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Published: July 15th 2009
This was a some what of a spur of the moment trip. My friend the lonely planet writer wanted to head down to the Congo to continue the rest of his trip through central Africa via the Sangha River which runs along the borders of the Central African Republic, Cameroon, and Congo. He asked if I wanted to go with him down to the Congo.
The plan was that that we would hire a pirogue and head to Bomassa in the Congo, which is about 80 km away. (A pirogue is nothing more than a hollowed out tree that has been fashioned into a canoe. It is the dominate form of transportation on the river, and it has probably been that way for a very long time). We would go together to the Congo and then I would head back and he would continue on.
This was not something white people typically did so we had to get my sister’s to help arrange the trip through some of her friends, and she also convinced her friend Hurbain to join us (although he and I did not really speak any of the same languages).
One complication for me is
that I did not have a visa to visit Congo. My sister’s friend said that since several countries share a national park that it was okay to travel between them without having the right visa. Or they said that I might have to pay some money to someone when I got there. Sounded alright to me
The first stage of the trip was to head down to Lindjombo, which was about 30 km away, on the back of some motorcycles to meet up with the tree boat. There were three of us, two drivers and all of our stuff (tent, food etc.), which was supposed to go on the back of two small motorbikes. One thing I learned from traveling through less developed countries is to never underestimate people’s abilities to put a lot of stuff on very small vehicles. I was also very confused I was wearing shorts and a tank top, but the drivers showed up wearing long pants and jackets. I asked my sister if I missing something here. She said that this was Africa and that this early in the morning it was probably really cold for them.
The path to Lindjombo was a
dirt road through the jungle, so it was definitely dirt biking and not a nice ride on a paved road. As you might expect for a jungle road there was a lot of mud, large pools of stagnate water, and lots of bushes with thorns on the side of the road. I very quickly realized why the guys where probably wearing long shirts and pants as I was continuously whipped with branches. The bike I was riding on got crashed 3 times on the way once in a stagnate pool of water. We were not going too fast so no one got hurt.
It took us 2.5 hours to go about 30 km, but we made it. In Lindjombo I had to go see the local police to get the paper that was supposed to allow me to go to Congo. After some broken discussions in Sango, English, and French. I had a hand written piece of paper in French with a stamp on it, and I was not quite sure what it said.
We loaded up the hollowed out tree boat and set off. After a bout 5 minutes in the pirogue the driver was trying
to communicate something to me about the motor we had brought (the original plan was to paddle the 50 km on the way down and use a motor on the way back)
After a few minutes I pieced together what he wanted to do. We had gotten a late start and there was a very dark looking storm moving our way, so I surmised that he wanted to use the motor on the way down. We need to get gas. They pulled the pirogue up to shore on the other side of the river at logging town, which happened to be in Cameroon. I had heard that the Cameroonian authorities could be a pain in ass, so I decided to stay in the boat.
After a few minutes Hurbain beckoned me out of the boat implying that they needed some money for gas. Once we got the gas it was clear to me that there was some argument going on about the price and that they had done something the driver and my friend did not like. At this point I noticed someone walking toward us with a purpose. As he came up he showed me a name
badge that had chief written on it in several languages. At this point I was thinking, “are you kidding me, I have only been in Cameroon like 10 minutes and I am getting in trouble.” He proceeded to yell at me in French and sign that he wanted to see my passport. I decided that I was going to play dumb and in the hopes he got frustrated and gave up. It was clear he wanted to see my passport, so I tried to communicate to him it was in the boat (it was in my pocket) in order to drag things out. As we were walking to the boat I remembered that Tim was there and that would probably cause some more problems. So I suddenly remembered it was in my pocket and gave it to him. He looked through it and did not find a Cameroonian visa and started yelling at me in French again. My friend Hurbain tried to talk to him, but he was not having that. (when we got back and my sister was able to translate for me and Hurbain he said that tried to tell the guy I did not know French and
the guy told it didn’t matter that I would understand him anyways (I assume this is similar to the stereotype that Americans will speak really loud and slow because they think that way anyone will understand them). At some point I was able to make out that he was talking about police and wanting me to go somewhere to get a visa or see the police. Well I figured that would only lead to more problems, so I thought I would try and offer to pay a “fine”, since I was told that was a typical thing in Africa. I took out my wallet and started to get out some money and talking about a fine. This seemed to make him angrier (apparently I found one of the few honest officials). After about another 15 minutes of this I think he finally started to get tired of me and eventually followed us to the boat and let us leave
A few minutes after we got going again the driver tried to get the motor work, but of course there were a few problems and it had started to rain. We pulled up to another village and the driver found
We pulled up to a small village on the river and this guy was wearing this amazing full length leather trench coat. You never know what you will see in Africa
a mechanic who was able to fix things.
