It took me two hard weeks through the jungle to make the 550 km to the last village in northeastern Gabon and there, in Mekambo, the easiest part was over. I arrived with the intention of crossing back to Congo again but without any certainty as to whether this would actually be possible. Therefore, my first task in the village was to find out. For the first hour asking the local people, not only did nobody know whether it was possible, but most did not even seem to have the notion that the Congo is less than a hundred kilometres away. Just when I was beginning to worry, I ran into 3 moto-taxi riders who, with total security, said to me: "Of course you can, it's over there!" said one and shortly after another added: "but .... you think about going with that?" - he said doubtfully looking at the bicycle. "I do not know any other way," I replied, smiling. Finally, I asked to corroborate - and where do I get an exit stamp?. "That's right here at 200 m," said the third. "Right here, for sure?" If it is still 80 km to the border! -. It's just that you do not know where you are going, my friend.
I can not deny that I was a little worried about getting trapped in the middle of the jungle, but I still went ahead to the police where they confirm that I should actually get the exit stamp on my passport here. The duty officer also explained to me that the road I wanted to take to Sembe did not exist, It had been swallowed by the jungle and my only option was to go by the one to the east that I was completely unaware of. Finally, as he hands me my passport back adds in a relaxed tone: "If it does not rain a lot, the road will be fine, take it easy"
No more than 5 minutes passed after leaving the office, that a hellish downpour was unleashed on Mekambo. It was so strong that visibility was reduced to no more than 10 meters ahead and I had to stop to take shelter under the roof of a house. While waiting, a curious neighbour came to ask me what I was doing and we talked while waiting for the rain to stop.
- Where are you going?
- To Congo - I say - Do you know the way?-
Yeah right! You have to follow this road straight
- Do you know what condition it is in?
- mmmm - he thinks for a while and continues: - From here to the border is fine, maybe there is some mud, but I think you will not have problems. Now, in Congo ..... that's war! <Au Congo, ça c'est la guerre!> (In his own words)
I felt my stomach squeezing - And is there any traffic along the road? - I ask, since if I get trapped, I would like to know if there will be anyone I could ask for help.
-No, there is no one driving that way, it's hell for the vehicles - he said with confidence.
I would lie if I said that after his description I did not worry a little, especially as I listened to him while watching these waterfall that were now falling from the sky. They blurred the shapes of the houses on the opposite side. However, none of this made me doubt for a second that I should go forward. I came here prepared for everything and did not intend to stop. The most important thing was to confirm that I would not have to come back.
The downpour took more than an hour to empty the water that I suspect was enough to fill up 20 football stadiums. Once it got to a normal rain condition I decided to start the journey, after all, I was going towards total uncertainty and the days in the tropics are very short. The first 25 km were a delight, the vegetation became even thicker and despite having a lot of mud and going slow, the consistency of the road was rather hard. Excitement was invading me, I kept going deeper and deeper into the equatorial jungle, alone, surrounded by plants, bushes, giant trees, millions of bugs and animals singing in unison, I could not ask for more.
Even though it was getting more and more difficult to go forward, the truth is that everything was proving unusually easy and that allowed me to do in just 4 hours the first 45 km. But it was right there, halfway, when reality would take an abrupt turn. Suddenly, that same relatively solid road that had brought me there, lost its consistency and the wheels of the bicycle began to carve a narrow strip on the ground as if they were a hot knife cutting butter. Shortly, I could not pedal any longer and so I had to start pushing, but even so, the density of the mud was such that it stuck in big blocks to the wheels until completely obstructing them. Especially, in the rear wheel, the mud guard was literally keeping the mud until the wheel would stop spining completely.
