What a tough day..... but Congo roads now behind me, as Gabon is another new country!
11th March 2014.
I did see the large white wooden cross in front of my ‘hotel’, but didn’t realise it was all part of a Christian church complex…..! I’d experienced it before in one other remote village: At precisely 6am, the village gong goes, I sense signally get up time, and a form of routine enforced by the senior village ‘chief’. There were 10 loud ‘bongs’, metal on metal, the sent out quite a peaceful wake up alarm. Half an hour later, I heard hymns and prayers being sung in the large room next door to my room complex.
After my discussions last night, I did wonder where the motivation to face each day comes from, and I think this start to the day routine was the answer. I maybe putting my western slant on things, but it just appeared that this village is going nowhere, but definitely has a momentum of being stationary contentment!
My path was exactly opposite: No routine, and every day I have to create my own momentum, and all in a vacuum of any certainty, and the vulnerability / excitement of a new road ahead. Today I knew I had a long day in front of me, and although I had a map, I didn’t trust it’s distances, and I had a range of distances to the Congo / Gabon border of between 100 and 200 kilometres quoted to me. The police chief had casually said to me, the road is fine and I should be there in three or four hours! I’ve learnt not to believe anyone in such a range, and to just head out with a mind-set, that it will be longer than I think, and harder than I think! So with that context, I was packed up and mounting the bike at 7am, as the dozen or so locals came out of their early morning prayer session. Polite goodbyes were exchanged, and I was then on my own, back on the dirt / mud road…..
To my surprise the Chinese were also out early, heading in the opposite way, two big timber trucks laden with the now familiar products of felling in the deep forest. I stopped as one went buy, in awe of the girth of their tree trunk load. It did make me sad, but I then thought that I don’t know the facts and cannot just jump to conclusions that this is rape and pillage of the environment. What is clear that these impressive trees were many years old, and felling them on a sustainable, yet commercial, basis, created many unanswered questions for me.
They were virtually the only, non-motorcycle, vehicles on the road, and other than the odd village to village, local motorcyclist I had the road to myself. Not sure that was a good thing, as often I did have thoughts coming up of I wonder how long I’d have to wait for someone to find me if I had a problem. I got into the discipline of noting where the villages were relative to my speedo distance, so that I knew how far back I’d have to walk / run or whatever if I needed help. It is funny how the mind plays games when one is real remote and alone. I wasn’t real, real, remote, but other than passing a village now and again, mostly I did feel pretty alone out there. I hadn’t really felt this type of aloneness, since Mozambique. I think the weather and the quality of the road played a role. At this latitude, the sky is often looking threatening, and one knows how it can bucket down, and the road conditions will change almost instantly.
The road surface was so variable, from pretty firm hard red clay, to patchy puddles, to full on lakes across the road. Often the rain here is quite localised, just being in a corridor tracked by the wind and a thick cloud bank, having been born in an elevated area. A huge rainstorm could pass by an area, and a few hundred metres away there would have been no rain. The soil surface varies a bit too, from red clay, to orange and then, milk chocolate brown, ‘earth’. It’s the range of combinations of rain extent, and these surfaces, that makes this type of road so unpredictable, and requiring of intense concentration.
Well I had a moment of lapsed concentration as I hit a mud patch, tapping the throttle just that bit much, and before I knew it the bike was over, and pummelled my left side into the mud, trapping my left leg under the pannier. I managed to wiggle my leg out, but could feel that I would not be without bruising, and also the footrest had pierced my calf. Nothing major, other than the ego again, and the priority was to get the bike up again. Well in the soft mud it wasn’t the easiest of tasks, but as always I had the option of lightening the bike by removing the panniers. “That’s for nerds”, I thought, which kicked in the turbo-boost kicked and thankfully the bike was back upright again, just the left side covered in mud. My left side was also covered in dripping mud, and I was mad at myself for that slip in concentration, but once again a lesson!
Coming up to the very next mud river, I decided to stop, and take a break. In conditions like this one speed varies from maybe tops of 45 km/h on the good dry sections, to as low as 8 km/h through the mud. This range plays havoc with my mind as it calculates the range of hours it could take me to the border! I decided to discipline the mind by not worrying about speed but just doing one hour, and then a full ten minute break, with helmet off and just taking in the wonderful equatorial forest environment. Polar expeditions has taught me this: It’s just about putting in focused, quality hours, and eventually the kilometres add up, but don’t focus on the kilometres travelled! This worked well…
One of my breaks was almost perfectly timed with passing a fair size village, and now not sure how many days I’d be ‘out here’, I thought I’d stop in for a drink, and see whether they sold ‘essence’? There was one 125cc motorcycle parked there, so chances were probably good. As usual the locals were all sitting in a circle, under a tree, discussing village life, or whatever they do discuss! My “Bonjour”, brought a chorus of warm return “Bonjours”, some even standing and offering handshakes. Yes, they had ‘essence’, so saying I needed 5 litres to fill the bike up I asked the price? Well, distance certainly adds margin, and having no competition, and a seemingly desperate tourist, all helps. I ended up paying 1600 CAFrancs ($3 per litre) but it all seemed like a good win-win.
