Brighton to Cape Town Overland by Motorcycle
25th January 2008
Boxing Day 2007 saw two Africa Twins and a CCM being ridden from Yaounde down to the border with Gabon to the south. The road was as easy as it was pretty and the group of riders made excellent progress. The Cameroon exit formalities were despatched without issue, and we were soon on our way into Gabon. Or at least we thought we were. There was a gate across the road, manned by our least welcoming border guard yet. He inspected our passports and visas intently, and wanted to know where we were going, in some detail. Having spotted the Congo visas in our passports, he wanted to know why we would want to go to Libreville, when it's possible to bypass the city altogether and head straight through the country to the next one without ever visiting the capital. Again, the fact that our visas said tourism on them was lost on the border official, who was apparently unaware that tourists visited places they didn't have to go to.
Eventually however, he had to accept that the border was open, our documents were all in order and he was thus left with little option but to let us into the country. He had no facility to stamp us in however, merely providing us with a form to take to the immigration office in the town of Bitam, a few miles up the road. Less than a hundred metres inside his gate the road was diverted towards a big police office, but no one there was interested in talking to us so we headed into town.
The customs office was easy to find, and the douaniere stamped our bikes in whilst we enjoyed the brief respite of his air conditioned office. Up the road from the customs office we duly found the immigration office as described and, having first been sent off to get various pages of our passports photocopied, got ourselves stamped officially into Gabon.
We stumbled across the Hotel des Voyageurs, who were distinctly unhappy about the prospect of three of us sharing a room. It dawned on us that it could be because homosexuality is illegal in many African countries and they were concerned at two of us having to share a bed - we had to get out one of our camping mattresses and explain that we had a third bed. As soon as we did so, there was no problem and we could have a room. What's more, we had off-street parking for the bikes, too - in the hotel nightclub. It took a bit of persuasion and a makeshift ramp to get the two fully laden Africa Twins and a CCM up the step into the doorway, but once in, they could drip a little oil onto the nightclub floor from their chain oilers in absolute privacy and security.
The following morning, Chris was on his way back to the room from the shower in his boxer shorts when one of the hotel staff asked him to come to the front desk for "something important". Figuring that only the discovery of the absence of one of the bikes from the nightclub would be important enough for someone to be bothering him about, he quickly pulled his jeans on and went to investigate, only to discover that the staff member had one of the many ill mothers to be found across Africa, and like so many impoverished sons, needed money for her medication. Chris made his excuses and came back to the room for breakfast.
The following morning, we were heading in the direction of Libreville, unsure of the exact quality of the road that would greet us. The map showed the road south from Bitam to be tarmac for the first 50 miles or so, then piste of varying quality until Ndjole. From there, the road should be tarmac again to Libreville. As it happened, the Gabonese road planners had organised a track day for us as a ribbon of perfect twisting tarmac led us to the equator.
Unusually for a track day, we had to share the track with the logging trucks which were steadily transporting the forest towards the city, though having to slow to pass them was a small price to pay for a road as entertaining as this. Smooth perfect curve after smooth perfect curve led us south for mile after mile, with Dan's enlarged sidestand foot being merrily ground further into oblivion by each left-hander. At the equator, we posed for the mandatory self-portraits by the sign, before heading south again to find somewhere to stay.
Unbeknown to us, the sign heralding the equator also heralded the end of the glorious road surface. The road from here on was showing the effect of building a road through the jungle, and then using it to transport the jungle somewhere else. The tarmac we'd been so enjoying had been destroyed by the heavy logging trucks, and by the time we reached Ndjole, it had been a gravel track for about ten miles. The dust thrown up by the trucks as they rolled carefully along the track made it practically impossible to see where we were going, making further progress difficult. The road does at least take some revenge on the trucks however: we passed one truck holding up the rest of it's convoy in the middle of the road with it's brakes on fire.
We found our way to Hotel Kevazingo, and eventually agreed to take an air conditioned en-suite room for 10,500CFA - less than £12 between the three of us. Having set ourselves up, we wandered a couple of kilometres further along the gravel road into town to get something to eat, and buy Gabonese Celtel SIM cards. We found ourselves in a bustling town where the river, railway and road meet.
The place was clearly entirely funded by the logging trade - the trucks lined the streets, and hungry "grumieres" packed the roadside food vendors. Many of the businesses in the town were housed in concrete stalls half-demolished by the long, overhanging tree-trunks being swept round the bends in the steely embrace of the logging trucks. We found some empty barstools in one such establishment and ate another hearty omelette based meal for a little over a pound each.
