Once in Léconi, the border with my next destination, Congo, was around 15 minutes away on a newly asphalted road. According to the stories I had heard, there was still a stretch of some 100k of sandy trails on the other side of the border, but after that, smooth driving all the way to my destination Brazzaville. Because of the road conditions, there is no regular transportation across the border, and the challenge was to find that first. I had already been asking around in Franceville, and knew that on Friday afternoon, a truck would pass. But I wanted to leave before, also because I wanted to be in town before the weekend, in order to arrange practical things. While looking for transportation to the Léconi canyon, I was offered a ride for 45.000FCFA; the driver promising to deposit me on the first town on the Congolese side in two hours. That seemed very fast, and I hoped to find something for a better price. On the way to Eau Claire, the small river west of Léconi where I took a refreshing dip after the morning visit to the canyon, I walked to the nearby immigration office. I got my exit stamp, and the friendly officer advised me to stay in his office until trucks heading for Congo would show up. He said that they normally start to show up after 4pm, and I was lucky enough to find a car that took me to the office again a few hours later. The officer was still there, and happy with the soft drink I had taken for him. He asked me to stow my luggage and take a seat, and so it was that we were watching a documentary on the life of Margareth Thatcher. At the same time, it was a good opportunity to see the operations of an immigration office from the other side. Mostly, my friend would just wave at passing cars: friends or relatives. Some times, he would actually stop a car. While in the previous weeks, the police officers had become my enemy number 1 here, with the absolute low of one of them trying to destroy my passport, which ended in a physical fight in which I managed to retrieve it, I now saw a friendlier face. My enemies here were the fourous, small insects that were turning my legs into a battlefield. After two hours, the officer summoned an old, blue Toyota pickup truck without any load inside, on the parking. The officer and the guy talked for a while, while I was outside enjoying the sun, until I heard them negotiate a price. The guy, a Cameroonian from Bafoussam, was heading for Congo, and willing to take me. He showed me on the map where he was heading, Ewo, and told me that from there, I would easily find direct transportation on sealed roads to Brazzaville. I could be there around 3pm the next day - much faster than I had anticipated. I was quite happy, but wanted to stay longer; Ewo was more to the north, and he would not be taking the direct road to Okoyo, but some inside road. I preferred to stay and see other alternatives first, but a different police officer had joined, and indirectly made it clear to me that, now that I found transportation, I should stay in Léconi and wait for the vehicle to leave. I boarded the car, and we drove to the petrol station, which fortunately was stocked now - the day before, it had been out of petrol. I wondered if the driver knew this; it seemed a tricky thing to arrive here, the last town before the border, without sufficient petrol. We drove to a house in Léconi, where a fight ensued between the driver and someone else, about tomatoes. They were both shouting at each other, but looking at a guardien and me instead of each other. An embarrassing situation. We drove to another petrol station, where the driver started filling the jerry cans in the back of the truck. I proposed he would pick me up when he was done loading his truck, and installed myself in the pleasant hotel I had been staying in. Instead of 8pm as he had promised, it was almost half past ten when he showed up, the staff of the hotel were falling asleep, and I felt bad about it: they were waiting for me to leave. But as soon as I stepped inside the vehicle, I felt excited. I had no clue what lay ahead of me, how I would survive the night, and how the border crossing was going to be. I could not know, since the adventure I was embarking on, turned out to be one of the biggest in my travel life.
When I had asked about other passengers, the friendly driver had told me that no, there would only be him, his helper, and me. When I was sitting in the car on the backseat, I actually had some space, and thought about having some sleep on the road. But after I got into the car, we drove to another place in town, where a guy sat next to me. It turned out he was from Benin, and also going to Brazzaville. His mother had just passed away, and he was on a long way back to Cotonou for the funeral; he lived in east Gabon, and according to him, it was better for him to fly out from Brazzaville. I was now squeezes in the middle, with a pile of luggage on my left, several things on the floor, among which a big pineapple, and my fellow passenger on my right. Five minutes later, the driver stopped again; an entire family of 11 persons jumped on the truck, and sat on top of the load of jerry cans with petrol. Again, I realized that things are always different than what people say in Africa. Of course - how could I have been so naive to believe I would be the only passenger? The amount of money I had agreed to pay, now seemed quite high - and I was sure that no one else was paying the same. Instead of taking the asphalted road straight to the border, the driver turned left very soon, and steered us over a sandy track I knew would last until Ewo, on the Congolese side. What followed was a crazy drive in the dark. We went through what seemed like tunnels in the vegetation, and twice encountered a vehicle coming from the other side. The driver cursed, and reversed, finding a way to let the other vehicle pass. Sleeping was of course out of the question. Especially when the helper of the driver went to sit on top of the petrol - to smoke. He turned out to love it, and smoked one cigarette after the other. I recalled how I had seen some of the jerry cans had not been well closed, and asked the driver if he should not stop the guy smoking. He merely shrugged his