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Gabon/Congo/DRC – by motorbike

Okay, so I know I said that my last blog entry would be the last. At the time it didn’t seem right to continue writing about this trip without Mike as we had been together from the start of the journey and hence the beginning of this blog. However, it has since been pointed out to me, by person(s) who will remain unamed, that I am pretty crap at emailing and keeping in touch with friends and family and continuing this journal will hopefully keep all updated. More importantly, as Hans and I continue, we see the remainder of this trip as a tribute to Mikey and we would like to share that with everyone who knew Mike personally and those who met him through his own ride report and this one.

We spent an emotional sometimes frustrating ten days in Libreville arranging Mike’s repatriation back to New Zealand. The beauracracy and dealing with the African way of getting things done was challenging to say the least. We did however meet some fantastic people who really did help us out. Tim, a kiwi goldminer living in Gabon and his girlfriend Candice, Marante, the wife of the British honarary consul in Libreville and a lovely lady from the Congolese embassy who really sympathised with us and greased the wheels when we reapplied for our Congo visa which had expired. They were all fantastic.

We left Libreville and started out towards Ndjole. This was the fourth time we had ridden along this road and we rode sedately, giving ourselves plenty of time to reach Ndjole. Around 8km from Ndjole we stopped at the scene of Mike’s accident, recorded the waypoint and paid our respects to our mate.

We arrived at the Auberge St Jeanne in Ndjole and got a room for the night. This was the third time we had stayed at this funny little auberge, owned and run by an elderly woman who by now we referred to as mama. Her staff consisted of two other gentlemen, even older than her who helped in the bar \ restaurant and provided security. The average age of the establishment was comical and meant that everyone moved with a slow shuffling gait which made the place seem a bit like a cross between Fawlty Towers and Dad’s Army. Bless them.

We met a colleague of Tim’s, Charles, a South African bloke who kindly arranged for the safe storage of Mikey’s bike and eventual haulage to Libreville before it will be shipped back to NZ. Another great guy who really helped us out.

The next day we bade farewell to Ndjole and started out again. It felt like we were back on the road proper as we left the tarmac, joining a bumpy dirt / gravel road which took us deep into the Gabonese jungle. About 10km in, my rear brake stopped working. Damn. Not the best road for this to happen as the loose gravel made using the front brake a bit hairy on the heavy Africa Twin.

So we continued at a slower pace, which suited us fine. The lanscape was amazing. Jungle gave way to savannah and we crossed a huge dark meandering river, the Ogooue. It was a tiring day though, I think we had lost a little riding condition after our time in Libreville so we decided to camp at around 4pm. Before we could find a suitable spot though I got a puncture, my third of the entire trip. Repairing the puncture was a bit of a nightmare. It was hot and sticky as by this time we were back in virgin rainforest. The worst thing though were the clouds of biting black flies which literally covered us, drinking our sweat and leaving itchy red welts on our skin as we sorted the punture out. The locals call the flies mut-muts, but we referred to them as effing little shits!

We camped that night in a small clearing at the edge of the jungle and Hansy whipped up another fantastic pasta variation over the fire. The next day we intended to reach Franceville via Lastoursville. We were up early and started to pack the bikes up. As we did so we noticed a gentle buzzing which gradually became louder. By the time we were ready to depart our bikes and gear were literally covered in bees! They were everywhere and we eventually had to abandon the bikes, head 50m up the track to get our gear on before madly dashing back to the bikes, starting them up and doing a runner. Not our most graceful exit and an interesting start to the day. Back on the road we again passed through some great and varied country. At one point we had to stop as we spyed some huge spider webs in the bushes at the side of the road. Approaching carefully we realised that the web was not built by some insanely enormous queen spider but by hundreds of little ones which had constructed a massive larder.

Late that afternoon we finally made it to Franceville and tarmac. We had done two days and 400km of solid riding on dirt and gravel, us and our bikes covered in a thick film of red dirt. We looked a state but were happy at the progress we made. In Franceville we met a great bloke, Placid, who had been referred to us by Charles in Ndjole. Placid took us out for a few much deserved beers and some food. He told us alot about the Gabon and his family and their traditional way of life in the jungle which he had learned from his grandfather. Curing snakebites and wrestling gorillas apparently the norm for his ancestors.

Placid was also a mechanic and the next day brought around some brake fluid so I could repair my rear brake, in case it needed bleeding. Turns out though that one of the brake pads had come off the shoe so there was not a great deal to be done except change the pads. I didn’t have any spare but Hans had an old set with a bit still on them so we fitted them. Whilst not a perfect fit they seem to be working okay. A definite improvement!

