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Driving through the Congo – in the 1970’s

Sara Dunn’s new book is the tale of an epic journey by Hillman Hunter across 1970s Africa. In this extract Sara and Ross enter the Congo, a country ripped apart by war

The Congo… the country we had tried so hard to avoid and then struggled so hard to enter was the source of our greatest fears in the whole trip. Crazed cannibalistic rebels apart, one of the cruellest colonial regimes in Africa had existed here and the Congolese owed Europeans no favours.

Appointment in Zambia: overland down AfricaThe simple customs house stood alone in a clearing behind a flagpole with chickens pecking around outside its mud walls. We parked in a shady spot, gathered up our papers and stepped inside trying to look inoffensive. Under a framed picture of President Mobutu with signature heavy glasses and toque perched on his head, the officer shook our hands and welcomed us to his country. His clientele would normally be local travellers on foot or bicycle. We couldn’t imagine many other vehicles venturing up that dust track to keep him busy and his spruce appearance and efficient manner took us by surprise.

Sixty miles further up the road at Monga we knew that the immigration officer would have closed his office for the day so we stopped to rest. We watched Congolese walking or cycling along the roadside and going about their daily business.

Ours was the only vehicle travelling over the red mud. We climbed a gentle incline while the forest dripped around us and hid rustling secrets. Something moved on the road ahead and I peered through our insect-stained windscreen to see. A small troop of man-sized gingery monkeys looking like orang-utans but much hairier, heard our approach and within three seconds had disappeared into the tangle of greenery to either side, scooping up their babies as they scrambled to safety. The sight we hoped to catch at the spot where they vanished eluded us, while they probably had a good look at us from the leafy shadows. Our hopeful eyes strained for other wildlife sightings without reward until the immigration office distracted us with practicalities. Again anticipating trouble at immigration we approached the office with friendly diplomatic smiles pasted onto our faces and again all went smoothly.

We left with less trepidation than before. The people reacted to us the same as everywhere else and the trouble we had expected at every turn didn’t manifest itself. At first they looked unfriendly and suspicious of two foreigners in their strange car, but it only took smiles and waves for their whole expression to change as they reciprocated our friendliness.

By nine o’clock we arrived at another river, but this time a pontoon was in operation. The floating platform would be hauled across the river by ropes.

A large wheel was fixed to a sturdy tree at each side of the crossing, with thick rope attached to each end of the boat. The rope went around each wheel and hung like a taut washing line above our heads. A shout from the man in charge prompted three others to heave on the forward rope and pull us closer to the other side.

Bad roads followed but not as drastic as before until about five miles from Bondo when we met two young American men whose Jeep had skidded off the road into a sea of mud. We did our best to tow them out but even with the help of our ladders the task needed the power of a truck not our townie saloon car, and we risked pulling ourselves in with them. ‘We’ve come from Malawi and are heading for Mali,’ said Gary, ‘how about you guys?’

They had journeyed up from the south of the country through Kisangani. This was not their first problem with mud, and they were not the first people to advise us to stay on higher drier ground.

‘You wouldn’t believe the state of the roads back there,’ he said. ‘It’s the trucks that make it worse, and there doesn’t seem to be any maintenance programme, at least not during the rainy season. It was tough enough for us in the Jeep; you wouldn’t have a hope in that car!’

‘Is there anything else we can do to help before we go?’ asked Ross after we’d failed to pull them out.

‘Well you could send someone out for us. We stayed at the Catholic mission in Bondo last night, it’s easy to find. Ask for Father Aloysius, he should remember us. If you tell him our situation he’ll know what to do. Just say Gary and John sent you.’

Appointment in Zambia: overland down Africa‘You stayed at the mission?’

‘Yeah, you should do the same. It’s not safe in this country after dark, and the police and army are not to be trusted, never mind the bandits. There are plenty of missions to choose from but we find the Catholic ones are the best. They make a small charge to cover their costs, oh and sometimes they’ll give you breakfast and dinner as well!’

At Bondo we tracked down Father Aloysius to report the message from the two stranded Americans. He set out immediately with a small truck and a length of sturdy rope. We felt part of the ‘bush telegraph’. The ferry for crossing the next river was not in operation and it looked as if we might have to cross on dug-out canoes.

Meanwhile the petrol gauge had dipped dangerously low so we explored the town for supplies. Purchasing fuel didn’t involve anything as modern as a petrol station. Instead we had to visit ‘Comaco,’ a contracting company which had fuel supplies for their own trucks. Few cars existed or survived in the small town and most people relied on bicycles. We arrived at a fenced store and parked outside.

‘Nous cherchons l’essence,’ I explained to a man in oily overalls. He nodded and led us over to a small stack of forty-five gallon oil drums. One of them was fitted with a hand pump. He quoted a price and we returned to the car for jerry cans. We filled them with his help and in turn lugged them back to the car parked outside the gates, pouring the fuel into the tank. An extra two cans were filled as spares as supplies could be scarce in this country, paid and headed back to what passed as a town. To fill ourselves up we found bananas and mangoes in the market, but for the first time since leaving home we couldn’t track down any bread.

‘I think we deserve a beer,’ said Ross.

