Marie Javins tackles the worst road in Africa and discovers the upside to travelling alone as a women
From Mali to Gabon, so many of my MariesWorldTour.com transit days had been unrelenting endurance tests. The kind of trips that left me grateful that my home-to-office commute back in New York involved 17 minutes on the subway.
I'd heard the phrase, "now you are learning about our transportation problems in Africa" more than once. This always made me wonder exactly how many lessons I really needed to be convinced that the roads of West and Central Africa could stand a bit of improvement.
But Republic of Congo... these were bad roads on a level I'd never before encountered. True, one battered old dirt track can't be any worse than another bad road. But what made Congo’s N3 stand out in the annals of legendary bad roads is that it was a major artery in spite of being a potholed dirt track, and worse, I was travelling during rainy season.
Rain plus potholes equals you-know-what. Bogs. Trucks become like dinosaurs stuck in tar pits, their efforts to gain their freedom just digging them in deeper. One day our descendants will uncover perfectly preserved 1992 Mercedes trucks underground outside Brazzaville, and will wonder what circumstance could possibly have buried these trucks so thoroughly. Earthquake? Tsunami? Meteorite?
The best way out of a bog is probably to be pulled out by tractor. But that wasn’t an option out here by the Gabonese border. The nearest tractors were a few hundred miles away in the south-west, where Chinese firms are building roads heading inland from the oil-rich city of Pointe-Noire.
No, the way out of a bog on the N3 in Congo is through people-power. That's how Mike's Mercedes had found release from last night's muddy pit – through his crew pounding away at the mud with shovels and pickaxes at first light.
I hadn't yet seen the end result of their four hours of labour, and the time my friend Nikki's overland tourist-truck passengers had to rebuild the road for days in Malawi to get out of a bog was very much on my mind as we left the border town of Ngongo and approached the site of Mike's bog from the night before.
The bright morning sun was deceptively pleasant, the road looking straightforward in the light of day. If I hadn't seen the bog at sunrise, I would never have understood how dire the situation was for a neighboring truck and its crew, still trapped.
Until the road dried?
Mike stopped the Mercedes about 50 feet short of last night’s bog. His crew jumped out of the back of our truck, all carrying bricks they had loaded up on in town. When had they done that? I hadn't noticed. But they'd prepared for this moment ahead of time.
They were building a makeshift road. They dropped the bricks into the mud, hastily positioning them into place as a semi-solid surface. Traction. The crew then stood aside and looked back at our truck, waiting for Mike the driver to act.
I was taking photos, hoping to get a good shot through the mud-speckled windscreen, when Mike – who normally speaks French – addressed me in English.
"Hang on," said Mike. "Hold something."
He simultaneously tore at the gear shifter while jabbing away at the floor pedals with his feet.
We lurched forward.
And we roared across the makeshift road over the bog, tipping wildly left and then right, jerking through the mud. Mike spun the steering wheel to compensate for each movement of the Mercedes.
And we were through.
"Route ne pas bon," said Mike, apologetically.
To say the least.
The crew retrieved the mud-encased jack they'd loaned to the other truck, piled nonchalantly onto the back – this happened all the time, they seemed to say – except for one guy who moved up front to talk to me. We proceeded to drive through massive mud puddles and swamps, ping-ponging wildly along the road. I was airborne four times before noon.
"That was the worst part," said my new companion. "After this, it is easy."
The mud dried up after the first hour, and when we encountered puddles, we'd drive straight through them. In spite of being bounced all over, we never appeared to be close to getting stuck. When I thought back to ten years ago, on a similar truck in Sudan during my first MariesWorldTour.com, I was forced to admit that maybe this wasn't the worst road I'd ever been on, after all. At least this truck didn't seem to be imminently ready to demonstrate to me its point of departure. That is, the angle at which gravity wins.
But this was still an extremely uncomfortable way to travel. Think of the bumpiest journey you've had along a pitted, rural, dirt track. Now imagine your vehicle has no shocks. And your seat is worn out. You can feel each individual spring. And when you're airborne, you have to remind yourself not to let your calf land near the jagged bit of metal exposed on the left. All this for 140 miles, which sounds bad enough, but now imagine that these 140 miles take you 14.5 hours.
I had no idea how Mike and the crew could handle this. Bear in mind that they'd done this journey yesterday, then slept in the mud, and still had a sense of humor about the journey. They were doing their jobs. Heck, they were probably happy to even have jobs. But how could Mike even stay alert this long?
The crew member beside me was relegated to the back when a paying passenger got on at Nyanga. The cab is highly desirable and always costs more. Mike and the new passenger – and all of the crew – made it their business to look out for me. That's one thing about travelling as a woman. Wanted or not, you get a lot more help than male travellers do. People see in me their mothers, their sisters, their wives. They bend over backwards to make sure I'm safe.
The truck broke down once and had to be repaired right there on the road. Several times we stopped so the truck mechanic could lift the hood and tinker, but when we actually broke down, it was Mike who burrowed in under the hood and fixed the Mercedes.
