We got up and Michael had a quick shower. I fed Togo and then... the flies descended! It was unbelievable - there were hundreds of them (the little bee-like ones which draw blood when they bite and then itch like mad afterwards PLUS these tiny, tiny ones which you can hardly see, the first thing you know about them is a stinging feeling then you look down and there they are the little bastards, and their bites itch like crazy too!) Glen's towels almost changed colour from yellow to black there were so many of them sitting on it. They love anything remotely moist from water, to dog food. We got moving as quickly as possible with me collecting the washing bowls as the last thing as they are perfect fly magnets! I was doing this crazy dance banging the bowls together and running about like a mad woman trying to get away from the flies - it was incredible! the road to the border was pretty minor, but very scenic...
We passed through the border at Lekoni without much hassle (if you discount the insistent requests from the immigration official for juice to drink - which I met with the equal persistence of a polite 'no'). The Congo side was very picturesque with green, rolling hills which looked to me like a golf course for giants. We passed through border control at Mbie, which was a very quaint little grass hut. I stayed in the car as I was suffering from a bout of what I call 'lock-jaw' (an affliction I get about once a year which causes my jaw to seize up, burn from my ear down through jaw and into my throat which feels a bit numb, except for when I need to swallow, in which case it hurts like hell). It lasted for a couple of hours, although it felt much longer...
The route took us through jungle with roads that would be a lot trickier in the rainy season. We came across a massive colony of army ants that was crossing the road - they looked very busy and didn't like being disturbed!
The village checkpoints were not as onerous as we had expected and the one at Onkoyo was a very neat looking place.
We had a long day's travel and about an hour or so before sunset we came across a fairly deep and fast-flowing river which had an old pontoon generator floating on it. Michael thought it would be great for a swim. Pat wanted to push on to reach tarmac, so Michael and I said we'd stay, camp on our own and catch up with them in the morning. We had a terrific swim and four local boys also came down to bathe. We had a 'gentleman's agreement' that they kept to the one side of the 'pontoon' and I kept to the other.
All nice and clean, we travelled on and then stopped on a level piece of road, while Michael checked all the wheel bearings and I pumped up all the tyres ready for the better roads in the morning. We tried to teach Togo that it was important to come when called and when she hears Nyathi starting - we left her behind and rove on for 100m and then she ran up behind us and was very keen to get in! Then we found a campsite and had a relaxing evening before an early night...
We had a good night's sleep apart from hearing a few locals' voices in the distance. The road was quite good and we were able to check the others' tracks to see if they had gone the same way. We saw no sign of where they had gone to camp, so we assumed they had pushed on in an attempt to reach the tar we had been promised. We caught up with others at the intersection at Obouya - and no tar yet! They had only been there for about ten minutes and had started to fix Simon's window, while they waited for us. They had an awful camp which was infested with wasps in the morning and despite leaving the camp half-packed just to get out of there, both Pat and Simon got stung a couple of times! Michael and I fixed my window, as a screw had come loose in the track and it wouldn't wind down all the way. The truck wit loads of people we'd overtaken earlier caught up with us and they all jumped out and starting singing an dancing and holding up a banner. At first we thought it was a demonstration, but then I asked a local what was going on and they were mourning for the chief of the village's father who had died in Boundji and they decided to carry on with their 'celebration' when they got home. The road was relatively good after that and we got to Oyo in quite good time. There we had long discussions at a checkpoint about our 'mission', but we managed to get away without giving any souvenirs, despite requests! And then you see faces like this and your heart just goes out to them...
We stopped en route to Brazza for a pitstop and then had a chat about travelling together, where we were going to go and at what pace. Michael and I had already been discussing splitting up with the others in Angola, mostly because we want to go at a slower pace and we don't want to have to feel uncomfortable when Nyathi has any hiccups. Pat was very open and said Glen had already told him he was making things uncomfortable for everyone and that he had to slow down a bit. We said we didn't want anyone to change their style which is why after the Congos, we'd be happy to part ways for a while. So we all agreed we'd play things by ear and see how it went...
Then, as we were driving along Michael and I saw what we thought was perfect camp on the right and we both said to each other that had we been travelling on our own, we'd have stopped to camp and then the others pulled over. They had the same idea, so we set up camp down in the valley and had a relaxing night watching the cars drive past way in the distance.