The next day we headed for Lekoni, the last town before the Congolese border. We stopped there for fuel and made our way to the piste which would lead us out of Gabon and into the Congo. Well ‘piste’ is one word for it I guess. Narrow, deep sandy goat track would be another way to describe it. The going was tough on our heavy bikes and Hans dropped his a couple of times. We decided to take it easy and crawled along the rutted sandy track. The going was slow and tiring. Hot for both us and our bikes, cooling fans working overtime.

We managed 14km in about 3 hours and decided to call it a day, setting up camp beside the track. Exhausted and dehydrated we cooked some food and rested up. After dark we saw headlights coming along the track towards us from the Congo side. A bit nervous as we had no idea who they were, we were relieved when they turned out to be, not heavily armed smugglers, but French manganese miners heading to Lekoni. When we told them we were heading to the Congo via Akou they informed us we were on the wrong piste! Arrrrghhh! Doh! Ah well at least we had found out before going any further in the wrong direction.

The following day we returned to Lekoni, taking about half the time it had taken us the previous day, our sand riding skills having improved overnight and found the correct route. The piste was however not too much of an improvement. Again we took it slow and made steady progress. In the relatively cool morning we covered some good ground but as the day got warmer it became more difficult. No more drops however although I did manage to get the AT bellied trying to cross a deep rut. Lacking a spade to dig it out I used my enamel mug and after unloading the bike, Hans and I managed to get the heavy beast free. Later that afternoon we reached the Congo border. It was hot and we were pretty jaded, dehydrated and craving sugar / salts. Imagine our joy when the border guard informed us that a place up the road had cold drinks! Turns out by cold he meant that they were sitting in a bucket of river water and were sorta lukewarm but we didn’t care! Our bodies soaked up the sugary liquid and we felt fantastic. We hung out with the ‘shop’ owner and half the village for an hour or so. My ripped (well ventilated) tee shirt attracting a bit of attention from the curious kids.

Leaving Akou we continued and came across a river just outside the village. Remembering the golden rule, “never pass up the opportunity to swim in a river”, we wasted no time in stripping off our gear a plunging into the cool clear water. Man it was good. We washed off the accumulated grime from the last few days and left feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. We didn’t get too much further that day and camped a couple of kilometers up the road. Another challenging day and our bodies were feeling it but we felt great nonetheless. Our campsite was virtually on the piste as it was impossible to get the bikes over the steep banks so we chose what looked like the most disused of a series of tracks and parked up.

Up at dawn the next day we carried on and again made good time in the morning. At around 2pm it got pretty warm and we headed towards a patch of trees for some shade and a breather. Turns out the trees were just outside a small village called Dzogo. After cooling down for a while we headed to the village to say hello. The people were all very nice and interested in what we were up to. After we had been chatting for a few minutes the heavens opened. Rain. Lots of and a good dose of thunder and lightening. What we thought would be a passing shower turned into an hour long torential downpour. After it stopped we headed back to the bikes to continue on down the road. Turns out we weren’t going anywhere as the storm had turned the track into a series of giant lakes.

Not feeling overly comfortable riding in those conditions we opted to sit tight and returned to Dzogo to see if we could stay in the village until at least some of the water had disappeared from the road. Turns out the tiny village was only too happy to host a couple of dirty wayward motorcyclists. In fact we had the honour of camping just outside the village chief’s hut. He was a great bloke and only too happy to have guests. That night we cooked up some curried pasta and shared our meal with the chief. He loved it! It was great to be able to repay some of the generosity which had been shown to us. The next day the road looked about the same and we decided to hang tight for another day. We asked the chief if there was a pump or well in the village as we were running low on water. Turns out the nearest source was a small river about 2km away. So we offered to fill up a couple of bottles for the chief, he accepted but insisted he accompany us. So we set off, passing through wooded savannah and Maniok plantations. It was a hot day and when we arrived at the river there was a pool of crystal clear water to swim in. Awesome! So me and Hans and the chief ralaxed in the pool for an hour or so.

