Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Gabon and Congo

28.2.2010 – Day 71 – Lambarene, Gabon


What a day! Most of it was spent on roads that surely must have been designed for motorbiking. If Top Gear thinks it’s found the best riding road in the world – think again. Today I’ve ridden 450km of back-to-back perfect turns on perfect tarmac. Rolling hills with no traffic, stunning jungle scenery, bubbling rivers and cool, for the tropics, weather. Having this much fun when locals are smiling and waving just doesn’t seem right. My first impressions of Gabon are pretty good. The rain forests are truly beautiful and although logging trucks are around, the forest I saw was in good condition. People are tremendously helpful and friendly with plenty of waving and open smiles. The villages are similar to Southern Cameroon – mainly tin roofed timber houses. There is no rubbish as it is all burnet and the clearings are often covered with grass, flowers and orchids.
I must mention that from arriving in Cameroon until now I haven’t been asked for anything – no bribes, presents or begging – what a relief! So far Central Africa is being quite the charmer.

I crossed the equator today, which incidentally is where, on the boat our family migrated on to South Africa in the 70s, is where I have my first memories. Neptune came on board and to a 2 ½ year old he was pretty scary! So all my memories before returning to the UK were of the Southern Hemisphere or Africa. Maybe this is why returning to the UK was so hard for me. My brother David thinks I’m daft, I’m sure, for thinking this – but we’re all different aren’t we?

I set off early this morning for the Gabon border – so early in fact that the Cameroon customs man was still at his football training and the Gabon customs guy had to be woken from his bed.

By mid afternoon the good road had turned decidedly worse, not helped by the storm from the night before (I hope all the dirt roads further south will be ok!). After an hour of these roads I arrived in Ndjole. After checking out the ropey accommodation choices I decided to fill up on fuel ready for the next day. The petrol attendant said a couple on a motorbike were staying just up the hill in a hotel. Had I caught up with the Swiss? I rode up the hill but couldn’t find a hotel. On the edge of town I asked after this elusive hotel, to be told by a friendly young man that the motorcycling pair had passed by ½ an hour ago. Maybe, I thought, the hotel was out of town. I headed out 5km – no hotel. Now should I carry on or go back into town. It was a bit late in the day but the map showed a town 50km away big enough for a hotel. Even if the Swiss weren’t there I should find accommodation.

I arrived in Bifoum to find no hotel but I did get a text from the Swiss saying they were headed to a town another 70km down the road! By now the sun was almost down and one thing you don’t do in Africa is ride at night! I decided to go for the 70km dash to Lambargue – another brilliant ride on amazing roads.

The sun had just dropped as I arrived in town to find the Swiss asking for directions to the Catholic Mission – result! Even more amazing is that the Germans arrived here today also. So what a massive day – 12 hours in the saddle. An absolutely classic motorcycling day. Gabon rocks!

1.3.2010 – Day 72 – Mouila, Gabon
Well so far I must confess that Gabon is turning out to be my favourite country so far. It would be top of my list of places worthy of more than a fleeting visit. I’m riding again with the Swiss South toward the Congo border. 90% of Gabon is tropical rain forest, so unsurprisingly most of the day was spent riding through the jungle, at first on newly built Chinese roads, then after the first 100km it was graded dirt roads being built by the Chinese. If the Chinese carry on at the rate they are you’ll be able to cross the African continent in a ferarri in a few years’ time!

The people I’ve met so far in Gabon are without a doubt the most genuinely friendly and hospitable people of all the 11 African countries I’ve passed through so far. Although Gabon is a beautiful country of jungle, incredible beaches, stunning wildlife and a cosmopolitan capital and clean and tidy villages (with no power cuts) – it’s the people that really make it stand out. I stopped to wait for the others in a tiny village by the road – in no time I was sat down in the shade being given fresh nuts and a warm welcome. I was introduced to the Chief, who like all village chiefs has a flag and a flag pole outside his house. I sat laughing and chatting. I offered some of my pop corn, which was appreciated, and sat contented until Daniel and Andrea arrived.

The guy that did most of the chatting explained that in Gabon people are comfortable – everyone has a roof over their heads, clothes to wear and food in their bellies. There is a gentle pride in the small country of only one and a half million people – and it shows. The dirt roads continued but were smooth and fast. There’s very little traffic, but when an empty logging truck comes past at 100km per hour, a plume of dust is kicked up that is so big that vision is lost completely, the only course of action is to slow down or pull over. The big days riding have taken their toll – I’m really quite knackered. Motorcycling really is physically and mentally exhausting.
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3.3.2010 – Day 74 – Dolice, Congo

What a classic day. At the moment it really feels like we’re living the ‘Africa Overland’ adventure that I dreamed of. All day was spent trundling down a small dirt road through small villages. There is virtually no traffic here. In a whole morning we only saw 2 mopeds – that’s it! By the afternoon there was the occasional logging truck with a steel frame on the back, with people piled inside and on the roof. Only one town was shown on our map for today’s route which, as it turned out, was only a small village with a bar and shop all rolled into one.

