Entering the Congo: “The Man With the Key is Dead”
A Group of Intrepid Travelers Opens a Border Crossing Closed by War
By Witt Sparks
The nine of us were a motley collection of “overlanders,” representing five different nationalities and speaking at least as many languages. We had the common goal of crossing the continent of Africa North to South, by road, and had met in Libreville, Gabon after connecting on the Internet.
Our planned route would take us through Gabon, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola, and finally entering Namibia.
We had each made our separate ways South through West Africa from Europe, and wanted to team up with others for what we considered to be the most dangerous part of our journey. Our adventure with the Gabonese officials had begun two days earlier on a Sunday in the town of Bakoumba, about 35 miles north of the border.
Arriving in Bakoumba
Like many African towns we visited, Bakoumba has the air of a town that has seen it’s best days come and go. Wide palm-lined tarmac streets are littered with potholes, and once-proud colonial-era buildings slowly decay in the oppressive heat and humidity of the rainforest two degrees south of the equator. The town was once home to a large manganese mine, but as with many African towns, when the mining company left, the jobs and money left with it.
The town seemed quiet as we drove in to begin the process of visiting the immigration and customs offices to secure permission to leave the country. When we eventually located the immigration officer, he seemed very friendly and told us that the border was open and that crossing it wouldn’t be a problem. He, unfortunately, didn’t have a stamp (an African official without a stamp is like an airport security guard without a wand) and instead scrawled an exit notation into our passports in French.
We left the town for the Congolese border about an hour later, after stocking up on some bread and bits of chicken we found in a local market.
To the border, James, and through the forest
The scenery was breathtaking with thick, impossibly green foliage on either side of the well-maintained dirt road. Steel towers, once part of an aerial tram system used for transporting ore from the manganese mines to a processing facility in Congo, stood in the jungle engulfed by vines that looked as if they were actively trying to pull the structures down into the forest.
After a fifteen-minute drive, we were stopped at a military checkpoint. The post was a simple wooden building with peeling blue paint. In front of the building stood a crude wooden cross hammered into the red earth. It looked suspiciously like a grave marker, but we thought better of enquiring, thinking we might not like the answer.
The soldiers, lounging on the veranda, seemed shocked to see tourists. They told us that the border was closed, but that the border guard had a key to open the gate. They said that two soldiers had to accompany us and that a third guy wanted a lift.
We found space for two of them along with their automatic weapons in our vehicles, and the third climbed onto a roof rack. We insisted they remove the magazines from their weapons, a safety precaution which the soldiers scoffed at but eventually agreed to when it became apparent that we weren’t moving otherwise.
A further ten minutes brought us to the border itself, which consists of a wide spot in the road with an old tractor tire in the middle of it, forming a crude roundabout. There were no other vehicles present. To our right was a wooden building, which our soldier friends said was the office of the border official.
At the end of the clearing was our objective: A gate, behind which was about 300 feet of shoulder-high grasses. A footpath led through the grass, but it was clear that no vehicles had driven across this border in some time. On the other side were another gate, another clearing, and a small concrete building that presumably was the Congolese immigration office.
Two of us, including a French woman who as the sole fluent French speaker in our group had the dubious privilege of being involved in every discussion or argument with African officialdom, entered the Gabonese immigration office.
The room was Spartan, with three wooden visitors chairs and a low wooden coffee table. At the head of the room was a desk, behind which sat a youngish man in a Hawaiian shirt. As we had grown to expect, the officer was surprised to see us, and when we told him of our plans to cross into Congo via his border, he said that no, that would not be possible without a letter of authorization from the regional governor.
After some discussion, we decided that we’d had enough of the conflicting information on the status of this border, and with a last look across into Congo (so close, and yet so far away) we drove back the way we came, planning to try again at a different border post. This would mean a three-day detour, but it appeared we had no choice.
It turned out that the guy who got a lift on our roof rack had been sent to collect a brand new boom box, which he located in a back room of the immigration building. Where such a treasure came from we will never know. He climbed back onto his perch on the roof rack clutching his new toy, and we bundled the other two, still toting their machine guns, back into the cars. We dropped our passengers at the military checkpoint and then proceeded back to town.
When we arrived back in Bakoumba, we went to see the immigration officer so he could re-admit us to Gabon. He insisted the border should have been open and contacted the regional governor, who was kind enough to write us the required “authorization de sortie.”
We thought everything should be sorted now, but we learned that the border wouldn’t be open for another two days anyway, as the next day was Easter Sunday and the following Monday a holiday. Fortunately for us, Bakoumba is the closest town to Lakedi National Park. We spent Sunday enjoying a welcome diversion in the park, watching chimpanzees and other wildlife.
