Troubles in Congo (April 2014)

A border post with a locked gate and no one but some chicken around is always a good sign. Things are being taken in a relaxed manner. After a few minutes a guy on a scooter arrived to fill all our information into a big book. Right next doors the same was done by another guy who filled in completely different stuff. 100m down the road the same story again with once again different information being interpreted into our passports. Nationality, name and occupation were being freely mixed into funny creations like “Fabian Deutsch from Sweden”. At least three people are having a safe job due to this bureaucratic nonsense. Two more important people to visit and off we were into the Congo.

The first 20km of piste were covered by deep mud holes filled with water. Nevertheless we managed to get through without many troubles even though the water level was sometimes higher than our bonnet. Finding a bush camp on this stretch turned out to be very difficult as high grass and dense forest blocked any attempt to get off the piste. As we were still traveling in convoy with Marc, Doro and the Landy we felt overly confident to drive wherever we wanted to and headed into some high grass that was supposedly leading to an old gravel pit. Pointless to mention the ground suddenly dropped and we were stuck with three wheels in the air and had to be winched out. During that occasion we also found out that our front box reserved for recovery equipment was completely flooded by the muddy water of the previous 20km and did not have any drainage hole. At late dusk we turned into Nyanga and were welcomed by Konstantin, the local immigration officer. He wanted to keep our passports overnight which we were unwilling to agree with but was kind enough to open the gates of the most modern and outstanding building of the village – the sub prefecture. So we set up camp on the perfectly level tarmac and endured the constant rain.

After some delicious locally baked bread for breakfast we said our goodbyes, helped an Italian backpacker to get his money back as he was forced to pay a bribe for retrieving his passport and wanted to head off. Marc realised though that he forgot to close the straps of his rooftop tent and climbed up to do so – only to slip off and land badly on his wrist which later turned out to be broken. So with Doro driving the Landy we kept going on the rough and soaked piste. Somewhere along the way we bumped into Mike & Marie and their giant Mercedes truck again who we had met shortly a bit earlier in Ghana. At a police checkpoint it was demanded of us to get out of the vehicles and follow into a shack to register everything from driver license to yellow fever certificate. One of the officers continued to poke Marc in the nose until Marc got really angry and the situation became a bit tense. Apparently we were supposed to have gotten a laissez-passer for people on top of our carnet stamps at the border. As usual with a lot of discussions, a bit of humour and a lot of patience we were allowed to keep going without this highly important document. The landscape changed from forest to rolling, grass covered hills which made for a beautiful scenery.

Close to Dolisie the piste ended and brand new tarmac welcomed us. The day was close to its end though so we turned back and off the piste onto a smaller track which we followed until hitting a dead end and some military barracks. They spotted us right away and we were discussing the possibility of a bush camp in a gravel quarry we saw at the turnoff. The post commander thought that not to be any problem as the whole area was controlled by the military with several different posts spread around. He promised to inform the other posts of our presence and we happily set up camp. As usual it was not to be so easy and during the cause of the evening Marc (who was the only one fluent in French) had to talk to many different arrivals, each having a supposedly higher rank than the ones before. The last fellow to drop by was the actual commander of the military in the region and not happy about not having been informed though he had no problem with us staying. So we thought that we would finally have our peace and just finished dinner when the commander turned up again together with two cars, one other soldier and the immigration officer of Dolisie – a fat, despiteful creature of a man. This guy turned out to be extremely aggressive, shot hundreds of questions at us without ever giving us the chance to answer and did not believe that we just wanted to catch some sleep and then head off peacefully the next morning. He demanded of us to follow him to Dolisie which we were not happy about after having been reassured so many times that we could stay and taking down camp taking much longer and being quite difficult due to Marc’s broken wrist. We told him we would head off to Pointe Noire instead which made him even more angry and aggressive. As he refused to give us his name he at some point grabbed Marc’s iPhone out of his hand as he thought we were taken photos of him. This scene ended in Marc and Doro wrestling with the immigration officer and the military commander about the phone, the latter shouting to the other soldier for his AK47 which was leaning against his car. This was the most tense and uncontrolled situation we had encountered so far. Being in a physical confrontation with soldiers was certainly nothing anybody would wish for deep in Central Africa. So we tried to calm the waves of emotions a little bit while we packed our things and ignored the unwelcome company as good as we could until the soldier parked his pickup right in front of our Land Cruiser so we couldn’t leave. So we let them take our passport and visa details, having to help out with which column contained name, country and date of birth, eventually got a name out of the immigration officer who had supposedly forgotten his badge and were allowed to leave the scene. Once again in the pitch dark we headed towards Pointe Noire at the coast, the two vehicles following us closely for several kilometres until we hit a toll booth and they turned around.

Later we found out from a French expat that only a few months ago there were apparently some tensions between Angola and the Republic of Congo. The former supposedly claimed the area around Dolisie to be rightfully theirs and kidnapped 50 Congolese soldiers. This might explain the extreme suspicion showed towards us.

Just to put things into perspective, this was the only really unpleasant situation in the Republic of Congo and people there were generally friendly and welcoming. We certainly did not leave the country with a bad impression due to this isolated incident.

On the way to Pointe Noire we wound our way up and down the hills with the occasional broken down truck popping up out of the darkness without any warning requiring some hairy evasive manoeuvres. Tired and exhausted we stopped at the sight of the road and slept for a few hours before heading off at first light and arriving in Pointe Noire. The Yacht Club which is more of a collection of small boats on a rundown area allowed us to camp and especially the securities of the place turned out to be lovely. Mike & Marie caught up with us and we went to the Angolan consulate the following day to apply for a transit visa for Cabinda. After Marc breaking his wrist there was no way of crossing into DRC over the rough pistes to Luozi especially as our Angolan tourist visas were almost expired already. Unfortunately they denied us a second active visa so we organized some stuff and headed back to the club. That evening the surfing American Gary arrived on his motorbike. We had bumped into him at Kribi before and spent a funny evening together at the club exchanging stories.

Hard enough to believe but we actually found a universal laptop charger the following morning though the plugs did not actually fit properly. While waiting for the other guys to head off to the border of Cabinda we were approached by a nice Congolese who recently hosted several overland truck groups. He warned us about Cabinda often not letting in tourists due to security concerns – great news. Well obviously we wanted to try our luck either way and said goodbye to the Republic of Congo.

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