Continuing Frank’s journey after leaving Nigeria…..
I arrived in Cameroun at the beginning of the wet season and it had been raining constantly for a week before I got there. The road was in a horrendous state. It was a two hundred kilometre long mudbath, in some places the mudholes were two metres below the normal road height.
My bike fully loaded weighs in at a little under a quarter of a ton ... and it's a one wheel drive. I was like Bambi on the ice. The back wheel would go one way, the front wheel the opposite way. My right leg would slip forward, my left leg backwards and the whole thing would end in a heap in the mud, sometimes me on top sometimes underneath. Then slipping puffing and panting I would stand the mud encrusted monster back up, and go again for maybe a hundred yards maybe only twenty and repeat the same process... laugh ... I never laughed once.
I eventually got the bike on the back of a six-wheel drive truck that was going to the next big town, Kimba, empty. Even then I was not out of the mud. It took twenty four hours to cover the two hundred odd kilometers. and driving into flooding rivers, careering down one bank and bouncing and bashing your way up the opposite bank in the middle of the night because the bridge has been washed out is a real bum clencher, and one hell of a buzz... when you do eventually make it.
I hate to say this, but it is a terrible truism. Try as you might it is impossible to film the most exciting and challenging parts of a trip like this, because you are just too busy doing it, and filming at the same time is often impossible, usually very dangerous … or at the very least, inconvenient.
I managed some shots of the truck tyres spinning in the mud and us digging it out… but none of the careering through rivers or perched precariously on temporary log bridges with only inches to spare and the bike and all I owned strapped down in the back and me squinting my eyes and biting my lip... none of these moments were captured for posterity... shame.
Filming torrential rain and water cascading down streets is important if you want to capture the mood but it doesn't tell a story and I left Cameroun without a story.
Gabon is French ... really French, they even have Paris prices to prove it. I was servicing the bike, adjusting the chain, changing oil, all that sort of thing when I noticed that the throttle cable was just about frayed through at the carburettor end...it was a lucky find, for I was going to be in some serious bush for the next couple of weeks. I took off the old cable and went to the market to find a replacement inner cable, once found I had to solder a new nipple on the end so I went to a mobile phone repair shop and asked if they could use their soldering iron to do it...or better still let me do it.
In fairness 'cable nipple soldering' is probably not part of the 'how to fix a phone' course, so in the end I did it myself with the assistance of the phone technician. But I had wanted to film the whole process from discovery to resolution so I had taken the camera and filmed myself hunting for the inner cable in and out of various little hardware shops and bicycle repair shops and I wanted to film the soldering part also. But because I ended up doing it myself I had forgotten to film that part, so I asked the technician to pretend to ‘Work on the Cable’. I moved the tripod and started to frame the shot, when all I could see in the view-finder was his boots and the cable. I looked up at him and said ‘what are you doing’. He replied ‘Walking on the Table’ ....
The back-roads from Gabon to the Congo are murderous, once you leave the silky smooth new main roads which have been put in place to facilitate the systematic rape of the rain forest, then you are on your own. You can ride for hours and see not a soul, or any human habitation, other than the occasional abandoned bush material hut. It's really lonely and just a little scary, the tracks wind through rain forest that is so thick that it forms a tunnel which seems to be in perpetual twilight even in the middle of the day. From that you emerge into sparsely covered savannah, and hours later you wind your way up steep mountain tracks with towering cliffs on one side and cavernous drop-offs on the other, so all in all quite varied. But here again you are so concentrated on getting through that the last thing on your mind is to stop and capture fantastic panoramas and stunning scenery, what you would really like to take a picture of is a small town with a petrol station. On days like these it is easy to get the feeling that you are really pushing the envelope, going the extra mile. It's at times like this that you wish you were schizophrenic, just so that you had someone else there to share the experience with. When you feel that you really could be the last man left alive on earth, it's usually just about then that you here an engine in the distance, the faint hum of an engine working really hard and revving high, minutes later you hear the shrill of drums and guitar music from a cheap radio and then you see the battered old bus on its way to drop off the waving shouting children after their hard day at school just ten kilometers further on down the road. The world isn't getting any smaller but it is getting harder to find a place to be alone.
