Democratic Republic of Congo
On Friday 30th May I set off towards Matadi
along the superhighway that Michelin shows as the best road in DRC, if not
the whole of Africa. It's great - massive holes that you drop into and
disappear - road works that seem to be getting nowhere, and a load of
mysterious Chinese overseers who for some reason are helping with the road
repairs. Good old Michelin.
After a few hours I stopped at a small
village and asked the village headman for permission to camp. As usual I was
the centre of attention - the whole village gathered around to watch me set
up my roof tent. Later we chatted about life, the universe, and Man U's
chances for next season, and the elder casually let drop that I wasn't the
first tourist to stay. Intrigued, I asked about the last guy who had been
through - could it be the elusive Stephan the Swissie who I was later to
meet in the flesh in Namibia, and whose trail I seemed to have been
following for most of Central Africa? No, his name was Karl. Surely not Karl
of Fez and the piste to Timbuktu, whom I had last seen in Brazzaville? When
was this, I asked. They conferred for a minute or two before replying. 1987.
A veritably touristic village, then.
Kidnapped in Kinshasa
At first it looks like my visa is going to be
a real problem. I visit the British Consulate for advice, and they are as
helpful as ever (note extreme sarcasm here). In the end Richard makes a call
to the Angolan ambassador's secretary, the friendly Mme. Amelia, who
arranges a five day transit visa for me; the embassy really impressed me
with their friendliness and helpful attitudes.
Kinshasa itself is a strikingly
cosmopolitan place. Everything here is imported - mostly by river or air as
there is no road network to speak of. NGOs are visible everywhere - replete
with their white 4x4s and plush compounds, and to keep them in the style
they expect there are the usual spread of supermarkets and restaurants
around the central Boulevard where
one pays in US dollars (the local Franc is a joke - the notes are bundled
into twenty fives, the largest denomination note is 100 francs, so a bundle
is about $6 US). If you visit be sure to check out the great Indian
restaurant in the old American Club.
As well as inviting me to stay, Richard
kindly lent me his London taxi complete with chauffer to carry me around -
this was probably for my own safety as I discovered on one of the few
occasions I took a stroll down the Boulevard.
I was minding my own business when a car
pulled up next to me and the passenger flashed a police ID and asked to see
my ID. He took my passport and said he would have to check on my place of
residence - this looked like an easy ride back to the garage so I wasn't to
concerned - until two other guys sandwiched me in the back seat, and they
took off down the Boulevard in the wrong direction. Alarm bells started
ringing. As long as we stayed on the Boulevard I knew I was safe, as police
are at every junction, and traffic moves very slowly, but I knew that if we
left the Boulevard I could be in trouble. I demanded they stop immediately
as they clearly weren't taking me to check on my residence, and a second
goon - the one to my right - assured me that everything was OK as they were
police. And of course he had to show me his ID, which was clearly a fake.
Time to get out. As surreptitiously as possible I palmed my XDA stylus - not
much to look at but it's steel, sharp, and quite capable of piercing a
jugular. All very Andy McNab, but no way were we leaving the Boulevard with
me still in that car.
At this point we were approaching a
junction manned by a gaggle of the yellow and blue attired traffic cops; the
car was turning left so I chose my moment to lean across and hammer on the
window and shout - it did the trick - as the police ran towards us they
pulled in - I pushed my way out - and they even handed me back my passport
which I had pretty much given up on. Before the traffic police arrived they
roared of into the distance. Who knows - maybe they really were police, just
putting in a little 'overtime'...
While I was having my adventures Richard's mechanics were hard at
work fixing all the niggling little problems that I had been unable to
resolve in West Africa. It's amazing that in the place with probably the
worst transport network in the world you can find a garage which stocks
everything you are likely to need for a Land Rover, as well as mechanics who
actually know what they are doing. I really don't know how Richard does it
but he is without a doubt a credit to the marque.
So excuse the plug, but if you find
yourself with a Landy in need in Central Africa make a bee-line for
Automobiles; except no substitutes.
With a new sump seal, a new door mechanism
(no more climbing through the driver's window Dukes of Hazard style, alas),
new rear brake protector, new slave cylinder, yet more rear break pads, and
a thorough cleaning as part of the service, I am ready for the drive South.
Kinshasa 26/05/03 - 39,228km
The journey from
Brazzaville to Kinshasa is a long and daunting one - despite the fact that
no other capitals are as close as these two. The problem starts with a
series of negotiations at the port, commencing at the gate and continuing
all the way up to your arrival at the Beach at Kinshasa.
Brazzaville is run as a
personal fiefdom for members of the presidents tribe, and they milk it for
all its worth - I have nothing good to say about the way its run - everybody expects to get
paid - the Mairie, customs and immigration all want a cut, as does every
bugger with a cap and a book of photocopied receipts. I've had a chat with
the British Honorary Consul (in French, as his English isn't very good), and
know to ask for the protocole des affaires estrangers, which processes
diplomats in transit, and I'm also in a foul mood as the Angolan Embassy
didn't manage to process my Visa Application in time for my departure (plus
I still haven't had a coffee). Through a combination of these as well as
sheer rudeness to any sod waving a book of receipts I manage to leave
without paying anybody except the ferry man - the people who do the actually
stamping of my carnet and passport give me no trouble at all.
On arrival, at the moment
the boat touches shore - about ten dodgy looking blokes jump aboard. These,
a fellow passenger advises me, are the thieves. They mill around the car,
and I get out to defend my rear end, so to speak. There's a bit of crowding
as hands reach for my pockets, followed by a bit of hard shoving on my part
which came perilously close to sending worst offender overboard (shame).
After that, and once I'd explained that the first person to climb onto my
roof would be eating and shitting with the same hand, as the other would be
removed by my machete, things quietened down to a sort of grim humoured
stand off until I was able to drive a shore. If that's the local welcome, I
thought, what are the officials going to be like?
Kinshasa port, however,
is a pleasant surprise - especially after the money grabbing port officials
in Brazzaville. Armed with instructions from Guillame, who had stamped my
passport, I set off less than an hour after touching ashore.
Kinshasa is a lively city
with crowded streets and massive pot holes, which tested my 2 new rear
springs to their limit. It's an amazingly cosmopolitan place considering
what recent events have thrown at the capital. Unlike Brazzaville which
clings on to its scarred shells of buildings as a grim reminder of recent
trouble, Kinshasa on the whole bears no scars, other then the odd vehicle
such as the Defender I spotted with a bunch of (patched) bullet holes in the
I spent the first couple
of nights camping at the Centre Accieul Protestant (expensive at $15 but
very nice), where I met Gay, an American who is working with bonobos (small
chimpanzees); needless to say we weren't short of things to talk about. I
set out early on Monday morning to find out that the Angolan Embassy is
closed until Wednesday, and that the owner of the Land Rover garage here,
Richard Wynne, is extremely friendly and has invited me to stay