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Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Gabon, The Congo & Democratic Republic of Congo.

I'm going to combine these 3 countries into one blog entry for 2 reasons. 1, we probably only spent a grand total of about 2 weeks travelling through them, and also we are so far behind on the blog that this will kill 3 birds with 1 stone so to speak. We crossed the border into Gabon and immediately saw the change in scenery. We had officially hit the rainforests of Africa...The first day we spent driving through the narrow road passes with hanging vines blocking out all the light.

Road through the jungle.

Bamboo hanging over the road blocking out all the light.

We also didn't manage to cover much ground as the Gendarmarie (local police) were stopping us every 5km to check our paperwork and demand bribes from us to continue. One young policeman even tried as far as to say that our Visas were not in order as they didn't have a photo on them. Driver Mark put him in his place by telling him to ring the border police who an hour earlier had let us into the country, before speeding off leaving a cloud of dust in our wake. On the way to our first bush camp of 28(!!!) before reaching the campsites of Namibia we passed by lots of tiny rural villages and a plethora of rivers including a couple I'd like to mention specifically - the village of Wormecock, and more importantly the River Lara which was admitedly pretty cool.

The bridge over the River Lara - Yatar!! (For all of you who do not speak Japanese, unlike myself (!) that means yay!)

It was at this point that we crossed over the Equator for the first time. We've officially moved from summer to winter and it's definitely starting to get cold!!

Laraldo (dressed for winter) in the Southern Hemisphere and AK (in shorts, vest and flip-flops) in the Northern Hemisphere.
The first camp in Gabon was in the grounds of a local primary school. This was a pretty cool spot in the middle of town and we were soon surrounded by the village children. This was lovely company and we felt really touched they had all come to talk to us. That was until one of the older and braver boys pointed out that we'd parked smack bang in the middle of their football pitch! They were very disappointed, they played football every evening, and given that we were in the middle of World Cup season we felt especially guilty. On that note, Dave, AK and Kim went off to a local guy's house to watch Ghana play in the quarter finals against Uruguay that night, while the rest of us stayed behind and played a Yahtzee tournament extraordinaire.

The first night in Gabon: Camped outside a school in the middle of their footy pitch.

The next morning we left for another full day of driving, and stopped at a random quarry-esque clearing on the side of the road. This was a pretty non-descript stop, however it was made more interesting when AK decided to pitch our tent right in the middle of a path which turned out to be the only route to the only toilet stop for everyone. So whilst having a peaceful sleep, we were interrupted by the crunching of peeps on their way to the loo throughout the night and early morning. Good work AK....Good work. The next morning a lot of us woke up covered in red spots - literally from head-to-toe. Worries of meningitis, mumps etc were quickly dismissed when we realised it was the tiny midges that had plagued the last few camps - almost invisible to the eye - that had been biting us. The bites seemed innocuous enough but several days later became raised welts which were infinitely more itchy than a run-of-the-mill mozzy bite. Good times for those covered head-to-toe (like AK). On doing a bit of research on the web, we've concluded that the offending blighters are called 'chigger mites' (not to be confused with 'jigger/chigoe fleas/worms' which we'd already started to encounter too - read more here).

AK shows off his many midge bites - infinitely more itchy than a run-of-the-mill mozzy bite.

We were heading for a place called Lambarene which was a reasonably big town and the only tourist centre in Gabon. We found it nestled along the banks of a stunning river. We were surprised to see pretty modern architecture and loads of European supermarkets and hotels around. We just stopped for long enough to stock up on food and wine from one of the markets. Lambarene is also famous for the leprosy clinic founded by Dr Albert Schweitzer. We didn't visit this place, but I'm regretting that decision now...

Lambarene nestled along the banks of the river.
Loads of modern hotels and speed boats makes for a surprisingly up and coming holiday spot.

