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Published: August 27th 2009
The plunge into Central Africa brought us to a string of exotic-sounding places I’d never heard of in my life; places like Oyem, Ndjole, Lambarene, N’dende, Mila-mila, M’banza Kongo,Benguela and Lubango. The few that I had heard of - Brazzaville, Kinshasa, Luanda - did not fill my heart with delight, though there was a little buzz, a small flush of excitement, connected with each, because they seemed like cities of the imagination, places that had seen hard times, were or had been hard to live in, and were visited only by intrepid explorers, coffee swilling journalists and wary expats. The sense of adventure was with us as we headed south, though for me it came with some sleepless nights.
Gabon was easy to travel through until we hit the equator, and the paved jungle road descended into red dust. As a country, it seemed less scruffy and more ‘together’ than Cameroon, with heavier price tags to match. Friendly locals in the border town had helped us get our orientation.
‘This is Gabon!’ exclaimed a young man selling biscuits.
‘This is a sandwich!’ grinned another man close by, waving it at us.
President Bongo had just passed away and Gabon was in
an official mourning period that was just winding to a close, after which talk of succession could take place. Big posters on billboards showing Bongo’s image were everywhere. In the countryside and along the edge of the forests, one story wooden slat houses saw the usual rural activity played out around them. Goats grazed and sprung about, chickens pecked in ditches, clothes hung on lines and people headed out with baskets and machetes to harvest fruit while others worked around the home. New to us was the bush meat trade. Roadside trade extended beyond the usual piles of plantain here - over barrels, the occasional dead monkey was laid out for sale, and pangolins hung from wooden frames by their tails. In Oyem, our alphabet ‘O’, we found pangolin on a restaurant menu (‘You know!’ smiled the waiter, ‘the one that curls up into a ball!’) it was not tempting. Seth got a haircut in this town, in a tiny dark barbers full of mirrors and dusty football posters. It looked to me that the barber had accidentally given him a big round bald patch, and for twenty minutes I was genuinely worried. In daylight, however, the bald patch was
gone, and what Seth was left with was a classic Kevin-Costner-in-The-Bodyguard cut. Preferable, I think, to a monk-from-The-Name-of-the-Rose cut.
The women in our minibus south to Ndjole spent much of the journey picking on a couple from Equatorial Guinea, because their incomplete paperwork kept slowing us down at police checks. The bad vibe seemed to rub off on the bus itself because the strap attaching all the luggage to the roof snapped and everything fell into the road. For an hour, the women directed their shouting at the bus boys as they attempted to reload, and we sat by the road enjoying the view of Gabon’s thick forests as large hornbills flew over it. A little boy joined us and we threw stones at targets. The cliché about travelling in Africa teaching you patience is absolutely true. I learned lots about patience last summer when walking such a long pilgrimage day by day, too. Hopefully, by September, I will be a patience wizard. The afternoon ticked on, the light began to change. I walked two hundred metres down the road, retrieved a fallen plantain, and brought it back, adding it to the pile for reloading. Finally we got back on
the road, and the scene became stunningly exotic, with the wide brown Ogooue River to our left and whole tunnels of lime green bamboo to pass under. In Ndjole, I bought popcorn from a man in the street with a very old fashioned popping machine, and we ate grilled chicken from a street stall, and drank cheap Regab beer. Everything and everyone in the town was bleached with red dust, and logging trucks roared through the dusty heart of the place. It was a strange town and our being there was strange, too, for the people living there: a double whammy of weirdness.
The same logging lorries that roared through Ndjole also nearly killed us numerous times on the road south to Lambarene. They swung round corners on the wrong side of the road and almost sent us flying into ditches several times. Our share-taxi driver mumbled his disapproval but generally lost himself to the reedy tones of Phil Collins, singing about paradise again, as he always has since we came to Africa. Lambarene, on the Oogue River, would have been a great place to stay, if both of us hadn’t gotten intense food poisoning. (You know it’s a bad place to eat lunch when you see a member of the kitchen staff sticking his finger up his nose to prod a spot, but by then our plates were clean...) Both of us lay hot then cold, green in the cheeks, exhausted from vomiting, in what was a nice hotel with a pleasant balcony we never really got to enjoy. We had chosen it because the guidebook said the owners demonstrated ‘some eccentric behaviour’, and we wanted to know exactly what that meant, but sadly we were too ill to find out and it will remain a mystery. Whenever I closed my eyes, all I could see was road and jungle coming at me, and somewhere echoing in my brain were remnants of the usual minibus songs, about Jehovah, and being covered in the blood of Jesus, and being in-ter-nash-eeo-nal.
