Republic of Congo
7-10 April 2011
It rained all night and even though it slackened in the morning a constant drizzle accompanied us as our 4x4 waded axle deep through the streets of Kinshasa. At the port we discovered that our speedboats were trapped in their berths by the piles of debris washed downstream by the heavy rains. In the end we found a middleman who arranged a crossing for us for $250 on a smaller boat with a braver pilot. It took about 15 minutes to cross the wide muddy waters as the pilot deftly guided us around floating islands of logs and bushes to the Republic of Congo.
On the shore we were met my Soldiers and customs officials who guarded us until our passports were stamped and we were allowed to enter the much cleaner and relaxed of the two Congos. In Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, the streets were cleaner, traffic flowed better and overall it was less chaotic. It was as if the palpable veil of tension in Kinshasa had been lifted and we could breathe easier. We didn't spend to much time exploring the city before we headed to the airport to catch a Trans Air Congo (TAC) flight to Pointe Noire. We boarded the plane on time, but then the flight sat on the tarmac for an hour as we waited for thunderstorms passing through the area to clear. It was an old plane, but packed to the rafters with people and bags in a first come, first served seating arrangement resulting in a mad scramble to load first and get the best seats. Fortunately an hour later were we landing in Pointe Noire on the Atlantic coast of Congo.
We checked into the swank Atlantic Palace Hotel in the center of downtown located on the main strip between the posh offices of oil magnates bike ENI and Total. Pointe Noire is a resort and oil town with a large expat and tourist population with flights from Europe that bypass the Congolese capital cities. The first place we headed after the hotel was La Pyramide, a surf restaurant/club that played Jack Johnson from a tiki bar that overlooked a decent beach break. Unfortunately the dude that took care of the surfboards couldn't be found so I couldn't get wet.
The next morning I ran along the coast and the waves were still knee to waist high but the board rental dude was still MIA. I couldn't find any other places that rented surfboards so we ended up just touring the city. In the port we watched a Belgian Navy Ship attempt to dock at the pier but it smashed a container ship berthed nearby on its approach. Eventually the Belgians got their ship parked and they were met by a Congolese Navy band and ceremonial platoon of Soldiers carrying rifles and wearing red pompoms on their berets. In the afternoon I headed back to la Pyramide and the board dude was there but there were no waves! In the end we ended up hanging out with a Lufthansa aircrew and bodysurfing in the weak crumbly waves.
On our final day in Pointe Noire a morning surf check revealed no more waves. It had gone completely flat. The airport and flight back on Trans Air Congo provided the fun for the day. 300 people packed the tiny airport, each one in line practically with their arms around the person in front of them to stop people from cutting in line. If you left 3 inches of space between you and the person in front of you at least one person would try to slip into the gap. By the time I finished checking the bags and getting our tickets my clothes were soaked with sweat and I drank a 1.5 liter bottle of water to rehydrate.
About 30 mins later the flight boarded and surprisingly we departed on time and were on the ground in Brazzaville. Trans Air Congo, lovingly known as TAC, is my least favorite of all African Airlines thanks to the fight to get a seat (aka open seating), poor service (a tiny 2oz cup of Coke or Fanta only for the inflight service), crumbling plane (broken filthy seats, nonfunctional seat belts), and bouncing one-wheeled landings.
On the ground (the passengers broke into applause after surviving the landing) we had to go through customs and passport control even though it was a domestic flight since we were non-Africans before we could get to the mele of baggage claim. Finally with our bags collected we made our way through the deserted streets of downtown Brazzaville to the Adonis Hotel for the night. I was surprised at how quiet the city was on the weekend and we wandered around without getting hassled by any vendors or beggars. We visited the de Braza museum/mausoleum which celebrates the life of the Pierre de Braza who negotiated the treaty for the creation of the Republic of Congo and spent a good portion of his life exploring the territory that he claimed for France. In the basement of the marble walled building Me de Braza is entombed with his family. I recommend staying away from the walls if you visit as two marble plates fell off the wall and nearly brained one of my friends. The museum director came running down the stairs when he heard the crash and was relieved to see no one was hurt. He tried to calm us by saying that "these things happen from time to time" and quickly went about replacing the thick panels.
We ate dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Congo River and watched the lights across the way in Kinshasa. From a distance the city was nice and I was surprised to see the power stayed on though dinner. After dinner I returned to the hotel while my traveling companions went to the Boom Boom and No Stress clubs trolling for prostitutes (catch and release of course).
The next morning we packed up our bags and made our way to the port for the boat ride back to Kinshasa. This time the speedboat crossed the wide brown river in three minutes but clearing customs on both sides took ten times longer on each side.