Conga-ing across the Congo

We crossed the Congo river the first time last Tuesday morning when we left Matadi via the Pont Maréchal. It’s an impressive bit of joint DRC/Japanese engineering (according to the flags), and cost 36,800 Congolese francs to take the truck over – about R375. That wouldn’t have been so bad, but less than an hour the other side there was a nasty knocking in the engine. Sampson pulled over just before a broken bolt from the alternator had a chance to drop into the fan and damage the radiator. After about an hour’s wrestling, he’d managed to wedge it back in, but we decided we didn’t want to risk continuing on the difficult road north, so back we turned to Matadi, paid another 36,800 CDF and went back to the Soeurs de la Charité. A rather expensive day out for a few photos of the city from afar, but, as it turned out, the right call to make.

Pont Maréchal or OEBK bridge across the Congo

Pont Maréchal or OEBK bridge across the Congo

On the way back, with Matadi piled on the hillside beyond

On the way back, with Matadi piled on the hillside beyond

The next morning, at the truck stop next door, we asked for a Mercedes expert and found Monsieur Sunda, a man of few words but very handy. He and his mate Olivier had whipped the radiator out, sourced a new bolt, replaced it and put everything back together by lunchtime for $50. Breakdown number 3 was thus far less painful than the previous two, but we need to stop making a habit of this: if we continue to average needing one mechanic per country, we’ll never afford to get round the continent! Sampson spent the rest of day checking every single bolt under the truck and tightening it – if he hadn’t, we’d probably have lost the axle this week as well.

M. Sunda, Olivier and Sampson

M. Sunda, Olivier and Sampson sorting out Big Reg

The view from the convent of the truck and the Lycée

The view from the convent of the truck and the Lycée

We also had a visit from Monsieur Alpha from DGM who was sent by M. Marin to check we were OK. He advised us NOT to cross the bridge again as the route north from there is both ‘grave’ and long, but rather to follow our Belgian friends to Luozi. He assured us the truck would fit on the ferry and the road, though grim, was shorter the other side to the border. As we’d lost another 2 days conga-ing in and out of Matadi, and our visa expiry date was looming, we decided to take his advice.

I went shopping with the kids and bumped into our friend Charly who lives next to the Liak’ Likumbi Cultural Centre. While doing the washing there last week, I’d had a long chat with him and he told me his ambition was to marry a white lady – he’s 19 but seems to have his eye on Ruby already. He and his brother Sammy kindly escorted us to a market in the centre of town. Although the veg wasn’t quite as impressive as I’d hoped – it was a bit late in the day – I was thrilled to catch Zola grinning, as he realised he was handling the whole experience and no longer feeling intimidated by the stares. I was very proud of him. On the way back, we also managed to buy some chocolate spread for Dad at a mini-supermarket, which displayed all the wares in giant glass-fronted cabinets – it was a third of the price of imported South African jam, at R60 for a tin.

Sammy, Ruby and Charly

Sammy, Ruby and Charly

After 2 months on the road, we are now a Lean Green Travelling Machine. We’re on our last tank of vegetable oil, and equally light on water, used to washing from top to toe in two mugfuls each in our tiny shower sink. The fridge has little more than cold water in it. We’re on our last tub of margarine and arguments can erupt if someone uses too much. The yoghurt is finally finished, and cheese is a distant memory. But it’s hardly a hardship, as we are in the zone of going with the flow. We are loving avocados – they and juicy tomatoes are making up our daily diet. Eggs are a treat at R3 each. Aubergine and some-sort-of-spinach curry is my latest culinary triumph.

Hot food on sweaty evenings

Hot food on sweaty evenings

I wish I could have taken photos of all the different varieties of bread in DRC. From rolls to loaves to double-chicken-drumstick-shaped mini-sabres. I’ve been experimenting with the ‘cassava bread’ – which I mistakenly identified last time as fufu. Fufu is the pap-like stodgy staple made from manioc flour, chikwanga is the fermented portable version sold wrapped in banana leaves. I’ve been frying thin slices of it and making ‘cassava cakes’: crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, it’s just delicious with Marmite on for lunch. As Friday Night Treats happen only once a week, the sweets we stocked up on in Springbok are lasting well. Things could get more tense when Sampson’s secret chocolate stash finally runs out…

That night as I sat loading pics onto the Africa Clockwise Facebook page there was an almighty racket coming from next door. It sounded like a party – live music and raucous appreciation – but it was so loud and so late, I couldn’t believe it was coming from the convent and wondered if there was a nightclub on the other side of it. The kids were asleep and Sampson was crashed out after a long day sweating under the truck, so around 11pm I got out to investigate.

