After all the adventure we had in the Republic of Congo, we were keen to make the next few days as easy as possible, especially as Stanley was not at his best. We fixed a few things up in Dolisie, but it was a very small town and there were limited services available. James at least managed to get the brakes bled, surrounded by police, drinking at 9 o’clock in the morning, James trying his hardest to blend in and also, to fix the bonnet, so the risk of driving into someone were slightly minimized.
We had a decision to make with the impending Angolan visa. We were certainly cutting it fine with four days to make it across two countries not renowned for the greatest road networks. We could drive to Brazzaville and risk the Kinshasa crossing, reported as bribery central, with the serious chance that our DRC visa would be rejected as it was applied for in a country that we were not resident, also with the added cost of a very expensive ferry crossing, upward of two hundred dollars. Option 2, was through a small town called Lowzi, and was popular with overlanders. This option had appalling roads, reported by every overlander we had met as the worse roads in Africa. Option 3 was to sacrifice our Angolan visa to get into a part of the country called Cabinda, which was not connected to the mainland of Angola, but did have good roads and nice border crossings, however, we would need to apply, wait and pay for a second Angolan visa. As you can appreciate, none of these options jumped out at us. We knew the Lowzi route had been passed by our Italian friends a week before, but they made it very clear it was no picnic. In addition, they had a much better car than ours, newer and with much more kit so we couldn’t be sure Stanley would make it. Many discussions were had and we decided on the Lowzi route. We drove to Brazzaville, and camped at a Vietnamese restaurant known to allow overlanders to camp for free and decided that despite our tight schedule, we needed a break and some time to fix a few things on Stanley so stayed for 2 nights, eating lovely Asian and Vietnamese food. We also met another overlander, on a motorbike, who had been stuck in the Republic of Congo for 6 weeks, shipping parts and becoming very unwell with Malaria. We took the time to count our lucky stars we had only been delayed by five days!
We left Brazzaville early, as in, before 6am. We were both nervous and I had slept very little all night knowing it was going to be hard. We took a fabulous road to Kinkala, and then a slightly less fabulous, but still tarred road to Boko where we were stamped out of the Republic of Congo, still 30 miles from the official border with the DRC. The road immediately fell apart. It resembled a dried river bed, with massive ravines which split the road into several parts. We drove exceptionally slowly, with me in front of the car shouting instructions to ensure Stanley never fell down one of the massive ravines or storm drains which could easily by ten feet deep. We rounded a corner and found the road continued up an incredibly steep hill. We started up it but with seconds were rolling down. I walked the entire hill, in 35 degrees, pacing out the route he would take, and then James put Stanley in to Low gears and crept up. It was just doable. After rounding the corner, and realizing we were both sweating and had only driven 3 miles of the 25 to the border, we kept going. It didn’t get better, but the road had clearly improved from when the Italians had done it. They had had rain non-stop and had both been suffering with fevers of over 39 from Malaria. We were both on top form and the sun was out, so God knows how they managed it. We crept up and down steep hills, avoiding ravines and storm drains, with me instructing James to creep forward one meter here, and turn 10 degrees there, watching each tyre at all times, over roads which I would normally not have said were passable by a car. One wrong step and that would be the end. There would be no getting Stanley out of here. Eventually, we made it to the official border. We showed the immigration officials of ROC our stamps and they showed us through the barrier to the 5 miles of No-Mans Land which separates the two countries. We would, at that stage, have said the roads could not get worse. Of course, in the No-Mans Land, the roads were maintained by No-One, so we would have been wrong. The road had been hit by a landslide God knows when, and had not been repaired. Someone had cut another path, but this was steeper than the road we had just managed, and with more ravines then road. I walked the landslide path and it seemed, just, doable. Although, I did leg it back to James and Stanley when I found a man with a gun walking towards me, who turned out to be a helpful hunter who agreed. Just. Doable. The drops were colossal, with over 20 feet of landslide on each side, but between the two of us, we got him through it. Managing one and a half miles in over an hour. This road was so isolated there was even a sign which welcomed us to Congo Belge.
We reached a padlocked gate, which marked the entrance to the DRC. I got out, and walked into the village. It made me think of walking into a town in a Western movie. It was isolated, dusty and run down, and as I walked the 500m to the centre, there were five men, walking down the centre of the road towards me. In my mind, the theme tune of all great Western movies played out. No one said a word until the men got closer, clutching a key. I spat my tobacco on the floor and exclaimed, “Howdy, Pilgram” (No, I didn’t)….“The key! Excellent!” assuming that the key would have been lost, forgotten or taken off to the pub 20 miles away by the Chief. I immediately got questions. “You speak French?” “Yes, a little.” “You are Belgian.” “Why would you speak French if you were not Belgian.” Err…. What this resulted in was me explaining in my somehow, much better than normal French, that I learnt in Francophone Africa, and am in fact British. BRITISH. Definitely British. Grrr… Belgians etc. Of course, my passport was in the car so any sensible person would just have spoken English. Not me. I walked John Wayne and his friends to the car where I explained to James that he was going out with a moron. After searching the car and our passports we were allowed into the village, and into the immigration office, which was a tiny shack. He explained they had lots of tourists through these days, and showed us a pile of photocopies of passports. On the top of this pile was the passports of our Italian friends! They had been through two weeks earlier. We possibly have different ideas of “lots of tourists.”
