Sunday, 10 May 2009

Um Bongo, Um Bongo, we're stuck in the Congo

We arrived in Franceville, spent a day sorting ourselves out, washing clothes and preparing for the trip into the Congo. We'd been dreading the roads over the border as the wet season was drawing to a close, assuming they'd be terrible mud. Roy and Michelle, who we'd met in Nkambe has said there was nothing to worry about, they were sand and quite a fun drive, so we were a little more optimistic. Our guide book described the area as a cool, dry plateau, this sounded really quite pleasant.

The plan was to spend a night in Leconi, then zoom over the border, hoping to get as far as Oyo, then the following day set a course for Brazzaville. Everything went exactly as planned, as far as Leconi anyway. We had an incredibly uncomfortable bed that night, so both lay awake listening to the torrential rain hammering down on the roof all night long. Relieved it was sand and not mud we set off with the sun breaking through the cloud. Wet sand is better than dry sand as it's firmer, so we thought all the rain might even be a good thing. Tarmac quickly turned to sand as we left Leconi, eventually reaching the Gabon border about an hour later the sand turned into beautiful new tarmac, with a T-junction showing a sign to Leconi, 26km away down the new road. Kicking ourselves for taking the old road we went through the border post back onto the sand and into The Congo.

The going was slow but steady, some deep ruts and puddles but Stanley was taking it all in his stride, for a while at least until we went to drive through one puddle and the front left wheel dropped into a huge hole, we were then going nowhere. Out came the high lift jack and sand ladders, but before we'd got too involved we heard the distant rumble of a diesel engine. A Gabonese truck turned up, we threw them a tow rope and they dragged us back out of the puddle. With 45 minutes lost and the road being slow we were starting to doubt our chances of getting to Oyo.

We reached the Congo immigration post, a classically slow African border post where three different people have to all spend a long time writing down exactly the same information. We asked how many hours to get to Oyo, they looked at the car and said four or five, so still doable we thought. Once everything was done one of the policemen asked us for a lift to the next village, 45km away, where we'd have to go through customs. We cleared half the back seat, and the policeman, another woman and child all piled in. The road started to get worse, churned up wet sand with deep ruts created by the big trucks that mainly use this route. The sand had also become finer and more mud like causing further problems. Struggling for clearance it was only a matter of time before the car was stuck on its belly. So, stationary with all four wheels spinning off the ground out came the recovery gear again. We eventually got the car out of the ruts and on the ridge while being pestered by some amazingly annoying flies, another 45 minutes wasted Oyo was looking very unlikely.

We reached the village, dropped off our passengers and did the customs thing. Our first request for money since Togo, and only our second since Senegal. After a brief discussion Joel seemed happy to take our email address instead. He then went to search the car, but seemed to forget about that too when I reminded him I had to write down our email. We set off again, Joel said we wouldn't reach Oyo today as the road was "Disastrous". We were immediately stumped by a bridge that had been washed away, one lorry that had tried to go over the submerged remnants of the broken bridge and destroyed his wheel, another had tried to go through the stream to the side and got stuck. The second lorry was in the process off being rammed by a large digger to try and get it moving. On seeing us they immediately decided that we were the answer to all their problems and should tow the truck out. Not too surprisingly, Stanley was unable to tow a huge truck our of a river while driving up a steep sandy hill. My suggestion that they fix the bridge, get the digger over it and get that to tow the truck out was shrugged off, so we wandered off to have some lunch and the digger went off to get more help.

After lunch I decided I'd go and explain to everyone loitering around how to fix the bridge so we could get moving at least, even if everyone else was still broken or stuck. They agreed to help if I paid them, the planks were far too large for me to move on my own so I had a brief argument with them about how I'd tried to help them without asking for anything, but they weren't willing to help me in the same way. We eventually agreed on a packet of cigarettes, we'd bought cigarettes to help us with sticky situations and had just used one pack to buy some fish in Mali so far. Everyone sprung into action, and within five minutes the bridge was in a useable state - we were on our way again, joking about what the next problem would be.

A few minutes down the road we found the next problem, the digger that had gone to get help was sitting stationary in the middle of the road, "Un autre probleme?", I shouted to the guy standing on the digger. "Oui, la transmission". I looked down to see the drive shaft hanging out the bottom of the vehicle into the mud, he was going nowhere soon, there was a mechanic on the way apparently. To one side of him the mud looked far too deep and waterlogged for us to get through, the other side was a tight squeeze, although also waterlogged there was a dry bank we could use for traction. We went for it, a fine balance between slipping off the dry bank into the mud, and going too far up the bank and the car rolling. We had it perfect until a few metres before the end when we slipped off the bank and rapidly ground to a halt for the third time that day. There were trees around this time, so out came the winch. None of the trees were particularly large however and after uprooting the two largest we decided that wasn't going to work. Another truck then turned up, but the road was now totally blocked so there was no way he could get through in front of us to tow us out. Back to jacking, digging and sand ladders, we now had an army of Congolese drivers working on getting Stanley out. Then we heard a distant singing and chanting coming down the road, it was a group of mechanics to fix the digger. There was a good atmosphere while everyone worked together to sort out the stranded vehicles listening to the distant rumbles from another storm. After well over an hour of jacking, digging, rocking and sand ladders Stanley started inching forwards, slowly escaping the suction from the mud, eventually breaking free and back onto a dry patch. We exchanged email addresses and I threw them all a packet of cigarettes to cheers of approval. On our way again, with the sun setting and just 80km covered in 9 hours we certainly weren't going to reach Oyo so we pulled off the road for the night instead.

