By Witt Sparks
“The man with the key is dead,” said the immigration officer calmly, referring to the padlocks on the gate that barred the Gabon/Congo border. Our group of nine people in four specially prepared vehicles was attempting to cross from Gabon into the Republic of Congo via a seldom used and remote border post. In fact, we had learned that tourists hadn’t used this particular border since the Congolese civil war ended seven years ago.
The nine of us were a motley collection of “overlanders,” representing five different nationalities and speaking at least as many languages. We had the common goal of crossing the continent of Africa north to south, by road, and had met in Libreville, Gabon after connecting on the Internet. Our planned route would take us through Gabon, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola, and finally entering Namibia. We had each made our separate ways south through West Africa from Europe, and wanted to team up with others for what we considered to be the most dangerous part of our journey. Our adventure with the Gabonese officials had begun two days earlier on a Sunday in the town of Bakoumba, about 35 miles north of the border.
Arriving in Bakoumba
Like many African towns we visited, Bakoumba has the air of a town that has seen its best days come and go. Wide palm-lined tarmac streets are littered with potholes, and once-proud colonial-era buildings slowly decay in the oppressive heat and humidity of the rainforest two degrees south of the equator. The town used to be home to a large manganese mine, but as with many African towns, when the mining company left the jobs and money left with it. The town seemed quiet as we drove in to begin the process of visiting the immigration and customs offices to secure permission to leave the country. As we searched for the immigration official, we realized that it was Sunday and everyone, including the immigration officer, was in church.
After waiting around for a while, he eventually appeared. He was friendly, and told us that the border was open and that crossing it wouldn’t be a problem. He unfortunately didn’t have a stamp (an African official without a stamp is like an airport security guard without a wand) and instead scrawled an exit notation into our passports in French after tediously copying down all of our “details.” Our next stop was customs, where we needed to get our Carnet Du Passage (like a passport for our vehicles which guarantees that we won’t sell them in the country without paying the exorbitant taxes) stamped. The customs officer was away, and we were directed to the nearby gendarmerie. Contrary to the information provided by immigration, he informed us that the border was closed, but that for a fee the border could be opened.
It’s been said that in Africa there is nothing but time. We found that the most effective way to deal with requests for bribes is to simply smile a lot and be patient. The worst thing a traveler can be is in a hurry. We parked outside the police office and settled in to wait. Our four vehicles included three Land Rovers and one six-wheel-drive Pinzgauer, a Swiss military vehicle that had been converted into a mobile home. Driving such vehicles, there seems to always be some repair or other that can be undertaken, so we occupied our time trying to isolate rattles and repair punctured tires. Two of our number went off in search of food, and returned with some bread and random chicken pieces. Soon enough the officer realized that we weren’t paying and we weren’t going anywhere.
The border opened. We quickly packed away our tools and started the drive to the border.
A First Attempt
The scenery was breathtaking with thick, impossibly green foliage on either side of the well-maintained dirt road. Steel towers, once part of an aerial tram system used for transporting ore from the manganese mines to a processing facility in Congo, stood in the jungle engulfed by vines that looked as if they were actively trying to pull the structures down into the forest. After a fifteen-minute drive, we were stopped at a military checkpoint.
The post was a simple wooden building with peeling blue paint. In front of the building stood a crude wooden cross, hammered into the red earth. It looked suspiciously like a grave marker, but we thought better of enquiring, thinking we might not like the answer. The soldiers, lounging on the verandah, seemed shocked to see tourists. They told us that the border was closed, but that the border guard had a key to open the gate. They said that two soldiers had to accompany us to the border, and that a third guy wanted a lift. We found space for two of them along with their automatic weapons in our vehicles, and the third climbed onto a roof rack. We insisted they remove the magazines from their weapons, a safety precaution which the soldiers scoffed at but eventually agreed to when it became apparent that we weren’t moving otherwise.
A further ten minutes and we arrived at the border itself. The border consisted of a wide spot in the road with an old tractor tire in the middle of it, forming a crude roundabout. There were no other vehicles present. To our right was a wooden building, which our soldier friends said was the office of the border official. At the end of the clearing was our objective. A gate, behind which was about 300 feet of shoulder-high grasses. A footpath led through the grass, but it was clear that no vehicles had driven across this border in some time. On the other side was another gate, another clearing, and a small concrete building that presumably was the Congolese immigration office.
Two of us, including a French woman who as the sole fluent French speaker in our group had the dubious privilege of being involved in every discussion or argument with African officialdom, entered the Gabonese immigration office. The room was spartan, with three wooden visitors chairs and a low wooden coffee table. At the head of the room was a desk, behind which sat a youngish man in a Hawaiian shirt. As we had grown to expect, the officer was surprised to see us, and when we told him of our plans to cross into Congo via his border, he said that no, that would not be possible without a letter of authorization from the regional governor.
