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March 8, 2013 / samwilson60

The back road between the Congos

It was dry and we felt much better than the night before having decided to just go for it. We went for the middle ground – Mindouli to Luozi. It didn’t look like our most remote option (meaning the piste and bridges would hopefully still be intact/have been repaired) but it was by no means major either (meaning we should have fewer problems at the border itself).

We actually did all the Congo-Brazzaville formalities in Mindouli, the last town on the ‘main road’, from where you turn south. It was a bit tiresome at the time but, in retrospect, well worth the faff.

We found customs as we were leaving Mindouli – they agreed that they were the ones to stamp our carnet but didn’t want to do this until we’d been to immigration, which they thought was probably shut but had to be tried anyway. They offered to accompany us back there but we don’t like taking passengers (only two seats and all) so asked for directions instead. These got us as far as the police, the gendarmes and lots of other passers-by, all of whom helped us confirm that immigration was indeed shut. The customs guys had said that if this were the case, the man with the stamps would be at the border, but in the meantime the police had offered to stamp us out too. We went with the police option and returned to customs feeling rather smug. Until they pointed out that one of them was missing the date. Cat headed back to the police station, passing the man with the stamps heading in the opposite direction on his bike. With the missing date duly added on side of the road and the carnet stamped in the meantime, we were good to go.

It was very confusing getting out of town onto the piste for DRC – it seems no one in the area crosses over so reliable information was very hard to come by. After three aborted routes, we persevered on the fourth and least appealing piste. Never before have we longed to see officialdom but in this case it was a massive relief when we got to a makeshift barrier and a hut full of people. None were in uniform and there was no flag to suggest which Congo they belonged to, but after a little prompting from us and lots of requests for food from them, the men in the hut explained they were in fact DRC border officials and we should hand over our documents. We were a little confused as to how we’d managed to bypass the Congo side of the border, but having got all our stamps in Mindouli, we just counted our blessings and tentatively initiated the DRC formalities.

Four of the six guys in the hut seemed to be no more than observers, but the other two gave our passports and vaccination certificates the most thorough inspection to date. They weren’t talking French or English, so we didn’t understand much of what was said, but when we heard “Togo” mentioned enough times, we knew the problem was the visas (not issued in our home country). We’d made friends with the observers by this point, which doubtless helped – as did the fact that no one had a functional phone with which to check in with the big wigs in Luozi. Eventually they seemed to accept the obvious farce of our Togolese residency papers and announced that it was now time to inspect the truck. This won’t be the end of the matter, no doubt, but it was progress nonetheless.

The Tinker Beast attracted the attention of all six men, clearly relishing the opportunity to make us sweat, but when we rose to the challenge, threatening to count out every bar of soap and racket strap from the first draw they opened, they gradually lost interest. We then had to make them sandwiches (they’d spotted the bread and Laughing Cow), but after that the magical passport stamp came out, so it felt like a small price to pay. They genuinely seemed very grateful, as were we. They also seemed well meaning, having told us to head for a Catholic Mission in Miamba (a village about 30km away) if we needed somewhere to stay.

So when we finally drove off and were instantly hollered back for having overshot a turning just behind their hut, we were immensely grateful and not the least bit suspicious. Having since compared our route with that marked on the GPS, we can’t help wondering whether they were, in fact, having a laugh at our expense, but we’ll never know and it all worked out well in the end.

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Despite forgetting the name of the village we were aiming for countless times, we eventually found it and, after yet more false starts, also found a Catholic Mission that did indeed agree to put us up for the night – with the hundreds of local children the other side of the wall, new-born goats wobbling around the garden and running water in the shower! The only slight downer was the thunder and black clouds that joined us, but we were feeling quite zen about our next steps. If we had to wait out the rain, there were plenty worse places to be stuck.

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