The next day, weak and grumpy, we attempted to catch a bus south to the Congolese border. Unfortunately, the white Toyota pick-up truck heading that way already had a full cabin, and the back was half loaded with boxes and luggage. The remaining space - about one by two metres if I’m generous - was occupied by a crush of six people. There was room for two more, insisted the driver. It was not wise for two people who were sick and who had not eaten for 24 hours to ride for many hours on the edge of an overcrowded pickup truck but we climbed apprehensively on board. It was the filthiest journey to date. The woman across from me kept holding her head in her hands and muttering ‘never again’ in French. The bumps meant you had to hold on for dear life, and the rising dust from the red roads coated all of us until, at police checks, we were no longer recognisable against our passport pictures. How the cop kept a straight face while scrutinising so many bright orange faces is beyond me. If you closed your eyes, your eyelids grew so heavy with dust that it was actually hard to open them again. It was impossible not to swallow the stuff, too, when you spoke to someone or coughed. We arrived in N’dende looking like complete freaks, and checked into a motel at a petrol station. After washing away an ocean of orange dirt, it was beer time, and our empty stomachs, having shifted the bug, cried out for food. Crashed out in chairs in the motel bar, we laughed about the day, and a black dog strolled up to us to be petted. When I looked down, it was actually a chimpanzee.
‘Toto, no,’ called the waitress, and it scuttled off. Strange incidents like this are beginning to feel normal.
When it comes to police bribes and corruption, we had always expected central Africa to be the worst. In Nigeria, we didn’t pay a single bribe. Cameroon was bad for it, Gabon comparatively angelic, but northern Congo proved to be something else. Our first experience took the biscuit - or noodles, even. Barely had we stepped into little Ngongo, our very first Congolese town/village when the police had us opening up our bags, laying everything out, and talking them through each item in detail as their eyes shone covetously. It was like a television shopping channel, listening to Seth explaining his GPS while eyeballs goggled. One man was particularly taken by my small collection of Nigerian movies. In his head, they had his name blazoned across them in big letters.
‘These’, he wagged a finger at me, ‘are illegal. It’s illegal to bring them here!’ He was using the fake-stern manner, pulling the fake-stern face, that we have seen so many times on greedy officials out here. I used to do a lot of acting, and I see it as an art form, so when someone is ‘acting’ with me in real life, for the sake of manipulation, I see straight through it and it urks me. I get customers like this occasionally in the bookshop, who pretend to be angry about something to wangle a discount - the faux-huffing and puffing, like little dragons - you can spot it a mile off. It’s hammy. So this official was furrowing his brow at me, jabbing an accusing finger at my petite nollywood selection, and he was about as intimidating as a tuskless walrus in a sunhat, honking along to yellow submarine, but annoyingly these people do have the power to make things difficult for you. I brushed off his talk about the DVDs and continued to unpack when he ordered me to do so, being sure to wave my packs of sanitary towels and tampons in his face.
‘Keep calm,’ whispered Seth, recognising the classic Taurean temper beginning to reveal itself, ‘don’t get impatient with them!’
Meanwhile, the other policeman was very interested in our packs of noodles. ‘You just add hot water’, explained Seth. This will make me sound ridiculous, but the pack in question was my favourite flavour and I had spent some of the morning planning devouring them - cracking a raw egg on top, stirring it in, down the hatch - so when Seth made the (actually wise) decision to give them to the cop, I stood mortified for a moment,, long enough to make my official bark at me to start packing away the big mess they’d forced us to make in their office. It was necessary, too, to hand over a token note in a handshake before we were allowed to progress to the next office. (In Congo, you run the gauntlet of different divisions and at every layer you want to bury your wallet deep in your pocket.) In the second office, we ducked out of the bribe. In the third, we bought our visas, and the officer had no interest in lining his pocket. Ngongo was tiny, dusty and inhabited by more hens than people. We asked when the next vehicle would head south, expecting an answer like ‘3pm.’
‘It’ll be tomorrow morning, 5am’ was the response. This meant a whole afternoon and night in police-ville. The local hotel was a brick block of tiny rooms under one long corrugated iron roof. Cockerels strolled in and out of our room as we made a makeshift lunch, and when we ventured out into the town... village... we found it was only a hundred metres long. Beyond it lay deserted grasslands and dirt road. Walking a little way in the late afternoon light, it was hard to understand we had reached the Congo.
‘Don’t walk as far as the roundabout,’ warned the local kids, ‘there are ghosts.’ Congo’s civil war officially ended in 2003, but security in the country was still a bit patchy. Elections had just been held and the results were widely believed to have been rigged. Ahead of us down that dirt road lay a country with a difficult past, an edgy present and an unpredictable future. I was fairly sure that the only ghosts on the road were metaphorical, but perhaps that made them no less important to consider.