We left camp early to get to Brazzaville. It was peak hour when we got there and the going was very slow, with of course, the odd erratic taxi driver thrown in. They had traffic police who were friendly and helpful. We took a slightly longer route toward the ferry port, but we got there in the end. Brazza is much bigger and more affluent than we'd expected. The evidence of the civil war was still very apparent with bullet-ridden and bombed buildings, many just shells being used for sparse accommodation and the odd selling stall. It must have been a really buzzing place in its day.
When we arrived at the port some 'helpers' descended upon us. Pat and I went in to see the chief of the port - Albert. He gave us the whole long sob story about the ferry not running as the river was too low, but told us for a mere $400 - $800 we could use a big boat, cranes etc. to get across so we left! We decided to go to the Ministry of Tourism for advice after one of the locals suggested it. So off we went. When we stopped at the side of the road we met a local guy who spoke very good English and said he'd worked with South Africans before, he went along with us to the tourism office. They were very helpful and Leonide offered to come and chat to Albert with us. We were on our way to the vehicles when another local guy who ran a tourist agency stopped and offered us advice. He said hiring a boat would be ridiculously expensive (he had apparently paid £1000 to ship his Range-Rover across) and we were better off driving to Matadi via Mindouli. So that settled that and we got ready to go. Then Leonide came back again with a colleague with further advice and they wrote out a better route for us with all the villages along the way. He could map read well too, which was very encouraging. Then another local from DRC also suggested it would be best to go via Goudienza border post after Loumo and that if we had any hassles on the DRC side we should ask for Chef Teddy. At last, Michael and I set off to get all our passports stamped at the immigration office in town (at the advice of Leonide), while the others went off to Score to buy some goodies. After a bit of a run around from one office to another, the immigration officials said we must have our passports stamped before we exited at Goudienza - I asked them if they were sure and they reassured us that there was a post at Manianga and they would stamp them there. So at last, we collected the others, had a quick ice-cream (very very tasty) and headed out of town.
We saw some pretty impressive rapids on the Congo River on the way out, but were inundated by locals when we stopped to have a look.
Shortly afterwards we saw more evidence of war in the bullet-riddled water towers and further on, a discarded armoured vehicle...
We used both Leonide's business card and the handwritten itinerary at the checkpoints along the way which was very useful. When we turned off the main road (which was very potholed) we discovered the other road challenging in a different way with eroded gullies and locals demanding payment for road repairs. We ended up helping to tow a big truck out of trouble three times. Though on the third attempt we agreed that all three of our vehicles would go ahead, so we didn't get stuck behind them. As it turns out they caught up with us at one of the many military checkpoints and their presence helped to speed our check up, which was great!
We drove until about an hour before sunset and Michael saw a road off into the forest which he and Pat went to investigate. It turned out to be lovely place to camp close to a little river.
Michael took Togo for a run down to the river and accidentally stood on her foot with his boot. She yelped and yelped for ages. I gave her some homoeopathic remedies and shortly afterwards she was running about having completely forgotten why it was a bad idea to get underfoot. Michael and I went for a river bath, along with Glen and Pat and we did some washing. Simon meanwhile cooked a very tasty pasta dinner and after that Michael and I phoned home, which was terrific. Shortly afterwards we all collapsed into bed.
We woke up early and shortly afterwards a few locals walked past us to get down to the river. They were all very friendly, but didn't stop for long. The chief of the village came down and we told him we'd spent a fantastic night there without any problems at all. He wrote us a letter to say we'd spent the night and left the place in good condition. I gave him a bottle of lemonade for his child and he said we would see him when we drove past his house in the village on the way down to Loumo - which we did, and we stopped to say hello to his wife and little daughter. The going was pretty slow and tough we passed a number of bridges which required 'checking out' before we crossed them.
We thoroughly enjoyed a break from being jostled about when we reached the little bit of tar between Voka and Louingui. At Voka there was a bakkie-load of military personnel en-route to Brazza who wanted their photos taken and then of course the police checkpoint guy wanted one too, as did the palm-wine sellers (whose chickens Togo took great delight in chasing).
We passed through a ghost village today. It was really big with lots of houses and two big churches, but no people. We only saw one girl with her little sister, who confirmed that we were heading in the right direction for Loumo. I asked her if the homes had all been deserted during the war and she said yes and that many people had never come back.
After driving another couple of hours, we set up camp in amongst the bush away from the road and the boys set about doing tyre repairs while Pat and I hang out the washing to dry and then I did dinner. Togo helped with the tyres by running off with the sponges and thoroughly enjoying chewing on Simon's (old) inner tube.
