Updated On: February 16, 2007
Current Location: Brazzaville, Congo
Distance Since Last Update:1,462k
Cumulative Distance: 36,878k
Won't Soon Forget: Epic border crossing, Sheri's driving, lack of medical help, trouble getting Angola visas, fighting in Congo (Zaire), seeing first western lowland gorilla

 
 

The Congo Border- Jan. 26-29, 2007
(Jim Writes) It took us three days to cross the border into Congo. Three days along one of Africa’s most epic pistes. Our goal was to traverse the Bateke Plateau’s endless expanse of rolling savannas by way of a faint sliver of sandy track that snaked it’s way through a sea of chest high golden grass. It was a little known route that Paul told us about. A route that he said we must do but one that I was reluctant to take, as I was so lame that I could hardly get myself into the truck, much less drive or recover us should we get stuck. Fortunately, while I was feeling a little short on confidence after three months of repeated setbacks, Sheri seemed to be up for the challenge, showing mental toughness when we needed it most! Perhaps that’s what a good team is all about. When one man’s down the other stands ready to rise to the occasion.

And rise to the occasion Sheri definitely did. From Franceville to Lekoni, the going was an easy cruise along one of Gabon’s few paved roads. At Lekoni we stopped briefly to take care of Gabon border formalities. I use the word briefly, quite loosely as our stop required Sheri and Eric to go on a manhunt for the customs agent, whom Eric eventually found drunk at his house a kilometer down the road.

At Akou, we broke away from the main track, heading south along the track Paul told us about. Shortly before dark, we found a picturesque spot amongst rolling hills where we decided to setup camp for the night. It was a perfect campsite, the beautiful golden savannas glowing golden brown in the late afternoon sun. Once settled, Sharikay offered up her lazy boy sized camp chair with footrest, so that I could prop up my swollen knee. Pretty much useless, I watched as Eric and Sheri assumed my normal duties, which included setting up the tent. As I sat there watching everyone busily working to setup camp, my mind began to wonder to other pressing matters. And the matter that sprung to mind first was determining how I was going to take a dump in the bush! For anyone with two good legs and a fancy sit down toilet, this may seem like a trivial issue. Consider for a moment however, how you might tackle going poo poo on an open savanna, void of any cover for miles in any direction, when you can’t bend or walk on your leg. Unable to come up with a solution on my own, I posed the question to the group. This led to one of those “not appropriate for the dinner table” discussions in which Eric proposed digging a large hole in front of our truck and then using the winch to suspend me over it while I did my business.

While this seemed productive to me, Sheri felt my time might be better spent if I helped out with dinner. She handed me a couple of cooked chicken breasts that she and Sharikay purchased off a road side vendor back in Franceville and asked that I pull all the meat off the bone so that she could use it in a salad. Anyone that knows me however knows that this is an inherently bad idea as the chances of me pulling apart the chicken without eating any of the meat are slim to none. And so I went about pulling apart the chicken, eating about two thirds of my work and setting aside what was left for dinner. By the time I’d finished pulling apart the chicken I was fat and happy and it was almost dark. That’s when I heard Sharikay let out a scream. “Whatever you do,” she said, “nobody eat the chicken!” “Urr, well, umm, OK. And what’s wrong with the chicken? I said. With a look of disgust on her face, she pointed at a plate full of chicken and said “It’s full of maggots!!!”

Day 2: The next morning, I woke up to a beautiful sunrise and a familiar sensation that warned I had about 10 minutes to sort out a solution to my toilet problem. It’s amazing the clarity that such a powerful sense of urgency brings. I won’t go into details, however let’s just say that an Olympic gymnast would have been envious, as the maneuver I pulled off was no small feat and involved a deep hole and a whole lot of upper body strength.

After a wonderfully relaxing morning, we setoff around 11am. Almost completely overgrown by high grass, the sandy track made going slow. Sheri provided a quick study in sand driving as I called out instructions on gear selection, RPM levels, and clutch technique. If only she had a high chair to help her see over the tall grass obstructing the track, life would have been a little easier.

By the time we reached the village of Abili we’d made it just over 100k. It was 5pm as we rolled past a handful of tiny huts and into the center of the village where we received a warm welcome from the curious villagers. We were tired, the truck was filled with grasshoppers, and the radiator filled with grass (it would have paid to put on the seed net as we later had to remove the radiator to clean it out). With the giant hill Paul had warned us about only a few kilometers away, we decided to head a short distance outside of the village to setup camp for the night.

Finding a secluded campsite was easy. Finding one that was inhabitable wasn’t as the whole area was swarming with tiny orifice seeking black flies and sweat bees. Overwhelmed by insects and on the verge of insanity, we skipped our usual sundowners and Cuban cigars, opting instead for a hasty bottle bath and quick dinner before retreating to the safety of our tent. As we lay inside our tent, we were lulled to sleep by the rhythmic pounding of tom tom drums and singing from Abili.

Day 3: Up early, we wasted no time in breaking camp as the flies and bees seemed even more aggressive than the night before. It was maddening and we couldn’t get on the road fast enough . From our campsite, the track disappeared into the tall grass making navigation difficult. To make the task easier, Eric scouted ahead on foot, marking obstacles and directing the trucks forward across the savanna and down a steep ravine. At the bottom of the ravine was a river and to get across we had to use a, let’s just say, precarious bridge. On the other side of the bridge was a small village where we received another warm welcome.

Just outsid the village was the hill Paul had warned us about. We really didn’t know what to expect. He’d just said that it might give us some trouble. Unfortunately, the trouble started before we even reached the hill. During our brief stay in the village it started to rain. Not knowing exactly what we were in for we said our goodbyes to the villagers and headed down the track in hopes of making it up the hill before the road got too slick.

