The Longest Journey

Trip Start Sep 29, 2010
Trip End Nov 29, 2011

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Where I stayed
L'Eglise St Paul

Flag of Congo  , Niari,
Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Where do I start with this one? I'll tell you what, let’s start with some geography.  Having crossed the Gabon-Congo border at the villages of NDende in Gabon and NGongo in Congo (if you’re interested – as I know my mother will be – then don’t pronounce the 'N’s) in the western halves of the two countries, I aimed for the town of Dolisie.  Now Dolisie is supposedly around 140 miles south-south-east-ish from NGongo and only a few tens of miles north of the border it shares with the peculiar Angolan enclave of Cabinda.

Now then.  As we Brits know, you can cover 140 miles very legally on UK roads in two hours.  Don’t know about you Aussies or Americans (or whatever you are), but I assume it’s something similar.  So next time you’re doing a two hour ‘slog’ down the M1 or Route 66, making use of your air-conditioning, heating, power-steering, electric windows, stereo system, headrests, backrests and seats, then think of the following.

Day 1:

Being reliably told by several sources that transport leaves NGongo at 5am but possibly earlier, I woke at just before 4 to go and make my presence known.  The only transport on offer was a truck, a cargo truck essentially, which doubled as a public bus.  At 07:45, all the packing was complete and we climbed aboard.  Why did I wake at 4?

Roger and Scott, whom I’d left behind in Kribi three weeks previously, had warned me since that ‘YES, you do want a space in the cabin’.  Did I listen?  Well, yes I did.  But two rather forceful characters were also making the trip and frankly I didn’t have the heart to stamp my way through.  Call me soft if you will.  I prefer gentlemanly.  Besides, part of what I want anyway is to experience as close as is possible the conditions which people here toil against everyday, a desire which is often appreciated.  So I climbed into the open-air rear and settled into a rather uncomfortable hollow between bags of cargo and amongst my fellow passengers.  In a sense then, this was not unlike the setting which I enjoyed so much on the cargo vessel up the River Niger to Timbuktu three months ago.  However, trucks don’t go on smooth glass-surface Malian river waters.  This one doesn’t anyway.

Barely out of the village and a taste of what was to come hit us with a huge lurch to one side and back again.  This continued.  Being seated at the edge of one of the sides, I gazed down into huge puddles, with my heart falling through my mouth, thinking ‘yes this WILL topple’.  This continued.  ‘So this is what the next 12 hours is going to be like?’ I thought, recounting a warning that that is indeed the estimated journey time.  The first hour or so was like that, but the road did gradually improve.  Improve enough to start looking around and take in the Congolese countryside.

There will be one image of the countryside here which will stay with me.  Unfortunately, it is a sad one.  This country used to be covered top to bottom with huge swathes of one of the world’s greatest forests.  A forest in which gorillas live alongside species still unknown to us.  A forest which tribes of our own species have called home for millennia.  The future of such treasures looks uncertain at best if the example set by Congo is replicated throughout the region.

In Gabon I happily rode almost the entire length of the country without ever being out of sight of its portion of the same forest.  Indeed for much of it, it was never more than 10m away.  In Congo though, at least the bit I saw on this journey, it was often not visible at all.  For mile upon mile in all directions, soaring roaring rainforest had been replaced with grass.  Okay, so an occasional shrubby bush, but basically south-western Congo is just one big field.  And an uncultivated one at that.  What a waste.

Yes I understand that rainforests store within them huge reserves of monetary wealth.  Pragmatism dictates that of course such a resource will be exploited.  There is probably even a compelling case to argue that it is indeed right to exploit it.  But the exploitation which has occurred, and continues to occur, here, I cannot defend.  Not one of the villages we passed between the Gabonese border and Dolisie had mains electricity.  All seemed to have wells, suggesting that none had running water.  I did not see a bitumen road until we hit Dolisie.  Where did all the wealth which the forests here once held go?  Certainly none of it has found its way to the people who used to live alongside it and who are poorer still with it now gone.

At 7pm we had a puncture to one of the rear tyres.  After rolling into the next village we sat outside the local bar to allow some local men to set to work on our punished vehicle.  I had a large Coca Cola (is this the one product that no matter where you go in the world, you will always be able to buy?) and sat patiently.  Three hours later we hit the road again.

200m down the road and the same tyre punctured again.  An Austin Powers-esque 1000-point turn followed and we drove back to the village once more and disembarked.  Sinking feeling doesn’t really describe it well enough.  Everyone tried to sleep.  Maintenance was finished sometime around 1am, too late to continue any further that night, so we slept though ‘til 5am.  I was wholly unprepared for a night of sleeping rough on the concrete foreyard of the village bar, and endured a torrid, painful and cold night in which I had only the lightest possible sleep.  The kind of sleep where you’re not sure if you were dreaming or just thinking.

Day 2:

Day 2 was spent mostly with my head resting on my arms and with eyes either shut or gazing into the distance.  After politely refusing to cooperate with another request for l’argent/bribe from police at the small town of Mila Mila at I don’t remember what time, we arrived at out destination at bang-on midday.  Total journey time: 28 hours.  Total travelling time: 18 hours.  Memories: many.  Bruises: too many.  Regrets: ask me tomorrow, but probably none.  Desperation for shower/bed: infinite.
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