Shelter in the Congo
Posted on April 28, 2014
I took a wrong turn getting back to the main road in Gabon and ended up riding in seven hours to cover what should have taken five by inadvertently back-tracking north.
The delay put me across the Republic of Congo border just about dark. When I asked the immigration official how long it was to Point Noir, my spirit sank when the answer came in days rather than hours. What I supposed might take me three to four hours to cover would take two days. I didn’t really believe him, until I got a little way along on and found a mud bog where a road once was. Being that I had no plan whatsoever, I just kept riding. I traversed a couple of 40 foot long mud puddles that swallowed my front wheel. With darkness closing, and a storm gathering I started to have that ‘what am I getting myself into’ feeling.
I passed a village composed of a score of mud brick homes, found the chief, and asked if it would be all right if I camped there for the night. They couldn’t have been more accommodating and let me set up my tent right underneath a little open-air covered area with a corrugated tin roof. A storm was quickly approaching and I was happy to have some shelter in addition to my broken tent. I slept restlessly. Every time I woke up with the rain still drumming away on the roof I thought of what it was doing to the road. I had a dream that I was stuck in a mud bog with hippos trying to eat me.
The trouble with these big, long puddles is that it’s difficult to gauge how deep they are. Never did I want more for some other riders as companions for when things went wrong. I walked the first couple big ones to check their depth, but there seemed to be an endless string of them, so I just started looking for tracks around them or just barged on through. A few put me headlight deep into the water. Escaping from the deepest one was not a terribly graceful affair. Dyna’s front end disappeared abruptly beneath the brown water and she revved high and slipped sideways trying to find her feet in the mud beneath. I dare say that a lesser bike wouldn’t have made it out of that one, but she pulled me though it but the skin of her gear teeth. After the giant puddles tapered off, the track became a giant muddy slip-and-slide. As soon as all the knobs of my tires packed up with mud, the slightest nudge of a rock or rut would send me sliding sideways. I’d overtopped my boots and filled them with water in one of the first puddles and spent the rest of the day with swampy feet. Again and again I hoped that made it through the worst of it but found no lasting reprieve until 80 miles of mud bog had been traversed. It took eight hours.
The feeling was nothing short of elation when I returned to graded, hard-packed gravelly goodness. It was bumpy as hell and filled with holes, but it felt great to have some traction under my tires again. As I bounced along at a good clip I felt pretty happy not to have my bike lying drowned in a giant puddle somewhere. I blazed ahead into the Congo sky.
I’d ridden twelve hours and was happy to find some friends when I arrived in Point Noire. I’d first met the two German couples traveling in 4×4’s with roof tents in the beach town of Kribi, Cameroon, where Marc approached with a friendly call of “Hello, you must be Gary!” I wasn’t terribly surprised that he knew who I was as the network of overland travelers up and down the west coast of Africa has by now all either met or heard of one another. I’m not hard to spot as the only guy on a motorbike with a surfboard. Our home in Point Noire was a shipyard amusingly referred to as a ‘yacht club’. The price of admission was no more than a couple beers to share with the security guys.
I paddled out the next morning at the main beach in sheet glass water with super fun shoulder high sandbar peaks curling all around me. I spent three days in Point Noir surfing the beachbreak, every day spying turtles poking their heads up at me in the surf like periscopes. Dyna Rae got some fresh oil and her sprocket changed from a fifteen-tooth to a fourteen-tooth one, gearing her a bit lower, which should help in the mud.
Some other overlanders had reported back that the road to Luozi where I could cross the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was very bad and maybe not passable when wet. We’d had a few dry days in Point Noir and I hoped that the same was true further east.
