Diary of our travels through the Republic of Congo (Small Congo)

Just for the hell of it, here again is a picture of our route from Libreville into the Republic of Congo.

Day 141: Tuesday 1 February

Having completed the formalities that released us from Gabon, things were set to get that much more officious, bureaucratic and generally wasting of our time, but so it goes. It was a short distance to the Congo side of the border where details were taken in the customary slow fashion and our vehicles searched. We had to unpack and describe things, but only after he dug out his ID on Murray's demand. It seemed to us that we had to stop every few kilometres for our details to be transcribed in the local ledger.

After that, the mud started to appear as if on cue. Hendrik Jan & Julian very nearly flipped their Land Cruiser by having two wheels in a puddle of unknown depth and the other two up on the grass. This was scary for us and must have been terrifying for them. After that we checked most puddles by walking through them first. Fortunately we had had some experience doing that in western Mali, so had a bit more confidence. Even so, in the same puddle HJ & J nearly came a cropper, we went straight through, and stalled, probably due to water in exhaust / in electrics at the same time. Having considered the various merits of winch or tow rope out of the mud, Murray fiddled under the bonnet and got Puff to spring to life again. Into low range and we cleared the mud. Phew! Here are a couple of photos of that scene and the subsequent checking of puddles, for the amusement of readers of this page.

Oops! br /> Girls checking the piste
Boys discussing the going
THAT'S how it should be
All electrics sealed?
Ah, that's better!

So it was VERY slow going to Nyanga, but we made it in the end, to the place where we were to get out carnets stamped (at S2º43.294 E11º39.299). While Julian went off to investigate, Murray found that the retaining bolt for the rear far side suspension leaves was coming adrift and would have to be replaced. In the end this didn't detain us that much longer than we would have been detained anyway because the official who was to stamp the carnet wasn't there and when he turned up he didn't have his stamp. And then there was a string of officials in offices that wanted to write down every detail in our passports ...

It took about half an hour, two jacks to position the leaves corrrectly while Puff was up on two axle stands, but the bolt was replaced. All this took place in view of a growing crowd watching as they were what we are now calling TTV: Tourist Television. At the end of it Murray emerged greasy, muddy and generally not fit for much at all. He was duly directed to a place to wash, and off he went carrying clean clothing. The place turned out to be a spot in the river where a very pregnant woman was washing clothes. Ah well, this is Africa so in we go with our bar of soap! Still, Murray got himself and his clothes washed for a small donation.

While all this was happening, the others were watching from the bridge, where they met the Father of the local Catholic Mission (yes, another one!). He said we could camp there and shower, as well as use the kitchen for a small donation. So we did. We also invited the Father to join us. It was great to have a proper meal at a table! Oh yes, these small things we miss. Anyway, for the record, the Mission is at S2º54.774 E11º53.562.

Day 142: Wednesday 2 February

Camping as we were directly underneath a large bell, we were woken at 6am, precisely, by its call to prayers. We had expected 'the entire village', but this turned out to be about a dozen faithful, yet still we were all awake. So it goes. Breakfast comprised some maize based baguettes and some drinking yoghurts consumed at a relaxed pace. We left at about 9:30 on the slow drive south encountering only a couple of puddles (not at all like yesterday then!) at first. The terrain was flat at first too, but then developed into greener deforested hillocks until Mila Mila which we reached at about 1pm. Mila Mila is where one can turn off onto the far more mountainous (but direct) road to Pointe Noire. The turn-off itself is at S3º42.919 E12º27.074. It is also the turn-off to a couple of Chinese logging companies where one can get diesel for free on the ground that they are legally barred from selling it. Didn't help us though, having a petrol powered landy, but Murray went there with a local policeman as guide, on the strength of a rumour that petrol could be got there. On the way we passed several police checkpoints where passport and other details were transcribed into police ledgers, as well as letters delivered from previous checkpoints - which is just taking liberties really!

That bell
Logging company
Jenga bridge
Deforested hills
Roadside bushcamp

It was not possible to complete the 150km to Pointe Noire that day, so we bush-camped about 77 GPS kilometres away and had pancakes for dinner courtesy of Hendrik Jan & Julian and watched a beautiful and impressive firefly display that was way better than television, accompanied as it was by the sounds of forrest insects and birds.

