We headed out of Cameroon, keen to finally add another flag to Stanley, and on to Gabon. Gabon is relatively wealthy by West African country standards and this was immediately obvious. The police were extremely officious and suspicious of our adventure but they stamped us in and we made great time on the spectacular roads that Gabon had to offer. The country is almost entirely rainforest, with one of the highest proportions of nationals parks in the world, including the famed surfing hippos and more species than you can shake a stick at. Unfortunately, they are aware of the money this can bring, and all national parks are well out of our budget, and extremely difficult to reach. We make it to south of Oyem on the first day and follow some GPS coordinates we have from our new Italian friends for an Evangelical church that will allow you to camp on their land. We pull up in a tiny village outside a house in the middle of a field, and the lady of the house agrees that of course we can stay, and it will be completely free. Better than that when the priest comes to say hello later, he brings us a huge bunch of bananas which they have grown. We walk into the village and immediately get ushered into a bar for a drink, and I am adopted by my new Gabonese mother. We set up our tent in the field, make some dinner and get to bed extremely early with lights off – the insect life seems to have intensified ten fold on entering the country.
We wake up at sunrise and are keen to make some more miles, so James gets down first to make the tea – I am a pampered lady. Immediately, he starts shouting out. Well, really, if you’re stupid enough to go down the ladder with no shoes on in a rainforest, you get what you deserve. I venture down to find that we have accidently parked in an ant nest, and these ants are nasty. They must have been plotting all night, as tens of them make their way up each of our legs, despite the walking boots and socks and long, waterproof trousers. After a few minutes, we are both shouting out at each bite, and pulling our trousers down to try and find the suicidal bastards as they make there way to our nether regions. I think the priest and his family enjoyed a good show for their hospitality, as we tried to take down a tent, brush our teeth and finish making tea whilst getting bitten every few seconds, and climbing all over Stanley to try and not touch the grass.
The next stop is Lambarene, but there is one important stop off en route. The equator. This is very exciting and we eventually find the dilapidated signs and become the tourists we are, with photos and signing the sign. It feels great to have got Stanley his far and we happily drive into Lambarene, and find our accommodation for the night – a Catholic mission which is also a school. We arrive at 3pm and school is still well in swing. A French nun, who is pushing 80, invites us in and sets us up with hot showers and WiFi, and we shower happily in the middle of the school. We quickly leave to allow the kids to go home without getting distracted by white people sleeping in a tent on their car and we walk along the river in this exceptional town, made famous by Albert Schweitzer for his hospital and humanitarian work. The next day, on to Ndembe, the border town of Gabon and the Republic of Congo. On the way into Ndembe, we notice all the bush meat on the side of the road. As you’d expect there are small antelope, rodents and bush pigs for sale but what is amazing is the diversity of animals that could be your dinner – we see monkeys, crocodile and worst of all, a pangolin. A pangolin you may never of heard of, and that would be completely understandable. They are exceptionally rare, on the endangered species list and we have literally seen a menu with their name on it.
On the road to Ndembe, we are pulled over by the police. He kindly informs us the road is flooded and there’s no way to pass, and people have been sleeping on the road. We explain we have to see it for ourselves, as this is really our only route – unsurprisingly a country made of rainforest has very few roads even if they are spectacular. We pull up 40km later, just shy of the town, and the road is well and truly blocked. The floodwater has totally consumed the road and there is a line of traffic, which has been there for varying lengths of time. We hear the usual mantra of Africans – “You have 4x4? Oh, you’ll be fine.” I would say African’s trust in 4x4 is substantially more than ours, as we stare at the torrential water, which has pulled the entire road into the river. We also see something we have never seen. The road workers, working on the aforementioned spectacular roads, have left there road building and are building a bridge across the newly formed ford. With their bulldozers, Cats and trucks they are flying along and we wait a couple of hours til they have built half a bridge and dammed the river enough for us to get across (after we’ve seen a couple of other 4x4s achieve this). We arrive into Ndembe and find the Catholic church for our nights accommodation. It is, of course, free and we camp in the church ground, with use of the Priests house for a bathroom, falling asleep to the sounds of the choir practicing and waking up to morning mass.
It’s a real shame to rush through this fabulous country but we both agree this is the sort of place we would happily return to for a two week holiday – it’s just not made for overlanders on a budget and we have a deadline to get to Angola.
The next day is a big day. We are heading to the Republic of Congo and we know this is where the trip is going to get difficult. Stanley is as good as he can be, after a good servicing in Cameroon and we are keen to crack on and get through. We drive on through the rest of Gabon, a bad piste to the border and get through. After James takes the three security experts at the border through the car – No, we do not have diamonds in the Jerry cans. We have diesel. Knives and forks are not dangerous weapons, but helpful for dinner, whilst I deal with Immigration and get a job offer as the latest recruit. We finally head off on the terrible road.
