Brighton2capetown - DRC

Brighton to Cape Town Overland by Motorcycle

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Democratic Republic of Congo

25th January 2008

Anyone used to a european style farry-service would be a little disappointed by the Brazzaville-Kinshasa ferry.  In fact, anyone expecting a service at all would be a little disappointed.  The Republic of Congo exit formalities were simple enough, even if it was a little tricky to find the right offices to get the passports and carnets stamped, but the purchase of ferry tickets proved even more challenging.  Eventually, the correct office was found and we were warned that we had ten minutes to get to the boarding area.  With the correct dock duly located, we parked up and waited for three hours before there was any sign of a boat. 

Once the boat arrived, the loading experience was not the ordered process so familiar to clients of P&O or Seafrance.  We were hastily ushered off the dockside onto the deck of the waiting barge, and then, when they realised they'd not arranged us in quite the best way, asked Dan to reverse his bike back up the step onto the dockside so they could load a car instead.  Eventually, the staff understood that despite weighing the same as a small car, an Africa Twin does not come equipped with a reverse gear and the requested manouevre was not going to happen.

The car was loaded elsewhere, and the foot passengers, mostly carrying large sacks of merchandise scrambled for every available square inch of deck space.  There were people everywhere, and tension was high.  It wasn't long before a fight broke out between some of the locals, though we were seperated from it by a thirty year old Peugeot and a disciplinarian gap-toothed old matron who clearly commanded some sort of respect from the fighting youths. 

After forty minutes of battling against the phenomenal current of the Congo river, the barge we were on made it to the next loading point, where our boat was lashed to another two identical barges and continued it's way upstream before heading over to the south bank and the DRC.  On arrival, unloading was the reverse of the loading procedure - a free for all with pedestrians scrambling around the bikes and over the bonnet of our neighbouring Pug.  Any attempt to move a bike was initially prevented, as once the bike was up off it's sidestand the unexpected pedestrians resting their heavy sacks on the tops of the panniers as they scrambled past would threaten to topple the bike.

Eventually however the flow of foot passengers off the barge slowed, and as the last few hundred disembarked, a fair few were already boarding for the return journey.  Sensing that the deck was about to get very crowded again, we got the bikes onto the dockside into Kinshasa.  Once on dry land, it was not immediately apparent where we should go to get ourselves and our bikes stamped into the country, so we parked up and went for a wander.  We came across a man in a suit who looked like he might know where we should go, so we asked him.  He called over a policeman, handed him our passports and told him to go and get them stamped.  It turned out we'd asked the head of the immigration service.  Whilst the policeman was off with our passports, we searched out the customs office to get the carnets sorted, and as Dan returned with the officers who wanted to check all the numberplates (including the hurriedly-home-made one in Chris' top box), the health service were claiming that our bikes had to be disinfected.  With the customs officers happy, the carnets stamped and our passports back in our possession, we now only had to side-step the health service and be on our way into the DRC.  Ed manouevred his bike out of the parking area we'd stopped in, and as the health service closed in on Dan, paddling his bike backwards through a small gap, the perfect excuse presented itself.  The owner of the car Dan was working his way past couldn't get into it with Dan there so Dan made his excuses and a quick getaway.  Like every other vehicle and foot passenger on the ferry, our bikes made their way out into Kinshasa still infected with everything Brazzaville had to offer.

By the time we were out of the port, it was already mid afternoon and we had a waypoint for the Catholic mission in Kinshasa, which was less than a mile from the port.  We made our way over there only to be shocked by the price of a room, and were told we would not be allowed to camp.  Having revived ourselves with water and a biscuit, we headed back out on the road towards Matadi on the border with Angola, keeping an eye open for anywhere we might be able to stay en route. 

