Rusty & Aida's Africa Tour
28th Jun 2012
Into the Congo - another epic border crossing
The journey to the Congo was yet another on our list of African trans-border expeditions that can only be described as “epic”. It quickly became apparent why public transportation for this route is not available: there is no highway connecting the two countries. At Léconi, where the Gabon border post is located, the nicely paved Gabonese highway turns into a sandy dirt track, weaving up and down hills through a stunningly beautiful landscape known as the Bateke Plateau. In this region, the dense tropical forests that dominated elsewhere in Gabon give way to an undulating, treeless highland where the hills take on varying shades of colour depending on the nature of the scrub vegetation that covers them. Cooler and drier but still green, the terrain is unlike anything we had seen elsewhere in Africa. We spent some 10 hours after Léconi driving through the “borderlands”, a vast expanse of territory between Gabon and the Congo that does not appear to belong to either (in reality, the official border runs somewhere through the middle, but is surrounded by a buffer of unoccupied land). Most of this passage took place after dark, with our driver deftly navigating the various merging and dividing tracks, and kicking the 4-wheel-drive into low gear to climb over sandy hills. At one point we saw a spotted civet cat running ahead of us on the road, and later we started passing small villages consisting of houses clad entirely in sheet metal, where the residents – lacking any source of electricity – sat next to small bonfires in the silence of the night…but despite the discomfort of sharing a single seat Aida and I were passing in and out of sleep and the whole experience had a kind of dreamlike quality. Finally at sometime towards midnight we arrived at the Congo border post, consisting of a handful of thatch-roofed wooden shacks and a wooden pole lying across the “road”. There were no border guards to be seen, and it took some time before our driver was able to track down the solitary attendant, after knocking at various doors and issuing a peculiar call in the local language: “co-co-co, co-co-co”. The border official was a young, bespectacled man who looked more like a philosophy student than a soldier, but despite this promising impression it turned out he was no less corrupt than most of the military men in Africa. We had successfully deflected the bribe solicitations of the Gabon border guards in Léconi, but we would not be so lucky here. Seemingly irked about being woken from his slumber, he hastily assumed that we did not have visas (since many overlanders obtain these at the border), and was ready to hit us with a charge of 140,000 CFA ($280) for a “laissez-passer”. When we showed that we had visas, he changed tack and tried to insist that we needed proof of a hotel reservation, then pretended to consult his official instructions and came back with a demand for 17,000 CFA ($34). I said that we would not pay any such amount without a receipt, and to my surprise he indicated that would not be a problem. But when we handed over the money, he claimed that he had said 70,000 CFA ($140) rather than 17,000. With this being the middle of the night and my nerves being on edge, I exploded at him and in crude French told him that the amount was ridiculous, but whether genuinely or by design he claimed injury, saying that I had insulted him, that insulting an officer was a crime and that he would not hesitate to turn us away, stranding us in the borderlands between Gabon and Congo. We both knew that he had all of the power in this situation, and the best I could hope for was to wait him out and hope for a less onerous bribe, so I apologized profusely while insisting that we could not afford what he was asking. Finally, after some delay during which everyone was growing more sleepy, he agreed to “call his boss”, and following a clearly phoney call to his commander he agreed to let us go, handing back our passports (but not the 17,000 CFA, for which no receipt was forthcoming). Happy just to get moving, we were another couple of hours reaching the remote city of Ewo, capital of Congo’s Cuvette province. Then we had to endure stops at two more police posts (one for the gendarmerie and the other for the local police), at each of which our driver had to wake the attending officer (“co-co-co”) and then wait as we detailed our origin, destination, purpose of visit, etc., etc. Thankfully we got away without further bribes (I assume the officers just wanted to get back to bed) and at last ended up at a local hotel where – after waking the proprietor – we checked into an overpriced room (15,000 CFA with no running water) for some rest. At 5am, seemingly mere moments after we crept into bed, we had to get up and head to where the local transport service (a repurposed school bus) was collecting passengers for the trip to Brazzaville. After paying our fare we were finally on a paved highway en route to Brazzaville…but with the highway in varying states of disrepair and with an abundance of stops along the way, it would be over 12 hours before we finally reached the capital, and yet another hour until we got to our hotel, around 7pm. All told, it was a 30 hour odyssey from Franceville to Brazzaville, with only a few hours of broken sleep, and we were thoroughly exhausted. We were also desperately hungry, however, having eaten only some bread and peanuts since we left, so we paid for dinner at the hotel restaurant (a Vietnamese place) before crashing.
As an aside, I feel it worth mentioning that the scenery in Congo was entirely unlike what I had imagined it would be. My mental picture was along the lines of what we observed in most of Gabon: endless miles of dense, wet jungle. While this picture holds true in northern and southwestern Congo, the southeastern part of the country is an extension of the hilly, treeless highlands of the Bateke Plateau, although with more gently rolling terrain. Some of the flat expanses here are cultivated and bear some resemblance to the Canadian Prairies, but because of the poor soil quality most of the region is uninhabited, apart from the string of small cities and villages alongside the highway. The endless miles of scrubland, devoid of trees or human structures, make for some dramatically beautiful vistas.
|28th Jun 2012 Treeless landscape of southeastern Congo, north of Brazzaville|
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