I stayed in Libreville for a couple of extra days. I had left Guillaume and Anne’s place to camp with the other riders at the Catholic mission nearer to the city centre. Libreville is known as an expensive place to live and there are lots of up-market hotels and restaurants catering to the rich ex-pats and Gabonese elite. However, there are also loads of little bars around with people selling good cheap street food so it is possible to live cheaply if you can find somewhere to camp. Camping as a group was a welcome change and on a few nights when we watched movies on someones computer it almost felt like normality as opposed to world-travel.
We did get to have a taste of up-market Libreville, as Xavier, a Gabonese-Frenchman who is a huge motorcycle enthusiast invited us to spend a day at his private beach club. I also got taste of the high life when I accidentally walked in on Miss Gabon trying on a bikini in one of his shops. (I don’t have any photos, but lads, Phwoar!)
Xavier was more than happy to try to help us with our visa situation and he knows of the Angolan Ambassador as he is a regular customer at Xavier’s beach club. He had tried to contact him for us and bend his arm without success and he was telling us ‘sorry’ when his wife, Joyce said that she knew the Ambassador’s wife even better. Through Joyce, I got to talk to the Ambassador himself but he was having none of it. He kept insisting that we could get visas in Congo, even though I had heard that this was not the case.
Me and the boys had talked about what our options were for getting the Angolan visa. The idea of riding together through the DRC came up several times, and although I wouldn’t be up for doing it alone I would possibly consider it if I was in a large group. The notorious roads of Congo which were the next to come would definitely be better done as a group. The problem for me was that Chris and Andrei’s visas for Congo would start for another week or so and after a two weeks in Gabon I was ready to move on. One idea that did come up was to try to find some contacts in Angola that could help with the situation. I searched the net and found an Angolan motorcycle club. I sent off an email hoping for some assistance. Who helps a biker in need more than another biker right? As I rode out of Libreville the next day, I had almost convinced myself that I would need to apply for the Angolan visa in the UK. I swung by the local DHL office to see about sending my spare passport home, but in the end I just couldn’t be arsed. I rode on south, crossing the equator again for the fifth time and stopped in Lambarene for food and checked my email. The Angolan motorcycle club had sent me a fantastic message. Their director, Lilio, had phoned the Consulate in Dolisie for us and had had a promise from the Consul himself that he would give me a visa. All very encouraging stuff!
Chris had gotten ill over the last couple of days and had been lounging around the camp feeling like shit. After a few days he went to have a malaria test and although the test came up negative, the nurse was convinced that he had it as he had all of the symptoms. A couple of days after I had left Libreville he got worse and had to go to back to hospital were it was confirmed as malaria. He would have to stay in hospital for a few days but the doctors said he would be fine.
I rode late into the evening to get to Mouila, where I had previously stayed in someone’s garden and was welcomed to come back. Me and Lounga went out for some beers that got a little out of hand. The next day I woke up to a foggy morning with a foggy head, but at least it hadn’t been raining. I loaded up with food and water, reduced my tyre pressures and generally got myself ready to take on the knackered Congolese roads I’d read so much about. Depending on what happens with the visa, the road from Ndende to Dolise could be one of the last really shit roads I’d have to ride in Africa and as such it had been on my mind both as an obstacle and a milestone. The roads up to the border were all good pistes and I went to immigration in Ndende where I spent ages watching the officials try to use their computer. I needed to get my carnet de passage stamped by customs but I was told that they were at the border. I was stopped at another checkpoint by a group of officials in army fatigues who wanted me to take all the bags off the bike so they could look through them. I protested and managed to get away with doing nothing. The officials said that they were customs but when I produced my carnet for them to stamp, then suddenly customs were at the border. I started to get a little worried at this point and I asked if he meant Gabonese customs or Congolese customs? He had meant Congolese. ‘So where the hell do I get this carnet stamped to show that I have taken the bike out of Gabon’ produced shrugged shoulders all round. Reluctantly I chose to ride on without a stamp. If there was no customs in Ndende or at the border, then there was no way I was going ride back to Libreville to get this sorted. I just hope this decision doesn’t come back on me, but you would think that I’d be okay if I have a stamp saying that I had entered another country after Gabon with the bike.
