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Democratic Republic of Congo

August 2-5

The Beach

We were on our way, but despite everything, doubts lingered over our entry into the DRC; had we covered all the options, what if this? ....what if that? ....it was all so nerve wracking! Cocooned in Boris we ate our lunch as we watched the mad world around us; gradually at first, then in a wave of jostling humanity, foot passengers crowded the ‘off ramp’ end of the ferry, we were approaching the dock at Kinshasa and our meeting with the immigration officers. The 2 mile long port area of Kinshasa, official title ‘le Beach Ngobila’, is known by all as ‘the Beach’. Fighting the river current, the ferry nudged onto a wide concrete slip way, and once secured, the ramp was lowered and the foot passengers surged up the slipway towards the awaiting officials.

Amongst the crowd of stevedores who fought their way on board to off load sacks, was a man in civilian clothes with no proof of identity, who claimed to be a DRC official and demanded that our passports and our carnet be handed over to him for processing on shore! This was very alarming, we had only been totally separated from our passports once before and hated the sensation, now to include our carnet as well; it was just like handing over our identity. Our instinct was to refuse, but a clutch of other vehicles’ documents in his hand persuaded us that he was on the level, we handed our precious documents over and he made his way ashore.

Ferry at the Beach, Kinshasa

Entering the DRC
Dockside hands waved imperiously in our direction. We drove up the slipway and onto a tarmac apron surrounded on three sides by a narrow metal cage; a prison like tube through which foot passengers squeezed slowly forward and, having been checked by a posse of khaki clothed officials, spewed onto the slipway and rushed onto the ferry. We parked as close to the exit as possible and, leaving Liz and Philippe on ‘neighbourhood watch’ over everything attached to the vehicles, Peter and Susanne, full of trepidation, went into a group of nearby offices in search of our documents and the immigration officer.

Initially it seemed our worst fears were being realised; the passports and carnets were nowhere to be found and the immigration officer was decidedly truculent and unhelpful. Were we about to be turned back onto the ferry like overlanders before us? However, Peter and Susanne were then shown into a small sweat encrusted office, a small haven of tranquillity after the raucous bedlam in the hallway outside. The passports were on the desk and the official behind them friendly and efficient; he perused the visas and the letter from the Ambassador and after noting our contact address in Kinshasa, the home of British Defence Attaché, stamped the passports and we were in! Everybody’s hard work had paid off; we had done it. Phew, what a relief!

As they left the building a large spotlessly clean black Range Rover, the union jack proudly flying from the bonnet, entered the compound; Tim and his wife Shelly had arrived in an Embassy car! It was just such a great joy to see them and the flag, we felt so relieved and secure. Tim was an absolute star, all this was well beyond the call of normal Embassy help and we then knew for certain that we were safely through the border formalities. Through we may have been, but the DRC border officials had the last laugh; a new scam was in operation and we were probably its first victims!

Disinfection! We had to be disinfected and at our own expense; our vehicles were a health hazard. A health hazard, in this country of all places! And a $120 health hazard at that! We argued, Tim argued, but to no avail. A ‘doctor’ appeared with photocopies of the relevant pages of an official government document which were proffered as proof; we wanted to leave, we had to pay. A ten litre spray canister with a hand pump and exactly like one to be found in a garden centre appeared. It was a complete sham; the job was done in a very slap dash way with only a few squirts of some white looking solution sprayed onto only parts of the wheels. Fuming with frustration, we sped through the port gates and followed Tim and Shelly to their ‘Official Residence’.

Kinshasa and Diplomatic Succour
Kinshasa, tropical Africa’s largest city and expected soon to usurp Paris as the largest francophone city in the world, had a bad reputation for squalor and lawlessness. But the streets of central Kinshasa that we passed along were a surprise, we were amazed at how rubbish free it appeared and the streets were so much quieter than we had expected. But then it was the week end!

(left) Front steps,Tim's 'residence' Kinshasa

(right) The Woodman family and HMG's Range Rover with Defence Attache's flag

Tim and Shelly had kindly offered to put us up for the night in the guest house of their spacious abode. We met their young sons, Harry and Max, and were shown around; having seen the swimming pool, we were soon enjoying a cooling and wonderfully invigorating dip; what bliss! How kind and gracious of our lovely hosts, and how well they looked after us. After showers, hair washes and finding clean clothes to put on, we had the obligatory G&T on the veranda; they make them strong in the Congo! Then feeling slightly sozzled we were driven in THE car to THE Ambassador’s residence for (more) drinks! The Ambassador, Nick Kay, greeted us at the door of what was the most stunning and palatial residence and we sat on a perfectly beautiful patio overlooking an immaculately maintained and pretty floodlit garden, beyond which in the dark flowed the mighty Congo River.

