He could see I was skeptical. 'It's OK; these bikes are amazingly strong.' I found him reassuring. The same cannot be said for Fiston, who had turned up stinking of booze, and swaying extravagantly. Benoit would ride alone with his unfeasibly large load; Odimba, Benoit's colleague from Care International, would follow with Georges as a passenger; and I would sit behind the sozzled Fiston and pray for him to sober up.
The engines of the three bikes stirred into life. In silent Kalemie even these puny machines sounded impressive. I love starting a journey very early in the day: it offers the comforting sense that if something goes wrong, there is still the whole day to sort it out. As we left Kalemie before dawn that August morning, I felt a strong sense of wellbeing.
There was one other thing to consider. Georges said the news about the mai-mai group chimed with what he had already heard in Kalemie. 'These guys get drunk and stoned by the afternoon, and you don't want to be negotiating with them in that state. We must get there as early in the morning as possible for the best chance of getting through.'
Five kilometers later we had our third flat tire. The rear on Fiston's bike had gone down again. Now Benoit was getting agitated. After botching an emergency repair we scooted on until we reached a village, a collection of small huts, made with materials from the bush - frames of branches covered with grass.
While Benoit began working on Fiston's lacerated inner tube, Georges beckoned me over to a small boy wearing rags. 'He says this village is called Ngenzeka and that there was fighting here a few years back. He asked if you want to see the bones.' The boy had the expression of an old man on his 10-year-old face. It was careworn, cold and unsmiling.
The arrival of our small convoy must have been the most interesting thing to happen in Ngenzeka for months, but there was no sparkle of excitement in his expression. He took me a few paces off the track. The bush was thick, but he skillfully slipped through the branches. He was wearing nothing but some grubby brown shorts, several sizes too big for him, but he twisted and shimmied without getting snagged on thorns that scratched my skin.
After a few minutes I emerged from a thicket to find him standing over a human skull, bleached on the ground. There was no lower jaw, the front teeth were missing and I could see a web of cracks in the cranium. The boy spoke quietly. 'There was fighting here one day. We do not know who was fighting who. We just ran away into the bush. But when we came back there were too many bodies for us to bury. Some of them were left out in the sun like this.' As we walked back to the track he pointed to other human bones lying white among the green undergrowth.
Benoit was not interested in old bones. He suggested that as we were already way behind our safe schedule and more punctures were likely, Georges should set off back with Fiston. Georges was reluctant to head home before he had earned his fee, but Benoit insisted. I was sad to say goodbye, but I gave him the donation I had promised. 'The parting of good friends,' Georges said, shaking my hand and smiling.
Without Fiston and his faulty bike, our progress improved and my spirits picked up. Within an hour we had covered as much ground as in the first five hours of the day. Bumping along on the back of Odimba's bike, I noticed the landscape begin to change. After the ups and downs of the earlier ridge track, we were now crossing flatter savannah. The track was just wide enough for people to walk single file, but the ground was beaten hard and flat, so we scooted along faster than at any stage during the journey so far.
For tens of kilometers we saw no villages or signs of life, slowing only when the track crossed a stream or river. These crossings became the curse of the journey, there were scores of them. Each crossing was hazardous, and countless times I had to jump off the back of the bike and help drag the two bikes across. I saw why any bike bigger than 100cc would be too cumbersome and heavy to manhandle through the eastern Congo.
From Blood River by Tim Butcher. Copyright Tim Butcher 2007. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Grove Press.
The Kopp Sisters Return!
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