gentler gradients. The main road which connects ROC to Gabon was a little better maintained, but corrugated and much busier. I was regularly enshrouded with clouds of dust from logging trucks in particular. It rained in the late afternoon which fixed that problem but made a mess of me. By the end of the day I’d managed to get within 25km of Dolisie, therefore covering the distance from Mayoko to Dolisie in two days rather than the three I had allowed for. Mind you, 130km and more than 8 hours of pedalling a day on these roads takes its toll. Our DMC friends put us up in Dolisie but because we stopped 25km before the town we had to drive back the next morning so I could continue the line. In Dolisie Richard left us and we were joined by Inspector Evariste, who travelled in plain clothes and with a concealed gun.

2c. Slipped in the mud damaging same elbow as in Cameroon
It rained heavily overnight and didn’t let up for most of the day. The roads were sodden and on the other side of Dolisie, (direction Brazzaville) the route was often submerged. So it was fun and games all day; another 8 ½ hours to cover 113km! I started off trying to go around the puddles, even through the bush, but the roadsides were usually deep clay where my feet sunk up to my mid-calf at times. It was usually much better for me and the bike to cycle through the water slowly. My brakes wore out in these conditions – it was essential to be able to control the bike down the steep, extremely rough slopes. Dan made more emergency repairs. Due to the conditions and more so for security reasons we needed to reach a town where we were safe, rather than camp. Therefore I had to slip and slide my way to the town of Nkayi, a small university town with welcome asphalt roads, by the beam of the Land Rover headlights. In the early evening I fell heavily, sliding off a high point between the tyre tracks. It was like skidding on ice. I landed on the same elbow I damaged back in Cameroon and grazed the scar off. It wasn’t so serious this time and Simon just washed it before I was back to work.

4d. Sand section Dry conditions the next day allowed me to move more quickly and confidently, even if that meant being rattled to pieces. I seem to be able to average 15km an hour at best mostly due to the dried mud. In Cameroon they erected rain barriers to prevent vehicles destroying the road, and becoming stuck in wet conditions. Here there are no limits. Globules of mud formed from traffic in the wet set and form a surface which resembles degenerating cobblestones; an appalling, irregular surface to try to cycle. Staying upright and keeping the bike in one piece requires intense focus to be constantly planning the path a few metres in front of me. The scenery was superb when I did have a chance to enjoy it – I hadn’t imagined the Congo to be so beautiful (or such hard work). By the railway junction town of Loutete I had covered 85km and was psyched up for doing another 40km before dark. The Land Rover caught me just as I was through the town. I was about to enter the dangerous section of the road, controlled by the Ninja rebels. We had to stop in Loutete for the night. Evariste explained that we needed to consult the Army chief there to ask for his permission and personnel support to pass through the region. In fact for this section of the expedition we have been protected by all three security forces; military, gendarmerie, police. After cleaning ourselves up we visited the chief in the army barracks on a hilltop on the outskirts of Loutete. The chief gave us his full support and formed a plan for our protection.

The Ninja rebels of today are the remnants of a militia which participated in numerous insurgencies and civil wars in 1990’s and early 2000’s. The militia was named after the ninja of feudal Japan. Their leader, Ntoumi has been described as a cult leader and a “messianic pastor”. In 2003, he informed a journalist that the Holy Spirit told him to form the Ninjas. Ninja militiamen wore the colour purple (symbolizing suffering), and had their hair in dreadlocks. After suffering defeats in the 1997-98 civil war, the Ninja retreated to the Pool Region (which we were about to enter). In 2003, Ninja leaders signed agreements with the government to cease hostilities in Pool. Despite of the peace accords, many Ninja militiamen remained active, and engaged in robberies of civilians and train hijackings. As of 2009, active Ninja remnants still exist in the southern Pool, but numbers are small. In June 2007, Ntoumi announced that the Ninjas were “going into constructive opposition” and were determined “to work for peace in Pool and across the country”. Ninja members led by Ntoumi burned around 100 of their weapons in a ceremony in Kinkala. Ntoumi was offered a government post in September 2007, but remained in hiding until December 2009, when he went to Brazzaville to take up the post. In describing the current position of the Ninja, our Inspector Evariste said that “we have cut off the head, but the fingers are still twitching!” The remaining fighters now have nothing to fight for and cause trouble because they know little else and have no other income. They “collect tolls” from travellers to support their lifestyle. Villagers help hide them from the authorities.

