The Road Chose Me – The Republic of Congo
Brazzaville: Grifters and gasoline
I have arrived in Congo during a considerable gas and diesel shortage. The entire country only has one oil refinery, which has been shut down for maintenance. Before leaving Gabon, I filled up every drop I could, though I plan to do at least two-to-three times my maximum range, which presents a problem. After a few hundred miles of passing sold-out stations, I arrive in a town where all the stations are empty, though enterprising people are selling gas from containers on the side of the road. After a lot of staring at maps, I decide to buy all I can fit in the main tank, even though my auxiliary tank is still full from Gabon.
The guys selling will not bargain on the price one bit – they know the rate, and so I pay about 25% more than the official price to fill up. As he pours it through my Mr. Funnel, the guy says “You don’t want the last half-gallon” – and I see nasty sludge when I look at the bottom of his plastic container.
I move south on the main highway running the length of the Congo, winding through lightly forested green hills. I continually stop and ask at gas stations, and all are empty. About halfway to Brazzaville I pull over and transfer the 13 gallons from my auxiliary tank into the main jeep tank, then continue on my way.
I pass through a couple of interesting roadblocks as I get closer to the big city. It seems the police, military and customs agents have not figured out a way to work together, and so at each roadblock, I must have my details recorded in separate massive ledgers. One officer takes my documents and the others immediately demand to see them – and each time I have to explain they will simply have to wait. A couple of the guys ask for money, though I stand my ground and ask why, which is enough to make them back down.
I continue on and on, with the gauge on the jeep getting lower and lower. Somehow I convince myself there will be gas in the capital city of Brazzaville, and so set my sights on making it there. On the edge of the city at a roadblock one officer talks to another in a local dialect, before looking straight at me and saying in French “That will be $20 for our services.” It’s already been a long day, so I immediately start laughing loudly. In English, I say “That’s a good one” as I pick up my passport and walk out. Neither says anything more to me.
In the city, the gas gauge pegs well below zero – the lowest I have ever seen it. All gas stations have at least fifty cars waiting, and again none have a single drop of gas or diesel. I start to worry about running out, and so I turn off the jeep at every red light and intersection.
Expecting the jeep to die at any moment, I am relieved to drive into the gates of Hippocamp – one of the most famous overland hangouts in all of West Africa. This restaurant has offered free camping for overlanders in their parking lot for decades, and virtually everyone driving this side of the continent makes a stop here.
From the minute I drive into Hippocamp, I start asking around for gas. The security guard at the gate hears I need gas and immediately springs into action. He makes call after call and assures me he will eventually find some. It is really just a question of price. It seems enterprising locals fill up containers and then bide their time until they can make a profit.
The official price here is 595 CFA/liter, something just under USD 1/liter or around USD 3.40/gallon. Given the considerable shortage, I am of course going to pay more; the question is only how much more. Eventually, the guard assures me it can be delivered tonight and will cost 1,500 CFA/liter, three times the official rate.
After a sleepless night in the intensely hot and humid concrete parking lot, my savior arrives early in the morning. With three 25-liter containers, I can almost fill the main tank. I wanted more, but it was not available. Two of the containers are nice and clear and seem to smell about right, though one has a lot of brown muck on the bottom that I really don’t like the look of. Filtering it through my funnel adds a little piece of mind, and I leave the dregs in that container – I would rather not.
The new road to Pointe Noire is notorious for bandits, and there have been a few severe incidents in the last weeks, including a bridge bombing by anti-government rebels. I had planned to go from Brazzaville to the Congo River crossing at Luozi, though that road has also seen some attacks in recent weeks and months. It appears it’s a coin toss either way.
I drive north out of Brazzaville, after spending less than 24 hours in the big city.
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