Decompressing in Brazzaville

Decompressing. A procedure used to reduce pressure. And a word popularized by some young techno ravers I know. They use it to describe the process of coming down from too much fun. It’s perfect. Descriptive. And with onomatopoeias ring. For me it says exactly what we needed after crossing from Angola through the DRC into the Republic of Congo. We needed to decompress. Find an apartment and sleep and drink and shower like normal people. Walk between rooms. And just breathe. Breathe.

This is why : the crossing of the DRC into Congo Republic was three days of gripping fear and resolve in equal measure. Exhausting. Seriously challenging. A venture into the deep unknown. Not least because we knew that we faced some of the most insane offroad travel well before the journey began. The young bikers whom we befriended at Club Naval, Luanda, had arrived exhausted from the north crossing, filled our ears with tales of getting stuck repeatedly and taking an entire day to do just 11 kilometers in crossing a tiny piece of no mans land between the DRC and Congo. That put the fear of god in us. And that fear grew white hot when we read on iOverlander stories of the same crossings. Big red warning signs filled the tracks we wanted to go on. When you clicked on a warning sign the tales of getting hopelessly stuck or rained in or sliding into dongas were ubiquitous. Basically everything we heard or read sang the same song of an extremely challenging offroad drive. A drive that should not be attempted alone.

And we are alone. There is no-one else. In fact we have only heard of one other overlander couple traveling south to north and they were already way ahead of us in Cameroon when we first made online contact. We won’t catch them. So we are alone for the crossing. We have only ourselves and our will to trust and keep true to our destiny.

The crossing starts with us heading north up the Angolan coastline and wild camping on a beautiful deserted beach. Then we drive east to Mabanza-Congo, which is the capital of the northern province, the ancestoral home of the Kongo kingdom, and located almost dead centre of north Angola. From there we drive north over the Angolan border at Lufo and into the DRC immigration at Luvo. From Luvo we took a long offroad drive and wild camped about 20kms from the Congo River on a deserted hill in the DRC. Early the next day we headed for the ferry. A fascinating wait for the morning and at midday we crossed the mighty Congo River on a small ferry and into the village of Luozi. Then we turned east along the northern bank of the Congo river and drove another 100k offroad to finally reach Boko where the tar begins. From Boko we drive a good narrow tarred road with occasional potholes to first Kinkala and finally Brazzaville.

The highlight of the drive was the ferry crossing of the Congo River. It started with a long wait for the whole morning on the south side. Trucks, people, domestic animals, vehicles all mass together and wait for the ferry. It’s is untidy and disorderly to those infused with a western world outlook. But there is an inner order behind the seeming chaos. We get in line and are told when to board. The ferry takes just three vehicles and one truck at a time. And with each exit and entry there is a lot of shouting and directing as the vehicles have to navigate their front wheels down two rickety metal plates, before dropping into the Congo river and accelerating up the bank. It’s steep. And dark and unknown. I smashed my water tap below my rear end bumper permanently shut, as my tail caught the edge of the ferry when my front wheels dropped onto the floor of the Congo riverbed. It’s wild and unknown and unexpected things happen in the madness of directing and shouting. Things can go wrong. And they do. So now we are without water to wash or cook.

Despite all this the crossing of the Congo fills me with a sense of wonder and awe and a kind of low level fulfillment. Its an odd mix of emotions. A feeling that here I am in the “heart of darkness” as Conrad put it. Crossing the greatest river in Africa alongside the Nile and yet, yet there is about me the ever present climate of the unknown. The unknown of the road ahead. The unknown a pulsating chaotic mass of desperately poor, foreign people all about us whom we can’t communicate with. The unknown of the countless offices with their officials doing what others have already done, repeat asking questions, waiting and waiting. Endlessly. Compelling me to dig deep into my well of patience and tolerance and engage low level, compliant driven, slow and deliberate negotiation tactics. These are some of the thoughts swirling around in my head as we chug across the Congo River.

But there is this too : this is not about me. My inner thoughts are raging with questions about the other, about the mass of citizens about me. How does everyone see us ? Do they even see us ? And if they do, what do they see ? Whiteness. Dripping privilege. Do they see my fear embedded behind my every humane gesture of kindness and humility ? Or what ? These people, this other worldly human mass, this chunk of throw away parts of humanity, what does it see and what does it think ? My mind is blank. Numbed. Empty. Lost. Incapable of even beginning to offer up any kind of explanation of the other at all. I am truly alone. Present. Visible. Exposed. Yet alienated and alone.