In the shop was shelving with sardines and blocks of washing soap. Two fridges contained a good supply of primus beer. Most of the residents seemed to be in and around the shaded seating area outside, with those with any money drinking beer. There was also a small garage which luckily had ‘super’ – so Daniel and I filled up. In the towns and villages many people proudly wear a t.shirt with a photo of Congo’s president. Apparently the civic war here really calmed down after the President was persuaded by U.N. to hold free elections – the President kept his position with 90% of the population voting for him! Popular guy!

By the afternoon the ruts in the road were getting bad and the bikes were getting a hammering. Daniel got his first puncture of his trip. By the afternoon here it’s baking hot and spending too long under it is disastrous. Luckily there were a couple of houses by the road with a couple of trees infront. We asked the locals who were sat in the shade if we could fix the bike there. They kindly waved us in. By working together, taking our time and drinking lots of water we got the puncture fixed and the bike up and running. It was good for me to be able to help Daniel and Andrea, who had done so much for me when my bike broke back in Benin.

4.3.2010 – Day 75 - not sure where - Ed

Today we headed east towards Brazzaville – the capital of Congo. From there we hope to cross the Congo River to the Democratic Republic of Congo and the mega city of Kinshasa. The road connects the main port on the coast with Brazzaville. It goes into the ‘Pool’ region which has had problems with armed militia until relatively recently. Last night we met up with Rouven and Christine (the Germans) and decided to go in convoy for extra security.

The route is National Highway One – extremely quiet with just the occasional vehicle passing by. Today we were on the road for 10 hours and managed just 75 miles. The dirt road is in terrible condition – some sections are badly rutted with deep muddy puddles – others rocky with a deep fine layer of silt on top. Just 10km out of Dolcie we came to a particularly bad section of road with 6 guys digging it up. They had placed 2 big boulders across the narrow road. They said they were repairing the road and demanded money – more like they were destroying the road and extorting money! I told them I only pay for good roads, not bad roads, then just rode on through past the rocks. By the afternoon the temperature was nearing 40 degrees c. At just 10mph, wearing all the motorcycle gear, Daniel, Andrea and I were really suffering. We had to stop in the shade of trees and cool down every 10km to avoid overheating. The riding was exhausting – our whole bodies being battered and minds concentrating continuously.

We started to make errors in judgement being almost drunk with exhaustion and the heat. Must of the last 5km Andrea had to walk, so I headed into town to find accommodation in which I immediately fell asleep on the bed. What a brilliant day – hard work but a great adventure.

5.3.2010 – Day 76 – Mindouli

We in 8 hours out on the road today we made 75 miles. We are still one day from Brazzaville but should arrive there tomorrow. The road is again bad – a single track dirt road that snakes through the grassy hills. Luckily for us it is dry which makes the road slow but passable. Very occasionally a truck will pass, throwing up such a huge plume of dust that it’s difficult to breath and visibility becomes just a few metres.

There is bird life everywhere – beautiful tropical birds with the most vivid of colours – Linda and Philip would just love it. In most parts of Africa it’s been the birds of prey that have caught my eye, but here it is the smaller birds, some with long flowing tails and others are almost illuminated with the vibrant colours.
I passed a young lady today by the track (sorry, Route National 1) carrying an aluminium bowl on her head, full of cleaning fishes which she was bringing back from the river. She had the most incredible tribal face decoration. Many people in Africa have scars on their cheeks as decoration, but this looked like it was straight out of National Geographic. Her face was painted with a collection of geometric light coloured thin lines. Absolutely stunning. I thought about stopping and asking if I could take her picture, but I think I would have scared the living daylights out of her skidding to a stop. We did make routine stops though to keep Daniel’s bike from overheating. He has an air cooled engine which really struggles to keep cool in these temperatures and at such slow speeds – quite similar to us riders I guess.

At about midday we came across a road block constructed with logs. Daniel and Andrea on their motorbike went straight through. I thought I’d better wait for the Germans in their 4x4. As I waited about 10 men came running down to me asking for money and cigarettes. I played dumb Brit who can’t speak French until the Germans were behind me, I then rolled one of the logs out of the way with my boot, making enough space for the car, and hit the gas! The Germans followed right on my tail before the guys could block their way.