Just outside of the village we reached a small but steep hill. It looked challenging but doable. A quick shift into low range and Sheri coaxed Betty up the slippery dirt bank without problems. Glad to have Paul’s hill behind us we continued forward for another 500 meters or so before we reached the base of a small mountain and, much to our dismay, the track climbed straight up its side. No switchbacks. Just straight up. Staring up at the mountain in the pouring rain, it occurred to me that this “hill” must be what Paul was talking about. Not the tiny hill we’d just passed. Ugh!

With no obvious alternative and no sign of the rain letting up we decided to go forward before things got any worse. Sheri threw Betty into low range and followed Eric’s lead, climbing straight up the track. The mix of deep sandy ruts and wet grass made going difficult at first and soon impossible. Eric was the first to get stuck and once we stopped behind him we were stuck too. Eric worked his truck backwards down the hill a short ways and then up again, making short strides between recoveries. Meanwhile, I made the mistake of suggesting to Sheri that she back Betty off the main track to see if we could get better traction by climbing over the large tufts of grass that covered the side of the mountain. This proved to be a bad idea. While Sheri followed my instructions carefully backing the truck off the track, Eric continued to work his way forward and before long, both vehicles were more stuck than I thought possible on a steep hill in which, until that point, I’d thought you could always recover yourself by going backwards.

With two trucks stuck and me unable to help, recovery turned into a painful four hour ordeal. To make things even more difficult, our winch broke, which further limited our options. Four hours of Eric digging under his truck with a hand trowel to free his chassis and Sheri following my instructions on how to recover Betty and we finally got both trucks free. Finally!

In the meantime, the village must have seen what was going on because a couple of hours into our ordeal, two of the villagers showed up to offer some advice. As it turned out, there was a deviation around the mountain and one of the villagers offered to show us the way in exchange for a ride. Perfect. So off we went around the mountain along a ruff and tumble track that forced out convoy to a halt more than once before we finally made it around to the other side. Through it all Sheri was incredible! Truly baptism by fire!

By mid-afternoon, we’d surmounted the hill and made it to the town of Lekana where we took care of the Congo border formalities. This turned out to be a lengthy affair that took about as long as crossing the Bateke Plateau. For the balance of the afternoon, Sheri and Eric were bounced between officials until finally we were given an audience with the chief, who inquired about our route and then said that we’d be crazy to go to the DRC. “Over there is not like here. It is very dangerous there!” This struck me as particularly ironic since “here” refers to a country where every family has a stash of AK-47’s and its recent history includes a brutal civil war in which soldiers roamed the streets of Brazzaville with the heads of their victims impaled on their car antennas.

In Lekana there was no place to sleep so we decided to head out of town in search of either a suitable bush camp or another town that might have some form of lodging. By dusk, we’d made it to Djambala, a small but bustling town with precious few accommodation options. We did however find a small auberge, which at first said they didn’t allow camping. This led to one of the lengthiest negotiations ever held for a night’s hotel stay. After opening discussions took place in the hotel lobby, the hotel’s manager requested that Eric come into a room that had “Directeur” hand written on a piece of paper taped to the door. Once inside, the manager closed the door behind him and they sat down behind a desk to start negotiations. This was all a bit comical as the door was shut, I assume for privacy and effect, however there was a large hole in the wall between the lobby and office so we in effect were sitting right next to them and listened to the whole thing. Over the next hour, Eric and the hotel’s manager hammered out an agreement with more terms and conditions than an airline ticket jacket. Due to a confidentiality agreement, I’m not at liberty to go into the details however, the high line was that we could camp for free in exchange for eating at the hotels restaurant.

At first glance, this seemed a good deal since we were starving and eager to find something to eat. Only problem was that when we went to the restaurant there wasn’t any food. Sharikay asked for a menu but the woman said there wasn’t one. She then asked if they had riz? Nope. Fritz? Nope. Pasta? Nope. Poisson? Nope. Poulet? Nope. Not getting very far, Sharikay asked what they did have, to which the woman said something in French about bush meat and then used hand signals and sound effects to imitate cocking a gun and shooting something out of a tree. With no other options, we settled on the mystery bush meet which we deducted must have once lived in a tree. Unfortunately, the saga didn’t end there. A little while later, the woman returned to tell us that they were fresh out of mystery bush meat. This initiated a whole new round of discussions, which eventually revealed that all the restaurant had on order was beer, which while satisfactory to us, wasn’t enough to satisfy the detailed agreement Eric had signed for our accommodation. We should have stopped there however we made the fatal mistake of asking for the old Africa backup options… the African omelet. They didn’t have that either, but the woman said she’d run into the village and get some eggs. Two hours and several beers later, the woman returned with a handful of eggs and proceeded to fry up the most vile charred brown/black omlets we’ve eaten so far.

The next morning we got an early start, eager to get to Brazzaville. Getting out of the hotel however proved just as difficult as getting in. The new issue was that the hotel’s owner had arrived and decided that he didn’t want to honor the deal we’d hashed out with the manager. As the manager explained, he didn’t have the authority to make such decisions. So back Eric went into the tiny office to open up a new round of negotiations. The owners opening offer was full price for two rooms (even though we’d camped in the parking lot). Eric’s opening offer was free. After another protracted debate, the owner settled on an official hand written copy of the hotel’s GPS waypoint. Neither the hotel’s owner or manager had any idea what GPS or a waypoint was but Eric managed to convince them it was the key to riches beyond their wildest imagination. We were on our way.

Lunch ushered in our second culinary disaster in less than 24 hours, when we stopped at the only restaurant in the little town of Ngo. Once again, our options were limited, this time to plain pasta which was boiled in water that we watched the cook fetch from the brackish river behind the restaurant.