The Congolese side was very friendly and relaxed. Every hut or little office I came to had nobody in it and eventually somebody would saunter over to take down my details. I’d heard that it was supposed to be bad for corruption but I wasn’t asked for anything. Still preoccupied by the state of the road I asked the customs guy about it and was very pleased to hear that it was only the first 10 km or so that was bad and the rest was good and I could make it to Dolisie in a few hours. That relived me greatly. I had thought that the whole 250-odd km would be bad and I had expected to spend several days on the road, but instead I just had to get through the first ten and it would be plain sailing afterwards. The first ten were awful though. I splashed through the first couple of muddy pools. One of them was so deep that the water came up to the fuel tank. As I came towards another wet and muddy patch, I chose a line off to one side thinking it was drier and easier. It was a bad decision as the front wheel got channeled into some really deep, thick mud and it slid off to one side. Both me and the bike landed into a pool of mud. I tried to pick it up but as soon as I’d lift the bike my boots would sink over a foot into the mud and I couldn’t lift it. I had to take off all the luggage and stand on the spare tyre to lift it upright again. I had expected something like this to happen and now that it had, I felt much more relaxed and confident that I had sorted it out.
There was much more of the same to come. I took the bags off again so that I could ride through a particularly large watery section, and it was a good decision because I fell off riding across that too. Ferrying the bags back over was a pain in the arse and it took me 20 minutes to travel 20 meters. In the heat and humidity it was exhausting I decided that I couldn’t keep doing this and I would have to ride through loaded up. For the next few muddy puddles this went okay and I rode through at walking speed with plenty of revs on standby to keep me moving if needed. I couldn’t remember how far I’d come but I saw a truck ahead that had passed me while I was ferrying the bags. The driver told me that it was almost over and as I went to ride around the truck I got the bike completely stuck in mud in an area that I hadn’t even thought was muddy! The truck driver and a random lad helped me get out and I offered them money for some beers, which the driver reluctantly accepted. After the first ten km, the road did get a lot better. At times it was a really flat piste and I could go at 50 mph, but I had to slow down because the condition changed frequently. It is supposed to be the rainy season but the road looked relatively dry but it would have been much worse had it had rained. As the road wound on, the scenery became spectacular and I had to stop taking photos so that I could make it to Doisie before dark.
Arriving at Dolisie I tried to find a mission to camp at. I’d heard on the net that previous riders had done the same but I didn’t know which one. To my surprise I was turned away first by a catholic mission and then by an evangelical one, before finally finding the one with rooms for rent (Sala Ngolo). I was completely exhausted from the ride and for the next 3 days I just lounged around. The place was a catholic mission, but it didn’t stop the security guard sending a prostitute around to my room one morning. She was waiting outside for ages and it was such an awkward situation getting out of bed to tell her to go away! The mission was on the same street as the Angolan consulate and I went there early in the morning. The guy at the reception asked me if I was a resident in Congo, presumably preparing himself to tell me to get lost. I told him that I wasn’t a resident, but that my friend in Angola had spoken with the consul and he is expecting me. I was then told that the Consul was away and I should come back on Monday, which I had be warned may be the case so I wasn’t worried. The street also had lots of shops and amenities and I was able to my get damaged clothes and panniers repaired for next to nothing. I chilled out for weekend. I didn’t see any other foreigners at all until I met the French owner of one of the night clubs and had a beer with a couple of the few Europeans that live in Dolisie.
I went back to the consulate on Monday morning. The receptionist on the door was asking me if I had the consul’s phone number, I guess as a way of verifying my story. I called Lilio in Angola, who spoke to the receptionist when I handed over my phone. The receptionist disappeared with my phone for about 20 minutes before coming back and asking for my passport, which sounded promising. I was invited in to wait as the consul hadn’t left his house yet and after two hours I was taken to see him. He asked me why I hadn’t got the visa in UK to which I replied that I hadn’t known that it was necessary to get it prior to leaving but I’d definitely do it the next time! He agreed that I could have a dual-entry (needed to pass through Cabinda) visa for 8 days and sent me off to make the formalities in another office with a madame Rose. In the next office, Madame Rose was not happy that I was asking for a visa at all and was leading me back out the front door while telling me that I should go to Pointe Noire, which is complete bullshit. I had to tell her that her boss had just agreed to give me the visa and she went off to talk to the consul for another ten minutes before emerging again and reluctantly calling me back to the office where her secretary filled out the form for me. No documents were asked for which is so bizarre as this is the same consul that has required all sorts of info from other travelers. For example, people who recently got their visas in Dolisie (and many have been refused) have had to produce; a letter requesting the visa, a letter from their own embassy requesting a visa, copies of yellow fever certificate, carnet de passage and most importantly, a letter of invitation from someone in Angola. None of this was asked of me. I wasn’t even told how much the visa would be, just come back tomorrow morning and it would be ready. I was pretty hopeful that I would get the visa at this point, but I was on tenterhooks as I couldn’t relax until the visa was in my hand.
