Book 2, Chapter 48
The shutters open, and as the dreams fade away and the realisation sinks in of where I am - and what that means - it’s greeted with a dollop of dread and anxiety.
Right in the pit of my stomach.
Here it comes again; that little hell. That small terror of detaching from the familiar and going out into the unknown.
Today it’s stronger than usual. Much stronger. It makes me want to stay in my hovel, which I hate, and wait for help to come.
I get up and go through the motions like any other day. For lack of a better breakfast alternative I’m stuck with Chocopan and bread again.
Eating’s less like something I want to do and more like a mechanical ramming of the food into my face.
I feel like shit. Nauseated for no reason.
I know that this feeling is irrational - and extremely unconstructive - but instead of taking the time to change my outlook or attitude I just suppress it; it’ll change when I’m on the Shrike, the Shrike always changes everything.
I load up and wheel out. It's the first time The Shrike's seen the light of day in over a week.
The chain is absurdly loose. The word to describe it would be "flappy". By streets this is the loosest that it's been the entire trip.
It's absurd that I had an entire week of practically doing nothing to work on the bike, or at least give it a looking at, and I didn't bother.
For the whole week in Dolisie I can’t think of a single moment that I had any motivation to do anything, bike or otherwise.
I ponder fixing it up here and now.
No, fuck that, it'll be alright.
The only road that I’ve got on my GPS is the one that I’m going to take. It's a humongous detour, but my primary concern is not getting lost. And I've been told that the more direct roads are a crapshoot - a few hundred kilometres of scrubby goat track.
As part of the detour I'll have to go through the “Pool Region” of the Congo.
I've been told it's super dodgy. The "Boko Region" within the Pool Region is even worse, I'll have to go through that too...
It'll no doubt be character building.
But, for now I've got four hundred kilometres of fresh tarmac to ride.
I hit the "N1" and it all rolls off me.
I feel better.
The sky is darkly overcast and looking pretty ominous on the eastern horizon, I'm making a beeline right at it...
There’s always something to stress about, right?
The tarmac road ends. It just finishes...
There’s a forced detour, it's signed “OLD N1” with an arrow off to the side. It's a shitty, dusty dirt track...
Covered in dust, half blind and all brown. I roll into Loutete.
The tarmac was just a tease. Nothing more.
I spent about half the ride on well graded dirt - the foundations of the "NEW N1" - and the other half on the "OLD N1", which was a fucking nightmare.
So many trucks.
So much dust.
The road’s a goddamn moonscape. The base layer is hard, pointy, solid rock. Punctureville. Floating on top of the base is a thick layer of sediment with the lightness and fineness of talcum powder. I'm not exaggerating.
Big long haul trucks would come flying through at a stonking, breakneck speed and kick up a biblical amount of dust.
And getting stuck behind one... Fuck.
Imagine someone throwing gritty talcum powder right in your face - every moment - for six hours...
So much for a merry jaunt on the tarmac...
In Loutete the Shrike gets a half arsed service. She needs it.
I check the air box and I'm delighted there’s no dust on the inside.
That filter’s doing a bang up job.
All the bolts get tightened.
The chain gets re-tensioned. The links are all very loose and jingle. Can't be long now till that carks it...
I'm in the mood, so I decide to muck around with the clutch play. I jam an allen-key into the clutch pivot where it connects to the engine cover, just to keep it engaged while I remove the cable. The fucker lets go like a crossbow. The allen-key goes flying, lucky not to take out my eye...
Anyway, I replace the nut and grease the actual clutch handle, which has been squeaking. I notice that the cable at the clutch end has worn out a section of its conduit. Then I realise that in Accra I'd put it in all wrong; there's a sleeve that slots into another sleeve to hold the cable straight. This is why the cable wouldn't fit the first time... I fix it and now instead of the clutch motion feeling like shit, all heavy, hard and grungy, it's as smooth and as light as you like. I'm thrilled with the outcome and wish I'd picked up on it sooner. After that the chain gets an oiling and it's job done.
A good afternoons work and it makes me feel really good.
A real morale boost.
I’m still on that pendulum. On the roller coaster ride with my eyes shut.
All extremes. No peaceful middle.
I go from feeling like going for a jog to feeling like passing out.
Feeling vulnerable to feeling invincible.
Feeling like crying to grinning like an idiot in bliss.
Feeling rushed to feeling like I’m going too fast.
No stability, no level-headedness.
I know that it's all a choice, how I choose to think. How I choose my attitude.
And yet I just let my emotional state ying and yang where it wants like sheets in the wind.
Someone's banging on my door.
