Marie's resolve - and balance - is tested as she tries to get to the Congo border before it closes
"Now you must wait for the chief."
"I can't wait. I must go to the frontier." I was speaking to a police deputy in Ndende, Gabon, at 14:30 on a Wednesday afternoon. He'd just stamped me out of Gabon and now I wanted to cover the last 48 kilometres to Republic of Congo before sunset.
"Not possible now. You must go to a hotel and go in the morning. There is a bus in the morning. Now there is no transport. And the border closes at 17:30."
That's why I'm in a hurry, I thought, because I need to search for private transport.
"I will go to Cecado and look for a ride there." A traveller's blog had provided me with detailed instructions for going to the Cecado supermarket and hitching from there.
The deputy looked at me blankly. I tried not to worry.
By 15:00, I was getting annoyed. Why did I have to wait for the chief? By 15:30, another deputy had shown up. The two deputies had a short, tense discussion.
"You are free to go," said Deputy #1. He walked me outside and pointed me in the direction of the supermarket.
It really was too late now if he was right about the border closing, and I should have gone straight to a hotel. But here's why I was anxious to leave.
The daily truck to Dolisie from the Congolese border leaves at 05:00 every day. Every day could mean every weekday, or might literally mean every day. I wanted to be on the Thursday truck. This gave me a little leeway if things went wrong, as there was still the Friday truck. Plus, I knew the train from Dolisie to Brazzaville left twice a week, and one of those trips was on Tuesday. Logic suggested that Friday might be the other day the train left.
If my deduction had nothing to do with the actual schedule, then I had several options to continue on my way south to Cape Town for the western Africa leg of MariesWorldTour.com. I could go by truck to the beach town of Pointe Noire, and from there apply for a transit visa to transit the Angolan enclave of Cabinda to Democratic Republic of Congo, and from Cabinda see if I could get to Boma, to Matadi, and up to Kinshasa, or I could just get the boat to Angola, and start the arduous trek south.
That would be rough indeed. Standard transit visas for Angola are five days. One day would be used crossing Cabinda. Four days to cover a huge, rough-road country with few buses would be four days of agony, with not even a second to see the country. One blog I'd read had the traveller just sleeping on buses over and over.
Some people have had luck extending their transit visas. Some had not. I didn't care – if transiting Angola meant risking four days of non-stop bus agony without the chance of seeing anything of the country, I'd already decided I'd forget Angola and fly from Kinshasa to the other end of DRC, and walk over the border to Zambia.
Zambia has scheduled buses, including a scheduled luxury South African coach that goes from Victoria Falls to Windhoek three times a week. From there, it continues on to Cape Town. Transportation was easy once I crossed the border to Zambia.
I had been fantasising about using Swakopmund, Namibia's laundromat for weeks, and I was daydreaming about the comfy rooms in Namibia and South Africa. Adding Zambia to the mix meant a stay in the wonderful town of Livingstone, maybe a little trip to see some elephants, and perhaps I'd even go rafting again, like I had on the original MariesWorldTour.com in 2001.
Mostly, I was daydreaming about breakfast in a little coffee shop in Swakopmund. I'd spent a month in Swakopmund in 2005, and cute cafes that served cappuccino sounded amazing to me right now.
I thought about all this as I walked to Cecado, where I was quickly informed by a group of men hanging around that I should go to a hotel and take the morning bus.
Today had been pretty bad. I'd sat bored for hours, been propositioned by a weirdo, sat bored some more, and now I was going to have managed only two hours of movement in a single day. I knew I should listen to everyone, just check into a hotel and give up. But I was being irrationally stubborn.
The supermarket owner came up with a plan. His friend, who was guzzling Guinness next to him, would borrow his motorbike and take me to the border for 20,000 CFA, or $40.
"No, that's too much," I said. "How much is a hotel?" I was starting to warm to the idea.
"Okay, 15,000 plus 2,000 for petrol."
That was hardly a bargain. Nevertheless, I said yes. My driver laughed at the insanity of this plan they'd hatched and had another Guinness.
I bought supplies for my trek – a loaf of sliced bread, two Cokes to use as coffee substitutes if I got stuck on a truck overnight in the middle of a mud road, three bottles of water, and some cookies. I already had peanuts, a jar of peanut butter, jam, cashews, and some dried mango.
Warning flags were dropping in my head, but I ignored them. The driver – who did tell me his name but I instantly forgot it – put my backpack in front of him, like every moto-taxi has done since Mali. I wore my daypack (which holds my money, passport, laptop, Kindle, and iPhone), and we were off.
Not for long though. We got petrol, then went to put air in the tires.
"You should have her wear the backpack so you can see the gauges," said the mechanic.
Everyone standing around nearby agreed this was a good idea. I tried it out. The weight of the backpack gave me no stability. If the driver stopped suddenly, I'd fall forward and crush him. If he started suddenly, I'd fly off the back.
I'd have to hang on tight.
Our next stop was the driver's home. He honked and honked until a teenager – his brother? Son? –materialised with his passport. We'd be crossing checkpoints.