We drove through the rutted, flooded road which had been massacred by huge trucks. We were doing well, but definitely needing four-wheel drive. Up ahead was an extended piece of flooded mud, broken into two parts. The first we traversed easily and the second looked short and not too deep, despite the water covering the whole road. This is when we did something beyond stupid. We drove into it. As we drove on the left hand side, the sand pulled the car across to the right, where the sand was exceptionally soft, and also two feet deep in water. Stanleys two right wheels disappeared and we were not going anywhere. James got out, took three steps towards the back tyre, and disappeared into the sand up to his waist. This was not good. We tried a few maneuvers, back, forward – no relief, we pulled the sandladders off the roof and dug, but every shovel of sand we emptied was immediately replaced by the flowing river we seemed to have ended up in. After a few hours of fruitless digging, pushing and pulling, a truck drove past and we asked them to stop and pull us out. They agreed, grudgingly, as they were on a schedule and we pulled out our 5 tonne Halfords tow rope and wrapped in around our front tow point. This was all very embarrassing but was surely going to be fixed in a few minutes, and we would be hours behind schedule and have to sleep in a village, but all manageable. The tow rope immediately snapped. The truck drivers produced their tow rope – which also snapped. We hired a bike to drive to the border town and find a tow rope, and after twenty minutes, he returned with a tow rope as thick as your arm, made of metal. Surely this would do the trick. The truck drivers explained their best tow point was at the back so they would have to drive past us and pull us backwards, and we then proceeded to watch a twenty tonne truck drive into the side of Stanley as they tried to navigate past him in the soft, flooded sand. Okay, still manageable, they seem to have taken off the plastic wing, but no damage to the wheel. We wrap the tow rope around our tow bar as we can’t reach the tow point on the back as it’s below sand and attach it to the truck. The truck pulls off, and our tow bar, and part of the chassis comes flying off. Shit. The truck drivers give up and drive off. We stand staring at Stanley, his entire right side buried in quick sand, his exhaust below water, bubbling air, with parts of him littering the ground. This is starting to look really bad. The motorbike takes our new tow rope off, as he says it’s only borrowed, and we chat with the locals. There will be another truck and that will pull us out – at maybe eight tonight. We wait the intervening few hours, trying to find a way to dam the continual flow of water and dig enough, so that when the truck comes, we will be ready. It arrives on time, and agrees to help. We try their tow rope but to no avail and we realize we need the tow rope we had earlier. I jump in the truck, the transportation for this part of Congo, and we head off to the border town where I haggle, extremely poorly, for the tow rope. I can barely lift it, but I get it into the truck and jump into the back to escort it to Stanley. We explain our back tow point is gone, so the truck drives carefully past and positions himself to pull us from the front. We connect up, and he pulls whilst the locals and myself wiggle the car from side to side. The tow rope comes loose at the truck end, and the truck drives at full pelt away, with his passengers and helpers running after him. Maybe he wasn’t so committed to helping us after all.
It is now very dark. We are in a flowing river in the middle of the Congo with no clear way to get out. On the plus side, we have beer, so we drink it all and fall asleep in a mosquito filled, flooded car. A local hunter walks past us with a rifle and reassures us there are no bandits in these parts and we are safe with them. Phew… We are up at 5 and have a plan. Obviously, things are pretty grim and the water has, if anything, got higher. Stanley is now unable to get into gear so he is clearly sustaining substantial damage from this. We have the number of the British consulate and we will call as soon as they open, and formally request emergency help. I pack our bags ready to abandon ship if it becomes necessary and we can’t quite believe it has come to this. One of the local walks past, and says, “I don’t know why you don’t just go to the white people with big machines.” WHAT!! There is a Malaysian logging camp 10km away, with bulldozers, fork lifts and trucks. Why had no one told us? We walk to the village and organize a motorbike to take me there, we both agree it will be harder to turn me away as I am currently capable of crying at request, knee deep in mud and feeling spectacularly sorry for myself.
