Yet sitting around a smouldering fire in the deep jungle that separates Gabon and Congo, I was reminded why I continue to travel to Africa – friends aren’t hard to find, the heavy red sunsets ignite the soul, the smell of charcoal and thick foliage in the air creates an irreplaceable atmosphere.
The hissing of insects in the jungle was nearly deafening, and a few men emerged from the darkness. Congo’s border formalities were, in fact, incredibly simple. Its officers incredibly friendly. They told me I needed to walk to the border town of Mbinda, a mere 7km. I was preparing my pack for a walk when one offered to call into town and see if someone could pick me up.
Yet sitting around a smouldering fire in the deep jungle that separates Gabon and Congo, I was reminded why I continue to travel to Africa – friends aren’t hard to find, the heavy red sunsets ignite the soul, the smell of charcoal and thick foliage in the air creates an irreplaceable atmosphere. These men had no electricity, and went about their border formalities with only an oil lamp and a flashlight.
‘The train leaves Tuesday, so you’ll have to wait,’ the police officer said. It was Saturday night – I hadn’t expected this. The last information I could find on Congo- Brazzaville said trains were running every day. This was far from the truth.
There had to be another way. I found another traveller – Leroy – a Congolese who had been fleeced by the Gabonese army and then turned back with nothing, and offered to pay his way to Dolisie if he could find some transport.
We hitched a free ride a short way to a small village called Mayoko first, with a Malaysian. There were many Malaysians in this part of Congo – cutting down trees and shipping them overseas; sitting in a cab with the Malaysian was a decidedly bizarre thing after the always-gregarious if hard-to-understand banter that the average African engages in with his seatmates. He could only respond ‘Yes, yes’ to any questions I asked him about his business here, which perhaps meant that I shouldn’t know. He dropped us off right beside our next connection – a large logging truck, a Mercedes Comilog, with the phrase PASSAGERS INTERDIT stencilled on its side. This would be my next ride south, for about US$15, and it would only get harder from there.
Sunset coloured the sky red as we trundled along in the logging truck, through the hilly slopes near the Congolese–Gabonese border. There was little room in the cab to sit, five of us packed tightly together, and a few more hanging off the rear of the vehicle. The driver was wired up on something, more than likely a few things, and took his hands off the wheel every so often when the truck was moving in a straight line to sniff back some kind of powder into his nose. He was hired by the Malaysians to take his truck through the thick forest here, south and then west to Pointe Noire, about a week’s journey.
Progress would be slow. At dusk, the rains came, and the truck stopped on a hill. There would be no way to get the vehicle moving in the heavy monsoons, and we would sit it out. I entertained the driver, and the others who had all piled into the cab to escape the rain, with information on how much truck drivers made in Canada and the States.
Once the rains ended, we exited the vehicle and watched its tyres burn slowly on the muddy hillside, gaining a few inches every few minutes. After continuous periods of digging itself into the dirt road, the truck would jar to a halt and the mechanic on board would chock the back wheel. I entertained visions in my mind of an express bus to Mbinda – yet even finding a logging truck heading south was apparently modestly good fortune.
Though in the deep evening, the truck arrived at the crest of the hill and we piled in on our way south to spend the evening in a tiny village, Moungoudou, the president’s village (as they would ceaselessly remind me). Along a strip of dirt road in the middle of nowhere, the villages of Congo pop up with their thatch roofs and mud bricks, oil lamps, an idle population. The others in the truck started passing around a jerrycan of palm wine; I went to the one general store and bought a can of warm Coke.
We continued in the morning much the same: through winding roads, other logging trucks joining us in convoy, grinding slowly up and down muddy tracks. Fog set in early in the morning, and we had to wait – the driver would stand on the roadside chatting with villagers until another vehicle arrived from the opposite direction, and he would ask them about the road ahead. In the afternoon of the second day, we finally arrived in Mossendjo – halfway between Mbinda and Dolisie. It was a modestly large town, and we were ejected from our logging truck on its outskirts – the driver went into a large compound owned by the Malaysians, and we hitched into the town with a small pick-up truck. In the centre, a stretch of trucks sat on the roadside and crowds milled around aimlessly.
A bridge was out. The Malaysians were busy fixing it, but no-one was coming or going this day. In Mossendjo, then, there would be little to do but wait. I was becoming increasingly frustrated, having a schedule of cities to visit and little interest in becoming too mired in Congo-Brazzaville’s various problems. We found a hotel – a jerrycan of fresh water was waiting in the bathroom, and a bucket. No running water. No electricity. We waited out the afternoon, waiting for the horns of trucks to begin blaring, a call to passengers that they needed to rush out for their transport south. The blue sky turned to red sky, then black sky. I fell fast asleep; no-one was going anywhere this day.
In the early morning, I grumbled loudly to Leroy and he quickly disappeared from my sight to find out what was going on. Minutes later he reappeared, saying he had secured transport south, in a different truck – the trucks that one sees in this part of Africa, large trucks sitting several feet off the ground, the back piled with goods and people and a cage covering it so more people and more goods can hang from the roof. Its horns blasted, we negotiated a price with the driver, and in the early morning we began roaring down the dirt road. Thirty minutes later they stopped at a small village and pulled out their tools to remove a rear wheel, drink some palm wine, and water the plants.
We were still following the rail line south – the Malaysians flitted past in a tiny rail car, tooting their horn, and the crowd of Congolese men turned from their palm wine just in time to watch them float by. I sat on a bench in the truck and watched an hour go by, until we started again, roared further down the road, and stopped at another village behind a long line of logging trucks.
Tsimba – the town had a restaurant under a thatch roof, two small general stores, and a video hut repeatedly playing Tomb Raider throughout the morning. Passengers migrated from the back of the truck to a small wooden cabin with benches made from palm trees; I watched the sun rise, the clouds move, and my watch tick away the hours.
But in the early afternoon, as boredom had firmly set in, the driver carried us all the way to the front lines: to the front of the logging truck’s queues, to a clearing of dirt and mud, to a cement bridge and a mess of bent steel beams angling down into the river. One logging truck’s payload had proven to be too much for the old steel bridge. ‘C’est L’Afrique,’ one man turned to me and said. ‘But this bridge, it’s French!’ He corrected himself. I doubt the French had intended, when they built this bridge 80 years ago, that it would be used by around a dozen logging trucks a day. And that the logging firm who came through would be too cheap to build a new one.
However, they had built a new one – sort of. Beside the bent mass of steel beams were four logs laid side by side, gone over once with packed mud, with large holes in the bridge dropping into the stream. The driver, his mechanic, and all of us passengers wandered out onto it and began the slow, agonising, only-in- Africa kind of discussion as to what to do.
Take the risk? That hole would devour a tyre. Pack some more mud into the holes? Wait for the Malaysians to properly repair the bridge? I stared out into space, actually over to the various planks that were hanging off of the steel beams, wondering how long it might take the two dozen passengers and other people hanging around to figure it out. Surely, I could have told them; but then I wouldn’t discover as much from how these people worked. And would they listen to me? And perhaps they already knew, but still needed to go through the ritual of a lively discussion on how to fix the bridge.
Eventually, one passenger wandered over to the old bridge’s wreckage. Then another. Then a half-dozen, then ten of us on the old bridge to pass materials over and five more on the new bridge to pile the planks onto the new bridge. The driver was standing there, holding his keys and sporting a big grin: ‘Je prends le risque!’ he shouted enthusiastically, and disappeared to the back of the trucks’ line-up to grab our massive cargo vehicle.