Louise Woodhams meets up with three intrepid explorers to discover how a 30-year-old Ninety took them though 2494 miles of Congolese jungle
Crossing the Congo tells the story of how an ex-army officer, photographer and doctor set off on a journey that they had been told was impossible. Traversing the north-south crossing of the Congo River Basin, from Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to Juba, in South Sudan in a 1986 Land Rover Ninety over 60 days they faced repeated challenges. We discover how they got through it.
Mike, before crossing the DRC your original plan was to drive as far around West Africa as possible in six months with Chloe. What preparation did you do for this?
Mike Martin: Mainly vehicle prep. We bought the Land Rover 90 off eBay for £2700 in July 2012 not knowing what we were doing and it turned out to be a complete tip. It took me six months to get it finished, but it taught me a lot about mechanics. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I thought that if I was going to be an explorer I needed to know how to fix vehicles. It came half-way converted from a LHD to a RHD, but the owner said that he had included all of the necessary parts in the sale to finish it. When we went to pick it up, rather naively, I said to him "do you mind if you finish it now so we can drive it away". I realise now, he looked at me as if to say "don’t be bloody stupid, you’ll be here for months". So that was my first job, and my introduction to car mechanics – unfortunately we had the wrong arms and hubs so I needed to order quite a lot of new parts to complete it. That’s when we dubbed it 9Bob as the owner was as bent as a nine-bob note. It did come with a Haynes manual however, which was actually incredibly useful out in the jungle without any internet, and prior to that, in the UK, the Land Rover forums were amazing. With the conversion completed, I went to test drive it and then realised the clutch slave cylinder was buggered – you’d get one job done and then discover you needed to do another. When I finally got it to the point where it could be MoT’d, the wheel fell off just as we pulled up to the garage! