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999 Days Around Africa: The Road Chose Me
The Congo, Cameroon and Central African Republic all meet in a triangle border, and share some of the most remote and unexplored jungle in all of Africa. Each country has declared a National Park in this region, which effectively combine to one massive reserve (Lobéké National Park in Cameroon, Nouabal-Ndoki National Park in Congo and the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park in Central African Republic).
I have been told repeatedly it is some of the best Gorilla and Elephant viewing anywhere, and so I am on a mission to explore. I also feel like I should explore North into Congo, lest I just drive straight across and see very little.
As it happens, I have arrived in Congo during a huge gas and diesel shortage. The entire country only has one oil refinery, which has been shut down for maintenance. Before leaving Gabon I filled up every drop I could, though I plan to do at least 2-3 times my maximum range, which presents a problem. After a few hundred miles of passing sold-out stations I arrive in a town where all the stations are completely empty, though enterprising people are selling gas from containers on the side of the road. After a lot of staring at maps, I decide to buy all I can fit in the main tank, even though my axillary Titan Tank is still full from Gabon.
I can currently drive all the way North without buying here, though I might find myself in serious trouble if I get there and there is none for sale at all. So I reason it through that if I buy here, and am careful, I have enough to make the round trip ~500 miles back to here where I can likely get more.
The guys selling will not bargain on the price one bit – they know the rate, and so I pay about 25% more than the official price to fill up.
As he pours it through my Mr. Funnel the guy says “You don’t want the last half gallon” – and I see nasty sludge when I look at the bottom of his plastic container.
Now flush with gas I continue North on one of the best highway I have seen for many months. Cut straight through the jungle it is extremely wide and gently climbs up and over minor hills. I use cruise control for the first time that I can remember (…maybe Western Sahara?) and actually start to get a little bored. I can hardly believe I am getting bored driving through the Congo, but it’s actually true. Dense jungle surrounds the road, and I pass through the occasional mud hut village. Otherwise, there is nothing to see and nothing interesting happens.
When I set out, I would never have guessed Congo could be “boring”.
Arriving in the Northernmost city of Quesso is very different. Here is a large, modern city, with lots of hustle and bustle. I am not far from Cameroon and Central African Republic, and so the whole city has the urgency and feel of a large border town. The main gas station in town has both gas and diesel – from Cameroon I’m told – and so I once again fill everything I have. I am drenched in sweat just standing in the shade, the heat and humidity are off the scale which I gather is normal for Northern Congo.
To get into the Nouabal-Ndoki National Park I must cross the massive Sangha River, which in part forms the border with Cameroon. I learn the only way to do this is on the monster ferry that runs to service the logging trucks. On the Northern edge of the city a collection of huts on the bank of the river serves as the ferry terminal, with many people sitting around in the shade, drinking beer at a makeshift bar. I walk over to the man in charge of the ferry and attempt to learn the price. Nothing is ever straight forward, and so there is a fee for the Jeep, a fee for me, a loading fee and apparently some other fees involved. I’m concentrating hard in French trying to understand if this is worth it or not when a Policeman interrupts and asks for all my papers. He is slurring his words and has just walked out of the bar, so I don’t have time for his drunken nonsense.
I make my first mistake when I tell the drunk Police officer I will finish up here then come to see him.
I make my next when I brush off a Customs officer the same way, and then another with a Military man in full camo uniform.
The ferry price discussion goes on and on, and every 3-4 minutes one of the officers comes over and demands my paperwork. Each time I repeat that I will finish here and then come over, which they are less and less impressed with. Eventually I figure out the ferry will cost me at least $100USD return, and the National Park probably costs at least that again (nobody can tell me for certain). As much as I want to have a look around, that’s more money than I am willing to spend on a wild goose chase in the jungle on unknown roads. I decide I will not cross the ferry.
I go back to the Jeep to get my paperwork, when the drunk Police officer immediately starts yelling at me. I try to explain I am not even going to cross the ferry, but he won’t have it. He thinks I am trying to leave, and so to reassure him I immediately hand over my passport, registration, drivers license and temp import permit. He walks off with them just as the other officers demand the same paperwork. No matter how many times I try to explain that the Police officer has them and they will simply have to wait, they keep demanding and getting louder and louder with their yelling.
I am thoroughly confused as to what has gone so wrong, and so I sit on the dirt in the shade of the Jeep and try to think it through. A cold drink of water is like a light bulb in my head. I realize my mistake.
I didn’t show these uniformed officers respect.
Respect is everything in West Africa, in many cases it’s all these officers have.
I violated the most important rule of dealing with them.
I am certain this will be a struggle.
With so many onlookers, it was extremely rude of me to brush off these uniformed officers. I basically told them to go away, and they lost face in front of everyone. If a white man can brush them off like that with no consequences, some of these people might think they can do the same. Clearly the officers can not tolerate that, and so now they need to demonstrate they are in charge of everything and everyone – including me.
After more than half an hour of them yelling and waving their arms, I finally start to get a handle on the situation. The Policeman writes my details into a huge ledger and hands back the documents he has. I catch up with the Customs officer who has more and of course he has found a problem with my Temp Import Permit. It’s not valid in Congo, he says, and of course he demands money. My patience wears thin, and so I make a show of writing down his name from his uniform, and take out my big camera and take a photo of his face, which everyone can see.
He is tongue tied and so I politely ask for my papers, and then go to see the Military man. Surprise, surprise, he writes everything in yet another ledger.
Before I can walk away an extremely polite female Police Officer says she also wants to write everything in her ledger, and so I sit with her. Towards the end she asks my destination, and when I say Brazzaville she is shocked. She can not believe all of this has gone down and I am not even crossing the ferry.
Before I can get in the Jeep to leave the Customs man is back, and it’s clear he is a combination of scared, angry and upset about my writing down his name and taking his photo. He clearly does not want me to tell anyone about his behaviour here. Trouble with a tourist would not be good for him.
Now I really just want to leave, and so I make a show of throughly scribbling out his name and deleting his photo. After a long pause, we shake hands.
I jump in the Jeep and get out of there. I’m off to Brazzaville, on the mighty Congo River.
Lesson learned – I must always show respect to those in uniform.