We set off early the following morning past the railway junction and out of town; the tarmac slowly degenerated and then I was back on the rough road. The first thing we all noticed was that the power pylons had all been destroyed – bombed so that they doubled over. After 15km we reached a village where the army was stationed. Evariste had to negotiate the price for two soldiers to join us for the 73km to Mindouli. The Land Rover was suddenly overcrowded. Dan and Zdenek were sandwiched in the back between the soldiers, with AK47 at the ready, who sat beside the windows. Basically I had to do the distance non-stop – no time for rest breaks, water or food refills. We were forbidden to take photos, particularly of the military. The scenery again was stunning, but there was no time to capture it. I had taken my bags off the bike to try and go faster, but still ended up with the same average speed because the road is too rough and with less weight, the ride is much more uncomfortable over this terrain.

The kids in the villages here greeted us with “Chinois” (Chinese) rather than referring to us as “le Blanc” (White person) as they usually did (We are referred to as “white man” or the equivalent in each language right across Africa). Rather than “bonjour” or “cava”, here they were shouting “ni hao” or “ni hao ma” (“hello” or “how are you?” in Chinese). The children here think that anyone who is not black African must be Chinese. The Chinese are the Congo’s biggest investor now. Even on this route Dolisie has a big Chinese construction business, Nkayi has a Chinese hotel (where we stayed) and hospital and Loutete has a Chinese cement works for example.

While I was busy cycling, Evariste was apparently on the phone every 15 minutes reporting our position to his colonel and that we were safe. It took roughly 5 hours to reach Mindouli which we did without incident. There we were greeted by the military and gendarmerie and taken to meet the army chief who was in control of the Pool region. After rushing down some lunch, I was preparing myself for the next section, a 63km, reportedly very bad and more dangerous section to Kinkala. I probably could have just made it by dark, but there was no guarantee and so they made the decision that we stay in Mindouli the night and be on the road first thing the next day. It was a bit frustrating because we had to waste half a day, but I fully understood the reason why.

4e. More deep pools to carry through
We were asked to be ready by 7am – which we were – but as usual we had to wait for almost an hour for the security to arrive. When Evariste received the message that they were coming, I set off ahead of them. Ten minutes later they caught me. I was expecting a couple of soldiers to be squashed in the Land Rover, but this time we were to be escorted by a utility with seven armed soldiers on the back. Suddenly I felt a little tense as the seriousness of their intent to protect us sunk in. It was very strange to be sandwiched between a ute full of soldiers, Kalashnikovs at the ready and the Land Rover. There has been a lot of recent activity in this section and the road was laced with rickety bridges and sections of bad mud and sand – all bottlenecks where vehicles would normally have to slow down. It had rained overnight, but not too much, so the worst sites were navigable. Two trucks in separate instances though had toppled over in the mud. Before the convoy had caught me out of town I was passed by a Spanish motorcyclist and a blue ‘roaring Corolla’ with the exhaust pipe poking out of the back door window. The army immediately stopped to chat to the people in the Corolla. They were a group of Ninjas including a known assassin according to Evariste. The army prevented them from travelling ahead so that they couldn’t forewarn their colleagues of our impending arrival. 13km on and the motorcyclist got stuck in the mud causing a bit of a traffic jam. I simply picked up my bike and found a pathway dry enough on the embankment to go around. Dan and the Ninja leader helped free the motorbike. I had to wait for a soldier to check that the path ahead was clear before I could set off as the others took some time to sort themselves out.

I had been watching my odometer closely as I was just about to click over the 10,000km mark. I managed to pull my little compact camera out of my barbag while on the move to take a sneaky photo to record my ten thousandth kilometre. Just as I did so there was a gunshot coming from the bush to my left. I jumped as the shot was fired and hence the resultant image is just a blur. At this stage I was about 50 metres behind the escort feeling rather vulnerable; the Land Rover about 100metres behind me. The soldiers then swung into action and two more shots were fired. I was waved forward almost straight away. “You’re kidding” I thought but did so hesitantly, stopping behind a mound of sand. I thought at least I would not be in the direct view of the Ninjas there. The captain then waved us through. Needless to say, my average speed for the second half of the journey to Kinkala increased! I will never forget the 10,000th kilometre of the BTC expedition.