We so enjoyed the whole event, the setting, the ambience and the company of the affable Ambassador, his family and friends; it must have been a first for overlanders! Susanne was so overcome by it all, that she nearly applied for British citizenship on the spot! To finish off the evening we went to a marvellous city centre restaurant called Chateaux Margau where we had a really excellent Franco/Belgian meal sitting outside on a huge, cleverly lit patio under enormous trees dripping with vine tendrils. What an exciting and memorable day it had been.

Kinshasa to Madimba
The following morning, August 3, Tim in the Range Rover, accompanied by Shelly, Harry and Max, led us through a maze of quiet unsigned streets on to the main road which would take us southwest to the border with Angola at Matadi. We parted, mouthing ‘thank you’ at our lovely, kind hosts and drove out of Kinshasa on a main road that would in effect mirror the route of the Congo River. The world’s second greatest river after the Amazon, it remained unnavigable between Kinshasa and Matadi due to rapids, and the road link had largely replaced that of the railway line, built by forced labour and at great human (African) cost in the 1920’sand, along with the Congo River, alluded to by Joseph Conrad in ‘Heart of Darkness’.

(left) Liz buying vegetables,Madimba market enroute Cutes de Zongo
(right) Madimba market stall with vegetables and cooked manioc in palm leaves

After about an hour we came to a town called Madimba, very much a truck stop, nonetheless Liz and Susanne found the fruit and vegetables they wanted at its colourful and busy market, including some truck driver’s ‘fast food’ for lunch. This was a spicy concoction based upon manioc, wrapped in a banana leaf, tied up with thin strands from some plant or other and steamed until cooked and proved to be very tasty.

(left) Fast food Congolese style
(right) Home made football game, Madimba

Madimba to the Chutes de Zongo
When planning our passage through the DRC, we had agreed that the chronic instability of the central and eastern areas of the country would restrict our journey to a drive from Kinshasa directly to the Angolan border. The distance to Matadi dictated that we would have to overnight somewhere en route; as a result we had been urged by Tim and Shelly to make a detour to the Chutes de Zongo, a spectacular waterfall on a tributary of the Congo River. As there was also a decent campsite some 300 yards from the top of the falls it seemed too good to miss. Beyond Madimba we turned off the tarred road onto a long and tiring sandy piste that would take us to the Chutes de Zongo.

Working on the stuck lorry,enroute Chutes de Zongo

Almost at the start of the track we came to a grinding halt; a truck laden with sacks of charcoal was very firmly stuck in the sand, its rear axle resting on the track’s central ridge and its rear wheels whirling free of the ground. Boris just managed to squeeze past, but the Landrover couldn’t quite make it. It was sometime before the truck’s hot and sweaty crew freed it, allowing us to continue along the bumpy track. We passed several laden down vehicles with people sitting precariously on top of the cargo; one lorry even had a goat tethered to the roof of the drivers cab. Quite how it managed to remain standing upright we couldn’t tell, but it was such a funny sight. Every so often we drove past small brick houses, some abandoned and perhaps a relic of the colonial past, sitting in amongst the more traditional village huts. The landscape surrounding the villages was parchment yellow and dotted with palm trees, under which fields, devoid of crops, were being left neglected until the approaching rainy season spurred the owners into action.

Roadside village brick hut,enroute Chutes de Zongo

The condition of the piste continued to deteriorate and when we arrived at the Chutes de Zongo campsite it was much later than we expected; close to 5pm with the sun sinking towards the horizon. It had been a long day and we were exhausted, but as we wanted to leave first thing the next morning, we had to muster up the energy for a guided walk to the falls before the light deteriorated further.

The Chutes de Zongo

(left) The lip of the Chutes de Zongo
(right) The Chutes de Zongo

We quickly organised a guide to take us down along a steep track, to where we could get a spectacular view of the brown water of the river as it cascaded over the Chutes and then crashed and foamed its way nearly 200 feet down into an invisible gorge at the bottom. In doing so, a mist of spray was created that drifted towards us dampening our clothes and hair. The sun had by now set and so, leaving the roar of the Chutes behind us, we returned to the campsite to eat a fish supper at the small camp restaurant. It was absolutely delicious, and gosh, how hungry we were and, unfortunately, so too were the mosquitoes!

Chutes de Zongo

Admitting defeat we quickly finished our meal and decided to have a shower before going to bed. The ‘ablutions’ were of the ‘in name only’ variety; no lighting and no water! Undaunted by these shortcomings, Liz soon had a Heath Robinson shower rigged up in the ‘ablutions’: part filling our plastic washing up bowl with water from Boris, standing in it and Peter, torch in mouth, using a mug to splash the water over his soapy water nymph! Feeling well washed, but dog tired, we made our way back to where we had parked our vehicles, close to the edge of the river and the Chutes, and were soon lulled to sleep by the monotonous rumble of the falling water.