A guy on another 125cc bike pulled in, and started asking me for money, and then cigarettes, which annoyed me. I gave him my anti-begging story, and he was moved as often happens, shaking my hand and apologising, we then moved to talking about motorcycling and where he was going? Well to my surprise, he had pulled in to fill up with essence, as his last stop before Gabon too…. I honestly didn’t believe he was going the whole way on that bike, but he looked to the heavens and I could see him saying in French, “on his oath”, as he works in Gabon. He said the road was good, and it would take him 4-5 hours. Well, this was inspiration, I needed, and as parting company he asked me to take a photo of him and his bike! (See the guy in orange below.) I have learnt by now, that these little 125 cc bikes, without panniers and all my load are very nimble and the pilots, are quite extraordinary in the way they pick their routes through all the ‘mudfields’!
Well, I am supposedly in primate country, but given the stories I have heard, and the attitude of the locals to anything wild that can be eaten, I was never expectant of seeing wildlife. This is so different to East Africa, where the expectancy provides another level of attention and fun on the ride. Anyway, to my absolute surprise I did come across what I can only conclude was fairly fresh, primate excreta, lying on the road, …..and a reasonably large specimen at that!
After about six hours on the road, I came to a huge river, with a long bridge across it, and from my map, knew the sizeable last town in Congo, Nyali, was not far off. These Congo rivers are impressive, and all brown, muddy and fast flowing, relative to their huge size.
Within two kilometres I was relieved to ride into the town, and find shops, I market, and the now familiar site for these Congo towns: A relatively ostentatious area governor’s offices and residence, the building such a contrast to the filth and squalor everywhere else.
There was a centre roundabout, complete with an unrecognisable, and in dire need of revitalisation, ‘piece of art’ with two roads heading off, and I decided to park the bike, take a well-earned, late lunch break, and find out the way to the border.
I was ‘found’ by a young guy, who could speak good English, with an American accent. He was a Nigerian, now living in Gabon, and said his name was ‘Steve’, which I assumed was his tourist friendly nickname! He was a nice guy, but as he told his story, I couldn’t help but think this guy was painting a clever picture for captivating my compassion and monetary gifts! He was 20 years old, had a five year old daughter. His wife had died, a few years back, his parents were both dead, he had no job, no idea of what type of work he could do, but still a smile on his face! In East Africa, I could see his ‘job’ could be lucrative, tapping into helping passing tourists, but as he confirmed, no tourists pass this way. He had a good idea of what I was needing and pre-empted most of my questions with his suggestions, and soon I was shown into a restaurant close to the roundabout.
He called the owner, Marie, and she soon showed me what my options were: It was either ‘meat’ or fish, and the fish didn’t look great so I choose the ‘meat’, asking her if she could add the staple cassava based carbohydrate. I sat down at a table, and Steve pulled up a seat to join me. The meat was a strange shape, not looking like the traditional, bony, chicken or beef, so I asked Steve if he knew what it was? He told me it was “meat from the forest”……Just what I thought, I’d been expecting this earlier…. I confirmed with him, that it was monkey. I must say I had this range of reactions within, but whether cowardly or not, I decided to not protest strongly to ‘them’, but rather go ahead with the trial, and then see how best to deal with things once I have experienced it first-hand….. Thoughts of virtual cannibalism went through my mind, then the shame of eating something so wild and under siege from humans, and then open mindedness. So finally the dish arrived and here it is below:
The ‘bad news’ is that it tasted absolutely amazing, and was so tender, with no fat either. The other bad news is that it was a really small serving, but probably all ya get with monkey, so my mind wandered into how many monkeys are slaughtered for all the human demand around here…? The monkeys stand no chance, and that’s real bad…. I felt bad about my adding to the size of the market. Anyway, another gut wrenching, Congo experience…!
It was time to say goodbye to Steve, he confirmed it was 48 kilomtres to the border, and that the road was OK. It sounded good, but we shalll see…?Before leaving I could help but give him a longish, fatherly chat about the urgency of getting a stable, sustainable job on the go…. (I’d told him right up front that I would not be giving him money, but if he wanted to chat that would be fine. To his credit, he never breached that deal.)