shoulders. I could help but feel like sitting in a moving time bomb. The family got off in a village, and the driver returned in the cabin of the car. I sometimes dozed off, to wake up at once because of a maneuver of the driver, upcoming car, or just because my head fell to one side. It was 3am when we arrived in a tiny village, and the helper said that we had to get out. We had reached the immigration checkpoint of Congo. Naturally, not a 24/7 operation; the small hut was closed, everything was dark. But the driver and his helper knew their stuff, they walked around huts with their torches, and woke up the guy responsible for border crossings. Naturally, he was not amused, opened the "office", and put an oil lamp on a small wooden table. After all the bad experiences I had had with border police and immigration officials, I wondered what was coming now. He first dealt with the driver and my fellow passenger, asking 10.000F to the first, and 40.000 to the second. My throat was dry with tension, and when he leafed through my passport, he asked me to pay 30.000F. I objected, telling him I had paid for the visa, and that I merely wanted an entry stamp. But he insisted I should pay, saying he had instructions to get this money from foreigners, so I told him I would cancel my visit to Congo and return to Gabon on the next vehicle available. Faced with this, and all the possible consequences it would have for him, he offered to call his colleague. I thought little of it - who was he going to reach at that ungodly hour? - but to my surprise, someone answered the phone. The even bigger surprise was, that the other person confirmed my story, and the official told me I was right, and had nothing to pay. He even asked me where to put the stamp, and told the Beninois and me that we were both free to travel inside the country, and should not pay anything anywhere anymore. Our old pick-up truck had a problem with the battery, and the driver had let the engine run all the time we had been inside. We had lost one hour to get into Congo, and the track got worse. The driver skillfully steered us over the difficult sand, and I started wondering how far it would be. We took a guy who was on the way to Ewo as well - on foot. We drove over shaky wooden bridges, and the track got worse and worse. Day broke; there was no sun, only grey skies. At one point, the driver made a mistake, the car got stuck, and the engine stopped. We got out, and realized we had a problem. We first had to push the heavily loaded car back on the main track, and then push it forward, slightly downhill, to try and get the engine running again. We had only a scoop without a handle in the car, the helper started digging with it, while the driver was cutting a handle from a branch of a tree. When we had some clearance under the car, we pushed with all our power, and managed to get the car back on track. After more efforts, we finally had it going down the road, and the engine started again. I was now very happy we had the extra passenger and the guy taking a ride with us; if we would have only been three, it would never have been possible. A little later, the driver made another mistake, and the car almost capsized into the bush on the right side of the road. We got off, and I thought we really had a problem. To my surprise, we managed to push the car back up, even though at one point, it threatened to fall down, crushing us beneath its weight. Our trip to Ewo was not uneventful, so to say. I sat upright, looking ahead, observing how the driver was doing. He was remarkably fit, at least that.
When we finally reached Ewo, it was 7.30, and we saw a heavily loaded pick-up truck. It was going to Oyo, and I could not believe our luck. But when we got off under the rain, it appeared that the driver refused us: his truck was full. And indeed, it would have been no fun to squeeze ourselves between the people and cargo loaded high on the truck. It was still early, and I was sure there should be more transport, but it turned out otherwise. There were 4WDs everywhere, my Beninois friend was in a hurry to get to Brazzaville like me, and I thought renting a vehicle was our solution. But when I stopped a car, the guy called his brother, who said that it had rained so much, he did not want to drive his 4WD to Oyo. There were motorbikes around as well, and sure enough, they were willing to take me. The Beninois was doubtful, and was heading for a hotel when I negotiated the price down hard, and asked the driver to be very careful on the muddy road. We left together; staying in Ewo would really not have been a good idea. I felt the elation of being on a motorbike again, but when the asphalt finished, this feeling quickly changed. We slipped all the time, and had to plough our way through stretches of deep mud. My feet were still clean, but of course, that would not last, and when we finally fell, I stepped right into deep mud. My shoes were one big clump of earth and water. We rode through pools of muddy water so deep it reached our knees. There were some better stretches, but I dreaded them: the driver tried to make up time, and I was scared. Driving on an unsealed road that is in a bad state and muddy on the back of a motorbike, without a helmet, and with a speed sometimes reaching 80km/h, is not entirely danger-free. The driver had told me it would take one hour to reach Boundji, where the asphalt started, but after more than an hour declared we still had some 50 km to go. At one point, we were overtaken by a pick-up truck, and a guy in a uniform motioned us to stop. He turned out to be the Chief of Immigration in Ewo, was accompanied by his family, and wanted to check our documents, and told me I had to be careful: terrorists were coming in from the north, targeting foreigners. One of our biker guys asked him if he could not take us, since he was heading to Oyo, but he refused, and we climbed back on the back of the bikes. After less than 100 metres, we saw the pick-up truck of the chief again: it was stuck in a particularly deep stretch of mud. There was no choice: we had to help. They did not have any instruments, so we walked around (barefoot) in search of materials that could be used. But it was hopeless, until