I got the visa the next day. They charged me 100,000 CFA for it ($200 US dollars), claiming that it was twice the price for dual entry, I know….. I had planned to spend the rest of the day in Pointe Noire as it is very close to the border with the Angolan enclave of Cabinda (hence the dual entry), but the visa had started immediately and I didn’t have any time to waste. When I had a closer look at it, I noticed that the visa had actually started the day before, so I now had 7 days, not 8 to cross Cabinda, DRC and all of Angola. Time to get a move on!
I frantically packed my things and got ready to leave. As is often the case, I had come to know loads of people in the area around the Mission and Consulate and it was difficult to get away with people saying goodbye and offering me allsorts. The road to Pointe Noire is a fantastic new sealed road that again has been made a Chinese company. Some of the mountain views were fantastic but I was too focused on riding to stop and take any pictures. Near Pointe Noire, I took a wrong turn and ended up riding through the middle of a very busy market, with lots of excited and bemused locals. I knew I had eventually found Pointe Noir when I started to see supermarkets, fancy shops, hotels, and lots of ex-pats. I took on some extra fuel and then asked around for the road to the border. The border was much busier than the previous one from Gabon and there were people everywhere. The Congolese officials were very helpful and I definitely got special treatment as they led me to all the various desks to get stamps etc. On the Angolan side, I couldn’t see what it was that I was supposed to do at all. Two soldiers (or police, can never tell) came over and it became immediately obvious that my inability to speak Portuguese would be a problem. Eventually I found the immigration and I handed them a letter that I had been given at the consulate to give to them. The chef read it and smiled. Later I found that it was just a letter saying that they had given me a visa and they should extend their welcome to me. Quite a nice touch I thought. Customs was easy too, although they couldn’t find their Laissez Passer forms and wanted to use my carnet again. I had planned to pass through Cabinda in a matter of hours and since the official didn’t actually know how to fill it out, I convinced him to fill out both bits so that I could make a quick getaway, or so I thought….
Riding through Cabinda took me along a coastal road with some excellent views. People were all smiling and waving at me as is normal in Africa. The centre of Cabinda looked to be one of the most developed places I’d seen in Africa, and there was loads of cash machines and petrol stations for me to use. I found some locals who could speak English and got directions to the border. The traffic was pretty bad. My timing, or rather the timing that had been imposed on me by the consulate wasn’t the best and I had to pass through Cabinda during rush hour. I was constantly unsure of where I was going as my GPS was of little use because Google maps has very little information about the whole area. When I finally got to border at Yema it was closed, but the guards/police/soldiers said that it wasn’t a problem for me to camp there and I set up my hammock under an covered seating area. None of them spoke English so I had started to speak Spanish with them, which was incredibly difficult after months of speaking French. I took a load of photos, and got told off for making a video diary, which the chef made me delete. Not that here was anything that interesting there but I had forgotten where I was. The guards shared food with me as we shared limited conversation I started to get to understand some of the Portuguese words.
In the morning the border didn’t open till 8 am, and I had been awake since 6. My patience was runny pretty thin with all the bureaucracy, but it had been stupid to think that I could pass 3 African borders in any short length of time. However the Cabinda side was relatively quick, even though they got me to fill out an arrivals card (with photo!) and the customs guy complained that his counterpart at the other border had completed both parts of the carnet (really? why would he do such a thing?) I had a huge wait ahead of me at the DRC side, which in contrast to the Angolan side, had no tarmac at all and was all covered in sand. I waited around the DRC immigration office for a while before I met Blaise, one of the officials who spoke excellent English and was very happy to help. To be honest, I had enjoyed being able to communicate in French again, something I’d never thought I’d say but it was much better than only-just-sort-of-communicating in Pigin-Spanish.