In Gabon all I did was ride and sleep and ride and sleep, the place was expensive, but more annoyingly there was no value, all prices seemed to be randomly conjured out of the air. So I paid their silly prices for petrol and bread and hotel rooms and moved on as fast as I could. I rode for four days before getting to the border. There are lots of theories about taking the road less travelled, but usually there is a reason why a road is less travelled, and usually it is either because the road is crap or it leads nowhere. Off-course that is not always the case...sometimes it’s because they have built a new road to the same destination and the road less travelled is the old s****y road. It is a good habit, even if you have a good map (I didn't), to ask directions...just to be sure. I asked directions. "la route de Akou"... keep it simple, that's the best way when dealing with foreigners I find. So I said to various people "la route de Akou" and they would confirm that I was indeed on the right track as it were. So I was not overly concerned as the road narrowed and became more of a sandy track than a road, who knows maybe around the next bend it will turn into a good road again, stranger things happen in Africa. Needless to say the track just got more sandy and smaller and harder to ride, but eventually I arrived at the border post. They were overjoyed to see me, ‘such a big bike, such a brave man’ ... and so red and so sweaty too.
I sat down to rest, it was already two in the afternoon and I was exhausted. I had been riding for five hours and only covered forty odd kilometers... but at least I had made it to the border, and the worst part was behind me. I asked the post commander what I could expect on the Congo side. I knew that it would be all right because I could already see the lovely big new blacktop road that had just been constructed and that road would undoubtedly lead to a nice town with petrol stations and hotels ... probably with air-conditioners and cold beer.
No, that road led directly to the place I had just come from ... the little sandy bush track going off at a tangent led to the place I was going. I could have cried, I would have, but didn't want to lose any more water from my already dehydrated body.
The border guys recommended that I go back to Lekoni, where I had just come from, but this time take the new road ... total journey time forty minutes. There I should spend the night, fill up with petrol and get some spare in a container, buy more food, more water, and then leave very early the next morning ... they would be sure to be there at post early to let me through. So that is what I did.
It's strange but the Immigration and Customs entry post into Congo Brazzaville is nearly fifty kilometres inside the border. It is down a really small, really sandy road, with absolutely no traffic on it. You are in the back of beyond. It's called M'banza and in the four days I was there, camped behind the Police Post, six vehicles passed through. I was waiting for a truck or four-wheel drive to see If I could put the bike on it just to get us out of the sand ... the sand was murdering the bike, it was just too big and heavy for such poor sandy tracks, and I was concerned about burning the clutch out or falling and breaking a leg on an isolated stretch of road. I was going to play it safe and use brains over bravado ... just this once.
So I camped up behind the Police Hut and started filming. I thought this time I would do a cookery special, something along the lines of “Ready Steady Cook” and using fresh termites as our main ingredients out of the shopping bag. The deal was that I would buy the beer and the four customs and Police/immigrations guys would supply the food, and it worked well, the chicken was really nice, the bush-meat was tasty but a little tough, the river fish was bony but nice, the canned sardines were...well, canned sardines, even the termites were quite palatable.
I thought that we were off to catch/hunt/trap termites, but we just went down to the village and bought them as you would. .. say peas or something like that. We told the old guy how many bowls of termites we needed and he scooped them out of the bucket and charged accordingly. Then we took them over to an old lady with a wicker basket and she tossed them up and down in her basket to knock the wings off, and then we were ready to go back to the Police Post and start cooking. Basically you steam them in salty water for fifty minutes, then they are lovely and crunchy and salty and quite nice served with Melei (Maze dough) I filmed the whole process even with the obligatory oohing and aahhing ... it was a nice little story.
Eventually a 4x4 did come along, and it was even going in my direction...it was loaded to the gunwales. That however was not going to stop the driver from loading up this rich prize. He had the other passengers unload the Toyota's back tray and then we lifted the bike on and repacked everything back around the bike. There is a little joke in Africa that goes like this. "How many passengers can you fit on an African bus"... the answer "ONE MORE", it's not particularly funny but it is undeniably true.
With the bike and all my bits loaded I hung on the back with all the other passengers as we sped along the sandy track, never seeming to be completely in control of the vehicle’s course, but at least we were moving I had been at the border for four days and was happy to be on the move again.
We dropped off a few of the other passengers and I was upgraded to first class in the cab. We stopped regularly to pass through check-points. From what I could work out I was the only one on the vehicle that was in the country legally. It seemed that all the other passengers had to pay little bribes in order to be allowed to continue their journey. Occasionally I was asked for money but declined the opportunity to supplement various minor officials’ income ... I mean I had already paid fifty pounds for the bloody visa.
The driver was perhaps the greatest entrepreneur that it has ever been my misfortune to meet. He insisted that we slow down as we passed through every collection of huts, minute settlement, or minor village and yell out ‘Poisson sal, Petrole .... salted fish and kerosene. If anyone showed any interest we would stop in the middle of the road and open up shop. Ladling out kerosene into old plastic bottles that people would bring, or lining up fish for inspection, it made for a slow passage. I filmed bits and pieces of this, but my heart wasn't really in it. I just wanted to get on and get to a halfway decent road so I could get back on the bike and get to the capital Brazzaville, there I could sort out the next leg of the journey.
en route through Cameroun