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Published: Thursday September 20, 2012 MYT 12:43:00 PM
KINSHASA: As he gears up to race in his third Dakar Rally, Belgian motorcyclist Frank Verhoestraete will travel across the conflict-ridden Democratic Republic of Congo in the hopes of burnishing his adopted land's image.
"I really want to bring back beautiful photos and prove that this remains an open and welcoming country, that DR Congo is not just the problems in the east, and that despite everything it remains a country united from west to east," said the 33-year-old, who was born in Belgium but grew up in the DR Congo.
With clashes between rebels and the army, the volatile eastern region of the vast central African country has devolved into a state of unrest, forcing more than 220,000 people to flee their homes since the rebels launched their uprising in April.
Verhoestraete plans to steer clear of the unstable province of North Kivu later this month when he crosses the former Belgian colony from west to east on his KTM 690 motorbike to train for next year's gruelling, off-road Dakar Rally.
The 2013 edition of the rally, which was organised 29 times in Africa from 1979 before moving to South America in 2009, will take place between January 5 and 20 in Peru, Argentina and Chile.
To prepare for the course, which he hopes to one day see return to Africa, Verhoestraete will embark on his seven-day, 3,300-kilometre (2,050-mile) journey through six of the DR Congo's 11 provinces and 10 of its cities.
"I'm going off the distances that we travel during the Dakar Rally, with daily distances of almost 800 kilometres. I told myself that 500 kilometres, that's absolutely doable," he said.
The salt-and-pepper-haired racer has already appeared in the rally twice, placing 19th in 2010 and 27th in 2011, and each time, he has represented the DR Congo, which he considers more his home than Belgium.
"I've spent more time here than elsewhere. I work here, my life is here. That's why I feel more Congolese than European," he said.
The DR Congo is also where he first developed a passion for riding.
"When I was five years old, my father put me on a motorcycle and I caught the bug just like that," he said.
After growing up in DR Congo, Verhoestraete was forced to flee with his family in 1991 because of looting. But after completing his automotive studies in Belgium, he returned in 2003, drawn by his love of camping in bushes.
The motorcyclist still calls the country home, where he lives with his Congolese girlfriend and their child while earning a living through his car-painting company and his repair shop.
"He has never passed up a chance in his interviews to say a word or two about the DR Congo. He is resolutely more Congolese than Belgian," said Olivier Gaspard, an anchor with Belgium's public television station RTBF, quoted in a statement announcing Verhoestraete's DR Congo bike journey.
When he sets out on the ride with friend and fellow Dakar Rally racer Marc Devos, it won't be without certain risks - even as they avoid the troubled eastern province.
Verhoestraete acknowledges that security could be a concern, but he adds that "for the moment there's no problem" with his itinerary. And he'll be equipped with a GPS system that will allow for tracking of his trajectory on Google Earth.
The country is also known for its poor road conditions, which combined with reckless driving and dilapidated vehicles crammed with passengers and cargo make for frequent accidents.
"Between (the southern cities of) Kikwit and Mbuji-Mayi, I know there's no problem," Verhoestraete said, referring to road conditions on his trajectory.
"Between Mbuji-Mayi and Lubumbashi, it's a bit uncharted, but on a bike we have the advantage of really being able to pass through anywhere," he said. -AFP
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