Congo-Brazaville, Cabinda, Congo-Kinshasha to Angola. In and out of the heart of darkness
2nd April – 26th April 2005
I’d borrowed the book “The Heart of Darkness” from Koen and Heidi and read it before we arrived here in the Congo. Conrad tells of a deep impenetrable forest stretching from the sea deep in to the interior of the continent. Unfortunately a lot has changed in the 100 or so years since the book was written, today all that is left is a vast ecological disaster and the total destruction of an entire ecosystem. The deforestation that started in Gabon now cuts deep in to the heart of the Congo and the sad thing it is continuing and appears to be unchecked. Fortunately the amount of bush meat available at the road side has reduced slightly, I guess there is nothing left to kill.
Getting off my soap box and back to the trip. We stopped just before the border with Congo at the old favourite, a road construction site on a small hilltop with a cool refreshing breeze. What we hadn’t noticed were the swarm of tiny mosquitoes that were simply eating us alive, despite long sleeved shirts, trousers and spray. By the morning we all looked as if we had a contagious disease with red lumps and bumps everywhere. Not a pretty sight, but it probably helped crossing the border as nobody wanted to get to close!
After the border the asphalt gives way to piste and we were now on the lookout for the mud holes that we had seen on other travellers web sites. Heidi had freely volunteered to wade across any mud hole we encountered to check the depth and find a clear route for all. This was much to Blanca’s relief, and her new white shoes could remain clean for a little longer. Still no sign of snow! After a day’s drive on easy piste, shallow mud holes and lots of police/army check points, we stopped for the night in the bush by a logging track. Here there were a few trees, well at least for the moment, we set up camp with a light for when it got dark. We were amazed by the huge variety of insects that it attracted, along with the usual mosquitoes, moths and flies there were large praying mantises and a huge stick insect. This time we kept the light well away from the tent, we didn’t want a repeat of the previous night.
In the morning we set off to find the new piste at Mila-Mila built by a Malaysian logging company to help speed up the journey times to the port at Pointe Noire. This piste was good and firm, but in places a little too hard and rocky with lots of corrugations but at least it was dry. With a little rain I think it would have been a completely different ball game especially the steep hilly sections. Being a logging piste there was the added hazard of the logging trucks, which are dangerous when loaded, logs frequently fall off the moving trucks and once empty they race back to their depot to collect another load with total disregard for other road users. Well, I guess it is their road! At the end of the piste it was a relief to be on asphalt once more, but the relief was short lived and the asphalt gave way to a disaster of a road, wide sandy and muddy with deep ruts, large trucks and no specific route through. Just a case of point Grommet in the right direction and hope for the best. This lists as No 1 in the worst routes into a city so far. Finally we arrived in Pointe Noire, it had been a long tiring day, too tired to be bothered to cook, we hit the town! Pointe Noire is an oil town with prices to suit and a main street like any you would find in Europe. We were beginning to despair with all the restaurant prices well beyond our meagre little budget. The locals were friendly and understanding our plight, advised us to take a taxi to the market district where the budget would be safe and the food excellent. We had found a little place to stay at the local Yacht Club, parked on the beach, clean toilet and shower all for free, what more can you want. Oh, how can I forget the superb restaurant too which is open most evenings, where the food is simple but good. This is a perfect place to chill out and recharge the batteries before “little” Angola, Zaire and the rest of Angola. Unfortunately Ralph and Judith, the Germans, were not up for a little R & R preferring to head for the “nirvana” of Namibia as quick as possible. So after travelling together for two months, we said our goodbyes and the Ifa set off alone. We on the other hand were quite content chilling with the Belgians, Koen and Heidi, well not entirely, as anybody who knows Blanca will know that chilling is never really an option. I have been busy greasing everything, changing the last of the “marsh mallow” bushes and checking everything ready for the next phase. Mud! Mud! Mud! While here at the Yacht Club we met Caroline, a French woman who has been sailing round the world for the past 20 years in a small yacht with her cat, dog and husband who had unfortunately died recently of malaria, that omnipresent danger!
Koen realising that we would be staying put for a few days snapped in to action and unpacked a small zodiac boat complete with outboard motor, which he had brought all the way from Belgium! Well at least we now have a boat and a legitimate reason to stay at the Yacht Club. We’ve had a lot of fun motoring about the bay and one evening on the way back from checking out a huge ship piled high with logs, a small boat with some French guys on their way back from a fishing trip, pulled along side and presented us with a huge Barracuda. Well that was the evening meal sorted, we barbequed it on the beach with some Thai sticky rice and a hollandaise sauce. Beautiful!! Blanca was relived and grateful when Florence, a teacher friend of Caroline’s, offered to put the last of the washing through her washing machine. We had found out from another ex-pat living in Pointe Noire that there was a chimp sanctuary, part of the Jane Goodall organisation quite near by. After we had said farewell to Nicola, Caroline and all the guys at the Yacht Club we made our way to the sanctuary 40km north up the coast.