We finally reached Brazzaville around 4pm and on some unlikely advice, headed for the Le Meridian Hotel to inquire about free camping on the hotel grounds. The nicest hotel in the country, this seemed like a long shot. Sort of like driving up to the Hilton in NYC and asking to make camp in the valet lot. Much to my surprise however, the hotel staff was friendly and welcoming and, after checking with the hotel’s director, confirmed that we were welcome to free camp in the hotel’s garden, just beside the tennis courts, and shower at the pool. To say this seemed a little strange would be an understatement, yet we went about setting up camp in plain view of all the hotel’s distinguished expat guests, and then dusted off our clothes and headed for the hotel bar to have a couple of beers.

Later that evening we headed back to our unlikely campsite and went about getting ready for bed. I’d already climbed into the tent and Sheri was just about to join me when a group of well dressed Americans from the Department of State came up, with cocktails in hand, curious about the safari taking place on the Le Meridian’s garden. To say that we amused them would be the gross understatement of the year!

 
 
 
 

Brazzaville - January 30-31, 2007
(Jim Writes) This morning we woke up in perhaps the most misplaced camp in Africa. When I poked my head out of the tent I saw the gardener watering the well-manicured garden around our truck. As I stood in the garden brushing my teeth a couple of men played tennis on the courts immediately to my right. To my left, another bustling business day was well under way, as men in tailored suits scurried about the hotel parking lot in late model Mercedes and Toyota Land Cruisers. To get to the toilet, we had to enter a back door and cut through a large conference room before reaching the nearest restrooms, which were located in the hotel lobby. To shower, Sheri and I stuffed a change of clothes and our toiletries into a small backpack, tossed towels over our shoulders and walked (well, Sheri assisted me in hobbling) across the garden and past the bell hops at the front door in route to the pool. There we stripped down to our swimsuits and bathed under the outdoor shower reserved for swimmers and of course, those free camping in the garden. All to the amusement of the hotel guests who were having breakfast on a nearby terrace. It was all a little weird and I couldn’t help but wonder what my former colleagues at Starwood Hotels would think if they knew I was squatting on the grounds of one of their properties.

Once clean, we wasted no time in trying to get some help for my knee, which was still the size of a large melon and in serious pain after having traversed the hotel’s garden to take a shower. From the Le Meridien we headed for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Congo headquarters, where we met with Ken Cameron and Colby Prevost, friends and colleagues of Trish and Paul. Both were extremely helpful and after passing off some equipment to be used in testing several dead gorilla carcasses near Odzala for a possible Ebola outbreak, Ken, a WCS wildlife vet, lead us on our search for medical help. Our first stop was a local pharmacy in hopes of finding a brace. Hardly able to walk, Sheri went inside with Ken, while I stayed in the truck counting the bullet holes in the side of the building. Excluding pock marks from mortar rounds, I noted 160 before Sheri returned to the truck.

From the pharmacy, our next stop was to see a friend of Ken’s named Jacques Bandelier. A Frenchman and director at the UN, Jacques has spent most of his life working for the UN Development Program in war ravaged places like Rwanda and Congo. Jacques also owns EMS, a medical supply company run by his Zairian wife. Meeting Jacques was a god-send as he immediately took ownership of my knee, and within short order he’d fitted me with a brace and crutches and made arrangements for me to see the French Embassy’s doctor.

A couple of hours later, Jacques accompanied me to see the doctor. As the doctor took my history and examined my knee, I was encouraged. Encouraged by the fact that I was finally seeing a doctor that specializes in people rather than primates and encouraged that I was in an examination room that resembled my doctor’s office back home. My optimism however was tempered by the fact that the doctor said diagnosis would require a MRI, which isn’t available in Brazzaville (or Kinshasa, or Libreville). What was available was a standard radiograph, which he felt would be, well, better than nothing. While it probably wouldn’t offer any answers, at least it could help to rule out a couple of possible problems.

So off we went with Jacques to one of Brazzaville’s two clinics that have an X-Ray machine. This ended up taking the balance of the afternoon as the first clinic’s radiologist had already gone home and the second clinic’s X-Ray machine was broken, which led us back to the first clinic where we changed tactics, offering up a little cash incentive for the radiologist to return. This worked like a charm and minutes later the radiologist was available to see me.

The radiologist called us into the X-Ray room and asked me to take off all my clothes and climb onto the table. This wouldn’t have been a big deal had a gown accompanied his request or had I been wearing underwear. Unfortunately, there weren’t any gowns and I wasn’t wearing underwear (laundry day). When I tried to explain this to him, his remedy was to ask Sheri to leave the room. This wasn’t really the problem, so I suggested that, since he was X-raying my knee, not my bum and since I was wearing trekking pants that zipped up the sides, maybe I could just unzip the leg on my pants and pull it out of the way. For whatever reason this wasn’t a satisfactory solution as he felt that a proper knee x-ray required me to be completely naked. Hmm… In any case, I obliged. Without as much as a square of toilet paper (and certainly not the protective cover of a lead jacket), I climbed onto the cold glass table where, with the physical assistance of the radiologist, I was contorted into positions that seemed more appropriate for a colonoscopy than a knee X-Ray. 15 long, humiliating minutes later, I had my x-rays in hand and raced out the door, mor humble than when I arrived.

Back at the doctor’s office, I presented my films to the doctor for review. The long and the short of his analysis was that the x-ray provided next to no useful information and without proper equipment, an accurate diagnosis was impossible. For that, we’d have to go to South Africa. Based on the history and physical exam however, he seemed to feel that the problem, whatever it was, wasn’t a major meniscus tear and the risk of further damage was minimal. He also felt that with further rest and strong anti-inflammatory meds, the swelling would likely go down in the next 10 days or so and that it was safe to travel by road to SA where I could get further assistance. That’s probably about as good as we could have hoped for in Central Africa and we left the doctor’s office feeling relieved that we now had a qualified opinion as well as a brace and crutches to help me get around. If only I knew what was wrong.

