Gabon is… different. I haven’t quite put my finger on it yet, but I’m feeling my way. It wasn’t so much the sudden appearance of cows. Or the scarlet and turquoise flashes of tropical wings and the crowds of weaver birds. Or the buttery flutter of clotted cream coloured butterflies. Or the lush grass of the surprisingly flat landscape. Or the fact that almost immediately the clay brick dwellings gave way to larger wooden houses; the red, yellow and green flag in every settlement replaced with the green, yellow and blue.
I think it had more to do with the uprightness of the first gendarme past the border. The crispness of his shirt. Then again at the Dept. of Immigration in Ndende, where the walls met the ceiling and there was icy aircon, photocopiers, and fingerprint recognition software, this was matched by the cool self possession of the young man who entered our passport details on his computer. He told me he was born in Port Gentil, brought up in Libreville, and is going a bit crazy in this one-horse town. Yet it seemed like a city to us, so unexpected was the sudden boost in development.
Sampson had had a tough couple of days. He’d spent several sweaty hours up on the roof filtering the last of the Mercy Ship’s oil to replace the fuel used on the road from Pointe Noire to the border, then several more underneath the truck dealing with a spate of fixings: the bumper, the air bracket, the exhaust bracket and the air snorkel had all been shaken loose by the road so far. The first section from the border to Ndende was an improvement but dreadfully corrugated. He was quite proud that he managed to snap the end off his Awesome Tools Leatherman screwdriver – no mean feat. Their lifetime guarantee will cover it, if we ever find somewhere that stocks replacements…
The first morning in Gabon, he’d lost his temper early with Zola – who admittedly was redefining the word ‘slob’ in the truck context – and had him empty and sweep out all his cupboard space in their nosecone bedroom. An hour later, on the road listening to an evocative song, Sampson burst into tears as he imagined taking a bottle of Bailey’s to his Mom’s grave and drinking a libation to her. I made him lie down and took over the driving, something unusual on a school day.
So that meant I just happened to be at the wheel when we were pulled over at our first roadblock manned by a woman! There was a terrific unspoken joint respect, as I jumped down from the cab and strode over to her carrying the sheaf of photocopied documents, an Ennio Morricone soundtrack playing in my head. I took in her blue-black fatigues and purple hair extensions under her cap; she took in my sweaty vest and wig-like ‘do. Sadly I undermined all my attempts at style by stalling the truck as I tried to pull away. The shame!
A couple of hours later, Ruby and I both heard something ‘go’ and start banging ominously on the passenger side. It was a good job Sampson had been resting because now he had to get up and hang upside down off the passenger door trying to work out where the rattling was coming from, as I motored along in second trying not to bump him off when Big Reg hit a gnarly bit.
It was a very slow process of elimination and took us nearly an hour. In the end he was lying underneath the truck, banging various bits of kit to see whether I could identify where the problem was by the source of the noise. By this method we thankfully ruled out the drive shaft. At last – Eureka – he found the shock absorber on the left side hanging loose, missing bolts that must have snapped off on the hectically hard road. Yay! We leapt about in delight that this was fixable and cheap and hugged each other. His face was clear and his eyes bright again: he had a goal and it was achievable. I am so glad we are on this journey, with new little problems every day to tackle, minor mountains to climb, as I think the shock of his Mom’s death would be crushing him otherwise.
We are becoming accustomed to the rain pattern. Suddenly it’s hot hot hot, the sun so fierce you feel like your skin’s on the verge of blistering in mere seconds. The dark blue of the clouds in the distance intensifies and the birds start whirling. The wind rises and there is a glorious waft of cool just before the pitter-patter is released. I am getting as obsessed with huge skies and cloud formations as I was with huge trees earlier in the trip. I wish this little camera were as capable of capturing the depth and colour of Tudortech’s Olympic PEN.
I was proud to be the first to drive on a dirt road during a rainstorm on the Congolese side, as Sampson was asleep. After quailing momentarily at the prospect of the rutted clay turning into an unmanageable bog, me and Big Reg cruised through easily averaging 20kmh. Thank goodness for our Continental tyres, they just eat this mud up.
