Charlie Walker has to resort to all kinds of trickery to realise his dream of travelling to the DRC...
Our plan was to travel through the Democratic Republic of Congo. To that end, Archie and I headed to the DRC embassy in our best clothes: travel-worn collared shirts, jeans (mine patched in the crotch), a neat ponytail and trimmed beard, cheap aviator sunglasses, a jacket I borrowed from a Zambian man, and both of us in sandals (Archie with black socks underneath to hide his bare skin). We looked like bizarre, aspiring gangsters as we took our seats to wait in the reception.
The fat, apathetic woman behind the glass instantly said "No tourist visas." We persevered and eventually she accepted our applications and told us to return in the afternoon. We did so, looking equally daft, and were told that our applications had been rejected in Kinshasa (DRC's capital) as we are not Zambian residents.
By day we got busy accumulating and creating the various documents that the DRC embassy in London would require in order to grant us a visa. These numbered about 15 each in the end and (among others) included the following:
- Proof of employment (forged)
- Police records check (forged)
- Official and authorised letter of invitation (cost £100)
- Proof of return flights (forged)
- Itinerary (fabricated)
- Proof of sufficient funds of $60/day for three month visa (most definitely forged)
- Permission stamps from nine different officials (including head of security service)
- Hotel booking
- Proof of guide meeting us at border
Our last day in the valley was also Zillah's. After seven years in a fairly remote and wild setting among a small group of close friends/colleagues, Zillah flew home that afternoon. In the evening we joined the twenty or so people she had lived and worked with in the bar of a lodge. This small tribe of whites in Africa mourned the loss of one of their members in the only way they knew how: a long night of heavy drinking peppered with numerous toasts to the freshly absent friend.
With sluggish brains, we began our journey back to Lusaka the following morning. It became a 25-hour hitchhike with several rides in a variety of vehicles. We sat in the back of a pick up truck and munched on sugarcane with farmhands and we dozed in the cot behind the seats in a truck cabin driven by a small smiling man named Hendrix.
Back in Lusaka we sent our passports and documents to the UK. The London agent said more documents were required so we paid the Kinshasa agent to get us more permission stamps and started riding slowly northward. Our passports would be sent to a town near the Congolese border.
After three weeks of frustrating inactivity, it was with heavy legs that we pedalled out of the city, Archie on a shiny new bike and starting his first ever bike tour. With more headwinds, we worked as a two man pelaton, taking turns to ride in the other's slipstream. We took long lunches and late starts. There was truly no rush. One lunchtime a large, plump cobra stumbled upon our clearing in the bush and came within a metre of my head (laid on the ground) before turning tail and fleeing.
At Kabwe we left the main road and took the dusty back tracks. We found perfect campsites and made campfires in our little nests of flattened vegetation surrounded by a wall of long grass. We took water from wells and washed in river pools. Boiled eggs on wood-smoked toast for breakfast started the day, and slow-stewed vegetables and spices finished it. Friendly, house proud villagers waved from their huts with a spread of various pots and old tyres around the doorway with carefully tended green plants and herbs growing from them.
Tomorrow, our passports arrive in Kitwe and the following day we enter DRC. A country that attracts me and chills me in equal measure.
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