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Congo Brazzaville 100% Off-Road

Congo Brazzaville 06/12 – 09/12 

“Donnez moi l’argent!”

These were the first words spoken by the Congolese at the border. As always, people, especially when in uniforms, were demanding money, souvenirs, even our bike, dead sure that we are being sponsored by our government, our rich parents or that we can easily take a plane back home or just buy a new bike. We managed to avoid paying any bribes one more time and a hour later we had our passports stamped in on time. The Congo Brazzaville visa was not hard to get in Abuja, but it was soon to expire: we had only until the 11 th to exit the country, but what made things even more tricky was that on the 14 th a second visa would expire swell, the one for DRC. That meant the countdown to Matadi, the last place we were hoping to get the Angola visa from, had started.

The neat Gabonese landscaping had been already replaced by a hot mess of savannah vegetation, piles of garbage and laterite huts. Hordes of street kids roaming the decrepit villages, along untamed chickens, piglets and goats. Tarmac had finished long ago, we were rolling on a piste of laterite bearing all the ugly scars of recent rains. We were back to the realm of rainy season, off-road and pain.

The custom police and border control people warned us about another overlander’s vehicle crossing the border about 2 hours before. Hoping we would be fast enough to catch up with them, I went full throttle ahead. When passing through Kibangou, the first little town after the border, I was so into the groove that I could not even glimpse at the police officers waving desperately. Some 5 km outside town though, I hear the unmistakable sound of a bike engine closing in. I wonder if we are being followed, but minutes later a white guy shows up on a KTM. I am so surprised that I can aryl mumble a hello. Alper is from Germany and is traveling together with his friend Esther around Africa for 8 months. They had already pitched their tent in the backyard of some villager, so they summon us to join the party. Back in Kibangou we learned that the German’s set-up kicks ass: a Toyota Land Cruiser + a KTM 690, a solid mix of contort and fun!

Our host is Madame Poulet, the wife of a local motherfucker

We learn that we and the Germans share the same problem: if our DRC visa is valid until the 14th, theirs will expire only 1 day later. We conclude we all have less than 10 days to transit the two Congos, while avoiding the turbulence in Kinshasa and the potential refugees in Brazzaville, to get the elusive Angola transit visa and, subsequently, to exit DRC. We also discover we have been planing to follow the same piste south of Mindouli, and to catch the ferry in Luozi. It’s only logical that we decide to team up until Matadi…

The next morning the rain is back, we fight not to fall while riding on the bloody laterite that seem to span the entire Congo Brazzaville. It is slippery like glass and struggling to keep vertical, we fail to notice the stunning surroundings. The Mila-Mila mountains stretch their curvy shades of green into Gabon; a misty fog camouflages their geometry.

We soon arrive in Dolisie, the first big city in Congo Brazzaville (and the only one we’ll visit in this country), where Madame Poulet suggested we could find another Angolan Consulate. Indeed, there it is, and the diplomat confirms that a 5 or 7 days visa is available for 100 USD. But there are over 500 km of corrugated road to the border with DRC, so she suggests to get it in Matadi, or buy 2 transit visas and go back to Pointe Noire in order to cross Cabinda. A quick lunch and a quick run to the mechanics for the Toyo suspension and later we decide to move on with our initial plan.
The Chinese are working on the road, so we try our luck on the under construction portions, but we get in even more trouble. The sticky laterite into a deadly concoction – the African ice – that soon claims my 90% bold back tyre. Bloody Conti TK 80! Twice I bite the dust, it feels like riding on wet soap! The aluminum boxes get damaged and my rear brake lever is bent; I hammer everything in place as much as I can, but I am forced to tie one of the boxes to the frame to kind of make it work.
Later, in camp, I try to get the job done more professionally, but I manage to puncture a vein with the hammer instead. Esther intervenes to stop the freakish Tarantino-style blood squirt and everything seems under control.

The next day Alper rides along on his KTM and we are having a bloody good time rolling deeper into Congo Brazzaville.

We find drinking water in a village, where, as usual, dozens of villagers gather while we fill up the tanks.

