From out behind the dust cloud formed
by the red Chinese truck, appeared what we thought must be a
mirage. But, no, on closer inspection we discovered that it was
wonderfully real. There ahead of us was a road, a real, flat,
After 140 kilometres of deep, difficult sand, the
sight of this road certainly felt like an oasis in the desert. We'd
heard about the new Chinese 'colonisation' of Africa and had felt
sceptical and uneasy about their motives and intentions for this
continent. We are still not at all sure that the influx of Chinese
road builders is a good arrangement for the future. However, when
we saw the trucks, the workers and, most importantly, the tarmac,
we couldn't help but cheer (not meaning to be irreverent) "God
bless the Chinese!"
Maybe you need some context for this as I'm not sure that many
of you often feel the need to express your gratitude so exuberantly
to the people who constructed the roads you drive on. Give it a try
once in a while though – I guarantee it will brighten up your
We left Gabon, as planned, at the crack of dawn. The border
marked the end of tarmac and an abrupt descent into deep sand. It
took us precisely 1km and about 5 minutes before we got stuck.
Fortunately it was still only 8am so we didn't get too sweaty as we
hauled out the shovels, sand tracks and eventually the hi-lift
jack. We were deeply embedded in the ruts left by the trucks and
there was absolutely no one else for miles around so we were very
relieved when, about an hour later, we were finally free.
The good news is that it was the only time we got stuck all day.
With less air in the tyres, lots and lots of revving, regular stops
to check the track ahead and excellent sand driving from Neil, we
made it safely through plenty more hairy sections. At times, had
you been in the car with us, you would have heard us egging the
Land Rover through particularly deep sections like a contender at
Ascot. "Come on, come on, you can do it, you're nearly there, keep
it up, not far to go. YES! Nice one".
Congo is beautiful. Hills and grasslands extending far into the
distance with seemingly no people and no other vehicles. We felt
like we had Africa to ourselves. It was only after 60km of intense
sand driving that we came across the immigration official in his
little hut. By this point we were quite glad to encounter another
fellow human being and even happier when he turned out to be
friendly and efficient.
With the formalities over it was time to hit the sand again. At
one village the ruts created by the trucks were so deep that we
really weren't sure how we were going to get through. Once out of
the car for a recce, we were immediately surrounded by adults and
children, all keen to give us some advice and have a nosy in the
car windows. Fortunately one of the locals was kind enough to show
us an alternative route, around the back of the village, through the
undergrowth. We weren't quite sure where the track would end up but
at this stage anything was a more attractive prospect than the terrifying
sand pit so we set off for a good bit of 'bundu bashing'. Sure
enough, after a couple of hundred metres we appeared out the other
side of the trees and back on to the main track, having bypassed
the worst stretch. With a grateful wave we continued on our way.
So it was with all these incidents behind us that the view of
the tarmac appearing through a cloud of dust felt like the workings
of an over-active imagination.
Unfortunately though, after not many kilometres, this tarmac
treat did turn out to be short lived as it quickly ran out and we
were back on sand, although this time it was well-compacted, three
lanes wide and prepared for its new surface. In our Britishness, we
felt a bit naughty driving along a road which was clearly in
mid-construction and also slightly uneasy as in Africa, you just
never know. What if the Chinese-Congolese relations had turned sour
or the money had run out and we were about to drive off the end of
a cliff? However, it didn't seem to be a problem for any of the
other vehicles on the road, or for the construction workers for
that matter, who all just waved or gestured for a cigarette.
At around 4pm we decided to call it a day and found a perfect
spot for a bush camp, just off the road, down a slightly overgrown,
disused track. We opened a beer and toasted to having only got
stuck once and to a Congo which, so far, didn't seem to be living
up to its terrifying reputation. And then our toasting came to an
abrupt end as we realised that we were being eaten alive by some
evil little black flies that lynch you and draw blood with every
bite. Our ankles had been mauled and we hurriedly made a
plan for an early night so that we would be safe behind our
We were up at sunrise, excited to be
alone with just the peace and quiet of the Congolese bush and a
beautiful sun rise on this Good Friday morning. Fortunately the
little biters don't seem to be early risers so our ankles were
given some respite.
