I had a mission. Mission GPS. The results of the election still hadn’t been announced so half of Libreville was closed and it wasn’t going to be easy to find specialist sailing kit in the half that was open. I headed to the Mbolo Supermarket as soon as it opened, but all they had were GPS Loggers (much like the one I have strapped to my arm right now). I rang Marc to see if he was having any joy – no. The Gabon Meca (where the guys at Mbolo had told me to go) was a damp squib and Michele Marina was closed until next Monday.
I headed to Port Mole. The Nigerian guys who work at the port are awesome – amazingly friendly, they fall over themselves to help out a fellow Anglophone in need. Two guys deserve special mention – Richard, a crewmember on a Nigerian cargo boat, who took me to Michele Marina the week before last to try and find me a motor boat over to Sao Tome and helped translate things with the shipping agents for the Andrea. The other guy is Steve, the owner of the fishmongers right next to the port gate. He’s been remarkable friendly since I first appeared on the ‘scene’ back on Sunday 16 August.
Today he surpassed himself. He asked what I was up to, I said I was looking for a GPS. Without a seconds hesitation, he left his shop, jumped in his car and opened the passenger door for me. C’mon, let’s go.
I told him about Gabon Meca and Michele Marina. He took me to various shops including a Yamaha shop that sold boat engines, but it was no deal. Marc was nearby, so we met up. He had also had no luck.
I have never felt so much like I was living a LucasArts adventure game. Guybrush Threepwood getting his crew together to go to Monkey Island. All I need is a rubber chicken with a pulley in it – and a GPS.
Steve had just one more idea for a shop that might sell GPS devices. The place he took me to was so hard to find even when we were inside I wasn’t sure we were there. No sign outside, no indication that it was chock full of sailing kit, fishing kits and…
Global Positioning Systems!!
We had done it. Marc met us there – happy days. Steve took me back to the dock, I thanked him thanked him thanked him profusely. What a legend – he just went back to work, job well done. Honestly, the generosity of some of the people I have met on the road is staggering. I took out a wad of cash from the cash machine at the Mbolo supermarket and headed over to the Sao Tome Embassy to meet Marc. He would get his Visa at 11:30 tomorrow.
“We will sail at 12:00”
Sao Tome, you awkward little blighter, here I come. Nation 108, oh yeah.
My last night at Chez Tatayo was tremendously pleasant apart from the fact that some of the girls were having a spat over something or other (it’s sometimes nice not to be able to understand a word people are saying!). Alex’s ‘American’ film crew turned out to be British (one up for Blighty) and they treated Tatayo, Mobengo and I to a bite to eat at the Sun Set Beach hotel next door. The director was an American, as was The ex-New-York-gang-member-turned-Doctor (whom I enjoyed calling The Doctor) who was on hand to talk about the medicinal benefits of Bwiti and Iboga.
A good end to a good day. I am rubber, you are glue.
We had a couple of things to do – first up, get some damn maps (sorry, Hugh – charts) of Sao Tome downloaded so we knew where the bally thing is. This was not a success. The GPS that I had purchased had a serial, not a USB link. Marc and I had to search high and low for a reasonably-priced converter (I was quoted €75 in one place!) and in the end the damn thing didn’t work anyway. So I downloaded maps (sorry, charts) from Wikipedia, Google Maps (sorry, charts) and the Lonely Planet site, but they were all about as much use as a sexy nun. Hell with it – we had the co-ordinates, that’s all we needed.
A final trip to the Mbolo supermarket for supplies (loads of water, fish, biscuits and bread) and we were good to go go go.
We set off on the Reol at 2pm and spent the day under sail. Marc caught a HUGE fish, too much for us to eat in one sitting. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a stove on board, so we had to pull a Gollum and eat the bugger raw. Marinate the guy in vinegar for half and hour and strangely enough – not bad.
However, the confluence of raw fish, a can of beer and attempting to sleep below deck took its usual toll on your land-lubbin’ Odysseus here. Yes I hurled a Technicolor Yawn seawards before curling up on deck with the breeze in my hair and the knowledge that if I just avoid going below decks for the duration of the journey, everything would be groovier than Soul-Glo.
So then your humble narrator found himself back on the high seas. The Reol was tiny – the smallest vessel I’ve been on so far, just about 7 meters in length. She performed admirably, although I could have done with some shade – my pasty white complexion does not stand up too well against the glare of the midday equatorial sun. Did I mention we were skirting that great imaginary line that divides the civilised nations of the north (Brits, Americans) from the uncouth savages from the south (Aussies, Kiwis)?
