Dolisie is Congo’s third city – a large town – on the route between the capital Brazzaville and the main coastal port of Pointe Noire. It was a fairly quiet night, as I wandered up the street from the Sala N’Golo in a quest to hear some live Congolese music, to no avail. That had been a disappointment in the countries I’d travelled in – the lack of opportunities to see live music. In its place, every bar seemed to have a ‘boom box’ blasting out the local hip hop or larger West African names such as Alpha Blondy. I had a few beers at a roadside stall among a small crowd standing watching European Championship football on an old television perched high. There was little heed paid to me, concentrating as they were on the games. A few of the viewers were very switched on to the skills, a murmur of approval rising whenever an African player was involved in a move. I got the distinct impression even English players who were black were viewed sympathetically!

My plan had been to take a minor road south from Dolisie to the little used border post of Kimongo, and from there cross to the Angolan enclave of Cabinda. I didn’t like the fact it had rained a little too long the previous evening, which meant the road wouldn’t have had a chance to dry at all, leaving a slick surface. So I resigned myself to changing my plan. Then I discovered the main road to Pointe Noire didn’t in fact head west out of Dolisie to the coast as per my Michelin map, but rather north a few hours back up to Mila Mila where I’d joined the previous day, before cutting back south west on the developed logging track to Pointe Noire! I had just asked a lorry driver which way would he go if going to Cabinda – the long way round via Pointe Noire, or the more direct option through Kimongo. He had laughingly opted for Pointe Noire without pausing. “Trop bizarre!” was his take on the shorter 45km stretch of road south. On the side of the road out of town, I sat there disbelievingly, in a futile attempt to conjure up another option. But no, it was either retrace my footsteps a few hours to Mila Mila then across to Pointe Noire, or take my chances south on the 45 kms of ‘bizarre’ road, after yesterdays rains. Well I’d got through the mud and the water so far, how bad could this be?

Back I went to the south side of town, to Bar M’Bela where I could get information on the state of the road from local drivers. In these kinds of situations it’s difficult to sort out the valid advice from the well intentioned but fanciful. Approaching someone who looked like he was on the ball, it didn’t take long before there was a large group discussion with various individuals shouting their contradictory advice – from totally impassable to no problem with your motorbike. How did one deal with these situations? My practice was to disregard those who actually didn’t know first hand the conditions, as dramatic or sensational gossip would likely be repeated. Others liked to be regarded as knowlegeable, though in fact weren’t. If there was no obvious authority that others deferred to, I had a tendency to gauge the consensus of the group, which perhaps wasn’t the most reliable method of getting accurate information! I recognised this also tended to be influenced by what I actually wanted to hear! The best I could hope for in these situations was to find out if there was a definite hazard or obstacle to be aware of. Today what emerged from the group deliberations was the dreaded “grand mer d’eau”, or great sea of water, and whether I’d be able to make it through. Even the most positive advocate for the road condition admitted that no taxi could travel the road - but maybe a motorbike!


An engine sucks in air to combine with the petrol before combusting in the cylinder. Its not a great idea to let water get in as it does not compress, as air does - the results being a little destructive! The air intake on the Dakar is about waist high, so trusting I wouldn’t encounter anything deeper I set off with a little trepidation. There weren’t any cars on the road, though a few small motorbikes which gave me some optimism. After walking a few flooded parts then managing to motor through, I eventually came upon what I took to be the dreaded “grand mer d’eau”.


So this was it. About thirty or forty metres long it was indeed a lake. I walked through and established a line where the water didn’t come over my hip, nor dip too deeply, and decided to go for it, finger at the ready to cut the engine if it got too deep or the bike fell over. Very carefully, I guided the bike through, eventually getting shallower, and out the other side. Success! A few more water hazards of varying depth and muckiness had to be negotiated, before I arrived in Kimongo, nearly passing through it without realising. A track led off to the right to Cabinda. This was a border post.

The soldiers there were among the friendliest and most courteous I encountered on the whole trip, completing the necessary formalities without a problem, with not so much as a suggestion of “something for me”.