The other problem that we all were going to have to contend with was that there were reports of people being turned away at the DRC crossings at Kishasa and Boko because their visas weren’t issued in their country of residence. This is a requirement for the DRC visa and one of the reasons it’s so difficult to get on the road. You would think that you were all set after you’d convinced the guy at an embassy to give you a visa, but more and more immigration officials at the border were becoming savvy to this requirement not being met and turning travelers away. This was not a small problem as there is no way to get around the DRC, you simply have to go through it if you’re headed south overland. Unlike most problems at borders in Africa it would seem that even few bills to the right man in uniform didn’t make this one go away.
I rode all day from Point Noire to reach the village of Mindouli, where there was supposed to be a small border crossing into the DRC. Without a few people pointing me the right direction, I never would have found the way. I followed rutted tracks up hillsides and it looked like I was riding into the middle of wilderness. It was as rough of terrain as I’ve ever ridden, even unloaded. The rain from the night before had made the dirt slick enough that I quickly found myself sliding sideways straight into some deep ruts that I really didn’t want to be in. I got properly stuck twice and had to enlist the help of a local guy passing by to help get me out. It wasn’t far to the border with DRC, but it was very tough going and I didn’t earn any style points on the way.
Some places it was difficult to call this thing a road.
As Dyna revved high tracktoring up the last steep rutted slope I saw the flag that marked the border post. I’d made it to the DRC, or so I thought anyway.
Small rural crossings generally have less hassle than the bigger ones and I hoped that my visa being issued in Accra would go unnoticed. It did not go unnoticed. In fact, they didn’t want to let me in at all. My stomach turned at having to ride back down the slippy mess that I’d just ridden up. It didn’t take long to surmise that these guys were on my side – but that this directive had come down from higher up. I convinced them that I was a resident in Ghana when I’d been issued the visa in Accra, which helped my cause, but since I had no documentation in support of my claim, lots of phone calls had to be made to higher up dudes in different towns. Each round of phone calls started with me providing the money for some credit for the phone, which of course had no credit, some guy running off somewhere to buy credit, and the immigration official running out of credit while having a lengthy discussion about the American trying to enter the DRC. There were three rounds of this process while I lay under the single tree that provided the only shade and waited to know my fate. In truth, my options were very few if they didn’t let me pass. Maybe I could get a boat from Point Noir to Angola? It was five hours before they got the OK from a higher-up official to let me pass, largely because I already had a valid visa for Angola in my passport. I was happy to have made it into the DRC but now I only had about four hours to ride before dark, and a storm was again gathering overhead.
I saw no gas stations in the Congos outside of Point Noire, so gas always came from bottles sold at the roadside carefully measured by friendly folks.
The road was better than the approach to the border but still terrible with ruts deeper than I am tall. The afternoon sun had dried things out some and I’d say that some sections I wouldn’t have made it through in the wet conditions. Progress was slow but steady. I marveled that I hadn’t dropped the bike yet with plenty of opportunities around every corner. I marveled a bit too soon.
I managed to find the biggest hole in the road and throw my bike into it. On a bumpy, steep, rutted section, my front wheel got bounced abruptly a direction I didn’t expect and sent me careening towards the crater. I couldn’t believe what was happening as I flew sideways with my bike quickly becoming more on top of me than me on top of it. Whenever something like this happens, you’re initially trying with all of your might to recover the situation, and then at some moment you realize that it is beyond saving and it is not going to end well. There is no panic in that moment, just calm resignation and some lingering disbelief at what you’ve just done.
I was unhurt, which was great, but my bike was now in a rather inconvenient position: upside down inside a massive muddy hole. Gas was trickling out the tank’s breather hose so I didn’t want it to stay that way too long. I unloaded everything from the bike and tried a few initial grunting heaves to no avail. As embarrassing as it is to admit, I shouted for help: “Little help down here, little help anyone!” Then I laughed, both at the fact that there was obviously no one to hear me shouting and that I’d managed to create the situation where I was covered in mud in the Congo shouting for help.
