Chutes de Boali, Empire (?) Centrafricain, 26.6.77

The Lord's Day has been declared a day of rest. We are ahead of schedule because things have gone very smoothly and we are within half a day's drive of Bangui. We'll probably go in there tomorrow a.m. And stay until the due date for mail (30/6). Bangui is the capital of the Central African Empire (né Republic). You may have heard of the recent carryings-on of Bokassa, who is an ardent admirer of Napoléon and has recently syled himself Emperor. He constantly has the fronts of his jackets restyled to accommodate all the medals he awards himself, and has recently been declaring his family princes and princesses, I believe. At least he seems less dangerous than the hideous Amin.

The country is very beautiful but seems more dilapidated and, paradoxically, more expensive than Cameroon. However, I believe a lot of money is being spent on Bangui.

I am sitting now on the verandah of a deserted building overlooking a series of very impressive waterfalls, in the African mould: large volumes of dirty brown water in a broad series of 100m falls surrounded by the trees (inc. palms), creepers and heavy undergrowth of the tropical jungle. The absence of the usual swarms of mosquitoes and other beasties render it a pleasant spot.

I last left you in the Kano Club, on the arrival of our Swiss confrère from Tamanrasset. One thing I forgot to say was that he brought news of the death of two Austrians we had met going the other way, when their Kombi was involved in a head-on collision with a “Sahara truck” (wildly driven semi-trailers) – apparently they were overtaking and couldn't see for dust. Imagine that – in the middle of the Sahara where you're lucky to see 3-4 vehicles a day!

We dined out in Kano at a Chinese restaurant (!!) with black waiters (!) at the expense of the fellow we towed for 1½ days. Suppose he was grateful. Food was quite good; service bad; local beer acceptable.

We were glad to leave the crazy honking traffic of Kano on the mostly v. good easterly road to Maiduguri, through pleasant countryside with walled (basketware) grass-hut villages. Certainly some of the money in Nigeria is used for the common weal in spite of staggering corruption. The importation of champagne has just been banned because in some circles it was being used like water (in a country with a GNP of $200/head/year), to the embarrassment of the government. These are the people who go to the North-South “dialogue” to complain of inequity in the sharing of the world's wealth! The roadsides are littered with the wrecks of cars and industrial vehicles, victims of the incompetent and dangerous driving of the newly-liberated locals, who ignore the dire warnings of roadside posters. There are lots of expensive imported goods available but the basics (bread, potatoes, fruit, veg.) are either unavailable, in short supply, or very expensive.

The border with Cameroon came after 16 km of atrocious road after a turnoff from the good bitumen (can it be the Nigerians are not too interested in Cameroon?) and marked the end of the vultures, baobab trees and push-upping blue-and-orange lizards (margouillat), sealed roads and wild traffic, and a very abrupt change of climate: in the space of a few km there was more water about, more luxuriant natural growth, more trees, more French influence, even in roadside “restaurant” menus.

The Nigerians accepted without demur the goup's plea that we had never been issued with currency declaration forms (those improvident enough not to under-declare on entry had already incinerated theirs).

I'll never forget missing a perfect photo of local villagers dancing by the side of the road in some form of celebration, because our Kiwi driver is so insensitive to beauty and composition. He stops in the strangest places to take photos and seems quite put out when we use the “photo-stop” code on the buzzer. However we stopped for 20 minuted to inspect a “ranch” he was interested in in Cameroon (they have fine-looking cattle). Have to keep reminding myself that group travel involves lots of compromises – the trip is certainly not tailored for me to get the photos I want.

We also haven't seen any more scorpions since we killed a large (3-4 inch) green specimen in the camp-site in Maiduguri. Also haven't seen any more camp-sites. Also haven't picked up the runs again.

Cameroon, by common acclaim, was the “nicest” country of the trip so far. The people seemed gentle and happy (except for a few unsavoury cadeau-hunters, to whom I am told I used my imitation of a thirteenth-century gargoyle!), waving energetically at us, often with both hands, as we drove past, some of us usually on the top of the cab, leaning against the canopy of the back – not especially safe on the bumpy roads. It was nice to see some animals at last, eating green grass, cultivation using hoes. I taught a little black girl to tie the shoelaces of her new white plastic shoes of which she was inordinately proud, but which were probably destined to ruin her feet. Judging by the way the laces were knotted, nobody in the village had had lace-up shoes before.