While we were running around Brazzaville trying to sort my knee, I mentioned to Jacques that, while we were at the Le Meridien, we’d met an American expat living in Rwanda who was in town doing some demobilization work for the World Bank and who used to be with the UN Development Program. Immediately, Jacques asked if his name was Gromo and when I told him that it was, he said they were both with the UN in Rwanda during the genocide back in 1994. I told Jacques that we were planning to get together with Gromo for drinks and he asked if he could join us, saying that Gromo was somewhat of a legend in the UN world and he’d love the opportunity to catch-up.

The following evening we all met for drinks at the Le Meridien. It was one of those rare occasions when you meet someone who’s work is so significant in helping others and who’s life experiences are so captivating that your own life seems to pale in comparison. Through his work with Peace Corps, CARE, the UN, and the World Bank, Gromo has seen the best and worst of Africa. We were riveted by his first hand account of the genocide in Rwanda, which claimed nearly 800,000 lives, and the 2002 famine in Ethiopia, which took another 300,000. He told stories of how his landlord’s family was brutally murdered, chopped into pieces and stuffed into a tree. How Hutu’s used anything they could find from hammers, machetes, screw drivers, and sticks with nails as weapons of mass destruction. How family members killed other family members. And how the UN convoy he was leading, protected only by four Ghanaian soldiers with bolt action rifles, came under heavy RPG and machine gun fire and barely made it out alive. Experiences still fresh in his mind 13 years later.

With so many stories, we had more questions than could possibly be asked over drinks and before long, our time was up as Ken had very generously invited us to stay with him at his house and we had plans to meet him for dinner. Reluctantly, we said our goodbyes and told Gromo that we looked forward to getting together with him again when we reach Rwanda. A truly memorable evening!

 
 

Lefini Reserve - February 1-4, 2007
(Jim Writes) Our first few days in Brazzaville were spent bouncing between medical clinics, the Angolan Embassy, WCS, and the US Embassy in an effort to attend to my knee and solve our Angola visa problem. By Thursday we were tired and eager to see some of the Congo so we met with the folks at PPG, a British NGO dedicated to the rehabilitation of western lowland gorillas, about visiting their gorilla project at Reserve de la Lefini.. At PPG’s offices the gorilla project manager explained that most of the gorillas the project rescues are orphans, which are the product of Central Africa’s thriving illegal trade in bush meat and exotic animals. She also explained that, unlike chimpanzees, the mortality rate among orphaned gorillas is very high and that only 18 of 80 gorillas PPG has rescued over the past several years have survived. At Reserve de la Lefini, it’s possible to see several gorillas that have been rehabilitated and recently released back into the wild.

After making the necessary arrangements at their offices, we departed Brazzaville for Abio, a small bush camp located on the banks of the Lefini River, which would serve as our base camp for trips up the river in search of the gorillas. We arrived at Abio mid afternoon on Friday, setup camp, and spent the balance of the day relaxing and taking in the beautiful gallery forest surrounding our camp. That evening it rained, and it rained, and it rained, until our tiny camp seemed as if it was going to be washed down the river.

On Friday morning, we followed three members of the PPG project team down to the river where we loaded into a pirogue and went up the river to a small island that’s now home to a large silverback that was recently released into the wild. The ride up the river was beautiful as we passed through lush gallery forest, a mini tropical ecosystem sustained by the river in a landscape otherwise dominated by rolling grassy savanna.

As we approached the island, we quickly located the silverback sitting on the edge of the river amongst thick green vegetation. There’s no way to fully describe the sensation of seeing your first gorilla in the wild. A giant silverback, he was an incredible sight. Powerful and expressive, he seemed in many ways so similar to man. As our guide explained, the silverback was the first of several orphaned males that PPG plans to release on the island and there are several females with babies in another area nearby. It’s just difficult to think that so many gorillas like are still being killed or captured by poachers to be sold in markets like Lamberene, Gabon.

The following morning, we woke early, eager to head back up the river in search of gorillas. Unfortunately, when it was time to depart, our PPG guide informed us that plans had changed. Apparently, one of the government ministers had decided to come for a visit and there wasn’t enough diesel on hand for two trips up the river. We were being bumped!

With no chance of seeing gorillas again, we decided to head a few kilometers across the savanna to Lac Bleu, a beautiful lake surrounded by lush gallery forest in the middle of mountainous savanna. The drive to Lac Bleu was along a narrow sandy track flanked on both sides by high grass, which passed through a handful of tiny villages where we were met by throngs of friendly children waving as we passed. On a hill overlooking the lake, we found a picturesque spot where we setup camp. Quiet and secluded, we had the place all to ourselves. It was a perfect spot to rest and relax.

For the next two days, we read, relaxed, had a few beers, played cards, and generally lazed about, soaking up our beautiful surroundings.

 
 
 
  Brazzaville Congo - February 5-7
(Jim Writes) Back in Brazzaville, it was back to the business of hunting down Angola visas. After striking out in Libreville and talking to others who had struck out in Point Noire, Congo, we were hopeful that our luck would soon take a turn for the better.