I arrive at the camp of Asia Congo and it looks like heaven. I get invited in and am given a cold can of coke and a swiss roll – actually the only thing I have eaten for 24 hours. I explain our problem to the boss, who is Filipino and obviously speaks English, and he immediately jumps in his Landcruiser. When we arrive back at Stanley, all hell has broken loose. There is another truck and they have been trying to pull him out, using the truck tow rope. This will unfortunately not fit on our front tow point and keeps slipping off. Louis, my Filipino hero, drives back to camp and returns with a wire they use for securing the trees they fell. He attaches it to our front emergency tow point and to the lorry, and the lorry pulls. And the tow point flies off. We now have no tow points. I am near tears, and James looks completely broken. Louis appears completely unflustered and wraps the tow rope around the chassis at the front, carefully avoiding the radiator. I take my usual position, behind my hands, and the truck pulls. Stanley rises out of the mud, and I scream in celebration, jumping up and down, and burst into tears. The thirty Congolaise who have arrived to watch the spectacle, turn to watch the latest one – Me.
The next problem is clear. Although Stanley is now moving, it is certainly not under his own steam. Three of his wheels are not turning and he is being dragged through the mud by the huge truck. Stanley, who we turned off after five hours under water, is restarted past the river and a gallon of water and oil is immediately expelled from his exhaust. We try to put him into gear, but it’s not happening and Louis tows us the 10km back to camp with occasionally knocking from the rear of the car. He’s not looking healthy.
We leave Stanley in the garage and get shown to a room we can use, with a bed, air conditioning, bucket shower and a toilet - we are overjoyed. The mechanic is in the forest, so we are told to shower, get some lunch and then nap, something we are both in desperate need of having not eaten or slept in the last day. The next morning, the mechanic looks at Stanley, and after two hours finds the problem. His rear differential is completely destroyed. In our desperate attempts to free him it seems we have obliterated it. We are currently in a logging camp in the middle of the forest, with butterflies the size of your palms, elephants and gorillas near by in the deep forest and praying mantis's walking the bannisters. We have three buildings and a mechanics yard, 226km from the nearest small town on some of the hardest road the Congo has to offer, and we need a new rear axle. The day after, we organize to meet a taxi 40km up the road, the last place a taxi can make it to. He unfortunately cancels after an apocalyptic storm hits and he can’t guarantee his Toyota Corolla will make it. Louis immediately steps up to do the 500km round trip. We would love to decline as this is a stupidly generous offer but we are in no position to turn down his generosity. We head off on the rough track with our formula one driver for the next five hours. We arrive in Dolisie, and Louis calls the man in charge of procurement for his international company to find our part, which we have brought from the camp. Even he fails to find it in Dolisie and it becomes clear we need to make our way to Pointe Noire, a further 150km away. We get dropped off at the taxi station, and get a shared taxi to Pointe Noire, with James and I sharing the front seat, and our precious part in the boot. After 9 hours on hard roads, my bum is in agony and we find a dodgy hotel near the spare parts market to spend the night.
The next morning we go in search of our part. It is a Sunday, and everything is shut, but a couple of calls to some numbers given to us by the Procurement chief of Asia Congo and doors open. We go to a warehouse, where they fail to find the part new and then wait whilst the boys are sent out of mopeds to search the second hand market. Seven hours, and several rejections later we have our part. I could have taken up a high-end coke addiction, but instead, we buy second hand parts for Stanley. We jump back in a taxi to Dolisie and arrive in late, but happy with our two rear differentials. The next day we hire a taxi to take us the initial 180km and are greeted by Louis, to complete the 226km. We are both exhausted from carrying around two 30kg parts for Stanley, and we collapse back in our emergency bed in Asia Congo camp. The mechanics set to the next day and before midday, the part is in. He has looked better. His brakes don’t work, his ABS has broken, his bonnet no longer shuts without a well placed cable tie, both wings are no longer attached and live in the back seats but he will now go into gear and his engine roars like he was never submerged in water for 36 hours. Neither of us can believe he is still working and are overjoyed to get back on the road. Yes, we had to stop twice on the way back to gaffer tape parts of him back on and place the odd cable tie but he made it back to Dolisie. We finally get a chance to appreciate the amazing scenery that the Congo has to offer with rolling hills, savanah and deep rain forests all in what appears to be uninhabited terrain.
We can now start thinking of what is supposed to be the most difficult part of the trip. A 200 km trip on awful roads into the DRC, cross the mighty Congo river in a barge and then make another 200km in the DRC, noted for corrupt police to boot, to reach Angola. And we need to get there by May 2nd or our 190$ USD visas expire in a country where new visas are not issued easily.Time to finish what we started.
Many thanks again to ding.com for communications support all the way! In addition, we cannot even begin to thank the Congolese villagers who worked tirelessly to help us get free, the truck drivers who pulled us out for free or the spectacular staff at Asia Congo, who offered us lodging, food, mechanical assistance and salvage out of the kindness of their hearts. This trip has shown us a lot of things, but first and foremost it has taught us that the kindness of strangers is infinite, and the perceived differences between different nationalities and races pales into insignificance when you actually need help.