At half four in the morning a horn began to blast on the road outside our room. We both sat bolt upright as someone pounded on the door. For those who have seen the movie ‘Jeepers Creepers’ (scary, but ultimately let down by the hysterically unfrightening use of the namesake song as a recurring theme); remember the first scene, in which the two teenagers are chased by a crazy truck being driven wildly down the road by an insane demon, leaning on the horn, waaaaaap-waaaap? That truck was waiting for us on this particular morning. There was no time to wake up or even to think - we ran to the lorry, were ushered away from its crowded back and into the cabin, where we sat between mike, the angry yet likeable driver, and Joseph, the bespectacled maths teacher. The hours passed and night fused into day. Only after several police checks (and one bribe) did I realise I was wearing my adidas trousers around my neck. There hadn’t been time to pack them. At one stop, loading boys heaved crates of empty beer bottles onto the roof. As though the sight of so many empties offended him, mike cracked open a full bottle and slugged down the full 600ml. Somehow, it didn’t really matter. He and Joseph warmed to us, and enjoyed pointing out oddities along the way - Joseph in the precise detail suited to his profession, and Mike in his loud Jeepers Creepers style. He helped Seth get photos of some men selling a big hunk of gazelle, and then bought it. Later he pulled over and bought a dead monkey. I watched him inspecting the quality of its sad hands in the wing mirror. Close to the town of mila-mila the scene suddenly became one of grassy mounds, very spectacular. We waved goodbye to Mike and Joseph, and looked for onward transport to Pointe-noire - our planned ‘P’ - in this tiny junction town. It lay 181 kilometres away. The policeman who checked our passports told us it would be a ride of two hours, maybe three. It sounded easy, but the town was full of people huddled in bars looking slightly dusty - not a good sign. Their luggage - typically dotted with great branches of plantains - lay by the road with half-arsed plastic covers draped across it. It had obviously been there for some time.
‘How long have you been here?’ Seth asked a tired looking workman nursing a beer.
‘Since yesterday’ was the reply. It seemed like nobody in these bars was that set on actually reaching Pointe-Noire. They’d given up. There was no public transport - the only chance you had was hitching a lift in or on a lorry, and these guys had too much luggage to squeeze into a cabin. Someone knew someone who might be leaving for P-N that afternoon. The lorry depot was a kilometre away, they could give us a lift. We agreed. Mila-mila was too depressing to hang out in, and we told ourselves we weren’t queue jumping because nobody had seemed remotely animated to get up and go. It was a logging company, and our ride would be a huge lorry loaded down with huge tree trunks. A price was debated over and the driver readied the vehicle. We waited. And waited. A kitten fell asleep on Seth’s bag and we talked with a local nurse. Kids with mad hairdos ran around while women prepared pastry puff-puffs. Finally Seth said to me: ‘Why are you wearing your trousers around your neck?’
‘It’s been that kind of day,’ I said.
It was an hour and a half before we climbed up into the cabin and hit the jungle road. The excitement of leaving in the lorry wore thin when it became clear that it could travel no faster than a trotting warthog. It had severe problems with hills and even the smoothest parts of the rough jungle roads threw the driver into overly-cautious concentration. Bafflingly, other lorries with identical loads roared by and sped into the distance, leaving us in clouds of red dust. Moussa, the driver, was a good guy, but we worried - with all the scenic twists and turns in the road, we seemed to be covering no distance at all, and we were moving as fast as a drunken slug. Pushed to explain our situation, Moussa told us that while most other lorries had ten cylinders, we had eight. While they could race downhill in third gear, we had to do so in first. Hours past. Each time we hit a pothole, we flew out of our seats. Sunset approached. P-N was virtually no closer than it had been when we set out many hours before. Moussa pulled up beside a truckers stop next to the Mayoume Forest. It was a lovely area, where patches of dark green forest filled the clefts in the valley, but the idea of sleeping over in an all-male truck stop in the middle of the Congo worried me. Nobody had said anything about overnighting in the middle of nowhere. It felt like a curveball I wasn’t quite ready to catch. Moussa reassured me that there were women here, and as we walked into the fire lit compound, I was relieved to see one or two of them, their faces lit up orange. A simple wooden hut was available for us. It had a sand floor and we had goats for neighbours. You locked the door from the inside using two big sticks and the bed was a bamboo frame with a thin mattress. From the small supply shop we bought a drink for Moussa, and pilchards, beer and luncheon meat for ourselves, which we ate by the light of a kerosene lamp. (The pilchards were mine. Too many crunchy spines...)