Shortly after arriving in Brazzaville from Gabon, we stopped by the Angolan embassy, a large walled compound pock marked with bullet holes which add character to its weathered white façade, to inquire about visas. Inside, the unfriendly woman at the guardhouse told us that the embassy currently wasn’t issuing visas because they’d run out of stamps. When we asked when they might have stamps again she said that we should try back next week. When we asked how long it would take to process our applications once the stamps arrived, she said she had no idea. “Maybe a few weeks. Maybe a few months.” Knowing that Fred was told the same thing several months earlier, we felt her ambiguity was an attempt to dissuade us from pursuing the issue further.

Not surprised, we moved on to Plan 4,325: A visit to the US Embassy. Unfortunately, the US Embassy was destroyed during Congo’s civil war and until a new one is built, The Department of State is using the embassy across the river in Kinshasa, with the help of a consular office in Brazzaville, to cover both the Congo and DRC. Fortunately, the folks at the consulate were very friendly and, after hearing our story, agreed to help. As a first step, the embassy suggested writing us official letters of introduction to accompany our applications.

When we returned from Lefini we headed straight for the Angolan Embassy which turned out to be closed. Apparently, while we were off in the bush, the Congo’s junior soccer team won the African title and the President declared Monday a national holiday. This only further delayed our Angola visas but made a convenient excuse for not having vehicle insurance when we were stopped twice by police roadblocks later the same day.

On Tuesday we returned to the Angolan embassy to give it another go. When we arrived at the embassy compound, we handed our letters of introduction to the woman at the guardhouse and requested visa applications. This time the shortage wasn’t stamps, but rather plain white copy paper, which the woman said the embassy was out of and therefore it wouldn’t be possible to give us applications. Knowing that if we offered to bring our own paper, she’d say they were out of ink, so we left the embassy once again, no closer to getting visas.

Going nowhere fast, we vented to Jacques and a friend of his from Point Noir. As it turned out, Jacques’ friend, a French expat who’s spent the past 15 years in Africa, has extensive experience doing business in Angola and said that it has become increasingly difficult (read: Nearly Impossible) for anyone – Africans, non-Africans, anyone, to get in. As he put it, “For whatever reason, the Angolan government doesn’t want outsiders in their country.” He went on to say that he’d just helped a group of overland trucks, who were stuck in Point Noire for over a month trying in vein to get visas to cross into Cabinda (Angola), to charter a small ship to carry their trucks from Congo to Walvis Bay, Namibia. It was the only way around, as Angola wasn’t going to let them across the border.

This wasn’t new news to us. We’d heard one horror story after another from fellow travelers like Fred and Lois (Author of Lois on the Loose – whom we had dinner with in Yaounde), who told of their experiences battling Congo’s horrible roads and dodging Ninja Rebels in their multi-country quest for visas. After coming up empty in Libreville, Point Noire, Brazzaville, and Kinshasa, they’d gone to Matadi, Congo (Zaire), where they’d finally managed to obtain five-day transit visas. This gave them a ticket into Angola, but hardly enough time to get back out, as the roughly 2,100 kilometers of bombed out roads between Congo (Zaire) and Namibia can easily take two weeks to safely navigate. Fred’s advice to us… Should you find yourself in Matadi applying for a transit visa, do everything you can to keep a straight face when the Angolan official begins asking you dead serious questions like “Are you male or female?” and “Who is your father’s sister’s brother?” However obvious the answers may seem to you or I, they’re apparently not so obvious to the Angolan officials in Matadi and are paramount to determining whether or not you’re fit to enter the country.

Not ready to head for Matadi just yet, we paid another visit to Chelsea at the US Embassy. Since the letter of introduction didn’t work, Chelsea devised another plan. This time she sent us back to the Angolan embassy, accompanied by a consular official, Ben, in one of the State Department’s Land Cruisers, complete with diplomatic tags and a chauffeur. To be certain, we looked as important as a rag tag bunch of road weary American’s, clad in our least worn out “border crossing” attire, can look. Which is to say, not very official. Fortunately, Ben, dressed in black dress pants, smart leather loafers, and a crisp blue dress shirt, very much looked and spoke the part and when we arrived, we received a warm welcome from the friendly woman at the guardhouse. The same “friendly and courteous” woman we’d run into twice before who hadn’t given us the time of day and who was full of excuses for why they couldn’t process visas. Following a brief discussion with Ben, the now courteous and helpful woman produced our applications and told us that if we turned them in tomorrow, our applications would be processed and returned by the middle of the following week. This would have been perfect except for the fact that it had taken so long to deal with my knee and finally get the applications that our Congo visas were now due to expire. Ugh! Through Ben, we explained this to the woman, who responded with poorly concealed disdain that if the US Ambassador contacted the Angolan Ambassador, our applications might be processed a little faster.

Back at the consulate, we thanked Ben profusely for his assistance and took a few minutes to discuss next steps. To expedite things as much as possible, Ben said that he would talk to the U.S. ambassador about contacting his Angolan counter part and we agreed to return to the Angolan Embassy the following day to submit our completed visa applications. By any measure it had been a successful day and our progress, the only progress we’d made in over two months of failed attempts, seemed like cause for celebration!

Unfortunately, there seems to be an unwritten rule in Central Africa that states that any positive development is offset by a negative one of equal or greater impact on our travel plans. And this was no exception! Riding high on our good fortunes, we met up with Pat Garrod and Ness Lewis for drinks at Mami Watta, a popular expat haunt on the banks of the Congo River. A pair of English doctors who’ve spent as much time globe trotting on their BMW motorcycle as attending to patients over the past decade, Pat and Ness are seasoned overland travelers with several hard core overland journeys to their credit. Faced with the same Angola visa woes, we’d met up with them to compare notes the previous night at Hippo Camp restaurant and hotel, where we were having dinner with Ken, Chelsea and several others from WCS and the US Embassy.

