Cameroon to the Congos
We had been making good progress for almost two months with barely a hiccup until we the wet season in western Cameroon threatened to swallow us and then engine troubles in Yaounde. We were in the heart of Africa and all of a sudden our goal of reaching Cape Town felt tenuous. My clutch was running on Johnson and Johnson baby oil and despite changing Richard’s oil, there was the constant fear that we had missed some shard of metal when replacing his failed rocker arm. Any unfamiliar vibration or rattle in the bikes quickly sent our minds to thoughts of impending mechanical carnage that could halt us at any point. But with the longest stretch of unknown still ahead of us through the Congo’s we pushed on.
Superb, black top roads through Gabon helped to ease the tension as we snaked through towering, overgrown, green forests, making good distance that gave us the sense of forward progress after travelling only a few hundred kilometers in the last week. While the roads were appreciated, they were also strange. Logging trucks hauling impressive rounds of old growth timber were the main beneficiaries as the villages they passed through were disproportionately rudimentary when compared to the roads. Stranger yet was the gleaming new football stadium in the middle of the jungle. Intermittently we would pass walled in encampments with Chinese characters painted on them and we began to put join the dots. The Chinese presence was strong in Gabon and into the Congos as their government offers to build roads and stadiums and harbors in Africa in exchange for mining and logging rights. It was our first sense of just how resource rich the continent of Africa is.
Despite 10% of Gabon being dedicated to national parks, many of the access points are extremely remote and highly exclusive fly in lodges costing a pretty penny. It meant that we never had the chance to stop and enjoy some of the best wildlife diversity in all of Africa. But with the mystic of the Congos ahead, we skipped Luande and the coast and instead focused on the next leg of the journey.
The black top abruptly ran out approximately 50 kms from the border with the Republic of Congo. Now into savannah grasslands again, we crept through the high grass along an unsealed double track as the sun faded. A real frontier outpost, we stamped into the Congo by last light and helped ourselves to our first Primus, the beer of the Congos, before pitching the tent underneath a market awning beside the customs office.
The next morning we set out to the next town where we were told we would find the office to import the motorcycles. The road was rugged, bordering on treacherous with fine dust concealing rim denting rocks and ruts gouged out by a constant stream of logging trucks that were difficult to pass due to the impenetrable clouds billowing behind them. When enquiring how far until the road got better, we got a myriad of answers from a few kilometers to fifty. We had no way of telling.
In the end the road pummelled us for most of the day before it ironically deposited us at a gleaming new set of toll booths. Blacktop set us on a course for Brazzaville and an hour before sunset we pulled off the road to camp in a small village. The next day we made good time towards the capital until we encountered a legitimate military checkpoint positioned on a bridge. This one we couldn’t ride around, and it had a log barrier spanning the two lanes. We tentatively pulled up and had our bags searched for guns or grenades and our passports inspected. Eventually we were clean and the officer warmed to us as he warned us that we were now in Poole, a region that had active militias working to undermine the government. “Do not stop for anyone,” were his express orders.
With his words ringing in our heads we rode into the abyss, a surreal landscape of high rolling hills under a low, metallic sky along a new dual lane highway with no traffic on it. We kept the bikes revving high as we stretched for Brazzaville, passing through 2 more military checkpoints that all imparted the same warning to us.
As we neared the city, we pulled in alongside a wide, steely body of water steadily flowing west. We had reached the mighty Congo River. Across the way stood the rabid metropolis of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The river was a milestone that exhilarated us and kept us company for the remaining kilometers into the city.
In Brazzaville we stayed with 3 Italian girls working for NGOs that we connected with through CouchSurfer that fed and washed our clothes as we rested up for a few days before the next leg. We called in at the Hippocamp, a fabled overlander haunt that we had been looking forward to reaching, but much to our ongoing dismay, there were no other guests undertaking an overland trip to share a beer and tales of the road with. The owner, however, was a lovely gentleman and a great source of information for how to best cross the Congo to the DRC. Under no circumstance did he recommend taking a boat the 3 kms across the river to Kinshasa. We will pay too much to get on the boat, and then on the other side we will learn that we need to pay an exorbitant amount to have our bike lifted of said boat as there are no drive on ferries. We will refuse, at which point they will hold the bikes hostage for a week or a month or however long until our visas run out at which point we will be powerless and they will likely get their money, no matter how large the amount.
Instead he recommended a 400 kms detour west along the river, through the Poole region, to a small ferry at Lwozi and crossing there. There was an election the coming weekend and the the military were planning to close the road preemptively to try to contain the militias that were expected to mobilize in protest. It seemed that the military were planning to close the road the next day so unless we wanted to wait until after the election, which was no guarantee of safe passage, we needed to leave before sunrise the next day to pass through the military checkpoints before they closed the road.