The customs chef hadn’t arrived yet, and I had to wait an hour before someone was able to stamp my carnet. I rode off down the 50 km sand road to the nearest town, Muanda, to get breakfast and fuel. I had changed some of my Angolan money to DRC franks and was amazed to see how much much of it there was. I took another sand road for 100 km to get to Boma, a large city and port on the Congo river, were I changed some euros in a bank to US dollars and more ridiculously low-value local money. I’m used to getting mobbed a bit in out of the way places that see many foreigners, but in the DRC it was something else. Every time I would stop to buy fuel a crowd of up to 20 curious people would form around the bike. I was polite and answered most of their questions but I still hoped to make the second Angolan border by the end of the day so I had to move on. I rode on to Matadi along a 100 km road that at first couldn’t decide if it was sealed or a piste. The constant slowing down to rejoin the tarmac was a pain but eventually it got better and was in excellent condition as I approached Matadi.
Matadi is a place I’d seen mentioned loads of times on the forums as a place to get Angolan visas from. What I was stunned by was just how pretty the place was. Its definitely a place to go and see visa or not. The city sprawls over the side of a hill that is next to the Congo river. To me it looked a lot like Clifton from a distance (in Bristol, UK for you international readers), and once inside the town, the shacks on the hills reminded me of La Paz in Bolivia. I would have loved to have stayed in Matadi for longer, but I was about 70 km from the border so I rode on. Its really a pain this Angolan visa system, because not only does it restrict the time you have in Angola, but it also makes it difficult to see Congo and the DRC too. The countryside outside of Matadi was beautiful, lots of grassy hills and very similar to Wales. Perhaps they should twin Cardiff with Kinshasa?
By the time I got to Songolo the border had already closed. I found a motel to stay at that was right by the turn off for the border. The owner, John is a half-Belgian Congolese man who was very welcoming and gave me loads of free beers and food. I enjoyed chatting to him on what was to be my only day in the DRC and my last night of speaking French. Its a real shame I couldn’t have stayed for longer. Everyone I met was super friendly and helpful, even the police, who were generally very happy to see me. The countryside is amazing and I found the whole place fascinating. Oh well, another excuse to come back I guess. The next day I was up at 6 which is becoming the norm and I got to the border before 8. This time it wasn’t customs that held me up but the lazy chef of immigration who didn’t show until 10 am. The Angolan side was easy enough though, although the customs guy still didn’t know how to use a carnet and he copied his counterpart in Cabinda by filling out both entry and exit parts again.
I had expected bad roads out of the border. Lilio had written me a big email explaining the route that I should take to get to Luanda but I hadn’t used the internet since Dolisie so I didn’t get to see it. The road to M’bazza Kongo was okay and then the 200-odd km to N’zeto was perfect. At N’zeto this all changed. The town of N’zeto is on the coast and it was strange to see that even though they have street lights (don’t know if they work though) and pavements, that their roads were not sealed. I searched around for fuel for quite sometime before finding a guy selling it out of bottles from his house. The road south to Mussera was awful and started with some great big muddy pools, which I could ride around for the most of the time but there were also a few that completely blocked the road. The next 100 km was a sandy piste and after 30 km or so I was riding quite fast and really thought that I could make it to Luanda the same day, but after a while I gave up on this idea. The sun was going down and the road had turned into a half-road half-piste with big pot holes that required more concentration than I could give that late in the day as I had dented my rear wheel on some of them.
I turned off on to a track and then rode into a field of long grass to wild camp. Later I remembered that I had been warned not to do this as unexploded mines left over from the civil war are still a danger. I had an early night of broken sleep due to being woken by an electrical storm at 1:30 am. I continued back on to the road for the last 80-odd km to Luanda. The previous nights rain had made the conditions very slippery and I was concerned that I wouldn’t have enough fuel to make it to Luanda. There was a lot of road construction going on and I saw a few fuel trucks wheel-spinning and even 4 x 4s having trouble climbing the muddy pistes. I fell off on one bit where earth had been laid down for a road surface but it wasn’t compact and I could keep the bike up before getting to firmer ground. Eventually the road became sealed again, and I was convinced that I had just ridden the last of difficult African roads in my trip.