Not wanting to tempt fate with overconfidence, we decided the following day, Monday, to drive to the border and camp there, to put the officials in town and at the military checkpoint behind us and be ready to cross into Congo on Tuesday morning.
Late in the afternoon, we arrived at the border, hopeful that we had everything sorted out so that we could cross without further delay when the Congolese returned from their holiday the next morning. We decided to go visit the man in the Hawaiian shirt to make sure everything was to his satisfaction.
To our dismay, he told us that we couldn’t cross the border because of the problem of the dead man with the key. Thoroughly exasperated, we assured him that this was no problem, just show us where he was buried and we’d happily dig him up. Or better yet, we have bolt cutters. We can open the gate.
Deciding that we’d done everything we could to get the right permissions and paperwork, we concluded that he was just stalling now. It was too late to turn back toward town, and the border made a good camping spot. We erected our tents intending to see how things shaped up in the morning.
The officer dutifully locked his office and walked up the hill to his house where his wife and children were watching us with curiosity. After he had gone, we walked across the border to ascertain the condition of the road on the other side. It was badly rutted but looked passable.
A fantastic storm
After a dinner of the chicken we had bought earlier, some pasta, and various exotic fruits for dessert, we used the nearby well to fill the drinking water tanks in our vehicles. As we climbed into our tents for the evening, we could see lightning flashes in the heavy gray clouds, but we couldn’t hear any thunder. The lightning seemed to come from all directions.
As I lay awake in bed, watching the flashes of light illuminate the fabric of the tent, I wondered what tomorrow would have in store for us, very much hoping we wouldn’t have to abandon this border and start the process over again elsewhere.
Soon the distant rumble of thunder could be heard and by the early hours of the morning, it had resolved itself into the close and frightening “flash-crack” of a violent and nearby storm. The rain unleashed itself suddenly and in torrents, and I was glad that our tents were mounted on top of the vehicles, out of the water and mud. The rain went on until almost dawn. We awoke to sun, clear skies, and a very muddy campsite.
Shortly after breakfast, the immigration officer emerged from his house, dressed not in his Hawaiian shirt, but in polished shoes and an official uniform. We speculated that he didn’t often have occasion to wear it.
He gingerly made his way through the mud toward his office, stopping at the entrance of the building to try to scrape the worst of it off his shoes. He said we could cut the locks on the gate, as long as we gave him two new ones (with keys) to replace them. Fortunately, we were able to find the needed locks amongst the various tools and spare parts stored in our vehicles.
One last problem
He wouldn’t let us out, however, until the Congolese agreed to let us in. From our experience, this was a bit unusual, but after the last three days, it seemed to fit right in. We waited for the Congolese to arrive at work, which they did, after an hour, in a pickup truck owned by the local priest. The Gabonese official walked across into Congo and spoke with a man there.
When he came back, he said that we would have to ride with the priest to the town of Mbinda, where the prefecture would decide whether or not to allow us in. Four of our number volunteered to go and walked across the border and climbed into the pickup with more gun-toting soldiers. The rest of us sat on the tire in the road for more waiting.
When they returned they had good news to report. Not only was the prefect going to allow us to enter, he was very excited to have the first tourists in seven years enter Congo via “his” border.
Eager to at last have something to do, we cut the locks on the gate and maneuvered our vehicles through the tall grasses to the other side. Congo at last!!
The officials at the border stamped our passports and we agreed to give the priest some diesel fuel for shuttling us back and forth. We followed him for 15 kilometers along a mud and water-filled track to Mbinda.
Entering the Congo
The prefecture of Mbinda was indeed happy to see us. All nine of us crowded into his office along with several unidentified locals as he made a long speech in French welcoming us to the Congo and more importantly to his town. He promised us that we would be safe, that we could stay as long as we liked, and that he would do what he could to help us.
Outside, virtually the entire village was gathered in the field in front of the prefect’s office. After a photo of the prefect and our group, we wandered down the mud street perusing the wooden stalls selling the necessities of life in the Congo: bread, sweets, odd canned goods, cheap radios, and t-shirts donated from Europe or America.
We bought enough bread to last a few days and were on our way, with the town’s population waving and shouting to us as we splashed down the muddy road.
We passed village after village, and while throughout our trip we have been confronted with curiosity and begging, mostly from children, here the flavor was different. Everyone, old and young, came out to greet us, waving wildly with both hands.
It was as if the arrival of tourists meant that some stability was coming at last to their war-torn country.