It being September, the Sun is almost (but not quite) halfway on its journey from the Tropic of Cancer (June) to the Tropic of Capricorn (December), so it was no surprise that I shrivelled up like a shrimp on the barbie. But isn’t there supposed to be no wind at the equator? That’s what I was often told, but it’s a lie (like water going down the plughole the opposite way) there was plenty of wind and it took us all the way LBJ towards the wonderful little island of Sao Tome.
Marc has worked in Africa for many years, indeed his wife is Gabonese. His speciality is mining, so we had a good old chat about something I keep hearing in passing but what was spelt out to me in good old fashioned New York twang by Mobengo last week when I was hanging out at Tatayo’s place: COLTAN. Short for Colombo Tantalum, it’s the new gold and it’s in your iPod, it’s in your Playstation it’s in your moon stealing your cheese. I’ll be talking about more when I get to the Congos, as that’s when the story gets interesting. Like Dune’s Spice, Coltan is a commodity that is causing trouble in empty houses, never mind in the tinderbox that is Central Africa.
So as the day wore on I attempted to train my sea-legs, but (as Marc later pointed out) as much as humanly possible I was getting some shuteye. Something about the sea makes me improbably sleepy.
Sao Tome. Wow. What a place. We pulled in at around 5pm, without proper charts we had no idea where. It turned out to be a place called Agua-Tzi about halfway down the island. We didn’t want to pull into the capital (also called Sao Tome) as there would have been visas and stamps and paperwork we could have done without – so we sailed into a little bay and anchored down.
The dingy trip to land resulted in me getting my shoes utterly drenched, but AT LAST I was on dry land. It’s taken me three weeks to get here. Three weeks of the paltry 20 I had left of the year. Best not dwell on that, I had given up thinking I would do this thing in a year back in that other ex-Portuguese island, Cape Verde.
Talking of Cape Verde, Sao Tome is EVERYTHING that dreadful place isn’t – it’s GREEN (oh so GREEN), it’s beautiful, the people are wonderful, the beaches are clean, deserted and WHITE, the faded colonial architecture still manages to inspire… A tall, narrow volcano stands proud in the middle of the island like something from the Flintstones. It just looks and feels great.
Upon our unorthodox arrival, the locals of Agua-Tzi came racing out to meet us. One guy, Molo, offered to store the dingy in his home, which we accepted, before we headed into the capital for some nosh.
Sao Tome & Principe is really undeveloped, even for African standards. Its population of 193,000 scrapes by with just $25 million of foreign aid and $5 million from cocoa exports. It has no ATMs, no electricity, no sewage system – the fact that all visitors require a visa just beggars belief. Sao Tome needs tourists like George Lucas needs a neck. But unlike Cape Verde, Sao Tome could easily sustain itself – not only is the soil rich and fertile (and, unlike Cape Verde it rains more than once a year) there are oil deposits within the national boundaries. Result!
On top of that, I for one would warmly recommend a holiday here – the miles and miles of palm fringed beaches are ALL YOURS, trekking the lush green interior would fulfil all of your Lost fantasies (except ones involving Sawyer or Kate) and it has a most agreeable climate.
Just a few thousand tourists a year would double this place’s GDP – it currently gets a paltry 20 visitors per week – so I’m making it my mission to help put Sao Tome on the map, especially after we returned to the boat to find that the tide had gone out, marooning the Reol on the beach – and BLESS THEM the locals from the village (led by Molo) had run over to the boat and lifted the outboard motor out of the water to prevent it being damaged. What champs!!
Contrast that with Cape Verde – brown, barren and inhospitable. And that’s just the people.
Sao Tome – you get a massive tick in my book. I like you and I’ll be back.
We waited for the tide to come in, and at about 2am Marc and I pushed the Reol back into the brine. We both got sodden wet, but we made it out. Thank heavens for removable keels.
That night we made tremendous progress back to Gabon. I really liked Sao Tome, but there was no sense in hanging about – I’ve still got another 92 countries to visit this year AND IT’S BLOOMING SEPTEMBER!!
Now the Reol, bless her, is a simple craft – a manual rudder, no engine (just a little outboard) and sails that are a little past their sell-by date. That being said, we covered over 60 nautical miles before noon, which was awesome going. We were a little off tack, though – managing to plunge down into the dreaded Southern Hemisphere (oh NO!) but managed to fend off the krakens, the hydras and the giant squid that populate the lower uncharted regions of the Earth.