I held steady for a moment considering the situation and my options. As I stood staring at my fallen partner in the mud, I saw a way to position myself under the bike for better leverage. After a few rounds of heaving the bike on its side and with some well-positioned footholds, I managed to hoist her upright. A small victory, but now I had to get her back down the slope. It was much more grunting to make tiny little sideways movements of the rear wheel to get the bike in position not to fall into another deep rut trying to back down the slope. I was exhausted after 30 minutes of this arduous process. My hands were so sweaty that I could hardly keep a grip on the bars. I couldn’t really take a break since I still had to keep the bike upright and a hand on the front brake when I wasn’t pulling with all my might at the side rack. I finally got her in a good spot, rolled back down the slope, and put my head down on the handlebar, relieved and nearly spent. The bike had no obvious damage and started right up: another victory. After a rest, I easily ascended the same slope, selecting a different line this time, and soon I was buzzing right along again. A wave of euphoric relief came over me. I’d burned plenty of daylight with my antics in the mud, but was happy to be moving forward again.
The landscape was gorgeous, dotted with tidy little villages perched above the valleys below on rolling grassy hilltops. As I rode the sky darkened ahead and came afire with lightening striking the hillsides all around. I had burned up all of the dry hours waiting at the DRC border and now the sky was about to open up in a fury. The wind strength increased as darkness neared and I started to get the feeling that I really didn’t want to be outside in the middle what was coming my way. Half of what I was riding in looked like it was a river channel. Just as I started looking for somewhere that I might shelter beneath in the villages I passed, a man flagged me down. I’d ridden in to Magambo Catholic mission and the man who flagged me down was Vincent, the mission English teacher. Nothing could have looked more attractive to me with the imminent storm approaching than the substantial brick buildings of the mission. Vincent invited me to take shelter in one of the basic guest rooms they had there and I was more than grateful.
As the rain continued the next morning almost I thought of how much deeper the mud was getting and how long I would be holed up at the mission before I could carry on to reach Luozi, where I would be able to cross the Congo River. I could have cursed the immigration officials for holding me up, but in the end, I’d made it in to DRC, managed to escape a nasty crash with no harm done, and found shelter from the storm just when I needed it, so it was hard to complain that things weren’t going my way.
By mid-day the sun had baked dry the super-slick surface layer of mud so I decided to get moving again. Since I’d only been in the very rural mountains of the country, I had no local currency and so I left Vincent my watch as thanks for his hospitality. Things started out pretty slippy and the road still had some really torn up sections, but none were as bad as I’d seen the previous day. There were still some massive puddles to traverse, but I’d gotten pretty good and making my way through those. As the day wore on and I could distinctly feel the traction returning to the surface beneath my tires by degrees every hour and I rode faster.
I sped along the ribbon of red earth cutting its way through grassy green hills undulating without end to the horizon. As beautiful as the landscape was, it was apparent that it was substantially altered from its natural state where forests would have covered much of these hills. All around, the hills bore red scars where the earth had been incised and eroded where it was no longer held fast by tangled roots of mighty trees.
I saw a local guy on a motorbike at the side of the road and stopped to see if he was OK. I ended up helping him patch his tube and replace a broken valve stem. By the third time we aired his tube up and found yet another puncture my patience and my tube repair supplies were nearly at an end. This guy was carrying a spare tube with four holes in it!
After an hour by the roadside, I left my motorbike friend with an airtight tube and I motored off, climbing a ridge to catch my first view of the Congo River. It was enormous and majestic. And the last ferry of the day was about one-third of the way to the other side. I’d feared as much while we toiled at the roadside, but I was overdue send some good karma out into the universe anyway.
The next morning, the sky was clear until about 5 minutes after I packed up and headed off to catch the ferry across the Congo River, then rain started to absolutely dump with no sign of stopping, halting the ferry service. I found a schoolhouse roof to shelter beneath and practice my patience while the rain continued to dump in waves for half the day. I was fairly content to sit there, comfortable and dry reading my book until Mother Nature decided that I could be on my way. Eventually she may even let me out of the Congo mud bog.