Sunday, October 16, 2011

The forests are burning! The road south.

Gsas installation in the Gabonese forests
We started our long run from the rain forests of Gabon down to Angola as the rains started. Our principal concern was the dates on our visas for Angola, but at the same time we knew that the rains would make our voyage just that much more difficult.

Hans and Elisme were still in Libreville, with no clear date when the Land Rover would be back on the road, and so we set off, first on a lovely tar road to Mouila, where the President of Gabon had visited just two days before, and then on a laterite road to the border, and a bad road from there into the Congo. Some Chinese were working on it, filling in bad holes, and grading, but for the rest there was thick, fine dust, heavy enough to make the car feel like it was going through deep water. What this would be like in the rains we did not want to guess.

Fire in the forest! The Crystal Mountains
are already stripped.
And all along the way, from the rain forests to the plateaus and savanna, the people were burning the trees and bushes. Maybe they think the burnt fields would sprout faster, maybe they are opening up planting space in the forests, but even where banana plants had been set into the burnt patches we could see the signs of erosion of the forest soil. It was depressing to drive, for days on end, through burnt forests, where small houses are going up and children peer through the leaves at the passing cars.

We thought that the many logging trucks carried smaller logs now than they did five years ago when we were here last. Still, majestic, tall slender trunks can be seen, but the slopes of the Crystal Mountains in the Congo ar covered by grass, pitted and scarred, where people told of dark, deep rain forests.

Magnificent road through the Crystal Mountains.
The main road from Dolisie to Pointe Noire, impassable five years ago, now has an impressive new surface, now bridges and complicated drainage works, but we wondered in the Chinese engineers had really anticipated the volume of water that would be coming down in the next few month. To us the channels looked inadequate, and the bare slopes seemed ready to dissolve into mud, to clog the drains and cause wash-outs.

A shack, a patch of bananas where the forest used to be, what
more can you wish for? 
Reliance on technology has its drawbacks, and for another time the GPS led us through Pointe Noire's central market, where a patient police officer walked before us, parting the crowds like a Moses. And then the Cabinda border.

It was of great importance that the Angolan visa had an exit stamp from the Republic of Congo next to it, but since the Congo visa was in the other passports, the Congolese officials insisted that the stamps should go there. It took the Angolan Chief of Immigration to walk us back to his Congolese colleagues, who then found that there was no problem.

Cabinda was clean and orderly, with military well visible. It smelled of oil, and flashy cars were everywhere. We were going to camp with the Catholic Mission, but the Priest was nowhere to be seen, we could not check on the state of the toilets, and so we backtracked to a $ 200 per night hotel. The next day, after a tour of the Immigration offices, we went off looking for other, more reasonable hotels, but found ourselves at the border, where the Angolans checked us out quite quickly.

Meeting other overlanders in the Congo
However, the DRC side was chaos. The road was dirty, the people unmanageable, and the immigration officials, although helpful at first, were reminded that tourists have to get their visas in their country of origin, and ours were issued in Gabon. Five hours later, after numerous calls to the Embassy, where eventually we found someone that answered, thanks to the help of an immigration officer. The Embassy called the DG of Immigration, who called someone else, who.... and as they were locking the gates for the day we were rushed through, passports were stamped, carnets processed, and we were in. But not before we had to tell the story of our voyage to curious officials, and had them poke in wonderment at our solar panel, our stoves, tool boxes, and bedding.

After a night at yet another Catholic mission and another at a roadside place in Songololo, we were back at the border. The DRC immigration officer had no problem to stamp both passports, for a small administrative fee of say five dollars, make that fifteen, no twenty. Ten dollars and a packet of cigarettes, and we were at the Angolan immigration.

Here we stressed, since we had single entry visas, and were entering for the second time. Opinions differed, since we had only transited from one Angolan province to the other, and they did not make it easier, joking, asking about our itinerary, and attending to many other official duties, but in the end the stamps were in the passports, and we were in!

Now we could afford to slow down, and take it in easy stages, waiting for news from Libreville, and enjoying the country and the people. We were a little annoyed at having to register with the police at check points and towns, but they were mostly nice people, and were clearly not quite sure what to do and why they had to do it. At least they helped us find fuel and bread.

the road goes on and on... but what if the rains come down?
The stretch from N'zeto to Luanda is bad.
Towns that were small and quiet five years ago now sport imposing office buildings, schools run three sessions per day, and new housing projects spring up. Yet the development seems to be imposed, and not home grown. The main road from Mbanza Kongo to Nzeto is a now lovely tar road, but the road from there to Luanda seems not to have been maintained since, and was in a bad state. The coming rains will make it very difficult to pass. Fuel, once plentiful and cheap, is now sold in bottles along the road while the few filling stations are closed.

And all the new settlers on the land seem to burn their patch of bush to open it up, and fertilise it with ash before the rains come.

Our worries for the third couple in our team grows. They have finally received the last part, and will be able to get back on the road, a week and a half behind us. But the rains are setting in. Brazzaville had had a week of constant rain, and we have no reports of the road. 

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