Narrated Audio Blog
We arrived at the Gabon Immigation in Ndende nice and early to check out. Nobody was around so we opened the gate ourselves, this certainly drew attention and some military staff appeared and called us over. They were friendly enough, recorded our passport and motorbike details then we stamped out of Gabon. We left the sealed roads in Ndende, it was then 50km off-road riding to reach the Republic of the Congo Customs and Immigration. So far the road wasn't too bad, we only saw a couple of big puddles. Surely this would have to be the worst of the road. Countries often maintain their roads up to the border post pretty well but don't want to spend money beyond this point. How wrong we would be.
Stamping in to the Republic of the Congo was fairly straightforward. We supplied a photocopy of our passports and visa for immigrations and then on to customs to import the bikes. The customs official checked all our papers against the bikes VIN's and produced the Temporary Import Permit. Before handing them over he asked us for $20 per bike. This was twice any other import fee we'd paid so far and we simply didn't believe him and said no. He insisted the price was correct and that we wouldn't be allowed to enter unless we paid. We asked to see the policy or some official correspondence stating the fee, but he didn't have anything written down saying that they don't keep all the policies on file at the border. Considering where we were this did make some sense. We thought it was worth sitting out to see if he'd break and so returned to our bikes. After about 20 minutes of waiting it was looking like we weren't going to win, leading us to believe that maybe it was a legitimate fee. We returned to his office and reluctantly paid so we could be on our way.
For the most part our plan had us avoiding the wet season. We would be riding south and crossing the equator as the "tropical rain belt" was moving north. This rain belt roughly follows the latitudes where the sun is directly overhead and so migrating back and forth between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. In the Northern Hemisphere's summer, the rain belt is north of the equator and vice versa. To minimise the effect of the wet season, its best to be moving against its migration. However, at some point you will ride straight through it.
Friends riding ahead of us, Tom and Caroline from Belgium @MotoMorgana , had messaged the coordinates for a basic hostel in a village town where we would have a bed to sleep and access to water to wash but not much more. It seemed a reasonable distance based on the road conditions we had experienced so far. However, the road very quickly became sloppy mud and puddles and remained like this all day.
Since the rains had only just started, the water was not penetrating the ground and deep muddy puddles had not formed. But haphazard traffic movements across the slippery surface had created trenches and the odd puddles of surface water, sometimes with no clear path. Our tyres were caked in mud and we found ourselves heading for these small puddles to clear our tyres, even if only for a few metres.
We both had countless falls, even with our tyres let down for extra grip. We were both exhausted but Janell was past tipping point. Late in the day an oncoming truck was driving along the wrong side of the track due to the other side being severely churned up. Janell was in the right and wasn't moving. As the truck got closer Janell stopped and simply stared at the truck, a far more capable vehicle for these conditions, until the driver eventually went around her.
Sunset around 6:30pm and it started to drizzle. Just great! With the road conditions and the dark and rain we were not comfortable travelling faster than 20km/hr. Once it got really dark we started riding side by side trying to benefit from the shared headlights and the motivation of sticking together. To the sides of the road were thick jungle, there was absolutely nowhere to put up a tent other than directly on the road blocking all traffic. We had to push on. The GPS coordinates we'd been given had the hotel only 25km ahead, but this was going to take an hour and a quarter. Rather than trying to get there faster we just accepted that time frame and pushed on cautiously.
When we reached the hotel we were so relieved but so incredibly hungry having not stopped all day. Weeti and Shadow were fed and put to bed in our sleeping bags. They were so tired and just passed out. We showered with a bucket of water which felt so refreshing. Janell got into bed with the girls and Stu went looking for drinking water and something to eat.
It was a biblical experience. There was a light off in the distance so Stu hopped on his motorbike and headed for the light, it was now closer to 10pm. He followed a walking track that took him across fields and gardens and ended up at the village Church. An Easter service was underway, there was a lady outside breastfeeding who didn't speak English but pointed inside. Stu poked his head into the church to find it packed, standing room only. Fortunately the service was just finishing. As people poured out Stu found someone who spoke English, he in turn found the owner of the local store who then asked Stu to follow him. Stu purchased 6 bottles of water but no food. That meant he'd have to put up with hangry Janell for a little longer. At least the dogs were fed, we always have food for them.
Come morning we were still without food, we thought we'd continue to the main road now only a hundred km up the track. By all reports the quality of road would improve from here so it shouldn't take us too long. Even though, as far as priorities were concerned, food ranked pretty low, we just wanted to see sealed road again.
In total it was nearly 300km of mud, puddles and gravel. We practically kissed the tarmac when we reached it. The Congo road wasn't all bad. We'd enjoyed sealed roads through most of Africa up to this point. When it was nice we could take our eyes momentarily off the road and enjoy the stunning scenery. The Total Fuel Station we found shortly after reaching the tarmac (-4.156360,12.658628) was brand new with a little shop and Cafe. Croissant and coffee had never tasted so good. It was tempting to just set up our tent and rest right there but we were rushing to get to Pointe Noire before the weekend and apply for the Angola Visa. We made it but totally forgot about Easter holidays. Doh!
We accepted that we'd be in Pointe Noire for at least a week so we found a great little place on AirBnB with air conditioning, a fridge and no problem with the dogs! Of course we did some necessary shopping to fill the fridge. Our accommodation was made up of two units of which we booked one. A Spanish couple arrived and checked in to the other unit a day after us. Mar and Luis @BonobosonRoute were travelling overland in a Toyota Hilux with a roof top tent.
Tom and Caroline were also in Pointe Noire chasing the Angola visa but using Couchsurfing for accommodation. We were so happy to see them again and It didn't take long for us all to get together talking about our travels. We hosted everyone to share some dinners and beers over the coming week. Tom cooked and his dish would become one of Janell's favourite meals to make, chopped eggplant cooked in oil, onion and garlic with a tomato sauce all placed on top of pasta. So easy, so nutritious and delicious.
Mar and Luis were travelling Africa in blocks, leaving their Hilux and then returning when they had leave from work to continue their journey. This block of their travel was their first, a 3 month trip ending in South Africa where they had arranged to store the Hilux. They were under tremendous pressure to meet deadlines in order to make their destination and see the sites they wanted to see on the way.
It turned out to be quite a social stop in Pointe Noire getting all the overlanders together. It was really helpful to compare information on the upcoming countries and routes to take.
Tom and Caroline speak fluent French and very graciously helped us with our visa application at the Angola Embassy. We applied for a 30 day multi entry Visa. It was a three day turnaround and cost 75,000 cfa eash. We also had to pay 2,000 cfa for a cover letter which they prepared in about 30 min (no getting out of this, we wrote our own but they wouldn't accept it). Also a payment of 2,000 cfa which you have to go to a bank to pay and expect to queue for a long time). In addition we had to provide:
Janell was in desperate need of a new rear tyre. Tom and Caroline knew of another overlander on a motorbike called Koldo who had recently had an accident in the Congo and had left his motorbike at the Couchsurfers apartment block where Tom and Caroline were staying. Koldo had to fly home to Spain and was having shoulder surgery the week we were in Pointe Noire. He was carrying a brand new rear tyre, the same size as Janell's. We contacted him to see if we could buy the tyre off him. Koldo not only let us have his brand new rear tyre he didn't ask us to pay for it. It was such a blessing. We rode the bikes over to the apartment block and Tom helped Stu break a seriously stubborn bead and fit the new tyre.
Mar and Luis left Pointe Noire a week before us and we had thought we wouldn't see them again, but problems both parties would face in Angola meant our paths would once again cross. As for Tom and Caroline, they ventured into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and we wouldn't see them again until South Africa.