In Gabon, the roads were immediately bigger, better, faster. They were still dirt at first, but wider and flatter and less potholed – we were even getting into fourth gear occasionally! Then, after Mouila, TAR! What bliss. We felt we were flying along. However, the time we were gaining on the tarmac, we were losing at the roadblocks: there were four the first day, and I had a definite feeling growing that Gabon is a nation of fingerwaggers. The stern roadsigns regarding behaviour around AIDS and drunk driving were impressive, but the manner of their gendarmes takes this admonishment to another level.
At the first roadblock, we were held up for half an hour while two officers harangued a woman without legal papers. Fair enough, she shouldn’t expect to get by with a photocopy rather than an original passport (especially if her mother let slip that her birthdate was 3 years earlier than stated) but to be told off about not wearing a wedding ring as well? I had to chip in her defence; I wasn’t wearing one either. At the second, the usual questions about where we were from, where we were going and how the truck works were extended into a 15 minute grilling where I was called to defend my lifestyle choices. If I am dragging my children around Africa, what about their grades? How will they pass their exams? What about their social development away from their peers? Seriously. Only when I pointed out the need to show my kids what real Africa looks like so they could grow up to be proud Africans was I waved on with approval.
While it’s far from culture shock, we’ve had to adjust our approach somewhat. In Congo, big smiles and friendliness work, because snobby whites are expected. Here that informal tone is counter productive: you need to show more respect for authority/the badge/the uniform; don’t be overfriendly and wait to be called. That’s fine as there is never the suggestion of a bribe. This is also the first country where we’ve encountered lots of women in charge, all (so far) with false eyelashes and manicured nails adding to their power dressing.
Our second day of driving in Gabon, the fabulous tar made it less apparent that we were moving through jungle, but the bush meat available for sale along the roadside reminded us: first there was a python so huge it looked like a movie prop, then we saw a crocodile. Seriously. We weren’t tempted to buy and plumped for tinned pilchards and cabbage for supper with a special treat: potatoes. You may have noticed this blog is obsessed with food. This is how you get when it becomes scarce. Sampson has started dreaming menus. After overdosing on aubergines to the extent that I had resorted to blending our veg mixes into soup so Zola couldn’t see them anymore, they have suddenly disappeared, while their has been a concomitant increase in the amount of plantains. We love fried plantains for breakfast with vanilla yoghurt.
Mouila reminded me of Dombe Grande in Angola, in its comfortable self-contented way. The children all had proper shoes and looked well fed in their splendid yellow, green or blue uniforms with white shirts, getting ice creams on their way home from school. No wonder the man in the last village we slept next to in the Congo had told me they were “all Gabonais here”; his boast was obviously aspirational, though it is true their French was equally fast, drawled and more difficult to understand than the Congolais.
That night we experienced our first big thunderstorm: thank goodness we’d reached the tar already. The kids were awestruck by the full sky flashes of lightening and the lashing rain; Sampson and I were thankful there was only one small leak around a light fitting, and those extra hours he’d spent weatherproofing the roof again in Brazza had paid off. The storm put an end to my enjoyment of the sounds of the jungle emanating from the canopy stretching from the side of the road. Sampson has christened this incessant squeaking and chirping Green Noise; I find it very comforting.
The next morning however, we discovered that mosquitos have been replaced as our major menace by minute but ferocious forest flies called ‘fourou fourou’. They are so tiny, they are uninhibited by mosquito netting, but luckily they are more active in the day so we can drive on to avoid them. After doing yoga, I found I was covered in dozens of perfectly circular red bites, which expanded into quite impressive blotches within an hour, but had faded by the end of the day. Sampson had fewer, but whereas I hardly felt mine, a couple of days later, he began to itch with a vengeance. Our climate shock has been limited to this and a spot of fatigue from the increased humidity as we push on north towards the equator.
Written on 30th Oct