Brazzaville mission stopped by the Military...Overnighting in Mindouli, now this brings perspective!
6 March, 2014
I must have been so tired, I don’t even remember falling asleep, but then around 4 am the ‘anxiety’ of my forced me out of my coma, and to use the quiet time, creativity to seek inspiration….. This was not about panic, but rather about trying to come up with a plan that had the least, ‘ordeal potential’, and one that could keep me on the ‘fun’, rather than focused survival, path! On waking, without a firm plan, I am always the most vulnerable, and sometimes have to deal with the semi-comatose state, extreme thoughts like today of giving up, selling the bike, and flying out of Brazzaville, to the ‘paradise’ of non-African, normality! The normal instant gratification temptations, that I know are just that…. I rapidly concluded that this was a coward’s option, and thus not one! As I really woke up, I started hearing, feeling and seeing where I actually was…. (No smell for me, I lost that sense 20 years ago, and probably often blessing in disguise in Africa!
Enjoy your shower and loo today...You could have this!
It was so nice to just hear the frogs outside, it was their time in the 24 hour cycle of a day, they had the stage all to themselves, and were making the most of it…. As I sunk into their rhythmic chorus, I felt that excitement of the situation come back, and clarity of though prioritisation and the issue came clear: I had to avoid do 500 kilometres of mindless struggle on the bike, to get to Brazzaville and back. Yes, I did need the visa, I was going to Gabon, so how about parking the bike here, and hitching a ride on a truck to Brazzaville and back. Now that felt like an adventure with a new twist, that would achieve my goal of not riding all the way, and give my expedition a new experiential dimension. All the pros and cons raced through my mind, but I concluded the odds of success were good, and it was a good plan. I then moved into planning the details, addressing the what / ifs, while trying to keep my back pack down to a real minimum. ‘Mr Felix’ would be happy to look after my bike, and I’d probably be back in three days, if all goes well. I’d need to get out there hitching a ride as soon as possible, as the overnight trucks would leave early to beat the rush, and for a long day ahead.
I heard the ubiquitous, early morning, African sweepers, starting their day outside, so decided to get up and start exploring the connections to my plan. The power was back on, and so was the water, and as I walked around to the kitchen the staff, plus some lonely dogs, and a few weeks old kitten, were just preparing for the start of their day. The ‘Bonjours’ flowed, and I thought there was no harm in asking for a probably very unlikely coffee? Yeah, the look of shock on their faces, told me coffee was NEVER on the limited, service option list! In between I was talking to Mr Felix’s 2IC, about my plan. He bought in immediately, and we were soon, wheeling my bike into a great storage space, and he ‘promised’ me he would negotiate a truck to take me to Brazzaville, I must just be patient….. I surprised the ‘group’, by producing my own tin of Nescafe and Coffeemate. Well, they were beside themselves, feeling the Coffeemate container as if it was a rare stone, they had never touched before! I indicated that it was for all of us, and all we now needed was some hot water. Their eyes lit up and suddenly there was as scurry for water in the saucepan, the gas was blazing and to my utter surprise, four very large but quaint coffee bugs were put out on the table. I went back to sorting out what stuff I needed in my backpack for Brazzaville, and what could stay.
The water was soon boiling and I was given first option for coffee, helping myself to the recipe I wanted. They followed and we were soon all seated around a single table enjoying a communal coffee. I could see this was a real treat that they valued, and in chipping in with my ingredients and effort, I could see I was moving their minds about ‘tourists’! I was a bit surprised when the lady who I was offered sex with, the previous night, without her knowledge, got up and left, returning in a few minutes with a single baguette. There was no offering around, it was hers, and she had bought it with her money. I knew this wasn’t a selfish deed, but rather about affordability. I asked the others if they would want a baguette, and they said they had no money, so as a deal I said I’d pay if one of them would go and buy it? Soon I was a real happy boy with coffee, a fresh baguette, a happy group of ‘friends’, and the 2IC looking like he had taken 100% responsibility for finding me a truck to Brazzaville. In showing his increased focus, he moved his chair outside, next the road, so he could waive down trucks. Packed and ready, I did similar. It was now just 07h15. He waived down two trucks, but they declined, and then he came to me, looking a bit disillusioned, saying he was sorry but he now had to go to his real job! A truck with Chinese ‘graffiti’ all over it, pulled up, full of overall clad workers, and he shook my hand and said Bon voyage. He was part of the Chinese road builders during the day! Hmm, they told me Mr Felix wouldn’t come to the hotel till the afternoon, so I realised I would have to do this alone…. No problem, just the level of challenge had moved up a notch, but after my 2012, Siberian truck, challenge, I felt this was insignificant, just an irritation.
As is so often the case in Africa, someone sees your struggle, offers to help, with the latent expectation of a ‘tip’ for the service. I told the guy my story and need, and the first truck that came along, he hailed down, and after a brief conversation with the driver, I was beckoned into the cab, there was one other ‘passenger’, so I was quite surprised the driver had agreed to a third person in the cab. Anyway, I greeted them both, made sure the driver knew I wanted to go to Brazzaville, and he warmly beckoned me to climb up into the cab. No money was spoken about, but we both knew there would be a win-win at the end.