This was only my second unofficial road block in Africa. We knew when we decided to do this route that there was a lot of trouble here with armed rebels during the civil war and beyond, but that the army had cleared the area 6 months ago. When we arrived in town tonight I met a French engineers who told us that the ‘Ninja Rebels’ were back. From this town onwards unoffocial road blocks bar our way.

To try to make things a little safer we are going to join a small convoy from a power company that are heading our way. One of the employees heard about our problem and has decided to help. As things have calmed down here very recently, not many tourists have have really travelled down here for years, if not decades. I guess this is why people are being so helpful and concerned. I don’t think we’ll have any real problems though – I think that the rebels are just trying to make some money and I doubt we’ll see any guns.

6.3.2010 – Day 77 – Kinkar (just outside Brazzaville)
Well where do I start? Last night and this morning we heard so many conflicting stories about our route East. Some people told us we would not have a problem at all. Others told us about an engineer who got stabbed in the leg – he’s still in hospital – but he got aggressive or rude: at all times patience, courtesy and smiles get you a lot further. 2 days ago some white man had a huge amount of money stolen from him by armed bandits. There are obviously road blocks at which you have to pay, but the armed robberies as far as we could gather are opportunists - perhaps rebel officers who aren’t yet ready to put down their arms. We realised that we were not in any physical danger – but our belongings were.

We had arranged to meet our contact for the convoy at 8am. He turned up, disappeared and never re-appeared! By 10.30 it was getting hot and we really should have been on our way – only 60km of terrible road separated us from a tarmac road to the capital. An elderly Italian contractor came to the hotel bar at around 10.30 for a couple of morning whisky and cokes. He has been here for many years and thought we wouldn’t come to any harm but thought we’d benefit from an escort. He want to see the “commissioner” of the district who came to see us with a couple of local lads on a moped in tow. He thought the first 17km was the most dangerous as it is so remote. So the lads would come that far with us.

By 12.30 we’d said goodbye to our escorts and given them cigarettes and a small bottle of wine from our bribe kitty. We’d packed away cameras, excess cash, cards etc and only carried small change and gifts for the road blocks. The road is in a terrible state. Sections of deep sand, sections washed away, huge ruts, mud and rubble and wooden bridges. It’s incredibly trucks actually get down here at all. The Italian man told us it can take 2 weeks to do the 60km section in the wet season - thank God it’s dry (it IS the wet season!).

Next we entered the region which is effectively out of control of the authorities – the first road block had poles across the road and about 15 guys hiding out of the sun under a hut. Amazingly they just let us through. One guy who was off his face on booze or drugs came over shouting at us – I think for money – we just drove on quickly before the situation changed. The next couple of blocks involved straight forward extortion. When we paid, they were very polite and let us through with no further hassle. We’d been advised by everyone we’d met that you ‘have’ to pay at the blocks so we didn’t even try to get out of paying. The small settlements of just 1 or 2 huts had people still waving, smiling and chatting to us as normal. The small villages on the other hand had groups of young men shouting at us – and very drunk – we just kept moving through. In 5 ½ hours we had covered the 60km and had hit the tarmac and safety of relative civilization and government control. I’m absolutely exhausted after 6 hard, long and hot days away from tarmac. I have never smelt so bad and my clothes could not be any filthier. I’ve just had a shower and washed some clothes – what a relief! This section of the trip has been every bit the adventure I’d imagined or hoped it could be.

5 comments:

  1. Its insane to be able to read yet more of your awesome adventures in Africa, from the comfort of my own bed! Its still bloody freezing here in Edinburgh and its hard to imagine you in all the heat, especially dressed up in all that gear-you must be drinking gallons of water each day.

    So awesome to have caught up with the Swiss, that must have felt good.

    Was out for dinner at Marianne's a few nights ago and was there with Racy who was looking great and on excellent form. She says you could well be finished in 3 weeks time, its incredible to think you could have made it all the way to the bottom of Africa in such a short time.

    Hope this next section goes well. Looking forward to seeing you next month!

    Tim

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  2. Hey - I don't think you're daft at all. I am totally proud of you and think what you're doing is amazing. Really enjoyed this post and love hearing the stories - thank you!

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  3. Hey there Andrew, nice reading you made it in one piece to Brazza... very curious to read how the passage to DRC went. Cheers! Frank (from Cameroon)

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  4. Gabon sounds amazing. So glad that this section was so awesome. A bit odd too to be reading your adventures from a 70s caf in downtown Neuquen in dinosaur country Argentina!! Thank you for your part in making our trip happen. We're heading off now into 600k of desert. Rubbing in that chammy cream. Take care. Liz and Phil xx

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  5. 偉大的致富萬能之鑰,正是幫你充分掌握自己心志所必須的自律自制..................................................

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