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March 8, 2013 / samwilson60

Congo-Brazzaville

On leaving Ndendé, we stopped at the shop for a couple of cans of coke – valuable pre-border sustenance – and were politely approached by a man asking if we were going to Congo. Unusually suspicious, we asked why instead of simply saying yes, and he replied that he was from immigration and if yes, we should stop by his office before leaving town. He gave vague directions and we nodded politely but didn’t really credit the story with much credibility. Generally, if you have to go to immigration of anywhere similar, barriers in the road or at least men with whistles make it pretty bloody obvious the visit is not optional. And if it is optional, you’re normally opening yourself up to all sorts of unnecessary discomfort.

As there were no signs of the guy’s immigration hut anywhere on our route out of town, we continued out of town, on our way to Congo!

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Instantly, the tar turned to dirt and we thought twice – the border was still over 50km away and on this terrain it would be a long way back if he was right and we were wrong. So, reluctant but resigned to it, we headed back into town in search of “Immigration”. It wasn’t easy to find but the guy had been for real. When we finally got to the right building, the official inside wasn’t the least bit surprised to see us, or in any way looking to capitalise on the opportunity. He took photocopies of our passports and then gave us the all-important exit stamp, putting us halfway out of the country in a way (just car stamp to go).

We headed back past the Congo signpost and onto the piste, feeling proud of ourselves and upbeat about whatever would follow. The border itself was, in fact, a breeze and the Congolese were even friendlier than the Gabonese, if a little more laborious in their procedures. The guy in the first hut wrote a short essay documenting our arrival, but this was offset but the guy in the last hut (Immigration, of all things) having already gone home for lunch. Someone called him and was apparently told that as long as we had visas, they could let us through. In fact, they told us to let ourselves through the weighted barrier, which is easier said than done, but we weren’t arguing – we were in the Congo!!

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Within minutes, if not seconds, we realised this would be harder than expected. We’d anticipated water-logged pistes but hadn’t expected them to pose so much of a problem so soon. And we’d been so busy with the water tank the previous night, we’d not attached the snorkel as planned (confident this could wait until Brazzaville while our water supply could not). In reality, if the snorkel had been attached, our stress levels would have been significantly lower but it would still have been hard going. We even got to a point when we both saw a grader that turned out to be a mirage and, as such, a sure sign that we should stop for the night.

We’d fairly swiftly dismissed Dolisie as an overnighter, it being some 200km away, and instead set our sights on a “Parking” marked along the piste in our GPS. It seemed an odd thing to feature along this sort of route and we were wary of pinning all our hopes on it, but we also knew we’d stay there even if it were just halfway practicable. We were exhausted by the time we made it that far and were elated to find a pristine quarry with dry access. Inside, we were still in full view of the piste but otherwise it was perfect and we would have settled for much, much less. We had no visitors – not even a quick hello from the three logging trucks that paused at the entrance, coincidentally it seems – and we had no rain either. The ideal scenario, making for a peaceful night’s sleep and a leisurely start in the morning.

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With the snorkel reattached, the piste the next day was much drier (typical). It was still hard going but got gradually easier all the way to the tar in Dolisie, which we’d found by lunchtime. Before making it into town, we had the obligatory checkpoint saga. This one was more comical than traumatic, but left us a little uncomfortable for a moment or two. We were called into a hut containing a random assortment of officials, some more interested in us than others. But when the brother-sister topic came up, someone leapt from his bed in the neighbouring office and rushed in with a story about a cocaine-smuggling brother and, unbeknown to him, spy sister. It gave everyone a good laugh except Sam, who waited until we were back in the car before nervously asking what all the talk of cocaine had been about.

Once in Dolisie and on tar, we decided it was far too early to stop, so we just picked up some supplies and headed on to another wild camp in a quarry on the semi-built road to Brazzaville. The spot was even better than the night before, and despite the awesome lightning show we still stayed dry. Leaving us with a decision to make.

The really hard piste was apparently the other side of the border, in DRC. There were a couple of possible routes, but all would be impassable if it rained (all except the terrifying main crossing from Brazzaville to Kinshasa, that is). On leaving Gabon, we’d been very excited about having all our southbound visas and therefore not needing to run the gauntlet into any more big cities unless we wanted to. With that in mind, and the fact that it hadn’t rained since we’d arrived in Congo, we were tempted to turn south before reaching the capital. On the other hand, the only place we could get any reliable route information was at Hotel Hippocampe in Brazzaville, where we’d been told overlanders could camp for free. We were really torn, and knew we’d be kicking ourselves if we got to the city at the same time as the rain, but we also really wanted a shower, a good feed and the chance to wash some clothes. So we continued along the piste that criss-crossed the in-construction highway and impossible-looking train line.

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Once in town, we were relieved by the more or less flowing traffic, the relative lack of chaos all around, and the ease with which we found our hotel. We were a little surprised to learn that the camp spot doubles as the restaurant car park but it was indeed free, the food was delicious and the staff were nice, so we certainly have no complaints. We also met a couple of Swedish relief workers who confirmed our good feelings about the country in general (or the small part we’d seen of it). They said that even in the capital, you could walk around at 2am and be greeted be nothing more menacing than a ‘Bonjour!” We didn’t test the theory but like to think it’s true.

That night, instead of hitting the tiles, we discussed our next steps. There were no other travellers who could give us any updates on the pistes, and our internet research into insurance and problems caused by visas obtained en route (e.g. in Togo!) just added to our concerns. We agreed that we’d just work ourselves up even further if we hung around to do washing, emails, etc. so decided that if we had another dry night, we’d be crazy to delay any longer.

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