In the town’s only small shop we had found the usual tinned sardines, corned beef, and basic bags of flour, sugar and maize meal but no cold drinks of any description, so we stopped a man in western dress to ask. He directed us to a nearby house. Thinking there had been a mistake we asked someone else and got the same reply with the added information that it was the doctor’s house.

Puzzled, we climbed side steps up to the first floor of the house, feeling like trespassers. A balding bespectacled man inched open the door.

Excusez moi, on nous a dit que vous avez de la bière,’ I ventured.

The smiling and somewhat bemused Belgian doctor insisted on inviting us in. He produced three bottles out of an ancient fridge and we sat down with him. A desk in the corner was piled high with papers abandoned with our arrival. ‘Santé,’ said the doctor looking glad of an excuse for a break. Our payment would be to regale him with our experiences since leaving UK.

We returned to the mission to see if we could spend the night and take a badly needed shower. For a voluntary donation we were offered an evening meal and a room for the night. There was no shower but a monk brought us a fresh jug of hot water in our ‘cell’ for washing in Victorian style, placing it on the small wooden table next to an enamel bowl. We could use the visitors’ lavatory down the corridor.

Alongside silent monks we sat at a long refectory table watching the others for clues on the form. After Ross tried to make conversation with his neighbour, a senior monk intervened and told him that Brother John would not reply because like most of them he had made a vow of silence. The senior monks were exempt allowing them to manage the place. After grace the abbot talked to us while the others sat mute, passing dishes of small potatoes and stringy spinach along the line with a nod or half a smile. The small chunks of meat were wild boar and so tough they had to be swallowed in their entirety, but leaving any was unthinkable. I wanted to know who had caught the animal, and how; what other bush meat was available to them; did they raise chickens; and how much they grew themselves. But answers were not available.

Ten of their missionaries had been murdered six years ago, and the few survivors had all returned along with compassionate new recruits eager to restore some sort of order. Local people had suffered far worse at the hands of the rebels from beatings, rape, torture and ritual murder. Their homes, families and lives had been devastated and the monks offered humanitarian, medical, and spiritual support. Now things were slowly returning to what they called normal.

At half past eight a key turned in our door and we felt like prisoners. Sleeping indoors rather than in the car had been a luxury every other time we’d done it and I was looking forward to the same in spite of it being called a cell. We had half an hour before the noisy generator would be switched off, and all the lights with it.

The Abbot had given us the choice of one or two rooms and we’d opted for one. Our single bed was a concrete slab covered by a thin mattress and we soon discovered that comfort was impossible, let alone intimacy. It wasn’t long before Ross opted for the floor as a more comfortable option for us both as it was only a little harder than the bed but without the risk of falling off. Neither of us slept well because of the cold, which was the price of keeping to a route at higher altitude. We’d been given one thin blanket, and being locked in couldn’t go to the car for more clothes or our own lovely blanket.

It was a relief to get up at six. We drank black coffee and ate thin slices of homemade bread and pineapple jam for breakfast as silently as the monks.

At Comaco where we were looking to organise another raft, we met a Greek called Andreas who took us back to his shop to change a traveller’s cheque.

It transpired that a new Monsignor was arriving on the opposite riverbank at midday bound for the Catholic mission. Consequently all efforts had been made for the VIP and the old ferry would be repaired by 11.30am when we could cross. Relieved of the task of organizing another river crossing we spent the rest of the morning chatting to Andreas and he produced more cold drinks and salami sandwiches. We got on to the subject of bushmeat and wild animals.

Appointment in Zambia: overland down Africa‘There are many wild animals here,’ his eyes sparked at the thought. ‘I would like to show you something, but you must tell no one. Do you promise?’ We nodded, intrigued. We finished our drinks and followed him outside. We didn’t see any animals and assumed they were hiding in the dense bush, but arrived at a large wooden shed the size of a single garage. A heavy padlock and chain secured the double doors which he unlocked, looking over his shoulder and scanning the bushes for inquisitive eyes. ‘Et voila!’ he announced proudly. Packed from floor to ceiling were piles of elephant tusks. The biggest ones arched up to nearly touch the ceiling, and dozens of smaller ones wedged them in. It was a miserable sight. He boasted about the biggest ones and how big and old the animals had been. His shed load of ivory was worth a fortune on the black market and in a land devoid of proper controls he would probably get away with it. It was a struggle not to show disapproval to our kind host

‘Here, you can have this one as a souvenir,’ he offered generously. Ross held up the small tusk to admire, and then passed it to me. A hollow centre ran halfway down the curved length where it must have been attached to the soft tissues of its victim. I visualised its bloody removal from the beast and shivered.

‘We would have trouble at the customs I’m afraid,’ said Ross.

‘Yes that’s true, but you can easily hide it in a corner of your car,’ insisted Andreas.

‘Thanks, it’s very kind of you,’ replied Ross, ‘but we’d rather not take the risk.’

At 11.30am we boarded the ferry which was another pontoon. Although the jetties at either side of the river had railings, the platform itself had none. It was nothing more than a bobbing raft. The crossing was a miracle of precise timing we had learned not to expect and we arrived safely on the opposite bank before midday. To welcome the Monsignor a large crowd had assembled by the river, singing hymns in rich African harmony.

Extracts taken from:

Appointment in Zambia: A Trans-African Adventure
Sara Dunn
Published by Matador Publishing
ISBN: 9781780882383
eISBN: 9781780888248

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