I sneaked along the alleyway into the convent and came out next to the shrine – beyond it I could see the sisters in a circle around an amp belting out a live radio broadcast of some jazzy gospel tunes. They were whooping with delight when they recognized one, and taking it in turns to dance with a couple of dignified older men in suits. I asked a young man who came past me what was happening and he said it was a “manifestation” – of the spirit of joy apparently. I was just thrilled for them, and didn’t want to spoil the mood so crept back off to bed.

The next morning, the kids and I had planned to seize our last chance to attend morning mass. We arrived with other locals exactly at 6.15am, but the nuns were already at the front with their backs to us, so I couldn’t tell if they were suffering for their late night. They listened attentively to the young priest and interspersed the lesson, in French, with hymns. One nun accompanied on djembe, one on tambourine. When Mother Superior joined in on the shaker giving it a triangular backbeat, Zola’s look of amazement was classic. Our favourite part was when everyone shook hands with everyone else on the way out, then sang a Kikongo hymn in the courtyard at the shrine. Les Soeurs de la Charitié de Jesus et de Marie run a primary school, a high school, a clinic and a hospital for both physical and mental illnesses and would appreciate international partners who would like to help fund their important work in the community.

Soeur Julienne of the Soeurs de la Charité de Jesus et de Marie, on Ruby's right

Soeur Julienne of the Soeurs de la Charité de Jesus et de Marie is on Ruby’s right

On Thursday, we set out to cross the Congo for the third time. Chef Marin from Immigration himself kindly came down at 9am to share information about the ferry to Luozi. To be on the safe side, he phoned his Director and asked special permission for us to have leeway to extend our visa – without the normal fee of $83 each – if we were unlucky enough to break down again on our way there and overstay our welcome. I slept much better after that, thanks M. Marin!

Our guardian angel, Monsieur Marin

The trés gentil Monsieur Marin

The drive out of Matadi was just as crazy and spectacular as on the way in. I wish I’d been able to take photos of the bright yellow painted bar overhanging the sheer drop, the tiny Autospares shop with neat piles of thousands of nuts and bolts outside, the market crowded with colour and the women walking with piles of green leaves on their heads. You will however be able to see what Sampson’s GoPro captured on YouTube at Africa Clockwise.

Sampson was much happier driving out than on the way in – he said it was funny how he felt overwhelmed that first day, but now he felt at home, just because he’d spent some quality time with Jean-José and Edouard. We think Matadi is a fascinating city, proud, enigmatic, rich in stories. It would be a perfect place to film the African James Bond – I look forward to that.

On the first hill out of town, the truck started overheating. When we stopped to pay the 23, 600CDF road toll again, Sampson saw the fan belt was twisted. Luckily there are bush mechanics everywhere here, and within 10 minutes he’d found a guy and paid him $5 to help twist it back, while I charmed the initially hostile toll officials with tales of “huile de cuisson” and Zola being of Nelson Mandela’s tribe. The fact that our son’s name translates to ‘love and unity’ in Kikongo has been a real bonus here.

On the next steep hill, the same thing happened, and we pulled in at a truck stop at the top. This time Sampson decided to put the old fan belt back on, that M&Z Motors in Windhoek had replaced. It cost us another half an hour and $10, but after that Big Reg was happy as Larry for the rest of the way. I entertained the mainly male crowd with some chat about cultural contrasts. They said a woman having given birth to only one child was unheard of in the Bas-Kongo, it would be considered a disaster. They worked up to asking me whether the kids were being brought up to be husband and wife or sister and brother? Sampson rounded off the entertainment by juggling wrenches before we finally got back on the road…

That night, I took malaria tablets for the first time. Sampson and the kids have been taking them since Mandela Day, as we’ve strictly been in malaria territory since Angola in July, but my medical history makes it very risky, and as it has been winter and dry season, I have been waiting until the last possible moment. However, there are now so many mosquitoes getting in the truck, despite all the precautions of screens and nets, that Ruby is terrified I’m going to die, so, after consulting with my doctor friend, I decided to start on doxycycline like Sampson.

I am ridiculously sensitive to any drugs and had a violent reaction the first day, so I left the kids to do their lessons and just strapped myself in the passenger seat and held on. The dirt road from Kimpese to Luozi was rough, and managed to distract me a little from the nausea, throbbing arms and legs, and feeling of heightened perception like being in the Matrix film. The soundtrack of Mozart and Katie Perry (depending on whether Sampson or Ruby was choosing) added to the weirdness of my zooming vision as we bumped through mile after mile of baked red clay and yellow dust, tall spikey grass striped like porcupine quills, waving palms and looming bamboo. We crawled over loads of dodgy are-they-strong-enough bridges – signs occasionally warned 15T and we’re definitely under 10T but when they’ve got holes in the middle, you do wonder.