I did not want to lose my optimism and decided to keep pushing believing that it would be just one sector before everything returned to normal. But every meter I pushed became more miserable, my body was drenched in sweat and every 4 or 5 steps I had to sink my hand into the mud stuck in between the fork to unblock the wheel. Soon after, the pain in my fingers result of scraping the mud mass full of sharp little stones became so intense that I had to stop. So I decided to start the tedious and immense effort of unloading the bicyle and begin to carry everything in stages, coming and going, until leaving I would be able to leave this hellish stretch. In this way, I was able to move forward the first 500 meters in one hour and it took me 3 hours to pull off 1.5 km. But to my disappointment, hell did not end. I continued on foot to try to see how much more there was left, but within less than 100 meters the blocks of mud would stick to my sandals and I could not even walk without tearing them apart because they would get "glued" to the ground. When I got back to the bicycle, I realised that I was completely trapped in the jungle. I could not drag the bike and I could not walk. The only thing left to do was to sit on the ground and maybe wait for a miracle.
Sitting there in the mud, trying to evaluate my options, I could only think that if this was the easiest part, then how would "war" be on the Congo side. What the hell had I gotten myself into? It was not long before night fell and prospects were not good. Reality hovered over me and for the first time I thought I was not going to be able to make it. It would have been about two hours, I was still stuck there and demoralised. I could not in any way digest the idea of having to go back, and it was at that moment that out of nowhere, I heard the roar of an engine in the distance. I could also hear it struggling in the mud. I got up immediately to wait for it, although it took it more than 10 minutes to arrive. Finally, a pick-up that seemed to be coming through the last bombardment of Baghdad, stopped in front of me. Its driver got off with a bottle of beer in his hand and a worried face at my stagnation:
- But what the hell are you doing here, my friend? he asked me laughing - Well you see ....I'm trapped in this infernal mud, I can neither move the bike nor walk ! Do you know if this continues like this all the way to Congo? - I asked worriedly - Of course not! It's much worse !! - and laughed his ass off - but do not worry, everything is possible, EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE - I he repeated - Let's load your bike and get you out of here, I'm going in the same direction.
I had no choice but to trust him because I had no idea how the hell my things would fit in his pick-up that was already overflowing with merchandise. But after several minutes, between Jean, his assistant, and I, we did it. Of course, I was afraid that my bike would not survive the next 20 km hanging there. Africa never ceases to amaze me, it is a universe where the unimaginable is always totally feasible and the impossible is never a variable to take into account.
Jean is a very nice guy. Schumacher, Hamilton, Sebastien Loeb and all those improvised drivers in luxury strollers should cover their faces with embarrassment and wallow in envy to see Jean pilot this wrecked-windshield galleon and silky smooth tires. With one hand at the wheel and the other holding his precious beer, Jean rushes through the heart of the jungle flooring the accelerator. The pick-up is twice as wide as the free space on the road, slides from side to side like an elephant trying to run on an ice skating rink. The doors and windows squeal with the strident sound of the plants scratching the sides and the windows, and inside the cabin, we are jumping to the beat of the grooviest Congolese soukous with volume at its loudest. I am convinced that we'll flip over at any time, but honestly, this is the most amazing race of my life! I always wanted to be a Rally Racer.
It took us more than an hour to do the 20 km that were left until the last before the last village of Gabon, although looking back I think cycling could have taken a week! During the slippery journey, Jean told me that he is the only one who ventures this way from Mekambo in order to supply the little shops of the jungle villages and Olloba, the first village on the Congo side. He passes once a week or every 10 days, so my luck was pretty much extraordinary.
When I consulted him about the road condition of the Congolese side he reconfirmed that it is infinitely much worse than where we are driving now and when I asked him again, because I could not get out of my astonishment (and concern) he replied:
"Nico ... why do you think that I, coming from Gabon, am the only one that supplies the first village on the Congolese side? No one can get from Congo itself up there".
In total amazement, I continued:
"then how do you think I will be able to get through? Will there be anyone who can help me?"
Jean drank a new sip of beer and after swallowing, he replied with the serenity of a Zen master:
"Nico ... you will make it, do not worry, you will"
In my mind, I kept thinking whether this was African optimism or Jean being completely drunk, but I suppose I could only find it out for myself.
