x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A night on the floor of the Angolan border post

Around Africa: Scott MacMillan dodges bandits in the Republic of Congo, but not the slow border crossing into Angola.

The writer travelled down a 230km dirt track to Dolisie to avoid 'ninjas', bandits-turned-rebels in the Pool region. Scott MacMillan for The National
The writer travelled down a 230km dirt track to Dolisie to avoid 'ninjas', bandits-turned-rebels in the Pool region. Scott MacMillan for The National

It's early morning at St Paul's Catholic church in Dolisie, a town in the Republic of Congo. "Would you like me to make you a cup of tea?" asks Roger. We're sharing a spartan room at the church guest house, and Roger's already up and about.

"Tea," I reply, my eyes still closed. "That would be great."

I wonder why he's not more anxious to get moving, for we have a full day of travel ahead of us, with three borders to cross. "Might get some breakfast and bring it back," he adds. "And while I'm out, check on the transportation situation."

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• More from Scott's travels Around Africa

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It's hard to discern a sarcastic tone when you're half asleep. He should have kicked me.

According to the map, we're within a few hundred kilometres of the Pool region, which merits its own box in Lonely Planet because of a band of rebels-turned-bandits calling themselves ninjas, mentioned in a previous column. We arrived in Dolisie last night down a 230km mud track from the Gabon border in part to avoid these guys.

But this surely gives a wrong impression. It's not like we've ventured into a war zone. Congolese travellers met on the road assured us the ninjas are no longer a menace and, in any case, my biggest problem so far in Congo was last night's rude waiter. Mogadishu this is not.

Our plan: head west to the Atlantic coast at Pointe Noire via a shared car, then to the nearby border of Cabinda, an exclave of Angola; find transport through Cabinda from north to south, a distance of about 100km to the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, then cross a tiny coastal strip of DRC to the mouth of the Congo River. From there, take a ferry from a place called Banana to the northern Angola oil city of Soyo, where buses (hopefully) make the long journey to the capital, Luanda.

Borders crossings are unpredictable, especially so in Africa, and although our paperwork is technically in order, we don't actually know how far we can get in a single day. I'm inclined to just go until we can go no further - a mistake, in hindsight.

In the car to Pointe Noire, I exchange waves with the Chinese foremen of a massive road reconstruction project that blasts deep canyons into the jungle-covered hillsides. The main route between the Congolese capital and the country's largest port, the road is a wide, empty asphalt highway in some places, still a rutted field of mud in others. Torrential rains greet us in Pointe Noire, but we cross into Cabinda with only moderate hassle. Via a translator, the Portuguese-speaking Angolan immigration officer insists on our writing out the itinerary of our entire trip, which is difficult if you've been living out of a suitcase for 18 months.

Cabinda's roads come as a shock - perfect asphalt, complete with guardrails in places, a product of Angola's oil boom. A driver promises to take us straight across the exclave but instead gives us an unwanted tour of the unpaved slums of Cabinda City. The southern border post is nearly deserted by the time we reach it at 5.30pm. "Closed," the guard says. "Come back tomorrow."

We're not happy. "There's only one thing to do," I tell Roger. Based on nothing more than a hunch, we proceed to a nearby drinks stand, where we find the station chief himself, nursing a beverage. We strike up a conversation and soon the guards are following his instructions to stamp us through.

Problem solved - almost. On the DRC side, the station chief has left for the day so a lengthy discussion ensues. "You'll have to go back to Cabinda, sleep in a hotel and come back tomorrow," one of the guards finally says.

"That's impossible," we say. "We've already been stamped out of Cabinda."

"Then you'll have to sleep here."

"Here? On the floor?"

"Yes."

"No problem. We'll sleep here." I assume we're just calling their bluff but, as it turns out, when we talk about sleeping on the floor of the border post, we're actually talking about sleeping on the floor of the border post. After dinner with the guards, they bring a mattress out of the closet. We set up our mosquito nets in front of the passport collection windows. It's remarkably comfortable.

"Can I just say one thing?" Roger says. "This wouldn't have happened if we'd gotten an earlier start."

True. And these sleeping conditions - perfectly adequate, it turns out - are actually the least of our concerns, for there's another problem hanging over us. We only have a five-day transit visa for Angola, a country so large that overland passage in such time lies at the frontier of the impossible. As we pass the night in no-man's-land, the clock is ticking.

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