My relief was short-lived though as I later found out that there are 2 more bad roads to do before I get to the tarmac paradise of Namibia.
Riding into Luanda, I got the completely wrong impression of the city. It was all doom and gloom when I came through the industrial areas and slums at the north, but after the construction work at the edge of the city centre, Luanda looks much nicer. It is very different to other African cities and you could even say it looks European. In places, some of the apartment blocks and good roads (with signposts!) wouldn’t look out of place in say, Madrid. Of course, this was just in the affluent areas, but even in the more ‘normal’ areas there is definitely a difference. Riding at night, the little bars or clubs that you see everywhere in Africa (called Maquis in Francophone Africa) were playing house music, on what sounded like sound systems. Quite a change even from Libreville standard.
I met up with Lilio, the director of the Amigos da Picada motorbike club who had helped me to get the visa. He and his amigos from the club had all been reading my blog (with a little help from google translate – as I’m sure you all do!) and were very impressed by the trip. I went to Lilio’s place to clean myself up after 3 days on the road and then went to meet the rest of the club for lunch and too many beers. The guys at the club ride all sorts of bikes, but with big engine dual-sport tourers being the most popular (Varaderos, BMW 1200 and 800 GS etc) Together, the club had ridden most of the worst roads in central Africa and had some great photos of submerged bikes getting pulled out of mud and the like. I was very grateful to Lilio for sorting out the visa, and he told me that the club is happy to help any RIDERS coming through Angola . If you need help to get an Angolan visa, you can email Lilio at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please don’t email him if you are traveling through by any other means as he is not a travel agent. He’s a biker who likes to help out other bikers. The club had a meeting that evening, which was quite a big affair as the club has about 80 members and afterwards we went for more beers, but I had to call it a day as I was completely knackery from the riding and hadn’t slept yet.
Lilio helped me get some repairs done and then took me around Luanda to see the sights. The whole country is developing very quickly. Angola had a civil war that lasted ten years and since it ended in 2002 foreign investment has been pouring in. You can see the speed of the development as Luanda’s skyline has lots of new tower blocks being constructed. We went out for food on the Ilha de Luanda, the long thin sand bar in front of the harbour, where there are loads of hotels, bars, restaurants and miles of beach. I went there again in the evening as i had been invited by another amigo rider, George, to meet some of his family who had moved to Luanda during the war but had decided to stay. We sat outside his cousin’s house drinking beers and they fed me assorts of fantastic Angolan food. The night ended later than it should, as me Lilio and George were supposed to riding out the next day. Lilio was going to Windhoek in Namibia to get his bike serviced which was one of my next destinations too. I was really knackered the next day and I didn’t really enjoy the ride out of Luanda in the darkness but once we were out of the city the spectacular scenery quickly picked me up. George followed us for a bit of the way then went to join some other friends and we went on to Lobito to meet up with some other riders. We picked up an extra rider, Sangue Bom, and continued through Benguela. Like Lobito, Benguela is also a very pretty city and it is much easier to see the development. Its a complete contrast to the surrounding suburbs where some people still live in straw huts.
