Diary of our travels through the Democratic Republic of Congo (Big Congo / DRC)

Just for the hell of it, here again is a picture of our route from Small Congo to Big Congo.

Day 147: Monday 7 February, continued ...

It was on the DRC side that we feared a search of the car. This didn't happen, although we were kept waiting by officials more keen to sit about than deal with our entry. While waiting we wereable to get some food (deeep fried doughballs) and change some Dollars into Franc Congoaise for the road ahead, which we had heard would be a difficult one, which it was. Oh yes it certainlywas.

We debated whether to go south to Muanda for the night or push on towards Boma and decided on the latter course of action. The road is muddy potholed piste, with giant puddles that constantlycaused us to stop due to the bad negative earth connection being affected by submersion. Or so we think. So every now and then we would have to correct an air lock in the fuel line occasioned by thefuel pump loosing power, and let Puff rest a minute. As a result we progressed very slowly indeed.

After the water-holed road, we found some sandy piste crossing flat savannah land, but had no idea whether we were on the right bit of piste for Boma as there were a maze of paths zig-zagingacross the landscape. Eventually we got some directions from a man on a bicycle transporting a vast tonnage of avocadoes. This involved putting the avo bag on the bonnet, his bicycle on the roof andhim in the passenger seat, to take us to the right turnoff. He also listed the villages we should be passing through en route, which was very helpful.

Fun, but only for a bit
Calls for a winch
The mucky result
Now get out of that!
Chez mosquito

After the junction the road worsened substantially, involving ups and downs and thicker mud. Quite a bit of 4x4 work too. This was the beginning of a very muddy day. For instance, at one hole wefound a Land Cruiser stuck in it. We tried to go round him and we got stuck too. We used the winch and the manpower of the former occupants of the Cruiser to get ourselves out of it, and then triedto help the Cruiser out. This was not to be because despite a strong winch, there was no way of anchoring ourselves in the mud. Eventually, a truck came to the aid of the Cruiser, but not before allconcerned were covered in mud (see pictures).

As the day progressed we were able to buy bread in a village so fresh it was too hot to handle, as well as (boiled)corn on the cob. But we were not out of the muddy woods yet and were helped outagain later. Eventually we decided it was time to look for a place to bushcamp and pulled off the road down a more minor road. Bad idea. We sunk beyond the axles and despite help from some locals andwith nothing to winch to, were stuck at a precarious angle. Obviously, that made pitching the tent and waiting 'til morning a non-option. We couldn't use the Hi-Lift jack either, due to soft mud.Neither did digging and putting mud-mats / sticks under the spinning wheels work at all. In the end we persuaded a lorry driver to help us out, but only for a US$20 fee (a money grabbing lot here inDRC as we were starting to learn). The only place to anchor the landy was a handle not suitabe for towing, but needs must. It broke off the chassis, but by then she was out far enough to hook thecable to the towbar.

Having got out we drove the landy to a grassy patch and set about washing the mud off - surrounded by half the local village interested in TTV (Tourist TV), so no privacy there. We also found thatwe were camping at chez mosquito, so had our supper (fresh bread & processed cheese, with the corn on the cob) inside the car, with said mosquitoes, their numbers dwindling due to themosquito coil we ignited, also inside the cab.

What a day!

Day 148: Tuesday 8 February

The day started not too well. We got stuck within 200m of chez mosquito. Again, got pulled out by a lorry, this time for a mere US$5, again surrounded by most of the local village. The roadwas very muddy in the twin tracks, with the bit between them high enough to cause the tow bar to drag and cause resistance. The piste / muddy track was bad enough and wet enough to cause a few stopsdue to Puff's electrics, but nothing to get seriously worried about really. At one point an entire village, albeit of about 10 men, helped push us out of a long and relatively deep puddle. We triedagain for a push-start but to no avail. We gave each of them franc congolaise 100 for their efforts, an amount at which they were none too pleased because, of course, all westerners are loadedand happy to dish the dosh. We were waiting for a local mechanic when Murray noticed one of the shock absorbers hanging loose. We were going to fix it and got out the bottle jack (which,incedentally, we never saw again), when a chap n a 4x4 came by and agreed to give us a tow-start. That worked very well, leading to the suspicion that the starter motor needs a service and / or thecondenser needs to be replaced - again. Once away, we were keen to drive to Matadi without stopping, knowing that the road from Boma was tarred, albeit potholed tar, and hence easier on theelectrics, etc.

On the way, Puff was running a bit hot, which even although it was hilly road and hard work for her, remained a bit of a concern. We got to Matadi at about 17:00 / 17:30 and paid the 2 Dollars (infranc congolaise) to cross the suspension bridge and entered the city. There is no sign of war here, no soldiers, being far to far west. All we saw were loads of traffic police in yelow andblue uniforms, looking like they would be more at home at an IKEA sales desk than on a busy Congolese road junction. One such set of police stopped us, asking us to furnish (sorry, couldn't resist!)them with documents. After that, Puff just wouldn't get going properly again - which was particularly frustrating given that we were about 700 metres from the Convent where we had heard we couldcamp.