The deal was done, and I searched in my wallet, the smallest note I had being a $4 equivalent, and I slipped it to my, eagerly waiting, deal maker! He was ecstatic, his risk had been handsomely rewarded and his understanding of the European world of money and service took another step up, probably increasing his level of life expectation, and possible path to increased fulfilment or disillusionment, the choice will be his….? That wasn’t for me to worry about!
Home for the next two days!
This was a large 70 000kg payload truck, with a cab that had two driven, rear axles, front steering wheels, and then a long high aspect trailer that had two axles at the rear. A Mercedes Actross, which I now know, is the most common truck used on this route. What I also now know, is that this is possibly the best testing ground in the world for truck manufacturers to really know the limits of their equipment….! Here is how I found this all out:
Well, it was all a bit cramped inside the cab, with two of us sharing the passenger seat, thankfully I had the window, and was just able to comfortably but one cheek on the seat, and thereby give my seat sharer what I deemed was a more than fair share of the, thankfully largish seat. My question of “Si bon?” was answered with a ‘strong’, “Si bon” so I felt he had a better than expected deal, and we had the basis for more negotiation as the trip went on, should my cheek, call for more!
It was now just after 8am and my plan was well into execution, probably ahead of where I thought I’d be at 6am this morning, so I felt quite relaxed. Neither of my two new friends could speak any English, so this would limit our conversation, and as such I prepared myself for a more or less solitary journey! How many hours ahead, I had no idea, and being the new kid on the block, I didn’t feel it right to start asking when he expected to get top Brazzaville! Well before we even left Mindingou, we were caught in a jam. Some guy had got himself stuck in the mud, perpendicular to the traffic flow, and with all the trucks around, traffic couldn’t move either way. We stood stationary for 20 minutes, this will be an experience I thought!
Gee, these trucks are uncomfortable, and feel every single dimple in the road…. In the first hour, I really did wonder how my butt and body was going to deal with a whole day of this. No time for complaining, this was time for the tough to get going, and also experiencing the road condition we were dealing with, vindicated my decision to leave the bike behind. The mud was worse, and now there was also heavy truck traffic…. I guess start time was a pretty narrow window for all drivers !
Interesting how the Congolese women carry loads with this head strap!
After about an hour and a half, we hit a major problem, trucks ahead at the start of a mud river, incline, were queued up, and no sign of any movement either way. We joined the queue, and we all got out, stepping into eagerly waiting mud, to see what the problem was? It turned out that a truck had slid back down the incline, jack knifed and was now stuck deep in the mud, blocking both directions. I sensed this wasn’t going to be quickly solved, but was very short on options…! The new ‘Chinese road’ was quite close to where we were, and I could hear the occasional ‘cheat’ speeding along it, so decided to see if I could make it through the thick bush to maybe wait there for a lift. I hadn’t told my ‘friends’ about my plan, which at this stage was just exploring. But no, there was no way through the thick bush, and I also did have this bad feeling within that I’d be leaving my team…. Strange hey?
We had been waiting more than an hour now, and I kept reminding myself I DID have choice, and I must exercise that to the full. Well, all the vehicles in the queue were trucks just like ours, except for one Toyota 4X4 minibus. With its mobility the driver had made a U-turn and was squeezing his way back to some plan B. As he approached, I saw he had lots of empty passenger seats, so hailed him down and asked for a lift? He rattled off some French that I think said he wasn’t going to Brazzaville, but he could help me at least get further along the way. My allegiance switched, my driver sensed he would do the same, and even encouraged me to jump ship. I felt better about this, and slipped him some notes as gratitude for at least bringing me this short way. He insisted that I take his name and number, and then I was in my new transport. A few other free spirit passengers like me, also jumped ship as we moved back down the queue, and soon we were full.
The minibus was only just managing the mud, and I sensed the driver was quite stressed with the conditions, but determined to show his vehicles versatility and his skill. We reached a little village where an ‘illegal’ road branched off to connect to the new tar road. Clearly the Chinese were able to use it, but now with the road becoming a strategic bypass around the obstruction, the local villagers had set up a rope control, and were forcing those who wanted to use it to pay a toll!!! Our driver protested vehemently, but the rope never moved, until he handed over the cash. Well, there was a large Chinese tip truck just ahead of us now, and the toll road, seemed like it had had its payday, as ahead it was literally a non-navigable mud bath. The Chinese truck got deeper and deeper into the mire, until it eventually slid off into the bank and deep water, with its wheels spinning like waterwheels without paddle blades. This was cause for much concern for our driver, and a few of us got out to assess his chances of making it through? I remained silent, but three of them were shouting at each other with much excitement or disagreement.
Eventually the driver decided to try, but soon lost his nerve, and with even louder shouting did a U-turn, got his toll refund, and we were soon heading back to the queue. I was no better off than I had been before I jumped ship, but decided to connect back with my ‘friends’ and their big truck going all the way to Brazzaville. Aime, the driver seemed very happy to have me back, and the wait continued. Some two hours of waiting, and we eventually saw movement, the road was now clear again… The break had been good for my butt, and it was now time to test it again!