Dodgy bridge 1

Dodgy bridge 1

Dodgy bridge 1

Dodgy bridge 2

Dodgy bridge 2

Dodgy bridge 3

The children have been playing a very involved and imaginative game of Lego for the past week – they’re doing it as I’m writing. They used to play together at home, but less in recent months, as they had less time: after school and homework and baths and supper, there was usually only an hour together in the evenings – and if the TV’s on, nothing else happens. Here in the truck, they are playing and playing every chance they get; Ruby is unashamed to do so, and I am so glad we could give her this opportunity to be a child for a precious while longer while she’s still enjoying it, and relieve her of the pressure from her peers to grow up before she is ready.

Saturday I felt a little better as I’d decided against taking another tablet the night before. Thank goodness, because it was a very demanding day. In our morning wander up the road, our sandals sank ankle-deep into the thick powdery dust. Zola, in an unusually clean outfit of T-shirt and shorts, managed to fall over on the way back and get completely covered. It was a relief to reach the river, and see the ferry coming towards us with two large trucks on it. It was less gratifying to see the how they bottomed out on the way off.

Our mistake was NOT to ask advice as to the best way to approach the approach beforehand: I’d got out to take photos and Sampson decided to go slow and steady in 4WD. Unluckily for him, the under-run bar got caught on a rock, ripping it off, forcing the truck backwards and, in almost slow motion, crushing the metal box at the back. Sampson couldn’t hear me screaming ‘Stop stop!’ as the rectangular box became a parallelogram and flipped the front open. All the drawers slid out, threatening to dump his beloved Snap-On tools into the muddy Congo river… Much to the delight of the watching crowd, he drilled holes in the box, tied it back on with rope, and took the ferryman’s advice to go at “grande vitesse”. “I can’t believe we ramped it” said Sampson afterwards, still in shock.

Attempting

Attempting to get on the ferry to Luozi – check the churn at the back

The rock that caused the trouble

The rock that caused the trouble

He had lots of time to repack the contents of the wrecked box up on the roof as I spent ages in Immigration in Luozi – M. Freddy had been warned by M. Marin of our arrival, and besides filling in four long forms including our height and weight, I had chats with the lovely Raymond of Customs. His opinion is that South Africa alone of African states is independent of foreign influence – unlike, say, Nigeria – and it is thus our responsibility, as Africans, to lead development on the continent rather than letting the Chinese take the lead as they’re doing in Angola; he would like to see my kids come back and work in DRC or Gabon, and show them how we’re doing it. Mmm. You can see his point.

Today Sampson drove the most challenging road ever from Luozi to the border while I was enduring the side effects of the meds again. Pulp Fiction was today’s soundtrack, and Jungle Boogie was entirely fitting for the madness of the day and the surreal 70s technicolour scenery. The road tested the Big Green Truck to the limit, in 4WD almost all the way, up and down steep hills, through a mixture of hard ridged corrugated dirt and drifts of deep dust. At one point, the crew driving a lorry coming in the opposite direction cheered when Sampson made it to the top of a terrifying crevasse – it was that bad.

Surreal scenery

Surreal scenery

The road to the border

The road to the border

Glad I wasn't driving

Glad I wasn’t driving

Big Reg drove like a dream and never overheated once, unlike us. It took almost the entire day to do 60km; seriously we could almost have walked it faster, if it wasn’t so hot. We were handing out water to women passing with loads on their heads who shamed us with their stamina. Respect to Bram and Julie, who with typical Belgian understatement had described the route to us as “sometimes challenging” – we’d never have made it without their GPS coordinates, cheers guys. Thanks also to Continental: we would definitely not have survived the terrain without those military grade tyres.

Written on 1st Sept

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6 Responses to Conga-ing across the Congo

  1. Linda de Jager says:

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful trip with us, I love reading about your adventure and the photos are stunning. Please stay safe and keep strong.

  2. spencerjude says:

    Blimey! At least I’ve got some trousers on today. Need a coffee this time though! Wow great update, I look forward to hearing you on Woman’s Hour and then Desert Island discs. Better start choosing your 7!

  3. Dave Martin says:

    This reminds me of when I crossed Congo (East to West) in the 90’s. Those crazy roads defy description and the bridges are nuts. I guess you’ll be hitting the forests soon? I’m not sure of your route – but the forests are much cooler although the roads can be even worse! Some of the best stories you’ll ever tell will happen to you in crazy Central Africa! Good luck and have fun (in the bungy jumping sense!).

  4. Ma & Pa says:

    We are speechless this time, not to mention the involuntary sobs at your narrow escapes. Nerve endings definitely getting sharpened up. Keep safe darlings.

  5. James says:

    I can feel another blog update coming on.. hopefully not long before we read the next chapter in the AfricaClockwise book:)

  6. ,milan says:

    hallo zola from milan

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