Um Congo!

One of the most mysterious claims from my childhood had nagged at me for decades. Really, do they? I was in search of the truth. Um Bongo? Do they drink it in the Congo?

I’m taking a flight from Gatwick to Brazzaville via Casablanca, but this time it’s different. I left my trusty companion at home so I’m going solo for two months in Africa. To clarify, I’m going to the Republic of Congo which is not to be confused with its near neighbour the Democratic Republic.

Customs and security processes completed I head towards gate 51 and eventually seat 19C. The cabin is half empty and there’s plenty of room to enjoy my chicken meal serviced up by the nice staff of Royal Air Maroc. The journey passes by quickly and we soon land a tad too heavily at the Aeroport Mohammed V, Morocco.

I stepped into the waiting bus that was to courier us to the arrivals lounge. There were puddles on the tarmac, remnants of an earlier shower. I was concerned about the short window of time for me to make my connection and was anxious to find the right gate. In the end everything went smoothly and I made it with time to spare.

As we climbed up through the misty sky I looked down at the lights below. I could make out the roads but saw very few cars. The plane banked to the left and the moon appeared in the oval window next to seat 10F. For a few minutes there was darkness on board the Boeing 737-800 and I briefly shut my eyes. I was starting to relax now.

My second in-flight meal was similar to the first but beef and was all the better for a slice of chocolate gateau.

It was touch and go for a moment if I would be allowed entrance into the Republic of Congo. I thought I had all of the correct paperwork, visa, yellow fever certificate, but no invitation. I pointed out my nice visa organised in London which eventually satisfied the official. I walked out into the early morning and found a taxi that would accept US dollars and did the deal for $5 (£3.98) but, of course, this went to $6 (£4.77) on arrival.

The 24 hour reception allowed access to my room even though it was 5am. I crashed for a couple of hours then ventured out.

There are no road signs in Brazzaville which makes it a touch difficult to navigate about town. My first task was to locate the train station and book my seat to Pointe Noire, the Republic’s second city. I knew I was close by the rail tracks embedded in the road but it still took what seemed like an eternity in the scorching midday sun, to discover my destination. Disappointment met me at the padlocked entrance. I attempted to read some photocopies sellotaped to a nearby column that contained the timetable. All of the departures were morning so I decided to return the next day when a train was due, surely the ticket office would be open then?

Bright and early I set out with renewed strength from a good night’s sleep. Alas, the station was still closed. A couple of locals persevered with my poor French but, eventually, I learnt that the line was cut for a couple of months so I wouldn’t be catching a train anytime soon. Catastrophe!

I quizzed one of the friendly chaps on reception and his advise was to get a taxi to Ocean du Nord where I could purchase a coach ticket. I hailed down one of the green and white Toyotas and agreed a fare of 3000XAF (£3.86) then hopped in. The day was warming rapidly but in the distance storm clouds gathered. With the windows down we picked our way through the potholed streets of less attractive areas. The heavens opened and the windows closed. This was a double whammy as, not only was it getting stiflingly hot making the view out misted, but incredibly toxic with petrol and exhaust fumes that now collected inside.

The driver, Pascal, turned out to be really helpful and took me to the ticket office and organised my booking which was accomplished speedily for the sum of 15,000XAF (£19.30). Incredible considering the journey was going to take about 14 hours to complete. Pascal then returned me safely back to my hotel, conversed with the chap on reception to ensure that I would be ready at 5am for him to collect and whisk off to catch my coach the following Monday. All for the sum of 10,000XAF (£12.87) which predictably was more than quoted but still worthwhile bearing in mind his level of assistance.

The previous day I decided to walk to the bridge that I could see from my hotel balcony. I’d noticed the Christmas illuminations that played up and down its suspension cables and anticipated a photo opportunity. Too early, I strolled over and stopped to view Kinshasa on the other bank of the Congo. A friendly soldier was standing guard there and we chatted for ten minutes. He informed me that the river was 5km (3.1miles) wide which I didn’t question.

Later I returned to the bridge – catchily named the Pont du 15 Aout 1962 – to wait for darkness and lights. The moment arrived and I just started to click when a young man began chatting to me. He was a dancer-cum-artist and insisted on accompanying me across the bridge while rabbiting on or singing Bob Marley. This as you can imagine ruined my concentration along with the quality of my planned graphic and colourful snaps. I’m still a little confused by his intentions but he was polite and understood when I told him that I was now going back to my hotel and goodbye.

I’ve put in plenty of miles walking the streets, checked out a couple of shops and a supermarket so far but no sign of the fruity refreshment yet. The search continues…