Everything was absolutely soaked through with dew this morning. I wish I had taken my washing in last night as it would probably have dried in the cab. Togo and Michael went for a long bush walk and Togo came back all wet from running through the dewy grass. We made our way out pretty early and when we got to Loumo, the policeman was on his way walking to work, he was wearing a blue shirt and dressed in civvies. If we hadn't have seen him we would have driven right past the 'offices' which were a large, old, draughty, run-down building set way back off the road. Michael, Simon, Pat and I went in with all our documentation and Glen stayed with the vehicles. The four of us sat on a long bench in front of the desk and the slow process of passport inspection began... by this time, another colleague had joined 'blue shirt' man. They spent quite some time debating how one goes about issuing an exit stamp, looking at the other countries' stamps for guidance. Then I went out with 'yellow shirt' man to take down registration numbers. Then we had a whole lot of discussion about the route and they looked intensely at the itinerary the tourism guys had written down. They explained they were the last police before DRC even though we would still pass through other towns, the government didn't have enough personnel to spread out to all areas. Eventually they stamped the passports and then the request for money came. We argued long and hard, giving the same stories as always. In the end we decided to give them a suitably insulting 'fee' of 1000CFA and showed that we weren't impressed. Then they followed us out to the vehicles and 'yellow shirt' man was asking for juice. Then he decided he wanted to search Nyathi. Michael opened her up and then he wanted him to start taking trunks out. 'Blue shirt' man could see Michael was not enamoured and said it was enough, but Michael pressed home the point and pulled the heavy trunk out (unfortunately he missed 'yellow shirt's toes). Then they conceded all was fine and 'blue shirt' even told Michael if we had any hassles we could come back to see him. So off we headed for the border town of Goudienza about 15km away and an 1.5 hour drive.
As we pulled up some guy approached us, along with a whole lot of villagers standing outside the church. He said he was military and wanted to see our passports. Michael said 'not likely' and so the story went on. The others pulled up behind and soon the whole church emptied out to come and say hello, arbitrary people poked their nose in trying to help or hinder, depending on their inclination. Then we saw someone approaching with a gun and Simon wisely suggested we should just drive on. As we were keen to leave, a whole lot more gun-touting louts (GTLs) appeared. They started getting very aggressive and saying that they would end up having to pay the people at Loumo if we were allowed to pass through the village (i.e. we have to pay). One of the GTLs climbed up a tree directly in front of Nyathi and pointed the gun in our direction. Then another rude 'stripey shirt' guy started causing hassles and putting a big wheel rim under the front of our tyres to prevent us from moving. No amount of reasoning would calm them down and I have to say I found the whole scene very intimidating. Which is of course just what they want!
Pat and Glen offered to go back to Loumo with someone to sort the problem out and get a letter from the chief there to say we could leave (apparently an exit stamp in your passport does not suffice). So that's what we did. They drove off with the original 'policeman' and some other supposedly helpful individual. We knew they would be back much before 17h30 so we said we would go and park in the shade and wait. 'Stripey shirt' guy was having none of it and refused to let us move. He was a really odeous little bastard, so much so he actually made Michael angry - which is a rare sight to see. After a while I walked over to him and explained we had a little dog in the car and that it was unreasonable to not allow us to park in the shade. Thankfully the villagers agreed with me and they pressured him to relent. One old lady apologised to Michael for the whole going-on saying it was the fault of the state. She even gave Michael some bananas so we would have something to eat.
So Michael, Simon and I played cards under the shade of Nyathi's awning and of course we had the normal group of intrigued onlookers. The GTLs kept a wary eye on us, one group from up a tree about 20 metres away and another one, right near the vehicle, where Togo was just out of reach. We bought some oranges off a local, drank some water and ate our gift of bananas, but that was the extent of our nourishment. Some of the children from Goudienza who found our presence very entertaining...
The others came back just before 17h30 without a positive result., which was so very frustrating for them and us. It turns out the second guy who jumped in the car with them was just on-the-take and caused hassles, rather than helped. The Loumo guys wouldn't give the 'letter' and said we had to turn back and go to Brazzaville. Glen and Pat tried a last ditch effort of exchanging malarial medication for letting us through, but of course it didn't work. We turned back feeling thoroughly annoyed and frustrated, but already thinking of other routes through rather than the long trip back to Brazzaville.
We camped just before Loumo, with everyone exhausted and in surprisingly good spirit despite our long day...