We arrived in the middle of the night to a small village. There was only 8 km left to Ekata, but it was wedding night and the whole village was partying. An electric generator carried for the occasion fed a bulb and two giant speakers that were pumping music as loud as to block all the sounds coming from the jungle. Right next to them, people were dancing incessantly on the muddy ground result of so much rain. Everything was dance and joy, and I saw myself there, in the middle of the equatorial rainforest dancing with the local people and my heart burst with happiness. So when Jean suggested that we should spend the night there, I did not hesitate for a second to accept.
I was exhausted, I stunk, I had mud up to my ears, I was sleepy and I was so hungry that I felt physical pain, but before long, a child came to announce that our dinner was ready. We walked through the mud a few hundred meters in the dark until we reached the little house of a family. The faint flame of an oil lamp swayed on the table, illuminating the gloom when two girls arrived carrying large pots. One filled with manioc and the other with what I thought was chicken with sauce. As soon as they laid the pots on the table, I began to eat as if it were the end of the world. The meat was very good, a bit hard for my taste but the sauce was delicious. I ate one after another piece to the point where the pain result of the hunger had subsided and had again given way to consciousness. At that moment I clearly detected that it was not chicken what I was eating. Jean smiled on the other side of the table as he sucked on her salsa-filled fingers. He asked me if I liked the food and I told him it was delicious:
"What is it Jean? Chicken?" I asked, and Jean replied: "No! Of course not! It's monkey, one of the good ones!
"That's great!" I exclaimed and ate two more pieces. Now I could only pray that I would not die of Ebola within the next two weeks.
With a full belly, it was time to find out where to sleep, since everyone was still partying outside but I was so tired I could no longer stand. The eldest son of the family where we had dinner told me not to worry, that they'll give me a room in their house, and his brother could sleep in the living room. You're our guest and we do not want you to sleep outside, he said. I thanked him with great affection and he led me to the door of the room in absolute darkness. When he left, I pointed my headlamp at it and spent the next 20 minutes, looking at what was in front of me.
Photo taken the day after
Standing in the absolute darkness, I pointed my headlamp at all corners, and I think I never missed my tent so badly. Up to that night, I had slept in every (un)imaginable condition during my travels, but I had always had something with me to cover a disgusting mattress or a damp floor. Nothing that night though, not even my mosquito net. All of my gear was left locked in the pickup and Jean was out there somewhere drunk and dancing. There was nothing he could do to save me now. I checked the floor and there were too many mice, but the mattress, on the other hand, was a big Gruyere cheese in itself. There were actually mice living in it. I stood there unable to believe it, pondering the situation. There was really nothing I could do and I was extremely exhausted so, in the end, the decision was reduced to something very simple: at an equal amount of dirt and mice, the mattress was softer than the ground. Therefore, I clenched my teeth and laid down face up hoping for the best. I collapsed from exhaustion and woke up the next morning, 10 hours later, face down and even drooling over the rotten foam. I slept like a baby, I felt like I was staying at the Hyatt. Granted, I would spend the next 10 days scratching my whole body compulsively, but the reality is that I had just the greatest fucking sleep on the worst mattress I've ever slept!
I left my luxury suite at 7 am, the village was shrouded in the morning fog. It had stopped raining, the music kept ringing and many were still dancing; they had not stopped all night. I did not see Jean anywhere until I found him squatting down on the chassis of the pickup. However, instead of a wrench, he was still clinging tightly to his beer bottle. Something had broken and they would need time to repair it, so I decided to grab my things, put them together and try to continue pedalling to Olloba. Ultimately, I had the peace of mind that if I got stuck again, sooner or later Jean would show up at some point.
It took me 4 brutal hours to complete the 11 km left to Olloba. My bicycle would bury again and again in the mud, even though the consistency of it was slightly higher than in those 20 km where I was needed to be rescued. The blocks of mud no longer stuck so much to the tires and that at least, was what allowed me to move forward. It was very tough, but I did it. I was finally back in Congo, exhausted, filthy, and as if it had not been enough, according to the locals, not only I had just finished the easier part of the whole stretch, but the hardest had not even started. That, which they had defined as: war. Given the situation, I decided that I needed to take rest of the day off, because if this warrios has to go to war, then he needs to rest and get his horse ready for it.