On 28th December, we parted company temporarily with Chris, who'd decided to visit a nature reserve and watch animals in the forest rather than visitng another DHL office and watch us wrestling our oil filters from the hands of a customs official. We were pleased that the dusty gravel track only continued into the centre of Ndjole, before turning back into the pristine tarmac we'd been so enjoying. Towards Libreville, the road was constructed instead out of potholes, and the pace had to be adjusted to suit. When we arrived in Libreville, we were pleased we'd specified for the package to be picked up from the airport as that meant we didn't have to fight our way into the centre of the sprawling metropolis that is Libreville.
There is a great deal of oil wealth in Gabon, not that you'd particularly know it from travelling the majority of the country. Sure, the roads in the north are good, but the towns are not wealthy and no one has personal transport, not even the small chinese motorcycles so popular in other african countries. Libreville is itself an unusual place - as you approach it's very much a standard third world city, with a shanty-town where in the UK there'd be Surrey. However, once inside, it's very much all mod cons, no small motorcycles and lots of expensive cars - you could well be in Europe. The wealth of Gabon is very concentrated, there's a large ex-pat population in the capital supported by the oil industry. As the government have money to spend, they also have a scheme for the gabonese people to avoid manual labour if they do well enough at school - they can qualify for a guaranteed administrative job, which leaves all the lower paid manual labour jobs to the immigrant population from the surrounding countries and further afield. The majority of the men driving the logging trucks from the jungle to Libreville port are in fact Malaysian.
On arriving at the DHL office at the airport, we were to be disappointed. We had a number for the consignment, but despite their efforts to utilise it whilst we ate our lunch outside, it was not the number they needed to find our package in their system. We could do nothing until we had a different number, which meant telephone traffic to and from the UK to get hold of it. As it was going to be dark before we got the right number, we had instead to find somewhere to stay. Just north of Libreville on the coast is the ex-pat retreat of Cap Esterias. We headed up the pristine dual carriageway that took us to the destroyed dirt track to the village and found what we thought was the only accomodation to be had. We started the usual conversation about room prices and the possibility of camping instead only to get the usual vague response of waiting for the owner to return as the person we were talking to had no authority to make deals.
We settled down with a cold beer and waited. And waited. As the sun began to set, we were resigned to staying in an expensive room rather than the tents we'd prefer. The lass who we'd been trying to bargain with came over and explained that maybe there was somewhere else we could camp instead and gave us some directions that may or may not have been about right. As it was, Ed eventually found an auberge run by a wonderfully welcoming french lady (as friendly and generous as she was eccentric) and her gabonese partner who let overlanders camp for free. Their main business was the ex-pats coming for weekends away and overlanding freeloaders simply made their weeknights more interesting. There was a french couple, Eveline and Marc, in a large yellow overland truck who were also on their way to South Africa but had had to stop and wait for new passports as theirs were full. Barely had we erected our tents than the french overlanders had offered us a pastis, and before long we were sat down for a hearty meal with them and the proprietors accompanied by beer, wine, conversation in a mixture of english and french and a lot of laughter.
In the morning we packed up and left more hurriedly than we'd perhaps have liked, as we'd been struck by the generosity of these people who'd taken us in, fed us and provided us with facilities for no reward, and waved us off in the morning with big smiles and shouts of "Bon voyage!". However, armed with the magic number for the men at DHL, we wanted to quickly pick up our consignment of oil filters and make our way to Lambarene. This optimistic plan however was not to last long.
The magic number did allow the DHL staff to locate the package, and they confirmed that yes, it was in the building. However, we had to go into the centre of town to pay the import duties at the central DHL office.
Armed with a sketch map and a fistful of CFA, we headed off for a hurried trip to the central office. After no more than 200 yards, we'd been pulled over by an opportunistic policeman who could tell that we were foreign and therefore well worth hassling. Just as it had been in Ouagadougou, the guy's timing was impeccable, we had a full day planned and we didn't have a lot of time to waste. He inspected our driving licences and demanded forty thousand CFA (about £45). He proclaimed that they weren't gabonese licences, and therefore we had to pay. This we didn't agree with, and he went on to explain that as they weren't international licences, the fine was 40,000 CFA. We showed our international licences and refused to pay. He then wanted to see our insurance, and being disappointed that we had some, demanded to see our cameras. He decalared that photography was illegal in Gabon, and the fine was 40,000 CFA. If it hadn't been clear from the start that this was a ruse, it certainly was now. We sat down on the kerb with our bikes blocking the way into the layby, and didn't understand what we'd done wrong. We made the point that all our documents were in order, we'd taken no pictures of Gabon (which was true of the cameras we'd shown him) and that we were innocent of everything he'd tried to fine us for. Eventually, he gave up and gave us our licences back and we continued on our way into town. Eventually we found the office and got our customs documents in order so we could return to the airport and liberate our package. We arrived to discover that the man who needed to see the customs documents wasn't there, and for the second day running we ate a picnic lunch in the salubrious surroundings of the carpark outside the DHL building at Libreville airport.