I for my part spent the day getting ridiculously sunburnt, the equatorial sun devouring my lashings of factor 30 like some kind of flesh-eating bug. The dilemma was this – go below deck out of the sun and promptly call Hughie, or stay on deck and glow like the kid in the Ready Brek commercials. I chose the latter. Ouch.
That afternoon we attempted to use a spinnaker sail – a big blowy kite of a thing that you use when the wind and waves are pushing from the rear. Marc’s method of installing it was a little unorthodox (he had never done it before) but it worked a treat and by nightfall we were back on track. I was a little worried about putting it away after the nightmare we had on The Bootlegger (the unruly spinnaker went under the boat) but it was no biggie – I suggested taking it down halyard-first and would-you-Adam-and-Eve it, Marc managed to get it back in the bag quicker than you could say Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat.
All was well aboard the good ship Reol.
Tune Of The Day: Ain’t It The Life by Foo Fighters
After yesterday’s epic sail we only had about 70 nautical miles to go today. I woke to find myself staring transfixed over the silver – and by silver I mean seriously, it looked like we were floating on mercury – sea, a line of gold trailing towards the rising sun which beckoned us back to Africa.
However, the wind gods were not as kind to us and by 3pm we had gone a paltry twenty miles and once again had dipped below the Equator. Something must be done! I persuaded Marc to let me fire up the outboard for a bit, which we did and covered a respectable seven miles in just one hour. But conscious of fuel consumption etc, he chose to throw out the spinnaker again. And my word – with the other sails down and the outboard off, we cut through the waves like a hot knife through butter.
Now you may not consider travelling at seven miles an hour to be very exciting, but when you are holding onto the stick which controls the rudder for dear life struggling to keep DEAD ON a bearing of 30 degrees lest the boat goes one way and the sail goes the other, man you’re riding the primordial forces of nature. Marc and I helmed in half-hour shifts, neither of us had the sheer brute strength needed to do more.
Then when the sun goes down, the moon has not yet risen, clouds obscure the stars and the solar power for the GPS conks out – you find yourself in a tiny ball of light in a literal ocean of darkness – you cannot see the sea, the sky, the horizon – land, rocks, islands, anything… you finally understand the thrill of life on the ocean wave – the only thing keeping us from being dashed like siren-beckoned sailors on the rocks was the dear old compass and a plank of wood that was the rudder – old school baby yeah.
When we reached Libreville it was midnight. Too late to come into port, we came up with the rather natty idea of heading out to Tatayo’s place on the beach and getting Alex The Yank to build a fire on the beach so we could find the damn place. However, by the time we got to the other side of the estuary it was half one and we decided it would be best to just anchor down and wait until first light.
We motored in to Port Mole at 7am, gathered our things and got taken by the ferryman back to dry land.
THE ANDREA WAS STILL IN PORT!!
Oh yes, it STILL hadn’t left. It was still filled to the brim with the Cargo that had been loaded two weeks ago. Marc you legend, you might have just saved The Odyssey from collapse!
We said our goodbyes and I headed over to Tatayo’s gaff to say goodbye (and take a much-needed hot shower!). Justin had gone through his initiation and was nursing a cracking hangover (as well as more insect bites than could possibly be good for him). Alex had wussed out of doing it, so The Doctor was standing in his stead. Other than that, life we pretty similar down at the Bwiti Ranch.
Oh yeah, election results – Bongo-Son-Of-Bongo (predictably) won, there were some riots and nearly all the shops had been closed all week (good timing for our trip to Sao Tome). The dynasty continues…
The gang was heading down to a forest village to do some spirity bits and bobs. The train for the border with Congo apparently left at 8pm, so I had bags of time and Tatayo suggested that I come with. So I raced over to the Mbolo supermarket (all life is here!) to book my ticket, only to find that the train did leave at eight o’clock. Eight o’clock in the morning.
So Tatayo gave me a lift in the Mystery Machine to PK8 where the shared taxis leave heading south and then it was my second set of farewells for the day as I bid a fond adieu to Mobengo, Alex, Justin, Caroline and the irrepressible Tatayo. If you ever find yourself stuck in Libreville, you know where to go.