There is no time to think when you on the offroad. The opposite is true. Lou and I can scarcely talk as we come to the end of the nightmare Luvo to Boko road. It’s taken the whole day to cross the river and drive a total of 100kms to Boko. Rutted and pot-hold by past floods of rain, the road has pitched and tossed our car around relentlessly, like a light boat in a ocean stormy sea. Repeatedly it lurched and dropped so badly we felt we could tip over or break an axle or something else that would leave us alive but stranded. We search for tracks at times on the road and see none. We dunno when last a car went down the road. But we know our biker friends did do it. And that alone is enough for us to travel on.

The DRC part of the road ends with a barrier across it. No sign. No one there. Just a barrier. We return to a small village to ask in single words : “Immigration?”. We are led into a tiny room in a hut and are joined by a plain clothed official who declares himself the commissar. He goes through our documentation with a fine tooth comb. Asking questions in French. Our answers are guess work. It’s hot and slow and nearly 4pm and we still need to get on the track to the Congo border which is 11kms on. And we know from iOverlander that those last kilometers are the worst. No mans land. So no government does anything about the roads.

We wait. Patiently explaining. An hour passes and he seems approving of our passports but hasn’t stamped us out. We ask him to also to stamp the carnet for the car. And he suddenly freezes and announces that we need to go back to Luozi, where the ferry landed, to get the carnet stamped. He says they are an immigration office and “not customs”. Customs is at Luozi he says. Thats 60kms back on a dead awful road that we just survived though an entire day of high risk driving. This is what he is saying to us. Seriously.

We freeze. And protest. And Lou almost sheds a tear on desperation. We are distraught. And we declare that we can’t go back. We will have to stay here in the village. No fuel. And no more light for driving. We too are steadfast and the negotiations are deadlocked almost instantly.

Inside us we are jelly kneed with a sense of loss and waste and fear. I ask is we can buy a TIP (temporary import permit for the vehicle that is used instead of a carnet). This seems to break the deadlock. Money is now on offer and everyone know that money cures everything. More negotiation. There are now three cold and officious men in the small village room. The sun is setting. They are steadfast : they want $50. We try to ask for what and why as we already have a carnet. It goes nowhere. Fifty or nothing. Reluctantly we find the fifty and they agree to stamp our carnet and passport. And we are free to go.

The last eleven kilometers takes hours. They are the same eleven kilos that took our young biker friends a whole day in the wet just a fortnight back. Thankfully it’s dried somewhat for us. Still mud pools and massive ruts and hard dongas to ride. But not as slippery as we expected. And slowly, slowly, kilo by kilo, we make it to the border of RoC. Check through immigration in a another village house and drive to a wild camp just outside Boko. Wash each other in the pouring rain and find comfort in bed before falling into a a deep, welcoming and yes suffocatingly hot sleep.

Which is all to say we seriously needed to decompress when we arrived in Brazzaville the next day. Something in the universe aligned for us and we were offered an apartment at rock bottom prices from a caring person. As we handed over the money to the maître d’âme for the room a massive, raging, fire breaks out in the hallway electronic cupboard. And soon the entire hallways of the building are engulfed in electronic fumes and billows of suffocating white smoke. We cover our faces with wet cloths to breathe. Chaos and panic breakout as residents try to suppress the flames. We jump in too. Me with my torch and fire extinguisher from the troopy. Together we all do a partial job. Then fire men in a fire engine arrive. Rescue missions are underway. The fire is finally put out. And fortunately no one is hurt. Our apartment is restored to its former glory. The smoke is gone and the power is returned. And we lie down beneath the aircon. Exhausted. Happy. Relieved. And most of all : so very ready to decompress in Brazzaville.

One thought on “Decompressing in Brazzaville

  1. Tess Batlis

    Wow…mom is hugely emotional and tearful after reading this blog. She’s so grateful you’re both still safe…”Thank God “she says. She sends you lots of love and a safe Happy New Year! Wants to look at an Atlas now…
    Mom worries so abt you two but tries not to as she cant control outcomes.
    Mom also saw Jean today. She is frail but fine.
    Mom did try to return yr call when she got a msg from Sulaiman but she cld not get through…sadly

    Love you
    From Mom


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