- February 17, 2007
(Jim Writes) There are some experiences that defy description. Experiences in which the most vivid account can only begin to shed light on what it’s like to have been there. To have lived it first hand. Experiences where you’re too rapped up in your own survival to snap photos or capture it on video. Experiences that leave an indelible impression on your mind. Experiences that you will never forget! I haven’t the words to describe our experience on Saturday, February 17, 2007. The single most memorable day on our journey to date. The day the road less traveled reached The Beach.
Up before 6am, we were driven out of bed on a mission. The ferry was scheduled to depart Brazzaville at 10am and we wanted to be at the port by 8am at the latest. As we scurried around Ken’s house making final preparations, Colby stopped by to bid us farewell and offer us one last bit of assistance. Through WCS, he’d made friends with the chief customs official at The Beach. An invaluable resource which he said could help us deal with the border hassles we were sure to encounter upon our arrival in Kinshasa.
At 7am we met with Pat, Ness, Sharikay and Eric at Hippo Camp, where we organized ourselves into a three-vehicle convoy and setoff for the port. At 8am we arrived at the port’s main control gate where we were stopped by an official in a tired olive drab uniform requesting 10,800 CFA to cover harbour taxes. On the other side of the gate was the port, a sprawling mass of unmarked buildings, vendor stalls, hustlers, police, big time Congolese merchants, soldiers, and porters, which, as we’d hopped would be the case, appeared to still be reeling from Friday night’s hangover and not yet in full swing.
By 9:30am we’d managed to sort through all the police, immigrations, and customs formalities with unexpected ease, aided no doubt by the Saturday morning lethargy which seemed to have cast the entire place in an apathetic haze.
With 30 minutes to spare before the ferry’s scheduled departure time, all that remained was for us to buy our ferry tickets. This however proved more difficult than we’d imagined. After a long frustrating search, Sheri and Eric returned to the trucks accompanied by a large brawny man, clad in neatly pressed khaki dress pants and a crisp blue and white checkered button down shirt. According to Sheri, the well dressed man, whose polished appearance did little to conceal his hardened no bullshit demeanor, was the ferry’s manager. Accompanying him was his colorfully dressed sidekick (read: hired muscle), a giant Congolese version of Mario from the 1980’s Nintendo video game Super Mario Brothers. A towering man with a linebacker’s build, he looked so comical in his freshly pressed blue jean overalls and fire engine red shoes, shirt, and hat, that it was hard to take him seriously. Serious they were, however, as the manager gruffly demanded our vehicles documents and 31,500 CFA for the ferry tickets before disappearing into the growing throngs of people amassing inside the port. Unable to keep pace as they disappeared into the crowd, all we could do was hope that they’d turn up again with our tickets and registration documents.
10am came and went with no signs of a ferry. By 11am, the sun was high in the sky, it was blazing hot, and the port’s a.m. hangover was gone, as hundreds of people descended on the ferry terminal, turning the entire place into a bustling, chaotic madhouse. With still no sign of the ferry, the well dressed manager, Super Mario, or our tickets, all we could do was huddle under a rapidly shrinking sliver of shade provided by an overhang adjacent to our trucks and watch the pandemonium unfold around us. A short time later, the ferry arrived from Kinshasa and with it a surreal scene of chaos as waves of heavily laden porters struggled to successfully run a gauntlet of police and bleary eyed soldiers who gave chase with clubs and whips.
By noon the ferry’s offloading gave way to loading and a new scene emerged as a long line of blind and disabled Congolese arrived atop makeshift wheel chairs and carts loaded down with goods bound for Kinshasa. With the blind standing arms outstretched, there hands holding on to the shoulders of the person in front of them, the growing queue began to take the shape of a human train. As the queue worked it’s way towards the ferry, so did a couple dozen police and soldiers who proceeded to work their way through the line beating as many people as the could get their hands on. It was a disturbing sight as disabled victims, many of them blind, paraplegic, or disfigured by polio, struggled to protect themselves against an onslaught which continued mercilessly until bribes were paid to their aggressors.
