In 2008, a Belgian couple traversed the Congo in a Toyota Land Cruiser, a drive few have attempted in decades. This is their story of adventure, corruption, and crumbling infrastructure in the world's second poorest country. — Ed.
Breaking gears, flying mud, bending bodywork, broken bridges, corrupt officials and abandoned ferries. Mixed with some deep African mystique and you have a good recipe for adventure. These events took place in 2008, but were only recently chronicled.
A young Belgian couple, Frederik and Josephine Willems, were on a 2 year trip around the world in their well-worn Toyota Land Cruiser when their route led them trough the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), formerly known as Zaïre.
Although the third largest country in Africa, the DRC is a rather forgotten place to the rest of the world. Decades of war, corruption, mismanagement, and diseases have left this country in a horrible state, but now with a fragile stability in place the country is opening up again for overland travel. Or is it?
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Traveling into the unknown gets a whole new meaning when the DRC Road Department admits that they have no idea about the state of their own infrastructure and even asks the travelers to relay the conditions because, "Nobody uses these roads."
The plucky pathfinders had barely made it out of Lubumbashi before getting arrested for bogus reasons.
EXCERPT: On being detained by the Police twice in one kilometer.
When we continued on the same road we would pass other smaller mudpits. These bogholes always had a "crew". When a truck arrived, they would throw in rocks so the truck could pass... for a fee of course. After the truck passed they removed the rocks again. A lucrative occupation!
In our books this is just plain wrong and we refuse to support such behaviour. So we always charged trough in 4x4, hoping we would not get ourself stuck.
We neared the first town: Likasi. At the town border we got stopped by an agressive bunch of policeman - 12 of them to be exactly. They quickly made it clear that we did not have the necessary permit and therefore we were under arrest!
Come to think of it. It is rather disturbing that I can say that I know what to do in such a situation. First thing to do is to remain calm and - politely - deny that you are under arrest. This may sound strange, but it is a simple test and always worked for me. If they are serious they will just take you to a police station. If they start discussing you know you'll be allright and they are trying to discriminate you but the goal is just to get a bribe.
They started discussing. This was good. It was a heated discussion though and they clearly were not amused. It took us the best part of an hour to make them believe that our "official letter from the embassy" was a valid permit. They probably never saw a "tourist" permit before (does it even exist?) and we could tell they were not sure about their case. The official stamps did the trick.
They turned their attention to the Landcruiser, checked al the lights, windscreen wipers, fire extinguisher (Yes, we had 2 8-) ), emergency triangle (Yes, we had 2 8-) ) and finally found a culprit: we only had 1 reversing light! I explained that in Belgium only 1 reversing light is obligatory (its true) and still refused to pay anything. Then things turned a bit ugly. Without a doubt they just wanted to make a quick buck from us and they were getting impatient. We heard somebody kicking the car, they started shouting and made it very clear that we are in Congo and that they were the boss here and we should listen and pay. They tried opening both doors at the same time (locked) and started shouting we were arrested and we had to go to the "police station". NOW!
This was bad. No more room for negotiations. At all costs did we want to prevent ending up in a police station as that would mean bad news! As a final resort I called our embassy and they talked to the police officers. Their names and ranks were asked - which they refused to give. At the same time Josephine kicked into action. The people here that know Josephine can surely attest that although she is tough as nails, she is truly an incredible sweet girl. She got very angry at the police officers and got very cross. This made an impression. They kept us there for another half hour but lost interest eventually.
Before we were let go one office said "Ce n'est pas la Belgique ici, tu es en Congo!" - "This is not Belgium, you are in Congo". He hissed and gave us a terrifying look
With our adrenaline levels at maximum we continued into Likasi.
We did not even drive for a full kilometer or we were stopped again by the police..
This time it was a jolly fat guy. He laughed when he stopped us, gave us a friendly hello and without skipping a beat continued that we had to pay a fine. "Malchargé" (badly loaded) he claimed. At the same time a truck passed with a dozen people hanging of the back.
That was the funniest thing we heard all day and we burst out laughing. He too joined in the laughing. Anyhow, back to reality so we just said goodbye and started to drive of. He jumped onto the driving boards and asked for "un jus" in a final attempt before letting go.
It would take them almost two months to cover the 1,500 miles on what is actually little more than a bicycle track trough the rain forest. Their progress was hindered by just about anything/everything you can imagine. You know it is not a usual trip when tipping your car over several times a day is quite normal.
They were expecting it to be difficult, but intensely testing their physical and mental limits every single day was a bit unexpected. The limits of their trusty Land Cruiser would also be thoroughly scrutinized.
Red Cross, and even terrorists use the Land Cruiser HZj78 Troop Carrier the world over. It has the reputation of being the most durable vehicle for these kinds of conditions.
But eventually, even this Land Cruiser has some limits.
A month into the excursion the Land Cruiser started disintegrating — the toll of the abuse from the Congolese roads too much for even the world-crossing Toyota. A broken rear axle could be bypassed with a bush trick. But when the front axle also gave way, they had no other choice but to leave the car behind and continue on foot until the parts could be flown in.
Most people would consider traveling from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa, two major cities in a major country of Africa, impossible by car. And indeed, in the last twenty years very few people would have done it. But if the Land Cruiser is your home and only possession, then that is what you use to get where you need to go. Compensating for the lack of support or fancy equipment were their perseverance and positive attitudes.
The full report is worth a read, as it is not just an add-up of events, but gives an insight in the emotions and feelings of extreme overland travel. You can read it in full on Expedition Portal.
Christian Pelletier runs Expedition Portal, a forum dedicated to the Overland lifestyle. He helped translate and write this piece with Frederik Willems. Photos and excerpt courtesy of Frederik Willems and Expedition Portal.