In fact, spotting the customs officer’s cap hanging on the wall I asked him if he could do me a swap, as I had no souvenir of the Congo. He agreed, in return for my Lowe Alpine ‘DryFlow’ undershirt which he seemed happy with. This was after we had visited the local store where “le negociant”, the village businessman, had nothing I could buy as a souvenir.


The route across five kms of no-man’s-land up the mountain to the Cabindan border post was little more than an overgrown walking track. After about fifteen minutes, I came across a very well dressed couple walking, the man sporting a natty “Pleasant Valley, Martha’s Vineyard” golf shirt and trimmed goatee. It turned out he was the Angolan Immigration officer, and there in the middle of the bush, he took down details from my passport on a crumpled scrap of paper. He happily agreed to take a photo of me and the bike, before wishing me well and continuing on his walk with his well dressed lady towards the Congo! The track got progressively rougher and rutted as it climbed through the damp, slippy and dark rainforest. A four wheel drive would have difficulty making it through here, and I was glad of the bike’s high clearance and off road capability, as well as the 650cc engine able to handle the weight of me and the luggage struggling up this increasingly precarious path. Out of the gloom of the forest, I emerged into a clearing, a timber pole across the track, and a lean-to hut. I had arrived at the border post for Cabinda.


After once again getting all my details transcribed onto a piece of paper torn from a copy book, the guard then asked me to open my luggage for inspection. This would have involved quite a procedure of unpacking and, protesting, I told him this was the first time in my journey all through Africa I had been asked this. After some hesitation it had the desired effect and he relented.


I was then to follow two pals of his on their 50cc bike to the nearest settlement where an Immigration officer would stamp me in.
The road wound through magnificent rainforest the fifteen kms to Mikonje, where we pulled up outside a small building with an Angolan flag. Ushered inside, I was urged to sit down opposite the guard behind a desk, a strange ET looking character who could have been anything between eighteen and thirty eight years of age. His speech, in French, was slow and slurred, and his eyes were alarmingly bloodshot. It was apparent he was either drunk or stoned. When addressing me his gaze was kept lowered, not looking directly at me. I felt uncomfortable and wondered what was going to happen here. Slowly he studied each page of my passport for a good ten minutes, occasionally snarling some aside to a young pregnant woman who wandered through, his wife I presumed, before returning his attention to the passport. Occasionally he asked me with exaggerated politeness a question about where I was coming from and where I was going. I was wondering where this was going to go, when standing up he handed me back the passport, and said as they had no stamp I would have to continue to the next village, Belize, a larger place where they could stamp me in. Happy to get away with that I hopped on the bike and was off. Mistake number one – I didn’t insist on a stamp.


After forty odd kms descending through forest with a few clearings and smallholdings I arrived at Belize, to be informed it was a ‘feria’ or holiday and offices were closed! Mistake number two – I should have continued on! I happened to find the obliging off duty Immigration man and he brought me to his office. He didn’t have a stamp either, but agreed after much requesting on my behalf via a kindly schoolteacher from the Congo who translated for me – we were now in Portuguese speaking terrritory – to write a letter stating I’d arrived that day through the border post of Mikonje. I was satisfied and ready to continue, when nearly as an afterthought the Immigration man asked that I accompany him to the police – to cover himself I believe. This development displeased me, and my concern was confirmed when the (off duty) policeman maintained as Mikonje was where I entered, that was the only place that could stamp me in. This went on for too long, I was getting nowhere, and the afternoon was passing. I had showed the policeman the letter done for me by the Immigration. Mistake number three! He refused to return it. I was told I would have to return to Mikonje for the stamp, I point blank refused and when eventually the policeman went off to some family event he was late for, I took off. Willing to take my chances, I suspected there would be problems down the road without any official evidence of entrance. The clouds had lowered and rain threatened in the darkening afternoon humidity.

