January 29, 2008 GMT
Brazzaville, 29 January 2008
After what feels like it has been the hardest section of the trip so far I've made it through Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and am into the Republic of Congo.
Although Luanda wasn't the easiest of places to like I had gotten used to hanging around the Club Nautico and frequenting the bar there along with the regulars. Leaving Luanda though and there was a further and grottier side to it as one passed through a shanty town of truly demoralising grimness. Getting out was almost as bad a getting in. Traffic was awful and even a bike couldn't squeeze through most of it.
The first 50 or so kms up the road were fine and then we reverted to the roads that had once been tarred and still are on my Michelin map. Clinging fairly close to the coast there wasn't much around in the way of inhabitation. I got off to have a rest and a munch on some dried fruit and within seconds I was being buzzed by tetsi flies (kind of like Horseflies for those at home unfamiliar..) and within a minute I was being positively swarmed. So that was why no-one else stops here or even lives here. I escaped with just the one bite on the finger.
Heading inland and the road actually got better. I stopped at the town of Tomboco and found the Catholic Mission there (they usually have a bed for passing travellers). It was positive luxury, Papa Paul and Marcelo were very welcoming, I got an en-suite room, fresh made pumpkin soup and sat and watched the Zambia - Cameroun game with the guys. Next morning was Sunday, their work day so no-one was around but a loaf of fresh bread, a plate of local jamon and a pot of fresh coffee awaited me. I stitched up the panniers which had split again whilst waiting for the lads to return from Mass. Though you can stay for free and there is no obligation it seems very wrong to expect to stay as a tourist for free and divert their resources away from their good work. Whatever your opinions on the Catholic church and the AIDS / contraception debate the bottom line is that they are often the onle people concerned with welfare and education work in really remote areas. So with a donation left I continued on my way.
Papa Paul had recommended a route North that crossed the less used Matadi border. I always ask for local knowledge and though given in good faith often find it to be none-too-acccurate. I should have been suspect when Marcelo claimed it was 80 kms to the border, Papa Paul 130 and then the signpost said 180. After about 25 kms down a narrow jungle path I encountered a spot where it had rained recently and things where starting to get nasty so rather than risk getting stuck alone I turned back.
Onwards to Mbanza Congo was 150kms of good road and then you turn off. Then I realised that maybe the advice of the lads at the mission might have been good. For if this road to Songololo in DRC was the better one then the other must have been truly shocking. At least there were plenty of other people around who were also stuck to lend a helping hand. Here the local bus service is in massive 6 wheel drive converted army lorries.
Though I was lucky and there hadn't been a heavy rain for a couple of days there were still massive puddles across the width of the road. Some you could go around but if you had to go through extreme care was to be taken. Some could literally swallow the bike. It was only 50kms or so and given the situation 3 hours wasn't a bad time to make it in.
I arrived at the border at dusk. I think I made the quickest crossing ever between Angola and DRC as Angola were playing Senegal in the cup and were unexpectedly ahead. I asked how far to Songololo and if the road was better. It's not far and the road is good was the answer. So armed with the power of local knowledge again I found myself riding in first gear in the dark for 25kms along a rough potholed and puddled road....
The chaps at the Songololo mission didn't provide quite the same quality of accommodation as at Tomboco but they were very hospitable and a bed is a bed. Onwards the next day and I aimed to ride straight through DRC and Kinshasa to catch the boat to Brazzaville on the other side of the Congo River.
Riding through DRC was a strange experience. Whenever I stopped to ask directions people were incredibly friendly and in towns I drew a huge crowd. In the countryside I almost got the impression that people didn't know how to receive me. I usually waved, some waved back, some looked confused and a small minority hostile. If I stopped in the countryside people on foot would stay their distance and wait till I had left before moving on. It seems that really most of their experience of white faces is from passing UN armoured cars with guns trained out of the windows..
The ride through Kinshasa was a relative breeze. After the communications problems in Angola it was good to be somewhere I could communicate with people again and ask directions, albeit in my shakey French. I reached the ferry crossing to Brazzaville and as expected was crowded out by hustlers, ripped off on the ferry price and had plenty of arguments. I was told that the last ferry had left which could have been true as I was led to believe that 3pm was the last one. So I had to pay more for the 'VIP' ferry and pay extra for my bike and then pay extra to dockworkers to manhandle it onto the boat....
Arriving in Brazzaville all was a lot calmer and passing customs was a breeze. I had a tip for somewhere to stay (the Hippo Campe) and asked a customs guy who got in a taxi and led me there. I landed on my feet as being the first motorcyclist they have had arrive at the Campe I've got a nice room for free which leaves me cash to scoff good food at their excellent Vietnamese restaurant. Thank you guys.
Finally a couple of apologies.... Sorry for the lower quality of pictures. Another camera has rattled itself out of focus. Looks like I am going to have to live with it rather than cough up for a new one only to have it bust as well. Also the entries are suddenly coming thick and fast which some may like, some may not. It's just that I wanted to try and do one for each country and as I am suddenly upping the pace so out pour the blogs.
Next one Gabon or maybe Cameroun!