Half way to the camp that afternoon, we were driving down one of the new roads that are being built by the Chinese (which I'll mention further later on) and got stuck in some fresh mud on one side. To be fair, we hadn't encountered any bogging problems in a while so it was about time...Luckily there was a crane truck on hand to pull us out of the ditch, and at the same time rip Ruby's front bumper off entirely on one side. Not so good. We drove off out of there pretty quickly, watching the next truck behind us repeat the steps we had just taken, and Mark spent the rest of the evening hammering and welding the bumper back on. Ruby is slowly falling to pieces day by day.

After much love and care by Marjane, Ruby had her bumper welded back on - like new...
As we left the pit of clay another truck suffered the same fate as us.

That was the end of Gabon. We reached the Congo (Republic of the...not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of the Congo - DRC) border the following morning after driving along some of the worst corrugated roads I've ever seen. By the time we stopped, everyone's brains had been rattled around in their heads so much that headaches were rife and people were not in the best of moods to face an unpredictable border crossing.

A posh lunch stop by overlanders' standards on our last drive day in Gabon.
We found a small spring on the side of the road where the locals collect their water.
We took the opportunity to wash our hair in the spring.

In the end the border was really easy. The officials were really friendly and didn't find it necessary to try to bribe the crap out of 'les blancs sur la camion' as normally happens at every available opportunity! We just so happened to have our first drive day in The Congo on the 4th of July so in true patriotic spirit for Neal and Victoria we played any and every song that mentioned the USA all morning. This did wear thin after a while, especially after hearing the Team America song 'America, F*** Yeah!!) for the umpteenth time!

A car 'parked' in a garage at the border - A sign of things to come in the Congo??!

Mark found a pretty cool spot to bush camp that night along side a telephone mast. There was an onsite security guard to stop people theiving the oil powering the mast which was an added bonus for us. The boys all climbed up the tower in the morning to see the panoramic views. This proved to be a pain in the arse (literally) for me as I desperately needed the toilet but there was nowhere to hide from the eyes in the sky!

The tower quite literally towering otver Ruby.
AK, Berbs and Kyle near the top looking down.

Pretty high...

This was also the camp where driver Marjane decided it was time to try to dig out a suspected jigger worm/flea from his toe. These worms burrow into the skin from sand or mud and we'd been digging the truck out of sand and mud a fair bit so the inevitable caught up with us. The trick is to cut along the worm (without breaking it) and putting cream in the wound to suffocate the worm. I volunteered to be on-site surgeon with Kay as my assistant to hand me the antiseptic and scalpel etc. All was going well until Marjane accidentally got a glimpse of the cut and the blood. He lost his tan as Karen put it, went snow white and had to go and lie down temporarily to avoid from passing out. Oops!! I felt pretty guilty to say the least! The worst part of it was that we were soon to find out that the surgery was not successful and the worm had just ran away to another home further down his same toe. D'oh!

Marjane's still smiling as Nurse Kay begins disinfecting the toe.
Dr Laraldo makes the initial incision.
Getting painful now.
Marjane reaches for the anasthetic (whiskey)...
...and bites down on biltong (to stifle the screams!)
The operation was unsuccessful and we may have to amputate at a later date.
We continued on through a biggish town called Nyanga, along some pretty bad roads. Although dirt roads, they were incredibly bumpy. We only managed to cover 40km in a little over 4 hours. And us folks sitting the back were all holding on for dear life as the truck threw us about all over the place!! The other (pleasant!) side effect was the tonne of 'bulldust' that was kicked up into the truck and subsequently all over EVERYTHING. The Australians call the dust bulldust for an unknown reason. But it is basically like talcum powder but brown and it stains all it touches and envelops your body as you walk along the side of the road. Needless to say we were in dire need of a wash when Mark pulled up alongside a river down the hill from the track. Life saver. It was awesome. It hadn't been that long since showers but our faces were the colour of cheap fake tan and everyone had become ginger haired over night!

You can see the guys in the water on the left, and the truck parked up on the right.
The boys (and Kay!!!!!) showing their clASS as they washed in the river.
Everybody getting a much-needed wash in the river.