The road surface turned sandy, so there was mud and sand to deal with. There were several cases where the soldiers stopped to check who was watching in the bush. We also passed Ninja check points, where if we had been travelling alone, they would have asked for a ‘toll’ to pass. For travellers like us it is likely that we could have passed through, but it may have been expensive. The Ninjas weren’t firing at us, they were attacking the soldiers. Africans who travel through the region are more at risk of physical attack because they may not be able to pay the fees. The government and combined security forces are winning though. Evariste mentioned that they have just captured a wanted assassin – he was very pleased with this news. To say that we were pleased to reach Kinkala after 60km non-stop is an understatement. Zdenek managed to snap a few photos, so please excuse that they were taken under difficult circumstances from the back seat of the Land Rover.

4f. End of the bad road, back in govt control near Kinkala
That was the first half of the day – now I just had to cycle 75km on smooth tarmac into Brazzaville. The Chinese have started building the road from Point Noir to Brazzaville. At the moment the main road between the two biggest cities has just a few kilometres of sealed road at either end. Most people either take the train or fly; few dare to drive! The river is also used for cargo. This makes transportation of commodities difficult, but once the road is through, this will make a huge difference to the development of infrastructure and businesses.

From the top of the hill at Makabana, 25km out I could see over Brazzaville, across the mighty Congo River to the high rise buildings of Kinshasa in the DRC. The outskirts of Brazzaville were a dusty, chaotic mess. Crossing a small bridge we were met by TV cameras and police ready to escort us through the city. Talk about going from one extreme to the other! Usually negotiating traffic in African cities is a hair-raising experience. I don’t know how many traffic jams we caused in the next 7km, but it was a pleasure to have a clear run and even see some of the town. Greeting us at the hotel was Henri Okemba, ex-minister and in charge of DMC in ROC and the press. The following afternoon I was a guest of the Minister for Mining, Mr Pierre Oba. The meeting was in the gazebo of his home on the Congo River waterfront where I received an official welcome; the discussion again filmed by the TV cameras for the evening news. Then it was canapés and champagne in the garden!

4g. With the soldiers who escorted us through safely
The team was invited as Mr Oba’s guests for dinner along with Mr Okemba and some other officials. The minister explained that the Republic of Congo has just received full debt relief. Due to many factors, the civil wars being the most tallying, the climate for investors has, in the recent past been poor. But times are changing. In 2006, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Paris Club group of official creditor countries approved interim debt relief for Congo under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative, noting that Congo had performed satisfactorily on an IMF-supported reform program and developed an interim Poverty Reduction Strategy. Resources that are freed by interim debt relief granted to Congo are used for poverty reduction under a reform program closely monitored by the international financial institutions. And so for the Minister for Mines to proudly announce that his country has just been granted the thumbs up from the international community for national debt relief, this is a huge step for the ROC’s development and investment opportunities. It is proof that they have improved transparency immensely and with the country achieving peace the government is paving the way to attract investors and international business (such as DMC Mining). Our incident was really insignificant compared with where they have come from and proof that they are serious about wiping out the remaining handful of militants. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the ROC had been a place to avoid, but the debt relief means they have funds to rebuild and improve the quality of life of the four million people. There is definitely a way to go, but they have strong leadership who are building the foundations. The fact that a minister of the ROC government embraces what the BTC project stands for – the ideology and the action – really empowers me and ensures that the team starts off on the second half of the expedition on a high note.

6c. At dinner that evening. We have had great support from the government
The team has been so well looked after in Brazzaville. Obtaining visas for Angola has been the biggest bureaucratic obstacle threatening the challenge of cycling across Africa from west to east in a continuous line. No travellers’ website lists anyone being successful in obtaining an Angolan visa to travel through the country from north to south. People can intermittently get 5 day transit visas which would be inappropriate for me as I need to cycle nearly 2000km through the country. Initially we came up against a brick wall, but thanks to the intervention and persistence from the Minister of Mines and our friends at DMC Mining, we’ve just collected 30 day visas. We are very excited to have the opportunity to travel through Angola, a country which most know nothing about – 27 years of civil war, landmines and blood diamonds are what most people will have heard about. Before Angola, we have to cross Congo River to Kinshasa, the massive capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. We intend to take 3 days to traverse the state of Bas Congo before entering Angola.

Five months done; five months to go!