With each passing hour the masses grew larger and the chaos more pronounced. With no sign of the ferry manager, we had no idea what was going on or when or where we would be boarding the ferry. Shortly before 1pm, the manager emerged and with a snarl and aggressive hand gesture summoned us to pull our vehicles through the masses and inside a large red steel gate guarded by several of the same soldiers we’d watched beating the disabled earlier. Aided by Pat and Ness’ physical therapy sessions, I’d managed to work up just enough flexibility in my knee to maneuver the clutch, specifically so that I could drive us onto the ferry and through Kinshasa. With a deep breath I climbed into the driver’s seat and drove Betty through the crowd to the gate. At the gate our passports and carnets were checked and the manager shouted at us to quickly move towards a giant faded blue two story ferry, which was moored close to shore about 100 meters away. Standing between us and the ferry were hundreds of porters, merchants, passengers, and cargo. There was no path through the throng of people and freight, which was also vying for a place aboard a boat that, as best I could tell, was already dangerously overloaded. None of this mattered to the ferry manager, Super Mario, or the cast of deck hands, and soldiers on hand, who were shouting at us to move forward into the seemingly impenetrable mass. With the ferry manager leading the way, women were thrown to the ground, goods tossed out of the way and whips cracked at anyone within arms length of our vehicles. Concerned we’d further agitate the ferry manager by standing still and equally concerned we’d cause a riot by moving forward, we found ourselves in an unenviable spot. Inching forward as carefully as possible, we nevertheless seemed to piss off all parties involved as we moved too slowly for the ferry manager and his cronies and too fast to avoid bumping people and running over their goods, which were still blocking our path.
Halfway to the ferry our convoy was stopped as the ferry manager and several officials dressed in weathered olive green uniforms descended on our trucks and demanded we hand over our documents. Moments later the ferry manager emerged from the crowd angrily waving our documents in the air and shouting. In all the commotion it was hard to make out exactly what was going on, however we surmised that we were missing some sort of police stamp which of course we didn’t know we needed and the police hadn’t offered up on our visit several hours earlier. The ferry manager was furious and signaled for us to get out of the way. We weren’t going and worse yet he wanted us back outside the gate immediately. The thought of going backwards through the throng gave me a sick feeling in my stomach. We’d hardly made it inside and I had no idea how we were going to back out. We were forced to oblige however and began the slow and tedious process of getting back through the chaos, once again running over cargo, bumping people, and angering hordes of merchants and porters as we crawled backward towards the gate.
Once outside the gate we returned to the police station where we haggled over the needed stamp, which the police officer felt wasn’t necessary but eventually was talked into providing. Tired and no closer to Kinshasa, we decided to leave the port for a couple of hours and go for some lunch and beer at Mami Watta. Already mentally exhausted, we were yet to go anywhere and knew a cold beer would offer a relaxing reprieve from the chaos, if only for a little while.
At 3pm we returned to the port where we found a similar scene underway, as police and soldiers chased porters and beat money out of the disabled. The whole thing seemed like a sport for the port’s corrupt officials and I was just glad we were currently on the bench. As time slipped past, we increasingly came to the realization that our ferry, if we got on, wouldn’t get to Kinshasa until well after dark. The one thing we wanted to avoid most. Kinshasa, a city so torn by war and corruption that our Lonely Planet Africa on a Shoestring Guide offers up a warning against travel there (“Warning: Congo (Zaire) has been at war since 1998, and the country is not safe to visit. We were unable to do on-the-ground research, so some information in this chapter may not be reliable.”) in lieu of a street map. All we’d have to go on were some dodgy faded, and I’m sure inaccurate, maps Eric managed to pull off the internet. Not ideal for getting around a sprawling war torn city of 8 million at night.
Shortly before 5pm we were summoned back through the gate. Once through, a similar scene unfolded as the ferry manager, now more impatient than ever, forced us forward into the throng. This time we were leading the way, with Pat and Ness following closely behind on their motorcycle and Eric bringing up the rear in his red Land Cruiser. Just ahead of us were the ferry manager and his cronies, forcing a tiny path for us to slip through.
When we finally reached the river, we waded into the water and up a precarious ramp onto a ferry overflowing with people and cargo. By western standards, the ferry was already a deathtrap and I can’t say that I’ve ever seen an African boat so overstuffed either. Already overflowing, I felt more like we were being crammed onto an 18th century slave boat than a 20th century passenger ferry and it didn’t seem possible to fit another person onboard much less three vehicles. Undeterred by the lack of cargo space, the ferry manager guided us forward, shoving passengers (and even Ness) out of the way as he used hand signals to inch us forward towards the bow. Battled hardened after nearly a year driving in some of Africa’s most demanding situations, I found it to be the worst sort of stress as I inched forward, causing all manner of ruckus on the boat. For what seemed like an eternity, the ferry manager shouted out commands, enforced by his band of thugs who forced a path for us through the crowd towards the bow. With nowhere to go, passengers climbed over cargo and each other to get out of our way. Behind us, Pat tucked his giant BMW motorcycle close to our bumper, taking advantage of the path we’d temporarily forged, to get through. Behind Pat, Eric was having a harder time as he struggled to maneuver his Land Cruiser out of the water, getting stuck on the boarding ramp on the way up. Eventually, he managed to get himself free using low range, and we were all finally (I hesitate to say safely) aboard.