Day 143: Thursday 3 February

Up at 6:15 after a night punctuated by logging trucks passing our humble encampment. The day was misty and populated by a host of tiny biting flying insects; it felt like a summer day in the highlands of Scotland with the midges, only a lot hotter. Breakfast needed to be a speedy affair because of the need to cover up against this new enemy, the effects of which caused all four of us to come up in red spots wherever skin had been exposed. Some of us experienced itching; others not.

The road proceeded up hill and down dale on dirt road that given our weight sometimes required low range gearing. If that were not tiring enough, there were several police stops, one of which even required sight - for the first time on this trip - of our vaccination certificates. The road also involved passing through several tunnels of bamboo and groves of creepers, visible because of how the forrest had been cleared for the road.

Bamboo tunnel
Meet at the yacht club, dahling!

We reached Pointe Noire at about mid-day and navigated to the waypoint that is the Yacht Club where we had heard we would be able to camp (S4º47.372 E11º50.866). This was indeed the case, and for free too. Which was nice. Once installed, we set about the usual tasks of filtering water for the next leg of the trip and getting food at the local market, then sitting upstairs at the yact club enjoying a beer. The beer in question was Ngok', which means crocodile. It is very malty and hoppy in taste, which is good, and also quite gassy, which isn't. We suspected that the gas had been added later to ensure quick production of beer in volume, but have yet to confirm this. Again, there is no information given as to alcohol content, but from its effects it seems to be around 5%. It comes in a 65cl (approx.) bottle. The other Congolese beer is Primus: same size, same alcohol (we think), but no character whatsoever that distinguishes it among beers of the world. Still we drank it in the interests of primary research.

Having showered and cooked a meal of pasta & veg., we witnessed an amazing yellow light that drenched the area just before sunset and which would do so each evening at the same time, as if switched on by an invisible lighting director following a cue sheet. Also as if on cue, a sudden and drenching downpour became a regular feature of the stage direction, which would later subside but return later in the night.

Day 144: Friday 4 February

A day at the yacht club, though more surreal than one might expect: Murray doing landy checks like oiling the gears- and transfer boxes and fixing the handbrake; Moira washing clothing and bedding (no stereotypes here, I'm sure you'll agree). Later we were also able to update the web site on the computer up to a couple of days ago, before the others returned from town and suggested sharing a taxi back in where they were investigating flights back to the Netherlands for a family gathering in April. We went with them to see if we could get vehicle insurance for southern Africa but were informed that this was not possible and we should try in Cabinda. Anyway, having it is more about avoiding paying the bribe for not having it, than its actual value as an insurance document. Next we went through the four-hour-costly-at-CFA-500-per-half-hour frustration of uploading to the web site as far as the 1st or 2nd of February.

When we finally got back to the yacht club it was late and had rained, though Hendrik-Jan & Julian had kindly taken in our laundry in our absence.

Day 145: Saturday 5 February: Moira's birthday

Ooh, what a day! Up at 6:15, in the rain, to get ready to go. It got worse from there. We agreed to meet our fairweather friends at a cafe/delicatessen called Citronella at 8am, but it was still pouring and Puff developed a couple of electrical problems as a result of a poor negative earth (we later surmised) and she died, in the rain and puddles of Pointe Noire. Moira went to find the others while Murray changed the coil and condenser. The others returned and gave us a tow start which worked a couple of times, but soon it became clear that the problem was deeper. So off we went to find an auto-electrician who diagnosed a broken fan-belt and replaced that. The problem was deeper as the fanbelt was not broken when first Puff died, and we soon found that going through puddles suddenly produced the same result.

We agreed to meet the others back at the autoelectrician's place at midday. They turned up much later. We were keen to make headway towards Cabinda. They weren't. The reason for their lateness in making our rendezvous was that they had been investigating shipping their vehicle round the difficult parts of DR (Big) Congo. But far from saying that they were just not up for anything that difficult or dirty, as indeed it turned out to be, they cited loss of confidence in our vehicle as a reason to part company, as well as the prospect that they might have to tow us - at best selfish; at worst unethical, but having ascertained that even if we went our separate ways for the difficult bits, they were not keen on meeting up after them either. And so we parted company and went to a cyber cafe to let family know that from Pointe Noire and through DRC and Angola we would be going it alone. Read all about it. Doing the trans-Africa, for us anyway, involves driving the length of Africa, under our own steam; anything less is cheating. There are overlanders and there are overlanders and everyone is up for different levels of challenge.