An adult came out as well. He suggested my backpack go on the front of the bike. The gauges discussion was held again, and it was again determined that I should wear my backpack.
Now we really were off, zipping down a dirt track at an alarming, terrifying speed.
I am going to die for sure, I thought. I should have stayed in a hotel.
I alternated between holding the driver's waist and hanging onto the bike's back, depending on whether I thought he was slowing down or speeding up.
This is terrifying, I thought. I wondered how they'd get me to Gabon's Bongolo Hospital if we fell down on this dirt track.
Every time we passed a person, a car, or a house, the driver beeped the horn incessantly. Presumably he wanted people to see him, not to get out of his way. I was starting to suspect that he didn't ride by here on a motorbike too often.
Thirty kilometres along, we finally stopped at a tiny cluster of huts. I stiffly extracted myself from the motorbike and took off the backpack. Ouch. I was sore.
The driver drank a third of my supply of water, peed onto a bush, then honked the horn until an older woman appeared out of a hut. They clasped hands, and then she shook my hand. She told me she was his grandmother's sister. He said she was his auntie. Whatever she was, they were related. Other women appeared, whereupon a raging debate went on about their relationship and what the word for auntie would be in English. I looked at the time on my phone. 16:30. Could we get a move on here?
"Only 15 more kilometres," said Auntie, encouragingly.
Finally, we pushed on. Our next stop was a toll gate, where the driver told the young woman taking the money that we were married and going to Congo. She looked at me and asked if this was vrai. He told her I don't speak French. Which is true, but my single year of drilling in French in tenth grade was enough for me to get the gist what he was saying.
While he was busy bragging, I shook my head no at the girl. She laughed and kept her mouth shut, to let him have his moment. The driver, to punctuate his point, casually dropped his hand onto my thigh.
Will this day never end?
Our next stop – and by now I was praying for stops, as the backpack was too heavy and I was sore – was a little outdoor bar.
The travel gods were with me. My driver didn't order a beer. One of the bar's customers told me he'd see me later. He was the policeman who would be checking me in on the Congolese side of the border.
I could barely get back on the bike at this point, but we made it to the border. A Gabonese man took down my details – slowly – and then imprinted more stamps into my passport next to the ones I'd gotten in Ndende.
Back onto the bike. Back down the road.
Our next stop was the Customs office for Gabon, where a man looked at my stuff while I asked him what was the point of looking at my stuff when I was leaving the country.
My stuff bores any Customs person who bothers to look. Clothes. Shampoo. Shoes. Nothing interesting at all (most of them don't think to look in my daypack, which holds all my technological goodies).
When we finally reached the gate to Congo, the driver just told me to duck and sped under the gate.
"No!" But he didn't hear me as he drove on. My head cleared – I made sure of it – but my backpack tapped and derailed the barricade. More importantly, my daypack flew off the front. I wondered how my laptop felt about today's pounding. I'd later find out that my DVD drive had broken.
When the driver stopped, I threw myself off the bike, dramatically declaring, "No more. I will walk."
Luckily for me, I happened to declare this right in front of the Customs office on the Congo side.
This Customs guy was slow but methodical. He did go through my daypack, and told me the laptop was fine to bring across. He also asked where my car was. I laughed. Car?
He instructed me to visit the police up the road, then get my other immigration stamp on the left, then I could head to the guesthouse.
Not surprisingly, there was no one in the police hut. He was probably still at the bar. I went to the next office, nearly getting run down by a guy tearing by on a motorbike. Ah. My driver, heading back to Ndende. He honked 50 or 60 times before disappearing under the barricade.
Dusk was nearly gone now, and darkness was encroaching. The immigration guy held his phone up to my passport to illuminate the printed details. The border didn't seem to have closed at 17:30, which we were now well past.
Thud went the stamp.
That's it. I'm in Republic of Congo.
I'm not waiting for the policeman, I thought. He knows where to find me. There's only one guesthouse in town.
The immigration guy pointed me to the guesthouse, a long brick structure with two rows of rooms and two squat toilets in the back. Showers were two brick closets where you could have a bucket of water delivered. The rooms had mosquito nets, fans, cheery crisp sheets, and locking doors.
The owner was quite the entrepreneur, running the guesthouse – or auberge as it was called locally – selling phone credit, and running the village bar where he has football games come in over a satellite link. Rows of plastic chairs were lined up in front of the TV at game time. Not for me though… even if I liked watching sports, I had an appointment with a bucket of water and the brick closet.
Before I went to bed, I had one more question for the auberge owner.
"Quelle heure est la… truck… pour Dolisie?"
"The bus? You want to know the time of the bus?"
I laughed. "Yeah, the bus." Hilarious. A giant Mercedes was the local bus.
"Five. But sometimes four."
"Will he honk?"
"I'll tell the driver to honk."
And with that, I retired to my brick box and cosy mosquito net. I could hear the generator going – we had electricity for the fans as well as the soccer. I made some peanut butter sandwiches for tomorrow's trip, set my alarm for 03:45, and was out.
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