THIS Trans-African adventure has always fallen neatly into two parts – the downward leg along the road less travelled through West Africa and the return north, traversing the far more traveller-friendly eastern side of the continent.
Sat in the rather pleasant town of Matadi on the banks of the mighty Congo River, we are just a couple of hours driving from the penultimate border crossing of the first leg – out of the Democratic Republic of Congo and into Angola.
Out of West Africa and into Southern Africa with the promised land of Namibia looming ever closer.
Thoughts have been turning to what we are all planning to do, buy or eat in Namibia (they had better be well stocked in the meat department) for some time, but given our experiences with visas and borders over the previous four months, nobody is getting too excited – yet.
Once we cross into Namibia, not only will the facilities become far more widespread (there’s even rumours of hot showers), the options on how to spend our time (and money) grow and the ability to tuck into vast quantities of wild animals be dangled in front of us (threatening the weight loss some of us have managed heading south), but visas (should) become far more straightforward.
Yes, our passports need sending home to acquire one visa, but through the stretch from Namibia to Kenya, the availability of most visas at the borders means the time spent sat waiting outside embassies and consulates should be almost wiped out.
Our very presence in Matadi over the weekend is courtesy of an ongoing issue with our Angolan visas, which was complicated by our route through the enclave of Cabinda, sandwiched between the two Congos.
It took less time to cross than it took to get in and out of, but the presence of Cabinda on our route – and heading straight through it is far more straightforward than the circuitous diversion on the notoriously difficult roads to Brazzaville and Kinshasa – has meant a series of delays.
Because we headed through Cabinda, we needed double entry visas for Angola.
Unable to get them before we headed off as they would have expired by the time we arrived, we headed to the Angolan Embassy in Accra (via a stop at a photo shop to get new passport pictures taken with the required white backgrounds).
A lengthy spell sat outside – something we have got more than used to, sweltering in our neat(ish) embassy clothes on the truck, sleeping, reading, playing cards or whatever method of passing the time each person chooses – ended with us going in two by two to hand over the necessary forms and have our fingerprints taken.
The Angolans added another hurdle by asking for the cost of the visas to be deposited in cash at a specific bank, meaning a trip across town for Joe and his hired muscle for the day (Kris and me), who promptly fell asleep on the bank’s sofas as the guy at the front of the queue counted out a ridiculous amount of local currency.
But did all that get us our required visas? No. This is Africa, nothing is that simple.
The new computer system in the Accra embassy did not allow them to issue double entry visas, meaning our newly-issued single entry ones were only going to get us across the border into Cabinda, not into Angola itself.
Which is why, when you last left us, we were sat at the beach in Pointe-Noire in Congo, not that far north of the Cabinda border.
Well, there were other attractions on and around the beach as we soaked up the sun, headed into town to stock up ahead of heading into the DRC and notoriously expensive Angola (and more trips into Matadi will be needed for that very reason before we head off, hopefully, tomorrow), boosting the bar’s profits (once they had got the hang of actually serving us, taking our money and giving us the correct change, which seems particularly difficult in Africa), using the laundry service (all of which came back in one huge pile) and a few dips in the surf, which was not without its perils if you got trapped in the wrong spot as a set of waves crashed in. Not to be advised. It hurts.
But Pointe-Noire also saw much chatter with the Angolan consulate – once they had reopened after a long weekend for International Woman’s Day – and finally we emerged with a letter explaining our situation to their counterparts in Matadi and all the information we needed to sanction our entry into Angola proper. Probably.
Getting into Cabinda was not a problem. Despite all we had been told from the odd ex-pat oil worker who frequented our beachfront hideout about the inhospitable nature of DRC and Angola, our experience has been completely to the contrary and, once we had got past the traditional African insistence of writing down all our passport information in a big ledger rather than accept the printed lists containing it all, it contained pretty much the most helpful border staff to date.
We soon had more to compare them with as, within a few hours, we were across Cabinda and heading through the second border of the day into the big, bad DRC.
At least, that’s what you are led to believe.
Certainly, further north and inland, the country remains a bit of a mess as it struggles to emerge from years of mistreatment, mismanagement and internal conflict.
But along the stretch we have travelled, the welcome has once again been largely smiling and friendly – with the possible exception of the taxi driver who wanted more money than Reto and Martyn were willing to pay after he took them on a lengthy detour on a journey which should only have been a few hundred yards – and typified by the welcome in a small village where we stopped to fill up our water supplied from the village pump (a good workout for the back and shoulders, believe me).
Admittedly the roads, for the large part, are not exactly up to scratch, but we made it through in one piece – both trucks heading through borders and visiting officials together until we cross into Angola and follow our own itineraries once more – and there was plenty of wonderful scenery to sit and gaze at as we travelled down the coast and then inland, largely along the Congo River itself before we swept across the bridge (no photographs) and into Matadi.
Our base here is in the grounds of a Catholic Mission, although our first day was spent sweltering outside the Angolan consulate (and in the bars, shops and restaurants around it) as they came up with an ever-expanding list of things which needed photocopying to go with each of our individual applications.
But eventually, word came out that everything was in order, our visas would be ready for collection after the weekend and we were free to spend a couple of days exploring the delights of Matadi (as long as we don’t get too close to the bridge or the river, which they are very sensitive about, security-wise), which come with an interesting undercurrent.
And so we have all headed off, in small groups, up and down the stall-lined streets of Matadi, yet somehow some of us always seemed to run into each other sat outside the same bar.
Well, maybe bar isn’t the word. It’s a bit of empty concrete set back from the street outside a couple of small shops where a woman serves beer from a small outhouse or signals across the road for cold Cokes from a shop.
It had us smiling – even if she never did – and after the saga of the Angolan visas, that can’t be a bad thing.
NB This was always going to be the most arduous stretch of the journey and, despite several of us discussing how it had not been too bad a few nights ago, it does seem to have taken its toll in the last few days.
Infected bites have been a long-term problem which flared up across the group in the last few days, with a second bout of cellulitis in the group, while several people have been feeling a bit run down (the truck, when parked up, usually has two or three people stretched out over the seats), although a lot of that may be self-inflicted – be it through lack of sleep, over-indulgence or, my theory of sugar highs and crashes as we guzzle fizzy drinks in the sweltering heat (thankfully, slightly diminished today after last night’s spectacular storm).
But we have had more serious issues in the last couple of days with a second case of malaria on board (thankfully, not as bad as the first), hot on the heels of a suspected case which was cleared by a hospital test, while we are sadly losing one of the inhabitants of the other truck due to a trip-ending eye issue.
Personally, my toes have been the main cause for concern. Plasters adorn each foot, one wrapped round a blister and the other covering the gap left in my nail and end of the toe where the truck bin landed on it after we hit a pothole.
But bar that, all is pretty much OK.
Or is that tempting fate…