Reaching the 2°N 31°E confluence
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The goal of the project is to visit each of the latitude and longitude integer degree intersections in the world, and to take pictures at each location. The pictures, and stories about the visits, will then be posted on www.confluence.org.
I tried du visit 2°N31E twice, in august 2008, and this is the first successful visit of one of the 189 confluences in D. R. of Congo.
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.
- Landscape of the transition between the high plateau and the rift valley
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
- A typical bridge in the area
- On our way back, there was an 8t-truck upside down on this bridge : the major beam had collapsed !
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 Kakoi 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.
- A little market on the side of the road
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.
- The Confluence point is near the river, down in the valley
Better prepared this time than last week’s failed attempt, I found 3 partners to reach the CP : David, working on a road rehabilitation project in Rimba, Matthieu, newly arrived in Congo, to whom I will soon transfer my duties in Mahagi, and Hassan, David’s driver.
I decided to rent for myself a Chinese motorbike, a Senke, whereas my friends preferred to take the Yamaha AG100. Thumi and Ageno are our two drivers.
It’s 8:00 a.m. as we all start our journey, on this sunny Sunday morning. Throughout the trip, we see many people walking by the roadside to go to church (’church’ is a big word for the little hut in which the Mass is celebrated). However, the drivers know their jobs, and the motorbikes run speedily towards the objective of the day.
We are on the high plateau at the border of the rift valley, and the soil is still damped from the heavy rainfalls of the night. As we ride, surrounded by fields of sweet potatoes, we suddenly bump into a flock of helmeted guineafowls. How can a bird have such a hideous head ? By chance, they taste succulent, which is a much better quality than beauty... They run off as we pass them.
The Breakdown (again)
The trip continues and we begin our descent on the rocky and badly eroded road. The Senke is much more comfortable than the Japanese bike. It’s a real pleasure to sit on the rear of it and appreciate the landscape. Here, due to tectonic activity, the mountains are highly folded, and the slopes are all very stiff. But soon, we have to stop, because of a flat tire. "One breakdown is usual", says Thumi. Good to know. David and Matthieu now have to share the back seat of the motorbike driven by Hassan, and they all start off again in a rather uncomfortable position. A couple of kilometres later, we enter a small village and ask for a ’colleur’ (literally a ’gluer’, i.e. someone who puts glue on inner tubes to repair them). Without any single tool the tire is removed from the wheel, the inner tube cleaned with a sharp stone, and fixed with a piece of rubber.
While this is going on I meet the tailor of the village, who is sewing a little girl’s dress on his manual sewing machine, regularly ironing it with a coal-heated iron. I try to speak with him, while eating a yam tuber I had bought on the side of the road. Unfortunately it is not very sweet and difficult to finish. Many women wearing colorful loinclothes walk along the road to or from Mahagi, all carrying stuff on their head. My gaze slowly follows them as they pass in front of me. I really find what is called here ’African buttocks’, really attractive...
An hour later, the three motorbikes continue the trip down to Apala. We arrive at Kakoyi river, where the bridge had been destroyed by a powerful flood many years ago, leaving the area isolated. The only means of crossing the river is by dugout canoe with the help of the many children working there all day long. After a short bargaining, we agree on a price to cross the river. The Chinese motorbike is carried by 5 youths, whereas the other two motorbikes are loaded onto the small canoe. Everybody here stare at the three whites that cross the river like Congolese people do.
- Traversée de la rivière Kakoï
We pay the fee, 6000 Ugandan Shillings (3.70 US-$ / 2.60 €). Note that in this part of Ituri, the Congolese Franc, the official currency of Congo, is unused ; people are used to pay in the foreign country’s currency.
On the other side of the river, the road leads up to Mokambo, via a long, stiff slope. It is now 12:00 p.m., the sunlight is very bright, and as I look at people pushing their bikes loaded with notebooks, I remember last week’s attempt. It is back to school in a couple of days, and many people are bringing school supplies to sell in Mokambo.
The Confluence Point
After Mokambo, the road is in good condition, and we drive quite fast on the dirt road that follows the ridge of the hill, with a scenic view on Lake Albert. Just after Apala, we turn right onto a small footpath scarcely covered by trees. However, the track is very narrow and we soon have to leave the bikes to continue on foot - 900 m to reach the confluence point. We follow a little path that leads right to the river, where the confluence point is supposed to be. We cross all kinds of fields while walking downhill. It’s 13:00 p.m., and the sun is
becoming stronger. We arrive in the flood zone at the bottom of the valley, being very close to our goal, and we begin our search of 2N 31E. But this time, we don’t have a regular GPS, and we must use the Thuraya satellite phone’s GPS function. Not very easy, but after many tries, triangulating points in the middle of cotton and rice fields, we succeed in being as close to the confluence point as we can. To progress through the wildest parts of the area, we definitely need to use the machete.
We take a few pictures, and under a bright sun begin our walk back to the motorbikes left on top of the hill. Our two drivers are awaiting us, but during our leave, they met the local FARDC (Army Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo) soldier, sent by the village chief, to question us on our intentions. Difficult to explain exactly what we are doing... Saying we’re just tourists is not much better. So we just say we are here to have an overview of the area. Given that we are working for an international NGO, he seems to believe us and lets us go.
On our way back, we stop in Mokambo for a drink under a straw hut in open air, surrounded by an increasing number of children and passers-by (reaching almost 50 people).
The Lion King Pride Rock
Then, a few kilometres later, I decide to take a walk to see a very odd rock, at the top of a nearby hill. It seems like this rock is just laid there, and should be a perfect point of view on the whole valley. Through wild grass fields, we reach the bottom of the huge rock. It is actually a pile of basalt rock deeply worn out by water. A big rodent (as big as a dog !) runs away when I try to look in a narrow cave-like passage. Being a caver, I must explore this cave. I begin to crawl on bat guano and rodent dungs, and I manage to exit on the other side of the rock. Very nice. David joins me, and after climbing three meters, we stand on top of the Pride Rock. Amazing view ! According to locals, this rock is made of Coltan. Coltan is a metallic ore found in commercial quantities in DRC, and used in cellphones and laptops. This ore is believed to finance DRC’s ethnic war and is smuggled by Rwanda.
We get back to the bikes. It’s very late, the sun is setting, black clouds are gathering above our heads and we are still very far from Mahagi. Our detour to look at Atata rock took us a lot of time.
We reach Mahagi by night. A heavy rain will fall the whole night. However, our sleep won’t be disturbed and our dreams will be filled with images of the day.