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“I can see St Anne’s from here”, I said enjoying my chocolate gelato on a river front patio. “It’s so close. Only 2 kilometres.” My companions nodded sadly.
I kind of missed Saint Anne’s in Kinshasa with its smoking and drinking Phillipino priest and church run bar. The place felt like some William Boyd novel. It’s rooms filled with characters too weird to be real. There was the missionary who had been in the DRC for twenty years but was too afraid to leave the complex by himself. The UN man with his harrowing bizarre stories and insight. Strangely, none had crossed the river to Brazzaville.
A tiny ferry that looks like a cheap holiday pontoon boat for family outings runs four times a day, and it is never full. The old legendary ferry has been out of service for years now. It was famed for transporting disabled people free of charge. They made quite a good living as smugglers and goods transporters in their custom designed wheel chairs built to carry as much as possible. Apparently they would balance on top of a wheel chair so overloaded that it would take a crowd of able bodied people to push it. But those days are gone and the wheel chair bound are left to mope around Kinshasa in their huge custom built cargo carrying chairs.
So how does one cross the river with a vehicle? Drive 300km South-West and look for the only ferry vehicle that crosses the river. You can’t miss it. It’s down a road so rough it takes a day to drive 60 km. The ferry lands on the beach four times a day and can accommodate one truck. It is basically three pontoons welded together with a ramp on it.
Once across, drive more horrendously bad roads until you get to the main highway. “Do be careful as there has been huge problems with bandits”, added a fellow from the British consulate we ran into. “We haven’t updated our travel advisory yet as no one knows what is happening. We know the Ninjas blew up the train tracks causing severe shortages and price gauging in Brazzaville.” You would think he would know what was happening two km across the river.
It took six days to drive that two km. The roads were bad, the ferry was laughable but the scenery was gorgeous. We camped on the river after the ferry one night and the entire town came out to watch us cook. It was the most exciting thing to happen for years claimed the local English teacher whose job it was to keep the masses of kids in line.
It was like being live in front of a studio audience for us, which brought stunning performances from us the actors. Anita did a spectacular poisoning scene where she tasted the stew cooking on the fire, froze up and fell over convulsing as she lay on the sand. The crowd went wild as she bowed to her audience.
The object however was not to eat in front of any locals as it is cruel to consume a big meal when your audience is probably underfed so we waited until nightfall to eat. Generally the locals go home at dusk as they don’t have lights in their homes. The village sent out a guard with a gun and a flashlight to keep us safe. It was possibly the only flashlight in the village. Such is the hospitality of even the poorest villages in Africa.
We crossed the border to the other Congo at a tiny little border post where the only movement in this sleepy village was the occasional goat and dried flattened fish flapping from clothes lines. As is customary I went to a store to spend the rest of my local currency. There were plenty of stores but none had much to buy. I settled on some milk and glucose biscuits at 20c a package. I bought 10 packs. These biscuits actually have an honorary mention in the Bradt guide as I later found out. Here is is verbatim. “Across the congos there are some truly awful glucose biscuits made from several petroleum products and a small bit of wheat to give it that edible flavor. If you’re truly short on cash these are a good option to keep your stomach from eating itself.”
The only thing between us and Brazzaville was a bunch of Ninja’s. Actually a rebel group that looked nothing like ninjas they had been causing havoc for years. We weren’t sure exactly what to expect but the police enroute ensured us it was “safe”.
In fact in the last 100 kilometres there was nothing moving except clouds of white butterflies. Every village and town we saw was abandoned and quite overgrown. Any large buildings had a bomb hole in the roof. The holes looked old though. Every door and window was wide open as if the occupants fled in a hurry. The silence was eerie as the truck sped through clouds of butterflies. There were barely any vehicles on the road and those that were around had been burnt out and abandoned.
The only thing that punctuated our progress was frequent army checkpoints. The army had dug in at several spots along the road rifles pointed out ready for any sign of trouble. Most were quite perplexed to see a big yellow truck full of tourists. No pee stops and certainly no lunch stop we were told. The tension was high and we were moving as fast as we could.
At the edge of Brazzaville was a simple metal swing gate. Beyond was the hustle and bustle of the city in sharp contrast to the quiet war zone.
I can’t imagine a more arduous journey to cover two km; the world’s closest capital cities separated by the chasm of the Congo River.
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