Thursday, May 15, 2008

Congo

I know what you are thinking. I thought the same thing too. Hot, steamy jungle with muddy roads, river crossings, still, oppressing air and swarms of bugs. That and war with police and military patrolling the streets and checkpoints every few km. Forget it. We were completely wrong. Maybe a different part, but not where we were. When we crossed from Leconi our beautiful paved road instantly turned into sand track through the grassy landscape.
We picked up a sick policeman at the Congo border post and he followed along with us for the rest of the day, no doubt enjoying the luxury of a good 4WD for a change. The sand road wasn't too bad and we made decent time until another little bridge got in our way. It was over a tiny stream but again had a single plank spanning a 3 foot gap and did not look prepared for our weight. Just enough to make us worry. Ben decided to test the stream and promptly got the Land Rover stuck in the mud on the far side and couldn't even get himself winched out so once again we reinforced the bridge, crossed over and then pulled him out with the big truck. Kees was so happy he finally got to be useful and had been wishing for such a thing to happen to the little trucks all day. We just overlook the fact that Ben ended up in the mud on Kees' behalf in the first place....
The area out there feels very remote and we didn't see any other vehicles until the end of the day, just before dark, when in trying to get around an oncoming pickup Kees hit it with the front tire of his motorbike and gave the pickup a dent. Honestly, the guy is lucky we didn't tip over and crush him to death because we were so close to going over that Patrick behind was screaming at us (we didn't hear him). A long negotiation began for the compensation because it ended up being the chief postman for the entire region and the usual Africa rules of hit and let live don't seem to apply anymore. 80 euro and a few flashlights later (down from their initial asking price of 1000 euro) we were ready to set up camp at the abandoned police post on the edge of some random village. What a first day in Congo!
After 200km of sand and dust and little villages full of very excited and happy people we hit paved road again. I don't think I've ever seen such an excited stretch of villagers in my life, they just all seemed so friendly and it's funny to think that they are so isolated that they have no clue where England, China or Canada are, let alone anything about them. We're just one of the very rare white faces (despite being Chinese, Kerry is considered and called "white" out here) to come along. Until recently the main overland route went south from Libreville to Point Noire, Congo and that was our original plan but the road has become so terrible that the route we just took will probably become the main one and these villagers will suddenly see a little spike in overlander traffic, all the while completely ignorant of the international issues and considerations involved in putting them on the map.
Despite being a relatively good road with little traffic we are slow moving and Kees' truck is now beat up to the point of the odd problem that requires time tinkering around underneath nearly everyday, so we had to stop one more night at a closed hotel in a town called Ngo. The people continue to be very friendly and the owners of the hotel didn't even want to charge us. Usually we pay a few dollars per person or maybe a group lump sum or will get free camping in exchange for promising to eat at the hotel restaurant but either way we usually end up in much nicer places than the local dives we were used to before, even if we are outside. The following day (yesterday) we arrived in Brazzaville, the capital, where we are now. Congo has had its share of civil war recently but for the most part things seem ok now. The suburbs are dirty (but not west Africa dirty) but the center seems well kept and full of nice ministry buildings and not a lot of traffic. We have resorted to sneaking photos from deep inside the trucks because one of the quickest ways to get in trouble in the Congos is to take photos in public.
To our group Brazza was the big question mark as it has recently become the stuck point for overlanders. These days the Angolan embassies along the route have been refusing to issue visas and currently the best place to get one is in Matadi, DRC (the really bad Congo, formerly Zaire) right on the Angolan border. But even more recently the DRC border guards have been refusing entry to everyone on the grounds that they don't have an onward visa already. Our solution was to get preclearance from the embassy in Ghana and have him notify the guys here in Brazza so we'd be expected and get the visas when we arrived. Nothing ever goes as planned in Africa so after talking to them today we've ended up with a letter from the Angolans telling the DRC that we'd been cleared for a visa in Matadi and to please let us in. We'll try tomorrow morning and since we are all afraid of the DRC, we'll try and cross it in a day and get to the "safety" of Angola as quickly as possible. Things are generally going well though.
Ammon

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