Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Don't miss the ferry...

Organised chaos, the hum of conversation, the smell of diesel, the stench of dirty water... people everywhere... welcome to the Brazzaville to Kinshasa ferry.
Peter Townsend - Land Rover Series I - Congo - Ferry 

Majority of overland routes in Africa involve some sort of ferry crossing, either in the likes of a state funded ferry service, or a simple homemade raft. The most popular ferry that most overlanders encounter is the Egypt to Sudan ferry - a barge takes your vehicle South and you patiently wait out the days on the passenger ferry.  Ferries operate on all major rivers, especially in Central Africa where bridges are hundreds of kilometers apart. These ferry trips take minutes to perhaps an hour max.  The most notorious is surely the Brazzaville to Kinshasa ferry...
Google Maps: Kinshasa to Brazzaville
A bit of history according to Mwana Mboka:
The twin cities of Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) and Brazzaville faced each other across 4 kilometers of the Congo River.  Both were founded at the beginning of the 1880s and boat traffic between the two was a priority from the outset, especially as French Congo received all its imports through the Belgian Congo port of Matadi until the Congo-Ocean railway was completed in 1934.  In 1898, the year the railway arrived in Leopoldville from Matadi, the Ste. Congolia started a ferry service to Brazzaville.

This blog post is not a 'How-To' guide on the ferry and border crossing, rather an insight on what overlanders experience, ferry port life and the daily organised chaos (as viewed by overland travelers).

Heading South

The best way of describing the journey South is from the blog of past and current overlanders...
Brazzaville Port: -4.27076, 15.29593

Clive & Taniya (Cats Itchy Feet) detail the cost and the timings on their blog summarizing the experience as follows:
Cats Itchy Feet - Taniya & Clive
Brazzaville - Kinshasa Ferry Crossing - An experience in itself. Certainly not the horror story that we had heard it to be. Costs: 6500 CFA (€10) p/person and 25,000 CFA (€38) for car & driver. Timings: 1030 hrs, 1230 hrs & 1430 hrs each day. No car ferry running on Sundays. Mandatory ‘disinfection’ of the car on entering DRC - we heard that this could be avoided, but we bartered for ages and were never going to get out of it. We did manage them to get the price down from US$60 to US$40. It looks like an official organisation (Red Cross). Customs/immigration process very slow in DRC; no problems, just slow, so allow plenty of time. The whole crossing took us 7 hours of which only 40 mins was spent on the ferry!
David Visagie, in his blog Durban or Bust, writes the following:
Photo: David Visagie
The crossing from Brazzaville over into Kinshasa by ferry was total madness, no one can say they have experienced African Chaos until they have been in this place, masses upon masses of people fighting to get on and off the ferries all with masses of merchandise, the police force, custom officials and army all getting their fair share of the action sometimes with force, the passengers form lines one holding onto the back of the one in front and then they just walk, doing this to try and escape paying the officials a bribe, the police try to stop this convoy but the momentum of 20 people is hard to stop.
Anyway the ferry was loaded to just before sinking point and there was not enough room for my Landy so had to wait 4 hours for the next and was lucky to get on this one at 4:00
In February 2008, Nic & Rob were in Brazzaville waiting for the ferry...  they noted an interesting aspect of using handicapped people to import goods.
Cape Overland - Nic & Rob
Keen to make the ferry crossing to DR Congo as early as possible, we went straight to the port, but we were far too early and nothing was open yet. So we sat and gazed across the mighty Congo River towards Kinshasa on the other side. A friendly man offered to help us with the rather complicated formalities (see Notes & tips). Normally we firmly resist any sort of 'help', but we decided to go with the flow and save ourselves some stress. Actually we both thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. When the ferry arrives people almost break the gates down as if they've just been released from prison, and the port turns into sheer chaos with people stumbling around everywhere. A large percentage of them are blind or in wheelchairs, as handicapped people get tax breaks on importing goods from DRC. Once everything had been unloaded we were finally allowed to board and the ferry left at 12pm. It took about an hour to get to the other side as the river flows pretty fast.
Arriving in Kinshasa was even more hectic. 
Accommodation in Brazzaville varies, but one common name keeps popping up: Hotel-Restaurant Hippocampe
Photo: Naughty Lamp Lighters - Hippocampe Hotel
Naughty Lamp Lighters write about Hippocampe Hotel:
We come to the oasis of Hippocampe Hotel and Vietnamese Restaurant.  The very hospitable Olivier allows overlanders to stay in the parking lot and a large unused banquette room for free!  Which is fine but Julia is really excited about the Vietnamese buffet.  Olivier’s wife is Vietnamese and her family are running the kitchen so it is real Vietnamese food. 

Hippocampe GPS: S4 16.392 E15 16.657

View Larger Map


This video highlights the busy port:


Heading North

Carl & Tom (To Hel and Back), describe in vivid detail the entire process, including the offloading and re-loading of personal goods to be traded on the opposite bank:
Carl & Tom: To Hel and Back
The ferry actually consists of 3 small tug boats roped together, which sit very low in the water and plod their way across the fast flowing murky brown expanse of the Congo river.
As the boat became visible, so did more and more Police, many holding large batons or whips fashioned from rope or cord lashed together with strong tape, whilst others went for the most dangerous of all African weapons, the whistle (the rubber stamp is a close second). There were red, black and pink pea-vibrating versions on display, the operators switching between different whistle instructions of beep beep beep, to beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep or beeeeep beeeeep beeeeeep. Of course, no one paid a blind bit of notice.
A week on, the main memories certainly revolve around the lack of order and the level of aggression. It is still almost incomprehensible how this can happen every single day, for most of the produce was damaged or broken by the time it was unloaded. Mental, nuts, stupid, crazy, idiotic and maddening; that’s how we summarise this surreal experience.

Got the T-Shirt?

In researching for this blog post, I stumbled across the website of African Tees.  I think overlanders will fully appreciate this one:  "I Survived the Brazzaville/Kinshasa Ferry"

In 2005, I took the option of traveling via Cabinda and did not need to head inland to Brazzaville or Kinshasa.  The border crossings were easier even if it meant getting two Angolan visas.  A few things have stood out during my research on this route and the ferry - most blogs talk about the very friendly atmosphere at Hippocampe Hotel and the excellent food.  Majority took the opportunity to recce the port before departing and find a 'fixer' who could assist with immigration, port authorities and ferry personal.
I have highlighted a few blogs which summarise the chaotic port life and even though the border crossing is stressful, in hindsight, most of the blogs talk about the experience being a good one.  

Alternative Routes

It's worth noting that alternative routes South and North do exist...
Nick (Langebaan Sunset), has published a detailed blog on the alternative route, including GPS waypoints and additional reference material.
The first alternative crossing point is at Luozi DRC, this was completed by SnailTrails [plus Africa Clockwise] 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
Photo: Langebaan Sunset
Interestingly, a few decades ago, a riverboat would take vehicles and passengers from Kinshasa to Kisingani via Bangui.  A journey which took nine days upstream and only five days downstream.  A journey like that is very unique today and not something many overlanders will experience.

Additional Reading: