Friday, January 28, 2011

Crossing the Congo – Alternative route in detail

Hi folks, my name is Nick and I am traveling with my wife (Vicki) from the UK to Cape Town in a Land Rover Defender 110. We started from the UK in May 2010 and hope to be in Cape Town Aug 2011, you can read all about the trip at www.langebaan-sunset.com.  Martin Solms kindly invited me to contribute to Overland Live and so we thought as our first post we would offer information regarding a lost route, a theme that Martin recently reported on.

Well we made it from Gabon into Congo with no problems - just 100 miles of sand and a short drive down to the capital, Brazzaville.  We had been in Brazzaville for a few days and began to think about options for crossing the Congo River. In summary, the Brazzaville Kinshasa ferry crossing is expensive and involves a fair degree of haggling, hanging about and hassle.  Some fellow travellers recently reported being held at the gates and missed their ferry, had to pay port entrance fees with others paying for expensive disinfection charges, cranes and various forms of “help” etc …  in all it seems that you will be lucky to pay less than $100 with most people being charged approx $150 for a 4x4 and 2 people (bikes obviously get charged less).


Vicki and I were very keen to try and look at other options and perhaps make the crossing a little more adventurous by trying an alternative route.  One of Martin’s recent posts caught our attention: Obstacle course through the Congo and AngolaInspired by this post we began to explore this option in more detail along with one other route we happened to find while staying at the Hippocampe Hotel in Brazzaville. 

We found some data on two alternative crossing points South West of Brazzaville which are both marked on the Michelin map (blue box with a number in it).  The first alternative crossing point is at Luozi DRC, this was completed by SnailTrails and the second was at Pioka and recently completed by www.toyota-adventure.com in August 2010.  We consulted their blogs and looked at the maps and decided that the Pioka crossing was the one to try for three main reasons;
  • Its closer to Brazzaville with good tar to Boko
  • The amount of time spent “off road” appeared to be less
  • Most of the locals we spoke to told us that if we left the Hippocampe Hotel at 8am we would be at the ferry “terminal” at 3pm that day
Over our last fantastic meal of fried beef with ginger & rice, and having informed Olivier (the owner of Hippocampe) of our plans, we left Brazzaville on the 19th January at 8am and headed off to Boko.  The road is indeed tar all the way to Boko and you have to have a chat with a few police and security before you leave the tar and head for the village of Ntombe Manyanga (the border post where you formally leave Congo and get your papers stamped out).  The road is a mix of compacted sand with sandstone rock in places.  It twists and turns its way over small hills.  Before you get to Ntombo Manyanga you have to negotiate a steep descent / ascent which has been heavily eroded by rains and trucks. 

Part of the descent has a very bad camber that slopes down to the left making the risk of rolling your vehicle a real possibility.  We took it slowly in Low range 1st with diff lock and used our waffle boards to help raise our vehicle over the storm gullies and rocks.  We made it though OK and reached the village as it was getting dark – having to get the border guard from the village to open the barrier.  It was approx 6:30pm.   The customs folk said we could camp in the village and do the paperwork in the morning.  They also confirmed that the ferry was working.  We learnt that this village is called Ndendanga.

The next day we completed the paperwork for entering DRC – both customs, immigration and security asked for 20$ each to complete basic forms and we managed to negotiate this away by saying we had paid for the visa already and had only enough money for the ferry.  We then set off for the ferry and descended the valley to the river over more tricky eroded sections and overgrown grass to reach the ferry “terminal”.  Now “terminal” is a bit of an overstatement as there is only a concrete slipway with a couple of huts, dugout canoes and trees - that’s about it. 

We were introduced to the ferry captain who said he had no diesel (oooppps) and so we set about a negotiation for the price of the crossing Vs the cost of them buying some of our diesel.  He seemed to want 20 litres of diesel and this equated to one of our emergency fuel jerry cans which had cost us approx €16.  He seemed happy that this was a fair trade and so I escorted them to the ferry to top up the John Deer powered tri-hulled craft that sat alone on the shores of the Congo.

After fuelling the boat with our emergency fuel and praying we would not need it at some point later in the route, he powered up the craft and said we had to drive onto the beach.  I asked about driving down the perfectly, well formed concrete slipway but it appeared that the “off road” option of mounting the ferry was the done thing in these parts.  I wondered off into the tall grass and bushes and checked out the ground it seemed firm and so Vicks gingerly drove the Landy onto the beach and then ascended the ramps until she snugly sat in the middle of the ferry.  It was only then that I vaguely remembered someone saying there are Crocodiles on the banks of the Congo!

The crossing was quick and you really got a feel for the power of the river.  Its narrow here (just 1 mile wide) and the vista are amazing!!  Rapids up stream can be seen and the boils that swirl in the middle of the river are pretty large, you could feel the boat being taken by the current and this made the Landy lurch forward!  My immediate instinct was to push the vehicle back as I genuinely thought the car was going!!  They had forgotten to chock the wheels and the play in the Land Rover handbrake meant the vehicle rolled forward a few inches.  Quickly one of the crew grabbed some wood blocks and placed them either side of one of the wheels.  It was at this point I realised I had just tried to stop a 3.5 ton car rolling off a ferry into the Congo river much to the amusement of the crew, I am sure that moment took at least 1 day off my life!!

As we approached the shore I was surprised to see that we were not heading to the other sandy beach, moreover we were actually heading to a heavily overgrown riverbank with no real road or area to disembark at all!!  This got the heart going and we gestured to the Captain to go to the beach.  As we got closer men with guns approached and greeted us.  Huuuuummm, this could be fun.  We had a brief look at the lie of the land; tall reeds, grass, mud and sand with some deep eroded channels…..!!!!  We prayed to the God of Diff-Lock that we would not get stuck as we left the ferry.

Vicks did a grand job of driving as I frantically walked (ran) ahead to bash a trail to the “road” and nearby the security hut….no sign of Crocodiles!  It was clear that not many people come this way by car but with a bit of wheel spin and a dab of throttle we were up and out of the tall grass and made it to the hut.  After a brief discussion as to why we were not going to pay $20 to a man with a gun that had clearly had a few beers we went off in search of the road.

Now we had no idea of what lay ahead and that the next 8 hours would be some of the hardest off road we had ever done!  The village you are heading to on the Michelin map is Gombe Matadi and the initial ascent out of the river valley is pretty steep.  Again, heavily eroded sections of road greeted us and it had to be negotiated with patience and a cool nerve.  Some of the sections were so eroded that the original drainage channels at the side of the track vary in depth from a few feet to 15+ feet and undercut the road.  The camber and angles you have to traverse mean your wheels are sometimes literally on crumbling soil that would result in the vehicle falling into one of these channels and getting seriously wedged in.  As we were on our own, this factor laid heavily on our minds and we used the waffle boards on several sections to help spread the load with only inches to spare.  There were also sections where we had to cross very water logged sand and mud. This was very hazardous as some of it looked hard packed and solid.  Walking the road and checking every inch of these sections was essential as one wrong move would mean getting very bogged down!

Then, out of nowhere a local village Chief appeared on a bike and we offered him a lift.  He was happy to help guide us to his village and also seemed keen to help with digging and waffle board “administration” which was good as around the next bend we got stuck in the sand crossing a small river.  We were able to talk to him in a mix of French and English and learnt that there had been recent heavy rains that had caused a great deal of new damage to the road during the 2011 wet season.  We dropped him off and made more slow progress – the road was no better and more and more eroded channels and tricky ascents awaited us around every bend.

One last tricky section almost stopped us in our tracks – it was a gully that looked as though the rains had created a small waterfall on the right side of the road.  This presented us with a problem as we needed the waffle boards to stop us sinking into the wet sand but the camber was a steep drop to the right before having to mount a small step up onto a tricky ascent.  After a lot of checking and debate Vicks edged up as I ran on trying to see where the tyres would hit the step and give Vicks the nod to put the power on.  As I turned to get my next footing up the steep slope I heard Vicks screaming!!  I turned to see the van tilting to the right at an angle you only see in the Land Rover Owner’s Manual under the section entitled “Maximum Tilt Angle” (Vick’s face told me all I needed to know).  It was clear the sand was swallowing the waffle board and thus the van was sinking and tilting over.  I ran back to the van and braced myself between the Landy and the gully wall.  I shouted to Vicks to “dab the throttle” and she hit the accelerator.  The Landy lurched up the step and I motioned sideways - crab like - pushing the Landy sideways with what little strength I had left.   We made it!  The sun was starting to set and whilst the surroundings and vistas were amazing we were both exhausted.  Since the ferry crossing it had taken us 8 hours to go to 16 miles – it was time to stop. 