Angola had only five years previously come out the other end of a thirty year civil war, and was just recovering. Its infrastructure is shot and the economy was in tatters. Also there is a danger of unexploded mines throughout the country and the warning was not to stray off the main road. This limited my camping options slightly! So my target was to get to a sizeable enough town and seek shelter. The road started off tarmac, but that only flattered to deceive, degenerating into potholes, then becaming dirt. A pattern began to be established – a few hundred metres of tarmac, giving way to kms of rutted dirt road, alternating back to a bit of tarmac. This meant progress was quite a bit slower than I’d planned. The countryside became a little less forested and some cultivation was evident. Reaching Buca Zao I had a hurried bowl of beans and rice, while a crowd stood around my bike speculating I guessed about how fast it could go, how many gears, how much t was worth – the usual features that interest. I had nominated one of the more gangsterish looking wide boys to keep an eye on it. The restaurant belonged to a loud, good natured woman from the Congo with an easy laugh, with whom I could speak in French.

There was a noticeable military presence, pairs of soldiers walking along the road every few kilometres, not taking any notice of me it must be said, apart from the odd wave. Cabinda is an exclave of Angola, bordered on one side by the Congo, and separated from the main Angolan state by a strip of the DRC – their only access to the Atlantic Ocean. I was to learn Cabinda had quite a separatist tendency, many of the local population not identifying with Angola at all. It had been a Portuguese protectorate and when Angola achieved independence from Portugal in 1975, they turned Cabinda over as well. The major attraction for the new Angolan state was the massive petroleum reserves offshore, the returns from which then provided 90% of the national income. There is still separatist activity which presumably accounted for the military presence.

After passing the junction for a newly tarred road entering from the Congo and Pointe Noire, I was stopped at a permanent Immigration roadblock as evening was falling. Without too much fuss I was referred to a superior who made a phone call then told me to call into the main Immigration office in the city of Cabinda on arrival. They would find a Mikonje stamp with which to stamp me into the country. With that off I went, following an innocent local who had just been stopped and searched then instructed to guide me to the Missao Catolico in the nearby town Cacongo!

There was a smell of the ocean, a feeling of the sea close by. The road skirted what appeared to be a brackish swamp. A slight but growing thrill began rising in me, and then coming around a bend there it was – a glorious view of the coast. I couldn’t contain the involuntary shout into my helmet. This was my first sight of the Atlantic seaboard since… it seemed so long.
Tracing my route back in my mind, I thought of Calabar in the Bight of Benin in Nigeria. But no, that was more a river mouth. Cameroon I had gone inland and missed the coast, continuing south without touching on the shore, heading into the interior. The last time I had seen the sea was Western Sahara!

Accustomed to fairly basic conditions in the missions I had stayed in, I was quite taken aback at the imposing, well maintained Portuguese colonial style building in Cacongo, with polished wooden floors, high ceilings and net curtains – “so civilised” I’d written in my diary. This was luxury. A large church stood above on the hill. Pulling off my bike gear, I sat up on a concrete wall overlooking the picturesque coastline below in the gathering darkness, relaxing and taking in the scene, and sighed with contentment. Of course paradise is not a permanent state, and the biting mosquitoes drove me in. We were in serious malaria country.

The meal to which I was invited was sumptious – tender braised beef, vegetables(!) which seemed such a rarity down through Africa, and other side dishes. A cold Cristal beer was put in front of me. Two boys of about 15 yrs of age, seminarians, served quietly and very efficiently.

The discussion, at times in French in response to a question I might ask but mostly in loud and argumentative Portuguese, was heated and political in nature. Strong opinions were voiced! Though I didn’t understand, I enjoyed the conviction and humour. Around the table were three deacons on retreat visiting from Cabinda city, Padre N’Doke the parish priest, mischievous looking with a boyish grin, and two white priests.
Padre Milan Zednicek (pictured right), in his sixties, was tall and distinguished in appearance with crease lines around his eyes betraying a contained humour. He was Uruguyan of Czech descent, in Angola sixteen years. Three nationalities as he said. Next to him was the very quiet Padre Sebastao, also in his sixties, who didn’t get involved in any of the animated discussion, in fact didn’t open his mouth the whole mealtime. I noticed absolutely no approbation or approval, no judgement in fact no engagement nor any interest registered. After the fruit, without requesting it, he was brought an espresso coffee, along with a liqueur, in what appeared a well established routine. The only sign of life a gesture to a server to clear some plates. Then abruptly like there was a hidden signal Padre Sebastao stood up simultaneously with the others, said ‘Grace’ with bowed head and that was it. Everyone pulled out their seat and left the table. It was like Padre Sebastao was wheeled out to eat and drink wine, have his coffee and liqueur, then say Grace, oblivious to anything going on.

