République du Congo - Sangha region
Day 147 (1 March) – Entering Republic of Congo
Happy birthday to Sigrid! Sorry we were making the border crossing into Congo at a remote location and away from telephone reception…
Reluctantly we leave Cameroon. We are at the very end of our 30 day visa and must leave the country today. But we have had a spectacular time in Cameroon – it has been one of the highlights so far on the trip.
We leave Mambele/Lobeke on a surprisingly good logging road that does not appear on any map or in our GPS and it takes us to the Cameroon/Congo border crossing of Socambo/Ouesso. Socambo offers the inhospitable environment that seems to accompany all border crossings – trash, not a speck of shade and procedures that have you waiting for ages… It turns out we are the first tourists in 8 months to cross here and each office duly takes their turn at trying to fleece us.
To get to Congo we must cross the Ngoko River and there is a very suspicious negotiation with the “marine” office to get a ticket. Stanley wisely takes the name of the shady official and we are on our way to the crossing. The Ngoko river (at this crossing) is but a hop to the other side but too deep to drive across. We watch as the lopsided ‘ferry’, which is really a metal slope being pushed by something motorized, comes towards us. The only other vehicle waiting is an 18 wheeler logging truck (empty, thankfully) but we pray that we are not going to board with it.
Unfortunately we do, and there is even room for one more car which has arrived at the last minute! They are still guiding the vehicles forwards and backwards on the platform as the ferry starts to motor out into the river. It is a very small crossing but we weren’t at all sure that we would make it!
The border formalities in Ouesso, Congo are the usual although they are housed in a new building – a row of wooden offices – that makes it easy to follow. You just go from one office to the next. It is hard work (mostly for Stanley as it is all in French). But after lots of smiles, hand shaking, more smiles, laughing, showing of all possible documentation (multiple times) we are done. And without paying anything – AMAZING! It has been a long day but we are quite pleased with ourselves as we head back to the cars.
We are almost there when a man comes running after us. He says he is the ferry master and we have to pay him for the ferry crossing. A whopping 18,500 CFA per vehicle. We say we paid on the other side (and paid handsomely at 15,000 per vehicle) and show him the receipts. There is lots of back and forth which escalates to bringing in the police. It turns out that the ferry is run by the Congo side but the guys in Cameroon just say you need to buy a ticket there. Stanley gives them the name of the shady marine official we bought the ticket from. And eventually they let us go without additional payment.
Now it has really been a long day and we want to get into town and find a place to stay. We are just in town when a motorcycle pulls alongside us and is trying to wave us down. No one has a uniform on so we keep going. Soon another motorcycle joins them and this is the police – reluctantly and with a heavy heart we pull over. The two guys not in uniform, it turns out, are from customs and they want to see that we have paid a 5,000CFA fee for having the carnet signed (which we didn’t). This is a common practice in Congo, apparently. Anytime an official lifts a pen they can ask for a ‘signing’ fee. Again, there is lots of back and forth and Stanley asks to speak with the Chief. We are brough to the Chief of Customs (we meet him on the side of the road as it is well after 5 PM by now). He is a very friendly guy and waves off the request saying we don’t need to pay. He says: “Tourists, there is always confusion with the tourists.” That line applies to our travels through the whole country.
The Chief of Customs is so friendly and helpful we ask him if there is anywhere we can pitch our tents for the night. He tells us we can pitch outside the Catholic Church and will take us there. The Church is smack in the middle of town and the available ground is in between the basketball court, volleyball and football pitch – all of which have games going on. There are hundreds of kids. Hmmm, not exactly what we had in mind. While we are thinking it over we are approached by the minister of the Evangelical Church. He says we can pitch outside his church and it is a bit quieter. Indeed it is quieter although there are plenty of people watching, fortunately there are some benches nearby and the steps of a church building so people have a good place to sit and watch. Two young visitors come by and want to practice their English.
Day 148 (2 March) –From Ouesso into the heart of Ebola
The next morning those that missed the evening viewing were able to come by for the morning show (some whites making breakfast and packing up our stuff). As we drive through town looking for info on the national parks there are some people who obviously haven’t gotten the memo that there are white people in town as they stand by with their mouths hanging open. We stop to ask one lady if she knows where the park office is and she replies “What are you doing here?”. Stanley replies “Tourism!” to which she looks slightly confused.
We are looking for information on Parc National d'Odzala. The park is supposed to be an amazing untouched piece of wilderness with a high concentration of primates. But first we must find out:
1. If there is an passable road
2. Has there been a recent Ebola outbreak
Not your usual holiday checklist…
The park is usually accessed by boat and the park entrance is near the epicenter of the three most recent Ebola outbreaks. It turns out there is very little park infrastructure and although the rangers at the park office are helpful, the fees are not completely clear so we decide to head south to Brazzaville.
Before we leave town we try to change money as we are running short on CFA cash. We had changed some money at the border but expected to get a better rate in town. We stop by a couple of shops but they are offering abysmal rates. We go to the bank and are told – “We don’t change money (with the tone of ‘you idiot’). We’re a bank!” Niels and Julia stand by for one more minute to let that one sink in before heading out. We are unable to change money at anywhere near a decent rate in town and there are no ATMs – this is pretty much the scenario until Brazzaville.
Day 149 (3 March) – Leaving the epicenter of Ebola outbreaks
We left Ouesso yesterday heading south to see how far we get. We have heard conflicting info about the roads and are not sure what to expect. It starts off pretty predictable. Poor dirt tracks. There are police stops but we have been advised that unless the police are physically blocking your way (or have a vehicle that looks like it might work) don’t stop. If they catch up with you later you just smile and say sorry – apparently that’s how it works in Congo! So we blow through the police stops and hope for the best. By mid day we see some Chinese. That usually means one thing in West Africa: ROADS! And sure enough, we are soon driving on a smooth dirt road and then comes tarmac. It is a welcome break although we are back on potholes and poor dirt track by evening as we pull into Lefini Reserve.
Day 150 (4 March) – Parc National de Lefini
Fortunately camping here is free, as we scrape together our available cash and are able to get one adult and one child into the reserve to see the orphan gorillas. Julia and Eowyn get to go! The baby gorillas are found in the wild and brought to the reserve. They are kept on an island and we are only able to view them from a platform on the other side of a small river for 30 minutes. They minimize the human contact so the gorillas have a chance of being reintroduced to the wild. There are 4 of them and they are funny and playful. We watch them jumping on one another, eating their snacks and climbing trees before heading back to camp.