Clean and refreshed we 'rocked up' (more shortly) at our camp - of course covered in dust again already by the was time for a good old-fashioned piss up. There were only a few of us actually drinking but we had fun nonetheless. The camp was in a dust clearing behind a quarried wall of more dirt and there were a LOT of rocks around the place. I had popped to the loo and returned to find I'd forgotton to close the door of the tent and there were at least 784 rocks inside - target practice. Sigh. Then when I finally went to bed there was another 784 rocks in there thanks to Sonya. Including I'd like to add a huge boulder under my pillow! Another sigh and mass rock clearence procedure begun. I did get a pretty good sense of satisfaction when AK started giggling next to me in the tent. 5 seconds later Sonya had been getting into bed and had discovered a pile of 784 rocks in her tent - AND a huge boulder under her pillow. Yes AK!! Much laughing and rock throwing later (Kyle managed to catch Dave in the head with a rock which drew blood, so followed mano et mano wrestling until Marjane scolded them from the truck and they clunk off to bed). Good times.

More driving followed. They are not long drive days, probably 8am till 4pm but we had a fair amount of ground to cover before the visas ran out and not a lot of activities to hold us up. It's just amazing to sit with your head hanging out the side of the truck through the villages with all the children running along shouting and waving at you.

Just passed a village the bulldust had claimed another victim.

The older men and women are the best...They stand and almost scowl at the truck as we pass trying to figure us out and why we were there. Then you just do a mini wave at them and their faces transform. Big grins and double handed waves, it is amazing!

A couple more bush camps followed. The first was off the road a bit where there were multiple discoveries under tents in the morning. Another reminder that we are in fact in Africa after all... The next day we found ourselves on a road in progress. This is where the Chinese come in.

After some investigation, AK is not unconvinced that this friend from under Berbs' tent was a Black Mamba.

The Congalese camp where the snake appeared.

In the last couple of years they have appeared in West and Central Africa and have started to build roads. We haven't been able to figure out why and none of the guys we've met have spoken a word of English, or even French, and yet are rebuilding and tar sealing all the major roads around the country. The road went on and on and we were not seeing anywhere that we could pull in a bush camp. On the road a couple of the boys found some interesting ways to pass the time...

Kyle mid flight, Dave recoiling from the danger!

Kyle in attack mode again - it really was a very serious fight.

A lonely AK having a rest on the side of the 'road'.

Eventually we had to stop somewhere and so we pulled into a working granite quarry to see if we might stay there. Lots of hand signalling with the Chinese later, it was agreed we could stay. The guys however, were trying to signal something to us about the noise and then making explosion actions with their hands. We said we'd be fine, we didn't mind the noise and that was that. The diggers were so loud that conversation was nearly impossible. So we retreated to our tents early only to be shocked to our cores when the walls in the near distance were being blown up. It was deafening!! The noise bounced off all the quarry walls several times and almost brought on heart failure in my case! In the morning we were woken up by Kyle saying we had to get out of there as they were about the blow up the wall behind the truck. Quick fire out of there it was and off we went to Pointe Noir.

Chilling in the quarry as the Chinese miners carry on working behind us.
Little sleep was had as these boys worked through the night.
Night falls on Ruby and a lonely tent in the quarry.

I should also add that the quarry was surrounded on all sides by very dense jungle. There's no other word for it except jungle; thick and imposing and exactly as you might expect it to be in the Congo. With that in mind, AK, Kyle, Dave and Sonya decided to get geared up with cameras, 'pangas' (maschetes) and attire suited to a team of intrepid explorers (AK wore his safari vest with over a thousand pockets on it despite my protestations!) and venture into the vast, tropical darkness just before nightfall. In AK's words "it was f**king awesome - within seconds of leaving the road, we were surrounded in creepers, massive trees, suspect undergrowth, insects and the very real threat of the jungle's non-human inhabitants. We followed the course of a small river until we got to a clearing where we stopped to soak it all up and get a rest from our panga swinging." The reality is, they were gone for less than an hour.

AK in the offending safari jacket.
AK hacks a path through the jungle with a panga. Congo.
Scared of the jungle? Or AK's safari jacket?
After a lifetime (30mins) in the dense undergrowth, they made the clearing.

