A Mercedes truck older than time itself grunts and lurches down a rutted path through an equatorial savannah, dunking into craters of mud, rattling with an intensity to shake one's molars loose from their sockets. A black insect the size of a golf ball suddenly flutters into the cab. The bug is buzzing against the windscreen, so I remove my flip-flop to brush it toward the open window to help it escape.
"Kill it! Kill it!" screams Mike, the driver, in French. "It bites!"
Hearing this, Roger, riding shotgun on my right, takes decisive action. "Sorry, mate," he says, grabbing my flip-flop. He starts whacking at the cracked glass, missing the bug several times before scoring a direct hit. The creature falls to the floor and disappears. Roger looks down, moving his feet around in panic. "Now I don't know where it is!"
The dreaded black insect doesn't reappear and, to me, the whole reaction seems a bit extreme - after all, it's probably just a harmless beetle, no? But then one has to consider: we're in the Congo. You know, the original heart of darkness - "The horror, the horror"? When you hear about vicious insects that lay eggs under your skin, eventually hatching into larvae that gnaw your limbs off from the inside, that's the Congo they're talking about.
Frightful tales of arthropodic terror aside, it's just possible Mike knows his stuff, seeing as he does this 12- to 18-hour route several times a week. He's certainly mastered this beast of a machine, navigating the pits and gunning for traction on what passes for a road, his hands spinning the steering wheel non-stop, removing them only to grab a towel from the dashboard and wipe the beads of sweat from his face.
Mike is driving us and the other passengers in the back, who come and go along the way, from the remote Gabon-Congo border post at the village of Doussala to Dolisie, a town on the road between Congo's capital, Brazzaville, and its largest port, Pointe-Noire. Wending through hills blanketed in grasslands, we've left Doussala before dawn and we'll arrive shortly after nightfall, travelling about 230 kilometres in 13 hours.
Consider that distance: 230km, roughly the distance from New York to Albany or slightly farther than Abu Dhabi to Ras al Khaimah. On a US Interstate highway or the equivalent thereof, that's maybe a three-hour drive. It takes us 13 - and that's considered a quick run on this route.
Here's the incredible thing: this is one of the national highways of the Republic of the Congo - the little Congo, also known as Congo-Brazzaville, not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of the Congo - connecting the tarmacked roads of oil-rich Gabon to the Congo's heart. It appears as one of the continent's major roads on some maps of Africa, yet in truth it's more like a tractor path, a muddy streak cut through the savannah. Such is the state of Congolese transport.
If there is a question mark hanging over our entire overland journey from Tangier to Cape Town, it hovers directly over this stretch, for it isn't described in any guidebook we can find. We'd posted detailed queries on travellers' message boards, including Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree and Horizons Unlimited, an overlanders' bulletin board. Answers were helpful but inconclusive: yes, the Doussala-Dolisie road is passable. Sometimes. Perhaps not in the rainy season, which is right now. Transport options for those without their own vehicle? Who knows. But there's always a way.
And, indeed, there is. Rather than having to wait for, say, a logging truck to give us a lift, we find that Mike's truck, or another just like it, makes the Doussala-Dolisie run daily. Later, Roger and I will e-mail a detailed report on the journey to our friend Luke, who's on the same journey just behind us.
The road from Doussala "is both straightforward and horrific", I write to Luke. The cost: US$31 (Dh115) for a space in the cab. "And yes," I add, "you want a place in the cab" - for I can't imagine what it must be like for the people on the hard benches in the back.
Predictably, when it comes time to make the same journey, Luke decides to save a little more than $6 (Dh23) by riding in the back. When he finally catches up with us, he finds the dreadfulness of the journey difficult to put into words, for the truck broke down midway and he spent the night shivering on the forecourt of what he describes as a "village bar" in the middle of nowhere, reaching Dolisie at midday the following day. Compared to Luke's ordeal, our ride in Mike's cab is indeed like a cruise on the Interstate.
Scott MacMillan is blogging about his journey on his website, www.wanderingsavage.com