Africa Bikes

Recollections of a Tourist – Day 1

The strip of road wove its way up from Goma, snaking its way up through the volcanoes of the Virunga, coiling itself through the forest which, in my mind at least, is always streaming and dripping with thick wood-smoke mists.  A light rainbow sheen of oil flowed down the road to the town, the leaking vital juices of one of the many critically injured trucks that journeyed in a steady stream from Zaire to the Rwandan boarder, just the far side of the town.

I was in the bar across from the ‘Bar étoile’ drinking a beer, with my back to the Catholic Mission with its pristine sheets and stain free walls. I was watching as Jimmy, a street kid that had decided to adopt me the previous week, caught insects by their thickly swollen abdomens, toasted them with my lighter and ate them; returning the lighter each time with a serious “Than- you sir” that carried all the gravity of a neutron star.

Then Charlie returned, “Screw me – that kid is eating those things?”  he drawled  in his wade-through-treacle Canadian slur, his foppish blond hair falling expertly across his eye. “That’s disgusting!”

“Did you manage to sort it?” I questioned him.  He just grinned and help up two keys.

The bikes were 125cc, but well powered-down and held together in the ingenious and highly irregular Africa style.  Every corner was an unexpected adventure as the handling changed constantly as bits wobbled loose and shifted position.  We cleared the town and gaining grip on the oil sheened road, we started the climb into the forest, past the boys on gigantic wooden bicycles that rode the hill at bone snapping speed.  Charlie sped ahead; I watched his back wheel start to vibrate in its elliptical orbit about its hub.  The tyre was hardly throwing up any water as the smooth baldness of the tyre slide and snatched at the tarmac.

“He’s very foolish” tutted Malki from the pillion.

“He is a bloody idiot.” I replied as Charlie swerved  sharply around a blind corner and was swallowed from sight  into the leafy folded of the Virunga.

The three of us had been together just over a week, with Charlie and I having traveled for the previous three months through central Africa.  We had met Malki in the bar opposite the ‘Bar étoile.’

Charlie was a self-confessed Canadian Pot dealer, the self-confessed cocaine addict who proudly showed his passport to me, revealing a wide eyed, strung out pale boy with two red-raw nostrils that looked back at you out from the photograph, as if it were from a medical journal.

“And like my boss was so cool, he like bought me a brand new Jeep Cherokee, like man it was so cool, with these big headlights and air horn! I used it to cruise between my pot houses making pick-ups, man it was cool.” reminisced Charlie one night.

“Wasn’t it dangerous? You could get arrested?”

“No man! Totally safe!”

“You’re telling me that you got paid a lot of money, got given a free car and all for doing a job with no risk attached to it at all?”

“Yer, man! My boss was, like, you know, he was like, a  friend!”

I looked at him then, with his denim waistcoat, bare arms with a skeletal head of some cattle tattooed on his upper arm.  He had a wide brim Spanish hat, a guitar, I never saw him play and a very visible copy of Jack Kerouac’s  ‘On the Road’, in his pocket I had never seen him read. He was a young man in his early twenties, who had appeared to have built himself a personality and identity out of stereotypes and clichés, a pastiche of an idea of the world traveller, with dodgy and somewhat confused past.  He was perfect for Africa.

Malki adjusted himself on the pillion of the bike, sending it snaking across the road.

“Sit still!” I shouted at him, as I tried to see where Charlie had got to. A thin drizzle had started to fall.  This was expected, the old saying went that Zaire had two seasons, a wet season, and a really wet season.

We had met Malki, at the bar. He had more poise and confidence than the other street kids that milled about and we got talking.  After a few beers we had mentioned our plan to go out to visit the Gorillas on motorbikes, and naturally Malki could organise it.  He would also come with us, since it had been a while since he had been up into the Virungu and a citizen of Zaire, he informed us, could accompany a trip for free.  He also suggested we take a bottle of Jonny Walker to share, as he liked this.