The Southern Cross has also come clearly into view, guiding us ever southward, though I expect the water still goes down the plughole clockwise (or is it anticlockwise?) for those lucky enough to have a bath. We cross the equator a little after Kisangani (formerly Stanleyville) in Zaïre (formerly Belgian Congo).

Some of us have been bathing in rivers and lakes, sometimes against our better judgment, but we get so unbearably filthy after the dew dries off the roads in the morning. I believe there is some sort of bloodtest one can have to detect bilharzia and that it can be treated with drugs before symptoms become evident. Have to remember in October. For now I just have a small lump in each armpit, in identical places (glands of some sort?) One of the guys was stung by an insect the other day while sitting on top of the truck. Half his thigh was inflamed and swollen and he came out in spots and lumps on his chest, wrist, arms, ankles etc. at various times and is still running a high temperature. These things are sent to try us, it seems. Still don't know what a tsetse fly looks like, but there are lots of other things about with six and more legs. Even saw a creature with no legs the other day, and a number with four (large baboons, a sort of antelope etc.)

We generally sleep under tents because the dew soaks everything, even when there is not one of the frequent nocturnal rainstorms. Today it has been raining, as it did the last time we stopped at falls (higher humidity? Is it possible?) We have been fortunate so far with mostly fine weather and quite good dirt roads (probably almost impassable in the Wet?) and only one bridge we had to walk across.

“New Palace” bar, Bangui, Central African Empire, Wed 29/6/77

It's only two days since I posted my last effort, written before we arrived here, Since then I have retrieved yours of 15/6 (postmarked 16/6, arrived 24/6) and a card from RHC.

Between now and Aug 3 (Nairobi), we cross the Oubangui (Ubangi) River at Bangassou and proceed down through the rainforests of the Congo (Zaïre), past Kisangani, the equator and the pygmies into Rwanda, past the Mountains of the Moon; thence into Tanzania to Serengati Game Park, Mt. Kilimanjaro (maybe a 5-day clinb) and if possible into Nairobi. Other groups have not had undue difficulty at that one particular border crossing, but it may cramp our style if we want to cross back at the coast.

There are v. few towns of any note en route and Zaïre doesn't seem particularly reliable, so I guess that's why we're incomunicado for so long. We caught up with most of the world news you mention in Kano.

Up-to-date papers etc. are much harder to find in this “capital city”. My first impressions so far have been confirmed of a mutton-dressed-up-as-lamb tinpot grasping town masquerading as the capital of an “Empire” (of 2.8 million people!) Bokassa has called everything after himself or his wife – he is obviously a megalomaniacal weirdo. The supermarkets are more expensive than Europe and even the fruit and veg. they can't help growing in their backyards are double the prices of Cameroon. Beer and wine do at least exist, if expensive. There are quite a lot of whites about (10,000 in the whole country) – mostly embassy and aid staff I suppose. There is the usual ideological struggle between the U.S. and Soviet Cultural Centres.

On the other side of the Oubangui is Zaïre, green and lush. The river itself is host to thousands of pieces of vegetable flotsam but I can't make out if they are plants that live as they float along or if they have been broken off by storms upstream. We had a true tropical downpour yesterday a.m. which set the tent afloat, so I was out in the early hours with a spade clearing the drainage system. We are staying at the Centre Protestant pour la Jeunesse, about 5-6 km out of town, which is a logistical nuisance, but it is the only campsite around and has cold showers and washing tubs, so there is no further argument. Earlier groups have stayed on a piece of no-man's land behind a hotel. All along we seem to have organised ourselves a bit better than most.

I went to the P.O. this a.m. to look through the poste restante again and got half-way though when they said it was midday and I should come back at 1430, so I am filling in time with an omelette and beer. Some others have gone to a hotel for a swim.

The river also seems to have dug-out canoes with rudimentary paddles. Tried to photograph barbers outside the market with pictures of various possible styles propped on their open-air tables. They declined (quite rudely) to participate.

Bangassou, 3/7.

Here we are, still in everybody's favourite country, encamped by the Ubangi and hoping to take the ferry into Zaïre tomorrow a.m. (200-300 metres).We have to paddle across in a dugout canoe with a container of diesel and the truck's battery to bring the ferry back from the other side. In addition to 5 litres of fuel, the “captain” expects a “cadeau” (gift) like everyone else here.