I don’t think they get many tourists at the sanctuary as it isn’t listed in the guide books and they were quite surprised to see us when we emerged from the bush. Once the initial shock had passed, we were made very welcome and taken on a full tour by Ken an American vet managing the place for the past year and a half. Since we had arrived late and missed the chimps, which are all orphans and a by-product of the bush meat trade, retuning from their sanctuary, a large fenced area of forest where they spend the day doing chimp things, only returning at night to feed and sleep. Ken invited us back the following morning to see them being released back into the bush. Since they aren’t really set up for tourists or camping we set off for the beach. Part of the piste was flooded so we had to miss the beach, but while turning round I went a little wide and was in an instant up to the axels in wet sandy mud and not going anywhere. Fortunately Koen realised that we had disappeared and came back and towed us out.
I’m starting to form the opinion that the main reason that the girls have come along on the trip is as disaster tourists. As soon as there is a problem they are out of the vehicles not to help but snapping away like Japanese tourists on speed!
In the morning we went back to see the chimps being released, which is something that they really seem to enjoy as you can feel the excitement building up until the point when the doors are opened and they rush out for a moment of temporary freedom. While at the sanctuary I took the opportunity to ask Ken about a rash I had developed over my entire body along with a 4 day headache and very sore eyes. He said that he suspected that I had malaria combined with an allergic reaction to the doxiciclin, and that it would be worth getting it checked out in Pointe Noire before we move on. This we did and the malaria test was positive, so we went back to the yacht club for a few days so that I could recover. The doctor wanted to see me the following day to check on my progress and the condition of my rash. We arrived hot and bothered by taxi with Heidi along as interpreter. Seeing that the rash was still the same he prescribed a steroid that had to be injected intravenously so off to the local pharmacy and then back for the shot. It’s strange here in Africa, you can buy everything at the pharmacy if you have the money with or without a prescription. When we retuned to the surgery there was a sudden flurry of activity, everybody wanted a go at sticking the needle in the white man. With three people fussing around and then they missed the vein I almost passed out. The girls were gutted that they hadn’t brought a camera along to record the whole process. Luckily after a day’s rest I felt able to drive, so we set off for the border and “small” Angola.
At the border the asphalt ends, big trucks and 4x4’s mainly use this piste and you pretty soon realise why with all the big holes and deep ruts. There was also nowhere to camp, the road bordered by water, mangrove swamps and papyrus and thick bush, so we decided to try our luck at one of the small army encampments dotted all along the road. The soldiers seemed quite surprised by our request and said it would be ok and to our amazement gave us no bother at all. In the morning we left early for Cabinda to register with the authorities before heading on to the border with Congo (Zaire), well I did say it was little Angola. On route you pass a huge oil refinery surrounded by razor wire and mines. This part of Angola has been struggling for independence but since it has 80% of Angola’s oil reserves and from what we could see most of the army guarding it, I guess it will never happen.
The border formalities took forever and the 100 meters or so of no-man’s land seemed to be one huge bar with guys pushing barrows full of beer crates from one country to the other.
We were now out of Portuguese speaking Angola, where everybody understood Blanca’s Spanish but to Blanca they seemed to be replying in Chinese and now back in French speaking Congo (Zaire). Normal 2 wheel drive cars don’t venture any further than here and we were now in the exclusive domain of huge trucks and 4x4’s.