The first leg of the journey south (to Lamberéné) was remarkably pleasant. A fairly good road, a front seat to myself and a chance to write up my blog as I crossed once again into the Southern Hemisphere, illogically thinking that somehow makes me closer to Mandy, my girlfriend who is just nine time zones away in Australia.
However, once I reached Lamberéné, things took a turn for turn for the Africa. I was herded onto the back of a pickup truck, along with a ton of bananas, bags filled with dried fish and two other guys and we hurtled south so fast it made my toes curl.
On the sealed road it was quite exhilarating – the wind in your hair and all that jazz, but once we hit the dirt track it was nothing short of torture. It’s not like the driver slowed down to accommodate the dreadful road – in fact, I think he may have even sped up. After the first hour one of the guys got off so it was just me and this other guy – Anisé – clinging on for dear life. We found it was easier to stand and lean forwards, gripping the metal bar behind the cab, but this meant getting dustier than a feather duster in 1930s Oklahoma.
Then, as if to add a little more comedy value to the situation, they added another ton of bananas, some more fish and, oh yes, A LIVE GOAT to the mix. So not only did I have to worry about falling out or the driver crashing, I now had to worry about a goat crapping on my shoes.
It got dark as it does around these parts at 6pm, and there I was having been bumped around for a good three hours, standing astride bananas, fishes and a goat. The driver was maintaining a solid 100kmph no matter how many potholes the road through up and the effect of the roads corrugation was that my eyesight was flickering like an old movie. I held on with my left hand gripped tighter than a nyloc bolt and twittered with my right hand so the folks back home could share in my terror in realtime.
It began to rain, something I pointed out to Anisé. He shook his head – it can’t rain, it’s not the rainy season. Impeccable logic, and sure enough, the rain went off.
It was a further two hours of this madness before we finally reached the border town of N’Dendé which was languishing in the middle of a powercut. I jumped out, my legs shaking from the ordeal of the previous five hours. After five days at sea fighting the elements, this was the last thing I needed.
My patina of dust was an inch thick, undoing the good work my hot shower at Tatayo’s this morning had done me. I got chatting to a guy, Michael, who was wearing a Liverpool shirt (always a good sign) and he directed me to the local guest house. It was a dingy affair, but cheap as chips so I ain’t complaining. After venturing outside (the power magically came back on) I sought the one horse in this one horse town, but somebody had shot it; so I grabbed a bottle of orange and a plate of fish and rice, devoured them like the Salaac and crashed out, tired beyond reason and just happy to be alive.
In a trend that will no doubt continue for the rest of the month, I got up at 5am only to find that there was no transport to the Congo border until much later. At about 7am, I hopped into a shared taxi, which was apparently heading to the frontier, but spent an hour driving errands around town and then kicked me out – he wasn’t going to the border after all.
I waited by the side of the road for an age before a bush taxi finally turned up. Squished in (as always), it would be 10am before we actually headed towards Congo, only 50km away. Three separate border stamps to get out in three separate offices. A combination of bureaucracy and a bad (well, non-existent) road conspired for it to take HOURS to get to the border.
At the final checkpoint before I escaped Gabon, and after I got the fright of my LIFE as the BIGGEST SPIDER I have ever seen scurried inches from my hand, I got chatting to a Spanish guy who was crossing the other way. Javier worked for Medicins Sans Frontiers and at the end of his latest stint, he had decided to ride his motorbike all the way from South Africa to Spain.
The Gabonese customs guy was giving him a hard time, saying that the border was closed because of last week’s election. Javier was quite used to this transparent horseplay and, like me, had no intention of giving these damn chancers a rotten penny.
It was great meeting Javier at the border. It felt like I had met a kindred spirit – someone else who had been through the emotional gambit that is overland travel in Africa and somebody who still had a long way to go. We were meeting half-way, one going up and the other coming down.
We swapped good road/bad road and visa obtaining advice – worryingly, Javier had originally wanted to travel up through Angola, but just couldn’t get a visa. Apparently, they’re as rare as chicken teeth and unfortunately for me, my Angolan visa expired the previous month. Then, after the border guards had checked through my bags and discovered that they stood no chance of obtaining a bribe, we said our farewells and headed out in our respective directions.
Once I had finally cleared the border shenanigans on the Congo side, I hopped a motorbike to the first town over the border, arriving at about 3pm, and hopeful of getting some kind of bush taxi down to Dolisie that day.
Ha! No chance. There would be transport tomorrow morning at dawn. It had taken me an entire day to go 50km.