Wedged in close to the bow, Sheri and I took a deep breath and surveyed our surroundings. Packed in so tight there was no room to move. People and cargo were piled high, filling every open space and hanging from the stairways, the railings and dangling over the sides. Just in front of us there was no guard rail to keep of from plunging head first into the mighty Congo River. Our only buffer, a couple hundred passengers crammed together like sardines. To our left, Eric’s truck was wedged in tight. To our right, mounds of yellow jerry cans and white sacks stuffed full of sugar were piled high and behind us, Pat and Ness were stuffed between an interwoven maze of makeshift wheelchair carts brimming with goods and topped by their disabled drivers. Above us in every direction, passengers clung to precarious perches – any flat surface. To be sure, it was a picture of chaos. A scene that defies description.
By the time we finally shoved off, it was dusk and Kinshasa’s lights were already twinkling in the distance. As the giant diesel engines sputtered to life the boat shuttered and we slowly motored forward onto the Congo. As we rumbled along, I couldn’t help but think about Pat and Ness, wedged behind us, with no reprieve from the chaos around them. Then, without any warning, there was a shudder followed by a strange silence. The diesel engines had shut down and we were left to drift along with the tufts of water hyacinth in the mighty Congo’s swift moving currents. My first thought was that the Chutes de Loufoulakari were only a few kilometers down stream and that in the Congo’s strong currents, we’d be there in short order without any engines to power us forward.
Night was descending fast, as Sheri and I theorized about what was going on and what the outcome would be. Submerged in our surreal surroundings we were staring ahead into the growing darkness at the lights of Kinshasa when a large barge tug emerged out of the darkness heading straight for us. Easily as large as we were, the rusting white ship was chugging swiftly towards our bow. At first we were unmoved. Having grown accustomed to detaching ourselves from our surroundings in such situations, we were about as numb to our environment as one can get on an overcrowded death trap bound for “The Heart of Darkness” and drifting aimlessly at night towards the mighty Congo’s rapids. As the ship motored quickly towards us, Sheri and I did what we’ve learned to do in such situations. We studied the expressions on the faces of the locals around us for signs of concern. Everyone was calm. Nobody seemed concerned by the rapidly approaching ship. But as the ship grew closer, not slowing down or changing course, people started to appear nervous and we started to feel uneasy. “It’s not going to hit us.” I thought. “This shit happens all the time.” [And so do horrific crashes!] But as the ship barreled down on us, rapidly heading for our bow, we grew more concerned until finally, just before impact, Sheri looks up at the barge tugs bridge and saw a very concerned expression on the face of the pilot. Seconds later there was a massive crash as the ship rammed us at 11 o’clock and a simultaneous shudder as the ferry lurched sharply to the right and then rocked back and forth. We were stunned and there was pandemonium on deck as cargo came crashing down around us and the giant stack of yellow jerry cans to our right tumbled onto Pat, Ness, and the disabled passengers around them. “Shit! What the hell was that? That boat just hit us head on!!” I screamed. Eric immediately screamed back that we should grab our passports and prepare to go over should the ferry go down. We were now concerned and Sheri and I quickly discussed our action plan should the ferry start to sink. We knew the chances of making it off safely were slim and we knew that there would be mass chaos as everyone went overboard and struggled to stay afloat, grabbing at anything (or anyone) they could get hold of for support. All we knew to do was jump as far overboard as possible and swim as quickly away from the boat as possible so as not to get caught in the suction as the boat goes down. Eric and Sharikay had a similar strategy as we all grabbed our passports and readied ourselves to abandon ship. Pat and Ness later told us that they were having similar thoughts.
After some time had passed things started to calm down. But no sooner had our hearts started beating again and the same ship appeared out of the darkness, headed straight for our bow. It was bearing down on us fast and we immediately knew that it was going to hit us. There was another crash as the ship struck left of our bow and we again shuttered and lurched wildly to the right, with cargo and passengers going everywhere. “What the hell? We’re going to sink! Why the hell does that boat keep ramming us? Are they insane???” Sheri cried. Again there was complete pandemonium and we struggled to sort out what was going on. And then the ship emerged out of the darkness once again - headed straight for us. This time it struck us at 10 o’clock and, with the deafening sound of steel scraping against steel, slid along our port side, the crew throwing out guidelines as the barge tug passed.