Livingstone would be proud (l to r: Berbs, Son, Homeless)
Pointe Noire is the tourist town of The Congo. It isn't the capital but the town itself could easily be. We passed through the surrounding suburbs for about 2 hours in the rush hour luch time traffic/pedestrian zones. Eventually we hit the beach again (yay!!) where we stopped for a chicken on the beach lunch. Next step was to find somewhere to camp. The chosen spot was a Chinese restaurant on the seafront, who would let us camp in the car park and use their toilets. Again, there was a couple of security guards on hand which was awesome. Although upon closer inspection, about 10 metres to our right was a small pile of rubbish where a few homeless guys seemed to be living. Even more purturbed was I when it appeared there was a lucrative drug trade going on there too. The security guards did do their job though and patrolled through the night to keep an eye on us! Sad times though - a 10ish year old boy was doing some MJ dancing for AK one afternoon. It was pretty awesome and so deserved his dollar or 2 (which he said he'd use to go buy some food). Unfortunately he ran straight to the pile of rubbish and bought some drugs with the money. Really sad. Although another young lad sold me 20 Egyptian shillings for a dollar and ran off to buy some chicken. Money better spent methinks. A couple of days, a few patisserie expeditions and a HUGE chinese meal later we were on our way to the Angola border. On leaving The Congo, AK took time to reflect on how, in his childhood, tv had falsely portrayed this part of Africa: not once in our time in The Congo did we see a local drinking Um Bongo.

A busy road on the way into Pointe Noire - Ruby takes no prisoners!
Sign of the times on our way into Pointe Noire, Congo.
The boys (Homeless & Berbs) in a rare shot of them washing their clothes.
We were now actually heading to Cabinda which is an annex of land belonging to Angola so it could reach the sea for trading etc. We were going to be spending one night there so we could officially cross over into the DRC. The border crossing itself was pretty easy going again. Another friendly offical. Although on first meeting he shouted at us all to go and stand behind the building where we imagined we'd be lined up and gunned down. It transpired though he was just concerned about our pale skins burning! Sometimes it's all about the deliverence of the words not the words themselves! We were now touching on Portugese speaking country for the first time. Having no Portugese speakers on the truck we thought we would have some serious difficulties. That's until Dave and AK discovered they could communicate easily by speaking Spanish in a broad Sean Connery accent. Problem solved!

Our night in Cabinda was spent at a Catholic Mission. This was simple enough except that there were no nuns, priests of any kind or toilet facilities. Actually I lie there was a toilet if you didn't mind sitting in a room full of crap on a non flushing toilet that was also covered in crap. I hate to say it but I have to make the point! The other option was to go in the bushes beside the toilet block if you didn't mind being kept company by the rats. Delightful. It was seemingly uneventful, until a random girl arrived in camp. She seemed to be a little bit out of it but harmless enough. She had no hair and no shoes but was carrying a bag and a ringbinder so all seemed well. At about 7pm she appeared in camp and sat down next to a few of the boys and tried to pocket Mark's Spiderman mug. It was rescued and again, all seemed well. Then at 7.20, the Spiderman mug was again tried to be taken. It was only just recovered and we moved on. Then at about 8pm Victoria and Karen went to their tent. Things were no longer ok. They found that the girl had been making herself at home in the tent. She had unpacked their sleeping bags and draped up their mozzie net. But she had also taken an axe from the truck and had sliced along the edge of one side of the tent and buried several items of camping equipment underneath. They chased her away, taped up the tent and unburied their stuff. Incidentally they also found the rucksack and ringbinder underneath Dave's tent. The whole thing was totally bizarre. And although annoying, no real harm was done. It was just a girl a few sandwiches short of a picnic who had no clue what she was up to. It just seemed sad that she didn't seem to belong to anyone and nobody was looking after her, but that's Africa for you again.  On a lighter note we like to call this incident 'Night of the Tent Slasher 2 - Escape From the Asylum!'

Sea views from the top of the truck at the Catholic Mission in Cabinda.