The piste to Boma started in a promising way, very sandy and a bit like an “auto-cross” track (Lilly and Steffen, the German bikers would have loved it) but it was dry with a few deep water holes but really no problem. Unfortunately the piste was a confusing mass of sandy tracks leading to little blue oil pumps (donkeys) or other oil industry paraphernalia. We found a spot for the night at a large sand pit. I climbed to the top of the bank at dusk and could see lots of small fires from gas burn-off lighting up the countryside. Pity none of this oil revenue makes it as far as improving the local infrastructure: roads, piped clean water, schools and hospitals. Still more sandy piste and water holes and we had no problem at all until the first police check, conveniently placed on a bend with deep rutted soft sand. For Grommet, of course, this was no problem at all, but for the Belgians and their Mercedes without the momentum to carry them through, they were very quickly bogged down. With a bit of effort re-modelling the piste, Grommet towing and the sand ladders we were once more on the move. More rough track with sand and deep water holes later, it was slow going but at least we were making some progress. We were surprised at how well the Belgians were doing in their 2 wheel drive van with very little ground clearance and normal road tyres. We spotted a small track heading off into the savannah and found an area of short grass to camp. That night after dinner our worst fears were realised with a huge storm with very heavy rain. By the morning the dry piste looked like a river so we made the decision to stay put for a day and wait for the water to recede a little before continuing and hoped that it didn’t rain again. The piste was now slimy and muddy in parts but luckily the water level in the deeper holes had dropped a little but they still required walking and checking out, which is a painfully slow time consuming process especially when there are a lot of holes. When you have a petrol engine it is always better to be safe than sorry! The Boma road was fast becoming our Burma Road! To make matters worse, the piste was now full of big trucks that had also been held up by the previous evening’s rains. The trucks are amazing, old ex-Belgian army Man trucks, 2, 4 and 6 wheel drive Mercedes trucks and some huge ex-Russian military 6x6 trucks. We watched one of these trucks right a Mercedes truck that was on its side and then pulled the Belgians through a particularly treacherous muddy rutted section without a murmur – the 5 tonne van literally surfing through the mud. It had been a long hard day with not a lot of driving so we camped near an impassable section of piste, due to the deep mud. The passing locals found this very peculiar indeed, being totally unaccustomed to white men – tourists – parking, sleeping and eating by the road. A few suggest staying at a village nearby but since most of the villages are full of screaming kids and well fed locals requesting food and money. ‘We are suffering’, they tell us, we are driving these roads and so are we! The Congolese could really do with a few lessons in self-help, nearly all the appalling stretches of road are either in or near a village full of whingeing, moaning locals with nothing better to do than drink a beer or gloat whenever someone gets stuck!
The following morning Koen and I surveyed the way ahead, it was passable with a little bit of work so we set to and dug a few channels to drain some of the deeper holes as well as a bit of road remodelling. We could then carry on to the next problem area. Some parts of the road were so deep that you could have crossed from one side to the other via Grommet’s roof, luckily these deep sections had an alternative route close by thus avoiding a photo opportunity for the disaster tourists. While digging out the Mercedes once again, Koen noticed he was losing a lot of coolant which, when added to his now failing brakes, meant another day in the bush making repairs. A fan blade had shattered and holed the radiator – luckily I had some araldite and the hole was quickly plugged. The brakes were restored with a little adjustment so that we could continue. Yet more mud, muddy water holes and horrible piste, but now we were in a routine were we would connect up the strop before a difficult section and tow the Mercedes through rather than waiting for it to get stuck. This worked very well and we were all very relived to see the river Congo and Boma.
Boma is a busy bustling town, full of small cars and vans darting around trying to avoid the huge trucks. Small cars and vans mean good roads. We saw some of the trucks we had met on the way, their drivers and crew waving energetically, welcoming our arrival.
Nobody thought that the Mercedes could complete the piste, but with teamwork, a little help and a lot of luck, it made it. The road to Boma from Muanda is about 130km and had taken five and a half days, three and a half of which was very hard driving and possibly the worst road so far.
We were now on African asphalt and heading for Matadi, Koen’s brake problem had returned and mine weren’t much better. Alongside the few remaining forested sections the new hazard was the energetic smoked bush meat vendors trying to encourage us to stop. It was amazing how many overturned trucks we saw along the way, despite the reasonable road conditions. I can only guess that they had brake problems too!
Just before Matadi there is a huge suspension bridge spanning the river Congo, it’s a toll bridge and we didn’t have any local money. It took a long time to convince the officials that the two vehicles were not trucks and then a reasonable rate of exchange for the dollar, as a result we entered Matadi in darkness which is not for the faint hearted. Fortunately we had a GPS point of a place to stay. The Sisters of Charity had lost faith and no longer accepted overlanders but luckily for us the Brothers next door did and had a perfect spot for us to make repairs, quiet and shady.
Grommet’s brake drums were full of fine sand and dust and the rear set will need changing soon. The anti roll bar had moved again and now touched the chassis now and again but with all things considered he was in fine form. I reset and modified the bar with some rubber hose to prevent any lateral movement. I helped Koen check the brakes on the Mercedes and found them in a similar state to Grommet full of sand and mud from all the water holes. We were ready to leave Matadi and headed for Songololo and the border crossing at Luvo into Angola proper, which after studying various web sites seemed the best way forward.
What, no trees??
Water on the piste
Heidi checks the depth
Grommet goes for a swim
What, still no trees??
Flood on the bridge
Camping on the logging road
And, that’s where the trees are!!
Arrival at Pointe Noire
Sunset at Pointe Noire
Camping at Yacht Club, Pointe Noire
The one that didn’t get away
At the doctor’s
Move that truck or we’ll shoot
Which way now??
Belgians on tow
Fixing the rad
Matadi and the Congo River