Monday, March 28, 2011

The Democratic Republic of Congo

In one day we crossed into three countries, that are viewed as being some of the most dangerous countries to visit in the world. We left the Congo, entered Cabinda (a tiny providence controlled by Angola), which took a half day to cross, and then crossed into the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire. You won't find any of these on the top vacation destinations, anytime soon.

Cabinda is a tiny, but important province of Angola. Rich in oil, the place is crawling with the military, who have been fighting anti government rebels. Just last year the Togo national soccer team had it's bus ambushed by anti- government rebels, along the same road we travelled down, killing three and injuring many others.

The DRC is one of those countries that doesn't really need an introduction. You always read about it in the world news, but non of it is positive, well not since 1974, when Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman, in the famous " rumble in the jungle" boxing match in the capital city, Kinshasa.

The headlines are always about mass killings, some outbreak of some nasty disease like Ebola, government corruption, cannibalism, or the largest UN mission in history, trying to stabilize the country. This mixture makes the country the ultimate overland experience, but one you will have to accept paying the ultimate price. The heart of the Africa is lawless, unmapped, and will swallow the unprepared whole.

For weeks before we have been preparing ourselves, to travel across the country, even had safety talks about what to expect. People even had to buy special travel insurance to pass through it. We were lucky to even be allowed to enter the DRC. A week before we entered the country, there was an assassination attempt on the President. If it was successful, all hell would have broke lose in the country.

The Customs agents on the Border of the DRC , was overwhelmed by our truck. They said they rarely see tourists, so it took forever crossing it, as they filled out forms. At the border we had our first taste of the ruthless life of those living in the Congo's.

Across parts of Africa, stealing can mean a death sentence, as a mob of people will usually chase the thief until they catch him and then beat him to death. If you travel long enough in Africa you will witness this horrible event.

I've heard stories of foreigners yelling, "thief' at someone who just pick pocket them, only to have a mob of people beat the person to death, leaving the person who yelled thief, so dramatized they stopped their travels and went home. In all my travels through Africa, I've only seen a man being chased once, but in two days traveling through the Congo's we saw it happen twice.

In Pointe Noire, Congo, a guy was being chased by a group of people, and when he was caught he was hog tied with his arms and legs behind his back. While he kicked and screamed, another person picked up a huge rock and was about to crush his skull when a police officer stopped him at the last second. The thief was lucky because in most cases the police don't intervene. Passengers were pulling the girls away so they didn't have to see the gruesome reality of mob justice.

The second time it happened in front of us, was at a border to the DRC. One of the passengers on our truck was pick pocketed. He caught the guy stealing his camera, and yelled "thief." The thief ran off being chased by a few guys with rocks. The pick pocket ran for his life, because he knew if he was caught, he would probably be killed. The last I saw of him was him picking up bottles as weapons on the way down the street.

We just made it threw the border, before it closed. Our passports stamped just as the border guards were lowering the DRC flag, everyone standing in silence as it happened. We made our way through the closed border,they locked the gate behind us and raced the setting sun, down what seemed like a road but weren't sure, and camped for the night, next to an oil well. The area near the mouth of the Congo is full of outdated oil wells, ones you would see in Texas in the early 60's. Oil pipelines zig zag, crossing the roads, some not even buried, but laying on top of the ground, in some spots you drove on top of them like water hoses in your yard.

The next day we made our way east paralleling the Congo, but not yet able to see it. It wasn't till the following day that we arrived in the town of Boma, that we got our first view of the Congo River. Only one other river,(Amazon)captures my imagination like the Congo, the second longest river in Africa. So few westerns have travelled along the river that it's one of the most raw places, one can travel to on the face of the planet. A section of the river is over 700 feet deep, making it the deepest river in the world.

In Boma, it was a amazing site to see huge container ships speeding past, old ships that had been wrecked in the river, heading up river along the lower flat section, to the port town of Matadi, the furthest up the river they can go before coming upon the first huge rapids.

In the town of Boma a police officer stopped a few of us and ask what our intentions were. We said, we were "tourists." He responded," why would you want to come here for tourism."

We camped just outside Boma in a small village. The town gathered around our truck
as we pulled behind a bar to park for the night and set up our tents.

Along the trans African trip, it has been my job to lift electrical wires that are too low, up over the truck with a plastic broom handle, so they don't snag. Some more intense then others, only once have we actually hooked a line, and ripped the whole power line pole down. It was one hell of an entrance to a village.

The electrical wire from the bar, across the drive way, was too low to even lift it over the truck, but before we could try and think of a plan B, a local climbed onto the roof and took apart the wire, the live wire sparked, sending the crowd running and me standing their completely shocked, pun intended. The guy was completely fearless.

Like most villages we have camped in along the trip, we had to ask the permission of the chief to stay the night in the village. So he stopped by and greeted us. Other chiefs have demanded some money, smokes, or beer as payment to stay. The only thing he wanted was a can of beans.

I was sitting at the bar drinking a beer when the chief came up to me to greet me with a firm strong hand shake, that surprised me, because he was an older man. I responded with a handshake of an Alaskan commercial fisherman. My competitive side coming out, and his competitive side came out of him. For the next minute he tried to submit me, with a hand shaking war, which I finally gave up and let him win to be respectful.

He laughed, and pulled me towards him, grabbing my biceps and telling me, "strong man" and then hugged and kissed me, causing me to spill a beer town his back, since I wasn't ready for the jerk forward. I didn't know how to respond to his sign of respect towards me, it was one of those awkward moments.

After leaving Boma, we continued through beautiful rain forest, passed an old rusty tank along the road, and made our way to the largest port in DRC, Matadi. Even before entering the town, I was forced to put my camera away. The tour leader knowing I wouldn't be able to resist taking a picture of the Congo River, with the country's largest port, and biggest and only bridge that spans the Congo River.
The military guard the bridge and patrol the area, and any bridge or military building in Africa cannot be photographed. Our tour leader didn't want to risk us having our truck ripped apart and all of us interrogated.

The view arriving into Matadi was one of the most beautiful pictures I could have taken along the trip. Which was difficult to not photograph, like a black lab I had to sit their salivating while my owners ate a juicy steak dinner.

The town of Matadi sits along a hillside, besides the Congo River, now flowing fast down from the mountains, and carving a twisting channel by the town. The moment we crossed the impressive suspension bridge, a huge ship passed just below, a ship that you would never expect to see so far up a fast moving river.

We stopped in this town long enough to buy some supplies and drink some Primus beer. I wanted to take a taxi down to the river, but was told the taxi driver might try to rob me.

The third and last night in the DRC we camped at the border of Angola, and had a local keep us up all night breaching god and Jesus Christ, to us through a loud speaker. One of the passengers answered,"even Jesus slept." I sat in my tent waiting to make a break for it, thinking the guy had bad intentions. The border just two years ago was closed, because an outbreak of Ebola in the DRC, scarred Angola into closing it. So crossing through the rarely used border we made our way into the recently opened country of Angola. A country that for the last 27 years has ripped itself apart in civil war.

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