man with the key is dead,” said the immigration officer calmly, referring
to the padlocks on the gate that barred the Gabon/Congo border. Our group
of nine people in four specially-prepared vehicles was attempting to cross
from Gabon into the Republic of Congo via a seldom used and remote border
post. In fact, we had learned that tourists hadn’t used this particular
border since the Congolese civil war seven years ago.
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
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
The soldiers, lounging on the verandah,
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 was
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
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
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
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.
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 desert, 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
Sparks is software engineer who lives in Western Colorado, USA. He has
traveled in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, and enjoys a variety
of outdoor activities. The complete year long travel journal can be found