We had spotted a town on the map not too far from Kinshasa where there may be somewhere to stay, and on our arrival in Madimba, we did our best to find somewhere.  There wasn't anywhere obvious, so when Ed spotted the local police he went over to ask if there was anywhere we could stay.  We explained that we were after a mission or somewhere else that was cheap and when the chief wandered over to see what all the fuss was about he said there was a mission in a nearby village that he would escort us to on his little motorbike.  The unlikely cavalcade of a DRC Police Jincheng, two Africa Twins and a CCM made it's way back up the road for a few kilometres to a mud-track side turning where the policeman stopped and told us we should turn off. 

Having followed the mud road through a little village, we found ourselves outside a large church, clearly the centre of the mission.  All we needed to do now was get ourselves permission to camp.  This was a little tricky, as the passers-by we spoke to were clear that in order to get permission to stay, we'd have to check with the chief of the village.  Knowing we'd have little chance of finding the chief without further hassle and questioning, we were on the verge of giving up and heading back into town to the hotel that was apparently there.  However, we spotted a portly clergyman stood on a verandah watching us.  We went and introduced ourselves, and he went to find someone who could speak a little english who could help us out.  Before long we were in the office of one of the schoolteachers, having our details written down in another large african ledger whilst the schoolteacher plied us with free beer and fruit.  One of the fruits was a mangoustine, like an overgrown lychee - the other, the beef-heart fruit, was like a cross between a passion fruit and a cod.  Both were delicious, and were greedily wolfed down, though we were unable to tempt vegetable-shy Chris with the cod-fruit.

Not for the first or last time in Africa, we were faced with utter confusion about what tourism actually is. 
"This man is a priest", explained one of our hosts, "as you are tourists, he is a priest".
Too tired to explain again that tourism is not a profession and that we were unable to earn a living by visiting places, we settled into our tents for the night and slept well.

The following day we completed the journey to Matadi, and the road proved to be glorious asphalt for the entire journey.  On arriving in Matadi, we were just wondering how to get to the waypoint we had for convent accomodation in Matadi when Christoph, the friendly photographer we'd met in Yaounde, happened to drive past in his Land Rover.  He escorted us to the mission where he'd been staying, and got us set up.  Christoph had already done the leg work on the Angola visa application - he told us where the consulate was, that it would be a same-day service and that it would cost US$80.  We had already missed the time by which we'd need to apply that day, so we settled down for a relaxed afternoon in Matadi, and got everything ready for the following morning.

Christoph also told us that photography in DRC was illegal without a permit, which would explain the whistle-blowing when Dan stopped on a bridge by a police checkpoint just outside Matadi to take a photo of the view.  A hurried shot of the handrail and a quick getaway was by no means the most satisfying photographic result of the trip.

On 10th January, we rolled up to the Angolan consulate at 8.30am to apply for our visas.  It was not immediately apparent how long the process would take, so when we were asked to take a seat in the gilt-furnished waiting room, we did so without question.  What we didn't know at this stage was that we were about to take part in one of the qualifying events for the International Waiting World Championships 2008. 

We waited for four hours, and at 12.30pm when we'd still not heard anything about our visas, we excused ourselves and went for some lunch.  We were advised that we should be back within the hour to pick up our visas, and we were glad we made it back for 1.30, as if we hadn't, we'd've missed out on some more international open-class waiting until 3pm when we were summoned for our interviews. 

During the lengthy interview process, we were asked important questions such as how old our sisters were, and how much a UK passport costs.  We also learnt that they considered that the five-day transit visa they offer is basically insufficient to cover the 1200 miles to Namibia on their roads, and that it was "dangerous" that Ed only had non-consecutive clear pages in his passport, as he'd not be able to get the visa extended to a more realistic length in Luanda.  After a nervous few minutes during which it looked like they were going to refuse to issue Ed with a visa, we were despatched back to the gilt ensemble for more waiting training while they faxed documents to and from Luanda to check that people with sisters in their thirties and who had paid £60 for their passports were allowed to travel through Angola.

Finally, after another hour of waiting, we were presented with our passports, now with an Angolan transit visa in each.  These visas allowed us to compete in the freestyle event of the International Waiting World Championships, held simultaneously across the whole of West Africa during 2008, and travel freely across Angola for 5 calendar days.