The Road Chose Me – Crossing the Democratic Republic of the Congo
A river runs through it
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is undoubtedly not the most stable of countries and is renowned for being one of the least-functional in terms of government infrastructure, roads, and electricity. That is despite – or because of – having probably the most valuable mineral reserves on earth, which are being heavily exploited by absolutely everyone. Often the capital of Kinshasa would rate among the top five most dangerous places in the world.
Recently the citizens have been protesting the lack of an election. Knowing he will be voted out, the President does not want to hold one, so he keeps pushing it back – apparently indefinitely. Protesting in Kinshasa means burning cars and rioting in the streets. I will be avoiding Kinshasa.
For safety, I decide to team-up with another vehicle. I like the increased chances of success with another vehicle and more people. The German couple is driving a very well-equipped Sportsmobile, and we agree our chances of success together are significantly improved.
As soon as I’m stamped out of Rep. Congo the road deteriorates badly, really nothing more than a track through the jungle. One climb is particularly steep, washed out clay. Near the top of the hill, I find a seriously overloaded old Land Cruiser completely blocking the road. After chatting the guys they tell me the starter doesn’t work, and if I can just tow them a few hundred yards to the crest of the hill, they can coast down into a village from there.
After squeezing the jeep past in the dense jungle we hitch up the Land Cruiser, and I pull it up the muddy track. We wave goodbye to our new friends and strike off on severely overgrown trails, uncertain if we’re heading in the right direction. Eventually, we stumble into a town with a log across the road – apparently immigration.
After getting stamped into the country, the road does not improve. We drive hundreds of miles over a few days on the worst roads I have ever imagined. Monster mud pits, washouts, and severely overgrown jungle become a way of life. I am almost exclusively in first gear for days on end. Stricken trucks and stuck locals become a familiar sight, and we unspool the winch line to help whenever possible.
Our efforts are greeted with extremely warm handshakes and smiles all around.
Crossing the Congo River
After a few intense days battling the mud that blur together, we reach the extremely famous town of Luozi. Set just back from the mighty Congo River, this town is famous for the ferry we can hopefully use to cross the river, used by overlanders since the beginning of time.
Just out of town I crawl down a steep embankment with the monster river filling the windscreen. From a distance, the river looks extremely beautiful and clean, almost like a lake. Up close it is actually flowing quite fast and smells like a sewer. I watch fishermen time and again pull up nothing but plastic in their nets. I can’t help but roll the jeep down until the tires touch the water for photos. Crossing the Congo River is a significant milestone on the journey, and signals the change I know is about to come. The sun is scorching hot, and I soon retreated to the shade of the trees, where all the locals on foot are sensibly waiting.
The price for the jeep and I to cross is clearly marked on a large sign, and the worker is happy to write out a formal receipt and give change for my USD 14. I can pay in either Congolese francs or US dollars, as in all of the DRC.
From the second the ferry lands there is a mad scramble, with my friends driving on first and then me behind. We have just enough length, and I’m relieved we both were able to get on the same ferry. The instant our two vehicles are on board the ferry begins to move, with foot passengers and motorbikes scrambling every which way to get on. The ferry is nothing more than two pontoons welded together with scrap steel and a big diesel engine slapped aboard. It is severely dilapidated, apparently there is no maintenance schedule here. While it all seems flimsy and ad-hoc, I realize these guys do this every single day of their lives, and there is a good chance we will probably be fine.
The big diesel engine screams, and I soon find myself chatting to the foot passengers, ferry crew, and even the captain who is more than happy for me to climb up into the bridge for photos.
As we make the 20-minute crossing huge storm clouds develop on the horizon, and I even see the occasional bolt of lightning touch down. The wind hitting us alternates from stinking hot to extremely cool, the signal of the approaching storm.
After a few hundred yards the town ends, and we find ourselves once again plodding on a severely pot-holed and muddy track South – the only track leading out of town. We drive directly towards the massive storm on the horizon, though thankfully we only catch a few scattered raindrops on the edge as it moves West and around us.
After many more hours, we find a tiny spur road, the perfect high ground to make camp and watch the thunder and lightning roll by. Soon after setting up a very withered old man comes by to shake our hands, and is delighted to explain the women with him are his wife and daughters. All are carrying huge loads of firewood and green leaves, and all are smiling from ear to ear, though the women seem hesitant to approach us.
Again the track is horrendously bad, and in more than a few places the walls of the mud trenches I dive into are higher than the roof of the jeep. In multiple crossings water laps at the hood of the jeep, and I am always relieved to hit bottom and begin climbing out again. I repeatedly scrape the front and rear diffs in the mud pits, though with both lockers I am always able to keep crawling forward.
Eventually, the road grows in size, and in traffic, until we are moving along a very good quality gravel road. Finally, after a week on the most terrible roads of the entire expedition, we hit the major paved east-west highway. I thoroughly enjoy moving along at 60 with the cruise control on and am happy to see the computer shows the distance to empty going up, even after I cover forty miles.
To complete my disorientation, a Porsche with DRC plates whips by me at an insane speed.
I am delighted we chose the adventurous route, this has undoubtedly been the icing on the West African cake. Crossing the DRC has been by far the most intense experience of my entire life. This is something I will honestly never forget as long as I live.
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