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March 8, 2013 / samwilson60

Six months on the road and not a dull moment

The next morning we were gearing ourselves up for one last search for customs before skipping town when Père Benjamin pointed out that we really should visit immigration too. Apparently the fact that we’d arrived on a Sunday was the only reason they hadn’t already come to find us and if we didn’t register, the priests would get in trouble too. That was enough to convince us we had no choice, but we were far from gleeful about the prospect. Instead, we both walked over with our stomachs in knots, convinced we would get pulled up on our non-resident visas from Togo.

To our temporary relief, the immigration hut was still shut (while customs was clearly a figment of someone’s imagination). With a flash of inspiration, we ran back past a copy shot, photocopied every relevant page of our passports (and our Togolese residency papers!) and left them at the mission. We didn’t want to sound too hasty, but were very excited about the possibility of getting out of town before the officials woke up!

As we got to the banks of the Congo river (one of the moments we’ve been picturing since first planning the trip), we were told the boat wouldn’t leave for another two hours. Excited as we were by the momentous river, this was a long time to wait. And as we were processing this information, a young lady tapped on the window. Immigration had found us, and they apparently had plenty of time to make us squirm!

The lady was actually really nice and surprisingly easy to distract. She never got as far as the DRC visa page in our passports and was packing up her pen and paper as Sam popped up to say the boat was leaving after all. Such a massive result on both fronts – barely gone 9am and we’d set sail on the mighty Congo, six months to the day since we’d crossed the North Sea from England!

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The piste on the other side was a dream – smooth gravel road for the most part, not at all as we’d imagined. This meant we made great progress but also had time to stew about the border. Initially we had planned to stay in Sogoloco overnight and attack Angola at first light, but we were so anxious now, not about our slightly dubious Angola visas but about our seriously shonky DRC ones, and our complete lack of customs clearance for the car. With all this playing on our minds, we soon agreed that if we thought we could make the border by early afternoon, we should just go for it. The only thing worse than whatever we had coming was the horror scenarios we’d be concocting all the way there. We still stopped for a post-river brew, and again to jack up a local car that needed to change a tyre, but even with that were clearly on course for Angola that night – fingers crossed.

We’d worked ourselves up a treat by the time we reached the border at the end of the dirt track, and the first stop was customs. We were disarmed by the friendliness, but even at the time we realised this was no great surprise (if all our papers had been in order we’d have had no qualms about this crossing). We almost fell to the floor, however, when the head of customs was the one to remark on the lack of any other customs posts anywhere else on our route. He was not the least bit fazed by our lack of entry stamps, making us feel like paranoid fools, but momentarily very happy ones at that.

Immigration was rather more drawn out but even there we just got the usual raised eyebrows and the odd reference to Togo, without anyone ever asking how or why. Before leaving we had to have our fingerprints taken (a first) and a English lesson with a very eager student. The entire population of the DRC border post was just adorable – even the money touts offering the official xe.com rate for Angolan kwanzas! All our fears had been unfounded and we trotted off to the Angola side on a massive high.

Across the other side, we were greeted with smiles but the rest was incomprehensible. We’d been told it was a simple border but were still a little surprised by the two bare huts and the limited number of officials. In each of the huts, they made a vain attempt at noting down out names and nationalities but seemed to give up with about half the usual details, and no one pulled out anything resembling a stamp. With lots of sign language we managed to ascertain that they were at the ‘big hut’ down the hill. Here they were, for the most part, even friendlier and slightly more proficient in English. We were ushered in and given a seat. We handed over our passports and waited, then waited some more. Gradually we twigged, something was wrong. There were more and more uniforms on the scene, all of them pouring over our passports. Then they each got their phones out and starting calling around. The room we were in had an air-con unit but it was not on and we were sweating profusely – partly due to the heat but mainly the stress. We’d pretty much worked out they thought our visas were fakes before they started spelling our names out over the old-school radio, over and over.

It was excruciating, and once again our heads were filling with all sorts of horror scenarios. The few times we tentatively asked someone if everything was OK, they said “Yes, no problem… Soon. Soon.” It would have been even worse if they had been the aggressive sort, but it was of little comfort at the time.

After what felt like a lifetime and was certainly well over an hour, the guy we think instigated the whole fiasco solemnly handed us back our passports. We didn’t know what was happening, so he pointed out the entry stamps and told us to leave. On this occasion we really didn’t need telling twice, and nearly sped out of the car park without even visiting customs.

Over the road in customs, still in shock and disbelief, we were even less equipped for Portuguese-only communications. The customs guy seemed to recognise the carnet but wanted us to explain how to fill it in. We made a dog’s dinner of it and he grew visibly weary of our blabbering, so half filled in the form and gave it a stamp. Plenty good enough for us.

This time there was no stopping us – not even the cars blocking us in. We neatly manoeuvred the Tinker Beast round the lot and scarpered down the road – loose in Angola, six months into the trip, having awoken that morning stressing about DRC immigration in Luozi. What a day, and it wasn’t over yet.

It was getting late by now, with a storm brewing overhead, but even if it had been 10am and clear blue skies, we’d have been looking for a place to crash. The best plan we had was to head for M’banza-Congo, the next town on the map, 70km down the road. We got there at the same time as the rain and were wishing out loud that some form of accommodation would present itself soon. Before it did, we’d been stopped by the police. There were quite a few of them on the junction but none spoke any English. We heard “Luanda” mentioned and said that, yes, we would be heading that way, then on to Namibia and South Africa. We’d not yet managed to ask about hotels here in town and they’d obviously assumed we were heading to Luanda that night, so started assembling a police escort. “Securidad,” they said. “No need,” we replied. “This is the last straw,” we thought to ourselves.

Eventually we managed to get across that for now all we wanted was to find a hotel, right here, right now, so they settled for escorting us there. We may never know if this was the high or low end of the spectrum in M’banza, or whether it was the only place in town, but the cheapest room on offer was way, way over budget. At this stage we had no choice though – we went to the cash machine, ordered a couple of beers and tried to digest the latest stage on the rollercoaster our trip had become. In doing so we remembered it was still our six-month anniversary, so we splashed out on dinner (what’s a couple more dollars when you’re already spending the best part of a hundred?!). ‘Beef’ was the only thing we were able to make sense of and we were so passed caring, just the beef alone would have sufficed. So when they brought out two plates full to the brim, with beef, fried egg, chips, rice, salad and veg, we could barely believe our eyes. If it hadn’t been included in the inflated price, there’s no way we’d have been able to manage breakfast in the morning, but as it was, we did! In the interim, we slept like babies in our air-conditioned room.

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