Let me tell you about Vogons.
“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…