Crossing the mighty Congo River

Frontière Congo-Belge
Five overlanders leave Brazzaville together to cross the border with Congo-Kinshasa at Luozi. From Brazza you can see Kinshasa, 4 kilometers away, at the other end of the Congo river. But the ferry here is notorious for its hassle, intimidation, bribes, complete chaos. If you manage to get accross at all. Katharina, a 27-year old woman who is cycling all the way from Slowenia to South-Africa, braved the ferry yesterday and came back a few hours later, tired and disappointed. She had been refused to go on the footpassenger ferry. And so she is joining our gang of four, puts her bicycle on the roof of my car and her bags inside, and rides duo with Steven on his 150cc Yamaha. Then there’s Francis (he had his bike repaired in just one day; stopped a policeman on a BMW and simply asked him where they serviced their machines!) and there’s young Stergios from Greece with his hugely overladen classic Vespa scooter. I am the only one in a 4×4.

Steven, Stergio and Katharina

Steven, Stergios and Katharina

And so this courageous, intrepid quintet sets off for the Congo on a beautifull Saturday morning and reach the Brazza borderpost around noon. The officials are having a great time with us, lots of laughter and jokes, slapping of shoulders and shaking hands, and they would even stamp a roll of toilet paper when asked.


The Congo-Brazza borderpost at Luozi

The borderpost for the Congo is a bit futher down the road. We pass an old stone signpost saying: “Frontière Congo-Belge” (!?),

Frontiere Congo-Belge

Frontiere Congo-Belge

and the piste is as you would expect in Congo, horreur!, low gear second, swaying from left to right, Thimba bracing herself, heavily panting. But always look on the bright side: it hasn’t rained for a couple of days! After the first kilometers in Congo I want to start a steep, rocky descent, when Katharina comes running, waving her arms for me to stop. Hundred meters further down the track is completely blocked by a truck. There’s no one around and it looks like it could have been here for days already.


Truck blocking our route

Truck blocking our route

We sit down in the shade to discuss our options. The bikes can just pass, but for the Land Rover it’s out of the question. We need to get more information. Are there any alternative exisiting routes that we don’t know of? Is there a way to bypass the truck? Some 5 kilometers back is the border, but we have our exit stamps and will not be allowed back into Congo-Brazzaville. Another 4 or 5 kilometers the other way is the borderpost with Congo-Kinshasa in Manianga. Francis will ride to Manianga and try to get some assistence there: he has the strongest bike and is the most experienced off-roader.

While we are waiting for his return a man walks past and tells me that there is a bypass over a small hill, just a hundred meters back. He offers to show me the way, and I follow him. It’s not really a track, but you can see that it has been used by at least a couple of vehicles. The start is easy, through low grass and shrubs. But the last part is a very steep descent back to the piste. I thank the man for his kindness, give him a cold drink from the fridge, and walk back to Steven, Katharina and Stergios. I tell them I have severe doubts, and I am not confident that it can be done. I decide to walk the bypass again, studying the surface, how much gravel (bad, no grip), how much grass (very bad, slippery), how much rock (good, sufficient grip). I memorize the route: stay left of this shrub, right of that rock, avoid that grassy patch. I have done difficult descents like this before and I know how much the car can handle under these circumstances. It’s difficult, but possible. In the meantime Francis has sent a text message that he will arrive with a guide shortly, and we decide to wait. Some time later Francis arrives with not one but two local guides from Manianga. They managed the bypass yesterday in their Land Rover Defender (what else!), and we get ready to go. When we reach the descent I ask  Steven and Stergios to climb on the back of the car.The extra weight on the rear axle will give more grip on the rear wheels. A last advice from the guides, translated by Francis: it can be done with a good set of brakes and a good set of nerves.

  1. Low gear, 1st                            check
  2. Difflock                                      check
  3. Gopro camera on the roof        check
  4. Steven and Stergios ready       check
  5. Good set of brakes & nerves    check

Let’s do it!