One of our steadfast rules was not to ride in the dark, but with little choice, we set sail again in the wee hours of the morning. The roads were empty and the air between us was tense as we skipped through villages still asleep. We encountered 3 military checkpoints that were beginning to come to life, but with our helmet visors firmly down we kept the course. If we were being ignorant and foolish, they gave no indication.
By the time the sun had pushed its way through the heavy cloud that hung over Central Africa south of the wet season, we were deep into the Poole region beyond the line of control. We stamped into the DRC in a cobbled together village before entering a no-man’s land of unspecified distance. We followed a snaking clay road runnelled by rain that in wet conditions would have made for a full days travel. With no other signs of life we followed it blindly until we reached the mighty Congo River again.
At the beach, surrounded by a disproportionately large crowd was the ferry that would transport us across the Congo. A pontoon cross braced with two metal tracks and powered by a single, small outboard engine, it didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Surprisingly, we managed to purchase a ticket for ~$2, the going rate, and we each rode our bikes up the steep ramp onto the vessel. A horde of friendly Congolese helped to lift the bikes off the tracks onto one of the pontoons to make room for a 4×4 and a small bus. Passengers crowded the small deck and we were off, into the current of the big river.
On the other side we learned that we were meant to stamp the bikes into the DRC on the north side of the river, but with it already well after a lunch and still ~200 kms to reach Kinshasa, we decided against going back. We would deal with any issues with the police when we encountered them. For all the stories we had heard of chaos and corruption in the DRC, so far it had been remarkably good. But the day was not yet over.
With faint hopes that we might still make it to Kinshasa before dark, we kept pushing, but the roads of the DRC were on an altogether new level of horrendous. The road would constantly drop into deep gouges in the earth whose walls rose above the level of our handlebars. In the wet season our bikes would be completely submerged. The countryside was dense with people and grim villages strewn with plastic garbage. How they received supplies enough to warrant so much mesh was astounding.
In one small village, we stopped for not more than a brief moment on the far side to check the map. By the time I looked up from the map on my tank bag, both Richard and I were surrounded by faces, encroaching on our personal space. A bonafide sea of men and children pressed in on us while the women stood at the back, as curious as the rest. It was instantly oppressive. As we tried to gather our thoughts, the sea parted as a policeman with a semi-automatic weapon slung over one shoulder and a taser in hand that he snapped incessantly. With his face stuck in ours he demanded, “Give me money!” while the with a blue bolt of current jumping between the electrodes of his taser. It was the only english that he spoke.
All of a sudden we were into the Congo that we had been warned about. And it was intense. The policeman continued to snap his taser as he demanded documents and each time I would personally jump. Slowly we gathered ourselves and deployed the strategies that we had gradually developed throughout the continent. When he requested our passports, we gave him a copy. When he demanded money we would nod and hand over a copy of the bike registration. Back and forth like this, one stalling the situation before deflecting attention to the other. We asked in our broken French how far the next town was? We asked what the name of this town was? Inside we were overwhelmed, but we matched his demands with useless questions. If we had learnt anything in Africa to this point, it was that everything was theatre. If you showed you were scared— you were finished. If you were in a hurry— you weren’t going anywhere fast. You couldn’t let them see you were ruffled. And we never handed over original documents.
How long this went on for I don’t know, but slowly the taser went quiet and he became flabbergasted without being infuriated. And we hadn’t handed over any money. But it was becoming late in the afternoon. If this was what we were going to have to contend with at every village, I proposed to Richard that we try to spend the night in this village. Save us from diffusing another situation that we had no guarantee of defusing. Thanks to our Sena headsets we were able to communicate privately inside our helmets, and Richard wanted nothing more than to get out of there. The experience had genuinely shaken us.
I asked the police where might be a good place to camp to gauge his response. Much to both our surprise, within 10 minutes he had pushed back the desk inside his small office and we had the bikes safely inside and the tent pitched. We were now his special guest. It bordered on absurd.
For the rest of the afternoon and evening we were paraded around the village, buying him beers at shanty bars. It was a surreal experience as we continually cheersed he and his friends who came to enquire who we were. Meanwhile techno music blasted from the small boutiques and restaurants, competing with each other while women went about their duties buying supplies and herding children back to their homes.
When we finally retired back to the office to go to sleep, we enquired about the woman inside the room attached the building with a beat up Chinese motorcycle in the corner with a padlock on the outside of the door. It was explained that she was in jail for a traffic violation of some sort. How thin our fortunes seemed was yet again made real for us. The DRC was going to be a formidable experience and we had barely scratched the surface. It was too much to think about after the day we had just had. But we were as safe as we were going to get for the night so we shook hands with the policeman and closed the door behind us locking him out of his own office.
To be continued….
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