Brighton2capetown - Congo

Brighton to Cape Town Overland by Motorcycle

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Congo

25th January 2008

On 2nd January 2008, we made quite an entrance into the Congo.  Chris had been allowed a rare stint at the front of the pack between the final Gabon exit point and the entry point into Republic of Congo.  Faced with a straight stretch of road, an enduro bike straining at the leash, a running helmet camera and no one in front, Chris felt compelled to open his throttle.  As he hurtled down the track, he didn't have time to spot the white police building with the flag and the guards.  He also didn't spot the barrier across the road until he had just ten metres or so to scrub off the 50mph he'd accrued.  He locked a wheel, ducked, smacked his shoulder as he went under the barrier and spent most of his first half minute in The Congo careening into a hedge then hurriedly scrambling back out of it. 

The border guards, having been summoned by the sound of their locked barrier being twanged by a flying Christopher, were not impressed.  The chief demanded to know why Chris was on their side of the barrier, and another quickly deduced that he must have ridden round it.  He was given a brief dressing down and then the usual futile business of checking our passports and writing down lots of data (which could never be found should it ever be needed for anything) could begin.

They also wanted to see inside the luggage of each of the bikes.  Having helped Ed unstrap his stricken panniers and go through the right hand one, the over-achieving officer then helped strap them both back up before demanding to see inside the left hand pannier, requiring the strap to be removed once more.  We were not to be stamped in at this checkpoint, that would happen a few more kilometres down the road, but we were able to get the bikes stamped in during the course of the hour or so we were left hanging around.

At the next village down the road, there was a police point where we could get the passports stamped into the country, and as we did so, Ed took the opportunity to repack his luggage - taking most of the weight out of the panniers and arranging it in a bag on the seat. 

The road from there on in became increasingly challenging.  There were a lot of water filled ruts that we had to ride through, some as deep as two feet, and many of which smelt awful.  At one such water trough, most of the bikes had been gently eased through without incident, and Chris was next.  He started his helmet camera recording, and once more set off at a pace guaranteed to produce exciting footage.  The bow wave came up in front of his face and robbed of forward vision he veered off course.  Given that the first rule of riding in ruts is to follow the rut, it was no surprise that he landed himself and his bike in the water, and the last footage that his camcorder was to record for a while was of the ground coming up to meet it once more.

A little further down the road, whilst trying to avoid another flooded section, Dan's bike went down and Dan very nearly fell flat on his face as his feet slipped in the mud when he went to pick it back up.  Then Francois, one of the South Africans on KTMs ended up throwing his bike into the very hole he was trying to ride round the edge of, and Dan dropped his bike trying to get out of the way of an oncoming truck.

After approximately 20 kilometres of muddy track, the road improved to a prepared piste, though there were still some deep foul-smelling puddles to contend with.  Despite these, progress from that point to Nyanga was swift, though progress through Nyanga was not.  We arrived in time for a late lunch, and were in two minds whether to carry on to the next town or not.  While we were eating, Ab and Matt, two of the dutch guys we'd met in Yaounde rolled up in their 4x4.  After we'd eaten, we had decided we'd probably stay, and headed off in the direction of a Catholic mission they knew of where we would be able to camp.  We were stopped by the police however, who wanted to write down our passport details once more, but this time the same information needed to be written down by two people in two seperate offices.  The first guy seemed sober enough, the other was drunk in charge of a biro and spent most of the time he should have been writing instead asking us to buy him a drink.

With the time wasted at the police offices, the decision to stay at the mission was confirmed and we headed in to set up camp. Chris opted to arrive there with a bang, not spotting a very slippery mossy patch on which he tried to stop and park.  Ab and Matt had also decided to stop there for the night, and were able to provide a donor chair leg and tools with which we could effect a repair of sorts to Ed's rack, and a hearty pasta meal.  We enjoyed the meal surrounded by the insect community of Nyanga who had heard we were coming and had come to take a look.  Bugs of every description scuttled past, including cockroaches the size of lobsters that made a satisfyingly loud noise when kicked towards a wall.  After the meal, Matt brewed up the first proper coffee we'd had since leaving Europe.  A strong filter coffee had Dan flying well into the night however, which meant that he only got two hours sleep before getting up at five thirty to tackle the next section of piste.

Before dawn on 3rd January, all six bikers were up and about and getting packed in the drizzle outside the Catholic mission in Nyanga.  On setting off we discovered the true significance of the drizzle.  The clay surface that had been so firm and grippy the day before was now treacherously slippery, and our speed could barely break double figures before one of the bikes would be on it's side.  Our target of Dolisie for the evening was looking unfeasible, and what's more, George had dropped a rucksack containing all his clean clothes.  He and Francois retraced the route scouring the road for the rucksack as the rain worsened, only to discover that his clothes too had been claimed.