We were informed by the Immigration officer that the road improved from here but we still had 30 miles til we got to the town of Lowzi. We set off and initially, it did improve. There were still massive hills with ravines up the centre, but they were clearly maintained and we were happily managing 10 miles/hour. And then came the mud. There were multiple parts in the road where it was entirely mud for 200 metres, most often leading into bridges with no sides. Stanley was spectacular, fording through the thick mud and water, with enough grip to get onto the bridges on track to cross them. Needless to say, we walked everything after our previous experiences, and I jumped my way across every bridge, to ensure they could hold my 60kg, so they would surely hold Stanleys three tonnes. We drove through more and more villages as we got closer to Lowzi, and they made me feel very uncomfortable. We have driven through every village waving and smiling and 99 percent of the time we are greeted with the same. In the DRC we were greeted with people shouting, “Give me all your money” and chasing after the car. This was such a massive difference to ROC, where people had been selling us bananas up until the last 10 miles, happy to get a good price for goods they’d grown. There were also no wells, and no evidence of any input from NGOs, just one exceptionally poor village after another. We got into Lowzi and headed straight for customs and got out carnet stamped with no problems. They asked us to go to immigration in the town and register but this was shut. As we drove away, a man stopped us – the Chief of Immigration. He needed more copies of our passports and visas. He asked us to come first thing tomorrow to register, and we agreed, despite being very keen to get the first ferry across the Congo and get out of this country as quickly as possible. We headed for the Catholic Mission in the town and were welcomed into their oasis, with bathrooms, showers and a safe compound for Stanley that we could camp in. We made dinner – homemade burgers with cheese, gherkins, onions and tomatoes, with 10 children peering over the wall, despite complete exhaustion. James insists on proper dinners every night, especially after days like that!
The next morning we were up again at the crack of dawn and head to the Immigration office to register. Amazingly, they were open early and we filled out the required forms. We were just about to leave when the lady explained the forms cost 10 dollars each. No, we won’t be paying that. At which point she produced two stamped receipts from the official book – becoming harder to say no… We head to the ferry, and were one of three cars to be loaded on, and fifty people, and sailed across the Congo. We knew the main road was 120 km away, and ploughed on through the mud. It was definitely drying out, but there were still areas under the trees that were thick, and thigh deep in water. We managed to get stuck in some tracks from a big truck, and I jumped out to direct James as he repositioned, as a snake flew out from the other side of the car, and off into the bush. We managed to get free and head off again making really good time and getting to the main road by 1pm. As we enjoyed our first real road in several hundred kilometres, we decided that we would prefer to push on, and get to Angola as soon as possible. It was only a few kilometres this side of the border, and maybe 50 on the other so manageable before sunset. We followed the roads on Maps.me, and turned off, and the road become awful again. Not that it mattered, we were so near, we just kept going and the road got narrower , and wetter, and then eventually we crossed a river on three logs and we began to question our wisdom at our route. We pulled up at the barrier, and found a much bigger road leading in. Whoops. We head to the barrier and already know what awaits us – a 50 dollar toll. We try and fight our way out of it but it’s a fee that everyone meets on this route, and the alternative is to take a different border with a very bad road. We pay. But we’re not happy. We drive on to the border and are both amazed by what greets us. We are both pretty seasoned at African borders but this was a new one. People were everywhere. It was impossible to drive, we just moved forward and bumped people out the way. There were carts filled to the brim with goods – biscuits, drinks, noodles, and they were all heading towards the DRC. The mud was up to your shins. It took us an hour to make it to customs, where we found all the carts were being stopped, most of which were being driven by people with Polio, who were very unhappy about having to go through customs. So much so, that we watched the customs police chase after the carts, and then fights would erupt right in front of us, between the customs official, and a disabled man. There was no way we were leaving Stanley in this, so James stayed with the car and I sorted the carnet and the passports. The immigration officials were even wearing Wellie boots. It was amazing. We then passed into Angola, and this took another hour, as we needed to drive through an impromptu market that seemed to have sprung up, selling all kinds of rubbish. We repeated the process and were stamped into Angola. A sigh of relief could be heard all the way back home.