He triumphantly pointed this out to me after the mechanic and crew had gone back into the cargo bay.
"Mechanic," he said gleefully, pointing at himself.
The truck crew climbed on top of the cab, turning on torches to light the road the rest of the way to the junction town of Mila Mila.
Mike turned off the truck and everyone got out. Even the goats in the back, all tied together, were carried out. This was a dinner stop as well as a headlight-repair stop. By night, Mila Mila looked hopping (I later saw a photo of it by day and laughed at the bright-lights-big-city impression it had left on me). This was a major rest stop for logging trucks and the bars in town competed to get attention by having the loudest music and the most lights.
I wandered the small strip of shops and bars, but what excited me was the lights in the distance. Surely that was Dolisie, our destination. 31.5 miles away. We were practically there.
Or not. We needed three frustrating hours to cover the short distance. The roads did not get better until we hit tarmac on the outskirts of Dolisie.
In Mila Mila, I sat in a shop and ordered a Fanta. A video of Michael Jackson performing Beatles songs was on behind me. Several curiosity-seekers stopped to see what I was doing there. I spoke a little French, most of them spoke a little English, and one thirty-something man was fluent.
"I know English because we learn it in school,” he explained. “We learn many things in school. Many Africans are fluent in English and French and are highly intellectual. But the problem is still that there are no jobs. You guys think we are stupid because we don't have jobs, but we are educated too. The problem is there are just no jobs."
I struggled to respond.
Of course I didn't assume this articulate dual-language stranger was stupid. But to answer this would be tricky – I knew from how some people had responded to my book Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik that he had a point. Africa is a huge continent full of different lifestyles and economic diversity, but many had written to me with simplistic notions of childlike inhabitants living off the land in twig skirts. They asked why I hadn’t written about this idealised beauty in my book. I regularly rail against the absurd myth of the noble savage and advocate for my notion that people are similar everywhere in the world.
This Congolese man was actually quite right about what many people believe, much the way some believe that Americans are loud and don't know geography, or that Germans never break rules and have no sense of humor, or that all French people are snobby and rude. I sought the words to explain, but my new Congolese friend smiled and didn't wait for my response.
"Anyway, I am going home. It is nice to meet you and I wish you a safe journey to South Africa."
Mike honked the Mercedes horn. That was our signal. All the passengers and their goats piled into the back. I climbed up into the cab, the other passenger behind me. We placed my annoying water bottle between us – annoying because it has a habit of rolling away when the truck was lurching around, which was always. Mike turned on the headlights and they worked, to our relief.
I thought back to 2001, when a truck I was on in Ethiopia had lost its headlights during my previous round-the-world journey. The driver had panicked and tipped the Isuzu off the road outside Lalibela. I’d been lucky to walk out, to continue on into Sudan with only a cracked rib and walking pneumonia.
We made a U-turn back to the crossroads, took a right, and headed out.
We pulled into the bus station in Dolisie at midnight. My back was sore. Everything was sore. I was near-delirious from physical exhaustion, boredom, and diesel fumes, and hurt like hell from bouncing around all day. The bouncing had been relentless. All I wanted to do was get in a taxi and say, "Take me to the best hotel in town." But when a taxi driver approached, the truck crew chased him off.
"SHE IS GOING WITH US," said the passenger who sat in the cab with me. The taxi driver backed away.
This was a bad idea, and I knew it. The huge truck driving around town in the middle of the night, the staff trying to wake people up at small hotels? After the second strikeout, I gently pushed them into letting me get into a taxi. By now, Mike and the rest of the crew knew that I was right. They'd hammered away on doors at two small inns but the interiors had stayed dark. The passengers were all tired. No one wanted to drive me around Dolisie all night.
Mike motioned to a bar up the road from the second hotel that hadn't answered us. One of the crew walked me and my backpack over to a taxi in front of the bar. He told the driver to take me to a hotel. I waved back at Mike, the passenger who had been next to me for ten hours, all the passengers remaining in the back, and their goats. A simple good-bye didn't really cut it after a trip like that. But they'd dissolve into the night and that would be the end of our bond.
"Any hotel that is bon and had an en suite douche."
The taxi driver laughed.
And that is how I ended up in Hotel Gabrielle, which had little air-conditioned cells that featured tile compartments including buckets of water in them along with non-working shower nozzles. Toilets were at the end of the courtyard (no seats, of course).
My en suite douche was a bit of a letdown. Ah, who cares, I thought. It was great to just have water along with my soap, and I was leaving at seven anyway.
One bit of information I'd wheedled out of the taxi driver was that the train to Brazzaville leaves on Friday. Which was good. My gamble of racing from Ndende to the Congolese border had paid off.
Or so I thought, for what remained of my night and most of the next day.
Wander Woman Marie Javins witnesses a muddy miracle in the Republic of Congo More
Marie's resolve – and balance – is tested as she tries to get to the Congo border before it closes More
Wander Woman Marie Javins arrives in Gabon and discovers that it's the simple things that give the most pleasure More