The Chutes de Zongo to Matadi
The morning of 4 August was grey and chilly, so it was on with our fleeces and off we set on the long drive back to the tarred main road. Once there, we began our 6 hour drive to Matadi. Our enjoyment of the countryside was somewhat marred by the huge lorries dashing to and from Matadi in a cloud of dust and impenetrable black diesel fumes; those heading there overtook us, bend or no bend, in suicidal fashion and often forced us half off the road, whilst those heading towards us seemed intent on playing ‘chicken’ as they raced down the middle of the road, leaving Peter no option but to pull over. Liz was shutting her eyes and praying, whilst Peter was swearing and honking the horn like an over excited Frenchman!

Logging lorry,enroute Matadi

When we were able to relax, we gazed at a countryside little different from that of eastern Gabon or Congo-Brazzaville; rolling hills covered in yellow savannah and, as always, smoke rising in the distance where large tracts of it were being burnt, blackened and destroyed. Another unchanging constant of our travels was the poverty of the villagers, the cleanliness of the ground between the huts and the smile and wave of welcome they gave us. The huts in these villages were increasingly made of a rough and ready fired mud brick; each village had at least one kiln in the shape of a long Dutch gable, about 6 to 8 feet tall and often beside which stood a stack of yellowy brown bricks, presumably for sale.

Roadside hut, enroute Matadi Rolling savannah enroute Matadi

The closer we got to Matadi and the Congo River, the steeper the hills and the deeper the ravines; at times, with the pale yellow grass swaying in the wind, it reminded us of the Sierra Nevada in California. We reached the outskirt of Matadi in the late afternoon; we were aware that ‘The Mission’ in Matadi offered space to overlanders overnight, however we did not know the location or name of the mission. We followed signs for the city centre and port area; all around was the organised African chaos of taxis, cars, noxious fumes, wandering pedestrians and street sellers, making it difficult to follow Philippe as we headed down the hill into the city. The centre of Matadi retained reminders of its past, with large, ornate and imposing early C20 Belgian colonial administrative buildings and it was here that Philippe pulled up at the main gates of a Catholic mission. Unfortunately it was the wrong one! Sensing our frustration and full of the milk of human kindness, the Father we were talking to offered to lead us in his car to the Mission of Charitable Nuns. The right one!

Outskirts of Matadi Novel use of a container,Matadi

The mission was not far away, but being closer to the port area it was in the heart of a rundown part of Matadi, which in the gloom of the evening took on a slightly sinister air. The mission was atop a small hill and the Father kindly introduced us to one of the nuns who took us under her bustling African wings and showed us into a flagstone quadrangle where we were welcome to park, eat and sleep. We felt safe and secure in the heart of the mission, but the tranquillity of the darkening evening was soon broken by a babble of voices coming from the grounds of a school next door.

Being curious we looked over the dividing wall; there were long rows of seated people facing us and the back of the imposing figure of a man standing and addressing them with great passion. A school meeting, a political rally? No, as we watched he raised his hands and fell silent, it was a silence into which poured the voices of his audience, now standing and waving their hand skywards; it was an evangelical gathering speaking in tongues. As the babbling petered out, a hymn, quietly at first then louder and louder, rose up into the evening air; the marvellous rhythmic, swaying, clapping musicality of Africa was on view before us.

Camping in the courtyard of the Mission,Matadi

The intermittent singing provided a lovely backdrop to our evening meal, a local disco that went on way beyond midnight did not! We were woken at four in the morning by the cleaning ladies and their clanking buckets, followed by Mass at 6am. Oh no, yawn, yawn! Who said missions were places of tranquillity!

The DRC Border with Angola

A last look at the River Congo, enroute to the border

With Liz feeling a little the worse for wear, we left early (of course!) on August 5and drove the short distance to the quiet border crossing into Angola, the land of birth of that Landrover driving, charming, Swiss pyromaniac ...Philippe. The border posts were only some 100 yards apart, separated by thick scrub, the DRC border officials were beside each other in a row of tiny offices. Our departure from the DRC was straight forward but the bureaucratic red tape took ages, for the first time our yellow fever certificates were demanded, but couldn’t be returned to us until the right person had returned to check them.

While we were waiting for this to happen there was a major border incident; suddenly the crashing of undergrowth and the sound of what we took to be swearing came from the midst of the border scrub and then from it emerged an angry looking Angolan soldier with what looked like a Kalashnikov rifle in his right hand. Oh Lors! Was this the beginning of an invasion of the DRC? Or perhaps he was seeking political asylum! Well he was seeking something; a fugitive, an escapee, the border detachment’s lunch: yes, a chicken would you believe! He sought the help of a couple of DRC gendarmes; the search proved fruitless, but the smirks on the gendarmes faces when the Angolan had left, made us suspect that the illegal immigrant was under lock and key and awaiting sentencing.... roast or fried!

Eventually the yellow fever certificates were given back to us and we returned to our vehicles, the barrier was raised and we left the DRC behind us after a whistle stop passage of only 3 days.

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