Finally we exit Angola at Kimpangu and the prickly equatorial heat beats down. It’s lunchtime and we break out a Landy tailgate lunch – a standard fare of bully beef, tinned fish, bananas and local bread. I check out the body language of the DRC officials. This looks like it’s going to be a tough one.
A small, forgotten concrete sign serves as a reminder of the past and reads, “Congo Belge” – the Belgium Congo.
“You came all the way from South Africa to do what??”
I explain all about our crazy mission to get to the ‘Heart of Africa’ but that doesn’t stop the paper shuffling. Orders are barked at us: “Name of mother and father, name of hotel in Kinshasa? You! Your profession?” Today I chose to be a priest. Ross suddenly becomes a vet and Bruce Lesley is now an astronaut. And today, Shovashova Mike Nixon is the expedition dentist. Thank the stars for his schoolboy French!
Six hours later and feeling somewhat shellshocked by a crazy night drive along a road that I’m sure hasn’t seen a grader since President Mabuto was in power, we prepare ourselves for the nightmare ‘hell run’ of the Matadi road. Charcoal lorries with no lights skirt from side to side, passengers hang by their fingers from the outside of ancient overloaded Peugeot minibuses, nighttime cops wave us forward with their dim flashlights, and unlit broken-down vehicles block the road.
It’s midnight by the time we arrive at the Hotel Beatrice, which lies opposite the railway station in downtown Kinshasa. This is where we are to meet Papa Andre Kadimba, our expedition host in the DRC and the patron of the children’s Elephant Art Programme. Elephant Art gives children the opportunity to speak out against the slaughter of Africa’s elephants.
Papa Kadima’s dream is to bring Parc de N’sele, the formerly known Mobutu Sese Seko Private Park to life by re-introducing game from South Africa. He’s a grand old man and with his team we visit old age care centres in the slums of the largest French speaking city in the world. The appreciation for our humanitarian work including our “Rite to Sight” programme, which is supported by Land Rover, is so humbling. There’s just so much poverty but we’re doing what we came to do.
That night at the plush Beatrice Hotel, we experience the enormous gap between rich and poor as our host Papa Kadima invites the expedition team to attend a wedding party. This is the other side of the DRC. Moët champagne, Hugo Boss suits, pointed shoes, eau de cologne, gold cufflinks, live music and a fashion parade of beautiful girls; not to mention the Lamborghini’s, super charged Range Rovers and stretched Hummers in the car park.
Tomorrow – Brazzaville, here we come. Or so we thought.
Crossing the Congo
We’re in trouble. Imagine the scene. Two capital cities either side of a great river. The bustling Wild West of Kinshasa – the populous capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formally Zaire then the Belgium Congo) – on the south bank, and the more laid-back Brazzaville – the capital of the Republic of Congo and a former French colony – across the great Congo River on the north bank.
Both cities are clearly visible to each other across just 7km of one of the world’s greatest rivers. It’s taken us six countries, 23 days of hard travelling, great humanitarian work, the launch of our ‘Elephant Art’ project with kids in the DRC, and over 6,500km to get to this point on a crowded river in sprawling Kinshasa.
Brazzaville on the other side of the river is the real emotional start point of our expedition and we have to get across if we are to succeed in our quest to reach the ‘Heart of Africa’ deep in the northern rainforests of the Republic of Congo.
It’s tough going. Everything we’ve worked so hard for seems to now hang in the balance and in the heat of the Congo Basin. Our patience is wearing thin as corrupt, greedy officials gather around us like vultures, determined to extract as much as possible as we attempt to lower the three expedition Landies onto a rusty, old barge with an antique tugboat to push us across to Brazzaville.
Our bad luck comes when we’re told that the government vehicle ferry is ‘buggered’ and has been for almost a year. “Sorry, no bridge,” is the news we’re subsequently delivered. It takes seven hours of negotiations and a massive dent in our almost non-existent budget before we are finally allowed to cross by way of a ‘special arrangement’ with a private barge owner.
The big Landy 130 Defender, nicknamed Ndhlovukazi, nearly tips backwards into the river. It’s dark by the time we tie up our barge amongst the flotsam of old river boats and ancient rusty cranes at the Brazzaville dock, to be greeted by the words: ‘No crane, immigration closed.’
We throw out our tents and bedrolls amongst our Landies on the hot metal deck of the barge that’s become our home. Out come the camp chairs, and we raise our dented enamel mugs in a salute to all the craziness that we’ve been through! Jeez it’s hot – the sweat pours from us and the humidity is as thick as golden syrup; sleep is almost impossible. And it’s not over yet, as the next day the tiresome bureaucracy continues; the only difference being that on the Brazzaville side they’re more laid back and friendly.
And so I scribble this note whilst sitting on my backside in the heat and dust outside the Brazzaville docks, where the immigration officials claim that the barge papers are incorrect, that our visas, which were issued in Pretoria, are illegal, and that our expedition Landies can’t get unloaded until we get police clearance.
They also take the captain of our tugboat to the cleaners, and it’s clear that there’s some bad blood between the two countries at the moment. We are told that relationships are currently a bit frozen, and we are stuck in the middle. It’s called the slow sweat of the Congo, but it’s not our first time on this river and I can’t help but think back to a Land Rover expedition called Africa, the Outside Edge where, on an equally crazy journey, we tracked the outline of the continent through 33 countries over 449 days. At the mouth of the Congo on that particular expedition, 82 men who lived on the river, with their bellies full of palm wine, manhandled our Defenders onto a hand-built, rickety wooden boat, and somehow we survived the crossing.
In circumstances such as these, it’s all about the ‘zen of travel’, and we’re hugely excited about what lies ahead.