After some discussion our group decided to try our luck at a different border. This would mean a three-day detour, but it appeared we had no choice. It turned out that the guy who got a lift on our roof rack had been sent to collect a brand new boom box, which he located in a back room of the immigration building. Where such a treasure came from we will never know. He climbed back onto his perch on the roof rack and we bundled the other two, still toting their machine guns, back into the cars. We dropped our passengers at the military checkpoint, and then proceeded back to town. Since our passports had already been stamped (or rather signed) out, we needed to be re-admitted to Gabon before we could head off toward our alternate border crossing. The immigration man in Bakoumba insisted that the border should have been open, and got on the phone and started making calls. Unfortunately there is no phone at either the military checkpoint or the actual border, so the officials there remain out of touch. He managed to contact the regional governor, who agreed to write a letter for us.
Two of our group went with the immigration officer to visit the governor at his home, who typed out an authorization letter complete with all of our names, nationalities, and passport and visa numbers, while his three kids watched Bruce Lee tear up his adversaries in the next room. We learned that the Congolese side of the border would be closed the next day, Easter Sunday, and the following Monday as well. So with our paperwork in order, we made plans to visit the nearby Lakedi National Park while we waited.
A Wildlife Diversion
While not as densely populated as the famous game parks of Southern Africa, Lakedi possesses numerous species of birds and mammals. A troop of chimpanzees inhabits an island in a small lake in the park. These chimps have been rescued from their previous lives as bar entertainment, circus acts, and pets, and while their daily hand-feedings of bananas and mangoes to amuse the tourists isn’t exactly true wilderness, the chimps don’t seem to mind the arrangement too much. A 500 meter steel cable walkway spanning a shallow valley allows visitors to walk above the forest canopy to gain a unique perspective on the ecosystem. We spent the entire day in the park, enjoying the spectacular rain-forest scenery as much as the wildlife, returning to the lodge in town that was the park’s headquarters in the late afternoon. The lodge was comfortable, but it was obvious that the park suffered from a lack of funding. Our group was the only tourists in evidence during our two-day stay during the beginning of the dry season in May. Logging is currently Gabon’s second-largest industry after oil, and we had seen numerous trucks laden with massive hardwood logs as we traversed the country from the border with Cameroon in the north. President Bongo has embarked on a campaign to ‘enjoy and not extract’ Gabon’s natural resources, but tourism in the country is still in its infancy.
Not wanting to tempt fate with overconfidence, we decided the next day, Monday, to drive to the border and camp there, to put the officials in town and at the military checkpoint behind us and be ready to cross into Congo on Tuesday morning. This proved to be the correct decision, as it would take us the entire day to cover the 35 miles to the border. As we headed out of town, our signed letter from the governor confidently in hand, a man came running out of the customs office that two days before had been unoccupied. He said that he needed to stamp our vehicle carnets, which we had pretty much given up on. The only catch was that it was going to cost us 10,000 CFA (about US$20) per vehicle. He explained that he didn’t have a stamp either. It was strange that in our entire trip through Africa, the only two officials we encountered without stamps both worked in the same town. Instead he began writing out bits of paper and stapling them into our carnets using a stapler he borrowed from us.
We knew he didn’t have a clue what he was doing and weren’t about to pay a fee for his services. We sent a couple of people off to fetch the immigration official who had been helpful earlier and settled in to wait, leaning on the barricade that blocked the road. An hour later a pickup arrived bearing the town prefecture (essentially the mayor) and a large entourage of hangers on. With the extremely high unemployment rates in Africa, there are lots of people with nothing much to do. When something interesting happens, like a group of tourists driving through town, there seems to always be a sizeable contingent of onlookers around. The prefecture spoke with the customs man, who looking very unhappy, tore out the bits of paper and lifted the barricade.
We drove on, stopping fifteen minutes later at the military checkpoint we had visited before. The officer in charge wouldn’t let us pass, saying that our letter was a civilian authorization, and was therefore meaningless to the military. He said he had to go back to town to phone the colonel. There happened to be a vehicle there, so he caught a ride and disappeared back up the road. We used our satellite phone to reach the US embassy in Libreville, the capital of Gabon. We spoke with the consul there, whom we had visited a week before, and asked if there was anything he could do. He said he couldn’t be of much help, but said that there was no reason they shouldn’t let us out of the country, and said he’d try. Our group was getting restless, so to pass the time we erected our awnings in the middle of the road, got out a laptop computer, and started watching “Ice Age” on DVD.
As we watched and laughed at the film, sitting there on a dirt road in the Central African rainforest with the temperature and humidity both close to 100, I couldn’t help but marvel at the bizarre nature of the whole situation. After ninety minutes the film was over and we found ourselves once again sitting on a dirt road in Gabon, and still no sign of the officer. When two of us went to fetch him in one of our vehicles, we found him sitting outside at a bar. The whole thing with the colonel was just a ruse, an excuse for him to go and get drunk. He had obviously used his time well, for during the two hours he was gone, he’d managed to become thoroughly intoxicated. Clutching his machine gun, he climbed into the car. We had to stop once during the fifteen-minute drive back to his post so he could pee in the bushes. Once there he said we could go.
