I knew this return truck ride would be interesting, but not this amount!
9th March 2014.
I woke this morning knowing I had a difficult task ahead, but being a Sunday, I wasn’t sure whether it was best to get out on the road early, or to accept that today would just be about getting to the outskirts of Brazzaville, and trying to find a truck that would then leave the next day.
I had that uneasy feeling inside me, that finding a truck to take me back to Madingou, and my bike, wasn’t going to be as easy as finding the truck to Brazzaville. At Madingou, with trucks forced to pass through the village, and with many stopping, it was just a matter of finding a willing driver. Brazzaville was another story, as there were many trucks, all going different places, and then the traffic was full on. So with all this in mind, I prepared myself for lots of unknowns, patience, and being prepared to be flexible on sleeping arrangements for the night!
The waiter at my hotel, provided a good lead as I was leaving, giving me the name of a place where a lot of trucks to Point Noire, leave from. I headed there by taxi, but when I arrived at the place, it was a real dump, and there was just one large, blue tip truck parked there. Being an obvious outsider in the area, the locals crowded on me, fighting to be first to sell me stuff, but then realising I was actually wanting a truck to Point Noir, seemed to lose interest. They did seem to be saying that I was in the right place though. I walked a bit further up the road where there were some other trucks, but on enquiry none were going to Point Noir. The guys near the blue truck seemed to be telling me, that I should wait for that truck. Anyway, I felt very uneasy there, and decided to walk on, as I had a good idea of another truck spot a quite a bit further along, the main road out of Brazzaville, and also I could at least get to see the rapids of the Congo River, I’d briefly seen when we drove in by taxi. So there I was walking to oblivion, at 7h45 Sunday morning! I was clearly like an apparition to the locals, as I walked by at a brisk pace, backpack on in no tourist area!
Well after about half an hour I reached the rapids, and right where they are was a police control point, which seemed to have good access down to the river. So I decided to befriend the policeman, see whether he could help with a truck idea, and then also see whether he would let me down to the river. Well the befriending worked, then he said it was pointless me walking on for trucks, and the place where I was the only place I should be…. Well, that wasn’t good news, or maybe it was, but somehow I didn’t like the vibe there. I could see, that the fact that I was going by truck, impressed him, and that was just the break I needed for him to OK me, to go through their property down to the Congo River. It was worth it, as I really got a feel for the quantity of water flowing down this huge river, but it was difficult to get a good photo of the rapids, as they were still quite far off… A tributary was flowing into the river right where I was able to walk, and this sizeable river by any standards, was pumping muddy water as it flowed with speed to join the mighty one.
Back to the task at hand, and I now confused the locals more, by turning around and walking back the same way I’d come. I somehow didn’t want to go back to ‘that place’, and was still determined to get a truck ‘my way’! I hailed few Point Noir looking trucks, and too my surprise, two stopped, but weren’t going where I wanted to go…. Finally, cap in hand, I arrived back at ‘the place’, and the locals seemed to smell the kill! I obviously DID know what I wanted, and was serious about a truck, because now they were fighting to be the deal doer, for my journey. I wanted to cut out any middlemen, so demanded to see the chaffeur’ (driver) of the truck they had in mind. They took me to the open back of the same blue tipper truck, and pointed into the tip bin, and I looked in and saw a bit of ‘junk’ in there, but didn’t seem to think there was any problem. They rattled off some stuff in French, but it didn’t see any problem with things so far… That seemed to give them the OK for me to meet the driver. Well the driver looked like the apprentice mechanic, but hey no time to make connection judgements! I confirmed he was the ‘chaffeur’, and that he was going to where I was wanting to go. All, good, and then I asked him what time he was leaving and after lots of sign language, we wrote it in the sand, to avoid any misunderstanding: It was 11am, and the time was then 9h15, so all seemed well in ‘my envelope’. Now after being cramped three in Aime’s cab, I had to make sure it would just be th two of us? In my best French (I sense you know how bad that is!) I thought I had his understanding and agreement that it would just be him and me. He brought up the charge, but I said payment will be no problem, and we shook hands with a deal. I said I’d go wait ‘somewhere’ (but not ‘this place’) and return before 11am. He seemed cool, and I then turned to checking out ‘the truck’! Well it was Mercedes Actros, similar to what I’d arrived with, but clearly this one was older and had a hard life. There were no headlights left, but I thought that’s OK, we won’t be travelling at night, and beggars can’t be choosers, there weren’t any other options at this point! I headed off to find a quiet spot, and also hopefully a coffee and baguette or something. Well nothing like that around, and eventually settled for a place that had a little wall where I could sit comfortably and watch the passing trade, and then eventually pull out my Kindle and read! A guy pushing a trolley with Nescafe hand painted on it approached, but he couldn’t be selling coffee? A local hailed him down, and to my total amazement this guy then proceeded to make a full on coffee. He had hot water flasks, and then this ‘fancy’ two stainless steel cup