Kids from a nearby school stopped off to say hi and practise their English phrases including 'I love you!' in the morning.

These 3 posers enjoyed hogging the limelight.

The border to the DRC was slightly more eventful than normal as Ruby decided she didn't like sand anymore and got stuck as we were happily waving goodbye to everyone. Some digging and mud mat laying later we were out of their and onto a road which can only be described by a picture. It was like being on a fairground ride! All along the side of the road the ground was on fire. This is the slash and burn practise to help regenerate the ground after it's been farmed. There was (as Ozzie Mark called it) Black Snow falling from the sky onto us for the next few days.

The sand roads have begun.

Slash and burn across the horizon.

Mark floored it past these flames right on the road-side. You could feel the blast of heat in the truck.

The landscape in DRC was to me, 'real Africa.' There is long grass bordering the sand roads with lonely trees standing on top of the rolling hills. It looked as though a lion might crawl out of the undergrowth at any minute. And to top it off there was a stunning red sunset that night. Definitely the most beautiful evening so far, I loved it.

Our first 'Real African' sunset - the photos really don't do it justice.

Pigs trotting down the road outside a tiny village past the Congo border.
Sun setting on our first evening in the Congo.
Mass sunset viewing before dinner.

On closer inspection, it was a praying mantis and not a chip on Dave's shoulder.
Squirt the animal lover finds a new friend.

Everything in the Congo is made of dust.

We made our way over a couple of days to a big river town called Matadi. There are a lot of big oil tankers etc that harbour in the town so there were people bustling around everywhere and a lot of things to see and take in. The town in accessed by crossing an enormous modern bridge built by the Japanese a few years previously. The river itself is so wide and encompasses your eyeline. There are settlements all along the edges of the river and the town rises up into the hillside behind the river. Unfortunately the police are particularly against the bridge and town being photographed so we have no photo evidence of the grandness of the river. (AK did manage to get a few sneaky shots on the way into the city, but nothing close up I'm afraid...)

Chilling in the cab with Marjane.

Although, as beautiful as the water looks it is the only river in Africa we should not be swimming in. During the civil wars thousands of bodies were thrown into the water and carried miles downstream. There is also a tributary running into it called the Ebola - this is where that lovely Ebola Virus was originally found. So we will make do with looking at it and not swimming. We stayed at another Catholic Mission in Matadi. This one was much different, in that I saw at least 10 nuns, heard the church music 79 times a day and they even had a toilet and a shower! I even had a half hour chat with a nun in French about the trip, truck and the people. I was very proud of myself!

Camping in the grounds of Matadi's catholic mission - you can see a glimpse of the city in the backdrop.

The town was awesome. The people were all so friendly, going out of their way to wish you Bonjour. We had 2 great days wandering around the place and stopping in a couple of pubs for drinks. The pubs were actually just little huts with tables outside and very big local beers for about a Dollar. The beer of choice in DRC is Primus and it's definitely my favourite so far. The ultimate best thing though about sitting in the pubs is that within 5 minutes you are approached by street sellers with everything from peanuts to pork and sandwiches for dead cheap prices. We spent such a good afternoon sitting in the sun drinking and eating to our hearts content. The only down side from the 2 days was one day we went out and I was wearing a shortish skirt. Without this being a Muslim country I figured I'd be ok as it was super hot....However, after groups of women shouting Puta! at me (not sure why or what it would mean in a French speaking country) I decided to wear my ankle length dress the next day.

The road out of DRC was through a madly hectic town which took a hell of a time to negotiate. Although really thanks to Marjane as he avoided running down hundreds of locals, being run off the roads by the worst truck drivers in the world, as we just sat in the back waving at the locals! Yoichi almost accidentally accepted a present from one guy which turned out to be a little parcel of drugs. Yoich quickly threw it back before the policeman a metre away caught on. I swear he is going to be the death of me one day! The next border would take us back into Angola again, this time for 10 days, and totally away from French speaking country. AK, resident translator, will have to practise his Spanish/Connery accent to resume his role on the other side... 

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