Posted by Richard Miller at 12:46 PM
January 22, 2008 GMT
Luanda, 22 January 2008
A 3 day palm blistering marathon ride through Angola and Iīm in the capital Luanda. All those `land of contrasts` cliches apply here more than anywhere. It has the worst roads Iīve encountered in Africa and the best. Terrible poverty and incredible wealth.
My Angolan visa appeared and it seems I was lucky as a couple of foreigners were rejected at the same time. I even got a full month instead of the usual five day transit. It seems a waste to head through the country quickly given this stroke of fortune, but if I am to get home as planned for Easter Iīve got to press on. Iīve decided that with ten odd weeks to make it back whilst hopefully enjoying myself and seeing some sights as well Iīll have to concentrate on some countries and skip through others. So, the plan is to ride quick until Nigeria where Iīll do a spot of sight seeing away from the Niger Delta to hopefully disprove some of the stereotypes the country has and then amble through Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso and Mali and then gas it again ītill I reach home....
I headed off from Windhoek and ran up into the rainy season just as it began in the North of Namibia. In Tsumeb I waited one day and then gave up and got a thorough day long soaking the next. The Angolan border was easy and someone senior helped me through. I had thought it was in the hope of a tip but it was just in the name of helpfullnes in the end. Iīve decided to make another challenge of the trip a mission to see if I can go through all Africa without paying a single bribe!
The road up to the first major town of Lubango was truly a shocker. Monsieur Michelinīs īmost recently updated map of Africaī has it down as an asphalted major highway. He lies! If having the odd spot of lumpy asphalt every few kilometers which does no more than bottom out the suspension when you run into it qualify a road as a paved one then OK, M. Michelin you are right. A ten hour bone crunching ride and I fractured the poor Bulletīs sub-frame, bent the rear wheel rim, split a pannier and wore out the swinging arm thrust washers (yes really bike nerds!). I had GPS coordinates for the Catholic Mission to pitch my tent up at but Lubango was somewhat larger than expected and just asking didnīt give me a location. Angola is the first time Iīve wished I had a GPS on the whole trip and this not because I canīt find the roads but that all other travellers seem to only give coordinates when they pass on tips for places to stay now rather than addresses. In the end I tipped the security guard at a 24 hour garage and pitched my tent up on their lawn next to their diesel generator. Not that it mattered, dead to the world as soon as my head hit the pillow.
The next day and on to Lobito and more of M. Michelin`s asphalt. Not as bad as the previous day but still not great. On the way I had a chance encounter on the road with a bunch of 5 guys on bikes who gave me a great tip for a place to stay in Lobito. So towards dusk I rocked up to Lobito having enjoyed the last 50kms or so on new glass smooth road and got lost again. Then a kindly guy on a bike stopped, asked where I was going and then led me all the way to the īZulu Beach Barī where owner Louis let me put up my tent. A couple of beers and dorado and chips later and once again lights out.
Another great surprise in Angola is that prices are just about on a par with Switzerland or indeed higher. Common with a lot of other African countries there seem to be two parallel economies going on. Those who havenīt who live at subsistance level and those who have who really do have, and tons of it. The next day riding out of Lobito in the morning light and I was amazed by just how many luxury villas there are dotted amongst the bombed out and decaying Portugese relics. There must be more Hummers per square mile than almost anywhere else, Arnie would be proud and George Bush delighted that the commies are so eagerly buying into civilianised American war machines. Angolaīs national flag is a take on the hammer and sickle with a 3/4 cog wheel replacing the sickle and a machete the hammer. Luandaīs streets are unusual in that every one is named after a revolutionary hero. There are absolutely no Bougainvillea Boulevards or Rue de Christosīs just Commandante Che Gueveras and Friedrich Engels Streets. My favourite is Commandante Dangereux though. Donīt mess with him gringo! So, Angolaīs regime is dedicatedly Communist and has one of the greatest disparities in incomes around where some can pay 3 US Dollars for a bottle of water and some donīt earn that in a week. Nice one lads! Still, in the tried and tested formula for keeping the masses happy of dictatorships worldwide, beer, bread and petrol are cheap.
If Lobito had a funky vibe to it with its Havana style architecture and beach culture then Luanda is just funky and thatīs in the nasty funky rather than hip funky sense. Angolaīs infrastructure is still in early days of recovery after years of war. Remnants of mined armoured personel carriers and tanks dot the roadside, almost every brick structure in each village bears the scars of gun battles and traffic signs are non-existant. Meaning, when I reached Luanda I got very lost again. To my relief the journey here had been a smooth one, with a beautifully surfaced new road almost all the way. I did have the address of a campsite about 100kms before Luanda but couldnīt find it so pushed on. Yes, again I arrived at dusk and got very lost. Traffic was terrible, roads crap and dust and pollution closed visibility down to about 100 metres. On the verge of losing the will to live altogether I asked a motorcycle cop for directions. Seeing the despair in my face he then led me to my destination with blue lights flashing. Despite all that has happened to them Angolan people have been fantastic, overwhelmingly friendly and helpful.