Not the sort of birthday Moira deserved, but c'est la vie. We returned to the yacht club after the cyber cafe and shortly after that went to a local restuarant (Baraka) to have a rather good birthday meal while heavy rain threatened to drown out conversation as it clattered on the roof. It was expensive given our budget, but well worth it.

Day 146: Sunday 6 February

For the record

Still raining but thankfully only lightly as we got up at just after 06:30. We packed up, offered the fairweather friends a bit of left over hot water, said our goodbyes and left for Cabinda. After filling with petrol, we found the potholed tar road to Cabinda, although it does improve as one goes on, particularly past the brewery. The border formalities were calm and straightforward, with the carnet being stamped out and our details recorded in relevant ledgers. Before that, however, one Congolese official went across to the Angola / Cabinda side to check that our Angola visas were in order before they let us out of the Congo! Then we were allowed to drive the 50 metres or so into what is officially Angola.

Instead of asking you to click 'back' until the map page and then click on Angola to read about travels through Cabinda, only to have the Angola leg broken by our travels through DRC, we'll leave the Cabinda bits here. For the sake of completeness, here is a picture of our route from before Pointe Noire, through Cabinda and as far as Matadi on the border between DRC and Big Angola.

On the Cabinda side staff were very helpful and relaxed, although not quick. Still, delays gave us the chance to change some money on the black market, which was a very open affair at the immigration office terrace / verandah. From there we drove about 36km on horrid, potholed and stripy piste / tarmac, passing as we did sellers of bush meat ranging from antelope to certain reptile species, that had us searching our Portugese phrasebook in vain for 'no thank you sir, I do not want your otter'. Eventually we got to Cabinda the town.

Cabinda is politically part of Angola because of oil, which is obvious from looking west and seeing the rigs just off the shoreline. Socially it is nothing like Angola, as we were to be informed by folk at the Mission Catholic attending a political meeting of those interested in a split from Angola.

Our nightspot ...

We had heard that it would be possible to camp at the Misison Catholique (S5º33.758 E12º10.694) and so headed there after queuing for and then filling up with cheap Angoan fuel (25 Kw / litre for diesel and 34 Kwanza for petrol, with 87 Kwanza to the US$). Being a Sunday, the Padre was nowhere to be found, but the political activists (Sebastian & Jose, to name but two) came over to spread their message on the ground that all Westerners should be aware of their plight, which involves among other things feeling materially deprived by US / Angolan oil interests at the expense of providing for residents of Cabinda, and having Angolans coming to Cabinda and asserting property rights over their wives with the help of the trusty Kalashnikov. It remains unfortunate that we were unable to hear the other side of the argument, but so it goes. And we went to bed having not spoken to the padre to ask whether it would be OK to camp there, but needs must.

Day 147: Monday 7 February

Early start, yet again. Still no sign of the padre, but it was 6am so understandable. Breakfast in the car heading for the border with DR Congo. Drove on good road for about 40 minutes to the border, which turned out to be a case of hurry up and wait because at 7:30am the staff were still unpacking their wooden boxes of identity documents, etc.

We had heard that this would be a 4-hour crossing involving - on the Congo side anyway - a full unpacking of the landy. As it happens, we did take 4 hours at the crossing, but that was mostly to do with the fact that we had arrived way too early to be let out of Cabinda. Nothing happend until about 9am other than the carrying of our passports from place to place. Again, not enough Portugese in our vocabulary to understand the point.

In due course an officer from the health department took us into his office to check our vaccination certificates. He wanted to rubber stamp them and seemed bemused that we did not want our yellow fever certificates stamped other than by someone administering an additional dose - and he was definitely not going to be doing that. Ah the power of the rubber-stamp- weilder here in Africa ... He also wanted us to pay him 500 Kwanza, each, to be allowed to pass. Murray said that would not be happening. He asked for our vaccine booklets back, presumably to have some leverage for the bribe. We refused and left the room. We needed the few remaining Kwanza we had for food on the way. He then went to talk to some other officials and returned with a knowing smile on his face, which caused us to be concerned that we would not be allowed out of Cabinda without money changing hands. In the event his smirk amounted to nothing and in due course our carnet and passports were stamped out and we crossed to the DRC side of the border, passing the sizeable market in no-man's land, selling beer and street-food.

That's it for small Congo and Cabinda. Go back to the map and forward to the Democratic Republic of Congo (Big Congo). Bye for now.