You know I said yesterday that I was in a one-horse town? I’m sorry. THIS was a one-horse town. With nowhere to buy hot food, I had to make do with a fly-covered stick of bread and a five-year old tin of sardines. I managed to find a room for the night around the back of the general store; it was pretty basic but the gas lamp (the electricity supply got cut off at night) gave it a little bit of old world charm. Plus the smell reminded me of happy days caravaning, scouting and playing MacGuyver in the field over the road with our Alex. Powerful thing, smell.
I settled down in the only bar within which, I was the only customer and I wrote and drank and drank and wrote.
Whilst I beavered away, the helpful owner of the bar set up his home-made speaker system and put his favourite African-warbling-and-Casio-keyboard CD on MAXIMUM DANGER OVERLOAD setting. The result of which – like ALL amplified music in Africa – was that it was distorted to hell, which to a music affectionado like me, is the equivalent of fingernails down a chalkboard. Or water torture. I stuffed my one working iPod headphone in my lughole and turned it up as loud as Steve Job’s lawyers will allow.
Setting off again at dawn, I found the shared truck for Dolisie (the junction half way to Congo’s capital city, Brazzaville) actually left early. I had to run to clamber on board the back as it pulled out. The truck was a fifty-year old cattle truck with open sides. It was carrying a staggering 73 people, their luggage, 14 live goats, several chickens and right by my feet, were two cow legs, still with their skin, blood oozing from the wounds beckoning flies like an open latrine.
But that wasn’t the worst thing.
The worst thing was the dust.
The ‘road’ (typically) was little more than a rudimentary track peppered with potholes, and corrugated, so it made your teeth shake. It was also the dustiest road I have ever seen, and I was sitting at the back of this damn truck trying to deal with the cloud of dust covering my bags, my hat, my clothes – and coating my lungs. Just to make things that extra special African brand of unpleasant, the truck was also rigged to blow its filthy black exhaust in the faces of those unfortunates (including your humble narrator here) sitting towards the rear of the truck.
This had to be the most unpleasant journey so far, worse than the wooden fishing boat to Cape Verde, worse than my hellish two-day journey from Mali to the capital of Guinea, worse than the terrifying ‘Mauler’ rollercoaster ride across Nigeria, worse than the wet, muddy mini-Glasto of entering south Cameroon.
What I really couldn’t fathom out was why it was so. I was charged €20 for trip – I did the math – €20 x 73 = €1460. And that doesn’t include the luggage. They had the monopoly on this route and could conceivably make this trip twice a day – there and back. That’s €3000 a day. Over a MILLION EUROS a year. The truck was older than Methuselah, petrol in Congo is not excessively expensive – the economics of Africa just boggles the mind, I just cannot for the life of me suss it out.
WHY CAN’T THEY BUY A DAMN COACH? With WINDOWS. That you can CLOSE. You know, so it’s possible to BREATHE.
Forget guys, T. I. A. Logic and Africa are queer bedfellows indeed.
I made do with a wet-wipe held over my mouth until it became too dirty (which took about ten minutes), and then I fished out a new one. Have you ever sanded a wooden floor with one of those sanding machines? You know how dusty everything gets and you have to open all the windows and wear a face mask? That’s what this was like.
And there were children, babies on board. And they didn’t have masks on. The dust mixed with the filthy black bellowing exhaust, would be doing untold damage to their lungs. For Christ’s sake, is not malaria, AIDS and the lack of clean water not killing enough African children? Do Africans REALLY have to come up with new and inventive ways of murdering skip-loads of infants every single bloody day?
Then again, even if the government built a road, the locals would no doubt see it as an invitation to drive like raving maniacs and all it would do is move the bubble on the badly-hung wallpaper that is this undeniably messed up continent.
Typically, given the ancient nature of the vehicle and the dreadful state of the road, the truck broke down and we were left a couple of kilometres north of the town of Kilbangou. There, I decided enough was enough (I was also fed up of having to hold all of my bags off the floor which was fast becoming a cesspit of goat’s urine and faeces) and set off on foot to see if there were any other transport options. I was accompanied by a guy named John. He was a teacher in Dolisie and was wearing a suit, which would now need several dry-cleans to get rid of all of the dust.
We walked for a couple of kilometres until a bush taxi came along and we flagged it down. The driver had heard about the truck breaking down and had come to poach some customers. So we were driven back to the truck and joined by another five passengers, who had also elected to jump ship.
