|Written by Sascha Grabow|
|Thursday, 04 September 2008|
As there is another checkpoint just outside the city, I had to leave Bangui, the Capital of the Central African Republic, on the fourtheenth of January, just one day before the expiry of my Visa. I'd had a great time with barbeque for christmas at the french ambassador's residence, new year's celebrated with rounds of gunshots from real kalashnikovs - about six to ten people each year don't make it through that party!!
I really didn't want to leave! See, I was staying in one compound with the prime minister, we had tennis court, swimming pool and our own cook in livery, waking us up and serving us with fresh coffee and omeletts in the morning; but the idea was to get past that checkpoint, and then speculate on the real border guards in the boarder triangle Cameroon - Congo - CAR not being able to read sufficiently to maintain any claim towards my passport Visa indeed being expired ...
... The real problem there turned out to be how to find a canoe & local gondolier for the eighty kilometers and 24-hour-ride downstream towards the first Congo settlement. Eventually I found a strong guy with knowledge about the river's crocodiles, shallow sand bars, rocks etc. Around midnight we came to a fishermen's camp on an island midstream. After becoming friendly with them and dining on delicious fresh fish, we slept sound if too short in their camp. Five o'cock the next morning we continued downstream towards the first congolese settlement. I heard the engine of a plane and told my skipper to hurry so we would have a chance to talk to the bush pilot. It turned out he had just delivered some items for an NGO-run gorilla camp cum luxury hotel, where tourists can watch these grand apes in the wild for a tag of 150$ per day. The pilot was pretty cool and saw no reason why he shouldn't be able to take me back with him all the way to the coast and Libreville, the Capital of Gabon, as he was flying back empty anyways. When ready for taking off, the white woman running the 'NGO-hotel' claimed I couldn't be allowed on board as the tourists had payed 400$ each to come here, as well as citing some 'security'-issues for my being without insurance. We ended up hearing the engine again, with me still being strictly on an all-overland trip. The coincidence of an average of one plane every fourteen days or so just arriving this hour hadn't been able to alter the course of my voyage.
The woman gave me some bananas and then recommended for me to leave there as quickly as possible. The guards of the border towns were known to extort some 'real' and other invented fees from travelers, especially if they were white blokes in these parts of the world, and if she were seen with me, she would just have to endure the same fate. This was quite an introduction to a country that most people only know from Joseph Conrads novels.
So after the invigoration of 'feasting' on a couple of the yellow fruits, I chose a path that didn't traverse the middle of the village, using the normal notion in such a situation to my advantage, that no one would attempt a 45 km walk without first stocking up on food and proviant.
Encountering exotic animals and hunters with their rifle thrown over their shoulders, late afternoon I arrived in a place buit by the logging industry. Some Europeans invited me to stay in their air-conditioned container-flat, a fridge filled with ice cold canned beer being the main afterhour entertainment. From here I finally made it via some more river crossings on rafts and local ferries to Ouesso, the main town in the northern Republic of Congo. I met a super friendly family and later stayed with them, we cooked and danced together, all very heartwarming stuff ... I didn't even want to leave from there, but the knowledge of being in the absolute jungle and nowhere, as well as the expiration dates of the visas I had already stamped into my passport, for Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Zaire, nearing, I had to keep moving for the time being.
The 250km stretch going south from here was said to be impassable, and flying was considered the only option. But this only awakened my curiosity, and I had no idea how completely a road that seven years earlier, before the civil war had begun, was the national road No 1, could be gone and grown over quickly by the jungle. Once the logs that elephants occasionally broke down and 'threw' across the street, weren't cleared up anymore, the road had become impassable for cars, and the tropical vegatation had recaptured the manmade interlude in record time, and by now there was only a small path through two-meter farns and endless horizontal logs (each time with the big bag on my back the decision had to be made: was this one to duck under, or to jump over?) and pools of black water.
Every twenty kilometer or so some pygmies would have their humble home, and they would happily share the little they had, from elephant soup to roasted monkey or snake "marinated", and would almost burst with joy if you had something like a single sachet of nescafè for them. Sleeping in those huts under mosquito nets riddled with holes left me praying for mercy to the god of malaria. When walking I had my cap pulled deep into my face, long sleeves and shades on, as those farns could easily cut into your skin. But I also told myself from the beginning to look up from time to time, as I didn´t want to risk running head-first into a deadly poisonous snake. On the third day, this caution was rewarded as I spotted a huge yellow mamba hanging horizontally across a tree just about three meters in front of me, and maybe half a meter above my face. I unpacked my camera, took a quick shot, and then continued on my way.
I was trying to average about 55 km per day, in theory making it feasible to surface on the other side in about 4 to 4 1/2 days, and after some pools I stopped bothering to get out of my shoes each time, while trying to walk around them wasn`t an option either ... too much danger loosing the track altogether.
As a result when I eventually reached Makoua after only four days, I had about twenty blisters under the sole of each foot, some of them bleeding and infected. Luckily I met some franciscan monks who had a mission here for orphaned kids, equipped with a medical station. They provided me with a room and took care of my feet, and I started living with them, helping with cooking, for example crocodile ragout, and sharing their rituals and daily life. In total I needed nine days before the swelling of my feet had receded sufficiently to be able to fit them into my shoes once again, and after some melancholy over my impending departure and finally a heartfelt goodbye, I was back on the road.
to be continued ...