The more we travelled, the more I was so pleased with my decision: The roads were truly shocking, and yesterday I never had so much truck traffic to deal with, not sure why, but this was a huge problem now.
Progress was slow, when going our fastest we managed 30 kilometres per hour, but this was for mere instants, the norm was around 15 to 20 kilometres per hour, and mostly bone jarring, or slow mud negotiation, where I could feel the trailer was verging on sliding away all the time.
The scenery was still this amazing deep green jungle, and we crossed many rivers, using anything from old steel bridges to bridges made from hardwood forest trees, that I’m sure could barely hold the weight of the truck. It was clear from the reaction of the villagers that the density of traffic was unusual, and I put this down to the heavy rain having made the route so much slower, causing the compression bottlenecks. I couldn’t believe the amount of truck wreckage on the side of the road, and am pretty sure this road must have one of the highest vehicle destruction statistics of anywhere in the world.
At around 4pm, we pulled into a village called Mindouli, and were confronted by a police control, with rope across the road preventing us from proceeding. After a long negotiation with the police guys, Aime came back looking quite dejected and said they won’t allow us any further as there are bandits ahead, and it will be too dangerous as nightfall approaches. We would need to overnight here, and then leave at first light tomorrow. Well fortunately this was a reasonable size village and I had seen at least one sign for an Auberge, and it looked like there were some local food places, where we could buy food and drinks. I was sort of OK with that, and Aime, said we should get to Brazzaville by 11 am the next day. My only issue was that tomorrow was Friday, and if I didn’t get to the Gabon embassy by the afternoon, I’d be delayed by the weekend, and given they said it could take two days for the issue of the visa, I could maybe have to wait until Wednesday next week before I leave….. Hmmm, that would be a serious delay, and not exactly fun. I have found that more than 1 day in these African capitals, drives me nuts! I always tell people: I left the big cities because they had nothing more to teach me, and what they were teaching me was bad stuff, but these African capitals take this message to a new extreme level! That’s not to say I don’t want to visit them, I truly find value in seeing them, and how different from each other they all are, but as far as inspirational attraction, they don’t even get on the list! Anyway, all I could hope for was that we would get to Brazzaville early enough that I could present myself to the Gabon embassy visa people as early as possible of Friday. For now it was switching the mind set to find some fun and enjoyment in the metropolis of Mindouli.
By 17h30 I was sitting with a cold Primus beer in hand, relaxed in an on street ‘pub’ mingling with the locals. I bought my two fellow travellers drinks and then settled into this truly content frame of mind, just watching the locals passing by, and the village work day closing, and the start of their relaxation time. It was fascinating, and the subject of a separate longer email, as there was so much richness to be absorbed. From adults to teenagers, to young kids, the people seemed really happy. The police mingled with the public, the ‘restaurants’ started cooking their wares, and the brewers started displaying their unappealing pee coloured local, cassava beer, conveniently packaged in used Pernot bottles. Music was playing, but somehow there was an order, and no completion. Best of all in the whole evening, I never had one person come ask me for money or beg for anything else. I seemed to just be accepted as another visitor. My co passenger was also a foreigner to the village, and so joined me in our special time. In between the contemplation time, Andre let me a bit into his life: He lived in Brazzaville, was 45 years old, never been married, and had been on a holiday to Point Noire. He told me about life in Brazzaville, and also how he felt about the Chinese takeover of the Congo. I was surprised how emotive he was on that subject. As we spoke three Chinese guys walked past, as though aliens to the community, but somehow I saw looks of contempt as they moved with purpose from their truck to their auberge, with no desire to mingle or integrate. I have started bringing in a bit more balance to these ‘judgements’, as I think that without the Chinese, mind set and money, Africa’s infrastructure, that I was using would not been anywhere near as developed as it is…
Following Andre’s cue, we had baguette and fish for dinner, all just sitting on the same plastic chairs, in the same informal pub. By now it was full and nobody blinked an eyelid. In my time at the pub I’d also managed to secure a room in the auberge nearby, all for a staggering $6!
After me buying Andre a few beers, he offered to buy me one of the ‘Pernot’ brand across the road, as I had said I would like to try one. This was to be my night cap, and he warned me to take it very slowly as they will knock me out. The first sip was much better than my imagination had led me to believe it would taste like, but after nursing a quarter of the bottle, I said to him it was time for me to retire to bed. What a pleasant evening it had been.
Aime was wanting an early start tomorrow, as he was quite the ‘grand prix’ racer and wanted to be first truck off the grid in the morning. There must have been 30 or more trucks parked in and around the village all stopped by the police because of the bandits.
This truck part of a series of seven carry pieces of the roof for the new Brazzaville football stadium. Point Noire is the only way to get this stuff to Brazzaville.
The auberge was ‘just what was needed’, and I was soon fast asleep, dreaming of the illusive Brazzaville!