Meanwhile, as the rest of the group progressed slowly, the very localised rain started to ease.  As the road dried, the going got distinctly easier and the slippery clay transformed back to the hard grippy surface we'd been enjoying the day before.  The pace improved, and we were in Dolisie in time for a late lunch. 

With Ed's rack having failed, Dan was keen to reinforce his in the same way by adding a bar across the back.  So it was that as MJ, George and Francois turned right to head west to Pointe Noire, Ed, Dan and Chris started searching themselves out somewhere to stay in Dolisie, where Dan would be able to take on a little metal work in peace.

The Catholic mission we had a waypoint for was non-negotiable on the price, which was higher than we'd been hoping for if very peaceful.  We ended up at the Auberge Theresa where we were able to camp for a total of 8000CFA, about £3 each.  Here, while Ed and Chris enjoyed a beer in the shade, Dan tried to enjoy a beer in the sun whilst cutting a piece of steel tube with a blunt baby hacksaw.  Within an hour or so, a monstrosity of rusting steel and jubilee clips had been successfully grafted on to Dan's luggage rack, rendering it both stronger and uglier than it had ever been before.

We soon learnt that in order to obtain improved service from the portly proprietress, it was simply necessary to address her as "mam'selle" which would result in a little giggle and her merrily trotting off to fetch another beer.  It didn't quite work with the dinner order however.  We'd been informed that the menu consisted of bush meat and not a lot else, so we'd requested an omelette.  This was agreed, but 40 minutes after she'd giggled and trotted off to buy some eggs, she returned with the news that Dolisie was an egg free zone.  With it by this stage too dark to cook in the carpark, our band of adventurers retired to their tents to dream of food.

As the 4th of January dawned, our hungry adventurers emerged from their tents to get stocked up with food from the town before heading east, towards Brazzaville.  Our target for the day was a little town called Madingou, which should be able to provide us with shelter for the night, and break up the gruelling route to Brazzaville. 

It was easy progress to Madingou, dry gravel and clay trails led the way though we were aware of how lucky we were that the dry weather had held - in the wet, this entire stretch would have been every bit as treacherous as the first few kilometres from Nyanga the day before.  It was clear to see the effect the elements have on the road, deep fissures appeared on every gradient where the heavy rain washes the surface away - dangerous if you crest a hill with your bike pointing into one as you then have to do your best to follow it's tortuous route to it's end.

By lunchtime, we'd covered our 110 kilometres for the day and arrived in Madingou, where we were able to camp outside the Hotel Cogeba for 1500 CFA each, whilst the excitable bar manager enthused about us, our tents and the bikes.  We camped under a sun-shade and having given the bikes a quick once over and established that the luggage rack and sprocket situations were getting no worse, we were able to sleep peacefully in our tents, erected without flysheets for ultimate ventilation for the first time in weeks.

The daily sport of wrestling the Thermarest sleeping mats back into their stuff-sacks was completed before dawn on 5th January.  We knew we had more ground to cover than the previous day, and we'd heard the road was more challenging too.  As it was to turn out, the advance knowledge we'd received from Christoph (the friendly photographer we'd met in Yaounde) was not wrong.  This road did have it all.  Hard bumpy rocky trails, polished clay, soft sloppy mud, hard packed damp sand, deep soft sandy ruts, a small river crossing, potholed tarmac, armed bandits, smooth gravel, police checkpoints and finally, for the last few kilometres, pristine tarmac. 

We met the first of the rebel bandits a mere hour from Madingou.  With Dan in the lead, the group rounded a corner to be confronted with a group of young men in civilian clothes blocking the road.  A few of them were holding knives, clearly weapons as opposed to tools, and all were gesturing that we should stop.  On seeing the barrel of an AK47 poking out under the jacket of one of the men, the group realised that stopping was the right thing to have done.  They were better dressed than they were organised, but explained in french that we were entering the Pool region, controlled by the rebels during the civil war, and that they were entitled to stop road users and demand payment.  Dan explained that he didn't understand, and was handed a crumpled piece of paper by one of the men.  Someone somewhere had gone to the trouble of printing out a complicated word processed form, then scrawling a few words across it in ballpoint pen in letters far larger than the spaces provided for data entry, leaving the rest of it blank, and then - the african pièce de résistance - stamping it with an official rubber stamp.  Not being as bowled over by rubber-stamp technology as the average african official, Dan still didn't understand.  As another of the men began to explain that he was hungry, Dan glanced over towards another of their number walking out from under the shade of a tree eating bread and banana - though decided against making a facetious comment, which is an unusual choice for our sarcastic traveller.  Realising that they were not going to get anything out of us without getting unpleasant, and clearly not actually being keen to get unpleasant, they eventually let us continue, no doubt bewildered as to how we'd got so far into Africa only knowing the phrase "Désolé, je ne comprends pas".

