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Thursday, June 21

Congo Brazzaville

So the blog has been delayed - the dog ate our homework... well, someone stole our laptop in Namibia and then we got really busy (more stories to come), but we are catching up...

Brett: The tar road ended as we crossed the border from Lekoni in Gabon and we entered the Congo (aka Congo Brazzaville / the good Congo) on the notorious soft sandy tracks.  Fortunately it was raining when we crossed - just enough to make the sand a little firmer. We still let down our tyres, but the driving was fun rather than difficult. It takes concentration - we were going quickly to float on top of the sand, creating some spectacular splashes in the puddles. In one section we had to make last minute route decisions to avoid the deep sand or where the the ground had been washed away causing the Beast to lean massively, but we were ok. We ended up ploughing through some of the deep tracks created by the trucks.

At the border, the first gendarmerie was very friendly and relaxed. The immigration guys were next and started out fine, but when they heard we were from SA, they kept asking if we had a gun. They repeated louder and louder "In South Africa, the women and the men all walk around shooting each other with machine guns", and then miming people shooting with machine guns, mafia style...it was hilarious on one level but a bit manic. Do they really think overlanders are stupid enough to carry guns?!

The soft sand continues for about 50km from the border and we free camped somewhere in the middle (S1 36.328 E14 42.708). The scenery is fantastic with rolling grassy hills and patches of shrubs - not what I expected the Congo to look like. We saw a few motorbikes pass in the night but they didn't see us or bother us. Two guys stopped in the morning to say hello. We were in the middle of nowhere and one guy was wearing a white silk shirt and had a fancy Canon SLR - the other was wearing a silk army print shirt, with lots of gold bling and sparkly glasses - very odd. They took some photos with us and then went on their way.

The next 30km is quite good to drive on - soft, smooth sand, in preparation for a new tar road. There are so many roadworks in this part of the world - all moving along very quickly and all Chinese. The police and customs checkpoints here were both very friendly and welcoming.

As we approached Okoyo, a guy jumped out of a truck without looking, and as I swerved to avoid him, I hit a puddle and completely drenched him. He looked really unhappy (thankfully not cross) and I felt bad so I grabbed a beer and a packet of crisps and ran after him to appologise. The gesture was completely unexpected and he was so happy - I don't think I have ever seen a smile as big as his. We went to the local market but couldnt find anything we wanted besides bread.

The tar road starts at Okoyo. The scenery through to Oyo was great, with great views of the Alima River. Oyo is the President's home town and is undergoing a building boom with several new hotels that look like villages, a stadium complex and a state of the art airport still to open. It doesn't really fit though, because the rest of the town is little more than a village. It's strange to be faced with such a contrast between ultra-rich and poor, especially in a town with no major business or reason for existence besides the industries that have obviously sprung up from the extravagant lifestyles of the ruling family.

The road from Oyo to Brazzaville is known as the presidents driveway (being the first roads in the country to be tarred), but it is no fun. Thick bushes run on both sides of the narrow road - people walking on the road hide in the hedges as cars pass and sometimes step out without looking - we could only see them when were passing them and other drivers seem to think that slowing down is a sigh of weakness. It is also strange that everyone carries a panga, but doesn't think to cut back the bushes to make  it easier to walk along the side of the road.

We free camped at one of Casper's fantastic waypoints (S2 2.348 E15 52.796) in the bush somewhere south of Gamboma. We could hear singing from the nearby village, although we couldn't be seen, and spent the evening chilling and watching a bushfire move slowly across the opposite hill.

We had great views of the Congo river coming into Brazzaville. We camped at Hippocampe Hotel (S4 16.392 E15 16.657), run by Olivier who travelled round the world for a few years by bicycle. Hippocampe is one of the overlanding classics - camping is free and there are tons of photos of past expeditions on the wall and very helpful notes in the guestbooks from other travellers. Katherine, his wife does an awesome Vietnamese buffet on Saturdays.

Hippocampe is a major meeting point due to visa delays. We met Luke and Shell (afrikerr.com) who had been waiting in Brazzaville for 2 weeks for their Angola visas and Roman on his BMW GS1200. We spent a few days hanging out in this cool city with our new overlander gang - the city feels safe to walk around at night too (although possibly not on your own). We sampled the cakes at La Manderin (where the cakes were so good and the clientele were so posh we could easily have been in Paris, except for the powder blue safari suits) and watched England getting butt's kicked in the footie at the Grill House Indian Restaurant (where we felt like we could easily be in London, except for the sloooooow service).

Mary: After stocking up in what was probably going to be our last good shops for a while, we left town with the Kerrs and Rutters. Just on the edge of town, our bullet-proof Hilux lost water and overheated. We couldn't find the cause, so we filled up the water and kept going. We camped at Lembono de Nkama Tourist Camp ($4pp) (S4 27.341 E14 44.295) near Kinkala which was in the middle of nowhere but had a cool bar.

Congo Immigration is in Louingui and really not obvious (we drove past it) and the Customs is in Boko. At Customs, the guy was just doing his job but we had to convince him that a Carnet is different to a Passevant, so there is no charge to exit. When I say just doing his job, I mean we were held up there for several hours while he tried to extract the money that would have been required for a Passevant, while ignoring our explanation that we didn't need to pay because we had a Carnet. The roads got rough quickly with steep sections and lots of ruts/compacted bumpy mud – it would be very difficult in the wet. The scenery is brilliant, with grassy hills and eroded cliffs like at Leconi. It was slow going, but fun.

As we reached the last checkpoint we saw Roman coming the other way with an escort of DRC police on motorbikes. He is a tough looking guy, but he looked a little tired and worn down. He told us that he was struggling to get his DRC and Angola visas so he took a chance and rode through the Congo/DRC border late at night, skipping Immigration and Customs. The police had arrested him about 50km before the Angolan border, interrogated him through the night and convincing him that since Congo and DRC are two separate countries, his Congo visa wasn't going to cover him in DRC. They were escorting him back to Brazzaville to get the required visas. They actually seemed quite friendly towards him, but were definitely a lot more cautious as they checked our passports and visas.

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