It’s dark, I’m naked on my bed, bolt upright.
The initial jolt passes. I'm shitting it.
I listen, keenly.
There’s nothing that anyone could possibly need out of me at this time of the night.
They knock again, even louder.
It’s either someone wants me to open the door so that they can do some form of violence to me, or someone wants me to open the door so that I can move my motorcycle or something trivial and stupid.
As far as I'm concerned, both of these people can get fucked.
They bang again...
I’m tempted to get up and give this person a piece of my mind, risky or not...
I hear them walk off.
I lie back down and try to get back to sleep.
Good luck with that...
I cog where I am and immediately the dread sets in.
It's becoming the status quo.
And I don't know why; I’ve no attachment to this place - I haven’t even been here for a single day yet. So why this feeling? It’s all out of place.
I go through the motions and get out of town.
I'd been told that the road to Mindouli is pretty shit, but that it comes good out the other side.
Here we go...
I hit Mindouli.
The "NEW N1" disappears completely. Only the "OLD N1" is left.
And it's even worse than yesterday, if that's even possible...
The intel couldn’t have been more wrong.
It shits me to tears. This happens all the time; people won’t ever tell you that they don't know something if they don't know. Ever. They just can’t ever say “I don’t know”. I've never heard those words. Instead, they'll just take a guess and present it as fact.
This fucking road is a case in point.
You'd think I'd learn my lesson...
It gets worse, again.
I'm on a constant bounce. All over the place.
Nothing but constant attention will suffice. To pick the right track is to bounce, to pick the wrong one is to bottom out the suspension with a bang.
If yesterday was like having a fistful of talcum powder thrown in your face every minute, this is like having a snow blower hose you down with the stuff. Constantly.
Like someone throwing a bucket of sand in a mulcher pointed at your face while you're trying to keep your eyes open or you might crash and break a fucking leg.
The thickness of the powder seems to have doubled. It's so thick that the tyres are starting to slide on it. Like riding on soap, even though it's completely dry. Unbelievable.
It puffs when I walk in it, and when I kick a pile of it it's like kicking air. Like being on the fucking moon!
The traffic's worse. Even worse.
Yesterday the majority of the traffic was coming toward me, so you'd get a quick flash of dust and after maybe ten or twenty seconds the slight cross-breeze would shift it off the road.
Today most of the traffic is going in my direction. There's no crosswind. Not a breath.
I'm spending half my time trying to pass trucks.
The plumes of dust are biblical, and hey go back forever. There's never any respite; no matter how far back you are from the next truck you're always in it's wake.
Trying to get around trucks is a goddamn nightmare. So flaky. I have to tailgate a truck while getting pumped full of powder, and then blindly overtake when I'm feeling lucky, squinting through the sepia tinted visor, trying to spot the oncoming truck before it kills you.
At least twice I thought that "this is it"; life, over.
Each time the oncoming truck missed me by a few feet, spraying me with dust out the other end.
Whenever I’m not dicing with death I’m struggling constantly with tyre grip. I'm in a constant state of sliding around on this shit.
When I bury into a deep section of it, or accidentally put The Shrike onto any sort of sideways gradient I can't do much else other than cross my fingers; the tyres will do whatever the hell they want to do.
Over and over and over and over again I’m a fraction away from washing out the tyres and binning the bike. Every time I use the brakes I lock up the tyres and slide.
It’s impossible, tough, white knuckle riding.
After a few hours my throttle hand cramps and locks up from hanging on in a monkey grip.
And there's still so far left to go... We're not even close.
Somewhere along the line, the trucks thin out, and I’m left on the road all alone.
The talcum powder thins out too.
Instead of dust the air is choc-full of butterflies - more than I’ve seen anywhere on the trip – they’re everywhere, and they seem to say “it’s over, well done.”
I wonder if they've been there all along, and I haven't seen them because of the dust...
At this speed it's only little hits once every so often on the helmet.
I open my sepia tinted visor, and see colour again. I feel the wind on my face for the first time in a long time, and suddenly there’s peace.
It’s been a long time coming, and the day's almost over...
Something doesn’t feel quite right. I can’t put my finger on it...
No, something’s definitely up.
I duck my head around to inspect.
The rear tyre is just a little bit deflated...
Shit! Nightmare!! No no no fuck fuck fuck!!
Can I make it to Kinkala, the next stop? It’s so close. Only thirty clicks away.
If I make it there I can get help...
Damnit! Of course not, ya dickhead. You can't ride on a flat tyre for thirty clicks!
So here it is, then, one of my nightmare scenarios that I mentally derange myself with while on the road (the puncture of the rear tyre and having a chain explosion are my current favourites).
