Thursday, March 17, 2011

Neo colonialism

When people talk about the Congo - travelers and Africans alike - it seems that all you hear of is corruption and bad people.  At first sight the Congolese seem to live up to their reputation. The customs officer at the river crossing in Ouesso starts an aggressive tirade about how his signature isn’t free. We try to ignore his demands for a bribe as good and friendly as possible. After a couple of minutes he changed the subject himself and handed over our forms. Another four (!) offices later we were done with all the formalities, without opening our wallet. We glanced at one another, shrugged shoulders and took off. Now that wasn’t too difficult was it?

The town of Ouesso looks quite differently from most towns we’ve seen before. Small houses are encircled by neatly swept spacious courtyards with flowery bushes. The Wildlife Conservation Society office is unable to provide us with information on visits to the nearby Parc National Nouabalé-Ndoki, a police officer in town is clearly hoping he could fine us for not having insurance (which we did obviously) and breakfast in a restaurant downtown is expensive. But we didn’t encounter nearly as much hassles as anticipated and the overall atmosphere is agreeable, so by the time we leave for Brazzaville, we feel more at ease, even hopeful.

The first stretch of road isn’t all that good though. While the weather gods prove merciful, we still fail to reach the first town before dusk. Even if we have sufficient food and water, camping in the wild doesn’t seem like a good idea: the beautiful and dense forest we’ve been riding through is part of a national park, which means it’s probably filled with wildlife. So we ask in the first village in miles if we can camp there. 

For the villagers of Epouma it goes without saying that we should. If it weren’t for the continuously moaning horny goats and Chinese roadwork trucks passing through the village at regular intervals – why do they need to transport “sand” in the middle of the night anyway?? – we would have had a peaceful night.

After seventeen more kilometers of bad road we finally reach the long expected road construction works. With the newly built bridges, power plants and temporary worker camps decorated with Chinese flags, Chinese labor men leading the works, Chinese freight containers lying about, local police complaining about the Chinese immigrants stealing pre-pubertal girls from the nearby villages to take them as their wives and small Chinese run shops springing up around the country everywhere rivaling with local businesses, it is hard to underestimate the mark the Chinese are leaving behind on the country. We wonder what they’re gaining from it… Exploitation rights of natural resources

Meanwhile we do profit from the Chinese labor. Before we know it, we cross the equator in Makoua and arrive at the tarred road that starts just before the president’s home town of Oyo. We are impressed by the unusual amount of infrastructure and fancy buildings: the president’s riverside villa including yacht, the pompous grand hotel, the modern airport, the huge football and athletics stadiums, the biggest market building of Congo, an important collection of luxurious villas and an incredible number of tarred streets finished with street lighting and everything… All this for such a small town: delusion of grandeur if you ask us. Because the president is currently visiting, all hotels are fully booked and we get chased by the gendarmerie to neighboring Ollombo.

With no restaurants or respectable shops to buy food and no running water, it is much less appealing, but we don’t want to ride further. We need some time to finally clean the air filters. To our dismay the air boxes are very dirty as well, a result of following the bad advice of a local Yamaha mechanic. He suggested not oiling the filters to try if this would help mount the idling speed.

Totally in distress Nicolaas makes a phone call to our Yamaha dealer in Belgium to ask for advice. Somewhat reassured about the potential damage, we go to bed without a decent shower or meal.

 As we go south the swamps interspersed with forest patches suddenly change into savannah landscapes and more and more villages appear next to the road. We reach the boundaries of Lefini Reserve by the time the light is already growing dim. The eco guards join us on their quad bike and we ride 10kms through the man high elephant grass to reach our destination by sundown. The accommodation is very basic and mice infested but beautifully located at the top of a hill. In fact we are lucky to have found anything at all since we learn that the reserve was neglected for years by the government before locals took it upon themselves to manage the place.

Next day we get up at 4 in the morning. It’s still pitch black when we descend on foot to the nearby watering hole to look for elephants. We find a lot of recent tracks but return to the camp without actual sightings.

Well, at least we have an early start. But the road to Brazzaville is potholed and slow and I’m struggling to keep awake in the midday heat. At last we see Brazzaville and the Congo River in the distance.

At hotel Hippocampe overlanders can camp for free in a hall next to the excellent Vietnamese restaurant, so inevitably we meet again with some familiar faces there. Some of them have been less lucky: not all roads towards Brazzaville are as motorable as ours… We’ve found a safe, comfortable and cheap haven for the next couple of days. Nicolaas takes the time to adjust the valve clearance of the bikes with the help of a local BMW mechanic and we recharge our batteries before we cross the river to Kinshasa.

For more pics see album"New colonialism"

1 comment:

  1. Wilfried en Rita18 March, 2011 14:30

    Oef, enkele dagen rust!
    Die zullen jullie wel kunnen gebruiken :)
    Laad jullie eigen batterijen ook maar op!