As we watched a blazing orange sun set over the Congo River and the lights of Kinshasa start to twinkle on the other side, we chatted about our experience at the embassy. Thanks to Chelsea and Ben, we’d had a very good day and it appeared that we were starting to make some progress towards overcoming the final obstacle standing in our way of Southern Africa… Or so we thought. No sooner had we toasted our good fortune, than Paula, a well-connected German friend (Read: covert mercenary type) of Pat and Ness’, joined us. Paula had been helping Pat and Ness sort out their Angola visas and had also volunteered to do a little reconnaissance into recent reports of fighting in Matadi, Congo (Zaire). Skipping past the formalities, Paula cut straight to the chase. “I have just returned from a meeting in Kinshasa with the former Minister of Defence (MOD) about the security situation in Matadi. The situation across the river is very unstable and the MOD has strongly advised that you not travel into Congo (Zaire). There’s wide spread tension throughout Bas-Congo due to the recent election results and the government doesn’t know what’s going to happen.” From the sound of it, Congo’s fragile peace seemed to have a growing crack in it and the country could once again be on the verge of serious civil unrest.

Still riding high on our success at the Angola Embassy, this news came as a bit of a blow. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have. A few days earlier, we’d picked up a BBC broadcast on our short wave radio which reported that fighting and riots had broken out in Matadi between police and Bundu Dia Kongo, a militant religious sect. According to the report, Bundu Dia Kongo was upset over recent election results in Bas-Congo, which the group claimed were rigged. Initial reports put the death toll at 17, however this number quickly climbed to 58, then 90 as fighting spread to Boma and Muanda and the military was called in. We’d been anxiously monitoring the security situation in Congo (Zaire) since back in July when the original presidential election took place. On the heels of a brutal civil war which claimed over 2.5 million lives – more than any other war since WWII – Congo (Zaire) had just been through their first free elections since independence in 1960 and no one knew exactly what would happen. The situation was fragile at best and across the river in Kinshasa, 17,000 UN troops manned the streets to help keep peace.

Paula continued, saying that in the past the MOD has been quick to dismiss such fighting as isolated clashes between the government and opposition groups and that he usually encourages foreigners to enter, arguing they aren’t the intended targets. This time however, she said that the MOD spoke gravely about the situation and seemed very concerned that this could be the start of much larger problems resulting from the elections. Paula seemed to share the MOD’s grim outlook and she strongly advised that we rethink our travel plans. She went on to say that, should we decide to ignore the warnings and cross into Congo (Zaire) anyway, she could arrange an armed military convoy aid us in getting through.

It goes without saying that Paula’s warning dampened our spirits. After four months of seemingly endless setbacks, we were mentally and physically spent. Betty’s tattered bodywork and my brace and crutches were tangible symbols of our road weary state. In the long dark tunnel that’s Central Africa, the only light seemed to be from one oncoming train after another. Exhausted, we thanked Paula for her advice, said our goodbye’s to Pat and Ness, and headed back to Ken’s compound, where we fell asleep to visions of child soldiers, notorious ferry crossings, corrupt police, bombed out roads…. And oh yes, Angola visas dancing in our heads. Tomorrow is another day!.

 
     
  Brazzaville - February 8-16, 2007
(Jim Writes) This morning we woke up tired. Not the sort of tired you get from staying out too late or running a marathon and not the sort of tired that goes away with a Caribbean vacation. We were tired the way you only get after a period of prolonged mental stress. The kind of tired that sleep won’t cure. Where the only remedy is eliminating the cause of the stress. Our stress however seemed to have no end in sight. For all that we’d been through over the past four months, there seemed to be an equal number of hurdles yet in our path. Our Angola visas, while closer at hand, were still not in hand. And Congo (Zaire)…. we’d known from the beginning that at best it could be a corrupt and unstable land full of hassles and at worst a show stopper (and in fact it stopped Pat and Ness in their tracks on their first attempt at Central Africa back in 1998). Unfortunately, there’s no route around massive Congo (Zaire) and, in my mind at least, no going back. That meant that we were stuck. Indefinitely stuck. Caught in a world that seemed stickier than a spider’s web. We’d managed to get in, but for the moment at least, there seemed to be no way out. Betty, our tireless porter, had now become our albatross. She’d carried us deep into Central Africa where ahead lay the land Joseph Conrad described as the Heart of Darkness. Unwilling to abandon our trusted steed and in the process abandon the road less traveled which had led us to this point, there was no easy way out. No hopping a quick flight home. Rather, the only cure for our growing malaise was to push forward. One way or another, we needed to finally be on the other side. This was the predicament that consumed our thoughts as we lay in bed, having woken up exhausted on Thursday February 8, 2007.

And so we woke up every morning for the next nine days. Stuck in Brazzaville, we spent nine long days working on a cure to a seemingly incurable disease. By day we researched the Congo (Zaire) situation, sketched out contingency plans, and continued to pursue our Angola visas. By night, we decompressed – getting together with Ken, Colby, Pat, Ness, Sharikay and Eric to down a few beers and share a few war stories (literally).

Mentally fatigued and physically debilitated, by Thursday I felt increasingly ill equipped to handle the formidable task at hand, while Sheri seemed strong enough for the both of us. In light of Paula’s news, we sat down with Eric, and later Pat and Ness, to exchange views on crossing into Congo (Zaire). Given Congo’s war torn history and deteriorating security situation, Sheri and I felt a conservative approach was best, waiting for more information before deciding whether to cross the Congo River into Kinshasa. And should we ultimately decide to go across, we’d do everything we could to minimize the risks, which meant getting through the country as quickly as possible. Eric held a different view. Unmoved by Paula’s warnings, he said that he and Sharikay planned to enter Congo (Zaire) regardless and would spend a week or more in Kinshasa and the surrounding area before entering Angola. It was his feeling that the risks were manageable and that should they find themselves stopped by rebels on the side of the road, “it wouldn’t be anything $100 couldn’t take care of”. Pat and Ness were undecided, agreeing that the security situation was tenuous at best and that more information was necessary before deciding to go forward. Pat said that if they decided to enter Congo (Zaire) they would go through as quickly as possible. Alternatively, if they decided it was too dangerous, they’d probably turn back and go home (the primary purpose of their journey being to complete the route they’d first attempted in 1998). Clearly, much was up in the air. What we carried away from these discussions however was that each party had it’s own agenda and, most likely, we’d be going it alone. Or at least, we should make preparations to go it alone so that we’d be prepared to do what was best for us, should everyone go there separate ways.