We lay in the tent listening to another night of rain, getting up and moving at 5:45am the following morning expecting the worst we returned to the road. The rain was still pouring down and the whole road was now a swamp, it truly was disastrous. We battled on through, rapidly gaining mud driving experience we soon learnt how important it was to keep momentum - we were moving ok. We reached the bottom of a valley and were faced with a 25m long puddle, waste deep gloopy mud in places, there was no way we could get through. We tried looking for paths off the road but the trees were too thick, so back to the puddle. After careful analysis we decided that the ruts were too deep and we'd ground our belly, they were also more silty and would provide less traction. There was one ridge that was much firmer and only about knee deep that I reckoned we could drive along, a deeply sceptical Hannah reluctantly agreed to help mark out the position of the ridge with sticks so we could try and use it. With everything in place a large truck appeared the other side of the puddle, they wanted to charge through first to show us it was ok, probably destroying the ridge that was our only hope of making it, then we could go. It was also useful having them the opposite side of the puddle to tow us if we got stuck. Eventually they agreed to wait for our delicate approach before they charged it. Slowly but surely, we crawled across the puddle balancing on the underwater ridges, making it across without a problem. The truck driver then looked at me, smiled and slammed his food down on the accelerator and they charged on through as fast as they could. Passengers clinging for dear life to the back and sides.

We chugged along taking two hours to travel 8km to the next village where we stopped to ask the police the way. After another immigration session we set off again with news the road from now on was better. It was better in places, and worse in others, but still generally terrible. We fought on through deep mud and water for most of the day, only getting stuck once. We eventually reached a village about 30km from Oyo at about 4:30pm where we saw a flat, grey surface with white lines down the middle. Thinking it was a mirage at first we went a bit closer, it really was smooth new tarmac. We set off to find a hotel with a shower in Oyo. Yes, the hotel owner assured us, the shower does work. Unfortunately he neglected to tell us that there was no running water, but hey, it was a nice idea. A bucket did the job.

The two days of difficult driving did however serve a purpose. Not only did they massively improve our mud driving skills, the road also provided a scenic point for us to stop and enjoy an Um Bongo (while being eaten alive by sand flies), and as everyone growing up in the UK in the 80's will know, that's what they drink in the Congo. (For anyone not in this age bracket, see for the TV advert from back in the day). We brought 5 cartons, but with a 40% fatality rate on the bad roads only 3 made it to the Congo.

The tarmac continued to Brazzaville, where we joined the hoards of overlanders at Hippocampe. Stanley was in desperate need of a wash. The lack of two front fenders meant that he was barely recognisable, and we attracted even more stares from the locals than we normally do. We found a lavage where we joined the queue of beautifully clean and shiny Congolese cars waiting to be washed, and enjoyed the look on the washer's face when he saw our car. Stanley has never had quite such a thorough wash, and two hours later we fitted in perfectly with the locals (almost) in our shiny car.

Next was the problems with the car, we noticed a clunking on the way back from the car wash. Back to swinging violently on the car to track down the cause. A bush on one of the shocks had totally disintegrated, fortunately we had a spare. We got that fixed and started looking into the horrible noise the brakes had been making since we left the mud. Brake pads had almost completely disappeared, so with the help of Florian, another overlander at Hippocampe we set about changing them. Three wheels fixed, I got to the last one and one of the pads had been completely destroyed by the mud, the result was the brake disc had been destroyed. So with more parts tracking and work hopefully we'll have that fixed soon and be on our way!


Anonymous Rob said...

Hi Will & Hannah, Wow!! That really is mud. We thought we struck bad mud in central Australia, but not that bad. We were towed out twice by friends travelling with us ...Lucky there were others around to give you a hand. I was interested in your mechanical problems resulting from the mud. We struck very fine estuarine silt which found its way into the drive-shaft oil seals. We had 2 which failed at the gearbox and transfer box exit points. Might be worth checking! We really enjoy reading your diary - what a learning experience! Take care of yourselves and each other. Lots of love Rob & Sarah

11 May 2009 at 06:52  

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