All was now clear to us. In the most insane, poorly executed, and dangerous maneuver I’ve ever witnessed, the tug’s pilot had repeatedly attempted to dock next to us in order to give us a tow across the river. Happy to be alive, everyone let out a huge sigh of relief. We were still afloat and, aided by the barge tug, we were no longer drifting towards the rapids.
Another hour passed before we finally reached Kinshasa. It was well after dark and the port was technically closed. Unable to move the truck, we waited patiently for everyone to disembark before I slowly turned the truck around on the now empty deck and headed for the dock. In the process we were approached by an official requesting that we hand over our passports. Unwilling to part with them, we bought some time while we worked our way to shore. Soon however his patience ran out and he demanded them again. This time we handed them over with Sheri and Ness following the official as he scampered off the boat and into the darkness. We followed with the trucks a few minutes later and were descended on by a handful of officials and soldiers as soon as we reached The Beach. Thanks entirely to Colby, the head customs official was also waiting and managed to fend off the others, grabbing our carnets and quickly hunting down our passports, which were still with the immigrations officer that had met us on the boat. With all our documents in hand, Sheri, Ness, and the customs official disappeared down a long corridor to his office while Pat, Eric, and I fended off several half-hearted bribe requests outside.
The fact that it was a Saturday and the port was closed and nearly deserted when we arrived was an enormous help and the fact that Colby had contacted his friend in customs who was waiting for us at the docks was even more instrumental in making a border notorious for bullying soldiers and corrupt officials, relatively smooth and painless. In short order, we were officially in Congo (Zaire). Now all we had to do was safely find our way to the Protestant Mission (Centre D’Accueil Protestant). A task also made easier by the customs official, who agreed to direct us there himself.
A short time later we were loaded up and ready to leave the port with Sharikay and Sheri sharing our front passenger seat so that the customs official could ride up front with Eric. With the customs official riding along, our only snag leaving the port was an elderly feisty tempered drunk with no legs and no wheel chair, who became upset when we didn’t give him any money, ran across our path using his arms like legs, and refused to let us pass. In a disturbing display, two soldiers appeared out of the darkness, picked him up, and tossed him out of the way. The drive to the mission was relatively short. Along the way we passed tanks and soldiers manning machine gun nests, but encountered no problems and soon arrived at the high gates of the mission compound, which quickly opened and ushered us inside.
After thanking the customs official profusely for his help we bid him farewell and entered the mission’s office where we were met by a 50-something Zairian man dressed in a short sleeve white dress shirt and tie. When we inquired about staying the night he smiled and said that there were no rooms available. With no alternatives, we were unwilling to accept no for an answer and so ensued a very African conversation which, after much back and forth, produced not one room but our choice of several rooms spread around the compound. We opted to camp instead and paid for our accommodation in dollars to avoid the hassles of changing money. Once settled, we were able to relax. We’d made it through The Beach. Ahead of us – we still had to get out of Kinshasa and through Congo (Zaire). On the other side – Angola and then Namibia. After dinner, Pat, Ness, Sheri and I discussed our plans and agreed that we’d all leave first thing the next morning for Lufo – the boarder with Angola. From there we all agreed that we’d probably continue together to Luanda and then would likely go our separate ways. Sharikay and Eric were staying in Kinshasa as planned.
- February 18, 2007
(Jim Writes) This morning we woke up early and quickly readied ourselves for departure, banking on the fact that it being a Sunday, Kinshasa would be at its quietest. A quick shower, breakfast, a few minutes reviewing the route we’d sketched out using our faded map of Kinshasa and we were ready to go. By 8:30am we’d said our goodbyes to Sharikay and Eric and were on the road. Just as we’d hoped Kinshasa was still in a deep slumber. A quick stop at a fuel station where Pat tried to pickup some oil and we were on our way out of town. Driving down Ave du 30 Juin we came across more soldiers than pedestrians as we passed countless UN armored vehicle topped by heavy machine guns manned by soldiers clad in flack jackets and light blue helmets. Further along were Congolese tanks and soldiers hunkered down behind walls of sandbags.
When Ave du 30 Juin reached a T-Juction our map lacked the detail (read: the entire section was too faded and small to read) to send us in the right direction and we made a wrong turn. We knew from another map we had that we were very close to where we needed to be and so we quickly stopped to ask for directions from a man walking along the side of the road. As the man pointed us further down the road we’d just turned onto, a young boy no more than 13 or 14 years old strolled up to my window, clicked his heals together, and gave me a solute. He was wearing green fatigues, a black beret, and black boots, and was clutching an AK-47. His glassy bloodshot eyes suggested he was drunk or high and his face seemed hardened by life. A child soldier who’s known nothing but war and killing since he was old enough to hold a gun. Too young to drive he seemed uninterested in discussing directions and instead cut in by requesting a cigarette. Having opened a new pack in anticipation of such occasions, I smiled and quickly obliged, handing him a cigarette and then lighting it for him. He stood staring at me for another minute or so while taking a couple of drags before giving me a solute and returning to his position across the road.