Late in the afternoon we arrived at the border, tired from a day spent mostly waiting around, and hopeful that we had everything sorted out so that we could cross the border without further delay when the Congolese returned from their holiday tomorrow morning. We decided to go visit the man in the Hawaiian shirt to make sure everything was to his satisfaction. To our dismay, he told us that we couldn’t cross the border because of the problem of the dead man with the key. Thoroughly exasperated, we assured him that that was no problem, just show us where he was buried and we’d happily dig him up. Or better yet, we have bolt cutters. We can open the gate. When we showed him our letter from the governor.
He wasn’t impressed, saying that it had no “reference number.” Reference number? No one had said anything about a reference number. Deciding that we’d done everything we could to get the right permissions and paperwork, we concluded that he was just stalling now. We would adopt the ‘just wait him out’ plan. We knew that the Congolese side of the border wouldn’t open until tomorrow anyway, so we set up our tents in the open area in front of the immigration office. The officer dutifully locked his office and walked up the hill to his house where his wife and children were watching us with curiosity. After he had gone, we walked across the border while no one was looking to ascertain the condition of the road on the other side. It was badly rutted, but looked passable.
A fantastic storm, and success at last!
After a dinner of the chicken we had bought earlier, some pasta, and various exotic fruits for desert, we used the nearby well to fill the drinking water tanks in our vehicles. As we climbed into our tents for the evening, we could see lightning flashes on the horizon. The horizon was only a kilometer away, as we were looking up out of a fairly large clearing in the forest, but we couldn’t hear any thunder. The lightning seemed to come from all directions, and it was impossible to determine where the storm was coming from. As I lay awake in bed, watching the flashes of light illuminate the fabric of the tent, I wondered what tomorrow would have in store for us, very much hoping we wouldn’t have to abandon this border and start the process over again elsewhere. Soon the distant rumble of thunder could be heard and by the early hours of the morning it had resolved itself into the close and frightening “flash-crack” of a violent and nearby storm. The rain unleashed itself suddenly and in torrents, and I was glad that our tents were mounted on top of the vehicles, out of the water and mud. The rain went on until almost dawn. We awoke to sun, clear skies, and a very muddy campsite.
Shortly after breakfast, the immigration officer emerged from his house, dressed not in his Hawaiian shirt, but in polished shoes and an official uniform. We speculated that he didn’t often have occasion to wear it. He gingerly made his way through the mud toward his office, stopping at the entrance of the building to try to scrape the worst of it off his shoes. He said we could cut the locks on the gate, as long as we gave him two new ones (with keys) to replace them. The reference number problem had mysteriously disappeared, and we didn’t remind him about it. The only remaining problem was that the Congolese customs officials had to walk to work, which would take longer today because of the mud. He wouldn’t let us out, he said, until the Congolese agreed to let us in. This was a bit unusual, but after the last three days, it seemed to fit right in.
We waited for the Congolese to arrive, which they did (in a pickup truck owned by the local priest) after an hour or so. The Gabonese official walked across into Congo and spoke with a man there. When he came back, he said that we would have to ride with the priest to the town of Mbinda, where the prefecture would decide whether or not to allow us in. Four of our number volunteered to go and walked across the border and climbed into the pickup with more gun-toting soldiers. The rest of us sat on the tire in the road for more waiting. When they returned they had good news to report. Not only was the prefect going to allow us to enter, he was very excited to have the first tourists in seven years enter Congo via “his” border. Eager at last to have something to do, we quickly cut the locks on the gate and maneuvered our vehicles through the tall grasses to the other side. Congo at last!! The officials at the border stamped our passports and we agreed to give the priest 3 gallons of diesel fuel for shuttling us back and forth. We followed him for 10 miles along a mud and water-filled track to Mbinda.
Entering the Congo
Like many African countries, the Republic of Congo (as distinguished from its larger neighbor to the south, the Democratic Republic of Congo) has had a troubled past. After gaining independence from the French in 1960, the country experimented with socialism and communism until the 1992 election of the country’s first democratically elected president. The 90s were marked by discontent and violence culminating in a short but brutal four-month civil war in 1997. Southern rebels continued guerrilla-style warfare against the government until a peace agreement was signed in March of 2003. As in all such conflicts, it was the common people who ultimately lost.
The prefecture of Mbinda was indeed happy to see us. All nine of us crowded into his office along with several unidentified locals as he made a long speech in French welcoming us to the Congo and more importantly to his town. He promised us that we would be safe, that we could stay as long as we liked, and that he would do what he could to help us. Outside virtually the entire village was gathered in the field in front of the prefect’s office. After a photo of the prefect and our group we wandered down the mud street perusing the wooden stalls selling the necessities of life in the Congo; bread, sweets, odd canned goods, cheap radios, and t-shirts donated from Europe or America. We bought bread to last a few days and were on our way, with the town’s population waving and shouting to us as we splashed down the muddy road.
We passed village after village, and while throughout our trip we have been confronted with curiosity and begging, mostly from children, here the flavor was different. Everyone, old and young, came out to greet us, waving wildly with both hands. It was as if the arrival of tourists meant that some stability was coming at last to their war-torn country.