We had another 70 kilometres of sand
before we arrived to the real, completed tarmac road which goes
south, all the way to Brazzaville. Much as the sand had been fun
and picturesque it had made very tiring driving for Neil and he was
very happy to know that the rest of our drive through the Congo
would be straightforward.
The French word for tarmac is goudron, a word you become
very quickly acquainted (and obsessed) with when overlanding
through Central Africa. On our way down to Brazzaville, and as the
potholes began to appear, we couldn't help but chuckle about the
fact that badron would surely be a more appropriate term to
describe the state of most African roads.
We were making much faster progress but knew that we wouldn't
make it to Brazzaville so we started looking for another bush camp.
This turned out to be much trickier than yesterday as all the
tracks we found were very wet under foot. Eventually we passed a
very smart looking residence, set back off the road and decided to
try our luck and see if we could camp inside. You very quickly lose
inhibitions about asking random strangers for favours on this kind
Well lo and behold, who should come to our rescue again but a
load of Chinese engineers! They were all extremely friendly
despite the fact that only one of them could speak a small amount
of English. They had no problem with us camping in the garden of
their compound and
were all thoroughly amazed and amused by our roof-tent.
Goudron, interspersed with badron,
got us all the way to Brazzaville by early afternoon.
Whilst we drive I am reading a book aloud to Neil , which is
called 'Red Tape and White Knuckles'. It is a travel book
recounting the adventures of an English woman – Lois- who drove to
South Africa solo on her motorbike. It is an excellent read and
particularly interesting for us today as we were reading about her
experience of the Congo as we drove through it ourselves.
Our first impressions couldn't have been more different. Lois
entered by a different border post and had quite a harrowing first
couple of days for various reasons. We, on the other hand, have
been amazed by how easy, peaceful and beautiful it has been. Both
the Congos are countries which most overlanders tackle with some
trepidation. So far, however, everyone has been friendly, the
border was all above board, the police have been professional and
the scenery has blown the rest of Africa out of the water. West
African landscapes really seem to pale into insignificance when you
see these giant central African panoramas.
Brazzaville is typically manic on the outskirts but very
civilised with a European feel when you get closer to the river and
the centre of town. We are staying in another of those overlanding
gems – a hotel that kindly lets you camp, use a shower and a toilet
and doesn't charge you anything. This was great, particularly when
we did some investigations and discovered that the ferry to
Kinshasa wouldn't be running until Tuesday due to the Easter
Holiday. This gave us an extra couple of days relaxing in
Brazzaville without worrying about accommodation costs wracking up.
Happy Easter! We celebrated with
poached eggs and managed to find a small, evangelical congregation
round the corner. It was great to be with fellow Christians for
Easter and we really enjoyed the service.
We then felt like it
really was a Sunday as we treated ourselves to some food out for
lunch. We were completely uncultured and had burger, chips and ice
cream but it was absolutely delicious.
We spent the evening chatting to Lester, a South African guy,
who has worked all across Africa for Siemens and the mobile phone
company, MTN. He had some fascinating stories to tell and gave us
some good route advice for our southern African leg.
Now we really are ready to face DRC
and Angola. The clothes are washed, the car is tidy, the water cans
are full and the food stores have been checked and replenished.
Lester kindly took us out for a delicious pizza this evening and
entertained us with more of his stories, including when he was
evacuated from Brazzaville as war broke out in 1997. He had to
pay $500 to get a flight across to Kinshasa (2 kilometres away) and
then a South African Airways flight was redirected to collect him
from the runway while on its way south. It is hard to believe that all of that went
on when you look around Brazzaville today and see a calm, friendly
and civilised city showing no evidence of what was a recent and
extremely brutal outburst of violence.