That night we retired to a room with sand coloured walls, open to the creaking humid air on one side, where an ancient video played a James Bond film on a dilapidated TV.  The noise of the audience was far too loud for the trembling TV speakers and each James Bond style flourish was seen as a mime to the whoops and cheers of the excited crowd.  Bond was somewhere in North Africa and in the middle of an escape with puffs of smoke and dozens of Jellabiya clothed people tumbling to their doom.  Malki was screaming, sweat pouring off his face, as each jerking figure hit the floor, his eyes bright with excitement.

“I hate Arabs!” he snarled out, before letting out a particularly large yell as Bond machine gunned a few more.

Malki’s hatred came from a recent spell in a Sudanese prison.  He had managed to travel overland and through the deeply porous borders of the Desert as far as Egypt, where he had made a  living selling stolen traveller’s cheques with an Israeli man.  It was upon his return, presumably with some money that he fell afoul of the Sudanese authorities.  He was sketchy on the details, but I could imagine that his illicit money had been exchanged for a few beatings, before he was eventually thrown out, to make his own way back to Zaire.

Now we were off on two bikes hired from a gang of straggly youths to visit the Gorillas that high up in the forest, on the boarder of Zaire and Uganda. We found Charlie at the side of the road having a cigarette break.  We joined him, and Malki carefully inspected Charlie’s sleeping bag, held on to a flimsy rack at the back of the bike that embraced the precious Jonny Walker.

The tarmac ran out with our luck.  A police, or possibly an army road block, what we could see was that they were uniformed and carrying guns,  guarded the turn off that would lead us up a perilously rutted track, to the base of the Gorilla camp.  I had become used to being stopped at gun point, and it is not as alarming as you would first expect. The person with the gun will have some authority, but probably no pay, so he was subsidising his non-existent income by a little localised fining and some petty confiscating.  I understood this and never minded the guns, they were probably loaded, but the bullets were reassuringly too expensive to waste, and the trouble too big if they had tried.

The proceeding followed the usual plot.

“Can I see you driving licence?” I handed over the licences of the straggly street kids we had hired the bikes off. “This is not you!”

“We hired the bikes from Goma, we are going to see the Gorillas”

“Can I see you passport?” I handed over a photocopy. “Do you have the original?”

“No” I lied; it was securely packed away in a plastic lined pouch against my skin, but if I had given him my passport, he would have had all the bargaining chips.

“Do you have a permit for this road?” his voice was rising.

“No”

Do you have insurance?”

“No”

“Then you are a very bad man and you will have to go to prison!” the uniformed man shouted at me.

I apologised.  Charlie was glowering at the man and clearly working himself up into a rage that would be both calamitous and expensive for us.  I apologised again and suggested that perhaps it would be possible to buy a temporary permit for the few days we would need to see the Gorillas?  He smiled and I offered a cigarette, he took it and I gestured that he should keep the packet.  He put his arm around my shoulders and we wandered away from the group to negotiate our ‘temporary permits”.

As we rode away all pretence of formality had gone.  I asked for a slip of paper to promise us safe passage on our return, but he waved this notion away.

“Don’t worry, we are here all week!” and dismissed us with a flick of his hand.

The road now became a rutted nightmare, with glue-like mud, in places feet deep, and iron rock on the ridges.  The bike plunged and wallowed through it, spluttering and chocking on the water and mud.  We kept losing each other. Charlie would find an open stretch and open up his bike, whilst I floundering once again into a pot hole.  Correcting the bike and physically pulling it out, we would set off in pursuit, only to find Charlie, half submerged in a puddle or stranded in the jungle after a swerve to avoid some hidden danger on the road.

Night was falling as we stopped for a rest. We were panting from the exertion of continually dragging mud soaked bikes out of holes, and then Charlie broke the bad news.

“Man, I lost my bag!”

“What happened?”

“Dunno it kind of must of come loose and man, it’s just gone!”

We turned to look at Malki who seemed to be taking the loss stoically.

“Man it contained the Whisky!”  Charlie drawled at him, and Malki was off and running.  We watched him disappear down the road, in frantic search of his beloved scotch, and night settled on the mountain.

