Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.
|Sunday, November 04, 2001 00:13:44|
Central Africa 2001: 1 - Brazzaville, Congo to Kinshasa, DRC
It would appear that all my trips over the past couple of years have had shaky starts, usually due to airlines, but for various reasons. This trip was particularly difficult in that it proved nearly impossible to contact some essential airlines - Air Cameroon and Air Daallo among them. As some flights on these airlines affected everything after them, my long suffering travelling companion Tim Carlson had a lot of fun getting the trip put together.
These airlines were finally located and contacted, and it looked like we were more or less organized, just waiting for some details to fall into place. Our return dates were moving around as planned airlines dropped or rescheduled flights, but on October 20 I left San Jose, Costa Rica for Houston, Texas where my passport was to be at the visa service with all the required visas for the trip.
The Monday after arrival I checked with them to find that my passport with visas would not be in Houston until the following week, as there were still two countries needed. Meanwhile Tim continued to move around the travel schedule to try to keep up with ongoing flight changes and cancellations for which African airlines are famous. To pass the time I rented a car and headed to San Antonio, famous for the Alamo, to Corpus Christi, famous for the public display of the aircraft carried Lexington and to Galveston, famous for it's 1900 hurricane that killed over 6,000 people.
Back in Houston I met with Mike Lombardo of the visa service two days before my flight was to leave for Paris, then to Brazzaville in the Congo. He had my passport in hand; however, four countries had problems. Two of the visas previously issued had already expired, and two others were single entry visas for countries it was essential that we re-enter for ongoing transportation. I talked to Tim by phone from Mike's office, and we decided we had little option but to take the chance and send the passports back Washington DC for correction. Mike felt it could be done if nothing went wrong - overnight courier to Washington, one of their employees on it full time for the next day getting to the four embassies, then overnight courier back to Houston for me and to the San Francisco airport for Tim. This was a big gamble, as if we missed the flight to Brazzaville from Paris there would not be another plane for five days, and the whole planned trip would come down like dominos.
Mike stayed on top of the Washington employees, and when it was necessary to re-apply for the Cameroon visa, our passports did arrive to each of us on the day of the flight to Paris. We were absolutely delighted to meet up in Paris at our hotel, and celebrated the event with a few beers! Neither of us had any way of knowing the other was OK. The nine and a half hour flight was quite comfortable, as the plane was no where near full and I had a seat with about ten feet of leg room in front of it for the exit door.
I slept soundly and had to be awakened by Tim in the morning at 8 AM to catch the shuttle to Charles de Gaulle Airport and the 8 hour flight to Brazzaville in the Congo. We boarded the overbooked flight on time, but were delayed 20 minutes waiting for luggage to be loaded. The plane was an airbus with no exit rows and I was unable to fit comfortably in my seat. The bulkhead rows were all occupied, but the stewardess finally convinced a woman with an aisle seat with a broken armrest that would rise to swap with me. It still made for a very long and uncomfortable flight. It was also quite a smelly flight, natural BO seeming to be the favoured scent of many passengers.
We arrived in Brazzaville, Congo at about 7:15 PM, half an hour late. The customs formalities were very slow, but no bribes were solicited and all went well. The slowness of customs paled in comparison with the slowness of the baggage handlers. Because of the full flight I had been required to check my carry on bag, which I did after taking the video camera, laptop and other electronic gear out of it and carrying it on board in a Sheraton laundry bag I fortunately had. The baggage shed was about forty degrees hotter than the average steam bath, and more humid. The almost one hour wait for my suitcase seemed interminable!
Tim cleverly asked other passengers the taxi fare into town, so when we did finally get underway and were approached by a taxi we were able to negotiate the correct price, which was about half the asked price. We had not been able to contact the Meridian Hotel, or any other in Brazzaville for that matter, due to the phone lines not working, however they had a couple of rooms and gave us a travel agent rate so we checked in. This was followed by a couple of quarts of the very excellent local beer, and I had an absolutely delicious gourmet meal while a jazz quartet played for us. The initial perception is that it is very civilized here!
In the morning, Saturday, November 3, Tim and I met for the breakfast buffet after I had given the desk clerk the job of finding a driver and English speaking guide for us. During breakfast he reported that he had the people assembled, and I went out of negotiate the final price. It worked out to about $71 for the car, driver and guide for 5 hours.
We checked out of the hotel and were on the road by 9 AM. We did a pretty thorough drive around through Brazzaville, including the Congo River rapids below the city, which are very big and fierce. We also walked around the market area, visited craft shops, and saw everything he could think to show us. This took about 3 hours of touring, so we put in the last couple of hours in a pub drinking beer. We ended at the ferry to Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where I was really worried about whether or not I could get into the country. It is quite well advertised that if one has stamps or visas from Uganda, Rwanda or Burundi, entry will be refused. I have all three.
The circus leaving Brazzaville was unlike anything that either Tim or I had seen in all the countries whose customs formalities we have battled our way through. Our guide, Ange Gabriel earned his fees in just this area alone! Our plan was to take the regular ferry across the Congo River - but the guide said no way, that it would be uncomfortable and we would likely be robbed. We saw the ferry loading the vendors and traders who cross the river regularly from the 8 million population city of Kinshasa to the 2.5 million population city of Brazzaville. The ferry would seem to have capacity for a couple of hundred people, but they were able to shoe-horn throngs which seemed like thousands on board. People were hanging everywhere off the boat.