procedure where like an entertainer, he mixed the coffee by pouring from one to the other, with a mid-air stream connecting them. between. It was quite a masterful display, and then add the entrepreneurism, and I was converted, joining the queue! The guy whose coffee was in progress could speak a little English, so we exchanged greetings. The ‘conversation’ then followed to him saying he was going to Point Noir, as a paying passenger on ‘that blue truck’. Hmmm, I thought I was the only passenger? Was he competition, or what was the real story? All I knew, was that I had better claim my space. I went back to the truck, and asked the driver if he minded if I wait in the cab? He was cool with that, and soon I was all comfortable, reading my Kindle, insulated from the masses, with an hour still to wait…! After twenty minutes of bliss, the original deal makers started hounding me for their fee, and then the driver arrived, behaving aggressively and demanding payment! Gee, I thought how lucky I’d been with Aime, and what a real gentleman he was. We never discusses money, until we arrived in Brazzaville and I produced the cash to pay. Here was a guy demanding payment upfront, when I wasn’t even sure the vehicle would make it to the destination! I could see I’d need to pay something upfront, and offered half now and half on arrival. The guy exploded, and then he said I should move to the tip bin section, he didn’t want me in the cab anymore. I had also decided I didn’t want to be part of this, and rather have no lift than this attitude. I climbed down, and then saw the game, the tip bin section already had some people in it, and that’s what this guy’s ‘taxi service’ was: All passengers stood in the tip bin, and that explained the other guy who was supposedly also going with me. The picture became even clearer as the day moved on…..
I waited around and eventually a Toyota, 4X4 double cab arrived and the same deal makers, indicated to me that this would be good for me, and it was going to Point Noire. I insisted on meeting the chauffeur again, an angry looking guy, fully shaven head and an evil looking goat beard. His piercing eyes drilled into me, as he almost reluctantly, confirmed he could take me, and I should wait in the passenger seat. This was looking good, but I did think far too good…!! A few more potential passengers were similarly reluctantly taken on, and three of them coerced into the back seat. The conversations were loud, aggressive, and lacking in any form of customer service. One of the guys clearly didn’t like the deal, and angrily grabbed his bag off the back and left with the chauffeur yelling and screaming at him. Two other 2nd or ‘Z’ class passengers were recruited and they were trying to see how best they could sit in the open back section which was laden with goods. This wasn’t fun, and I knew I still had a session with the chauffeur ahead, as I hadn’t paid or even discussed the fee. The deal makers had told me to be patient.
As I waited my meeting with a man how clearly thought he was a god, I looked over to my ‘old truck’: Well the tip section was full of passengers, maybe 15 or twenty people, and I wondered in dismay as to what a joy ride hey are going to have. The truck was almost ready to depart and the cabin had a mechanic, and no passengers. Clearly the chaffeur’s strategy had ben to get the tourist to pay thinking he was going in the cab, then once the money changed hands he would be forced into the tip bin section like all the others, except being a tricked, premium payer! I could see from all around me that this was all a very low integrity business, where the passengers are all treated as cattle on the way to the abattoir….. My new ‘truck’ was part of the same system, and with the madman chauffeur, I felt very uneasy. If I wanted to be on the road to my bike today, there were no other realistic options though….
Next up the deal makers and the chauffeur arrive as a unified team, telling me I had to pay twice what I was expecting…! I protested, and gave them an amount I was prepared to pay, adding that I’d pay half now and half on arrival. The madman was disgusted, and hit the roof, storming off clearly telling the dealmakers to deal with me or turf me out? They were a bit more reasonable and saw that I knew the realistic going price. I could see there was no way I’d have a deal that included paying at the end, and so with movement both sides we struck a deal, including a deal makers commission! They did seem to have the authority to strike the deal, and I did strongly sense that our deal was a real deal, so paid the money. The mad man returned, with his eyes almost bursting out of their sockets as he shouted abuse at either me or the dealmakers. They gave him the money, and he quietened down. All the time I was sitting comfortably in the front seat, only too happy to know I had this seat all to myself and at least the journey would be much more comfortable than in the shared seat and harsh ride of Aime’s truck.
Well in his next move the madmen returned, the whites of his eyes looking very menacing against his dark black skin, and the goatie, just completing his gangster look. He came straight to my passenger door, opened it, demanded me out, then opened the back door, and pointed that I had to be the fourth passenger in there. Well I was livid, I’d been suckered in the same way I had avoided in the tip truck, but the madman had played this one well. The three guys in the back were also very angry with their new compromise, but I used my tourist power to opt for the outside window ‘seat’. They were forced to put their bags in the back section, but with my small pack, I refused to part with mine. With a massive squeeze, and protesting seat sharers, I finally managed to shut the door, and the four of us were in. Next up the mechanic arrived with his toolbox and stuff, and moved into my old seat, which now also had luggage on it.