And night fell like a shroud.  The utter blackness of the jungle night settled upon us like a weight.  We had long ago discovered the bikes had damaged batteries and the only way to get the headlights working was to keep them running, and then with a lot of revs or speed. This was not ideal on such a treacherous road, and in the feeble beam that leaped wildly as the bikes skited around the road, you had no warning as to the next hazard, rather experiencing it as your chest was thrown onto the handlebars, or the bike leap up trying to smash you teeth.   Then all power died on my little bike and I was plunged into a particularly deep hole and came to rest, in soft oozing mud with a burning bike on me, in the pitch black.  I was exhausted.  I had steadily lost a lot of weight in Africa, and poor eating and a few diseases had left their mark.  I was done in.

Charlie and Malki turned back. I was out of petrol, we had no idea how far the Gorilla station was, but we had no option.  Charlie and Malki went ahead to find the station or petrol. I was left the tiresome task of pushing the bike steadily upwards in the hope that help would arrive before I had to spend the night.

It was a deeply strange experience pushing the bike through the mud.  It was totally black, as black as if I were in a coal mine.  It was velvet black and the warm thick air had a texture to it, rich with the particular smell that damp wood gives as it begins to burn.  I struggled onwards, dropping the bike, when it suddenly disappeared down a hole, or smashing my legs on rocks.  A few times I wandered off the road and fell, down the short banks that mark the start of the jungle.   And then the noises came.  The usual shriek of a night bird the creak and the rustle of the black forest, but underneath this was another more violent noise.  It was a huge rush of water, which grew in intensity with each step, until it was as if a train were passing me.  I felt it in the air that changed to a sweet thick-water taste that gave the sense of an enormous, unstoppable power nearby.  The water seemed to fill the night, the noise was everywhere and disorientating.    The road clearly lead past a violent mountain river, but in the dark I had no judgement as to how near it was.  I could now be standing on the very edge of that vast rushing force, about to step into it.

Slowly the sounds diminished as I struggled my way uphill.  Then on the point when I was about to be reunited with the familiar sounds of the dark a hand closed over mine and a blast of alcohol announced “What are you doing”.  He must have been centimetres from my face.  I pushed out a hand in the dark and felt it connect with a chest.  More voices came; more booze soaked warm breath filled my nostrils.  I was amazed anyone could have found me in the dark.  Lots of voices now and some shouting.  I tried the bike again in desperation, found the kick start with my hand, guided my foot into place and stamped down hard.  To my amazement the bike roared to life and light leapt out from the headlight illuminating a huddle of seven or so men in the late stages of advanced inebriation.  I grinned at them, relieved to have the use of my eyes returned to me and sprang on the bike, praying that it wouldn’t just give up, that by some miracle the tiny bit of petrol collected in the bottom of the tank would somehow deliver me.  I shot away into the dark, throttle as wide as I could get it, engine screaming in protest, bouncing wildly and erratically, not caring about the fall that was inevitably about to happen, when I felt the ground level.  As the engine died a final time, as the headlights were extinguished, I managed to glimpse a little hut, a motorbike by the side, and the familiar silhouettes of Charlie and Malki.

“Too dangerous!  Elephants!” said a voice.

“There are no elephants here” I protested, “it’s perfectly safe; there are no elephants halfway up a bloody jungle-coated volcano!”

“Wild elephants!” the voice went on, “wild, wild elephants!”

I looked at Charlie, “Looks like no one is going to get us to the gorilla station tonight, we will have to sleep here and head up first thing.”

We rolled the last remaining sleeping bag onto the beaten-earth floor and all three of us slid underneath it.  It was getting cold.  We were hungry and had lost the whisky.

“Why can’t we go up tonight?” asked Charlie.

“They say there are elephants on the mountain and the climb is too dangerous”

“Elephants?”  queried Charlie from the dark.

“God only knows, they say’ elephants’, but it may mean something else, my French is terrible, I am exhausted and I don’t have any whisky to drink”  I turned to Malki who with typical African lack of inhibition was already cuddling up to me for warmth.  “Are there elephants?” I asked.

“Could be elephants, also, could not be elephants.”  he sighed as sleep overtook him.

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