Eventually we were back on our way and noticing that the side of the road the trucks use to get out of Libreville is in very much better condition than the side we'd arrived on. Once we were out of the immediate area around the capital, we had good tarmac all the way, and as we'd only set off after lunch, we had a shorter route in mind. We arrived at the Hotel Equateur mid afternoon, and negotiated a rate for camping on the understanding that we'd probably use their restaurant, though on discovering that the cheap meals were unavailable, we ended up cooking for ourselves out by the tents.
After a hot humid night outside the bar of the hotel enduring a bizarre dance track produced by a crying baby and a synthesiser, we arose and set off for another short day to Lambarene. As we got packed up, we were surrounded by swarms of seemingly harmless little insects, though the large pink blotches that later appeared on our arms, necks and faces showed that the little critters were far from harmless.
By nine o'clock that morning, we'd arrived in Lambarene, which was where we were due to meet back up with Chris. The significance of Lambarene was that it was the end of the tarmac in Gabon, according to the Michelin map which had generally proved pretty accurate. When Chris arrived, he had with him three other bikers, all on KTM 640 Adventures, who were on their way from London to Capetown. Francois, MJ and George are South Africans, two of whom had been working in London until they set off for home. MJ flew over and joined them in Madrid, and they knew from talking to the officials that they'd followed us through a few borders, notably the memorable mud road from Ekok into Cameroon.
After an entertaining afternoon of exchanging banter and stories from the road we headed to a restaurant and on to a bar for more of the same, and decided we'd head for Ndende together the following morning.
The easy progress didn't last however - within minutes of leaving the town after lunch, Chris had been run off the road by the truck he was overtaking and taken a fall. He was unharmed, but the fuel bottle for his stove had seen better days. Within a further fifteen minutes, Dan's front mudguard also had to come off as it had been damaged in the same way as Ed's had been that morning. With the mudguard lashed onto the back of the bike, progress could continue, and it was half an hour before Dan noticed anything else was wrong.
Once Dan and Chris had given up the search and caught up with the others, it didn't take long for the group to reach their target for the day. Ndende is a small place but apparently has more than one place to stay. We struck a deal to camp outside the bizarrely named Drugstore Motel, which teamed up with a bar/restaurant and a petrol station to form the Complex La Barbecue.
The merry band of six overlanders set up their tents and got a round of beers in to mark the end of a good day's riding and the end of 2007. It was whilst chatting to the barstaff that the group learnt that the border would be closed in the morning for New Year's Day. This initially came as quite a blow, but as progress was prohibited the following day, there was no reason not to have a couple more drinks to see in the new year.
New year's day 2008 saw us still in Ndende, and was a convenient point to change the oil filters on the two Africa Twins. Dan got started on his, and having removed the cover to get to the filter, discovered that the front sprocket - also concealed behind the same cover and which drives the rear wheel via the chain - was very badly worn. This came as quite a surprise, as the chain and rear sprocket which had been regularly checked were still in perfect condition, and the three components usually wear out as a set. Ed's was also worn, but in better condition and not likely to give trouble ay time soon. With no spare sprocket being carried in the luggage, the only way to avoid having one shipped in at great expense would be to buy a new one in Namibia. That however would mean running the risk of being stranded in Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, or Angola with no drive to the rear wheel.
Realistically, there was no option but to arrange to have a sprocket flown in to Brazzaville, capital of the Congo. Brazzaville was only 400 miles from where we were camped, albeit most of those miles were on what were shown on the map as the worst roads of the entire journey. The map graded the first twenty five miles to the border with Congo as piste the same as we'd been riding to get to Ndende, but after that there would be about 200 miles of earth roads - unprepared and perhaps un-maintained tracks with only temporary structures forming bridges, if indeed there were bridges at all. At least from the end of the earth road section to Brazza we'd be back on prepared piste.
So it was that on 2nd January 2008, six overlanders got their passports stamped out of Gabon in Ndende, and set off for the border with Congo. The pace was relaxed a little as Dan was doing his best to take it easy to preserve what little he had left of his front sprocket. At Moukoro, where the bikes were stamped out and the passports were stamped out again, we discovered that the rear loop of Ed's Metal Mule pannier rack had broken. If we'd been wondering what would be the third unfortunate incident to make up the set with Dan's clothing and sprocket woes, we'd found it - Ed's luggage rack fracturing just as we rolled up to the start of what should be the most challenging road of the journey. As we'd already been stamped out of Gabon, we had no option of returning to the safety of Ndende and trying to effect a repair, we had instead to do as best we could with a strap, and continue into the Congo.