The next morning, a Friday, not a Holy day, I witnessed the master performing. In a nearly full church – a large building -– Padre Sebastao was saying mass, and what a natural. He commanded the space, unselfconsciously and powerfully leading the congregation in prayer with his expansive gestures, voice resonating and authorative. In appearance he could be a relic of Somoza’s religious henchmen, a strict and grim faced reactionary. However something else raised his presence slightly apart from the appearance – he was just so involved in what he was doing. There was uplifting singing from the congregation, once again soaring harmonies, well practiced, beautiful voices and sweet African melodies. At the end of mass Padre Sebastao gave the blessing, then performed a strange ritual which was explained later to me as a local practice adopted by the clergy. He raised his arms in a vigourous motion of being possessed by some energy from above, then seemed to throw this out to the congregation, who in turn expressed their reception of it with their arms out. It was quite startling to witness, specially coming from a most conventional looking elderly white priest, and very effecting.

The run into Cabinda city was less than an hour and brought me past a sizeable area cordoned with barbed wire, stretching for miles. This was the Chevron processing plant in Malongo, centre of the lucrative Angolan petroleum industry. It was certainly well protected. The clergy in Cacongo had directed me to Immaculada Conceptao, a parish on the outskirts of town. There the deacon rather disinterestedly indicated where I could pitch my tent, and where there was a tap for water. A few people had come through here in jeeps and land rovers over the past couple of years asking to stay. This wasn’t surprising as accommodation costs I discovered were exhorbitant – 100 USD in the local hotel! Angola didn’t have a tourism industry, the only visitors were oil industry employees.

To continue south I had two options – one was overland back inland to the DRC, about a day transiting that country, crossing into Angola again and heading for the coast road. The other I was pursuing, to find a boat that commuted between Cabinda and Soyo, the town on the northern tip of mainland Angola. It was Friday midday and I went down to the port to find out about a boat. Apparently it runs three times a week – Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Friday’s had left at 10 that morning! So it looked like I was stuck here until the following Wednesday, which didn’t fill me with excitement. Cabinda had failed to make a great impression on me, mainly the sense of the oil money around creating a high cost of living, leaving most Cabindans living in poverty outside of town. A dirt floor restaurant, one of the cheaper options, charged €14 for a meal. I ended up cooking for myself over the period spent there – a jar of pasta sauce in the supermarket was €3, bottled water €1.50.

My visit with the Department of Immigration, who were very helpful, was painless though it took a few hours to track down an entry stamp for Mikonje, the border post I’d entered. I was now legally in the country. Accompanying an assistant to photocopy the passport, we passed through the busy market. Outside, sharp dressed money changers brandished their wads of cash touting for business. I managed to get a rate of 15.5 kwaza to the euro. Entering the market the noise was deafening. Two gigantic speakers pumped out dance music to the market stall holders and customers, orquestrated by an earphoned DJ behind his sound desk. Women sat behind tiny piles of a few pieces of fruit or vegetable – avocados, manioc, pineapple. Like most markets, hygiene seemed a little absent, rubbish piled up outside one open side of the concrete hall. Cholera is a problem in the country - there had been 25 cases in Cabinda the previous Friday. In front of us in the crowd I saw a bit of a set-to as two policemen had a grip on each arm of a slight, well dressed character protesting his innocence, struggling against them. As they frogmarched him away, I noticed him slide one arm free, whip his money out of his pocket and thrust it into the hands of I presumed a pal. He obviously didn’t feel confident it would remain there in custody.