The madman was ranting and raving and all the guys in the back with me were shaking their heads in amazement at the guys temperament. Anyway with him still shouting, we drove off into the main road at 11h20. This was going to be a real long ride, and I now wasn’t looking forward to it… To my dismay, after one kilometre the madmen pulled over where another guy was clearly waiting. Lots of heated words exchanged, the madmen and also the mechanic got out, complete with his tool box. The focus was the front wheels, and the new guy took up position behind the wheel. He pumped the breaks, shouting orders to the mechanic, and I worked out that the brakes were a problem and they were bleeding them. The new guy, in temperament, seemed like a younger brother of the madmen, as he was also shouting off emotionally, clearly unhappy with some deal they had. What a way to make a living, I thought? And they still had the unenviable task of driving 550 kilometres to Point Noir on those bad roads!
Finally the new guy was happy with the brakes, and the picture got clearer, he was actually going to be our driver! The madman was clearly the hatchet man, who bullied the customers into submission, and then the sweeter driver took over to the long relationship repairing journey! This was all fascinating, and soon we were moving again, minus the madman, but with a driver who looked like we was very uptight, and needed time to relax into the drive. Well going down the first big hill, he was testing the brakes every 100 metres, giving us four in the back a real shake up. None of us spoke, and there seemed to be just a feeling of reluctant, quiet, survival.
The atmosphere improved as the driver relaxed, after the first 75 kilometres of tar road, we turned off onto the infamous mud road. Well this road had been really churned up by the trucks, and once again I thanked myself that I hadn’t brought the bike.
For the next 6 hours I just remember dealing with discomfort, and moving millimetres to try and reduce the knocks and bumps. I had to remind myself that there were two guys sitting on the luggage in the open back, and how challenging that must be. What if one of those big rainstorms came… I concluded, that I was a relative nerd to some of these African strugglers, but then concluded that real inner strength is choosing to do what I was doing when I didn’t have to… They had no choice, and that is where exploitation starts! I knew that for me this was an experience I’d never forget but for them it was a means to an end, and this was quite thought provoking!
The only conversation was in French, but I did ascertain that my fellow back seat passengers, were from Senegal, Niger and Congo, so we were pretty multinational!
One of the positives about the bad condition of the road was that there were many stops along the way, where the road was literally blocked by stuck trucks, or jack knifed vehicles. Being the one door controller, I was always quick to relieve the door of its ‘holding us in’, duty, and step outside to give the whole body a break.
As night came we drove on, as I sensed we were quite a bit behind schedule. At around 8pm we stopped at a village, and the chauffeur told us we would be sleeping here, and moving on at 4am the next day. It was almost eight hours since we left Brazzaville, and 13 hours since I apprehensively stepped away from the comfort of my hotel room, to embark on this hellish journey. The driver seemed more relaxed and even a bit caring of me, showing me a restaurant and telling me to go eat there he would join me soon. After dealing with the diners’ shock and surprise of having a tourist walk in, I ordered food and a cold beer, and he was soon with me, and sharing a beer.
Well in the next hour I got to know ‘Forest’, and what a lovely guy. He had a wife and one kid in Brazzaville, and he was full into the competition of life, trying to make a buck how and when he can, to give himself and his wife a better life. Living with the dream in focus, but in the early stages. He as just 32, and quite a mover and shaker for his age. Dealing with the madmen required that and more….
To my amazement ‘Forest’ insisted on paying for my dinner and beers, but I somehow knew he had a plan, but I now I trusted the guy. Leaving the dinner table as new ‘friends’ we loaded up with all passengers again and Forest drove around finding an auberge for all of us. As the deal maker he got all the others into one auberge, telling me he’d have to find another one for him and I. We stopped outside a more upmarket place with a bright red light outside (photo below!), insisting I don’t get out he clearly struck a deal with the ‘madame’, and came back to tell me that’s where we were staying and it was Franc10 000. I knew this was not the real price, but with dinner included, and Forest being a nice guy, I had a real good deal too. I joked with him about the ‘red light’ outside, and he immediately asked me if I want a ‘madame’ for the night, because he could organise one? I just laughed, and indicated I was too tired. Interestuingly I now see that all these villages offer full service facilities for the many truck drivers passing through. The new road is set to change the whole economic model for this 500 kilometre route. (Well, at least the last 250 kilometre section.)
Forest and I shook hands, and I reminded him that I was setting my alarm for 03h30, but he must knock on my door when he is ready to go….
Gee, what a life this is….. very intense, so unpredictable, strong, yet temporary human bonds and feelings, and then as one looks into Africa’s soul, one is reminded that there are some real strong souls out there with a huge, but not famous story to tell…! It can be quite confusing, and unsettling, but herein lies the source of huge personal height!
As is so often the case, I don’t remember even trying to fall asleep again!