x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A magic carpet ride into the Congo? Not quite

Around Africa: Scott MacMillan kills time in Cameroon on his way to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Lobé Waterfalls pour directly into the Atlantic on the beach near Kribi, Cameroon. Scott MacMillan for The National
Lobé Waterfalls pour directly into the Atlantic on the beach near Kribi, Cameroon. Scott MacMillan for The National

There's no nice way of putting this. The lady handling visa applications at the embassy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Cameroon is just a nasty piece of work.

I'm sitting quietly in the embassy's reception area while my travel companions try to negotiate in French. There are four of us now, with Roger, Luke and I heading south on public transport, plus Rob via motorcycle. The DRC visa costs more than any country we've visited so far: 60,000 Central African francs (US$126; Dh463) for the visa and an extortionate "handling fee" of 40,000 francs, for a total of about $210 (Dh772) per person. We'll be in the country for about two hours.

A bit steep, no? "This is what the Americans charge us!" the lady snaps back.

"Apparently this is your fault," Rob says to me, the only US citizen in the room. Touché.

There's a 40-kilometre stretch of DRC coastline blocking the way to Cape Town, and there's no obvious way around it. The country was the site of Africa's largest modern conflict, the Second Congo War or Great War of Africa, which began in 1998 and has yet to fully peter out, and although the coastal area is known to be pretty safe, we're not exactly eager to spend more time there than is necessary.

The lady won't budge. I'm in favour of holding out for another option - I'm thinking boat, or maybe a magic carpet - but I bow to the democratic will and hand over a big stack of bread. "Come back at 3pm," she tell us.

Yaoundé, the Cameroonian capital, is a pleasant city by any standard, especially so by African ones. Lush, hilly and temperate, it has all the energy of a Third World capital minus the nerve-racking chaos. But there's not a lot to do here, and we soon run out of ways to kill time in the city centre.

Roger's reluctant to go back into the embassy too soon. We're hoping to get our passports quickly so we can drop them off at the embassy of the other, smaller Congo, the Republic of Congo, which officially closes at 3pm. An official there says he'll wait for us.

"I don't see any crime in showing up a little early," I tell Roger. "The visas are usually ready a bit earlier than the given time."

We saunter in at 2:40pm, taking our seats on the sofas in the reception area. The woman appears and rudely dispatches us. "I told you to come back at 3pm!" Oops.

Visa shopping consumes a hefty percentage of every traveller's time and budget in west and central Africa, and unless you arrange every visa from your home country ahead of time - which usually entails even more cost and isn't always possible, anyway - one needs to plan one's itinerary around it. It's also a typical way of meeting other travellers.

Sadly, our little group, which came together on the road, is on the verge of falling apart on account of injury and illness. A sudden fever waylays Luke, but after testing negative for both dengue and malaria, he swiftly recovers. Rob, meanwhile, has injured his ankle in a bike spill on Cameroon's Ring Road, in the north. A local doctor there loaded him up on painkillers, allowing him to manage the drive to Yaoundé where an X-ray showed no obvious sign of broken bones.

Now, two weeks after the accident, Rob's leg doesn't seem to be healing properly. A third doctor, a German physician who happens to have worked at the Nürburgring racing circuit, takes a look and gives a graver opinion. An MRI confirms his worst fears: the bone is indeed fractured, and not lightly, either.

"If you were at home, they'd put a pin in it," says the doctor, as related later by Rob. "If you lived here, I'd recommend you put it in a cast for six weeks."

Rob presses him. He's ridden all the way from London and is anxious to finish the route to Cape Town. He's not ready to fly home or sit around in Cameroon for six weeks with a leg encased in plaster. He can still get his foot into his boot and ride the bike. Yes, there's the outlying possibility of deep-vein thrombosis - or, if he falls again, a second breakage in a place with worse facilities, like DRC - but realistically speaking, what are the risks of continuing the journey?

I see the doctor furrowing his German brow. "Well, it's been two weeks already," he says. "You're young, and you seem pretty strong. Chances are you'll be OK."

Visa obtained, doctors consulted, we all head down to Kribi, a secluded coastal town where we rent an apartment near the beach. Rob decides to rest here for two more weeks before ploughing through to South Africa. I'm impressed. Roger thinks he's crazy, but generally speaking, Roger's not half as crazy as the rest of us. I'm still dreaming of that magic carpet, for a start.

Scott MacMillan is blogging about his journey on his website, www.wanderingsavage.com