I spent the following few days catching up on a number of things (such as ‘Updates’ to the website!). The deacon had been shamed into putting me in a room – though there were no beds – with the arrival of one of my new buddies back from his retreat in Cacongo. The lovely sea shore beckoned and I wandered down. Thoughts of a swim were dispelled on walking along the dirty beach. Though the water was lovely and warm, the wind blown rubbish, creeks leaking foul drainage water across the beach, and the black oil on the sand from the off shore rigs put off any thoughts of a swim. In the night, the many rigs could be seen miles out at sea, yellow flames burning off the gasses.

Trying to sleep was very difficult, the heat and the humidity intense. This in fact was worse than I remembered my nights in Calabar on the Nigerian coast. I had erected my tent in the room, the insect screen a necessity against the mosquitoes. Lying motionless on the floor, doors and windows open to try and encourage any slight movement of air to pass over me, sleep was a long time coming, my back wet with sweat. The following day I cheekily asked for a fan and got one – a lifesaver! It remained on all night.

One evening, asking for advice where I could get a beer nearby, Padre Joao offered to accompany me. He was a quiet man, didn’t want to come in, but waited at his new school which we’d passed. It was 9 pm. Returning past the school, he was still there and offered to show me the work they were doing. It was Saturday night and it had to be ready for the Monday, hence the nightime work! I found it an interesting story.

Padre Joao had spent twelve years in Rome, obtaining a PhD in philosophy, before returning to a professorship in the university back here. However, his wish had always been to create a school. After a few years teaching children in his spare time preparing them for exams, he got enough encouragement from local parents, he gave up his well salaried position in the university and started the school. It had begun with 200 pupils and had increased every year to the present 800 – hence the push to get the the extension ready. What was so impressive was the humble demeanor of this man, obviously ambitious but not driven by personal gain. The two questions that came up for me were – who was funding the school, and who were the pupils. He expressed a muted disappointment with the government’s lack of resourcing in Health and Education and passionately explained why he thought they were missing the point. “The most important resource the government should be investing in, is not the mineral or petroleum industries. Our most important resource is the people!” The school was not getting a penny from the government. So it was the childrens’ fees paying for the teachers’ salaries and everything else, as well as subsidising the 10-20% of places he reserved for children whose parents couldn’t afford the fees.

Cristavao, a deacon, was one of the young bucks I’d met in Cacongo arguing around the dinner table. In his late twenties, stout and bespectacled, he was extroverted and argumentative. The clergy now were the intellectuals of the community, he claimed. They had the education, along with the church’s ideals on justice. He told me that Pope John Paul II had said the clergy have “to stand up and speak the truth” for their people. This did surprise me as I understood him to be more of a reactionary. The separate identity of the people in Cabinda, who don’t identify with Angola, was explained to me. There is indeed a strong separatist movement because many believe Cabinda should be independent of Angola. Most of the priests here, he said, spoke French not because of the proximity to the French speaking Congo, but because they had studied and trained in Kinshasa and Brazzaville, as opposed to Luanda. I remembered the first day I was in town chatting with a well dressed executive type outside an internet office. He worked in Malongo at the oil processing plant and, though from Cabinda himself, bemoaned the fact that all the white collar jobs were advertised in Luanda, not locally. The Cabindan people ended up with the unskilled, manual jobs. Now in context I understood a little better his complaint.

Cristavao told me there had been ‘a problem’ recently in the local church, a split. The Vatican had appointed an Angolan bishop to Cabinda which was not wanted by the local people. He put it down to politics, the Vatican wanting to appease Luanda. It’s all about money, he said. The church has no income, and Angola is oil rich. I would have put his conspiracy ideas down to naivety but he had lived and studied in Rome for four years and claimed to know how it works! Later in my journey, discussing Cabinda with others further south in Angola, I discovered eight priests were actually excommunicated in Cabinda – from the the parish of Immaculada Conceptao! Cristavao had completed his studies for the priesthood and had been a deacon for two years. When I asked, he replied a deacon could expect to become a priest in as little as 6 months. He was considering looking for a job.

Monday arrived and it was time to make some decsions on leaving Cabinda. I had been refused a visa in Abuja for a DRC visa, so was putting my hopes on getting my bike on a ferry around the mouth of the Congo river, to the northern Angolan town of Soyo.