The road started off great, just very narrow, and I even wondered if large vehicles could actually use the road. Some views below of this first section which was also nice and dry, and raised my spirits to new highs! It was very scenic, and I occassionally stoppped just to take the raw equatorial environment into my soul.
Then my luck changed, I must have come into one of those rain window areas, one that covered the complete final 30 kilometres of the road to the border. This was the final test the Congo threw at me, and it nearly broke me. There were huge sections of completely flooded road, where the only way across it was to choose a path, and then ride in and hope for the best. Sometimes the bottom was firm, but often it was sucking mud, and the bike went deeper and deeper, and the rear wheel losing more and more traction as forward resistance increased, As it was sucked in I had to increase the revs, and as I did that the bike swung scarily sideways, forcing me to put down my feet into the same stick mud, to try and keep the bike vertical. Visions of the whole bike being consumed by the mud, and me falling into it were vivid in my mind. I must have got stuck four or five times, where only extended low revving perseverance saw me edge away from the grips of that mud. I must say I found this all bloody nerve wrecking, but there was no other option. I really don’t know how my friend in the orange overalls was going to manage some of this? I never saw him ever again. In trying to bypass one of these mud traps, I got stuck in a ditch, where the back wheel just buried itself deeper and deeper behind a grass tuft. With the bike at 40degrees up the bank, I ended up having to remove the top box pannier, to reduce weight and had to dig out in front of the wheels. Then with me off the bike to the side, and using all my force, and all the revs of the bike, we slowly managed to climb out of this bad hole. It had taken half an hour, and I was exhausted after this…. Nobody passed by in all this time, and I did wonder, what if…
Often there were narrow paths around these mud traps, created by motorcyclists before me. While these were often really helpful, I had to always remind myself that they were created by small 125cc bikes, and I shouldn’t assume my much heavier, and bulkier bike could use the track. Once or twice I was caught out where the path was too narrow for me, and I ended up suddenly compromised somehow. In the one case I just couldn’t get up the bank to get to a village bypass road, and the bike just slid back down, falling over and embarrassing me in front of all the locals. Fortunately in this case they were able to help push me up the bank, leaving a deep, ‘wheelie’ trough behind us.
I was finding this all very stressful, and each time I saw another huge mud trap ahead, my eyes searched for the bypass road, and when I couldn’t see it, my anxiety took off again. On arriving at probably the longest mud trap of the whole trip, it must have been a hundred metres of unknown, but very, hungry looking mud, long! I was nearly at the border, but was still being tested… Fortunately at this one, there were some young guys swimming in the clear water river that fed the mud pool. They were as excited to see me, as I was to see them: I needed there help, and they wanted to help me cross this monster mud trap. They had no gear on, but were not inhibited, but rather excited at the opportunity being presented. They had clearly helped someone before me as they directed me the path. We set off, with them pushing behind. The bike went deep, but there ‘rev-less’ power was just what was needed. We made it right across without a splutter or spill, and bot them and I shouting out loudly as we hit terra firma. I parked the bike, removed my helmet and let the guys share the moment. One by one I let them sit on the bike, and took photos at their request. They were really taken by the whole opportunity. To cap it all I gave them some money, making it clear that it was for helping me…
Well that challenge turned out to be the finale, as I arrived at the Congo border post at 3pm without any further ordeals! I still had 48 km on the Gabon side, before I hit the first Gabon town where I could overnight, and I had little energy or spirit left for 48 kilometres of Congo type road! I’d heard that the Gabon roads were a whole level better, but I needed a firm confirmation, rather than just casual talk. There was an auberge at the Congo border post and it was tempting to call it a day here, but after talking to a few people, it seemed that the road WAS MUCH better, and the 48km would probably take just an hour….
I cleared the Congo border with a weak request for a bribe, and was soon through the Gabon check who seemed surprised to see me, and ill equipped to process me. I was soon to find out that this was a police check, and I still had to go through immigration. That went smooth, and by 4pm I was off, with now 45 kilometres to freedom!
The road was mostly great, wide, and firm, with just a few puddle areas which forced me to slow down. I was struck by the quality of the Gabonese villages, and infrastructure, it was obvious I was in a new country.
Clearly, not having being tested enough today, my final, final test came in the form of a heavy equatorial downpour, forcing me to stop and don full rain gear, and also cut my speed on the dirt road.
Having survived that, I finally road hit tar road leading into Ndende, and did that feel great! Success for a tough day was now very close, I just needed to find a decent hotel and a cold beer. I soon had both, a motel with an air conditioner and running hot and cold water, with a great Italian menu restaurant…..and I new brand of beer! I was one tired but real happy boy!