The guides handsignal lefts and rights and – most frequently – slow! Deadslow! The brakes squeek as we very gradually make our way down the hill. I brake too much and the engine stalls. No problem. I start again, release the clutch and brake, and brake some more. I hear Steven’s “Oh, my god!”, and “Madness!” holding on to the rear ladder and trying to shoot some video at the same time. He will later tell me that he and Stergios were ready to jump off the car at the scariest moments. I know that I can remain very calm in a situation like this. There’s a slightly faster heartbeat, just enough to get some extra blood to the brains, no sweat, no panic. I mean I can tremble like a twig in an autumn storm when it’s over, but not during the action itself. Must be instinctive, from the time that we were hunter-gatherers roaming the savannahs thousands of years ago. Anyway, I divert.
When we finally reach the bottom of the hill and I drive onto the piste only 50 meters from the truck, there’s a great sense of relief and even applause. We made it! And now I feel the tremble in my leg.

Later I find that my GoPro file is corrupt! But I am glad with Steven’s clip and his audible comment!

The guides climb on the back of Francis’ bike and we continue towards Manianga. The bikes arrive there before me, and when I’m in sight of the village below there’s a barrier accross the track with mean looking padlocks. There’s no one, so I blow the horn a couple of times an flash the headlights. After 5 minutes Francis arrives on his bike with an immigration official and the keys. In Manianga we set up camp in the middle of the village (a couple of huts an mud brick houses), right next to the immigration office. I make a pasta dinner for the five of us, and we enjoy a beautiful moonlit evening, watched by half the village.

Katharina with a young Manianga child

Katharina with a young Manianga child


You never work alone

At half past seven sharp the flag of the immigration post in Manianga is hoisted. And that’s when the immigration officer starts his work. And since we got up at six and are all set to go, we think we will be on the road again within half an hour or so. I mean, how long do you need to check 5 passports, and stamp them? Well, just over three hours to be exact. Now and then his head will pop out of the window to call one of us into his office. My name is “Maria”. He fills out a form for every passport: what’s your mother’s name, and your father’s? How many children, girls or boys, how old? What languages do you speak (this is a difficult one; he calls me back twice for the answer)? What’s your profession (I’m always a teacher, a respectable profession)?  Your religion? Your race? Length, weight?
“Why on earth do you want to know all this? You write it down in that big book of yours, and then what? Do you read it at night when you can’t sleep?”
That’s what I wanted to say, but I pity the man. He is just doing his work, meticulously copying down all the information on the blasted form. I was tempted to offer to fill in the form myself, would save him perhaps 45 minutes. But no, this is his raison d’être. “Cest mon travail. Laissez moi faire mon travail!”, he says when I enter his office without being called (Maria) and asking why it has to take so bloody long.
So after 3 hours we finally get our passports back, but he has more “travail” to do and wants to inspect the car. “Bien sure, pas de problème!” But when he start poking his fingers into my camera bag I tell him he can have a look at whatever he wants, “mais pas toucher!”.
The rattle from underneath the car is not from the spare wheel carrier, as I thought, but from a missing bush rubber of the right rear shock. I check my spare parts and have the parts with me. But we are all eager to leave Manianga and the bush rubber will have to wait until Luozi. The piste from Manianga to Luozi is often reasonable and sometimes very rocky. Slow going for me, because I can hear the shock absorber at every bump and don’t want to make things worse. Luozi is celebrating Henri Dunant’s birthday (I haven’t the foggiest idea why Luozi in particular), and is full with partying Red Cross volunteers.



In Luozi

We camp at the catholic mission, away from the bustling centre, being guarded by a sleeping soldier with an AK47.
Replacing the bush rubber requires a tool to hold the shock in place, so we find a mechanic to do the job. 15 minutes work.

Crossing the mighty Congo River
The ferry is on a minimum service sort of strike. So we will have to wait for two hours. Francis takes off his boots, rolls up his trousers and wades through the water to the ferry. He tries to negotiate. Surely, with a bit a bit of help, there must be a way to let this barge make a crossing before 11.00. He wades back and puts on his boots again. No way.


