I thought this blog was going to be about getting on the road to Gabon, but the universe had other ideas. It’s been one of those two-steps-forward-one-step-back-patience-is-its-own-reward-just-breathe-just-be weeks. I’ve never felt comfortable using the expression ‘I’ll take a raincheck’; Americans don’t seem bothered that it has little to do with rain or checking, but I am. However it seems very appropriate this week, as we’ve been checked good and proper.
And then there’s the rain: it’s here. It’s coming every couple of days and sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with a splitting headache from the drop in pressure just before a storm breaks. We’ve had to stop sleeping with the hatch open, as too often we’ve had to jump out of bed and wrestle with it while rain pelts through onto the seat. In the hour afterwards, it’s spectacularly beautiful – all the green palms come into luminous focus against the blue skies, the first true blue we’ve seen since Namibia.
A few nights ago I had a dream about standing in the open doorway of the truck with my arms braced like the front legs of the boxer in Tom and Jerry, growling at a would-be intruder who was lurking menacingly outside. I put it down to too much chocolate spread the night before, but when I seemed to enact a complete replay of the dream only 48 hours later, I wondered if it had been prophetic after all.
It was quite a day. Having spent a while just north of Point Noire in a breezy spot filtering our second collection of used oil from local restaurants, we had set off in good spirits. We were completely full – 3 tanks full of oil, 2 tanks full of water and even our gas tanks replenished thanks to Jérôme. TECOR had also emptied our sewage with their industrial hoover, so for once, the only thing we weren’t full of was sh*t! We had a full fridge too: having congratulated myself rather precipitously on making some savings in Pointe Noire, thanks to the generous hospitality of the Laumonier family, we decided to prepare for Sampson’s birthday by stocking up on such luxuries as UHT milk, discounted orange juice and toilet rolls ahead of our trek into the Gabonese jungle.
Cèline and Jérôme had sent us off with a goodbye drinks party with the Italians which resulted in more presents: chocolate muesli for Mark, Friday Night Treat sweets for the children and tiny coconut macaroons for me, made by the thoughtful Chiara. We were thrilled to witness Arthur’s first walk – official because he changed direction halfway! We hope to get a chance to show the Laumoniers our appreciation for their continuing kindness and spoil them back when they visit Cape Town in 2016.
Before we left our favourite spot at the beach, we witnessed several wedding convoys come down with hooting guests hanging out of car windows, and one day something bigger. The beachfront road was closed by a bevy of soldiers in fatigues and purple berets, and a flashing parade of tinted 4x4s marked the arrival of the President’s wife at their ‘personal residence’, apparently for her aunt’s funeral. Our friend Luke provided the toilets. Luke brings his hand-painted hand-engineered portaloos to the beach every weekend so that the clientèle of the temporary restaurants have somewhere clean to relieve themselves. He greeted us in English and told us his wife is South African and until recently they were living in Cape Town. “No!” I said, “Where?” “Kommetjie” he replied. Shoo. You drive halfway across the continent and meet a bloke from round the corner.
My favourite photo of the batch that disappeared with the stolen camera was of the painting on the side of Luke’s loo that depicted a man with his trousers down and a big cross over a dotted shower of pee. His hanging belt was suggestive. One of the consolations of being delayed was that I got a chance to retake this photo, but unfortunately when the loo was hired for the funeral, the President’s wife objected to the pic, so he’d painted over it. Boo hoo. However I did get this one instead:
Due to the TV coverage, we have become quite famous, and even been the subject of cash bets. “I TOLD you it runs on palm oil!” was the retort of the triumphant victor outside Emex’s, with 20 000FCFA changing hands. We made a lot of friends in that carpark.
