RCA, March 1984
That evening the sky was covered with leaden clouds and there was an ominous grumbling in the distance.
“We are going to get rain,” I said to Reinhold.
“That is impossible,” he said: “it might look like rain, but it is the wrong time of year.”
“If you say so.”
We continued our preparations for the camp, setting up the big tressle table and starting to prepare dinner. As soon as we had all sat down, the first fat drops started to splatter onto our plates.
“You’re imagining things,” Reinhold said: “It is the middle of the dry season. If this was the rainy season we’d be stuck in the mud in Zaïre for the next three months! Go on, eat up!”
That night the air was pregnant with humidity. Hordes of mosquitoes descended, undeterred by Norbert’s ultrasound mosquito deterrent-gadget. Giant beetles hurtled through the heavy air. We were covered in sweat that no longe rcooled us by evaporating. Eventually, he sky cleared but I could not sleep for a long time in the oppressive humidity that lingered.
That morning yet another variation of wake-up service was delivered by a swarm of bees which appeared from nowhere, apparently aroused by the humidity. They gathered around our kettle and water containers and eventually crawled into our sleeping bags. It was dawn and dark clouds once more covered the sky. The ground was moist and smelt of freshly rotting vegetation and wet dust. It was sweltering. At five thirty the cicadas began to shrill as if obeying a hidden signal
That afternoon we passed Sibut where we stopped for a few beers and some urgent food shopping. When we returned we saw two white people contemplating our lorry with interest. They were Americans, a married couple of teachers. They showed us the way to the bakery (which are excellent in RCA as a former French colony) and told us about their work. Sandy, as a woman, had a hard time with her pupils. “They are aggressive, disrespectful and not used to female teachers,” she sighed: “But I cope. Somehow.”
We bought three dozen rolls without having anything to carry them in so I jogged back to the lorry to pick up a basket. I found it surrounded by a big colourful crowd. Used to the curiosity our presence sometimes attracted, I waved cheerfully, vaguely puzzled as to why few of the locals had paid us any attention at first. Then I hesitated. At the centre of the commotion was Leo — together with two police officers. He wasn’t wearing a shirt which was against the local custom. He angrily refused to put on his shirt and was promptly arrested.
I had to get back to Annette and the teachers and told them about Leo on the way to the market. The market was small but offered a wide selection of typical Central African produce. There was manioc, pineapples, plantains, tiny bananas, peanut butter, roasted termites and a plethora of roots which I had never seen before. We bought banana leaf parcels of rice cooked with manioc leaves and peanuts for dinner then returned to meet the others at the lorry as arranged. We told them that we had to get Leo out of jail.
Leo was waiting for us, sitting on a chair in the shade in front of the police station. As soon as we stopped, he clambered on board, took his passport and jumped back down to show it to the police officers. He talked with them for a little while and they appeared to have a relaxed little chat, but they indicated that he had to put on his shirt before they would let him go. At long last, he relented, pulled on the shirt and clambered back into the lorry. Reinhold, who sat cross-legged on the water barrels, smoking a pipe, jumped b ehind the steering wheel and fired the engine. He had just put the lorry into gear when a whistle shrilled. We turned around and looked at Leo who had taken off his shirt again.
We now had several possibilities. We could allow Leo to be arrested then march up and down in front of the jail, demonstrating our solidarity. We could take off our own shirts as someone suggested and all get arrested, hoping to overwhelm the local facilities. Or Leo could put on his damn shirt — at least until we were out of the town boundaries. We left him in little doubt as to what option we preferred. Finally he complied. I think his mother should have spanked him more as a child.
The landscape became greener. We now drove past gallery forest. Just past M’bres a road was under construction. Bulldozers and caterpillar trucks had cleared a wide stretch of vegetation. The bare red soil cut through the forest like a bloody scar. Anywhere were there was water, bamboo grew in thickets 10m high, interspersed with papaya and bananas. There was thick undergrowth between the trees. Lianas hung from the branches and big-leaved shrubs filled out any free patches in the vegetation. In places, the air was heavy with the scent of flowers.
The villages we drove through consisted of mud-brick houses with thatched roofs, looking vaguely European. The track changed into orderly streets fringed with mango trees. Women stood in front of the huts pounding millet with giant pestles. Everywhere cotton was laid out to dry on scaffolding or on tarpaulins on the floor. Every now and then we overtook large trucks that trundled from village to village collecting the harvest. The labourers would laugh and sprinkle us with flakes of cotton like snow.
Exactly a week after crossing the border, we reached Bangui the capital of the Central African Republic. We had also reached the end of the road as a group. Our way forward was plagued with uncertainty. Reinhold was out of money, although he promised he would try to have some wired and even though the desert was behind us and the group had shrunk to a manageable size, the bickering had not subsided.
For three days we sat at the campside and debated our way forward. Reinhold wanted to go on. So did Udo, Harald and I. But a lot of people had been pushed past their limits. I do not know whether theyhad expected a package-tour. Maybe Reinhold had over-sold the trip a little. We debated and quarreled from morning into the night. Finally it was decided to sell the lorry and pay everybody an adequate compensation. That was the end of the journey. Would this also be the end of my trip?
I pondered going home. From Bangui there were cheap flights to Paris. Some of the others wanted to tour around Europe before returning home. It would be a nice little holiday.
I was homesick. I missed my family and friends and I had a pathological longing after countless little things I never even noticed at home. The way the car lights reflect on wet asphalt in the rain. The chill in the air in early spring. The taste of apples. Particularly apples.
At the same time it was clear that I would not turn back. I had only just arrived! I was in the tropics, where I had dreamed to be all my life and ahead lay the jungle, the equator and the Serengeti. Ahead lay freedom and adventure. I had never been so free. I was not ready to go home.
I had been no stranger to homesickness on this trip. It always hit when things looked bad and staying home had seemed like the better option, but it would subside. Right now it was overpowered by the prickling anticipation of the adventures that lay ahead. In any case, I had to wait until Reinhold sold the lorry. My budget had shrivelled to 16 $, a few DM and a reserve of 100 $ in travellers cheques which I had resolved not to touch. If in doubt, I would have continued even with this.
We stayed in Bangui for over a month. No wonder that I occasionally think of the place as home. Even today. Partly this is because I never returned “home” properly after my African adventure.
In the end just three of us were left: Reinhold, Udo and myself. The others had received written promises from Reinhold and continued their journeys, in small groups or alone, all with different goals. My own goal was clear. I had started on a trip from Cairo to Capetown and I would continue on that trip.
Meanwhile, I was stuck in Bangui. I can’t say that Bangui is an interesting or attractive town, but it is well worth a story.Tags: Cairo to Capetown, Tag Index