another vehicle showed up. They were willing to help, and the guys took out spades to help dig. It was not enough, they tried to pull us out, but the line between the cars broke. Yet another vehicle showed up, but before they could do anything, they got stuck, too. Then, as they were all busy trying to get the car out, I heard a big truck coming our way. Sure enough, it stopped shortly thereafter in front of the car, and had a strong sling. It managed to get the car our a little bit, but not enough. And after a while, also that big, powerful truck got stuck itself. I had abandoned any hope of reaching Brazzaville that day anyway, and was now just living it as the adventure that it was, with the mud reaching my knees. Here we were, 3 4WDs and a truck stuck in the mud. One would get out, help another, and then get stuck again. It took us four hours before the vehicles were back on track again. The chef, having seen our efforts to get his car out, now offered to take us, so we jumped into the back of his truck, and we continued our way to Boundji. This was a particularly beautiful stretch, the sun was coming through, and we drove through village with people shouting at me, singing for me, waving - a warm feel came over me as we made our way over the muddy track under the mostly cloudy sky through which subtle sunlight was filtering through to the landscape we were driving through. We had been through a lot of trouble, but now were on the way to Oyo - I felt deep emotions coming out from sheer travel joy. I assumed the chief would take us all the way there. From Oyo, I knew there would be regular transportation to Brazzaville, and imagined we could still reach it that evening. I wanted to arrive before the weekend, to be able to arrange my stay in Congo, while my Beninois friend had to buy a ticket to get to the funeral of his mother. But as soon as we reached the asphalt of Boundji - what a great feeling! - the car stopped, and we were asked to leave. They did not even take us to the taxi station, and I gave it a last shot, innocently asking where the taxis for Oyo were to be found. They just pointed us in the same direction they were heading, and then left. We walked the street, and found a taxi that was about to leave. But then, a police officer showed up: before going anywhere, we had to get into his office. A bad feeling came over me. We showed our documents, and the chief told us he did not allow us to continue our way. A discussion followed; we tried to reason, but he locked our passports in a drawer and went away. After a while, when we were still trying to digest this misfortune, he came back, and said that we could continue, but should have our bags checked. They forced me to open everything in my bag, explain what was what, and with several items, asked me if they could have it. A drink, the first aid kit, my mosquito milk; even my condoms: they wanted to have it. When I refused, they just asked for 5000F, but I refused again, shook hands with the chief who was not really unfriendly after all, and waited for my Beninois friend. His luggage had to be checked, too - but then, they asked him to pay money. His refusal did not go down well, and I intervened. I told them about the border crossing, and how we had been guaranteed that we did not have to pay anything anymore. But the officers were adamant, and at one moment, forced me out of the office, asking me to take a taxi that was waiting outside. I wanted to wait for my friend, and heard a discussion inside, so walked back. To my dismay, it turned out they had handcuffed my friend. I got really angry now, and put my bags down. I demanded to see the chief again, meanwhile arguing with the police. I repeated the words we had heard from the officer at the border, but now they said that we had to pay in every department in the country. I tried to reason with the chief, but he would not budge. At one point, two police officers told me I should be the advocate of the devil, and pushed me out of the door opening, towards the taxi, and forced me inside. I considered what I should do, but the fact that they had handcuffed my friend showed that they were willing to use force to have it their way. Should I make a big scene, risking my own safety? What, really, could I do? The driver motioned I should be going, and I asked him to wait, but he would not. When we drove away, I had a strong feeling of disgust about the situation. At the same time, I met some very nice people in the car, and I got that great feeling again, of a welcoming Congolese people. It was only marred again at the police post, where I was asked to pay 5000F after they had copied my information into a book. I refused, took my passport, and to my surprise, got away with it. How can the police be so different from their countrymen in this region of the world? The president was in Oyo, which is why I was initially denied entry. Hotels were full, and the driver invited me to stay at the place of his brother. I talked with his wife, a bunch of children, and felt happy again - until a woman asked about the day. My Beninois friend came back to mind, and I wondered how he was doing, and where he was. Tears were suddenly running down my cheeks. I bought the driverdinner, and we went out for a drink, where he invited two girls. My mind was still on all the adventures I had had in the previous more than 24 hours. When I went to the toilet, one of the girls followed me, and before I knew it, she was kissing me, put my hand on her breasts, and with the other hand, grabbed my private parts. My mind was somewhere else, my legs were still partly covered in mud - and she took me by surprise. It turned out to be difficult to explain that I was not going to spend the night with her. My bus to Brazzaville was leaving in a few hours, and I desperately needed some sleep. Entering Congo: it had been a story of bad luck, of near accidents, of excitement, of meeting new people and a new country, of hate and love, of beautiful and ugly moments, of ups and downs.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Vaga border crossing (Congo). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Vaga border crossing.
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