And so Sheri and I went about making plans and contingency plans. Over the next several days our “To Do List” included such items as getting security updates from Jacques and other UN contacts, scouring over faded maps of Kinshasa for a safe route through the city, and sorting out a contingency plan – which included transporting Betty first on an old Russian cargo plane and then by ship around Congo (Zaire) and Angola. Busied by our preparations, our minds occupied by such problem solving tasks as whether or not to travel in armed convoy, we found that much of the anxiety and fatigue that had consumed us had waned. Energized by our preparations, we found new resolve to get to the other side – to Southern Africa!

On Friday (Feb 9), a UN contact of Pat and Ness’ forwarded us a UN security briefing which advised all UN personnel on Congo (Zaire) to cease use of the road between Kinshasa and Matadi until a reconnaissance team could assess the situation further.

Later that afternoon, we headed over to the Angolan embassy to meet with the chief in hopes of finally securing our visas. The chief and our coveted visas were nowhere to be found. What we did find were dozens of Brazzaville police who’d setup checkpoints all over the city in hopes of raking in a little beer money before the weekend. The area around the Angolan embassy was literally crawling with money-hungry police who descended on us from every direction, the sight of our vehicle drew their attention like bees to honey. At every turn there seemed to be another checkpoint and as we cut onto side streets to avoid them, they’d come running after us waiving their hands and calling out for us to stop. As I studied our tiny map of Brazzaville, plotting alternate routes down side streets and back alleys, Sheri dodged and weaved, somehow managing to allude their grasp. This game of cat and mouse continued until dusk when a quick left onto a side street followed by a right turn onto a trash strewn dirt alley. We’d made it to Mami Watta and finally we were free. We needed a drink.

By Saturday morning, we [finally] had our Angola visas (a feat that required another three days of persistent begging, an interview with the chief, a call from the US Ambassador, and nearly being arrested to achieve). With our visas in hand the clock was now ticking. We had exactly 30 days to get through Congo (Zaire) and Angola.

Saturday afternoon brought more good news. Wearing his white coat and stethoscope (or blue jeans and a faded t-shirt), Pat invited me over to their tiny hotel room at hippo camp, where he conducted a full medical history and physical exam of my knee. Like the French Embassy’s doctor, Pat felt ill equipped to make an accurate diagnosis without the aid of an MRI or blood test. He seemed to concur with the embassy doctor that there appeared to be no physical indications of a torn meniscus and that my knee was stable enough for me to travel by road to Southern Africa where I could seek proper medical attention. Very good news indeed.

While Pat was conducting his exam, more potentially good news arrived. Ness received a short text from Paula stating that there were new developments in Congo (Zaire) and that it was now safe to pass. In stark contrast to Paula’s stern warnings from three days prior, nobody knew exactly what to make of the text but at least it sounded positive. To learn more, Pat and Ness made arrangements to meet with Paula the next day.

On Sunday, Colby invited us to join him, along with Ken and some of the other WCS staff, at Hippo Camp for brunch. Lured by the prospects of a traditional English breakfast and some good company, we quickly forgot about the breakfast we’d just eaten and gladly accepted his invitation. While gorging on fried bacon, eggs, toast, and fresh fruit, we listened to stories about life in Brazzaville during Congo’s recent civil war. Stories that included being car-jacked by drunken soldiers and hunkering down at Hippo Camp while awaiting evacuation during some of Brazzaville’s darker days.

On Sunday night Ken joined us at Mami Watta, where we met up with Pat and Ness for dinner and to learn what they’d found out from Paula. As Pat and Ness explained, Paula had received word from her contacts in Kinshasa that Kabila’s government had agreed to a re-vote in Bas Congo. According to Paula, this concession was well received by Bundu Dia Kongo, resulting in a more stable security situation across the river– at least for the moment. According to Pat, it was Paula’s opinion that the current peace would likely hold for at least 10 days or so, giving us a limited window of opportunity to pass through Congo (Zaire) before shit potentially hit the fan again. This was about the best news we could hope for from what we considered to be a reliable source.

With cause for a mini-celebration, our attention turned to more lighthearted conversation including Ken’s incredible story about being sat on by an enraged silverback mountain gorilla during a veterinary procedure in the wilds of Rwanda. Perhaps it was Ken’s story of survival or perhaps it was too much alcohol, but something struck a cord and before the night was over, Ken had us planning how we could use some of our tiny window of peace to venture deep into Congo’s rainforest in search of silverbacks. Had we gone insane?

On Monday morning (Feb 12), Sharikay and Eric returned from a weekend retreat to Lefini and immediately joined in our gorilla madness. Instead of filling up with fuel and making other final arrangements for crossing into Congo (Zaire), we found ourselves meeting with Colby at WCS’s offices to discuss the logistics of getting to Ndoki National Park. By the time we’d finished talking to Colby, we were transfixed by the prospect of venturing deep into the rainforest of Congo and now the Central African Republic in search of gorillas and forest elephants. Indeed, we had gone mad and Sheri, more than the rest of us, seemed completely aware of this fact!