We encountered no English speaking officials in the port area, so our guide was instrumental in first explaining why we had to buy a ticket to enter to dock compound, then go to an immigration area, then to an area where the ongoing visa for DRC was inspected. We then were taken to a metal shed with screened holes all around for what little air there was to circulate. All the while touts were trying to selling us one thing or another, and people kept grabbing our bags wanting to carry them. The crowds were amazing, and the fight through pushing, straining, sweating masses in the super heated humidity was really wearing.
Once inside the metal shed, two officials sat at a small table and there was just room, by standing shoulder to shoulder with Tim and the guide, to fit us all in. Now we were asked to declare our currency. This was very uncomfortable, with dozens of curious faces peering in through the screening and the doors - however it was insisted upon. I dug into the bottom of my suitcase a brought out a large envelope of cash. Not knowing exactly how much was there, one of the customs agents and I carefully counted it all, and the amount was duly noted on a small bit of paper torn from a desk size pad that would have made 100 such forms. Between Tim and I we are carrying over $US 15,000, and the public display of what is an unimaginable amount of wealth in this area was somewhat unnerving.
Next we went to the boat company office to purchase our passage. Once this was done, the boat people insisted they needed our passports to go with the manifest. We were eventually persuaded to part with them, but not without a great deal of trepidation!
With our trusty guide we then went down to the boat dock where we were introduced to Doris, as very attractive girl who was a friend of our guide and who worked for the boat company. The four of us then went for a beer. Soon we were warned by a couple of guys who look after people for tips that there was only one more person to sign on to make the obligatory 10 for the boat and we would go. We downed our beer by the time the last person had signed on, and were very relieved to be led my Doris to the company office where our passports were returned to us, duly stamped. She then escorted us to the dock where we were shown the right, overloaded small boat and we embarked upon the crossing of the wide river.
As we were approaching the middle of the river, the outboard motor began to act up, then it permanently quit. There were no life jackets or paddles on board, and as we drifted downstream visions of the formidable rapids we had seen earlier in the day danced in my head. Just to appease my sense of humour, while drifting I took a GPS reading of our location for my next email report - drifting helplessly towards raging rapids in the middle of the Congo River between two on and off hostile countries seemed to sum up this mad type of travel!
In not too long a time, a rescue boat from the Kinshasa side showed up. We all piled aboard a 16 foot boat with a convertible canvas roof. With 14 adults on board, our luggage had to be piled onto and in front of the windscreen. The operator of the boat that we had abandoned hung on for as long as he could to get towed in, but eventually as we increased speed he lost his grip, and was left behind. I understand eventually another boat went and got him - that sort of thing is dealt with quite casually here.
I was more worried about the fact that we had been about to overtake the massed thousands on the ferry than drifting down stream, and now realized that my worst thoughts had come true - the ferry was disgorging the multitude just as we were pulling in. Dreading entry into this country for fear of being renounced and sent back was one thing, and another was all the warnings of the terrible things that happen to the unwary here. Tim & I were definitely wary, and when a fellow in a sports shirt insisted on having our passports while we were on the dock we protested vigorously. The one consistent warning about the DRC is not to give anyone your passport! At any rate, he was very persistent, and others seemed to be cheerfully turning over their identity papers, so we finally succumbed and gave him our passports.
When he turned and dove into the mass of humanity that soon enveloped him, Tim and I were desperately thrashing our way through the crowd to keep up with him. A glimpse now and then of his striped shirt led us in the right direction, until the flood of people stopped even him. We elbowed, shoved and pressed our way close to him. He was trying to make his way to a locked steel barred gate at the side of the main channel through which people and cargo were pouring. With the human tidal wave at its height there was no way the gate could be opened.
At this point, enter the crowd control police. What we thought were batons were drawn, but flashes of electricity soon proved them to be powerful cattle prods. No mercy was shown to man or woman, they were pressed into people and activated, delivering numbing shocks to the recipients. The human flow faltered, then stopped, then backed into the oncoming masses. A fellow under a large load tried to go by, and the police took advantage of his overloaded condition to push him over, leaving him lying on the deck with his load scattered around him. The gate was opened; our little group from the small boat shown through, then it was relocked. The crowd was then pressed back into motion by those coming from behind.
We were escorted via this back way to a customs office where three officers sat around a desk. The masses could be seen through the main office, lined up for miles. Our passports were checked, as were our visas. Each of the three in turn went through our passports while I held my breath. My DRC visa was on page 31, the offending Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi visas were after it. Each page before page 31 was studied carefully by each, but each gave up their scrutiny after finding the visa for their country. The passport was stamped and returned, and I began to breathe again. A little further along there was a cursory inspection of the luggage, and we were free to catch a cab to the Grand Hotel.
Entering the hotel was like a thirst starved traveller on the Sahara encountering a water filled oasis. Inside it was calm and orderly; the reservation cards were pre-printed and needed only a signature. Our rooms on the 15th floor commanded a magnificent view of the Congo River, the scene of our crossing, and Brazzaville on the other side. It was not long before Tim and I joined forces to find Le Pub and drinks. We were joined by a Danish fellow who was doing telephone work for Exxon. The three of us decided to take in the Saturday night BBQ feast, which was accompanied by an African review of music and dancing. The riotous mobs of a few hours earlier seemed not to be a part of the same planet!