Following the directions we were given, we continued a few kilometers further down the road before concluding that we were definitely going in the wrong direction and needed to turn around. We were now following a road that headed west, parallel to the Congo River, when we knew we needed to be heading due south. As we pulled off the road to briefly chat with Pat and Ness about turning around, a small silver 4x4 pulled up beside us. Inside were two Belgians. The driver, a 60-ish gentleman dressed in a long flowing robe with a bright floral pattern, introduced himself as The Butterfly and instructed us to follow him so that he could show us the way. Following The Butterfly, we continued several more kilometers down an increasingly potholed road that wound along the Congo River and past lush green mountains, before finally reaching a small village where we turned right down a narrow dirt road that eventually led us to a large compound located on the banks of the river overlooking the Congo’s enormous rapids. The same rapids we’d been concerned about drifting into when the ferry’s engines cut out the previous night! Inside the compound, we were met by The Butterfly’s almost-as-flamboyant family who was gathered under the shade of a thatched roof next to a swimming pool. In short order, we’d joined them in the shade, a round of beers was on it’s way, and it was becoming increasingly evident that we were going nowhere fast. Unfortunately, we needed to be somewhere fast (i.e. Angola) and so we quickly cut to the chase, thanking him for his hospitality, but telling him we needed to be on our way as soon as we knew which way our way was. Understanding our hurry, The Butterfly signaled for a young boy to bring him a pen and paper so that he could draw us a map. And the map he sketched for us indicated that we needed to go back to the point in which we’d gotten off track. Once back to our starting point, he said we needed to drive past the military base on our right and then start looking for a machine gun nest, where we needed to take a right onto the Matadi Road (For the record, you know you’re in the wrong town when directional landmarks include tanks and machine gun nests).
Shortly after the military base, we found the machine gun nest and, with it, the road to Matadi. From there it was a long but straight shot through Kinshasa and eventually out of the 17 kilometers or so of shanties that marked the suburbs. By the time we reached the road to Matadi it was mid-morning and Kinshasa was alive and kicking, its roads a thriving marketplace which seemed to extend indefinitely into the countryside. Once beyond the city, the traffic thinned to a trickle and dense development gave way to terraced rolling green hills, banana trees, and lush patches of forest.
Along the way we stopped at a village market to buy fresh produce. There we were greeted with a warm welcome from curious villages, no doubt unaccustomed to visitors, who were particularly enamored by Pat and Ness’ bike.
A couple of benign police checks, a toll both, a leisurely stop on the side of the road for lunch and a handful of stops for photos and we were at Songololo, where we elected to avoid Matadi by turning left off the main road and onto a narrow dirt track that led to the tiny border post at Lufo. By the time we reached Lufo it was late afternoon and pouring rain and we quickly located the small immigration/customs/police hut among the tiny collection of mud-and-thatched huts that dotted a muddy clearing next to the dirt track we’d just arrived on.
Inside we received a very warm welcome from the officials who quickly processed our documents and invited us to camp inside the border hut for the night, racing about to move the customs, immigrations, and police tables to the side so that there’d be room for Pat’s motorcycle, which just barely fit through the hut’s doorway. Grateful for their generosity, we setup camp inside the hut under the watchful eyes of a prominent photo of Joseph Kabila, which hung from one of the mud walls.
As the four of us boiled water for tea and prepared dinner, we reflected on our brief stay in Congo (Zaire). All and all things had gone more smoothly than we could have ever hoped for. So smoothly in fact that we all began second guessing our decision to quickly race through. But alas, that’s the way it goes. We knew that in all likelihood we’d make it through unscathed. And we knew that if we made it through unscathed that we’d regret not staying longer. But we also knew that if we unnecessarily increased our exposure and shit once again hit the fan, we’d have much bigger regrets. The kind you can’t live with.
UPDATE: Just three weeks after we crossed the border into Angola, Paula’s warning was proven accurate as the short window of peace slammed shut and the heaviest fighting Kinshasa has seen in many years broke out. 600 died, the Italian ambassadors residence was sacked, and mortar fire destroyed several embassies housed in an office building a short distance away from the Protestant Mission where we’d stayed just three weeks earlier – had we stayed in Congo (Zaire) as long as we’ve stayed in almost every other African country, we’d have been caught squarely in the middle of it.