Got stuck in this
Matadi's colonial past
The central bank
Matadi across the Congo River

During our attempts to get her going properly (would start but had no power - looks like a timing thing), we obviously attracted a crowd, among which was Peter/Pierre, a local journalist we wouldsee often over the next couple of days. We were also approached by Karl, a Belgian truck transport company director who offered us the use of his driver and 4x4 to get us to the Sisters of MercyConvent (S5º49.898 E13º27.651). Although our now-well-used 8 ton (allegedly) tow rope broke on the way, we made it there. The Mother Superior was not there, but other sisters said it shouldbe OK to stay there and showed us a place we could wash all the mud from our persons. (It was in that room we learned why the Convent is called Sisters of Mercy: that's what you scream when you usethe toilet paper provided.)

After becoming clean and feeling like new people, Murray went off to change money: US$100 in singles and US$100 in two fifties, after confirming several times that the rate would be the same forboth. All good. Then we went out for nuts and beer at a local bar. The nuts were in their shells, fresh and fantastic, nothing like the hard stuff we get in the west, though suburban squirrelsprobably don't know any better. The beer was Skol, which is a dark and malty beer that is also quite filling - although it does come in a 72cl bottle and contains 5% alcohol according to thelabel. It was while enjoying the above victuals that the US$ denomination question resurfaced. The money changer came into the bar and tried to reverse the transaction, waving our ones at us -although we were not entirely clear whether he just wanted to do it at a different rate (two thirds of the rate, i.e. 300 francs to the $ instead of 450) or reverse the whole transaction. We took theposition that all had been confirmed beforehand and double-checked, that this had been a business transaction and anyway the money wasn't with us in the bar. This was not to be the last we were tohear of this matter.

Day 149: Wednesday 9 February

Breakfast was had, almost, surrounded by the school children calling out N'dele or white man. Mechanics day. Peter (the journalist) had agreed to turn up and introduce us to some mechanicsof his acquiaintance, which he did at about 9:30. Murray went over to and negotiated a price for the labour and some 4 mechanics came over. Indeed there was a problem with electrics: to the fuelpump, the points, condenser and indeed the timing was out due to the roads bumping the alternator out of position. We had most of the parts, but bought extra spark plugs because it was time to changethem anyway. The work cost around US$30 and took all morning and half the afternoon. A shock absorber was also changed, but that involved adapting ours by welding its top bracket to the new one sothat it would fit. We knew it would be a temporary repair ...

At the end of a tiring day we took Peter out for a beer and then he took us into the centre of town to change some Central African Francs we had found, into Congolese Francs - albeit at anapalling rate. After that he took us on a tour of the local TV and radio station, which was very interesting and informative, and which turned our time in Matadi into something more than just astop-over. He is also a journalist specialising in health matters, which made for interesting conversation, particularly for Murray. May be a worthwhile contact; who knows?

While making a pasta meal for super, our gas ran out (it is that stage of the trip, clearly!), so we changed to the Primus stove, which is so weak with age and cracks that it merely warmed -though caramelised - the onion based sauce. It was a good meal though, enjoyed in the junior school convent courtyard. And so to bed.

Day 150: Thursday 10 February

Up fairly early, but took our time to pack things properly and bid our farewells to the Sister Superior (who when we had asked whether we could make a small contribution to the convent by way ofthanks for using their water and camping outside the gate, had, with no apparent irony, suggested that 50 Dollars would be just fine). We got some petrol at 346 francs per litre or about 35 pence(diesel is 362 francs per litre) and bought bread, water and other supplies at a local shop.

What soon became apparent was that we had too many Congolese Francs, so sought money changers in town to change them into Kwanzas. We found someone who agreed to come with us to someone who coulddo that for us. One the way, Puff overheated seriously and died. So we apologised to our guide and headed for the mechanics' place. They diagnosed a faulty thermostat and a broken water pipeconnecting radiator to water pump, both of which we had as spares. They recommended removing the thermostat, a practice oft-adopted in these parts. We agreed, knowing we could always put a new oneback in. And we were off, able to keep Puff cool, find a money changer and head west towards the border.

On the DRC side, we met Douane first. They checked the car and stamped the carnet. All good. It was Immigration that took time, the official looking at every page of our passports individually,looking for all the world like he was trying to convince us he understood its contents. After that, the passports went from office to office, their details transcribed into various ledgers. We alsohad to show our vaccination certificates to the health official, who was like the chap at the Cabinda exit, bemused at our refusal to have it stamped by him. They also wanted to check the vehicle,despite its having been past Douane. Ho hum, better to let them have their way. And so to the Angolan side.

Once again, go back to the map and click on Angola. See you there.