I pull over.
Here we go.
I whip off all my hot riding gear; my first concern is sweating out; I've got no water left...
Second concern is the fact I've skipped lunch. Again. A poor choice.
My third concern is the actual tyre...
I'm full of nervous adrenaline. I can’t stay calm.
I inspect the tyre.
Sure enough there's a dirty great big flathead nail right in the middle of it.
That's a good start; because at least it's obvious. It'd be worse if I couldn't find the cause and just end up with the same problem a little further down the road. That'd be a disaster.
It's also good because it's not my fault; a more skilful rider couldn't have avoided it.
The sun's already got me sweating, it's mixing with the brown dust in my shirt to make mud.
I look around for shade.
Shade on the road here is extremely rare, yet there's a small patch in a ditch on the other side of the road where a small embankment has cast a tiny slither of shade.
I roll the bike over with the rear tyre wallowing about and complaining.
I park it up in the ditch and get to work.
Step one, remove nail.
I can't get at it...
I haven’t even started yet and I can’t even do that; the nail’s all the way in and flush with the tyre. My pliers can't get a purchase on the bastard. They keep slipping off the head of the nail. Doesn’t matter where I try to grab it from, or how hard I squeeze, I can’t keep a hold of it, and the pliers slip and snap shut again and again and again.
It’s like a giant splinter, and the pliers are the tweezers. Like one of those hateful splinters you’ve got to go dig for, and end up butchering your skin to get to...
I use one finger to put downward pressure on the head of the pliers so that the bloody thing won't slip off, and squeeze like hell on the plier grips with the other hand.
The pliers slip off the nail and my finger gets crushed.
I hear the skin crunch.
Moron! How did I not see that coming?
The top layer of skin didn’t break, but all the other layers did... The blood’s welling up and swelling into an enormous blood-blister.
I need to change tactics...
Out comes the screwdriver.
I wedge it under the head of the nail and it levers out. Easy. Shoulda done that the first time...
A car’s coming round the corner. I flag it down and ask the driver – via charades – if he’s got an air pump.
They point at a scooter coming the other way. I flag him down, and, yep, he’s got a pump.
My saviours as tatty and covered in dust as I am. His name is Albert.
Problem is though, he’s come too soon; there’s a lot of work to be done before I need a pump. It's literally the last thing I need to do... I’m conscious of wasting Albert’s time.
I almost tell him to keep going, and think better of it at the last moment. One scooter with a pump doesn't make a trend...
Ok. Here we go. I’ve never done this before... Cross your fingers...
First, I have to unscrew the rear brake pivot just so that I can get at the axle wheel nuts with the spanner.
It’s a pain in the arse.
The wheel and the exhaust get in the way of the spanner, so I can only give the nut a quarter turn at a time, there are a million turns to get through; the thread is as long as a pen.
I know the exhaust is molten hot, but I sizzle my forearm on it anyway. I hardly even notice it. Must be that adrenaline.
The fat, swollen blood blister on my finger explodes.
A small forever later and that simple job’s done.
Now, the wheelnut. I take off the "castle nut" using the special tool that came with the bike. It's just a glorified lock nut. The other wheel nut, the big one, requires the fat spanner, and that comes off too.
It’s then that I realise that, through some mechanical witchcraft, I didn't have to take off the big wheel nut... the axle would have slid right out with it still attached to the bike. Somehow... So that means that I didn’t have to take off that piece of shit brake pivot nut...
Albert must think I’m a retard.
What’s worse, with the big nut gone, all that’s holding the whole lot on now is the chain tension on the sprocket (the sprocket is the same thing on a bicycle; that spikey circle of metal that the chain goes on...).
Anyway. The whole thing could just fall apart.
Pretty thick by me. Not smart. Must be the adrenaline again... So many rookie errors.
Out slides the axle and out comes the whole wheel and tyre.
Albert comes alive.
I haven't asked him to, but I think that he's cogged I've got no idea what I'm doing, so he's put himself in the driving seat.
He can have it.
Albert chucks the wheel on the ground and stands on the tyre, doing a weird little crab walk around the perimeter. I don't know what this does exactly, but without exception, everyone I've seen change a tyre does this.
With Albert standing on the tyre we both start levering the tyre off the other end of the wheel rim with my pissy little tyre irons.
It starts out in a rush, making excellent, easy progress.
After levering off about a quarter of the tyre out of the rim it suddenly gets tight. The irons are bending under the strain. The metal sticks deform so easily, it’s impossible to get any leverage into the rubber without either ripping a strip out of it or warping the irons.