The rest of the five hour pirogue trip was fairly uneventful, so I got some time to just look at the jungle. We were able to see a few monkeys in the trees as we went. All I could really focus on was how impenetrable the jungle looked. On either side of the river was nothing but 100 foot tall dense green wall, which is only occasionally broken by a small clearing containing a few mud huts.
When we finally made it Bomassa, Congo the plan was to get a room at a wild life conservation project there. They wanted a ridiculous price for what was probably a crappy room. We floated down to the town and the driver was able to find someone who was able to introduce us to the village chief. Across from his house was a small covered market that for some reason had a room attached to it. Tim took that room and Hurbain and I put up our tent in the market.
The next day I thought we were supposed to head back and then camp some where along the way. We packed
up all or stuff so they could use the market to sell stuff. It became clear to me we not leaving as I had excepted. After about an hour of translating things I figured out that the plan had changed somehow. I guess things got messed up in all the translation. The driver was also telling me that there was no gas in Bomassa. By now I seriously doubted the competence of my tree boat driver. He said we would have to wait additional day to get gas from a town 30 km away. I told him that would not work since I had to meet up with my sister in 2 days. Eventually the guy helping me translate offered to sell us some gas.
So instead of just quickly staying in Congo for the night I was going to spend a day there as well. I decided to go and check out a small bai (clearing with wildlife) in the Ndoki sector of the park) where there are elephants, and we got a BaAka tracker to take us there.
It was about and hour hike through the jungle to get there. It was much different than the
other place I went to see elephants, which was a huge mud pit. There was a clear shallow lake (~4 feet deep) maybe 1000 feet by 500 feet. The bottom was covered in moss but there was some well defined sandy paths going through. It was quite beautiful this crystal clear lake surrounded by dense jungle. There were only about 5 elephants but I was much closer than before. A few times the tracker pointed into the jungle and there would be an elephant walking to the water. The most impressive thing was that they were about 50 feet from us and you could not hear them walking through the jungle at all.
That night Tim and I played Frisbee with the local kids. Hurbain made us some dinner and we headed to bed.
The next morning we were supposed to leave at 7:00am. At this point things had been going well. It turned out that immigration was in a town about 30 km away, so I thought that I wouldn’t have to figure out whether the paper work I had to be in Congo was okay or not. At about 6:30am two guys in track suits show
up. Someone was able to tell me that one of the guys was head of immigration and other guy was the police, and they had come all the way from this town 30 km away to harass us. Tim was okay because he actually had a visa, but they tried to give him a hard time since he had not been to see them yet. Fortunately at this time some guy on his way to work showed up who spoke English well and also spoke Lingala (the Congolese language) so he was able to translate for me. The immigration guy took my passport and started complaining that I did not have a visa. I showed him my piece of paper with a stamp on it (I still was not quite sure if it was legitimate) some arguing went on for a awhile. They did not want to recognize my paper and I was under some pressure because I need to leave to meet my sister that afternoon, and my translator also needed to leave. So I told him ask them how I could solve this problem quickly, since it was clear they just wanted some money. They went off and
talked for and my translator came back said they want 40,000 CFA (~$90 dollars). It was too much money but my translator had to leave, so I did not have time to try and bring down the price. I paid him the money, and thought everything was done. They then started to harass my Central African friend. At this point I was tired of dealing with corrupt officials, and gave them a bit more money to get out of our hair.
The rest of the trip back to Lindjombo was uneventful except for the motor needing to be fixed at some random village again. We did stop at an island in the middle of the river and everyone got out of the boat. I had no idea which country this island belonged to so I was reluctant to get of the tree again. They convinced me to get out. I still had no idea why we were stopping. It turns out it was just to get some lunch. On the island lived a lone fisherman with his family. They had a few small mud huts and fishing nets strung everywhere. They cooked us some fish and gozo and then
we were on our way again
I was happy to make it back to Lindjombo and see two motorbikes waiting there for us. We meet up with my sister and headed back. This time on the way back there were no crashes, but instead there were 3 or 4 flat tires that had to be patched.
It felt very nice to make it back to my sister’s house and take a shower with a bucket of water and a cup after being covered in mud and sweat for the last couple of days.
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