The road from there continued mostly as easy hard packed clay until we got to where Christoph had warned that there was a long deep mud hole.  When he'd passed through the week before, it had been difficult but passable, but when we arrived there was a queue of 20 trucks that had been stuck there for three days.  Locals from the village explained that there was a route around the side that we could take, but warned that there were people there who would want payment.  Bizarrely, after his efforts leading us across the border into the Congo, we sent "blind" Chris off for a reccy on foot, and he returned to report that it would be OK, and he'd not seen anyone demanding money.  We headed off up the side track, across the playing field, through the school and back down towards the road down a stretch of deep-fissured winding single-track with long grass either side.  When we got to the barrier that had been erected to block the path, we went round the side, and the men manning the barrier had just enough time to wake up by the time we were 100 metres away, manhandling an Africa Twin back into the sloppy ruts of the main road to continue on our way. 

The friendly truckers waiting at the other side explained that this was the only bad bit of the road, which for a truck or car would be true, but we knew we had sand coming.  Interestingly, only a few kilometres from the mud hole which was causing such a delay, we came across earth movers repairing the road.  We later learnt that the locals manning the barrier blocking the alternative route were in fact armed with both with automatic weapons and grenades.  These bandits had threatened and demanded payment from our dutch friends in their 4x4 when they had passed through a few days before us, and no doubt they have also been threatening the road-workers and preventing the much needed repairs to their lucrative few metres of muddy mayhem.

By lunchtime, we'd been struggling through the sand for some time, each man intermittently riding, paddling, pushing and picking his own bike up as the others were generally struggling too much themselves to assist.  Mentally and physically exhausted, we sheltered in the shade of a tree by the side of the road and competed with the monster ants for our lunch.  Again, the advance information from Christoph was keeping us sane - we knew the road improved after the next village, which was a mere six miles away down the rutted sandy track.  Sure enough, from Kinkala, the road improved as it is in the process of being converted into a pristine tarmac highway.  Hard packed sand good for 50mph gave way to bright purple shingle good for 60, and eventually the pristine tarmac we longed for. 

As Dan led the group into the city of Brazzaville, he noticed that despite the improved road surface, the back of his bike was feeling pretty "loose".  Not anyone's first choice location for a puncture, the outskirts of Brazzaville.  Within a few minutes, there was a large and fascinated but peaceful and trouble-free crowd gathering around the stricken machine as Dan wrestled the tyre and tube from the rim.  A three inch nail was the culprit, and as the spare tube was hastily installed inside the rear Continental, Chris was despatched to the tyre repair shop over the road to have the original patched - perhaps not such an inconvenient place to have a puncture after all.

Within half an hour, the tired band of bikers were blasting the excited crowd with dust as the best part of two litres of open-piped motorcycle engine roared away, headed for the Catholic Mission at the Cathedrale Sacre Coeur.  Here we knew we'd meet back up with the dutch travellers Ab and Matt and be able to swap stories about the road to Brazza.  Before long, a round of cold cokes was being supped on a concrete bench under the shade of a tree next to the mission whilst we waited for the most miserable nun in the history of Christian hospitality to return and arrange us a room.

For the first time in quite a while, our band of bikers slept straight through dawn on 6th January.  With a day to wait before our mechanical aid parcel of Africa Twin sprockets was to arrive, there was nothing urgent to get done and nowhere to go, so a lie-in was duly enjoyed.  The day was spent lazily chatting to Ab and Matt, and enjoying the peaceful surroundings of the cathedral. 

It has come as a bit of a surprise that so many overlanders are engineers or engineering graduates.  Perhaps this is to do with the confidence a bit of engineering savvy gives a man to take a vehicle far from the help of the european motor-trade, and it means that the world of overlanders is an even smaller world than that they're travelling.  Matt, one of the dutch travellers in the Nissan Patrol owns an MGB and a business running track days for car-owners. 
"My MG didn't start off in Holland, I bought it from a guy who bought it from England"
"What colour is it?"
"Blue"
"Pale blue?"
"Yes"
"Did it used to belong to James McCartney from Hove?"
"Yes, that's the car!"
"I know James, he works in my department and sold it on ebay to a guy in Holland for far more than it was worth..."
"Yep, that's the one - that guy realised how bad it was and sold it to me for less than half what he paid..."

By the afternoon of 7th January, DHL had worked their magic and got the sprockets to Brazzaville.  With some trepidation, Ed and Dan made their way down to the DHL office to pick up the parcel, expecting the usual african DHL experience of inefficiency, bureacracy, bribery and taxes.  The experience of shipping parts into african cities has not generally been a pleasant one, and we were not expecting Brazzaville to be an exception.  We were to be surprised.  In the flash of a copied UK driving licence the parcel was released into our custody without payment of further charges.  We hastily made our exit and returned to the sanctuary of the cathedral before the DHL staff had time to realise their mistake and call us back.

With the sprockets fitted, we were free to make our way to Brazzaville port on the morning of the 8th to take the boat to Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, country number fifteen.