After a few minutes they wouldn’t look out of place in a packet of twisties...
Albert goes and grabs my wheel cam adjuster - a flimsy shard of metal - and uses that as a third pseudo tyre iron.
It actually works, but we're still not making much more progress.
I wonder if it's impossible with the tools we have...
We - and when I say "we" I mean Albert – keep at it.
We try and try but we're at a point where the rubber just won’t come out any more.
It’s requires so much force, and yet it's so finicky.
It just won’t go, no matter what we try...
And then it goes. I've no idea how.
That was the crux, it seems, and the rest of the tyre gives little resistance.
Albert was sensational. He was the opposite of the the two blokes in Guinea who just forced everything; he was the one telling me to "du-semall", which means "be careful", I think...
Out comes the buggered tube and in goes the new one.
The two are very different. They should be the same.
The old one is much fatter than the new one, and the thickness of the rubber is like chalk and cheese. The old one is thick and the Chinese piece of shit replacement is thin like a balloon.
The tyre has 4.10 written on the tyre wall, but the replacement tube only has 3.00 written on it.
It’s not the same fatness...
I’ve bought the wrong spec...
Nothing I can do about it.
All it has to do is last me thirty clicks, that’s all I need.
I feel an overwhelmingly urge to take a shit. In my squat position I very nearly shit my pants.
Where the fuck did that come from??
I really need to shit. Right this second.
It'd be rude to ask Albert to wait a moment while I go evacuate. Right?
So I clench.
And move. Fast.
I start levering the tyre back in place in a frenzy.
The start is easy, I levered in all but a quarter in a few seconds...
It tightens, again...
Shit. I don't have time for this...
It won't go.
We manhandle it but succeed in doing nothing other than warping the irons and shredding the rubber; the tyre won’t budge.
I'm sweating my ring off. Knackered.
And I’ve hardly done anything...
It goes. Again, I don't know how, but it pops into place. There's no knack...
I seize upon Alfred’s hand pump and go at the tyre with gusto.
It actually pressures up surprisingly quickly...
Pump pump pump pump...
I'm dying for a shit.
There’s a loud bang and the sound of leaking air.
Wait... It's not the tyre... it's the pump that's exploded!
The tyre is still losing air, quickly.
I pounce on the valve and unscrew it as fast as I can to keep as much air in the tyre as possible.
The valve comes off. Silence.
I give the tyre a squeeze.
I reckon there’s still enough to ride on.
Well, there’s going to have to be...
I chuck the wheel back onto the bike, axle in and tighten everything back up again.
Each turn of putting that brake nut back on again I'm sure I'm on the verge of making an unholy mess.
I ask Albert what he wants for the pump. He says 5k so I give him 10k. He puts his hands together to pray and gives me a humble bow. I guess he's happy with that deal then...
Between contractions I load up the bike again to fly to an appropriate location to get this thing out of me.
Or maybe I can make it to Kinkala...?
On it comes in a rush.
I skid to an emergency stop and dive behind a shrub in one motion.
Not a second too soon.
Just another day in the office...
While I'm doing my thing I reflect: That, really, wasn’t so bad.
The punctured tyre, that is...
Another nightmare scenario put to bed.
Whenever I actually have to do something that scares me I always seem to come out the other side having lost my fear of it.
Punctured tyres, snapping a cable, being crook on a ride, getting stuck in the middle of nowhere, I know I can handle it. Once I know I can handle it, I stop worrying about it.
There's something to be said about taking on your fears...
Small village, not much to do, but I need a day off.
It's the junk day that I had to have: repairing tyre tubes, washing clothes. Admin.
Despite being a non-riding-day I’m still filled with dread when I wake up. I can’t place it. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense why it’s there; there’s nothing to be scared of today...
It seems to wash off me as I take a bucket shower.
Talking to my host, he reckons that here all the way to Matadi is a total cakewalk. Lots of tarmac with a little bit of offroading in between. It’s too good to be true; which probably means it isn't. Once bitten twice cautious.
Much later in the day I realise that this is my three hundred and sixty fifth day abroad.
Probably the longest year of my life. Shit, getting on the plane feels like a whole different lifetime...
It doesn’t feel like an achievement, a year. Pretty arbitrary, really, and less of a milestone and more of a mental flag that it’s time to refresh the travel insurance, time to forge a new insurance certificate for the bike, and time to ask just what the heck happens in the UK after your motorcycle rego expires.
What’s more interesting is dinner. They give me a questionable fish and rice in a convenient plastic shopping bag. They just slop it into the bottom of the bag... Take away: African style.