At dawn, the three of us returned to the lorry. Surveying the huge load as the sun rose over it, it looked almost appealing. We drove ALL DAY. I thought several times about the policeman’s claim that it would take just two or three hours. There were times when the GPS thought we were actually getting further away from Pointe-Noire. For some reason it didn’t matter and we even laughed about it. Sometimes potholes almost sent the three of us through the roof. It was sunset when we reached the coastal city. The two hours had in fact been 26. There was a sense of awesome release on hopping into a taxi, but it was short lived. Seth and the driver conducted an animated conversation in French that did not sound at all promising. I kept hearing the words ‘train’, ‘ninjas’ and ‘probleme.’ The ninjas, I knew, were a militant group. We had already discovered the crazily bad roads in Southern Congo (deliberate neglect, we were told, a political statement from a government that looked north) and had been counting on riding the train east to the capital, Brazzaville, from where to cross into the DRC. If we couldn’t take the train, we were in trouble. I looked out of the window. Our guidebook called the city Congo’s answer to a beach resort, but we never saw the sea, and the streets were covered in grey sand. Alleyways were piled high with rubbish, and pubs had great paintings outside - gorillas, crocodiles, mirrors in the shape of the Eiffel tower. Trucks carrying soldiers with huge guns rumbled past. Our hotel was bustling with wealthy Africans, and the occasional Chinese visitor, here to see family working on the national highway or near the oil plants. The Simpsons was on TV in French. We took a room and Seth translated the conversation from the cab: the train is unsafe to travel on, as it passes through the dangerous Pool region before reaching Brazzavillle. In Pool, the police have to get off the train and the Ninjas get on to hassle the travellers a little. As foreigners with valuable gear, we’d almost certainly be robbed of everything we owned, should the militia feel that way inclined. As for our physical safety, it could not be guaranteed or guessed at.
‘Perhaps the driver was exaggerating’, said Seth, ‘a lady in the lobby said she might be able to arrange an armed guard for us...’
I was not feeling inspired by any of this. The next day we went to the train station and asked the situation. They confirmed that the ninjas did indeed take over the train at Pool, and that we would be likely targets. Sassou had only been re-elected a week ago and tensions were high in the country.
‘Maybe we could hire a 4 by 4,’ I suggested, though totally unconvinced, ‘there’s still the road.’
We asked our hotel manager about it. He said that to avoid the Pool region we would have to drive all the way up to north Congo then all the way down again; days...probably weeks... He held our shoulders.
‘You are young people, with long lives ahead. These people don’t value human life. They are bad, bad people - like animals.’ We knew we had to fly. Seth cursed our map, and then our chosen route through Gabon to Ngongo, but if fate puts a bunch of crazed rebels in your path, what can you do? The next day, when we flew to Brazzaville, President Sassou was flying to Pointe-Noire. Both airports were braced for him, the armed soldiers more serious looking than ever. Politics seemed to lace life in central Africa, even in the eyes of the fly-by traveller. The flight instilled in both of us a sense of numbness. We had travelled on public transport from morocco to Congo, and now had to break our aeroplane virginity, against our wishes. It was only a domestic flight. This distance was just 350km. We didn’t have a choice but it felt like a failure at the time. In likeable Brazzaville, even after beer and Chinese food, I felt a bit broken. Part of me thought we may as well be done with it and fly to Johannesburg, and explore southern Africa from there. Why risk travel in the DRC and the uncertainty of trying for an Angolan visa, when we could just fly? In honesty, what I was experiencing was pure nerves. We planned to cross the Congo River to Kinshasa, DRC, the next morning. I’m not a brave person. It’s a common misconception that those who travel to unlikely places are. Like most people, I get a little high from risk taking when it works out, sure, but I don’t much trust that part of myself - it’s a bit tacky, like the cheap, brief thrill you get on a rollercoaster. I don’t travel to take risks or to boast of it; I travel because the world is amazing and I like to be as much in it as possible. In many ways I am still a total softy, and so that night, I didn’t sleep. I was awake all night - seriously - worrying about Kinshasa. We never wanted to have to fly at any point between morocco and South Africa, but the unpredictable stability of certain African countries meant that we would probably have to at some point. We were lucky it was just a domestic flight, and it in no way tarnished the efforts we had made with public transport all the way down. The coward in me now wanted to fly to Joburg, to skip the DRC and the potential Angola hassle, and to find myself instantly in sunny South Africa. But at sunrise Seth woke up, and he’s braver than me. The wheels began to set in motion, towards the Congo River, where from the banks we could see, on the far side, the city skyline I had dreaded all night.
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