Round-the-world cyclist Charlie Walker finds himself in the back blocks of the DRC on his 27th birthday. How will he mark the occasion?
A white helmeted blur of squealing engine, light skin and piercingly-blue eyes on the road turned around one afternoon and materialised into Liam: a Yorkshireman on a Honda C90 motorbike, eleven months into a round-the-world journey. As we chatted, we expressed frustrations and exhaustion with travel in Africa. He had been stranded in Ghana for three months after his passport mysteriously 'disappeared' in the Benin embassy when he applied for a visa. It never re-surfaced and a replacement was slow to arrive.
Liam warned me of dire jungle tracks ahead of me in Cameroon and I warned him of dire jungle tracks ahead in DRC. Liam had set out a couple of years ago on a bicycle to make a world circumnavigation. After eleven days he had to swallow his pride and fly home with a bust knee. Two weeks after I met him, he somehow fell (along with his bike and all his belongings) off the ferry across the Congo river. The bike sank without a trace and he bravely swallowed his pride once more. Perhaps my journey has run me low at times but, relatively speaking, my luck has run high. I am still cycling and haven't been forced off my chosen path. Could I ever swallow my pride as Liam now has twice? How much of what has driven my journey has been wanderlust and how much simply stubborn pride?
The dire tracks became reality and my progress slowed. I was forced to illegally extend my visa expiry date with a ballpoint pen. 5s become 8s gratifyingly easily. I crossed the equator at some point but no sign informed me of this.
My 27th birthday was remembered mid-morning when I stopped into a roadbuilding worker's camp for water. The Chinese drivers and managers gave me a beer and chuckled at my mispronounced and misremembered efforts at their language. They were interested to see a European passport and when I obliged one pointed out that today was my special day. We drank another beer and I cycled on in a cheery mood. Whatever the policies of the Chinese government, the individuals shipped overseas, convicts or not, are just people and are as friendly as any of the villagers I met in China.
Roadside Pygmy villages nestled in small, carefully maintained forest clearings. The short, jaunty people marvelled and grinned at me while carrying cassava, bushmeat or firewood to and fro in small backpacks made from sticks and vine. I never received the brusque shouts for attention in Pygmy villages that I'd become used to in most of Africa. There is a quietness and gentleness about them that is quite endearing. Next to most villages is an area of recently logged space which (on first instinct) saddened me until I saw it is being used to grow crops. This is the other side to deforestation: if the population expands, the forest must recede if the people are to live anything other than a hunter-gatherer existence. This is how Europe lost its once-dominant forests and how Europeans advanced as they did.
Charlie Walker is a bicycle adventurer who is a quarter of the way through a four year, 40,000 mile cycle trip to the four corners of the Earth. He is hoping to raise £20,000 for a variety of charities. You can follow his exploits on his website, CharlieWalkerExplore.