We pulled into a village (not realising we had actually left the main Gombe Matadi road) and 3 men greeted us.  All of them were teachers and we had pulled up alongside the school buildings.  We asked if we could camp up for the night and they said yes.  We had a great evening with them as nearly 50 people watched us cook our meal and go to bed.  As we climbed the ladder to the roof tent there was much laughter and merriment (we were to learn the next day that we were the first tourists to have ever visited their village) we must have looked like aliens to the children.  Deep sleep followed!

The next morning we headed off to Gombe Matadi with one of the villagers who wanted a lift / help us with navigation.  After some more tricky eroded sections, mud pools and some bridges in need of repair we made it to Gombe Matadi.  The road after here was “better” maintained and we made it to Mbanza Ngungu at 11am on the 3rd day.  The road thereafter was tar to the Angola border turning at Songololo.

In summary

For our GPS track data for the 3 days from Brazza to Songololo please visit our website GPS page

This trip was a great experience on may levels.  Not only did we see some truly remarkable countryside we also met some truly remarkable people. We also saved approx $130 and it ended up being one of the highlights of the trip so far.  The remote villages that reside close to the Congo River are welcoming but their remoteness and the condition of the road mean you have to take your time and think about possible recovery options should things go wrong.  It’s no easy “day out” and once you cross the river you are actually more remote than you think.

If you fancy tackling this crossing think about the following before you set out;

-       The road was built during the zenith of The Belgian Congo and in its day would have been a nice flat, quick road.  The road now, esp. the section from Pioka to Gombe Matadi, is on its last legs and needs repairing. 
-       It took us 2.5 days to go from Brazza to reach the Kinshasa Matadi road in DRC.
-    We have been told it is possible to reach Luozi ferry from Boko - an option to think about
-       Waffle boards, spade and walking the road ahead are essential esp. if you are doing this as 2x people 1x vehicle
-       The eroded gullies make progress at times very hazardous – its becoming 50:50 in places and more heavy rains / no repairs may make this crossing impractical in the future.
-       Pay careful attention to sandy sections, especially near reed and palms groves in the bottom of valleys as water logged sand that appears to be hard / solid can swallow you very quickly as it actually covers deep mud, esp. near the edges
-       Low range 1st with diff lock is the gear of choice on the difficult sections and take your time – much of the driving is “blind” and you have to rely on had signals from a second person to negotiate big drops and deep channels.
-       We never saw a single car from Boko (Congo) until we reached Gombe Matadi (DRC). 
-       There is a real chance of getting stuck on this route, either by falling into a gully, mechanical damage to vehicle or simply having to sit it out if you got caught in the rain. 
-       People do pass by on foot / bicycle so if you really do get stuck help could be reached to assist with recovery.
-       We had a winch and there were some small trees near most sections (not all) that you could pull off – we never needed to use it.
-       Doing this road in the rain would be EXTREMELY hazardous!!  We checked the weather before hand and it was OK.  It was also the wet season when we did it (Jan 2011) luckily it did not rain. 
-       Had it been raining we would have turned back as the risk of slipping into one of the eroded channels and getting stuck would be all too easy.  The sandstone appears to be mixed with fine clay so when it rains it becomes very slippery.
-       We had back-to-back visas as far as the end of Angola with enough contingency if things went wrong.  If you damage your vehicle recovery and parts could add many days if not weeks onto the trip.
-       Our advice, given the state of the road, would be DON’T DO IT if you know it will rain or is raining on the day you set out and only attempt this route if you are confident at driving blind on steep / hazardous terrain.  
This post with pictures can be read in full at  http://langebaan-sunset.blogspot.com