Stergios wading to the ferry

Stergios wading to the ferry

The barge is a Belgian donation and is fast. At 11.15 we drive off at the other end.
The piste to Kimpésé is reasonably good. 3rd gear, sometimes even 4th. Lots of children shouting, running behind the car. Not very friendly. People signalling you to stop, looking angry, shouting.
I see Francis’ BMW at a bar when I enter Kimpésé. Too many people, too much noise, it smells, and everything you touch feels sticky and dirty. Not my kind of place, not my kind of town. There seems to be a hotel, and  a boy on a moped guides us there. Francis and I share a room (60 usd!), and the young ones are allowed to pitch their tents in the backyard.

Roadtrip Angola
I say goodbye to my fellow overlanders the next morning. They are going to Kinshasa, stay there for a week, and then take the dreaded Kinshasa-Lubumbashi “road”. 1000 km off road. My initial plan, and how I would have loved to go with them! But not with Thimba. It would kill her.
I return just a couple of hours later. The road to Matadi has been blocked by a truck since yesterday evening. There must be at least 150 trucks lined up at the side of the road, waiting for the truck to be removed. They can’t make a u-turn. I can, and so I enjoy the company of my friends a day longer.
The difference between Congo and Angola could not have been more painful. I am taking the small border crossing at Luvo instead of the major one at Matadi. On the Congolese side is a small village. There’s waste everywhere, goats, dogs, chicken, pigs, the stench of animal and human excrement. Loud music blaring from oversized loudspeakers. The track through the village is a mudpool with garbage, plastic bags, beer bottles. How can people live like this? It boggles the mind!
On the Angolan side there’s a good tar road, professional officers, new buildings with AC and working computers. This is the end of dark, central Africa and the beginning of southern Africa.

My journey through Angola is a roadtrip. The scenery changes from rainforest in the north to savannah with beautiful Boabab trees, to semi-desert around Lobito. Good roads, new fuel stations – it’s as if the painters have only just left – with freshly brewed coffee and Portuguese rolls. And the price of fuel adds to the joy: 25 eurocent per litre. Cheaper than bottled water!
Some observations while driving:

-       a man holding an antelope by the hind legs
-       a Chinese truck driver hitting a moped, and being attacked by an aggressive group of bystanders. He remains in his cabin until the military arrive
-       a man with his arms spread, looking angrily and shouting at me
-       a girl with two chickens for sale
-       two men fixing the tyre of their moped by stuffing it with grass
-       two girls with one chicken for sale
-       children pointing at their stomach, shouting, and running after the car
-       a dog fast asleep in the middle of the road
-       Chinese settlements (Angola seems to be bilingual, with Chinese as the second language)

I bushcamp my way through Angola, and find this 5-star spot. Miles from anywhere, on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and a deserted white beach. All I hear is the beating of the waves against the rocks below. Dark clouds are gathering over the ocean, but it remains dry all evening. And cool. For the first time months I put on my fleece: what a wonderful sensation.

Near Lubango I find the Strawberry Farm. This is a very fertile stretch of land at an altitude of 1.700 meters. It even attracted a group of Afrikaner Boers in the 19th centrury, unsatisfied with the way the British ruled South-Africa, and trying to set up a Boer colony in Angola. They didn’t get on very well with the Angolan locals and returned home. There’s a small cemetery on the farm with barrel like graves and names like van der Merwe, Botha and Verwey. The farm doesn’t have a campsite anymore, but the friendly owner allows me to “camp anywhere you like”.

On top of the world!

On top of the world!


Boer graves in Angola

Boer graves in Angola

From Cahama I can take the off road route to the small Ruacana border crossing, or I can stay on the main road to Santa Clara, the main border. Namibia has strict laws regarding the import of animals, and although Thimba has all the required vaccinations I am a bit worried. Ruacana will be easier, but I don’t look forward to 160 km off road with Thimba. So Santa Clara it is. I park the car with Thimba as far away as possible from the immigration office. No one notices her, and driving into Namibia is the easiest crossing so far (drive left!!).

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