Iīm sleeping at another freebie (youīve got to when even a grotty hotel charges at least 50 US), the Club Nautico. A few fellow travellers had recommended this highly. In terms of facilities it doesnīt quite hit the hype as it is essentially a pitch in a car park but itīs a nice mellow place and you canīt knock the hospitality of the guys there who have been great. The view from my tent is wonderfully Angolan with the yatch clubīs gin palaces in the foreground and guys fishing in dug-out canoes in the background.
Itīs quite hard to like Luanda but Iīm trying. Humidity must be near 100% and every action is accompanied by profuse sweating. To get to the Gabon Embassy for my visa application I walked along the Marginal (harbour / beach road) and almost wretched from the fetid stench coming up from the waters whilst a middle aged woman in a vest and hot pants speed walked past me for her daily exercise routine and a vagrant lay on the pavement next to his own filth. But after coughing up a steep 150 US for my Gabon visa I had a tortilla and coffee in a nice cafe and then strolled to the commercial centre and admired the crumbling colonial architecture, modern high rises and the sights and sounds of the folk from the barrios in town to hawk their wares and earn a kwanza or two.
Iīll be here a couple of days to recover and patch the bike and then on through DRC and Congo to Libreville in Gabon to get the Camerounian visa. It looks like being a tough week or two but Iīm assured that from Gabon on itīs smooth going all the way if thatīs what I want....
Posted by Richard Miller at 02:08 PM
January 10, 2008 GMT
Windhoek, 10 January 2008
Seems strange to think that it is now 2008 and we left home back in 2006. It's now been 14 months, 19 countries and 25,000 odd kms on the bike.
I'd like to say that I am now well into the journey home but I've got as far as Namibia and seem to be held up....
Sascha came out to Cape Town for Christmas and we marked the distance half way point of the trip by having a wonderful three weeks together hanging out in Cape Town and exploring around and about in a hire car. Oh, and we got engaged on her last day!
The day Sascha flew home I started heading North immediately. There are some very long, very flat and very straight roads in the Northern Cape, and it's very hot too!
The plan is to ride up the West Coast and cut in round about Nigera way and then ride across Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal and Mauretania to Morocco. And to get home by Easter. Perhaps a tall order.... I got the bit between my teeth to start with and started heading straight for Windhoek to pick up visas tout-suite. Then I realised that none of the embassies would be open for a few days until the end of their Christmas breaks so I decided to take a few detours.
I had been planning to do a minimum mileage and take it as easy on the bike as possible but in the end I've done more miles on dirt roads in Namibia (more than 1000km) than in any other country.
Namibia is a big country, there're a lot of long straights, on the tar as above, and on the dirt, as below...
The sunsets can be quite amazing too. I wouldn't normally put a sunset pic in the blog but this was something. Even taken with the crappy cheap digital camera we bought after the beloved Canon rattled to bits it looks pretty special....
It's quite a special feeling to be heading out by yourself, loaded up with spare fuel and water, along a dirt road into the desert. Philippe, ex of Top Bike mag had recommended a few routes from his Chinese bikes in Namibia marathon ride and I've got to say that at the beginning I was cursing him. Dirt roads in Namibia are normally very well maintained but at the end of the Christmas holidays on the road to Namibia's top tourist attraction (Sossus Vlei) the route had been well and truly pounded by legions of South Africa SUV driving holiday makers. They even have SUV caravans (SUCS?) and heavy duty off-road trailers for when they feel that their Land Cruisers are not causing quite enough damage!
Getting to Sossus Vlei and then riding through the Namib Naukluft Park past red sand dunes and smashed-up rock outcrops I had forgiven Philippe.
The ride from Sossus Vlei to Swakopmund took me through Solitaire. An evocatively named place that is a local by-word for out of the way-ness. It is indeed a long way from anywhere and very small but the feeling of solitude has gone as an enterprising type has converted his homestead into a middle-of-the-desert service station with petrol pumps, campsite, restaurant, bar and shop. You can't deny it's nice to stop and have a cold drink but seeing as everyone thinks the same it's actually quite busy and that feeling of remote-ness just isn't quite there!
Swakopmund was heaving with South Africa holiday makers. Many of the quad bike fraternity. After my near brush with severe quad bike induced injury at Ryan's motorcross park in Brakpan near Joburg it was no surprise to see local papers full of quad bike death and injury stories and sadly of the environmental damage caused by multitudes of them free-riding across the desert and protected areas. A weird place Swakopmund. Kind of like Bournemouth but a tenth of the size, surrounded by desert, with a few quaint German buildings, Bockwurst, socks and sandals and a few Africans thrown in.
Back through the Namib Naukluft Park again to get to Windhoek and on the first day of opening I'm there knocking on the door of the Angolan Embassy. After no response I spoke to the security guard and it turned out that no-one was there and it seems they had decided to have just one more day of Christmas hols! The Democratic Republic of Congo and Republic of Congo visas were a sinch with quick turnaround and charming staff but the Angolan one seems like it's going to be a bit tougher. There are worse places to be stuck in than Windhoek but it's not really brimming over with entertainments. I've seen their shopping mall several times, I tried the transport museum and it's closed. That leaves the cinema (there's one) and the national museum. Please please please Angolans give me a visa and quick!
Posted by Richard Miller at 12:37 PM