They did actually manage to get the truck going before the taxi left, but we soon overtook the damn thing and I’m sure it would have broken down a few more times before it reached Dolisie (if it ever reached Dolisie?).
We reached Dolisie in the afternoon. Before the civil war nobody knows about (ten years ago), Dolisie was the retreat of the moneyed elite, a leafy town with beautiful old buildings. The war saw the end of that. It’s still leafy, but the main buildings have been reduced to rubble. John and I headed over to the train station (a dilapidated single-track affair, the main route from Brazzaville to Pointe Noire, the country’s only port) to find out when the next train left for the capital. Not today, not tomorrow, the day after tomorrow. At 7pm. I would get into Brazza on Saturday morning (if the train didn’t derail!). Three days to go 200km. It was time to look for Plan B.
There were no shared taxis all the way to Brazzaville, but some that stopped at the next town along the way, Nkayi. So after a pleasant dinner with John, I wished him well and headed east, once again crammed into a bush taxi designed for x but carrying 2x. I managed to taxi-hop at Nkayi and making it all the way to Modingo, where I spent the night.
I found a little hotel that was listed in the Lonely Planet. It was a little expensive, but I managed to haggle the room down to €15, and then enjoyed three – yes three – showers and then treated myself to a hot bath. It still wasn’t enough to get rid of all of the dust.
I then spent a few hours backing up all of my files on my laptop, just in case it got stolen the next day. Everyone had warned me that the road from Modingo to Brazzaville is notorious for banditry. As events planned out, this would turn out to be an incredibly savvy act.
“Vogons have to be just about one of the most unpleasant races in the galaxy. Not actually evil, but bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous. They wouldn’t even lift a finger to save their own grandmother from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without orders signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters”.
– Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
Since I started this stupid, impossible journey I have been consistently battling Vogons. Curiously absent from Latin America and Europe, they bogged me down in the Caribbean, treated me like a dog on the Greyhound, imprisoned me in Cape Verde and have made my trip through Africa a non-stop cavalcade of misery and paranoia.
Now I don’t want you to be fooled into thinking that everyone in Africa is a Vogon. Nothing could be further from the truth, but there is a sizable minority that is currently employed for the sole purpose of tormenting the helpless wayfarer with their incessant (and usually armed) demands for money. This is with the blessing of their evil little Vogon governments, thieves and liars to a man.
You can spot a Vogon a mile away – most wear some kind of uniform (possibly found in a jumble sale) and all will be armed with Mr. Kalashnikov’s infamous 1947 model of semi-automatic rifle.
As they flick through your ‘papers’, desperately trying to find even the slightest inconsistency so that their disgraceful brand of highway robbery can be guilded in the false pancia of earthly justice, your heart pounds, your palms sweat – are they going to ask for one dollar or one hundred? Or will they just throw you in stinking jail cell for a week?
“There are places in this world where the safety net is suddenly whipped away, where the right accent, education, health insurance and foreign passport – all the trappings that spell ‘It Can’t Happen to Me’ – no longer apply, and your well-being depends on the condescension of strangers”.
– Michela Wrong, In The Footsteps of Mr Kurtz
And DON’T give me that crap about them not being paid. The shoeless crippled orphans on the city streets aren’t getting paid – they don’t relieve me of my cash via the barrel of a gun. These Vogons are scum, just utter scum – there to line their own pockets at the expense of their country, their families, their neighbours and at the expense of foolhardy tourists like myself who, once over those border lines, vow never to return.
It was shaping up to be a long day.
I had risen with the lark and jumped a shared taxi to the next village (there was no direct transport link with Brazzaville). I would repeat this process twice over, in two different shared taxis, hopping from town to town until I managed to find a shared truck that was heading all the way to Brazza.
I had been warned of banditry on the road, so I bought a couple of bandages and strapped my video tapes and my hard drive to my legs, just in case. It was actually a relief when a friendly soldier clambered onboard, complete with AK-47 to ward off any would-be Dick Turpins.
Luckily, I managed to bag a seat in the cab; yesterday’s ordeal of sitting in the back of the truck held little adventure for me. I just wanted to get to the capital before dark, because that’s when the Vogons are at the height of their powers.
We bounced around for hour after hour, a single, hobbled, dust track marking the main road from the capital to the port. We arrived at the city of Kinkala at dusk. Kinkala is the last big town before Brazzaville, the capital of this wretched place.