That afternoon the piste looked alot better so we decided to leave first thing in the morning. We spent the afternoon relaxing. That day a few villagers had found a wild honey beehive and we watched a they strained the fresh honey into bottles. It was dark, extremely runny and tasted amazing, a strong honey flavour with a malty aftertaste. Later a few of the young lads started playing drums. When I say drums, I mean a hollow log, a small piece of wood and a truck wheel, but the rhythm was awesome and the kids were all dancing around. Not wanting to be left out, Hans and I joined the throng of girating children and treated the locals to a few moves. Not sure if they see too many white men in Dzogo, let alone white men dancing. They thought it was hilarious. Two of the young girls actually fell over as they were laughing so hard at Hans’ fusion of Flashdance and MC Hammer shit. Classic.

The following day we said farewell to the village of Dzogo. They had been great hosts. The road had improved alot and in a way the rain had helped to pack down the soft sand so that the riding was a bit easier. There were still some challenging sections and we conservatively walked a few of the larger puddles before riding through.

Late in the day we made it to Oyo and tarmac. It had been a fantastic yet tiring three days on the piste where we travelled just over 120km. That night we slept like babies and were up early the next day. We made Brazzaville in the early afternoon. Our accomodation in Brazzaville was the overlander renowned Hippocamp, a hotel / restaurant where overlanders are allowed to camp for free. It is an awesome place with a great restaurant serving Viatmanese speciaties and a dangerously well stocked bar.

The following day we located the Brazzaville golf course and played nine holes. This was something we had always planned to do with Mikey and it was great to be out on the fairways on a course which overlooked the mighty Congo river.

The following day was a Monday and we decided to head to the Angolan embassy in Brazza and try our luck on getting a visa there. We had already been denied this notoriously difficult visa in Libreville but thought it was worth a crack. No was the answer. Apparently we had too few pages left in our passport (I had three and Hans four). Given the visa only takes up one page we left bemused and a little deflated. The embassy staff had told us to try in Matadi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, near the Angolan border.

The following day we left Brazzaville on the ferry bound for Kinshasa and the DRC. The crossing went reasonably smoothly as we had gone to the port the previous day and scouted for tickets, customs and immigration. We had heard mixed reports about this crossing. Some Italian blokes we met described it as like crossing from Soddam into Gamorah. Nah it wasn’t that bad. We were duped on the DRC side however when we not allowed to leave the port until our bikes had been ‘disinfected’. At $60 a bike we were having none of it but couldn’t get away as by now the police had blocked our exit. In the end we paid $20 for both bikes and watched as a bloke sprayed water and bleach on our tyres. It was a bit of a joke really but we took in in good spirits. Thieving little gits.

Finally leaving the port we headed out of Kinshasa and the road to Matadi where we hoped to obtain our Angolan visas. We didn’t make it that evening though, only covering some 250km of the 450km road. So as usual, as the shadows lengthened, we looked for a suitable place to camp for the night.

We found a graded dirt track which lead to some sort of pipeline where we found a suitable place to pitch our tents. Just on dark I was cooking up some pasta when down the track we noticed the dancing light of a torch coming towards us. Quite distant we assumed it was just some local heading back to his village. When the light went out we thought nothing of it. Nothing until the first gunshot. Fuck! We were under fire. We hit the deck and started yelling, “Nous son les touirsts, tranquile mon ami, tranquile!”. After 10 minutes on the floor we heard nothing and slowly got up. Hans reckoned the shot went well to our left. Maybe a warning? In any case we decided to pack up as quick as we could and get out of Dodge. Hans was packed and I was just finishing when, bang! Another round. This time much closer. We dove for cover again trying to communicate with the gunman. This time he responded and after establishing our number and that we were tourists, we emerged, hands raised. That’s when we met Augustine, all things considered he turned out to be a really nice chap. He was armed with an AK47 and kept telling us how lucky we were and that God was on our side. Turns out he was employed to guard the pipeline from people pilfering the aluminium pipe. It seemed he had adopted a very clear ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ policy. After handshakes and introductions he gave us permission to camp where we were which was very nice of him. Early the next morning he again turned up, this time with one of his mates and we took the oppurtunity to have a photo taken with ‘our’ gunman. So that was day 1 in the DRC. What would tomorrow bring?

Not an Angolan visa as it turns out. We were refused again and told to go back to Kinshasa. Bugger. So we did and located the Mission St Anne in the city centre where we could camp for free which is a bit of a result as Kinshasa is insanely expensive. You tend to pay for most things in US dollars which is a bit strange. Anyway, we submitted our visa applications and five days later (today) we were granted the highly coveted visa. Result! Hans and I are stoked and tomorrow we head for Angola. Bring it on.

More by this author on his blog.

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