On Tuesday, while everyone else was debating and discussing logistics for Ndoki, Sheri and I headed for EMS to meet with Jacques about a strategy for dealing with The Beach. The Beach, also known as Ngobila Beach, is the name commonly used to describe the Kinshasa port where the Brazzaville-Kinshasa ferry arrives and departs. Sheri and I first heard about The Beach from Tony back in The Gambia. At the time, our plan was to avoid Kinshasa all together, traveling instead along the coast through Cabinda, Angola. That said, Tony’s graphic description of the thousands of people, chaos, corruption, and beatings he’d witnessed provided little cause for concern. Since then, we’d heard The Beach spoken of often – never favorably – most recently by Martine at Mikongo Camp, who said that she’d read about it in a book by Jeffrey Taylor titled “Facing the Congo.” Martine provided no details on Taylor’s description. Rather, with a look on her face that clearly conveyed “Better you than me,” she simply suggested that we not read Taylor’s book until AFTER we’d crossed safely to the other side.

At EMS, we discussed The Beach with Jacques. Like everyone else, Jacques had nothing positive to say about the Brazzaville-Kinshasa ferry. There is no easy way across, he noted, and some days are worse than others. As Jacques explained, he’d always been relatively lucky because his wife is Congolese and speaks Lingala, which makes things a little easier. His advice to us…

- Choose the day you cross carefully. Some days are better than others. The beginning of the week tends to be better than the end of the week since soldiers and officials are hungry for beer money as the weekend approaches.

- Find a local Congolese you trust to serve as your “guide” on the Brazzaville side. If nothing else he can help to fend off the droves of hustlers and throngs of people and chaos you’ll encounter.

- On the Kinshasa side, it’s a good idea to have someone, preferably from the US Embassy, meet you to help deal with the drunken soldiers and officials, which can be a very big problem.

- Go with other vehicles if possible. The more vehicles you have together, the more pressure you can put on the soldiers and officials to let you pass.

It was obvious from Jacques’ comments that his advice wasn’t going to make our crossing easy. If anything, at least we now knew that the ferry didn’t run on Sunday and that we didn’t want to go on a Friday. What was perhaps most useful was Jacques’ description of The Beach and the ferry. At least now we were going into it with our eyes wide open. Sort of like having open heart surgery after having watched it on TV.

Wednesday came and went, spent mostly researching and discussing Ndoki. We’d already burned up five of our 10 days in which Paula felt there would be peace in Congo (Zaire) and Sheri was getting antsy, feeling that we needed to cross into Kinshasa ASAP. By Wednesday afternoon, my mind had all but been made up for me as the camp manager at Ndoki felt it wasn’t safe for me to make the trip since my knee wouldn’t enable me to run from charging elephants. Nevertheless, I found it hard to let it go.

On Wednesday night, Sheri and I discussed when to cross into Congo (Zaire). Based on Jacques’ recommendations, we felt the best day to cross would be Saturday. In our experience, Saturdays are often, although not always, less hectic and Sundays are almost always the quietest day of week (at least in Christian countries). Since the ferry didn’t run on Sunday, our theory was that getting to the port early on Saturday morning would avoid at least some of the chaos we’d experience if we crossed during the week. Also crossing on a Saturday would allow us to skirt through Kinshasa at the crack of dawn on a Sunday, when there’s less traffic and hopefully the police and soldiers are still hung over and in bed. We also contemplated Jacques other advice but decided in the end to forgo the guides and other helpful aids.

By Thursday (Feb 15) the Ndoki decision was made for all of us. The earliest flight into Ndoki wasn’t until early next week. Our gorilla ambitions would have to wait. Fortunately, everyone was keen to cross into Kinshasa and everyone seemed to agree that Saturday was the best day to go.

With only two days to make final preparations, everyone went about readying for departure. Sheri and I studied our hardly legible map of Kinshasa, outlining the most direct route through the city. Since Matadi was the lightening rod for the recent fighting, we also plotted an alternate route into Angola, crossing at the tiny border town of Luvo instead. To avoid fuel problems, I calculated enough fuel to get us all the way to Luanda.

Getting fuel however proved difficult. The balance of Thursday we searched the city for a place to fuel up. Most pumps were dry and those that weren’t were a chaotic maylay of gridlock as taxi drivers fought to get to the pumps. By late afternoon, we still hadn’t found fuel. The city was dry.

On Friday we tried again. Still no luck. With only one day until departure, I consulted Colby for advice. Colby said fuel shortages in Brazzaville were common and he directed me to a 1,000 liter tank of fuel he and Ken kept at their house.

By Friday night, all preparations were finished and we were ready to go. Shortly before sunset we met at Mami Watta for drinks. Watching the blazing orange sunset over the Congo and the lights to Kinshasa twinkle to life on the far shore I stared across the river wondering what the next few days would hold. In the distance, Kinshasa looked like a glimmering modern city, it’s sky scrapers forming a picturesque backdrop against the mighty Congo. Under the distant veneer however, I knew there lay a turbulent war-ravaged city that could erupt again at any time. But that was on the other side. For the moment at least, we were still in Brazzaville. A city we’d come to view as one of our favorite towns in Africa.

Back at Ken’s, Sheri and I lay in bed talking about what tomorrow would bring. Ahead lay The Beach, Kinshasa, and the unknown. Yet, we were surprisingly relaxed. Excited even, as crossing into Congo (Zaire), with all the associated dangers and hassles, marked the beginning of our final push to Southern Africa and, what we hoped would be the end of four difficult months. If all went well, we could soon get medical help for my knee and tend to Betty, who was in dire need of repairs. Tomorrow we are going!