Sampson’s bestie was Juge a.k.a. Monsieur Champion. He’s called Champion because he’s such a star. He walks 10km from his home every day, picks up his chariot from the depot and pushes it to his stand in the corner of the carpark. He’s there smiling unfailingly from 7am till 4pm every day except Sunday whipping up about 100 scrumptious omelette subways. They are incredibly cheap at 500FCFA each (R10) – we couldn’t make them ourselves for any less – so the bread-eating threesome ended up having them at every opportunity. Sampson’s going to miss his daily ‘Champion sandwich’ so much, one day I got Champion to take me with him to the depot so I could invest in a supply of his cut-price smoked sausage and mayo so we can make our own versions when we leave.
Then there was the carwash guys; the girls from the ‘VIP bar’ D’Emex (who also had a paint job this week – we, like Justine, prefer the old turquoise); the drinks delivery guys whose truck is gradually having its clutch burnt out when they get stuck in the sand (the blog header pic is when Sampson pulled them out the first time before we realized they do it every week). Most gentil of all, there was Steve Alliangoyi and the team from SCTK, the Société de la Contrôle de Technique de Kouilou – the region’s central roadworthy/MOT testing station. Did you know that taxis in the Congo have to pass a roadworthy every 3 months? Why do we have this idea that South Africa is advanced and the Congo must be anarchic?
I can’t believe we originally thought we’d just spend one week in the DRC and one week in Congo, anticipating wanting to dash through and get the hell out of there. This has been our longest stay in any country so far. Congo deserves to be a fabulous destination for tourists. Of course, it has amazing environmental resources: a fabulous array of landscapes from beaches to savanna and rainforests inhabited by the majority of the world’s primates, as well as whales and turtles. But the most precious resource of all is the people. They are so laid back, nothing fazes them, and this is wonderfully relaxing for the traveller. Whenever we opened the door in the DRC, there were a crowd of people outside waiting to catch a glimpse of some action, but in the Congo we have been left very much to ourselves. People are interested, but in a very dignified and respectful way. In 5 weeks, we have not once felt hassled here, not even in the market.
(All my training shopping in markets in Angola and DRC was necessary to prepare me for the onslaught on the senses that was the vast Grand Marché of Pointe Noire. The produce may be cheaper but the labyrinth of narrow muddy alleyways and pungent smells of piled dried fish, meat and peanut paté with accompanying flies require substantially more stamina. It couldn’t be more of a contrast with the refrigerated atmosphere of super(up)market Casino where the kids and I chose presents for their Dad: a sliver of cheese, a pack of biscuits, a bar of chocolate and – the pièce de résistance – a small box of Frosties, all for only R200…)
That is, until a couple of nights ago. We’d set out ‘on the road again’ in high spirits but quickly realised there was something seriously wrong. The Big Green Truck was shuddering as the fuel ebbed and flowed. We hadn’t noticed on the flat around the market, but as soon as we hit a hill, the lack of power became apparent. There was no way Big Reg was going to cope with the road back through the mountains to Dolisie.
Now we were in a quandary. Sampson was worried that we hadn’t filtered the second batch of collected oil correctly and had contaminated all three tanks by topping up each one with oil with too much water in it. We decided to find a cool spot by the sea (it was brain-meltingly hot by this time) to do some tests and figure it out. While sending another ‘sorry for the delay’ email to the wonderfully proactive Gabonese SA embassy staff, I received bad news from a dear friend – she’d just been diagnosed with cancer. Somewhat devastated and trying to conceal it from her goddaughter Ruby, I went into the cab to tell Sampson. At that moment, he caught sight of a potentially wide-enough turn-off and asked me if there was anything behind us; I said I couldn’t see, he couldn’t either but he started to reverse anyway: CRUNCH and a tinkle of glass. We’d hit a taxi.
Now, to put things in perspective, if you backed into a taxi-driver in South Africa and took his lights out, you’d be quite surprised if he didn’t try and punch yours out in return. M. Brice on the other hand was very calm and Congolese about the whole thing. We were “desolés” and immediately admittedly culpability, so he brought the owner of the taxi down to the truck in our new berth on the beach where we negotiated the costs of repairs to the smashed headlamp and scraped bonnet over lunch.