We headed south towards Lubango. There were many clouds in the sky and although I didn’t want to slow the group down I had to stop and take some pictures of the amazing view. The lovely sealed road we were riding on was blocked and me and Lilio followed the signs for the detour onto the temporary piste, but Sangue Bom just rode straight through it. After about a kilometre it seemed that he had had the right idea as there was nothing wrong with the road (makes you wander why there was a detour in the first place) and our piste was waterlogged and not fun to ride. We rode up the embankment and carried riding on the ‘out of use’ road. Every time we came across an obstacle, for example; a mound of earth placed there by earth movers to stop people from using the road, we would just ride up/down the embankment to the piste, or simply ride right over the mound. It was great to watch the guys do this on their heavy bikes. My bike is designed to do this sort of thing, but Lilio would throw his Varadero, technically a road bike, into it without hesitation and it handled it well. Eventually, the road did become a road under construction. The workers were still around and nobody seemed to mind us riding straight through their work. It had gotten really dark and by the time we had rejoined the diversion it was night. Now, you are all aware of my ‘no riding at night rule’ that I have broken many times when I’ve been in a place I’ve become familiar with, but this time I broke the rule for real and riding muddy pistes in the dark scared the shit out of me. It was raining too, at times so bad that I couldn’t see anything with my visor up or down. We stopped on a section of construction to put on water proofs etc. It was completely dark, with the only light coming from our bikes. I would have given up at that point and tried to find somewhere to camp, but the Angolans were not giving up so I kept my mouth shut and followed as best I could. I couldn’t see anything, and I was riding on pure faith, staring at the brake lights in front of me. Lilio was leading and he later told me that he could see anything either! Riding in rain in the dark is shit at the best of times without the added complications of dodgy road surfaces. After a while, the road was sealed again, but I still couldn’t see anything, and now we were speeding up! To make matters worse, there were also cars and bikes that didn’t have any lights! The road kept changing from road to piste, and I had no idea until muddy water was splashing over the fuel tank. Eventually we ended up on a sealed road with cat’s eyes. I was so relieved to see them, and I spent the rest of the ride looking out for any street lights in the distance that could possibly be Lubango. I think we were all very relieved to arrive and there was quite a bit of group cheer, when we hit the bar in the hotel afterwards.
Lilio and Sangue Bom left the hotel early in the morning, but I stayed in Lubango an extra couple of hours to check the place out. It kinda defeats the point of riding through Africa if I can’t see any of it! Lubango, is a very beautiful city in the mountains of southern Angola. Its so high up in the mountains that I was quite cold riding around. I went off to see a few of the recommended tourist sites but they are so high up that they were both obscured by clouds and I couldn’t see anything.
I left Lubango about 2 hours after the others. A local lad who liked my bike offered to show me the way out of the city saving me lots of time messing around with directions. Lilio had warned me that the road to the border had a 100 km section that was very bad, but I couldn’t remember where exactly. I was concerned about the condition of the road as Lilio has ridden all the same shit central African roads that I have and he said that it would take 3 hours to get through it. I was expecting a repeat of the roads in Congo, with submerging the bike in huge pools of water and spending all day picking it up out of the mud after I’d stacked it. It is really stupid for me to think like this though. Of course I should always make sure I have an idea of how long it will take and to make sure that I have enough fuel/food/water, but to preoccupy myself with the all effort that it could require, is a waste of time. I’m going to ride it anyway so I should try to be more Zen about the whole thing (Laas will love that comment!) and take it as it comes. Anyway, the road to the border started as a very good sealed road for about 100 km then it became a badly damaged road then a badly damaged muddy road. I rode through it all in a couple of hours, all the time thinking that the worst was yet to come. I met some French travelers in 4 x 4s who told me that the road was very wet further on and I thought that this must be the section. The road became good again and I stopped at a small town to refuel. It was 4 pm and I decided to save my energy to face the water the next day. There was a large police station and I went to ask if I could camp on their site. They agreed and after I brought the bike around I was surrounded by about 8 curious policeman who wanted to know all about the bike. I’ve stayed with police a few times before but the thing this time was that it was quite a major station and the place that I was told to set up my tent was right in view of the jail which had loads of equally curious people in custody also looking over. A couple of times other police returned escorting other people at gun-point to the cells. I went to bed early as the atmosphere was a bit weird for me. The next day I set off early for the border. The road was great and when it dawned on me that I had actually already passed through the really bad bit, I got quite emotional that I was now definitely going to be riding the smooth all the way to Cape Town. My experience with the Angolan police had been great and unfortunately it got tarnished in the last half hour of riding when a lady cop got me to pull over and tried to take my keys out of the ignition. This had happened to me once before and I’ve been careful to guard them since. I snatched them out of her reach and she looked at me startled and said ‘porque?’ (why). I wish I could of spoken Portuguese cos I would have loved to have said to her that the only reason she could have needed my keys would have been to extort money out of me, but as always, an inability to speak the local language got me a pass.
The border was a breeze, no visa required and I was even allowed to go to the bank and return to pay my insurance fee. In Namibia, I was greeted by sealed roads, left hand driving and English speaking officials. I’d truly passed through the difficult bits now. I had lunch in KFC and rode into Namibia.