All of us are fed up to the back teeth with CAE (ECA) – from beginning to end it has been a tale of woe. Our visas from London (although costing FFr 20) were only valid 48 hours and it is simply impossible to get through the place in that time (the “Empire” has a sum total of approx. 250 km of paved roads), so we had to spend CFA 2000 each in Bangui to get an extension for a week. The immigration officer there is an insolent drunken incompetent sot, who didn't bother to tell us we needed exit permission from the City of Bangui. We were turned back at the barrier and wasted 5 precious hours waiting for him to have his (liquid?) lunch.

Then in our mad rush to get here for today (last day of visa) we were delayed at umpteen barrières de pluie (rain checkpoints) manned by officious and objectionable locals pretending to be worried about the state of their roads in the rain, but secretly glad to show their authority (especially over whites). One made us wait 1½ hours for the “freshly graded” road to “dry out” (we in the meantime getting up at 0430 to spend 10 hours on the road). We got here today to find the immigration office closed for Sunday (!) and if we waited till tomorrow we'd have to pay $25 for a further visa extension. They knew they had us over a barrel and demanded $2.50/head “overtime” to do it today. We still have to get through customs tomorrow morning.

We have also had two shouting matches with racist locals over our parking in the middle of their road impeding traffic (!!), eating in front of the P.O. (a mortal sin, apparently) and wearing shorts and bikini tops. Imagine that in a country where the women can go topless if they wish! So far they have filled up 3 precious passport pages in this third-rate banana republic.

In Bangui our professional photographer/journalist took 5 photos of the main square and was arrested for “photographing policemen”! After a multiplicity of charges and insults he was brought before the chief of police for interrogation and a statement. They demanded the film out of his camera but because he is a professional he ostentatiously extracted a dud film from his second camera and exposed it to the light, whereupon they said: “We're not stupid – we can develop this and see just what you did photograph”. When his drunken captor was called away by his girlfriend, he just told him to get lost.

Other minor disasters included: one of our number knocking over a transistor radio and having to pay $16 for it because it was “broken”; a one-day 101° F temperature and weakness on my part; a visit to the pathetic Bangui zoo to see a few cruelly caged chain-smoking chimps, lions etc.waiting for the new zoo to be built.

Just now I can hardly hear myself think on account of the frog concert that is going on all around us. Bokassa is to be crowned Emperor on Dec. 4 with the pomp he feels is his due. Don't know who's going to crown him – Charlemagne at least had the pope, but Paul VI has turned down a personal invitation.

It's a pity to be so negative about the country because if it weren't for the corruption and nasty “official” atmosphere, it has a lot of interest to offer. We have waved to 10,000 hearty villagers in their picturesque huts with carefully swept dirt courtyards adorned with drying manioc (cassava), with palm trees and paw-paw trees against an alternately blue and black sky. (We have experienced a few storms such as only the tropical Wet can produce.) The beautiful jungle has an enormous variety of trees (some huge), vines, creepers and brilliant butterflies. Some of our number bought beautiful collections of the latter in Bangui, but I can't imagine anything less easy to get home in good condition.

This morning we had to cut fallen trees from the road with axe and machete. Apart from soldier-ant ribbons across the road, we saw today some little ginger ants that had constructed a dirt tunnel (originally enclosed) across the road. In a town market yestersday we saw them selling writhing masses of termites – to eat!!

The jungle alternates with “savannah boisé”. There are a few monkeys, squirrels (?) etc. to be seen. The women all seem to have babies strapped to their backs with lengths of cloth, and wear sputnik-style hairdos (with extremely tight plaits sticking out all over their heads). I suppose it's better than having lice. I believe it is taking on in London now.

In Bangui we bought a 44-gal drum of diesel and a drum of oil so that, at a pinch, we hope to be able to get right through Zaïre without refuelling (apparently fuel is not always available).

Last night we stayed beside some waterfalls where, it seems, on an earlier EO trip a girl was washed over and killed. They looked dangerous. Found out today that another girl on another trip was killed by the trailer after falling out of the back of the truck and another traveller was killed in a capsize in Asia. Happy days!

While waiting for the police today, 7 of us had ourselves paddled up the Oubangui in a wobbly dug-out canoe in search of hippos and crocs. Not finding any, we consoled ourselves by skinny-dipping off a sand-bar in the middle of the river.