At this point, the dust track gives way to a brand new road, with TARMAC (fancy that!), drainage (DRRRRRAINAGE!!!), white lines, road signs – the lot. It even had a couple of roundabouts.
It wouldn’t do to have built their own road, even after 50 years of ‘in’dependence, so the Vogons got us daffy Europeans to build it for them, possibly on the back of a promise that they (no doubt) intend to break. Hell, one day they might even have a road that goes from the capital city all the way to the main port, Pointe Noire – wouldn’t that be a fine thing?! Although at the current pace of road building (50km in 50 years), the fine people of Congo can look forward to the damn thing being completed around Stardate 2453.
I have to say, after four days of roughing it over the dustiest tracks in the universe, it was a blessed relief to be back on tarmac – I even got out of the truck and gave the road a little cuddle.
A major problem with Vogons is that they generally start drinking at around 6am and continue drinking all day. The result of which is that the roads in Africa get VERY dangerous at night. Not because of bandits (who thankfully didn’t appear), but because of drunken officers of the law who have no scruples in fleecing one of the few (very very few) tourists, of everything he or she has got.
RULE 1: KEEP SMILING
We arrived at the Vogon roadblock outside Brazzaville at around 8pm. It all seemed quite straight forward until they asked me to get out of the cab so they could rifle through my belongings.
My crime? Not to smile at the horrible bastards. I was tired and I was looking forward to meeting my couchsurf contact Christophe, and going for a beer. This was quite possibly the 200th roadblock that I had come to since Rabat and after four days of the most arduous bit of overlanding so far, I just wanted to relax as soon as possible.
Hell, I was cordial enough. But after they kept me waiting by the roadside for an hour, it didn’t take Sherlock to suss that the game was afoot. They had captured a whitey. At night. Entering Brazzaville. In a truck!
They were drunk and as frisky as a bunch of Hitler Youth who had caught a Jew attempting to escape Nazi Germany in a haycart.
The fact that there is no bus, no coach, and no shared taxi from the west to the capital and the train would not be getting in until Saturday (maybe) didn’t figure much in their tiny, uneducated minds. I was possibly the most exciting thing to happen to them since puberty.
Now we’ve got him, how do we keep him? How do we make his trip to Congo a complete misery that he will never forget? How do we ensure that he tells everyone he knows and everyone he meets never, ever to go, invest or give aid to Congo, this most fetid basketcase of basketcases?
My passport was somewhat problematic for them – it was genuine, valid and had a stonking great visa in it for Congo, as well as my four separate entry stamps. So they decided that they wanted to see what was on my tapes. So I picked one at random and played it to them. One of the thick idiots decided that Steve, the lovely Nigerian guy from Port Mole, was in fact Ali Bongo, the new president. Quite what I was doing in a fishing shop with the President of Gabon is quite beyond my capabilities, but there you go.
Before I knew it, I was being stuffed into a sequested car with four Vogon ‘policemen’ (me and three others in the back, all armed) and being taken to see ‘The Chief’.
As I was to later discover, this guy was one of several ‘Chiefs’, each one seemingly as impotent as the last.
So I found myself hauled into a police station and sitting before a (typically drunken) Vogon ‘chief’, accompanied by ten armed officers in the room gauping like a bunch of schoolboys who’ve found a dead animal and are wordlessly trying to estabilish who will have the honour of poking it with a stick.
Luckily for me, I had managed to get a call out to Christophe, my couchsurfing contact, and he headed down to the cop shop to bail me out.
Only, in Congo, there is no such thing as bail. Or human rights, habeus corpus, rule of law, lawyers, judiciary or even a real police force – all they have are some illiterate morons with guns given the task of making everybody’s life a misery.
Christophe’s flatmate, Max, also came down to help me out, but I wasn’t going anywhere. By now, it was past midnight. The ‘chief’ pulled out the whiskey and offered me a tipple. I was told to make myself comfortable on the couch.
I managed to get through to the British Embassy in Kinshasa and explain the situation. There’s no British Embassy in Bazzaville, only an Honourary Consul. The guy at the British Embassy, a wonderfully posh guy named Holgar, said they would do all they can to get me out as soon as possible.
According to the ‘chief’ (who would not give me his name, but I have a feeling it was Mr. Utter B**tard), it was all a matter of ‘procedure’ and I’d be released the next day. Which brings us to…