We bargained them down from their opening gambit of 430 000FCFA to 140 000FCFA, with Sampson playing Bad Cop, and paid a 100000FCFA first installment. Sigh. Just when we’d been congratulating ourselves on not whacking out a lump sum on repairs in the Congo and conquering our one-breakdown-per-country habit. Don’t even start working out how much cheese and chocolate you could buy with that, it doesn’t bear thinking about.
We spent the next morning watching local treknet fisherman haul in 5 catches, which were 50% jellyfish, 30% plastic litter, 5% eels, and 15% fish, three quarters of which were too small and should have been thrown back to grow and spawn. Apparently Chinese industrial fishing concerns are busy decimating the stock 12km out. The Chef of the area, who had come to greet us the night before and warn us about dangerous currents when he saw the kids playing in the sea, came back with the Chef of the Quartier and we took an official photo:
Meanwhile Sampson had rigged up a direct feed pipe to test whether the problem was the fuel or the engine. We drove around town first on filtered used oil, then on new pure oil – both produced the same juddering effect, though it was running fine on biodiesel. I was initially thrilled that that meant we didn’t have to spend another few days filtering all over again, but Sampson was depressed: he thought it meant something expensive was wrong with the system. A new heat exchange plate or fuel injection pump would also mean days of waiting for parts.
In better news, we went back to see Ernest, a wonderfully friendly Cameroonian who owns an auto spares shop and had bent over backwards to source cheap filters for Sampson the day before: his Congolese wife asserted that the maximum a new headlight should cost is 25 000FCFA. So 100 000FCFA was probably double what we should have paid for repairs, but at least we had not paid any more. Ernest called his lawyer friend out to advise us on follow-up strategy. The propriétaire met Sampson there later and sheepishly shook hands on it. We drove back to the beach to chew on all this, and played chasing games by the sea until supper time. A calming episode of 30 Rock on the laptop cinema, and au lit.
An hour later I felt the truck jolt and sway ominously and I was out of bed snarling through the Trellidor before I was fully awake. Sampson says he can’t believe how I react. I never do scared or confused, I go straight to indignant psycho mode shouting “Get the f*** off my truck!’. A young bloke took a flying leap off the roof onto the sand and ran off to join his bunch of mates on the beach. He’d tried to prise some goodies loose on the roof, but Sampson had everything tied down for trauma, ready for the road to Gabon, and he hadn’t managed to nick anything apart from the fuel tank caps. I don’t know whether he’d caught sight of me yowling with my hair standing on end, looking like a cross between Bob Geldof and Margaret Thatcher, but he certainly didn’t hang about.
It’s a bugger how something like this rocks your peace of mind. It was such a lovely place, 10m from the sea, with a beach perfect for walking on. But to park next to Pointe Noire’s version of Ocean View without having yet built a relationship with the neighbours, even though we had the blessing of community leaders to be there – what did we expect? It was probably just lads messing about, daring each other, but we didn’t want to regret that we’d been too gung-ho about the whole thing if they decided to come back with implements capable of cutting through the straps holding the stuff down on the roof. So, with the kids still fast asleep, we ‘locked down’ and set off through deserted streets across the city at midnight back to our favourite haunt, in the carpark next door to the President. It was a relief to find our spot outside VIP Le D’Emex empty. Monsieur Parfait, the SCTK security guard was there to greet us and we slept soundly.
Of course, it was now the weekend, so we couldn’t even get a mechanic until Monday. Sampson spent Saturday with Ernest dismantling the entire cab door in order to fix a broken window-winder, while the kids and me parked off at various exclusive establishments along the seafront, making one R40 cup of tea last hours. Sunday was his 47th birthday and he celebrated by surfing the biggest swell of our stay so far – another gift from Joy – before spending the afternoon at ‘our’ beach restaurant with a succession of friends popping by: Sophie from conservation organisation Rénatura (www.renatura.org), Ernest and his children, Jérôme and Cèline, and Willy and his family. It’s certainly not a bad place to be stranded for a while longer…