For a while the road seems to improve a bit; the sun is up, and I remember how easy and fun is to ride without a pillion!

In the village of Madingou one more unidentified bush animal ends up in our lunch. And once again, we have a meeting with destiny. At a nearby table we meet a man who tells us about a piste across Congo Brazzaville and into DRC, different from the one we were to follow. This is a better route, he says. 100 km shorter, via Boko Songho. He was crossing that route regularly 2 years ago, he says, so we write down the name of the villages ahead, sketch a map, and off we go. Beyond Boko Songho there is a blank area on the Michelin map of Congo Brazzaville. I guess we will have to ride through to see what’s there.

Unfortunately rain returns, and soon after the village we realize the road is not as great as we hoped. As always in Africa, information about distances, time and quality of the road is to be taken with a big grain of salt. We arrive in Boko Songho only late in the afternoon, and we are immediately summoned in the gendarmerie office. The unfriendly chief of immigration police has us technically arrested for being tourists. Who are we? What is our real mission? We are ordered to set camp on the football field and told we must stay here for the next 2 days, because the borders to DRC are closed. We are awaiting the official results of the elections to be broadcasted from DRC, until then nobody in Congo Brazzaville should make any move. Many worrying thoughts trouble our night, but before laying to sleep we have to shower in front of the whole village. The next morning we are late for our appointment with the chief, who comes up with a completely different story: now the borders are open, even if the proclamation has been delayed, but we have to pay for the exit stamp or buy a laissez-passer (in fact a document that substitutes a passport + visa for citizens of neighboring countries). We discuss a lot, finally managing to get the stamps for free, but we have to pay a visit to the sub-prefect office before departure, which is not entirely unpleasant.

Rain clouds again

The marshes, many potholes and unrelenting rain slow us down to an unbearable 6 km/h, we have only 12 km to Minga, the actual border point, where we can solve our customs papers.

 

Three sets of custom and police people question and want to search our vehicles in Minga. It should be the last stop before exiting Congo Brazzaville. We learn that only 3-4 vehicles cross this border each month, and that the last white people were here about 12 years ago. We have to go through the meticulous and utterly ridiculous process before being told that they want some money: to stamp our passports or just to let us go, or to fix the bridge that they just found out that had been washed away by the rain. We cannot trust anybody anymore, we just want to get out of this mercantile toxic place

Unfortunately some 2 km away the drama unfolds: the information about the bridge proves accurate, we explore by bike the surroundings only to find an alternate route that stops in a village, so after pondering the idea that we could fix the bridge ourselves, we eventually return to Minga, to negotiate a solution with the village chief.

Alper is delegated to hire a team of workers and in the meantime we are invited to sleep over in the mayor’s house, still under construction. We dine by oil lamp light and all we can think of is whether the villagers will cooperate to build some sort of bridge tomorrow… As the house has no windows and no doors, chickens, pigs and goats roam our “bedroom” all night. We put our mosquito net on the floor, everything is wet and reeks of sweat and mud. How will we get out of this?

At 9 in the morning we are happy to count 14 villagers working on the bridge thing. We just might make it!

Also the water level has dropped considerably overnight. 90 minutes later we are able to cross the makeshift bridge. And it only cost 10,000 CFA, a t-shirt and 1,000 CFA worth of Pastis.

11 km farther we reach N’Finga, the dreaded and much awaited frontier of DRC. The people are so surprised to see us that they forget to ask any bribes, and so we cross the friendliest border in Africa so far. The custom formalities and actual stamping takes place in the next bigger village, N’Kundi, where we find more friendly faces and loads of kids who, we are told, are seeing white people for the first time in their lives. A man in uniform starts directing the kids to chant our names, tattooed in their young memories as marks of a historical moment. But for us, the moment is indeed a milestone to remember: we managed to get inside DRC before our visa expired, and in a time when all foreign media had launched a paranoid propaganda about the elections.
Now we need to cross the Congo and make to Matadi, get the Angola visa, and exit before the 14th of December.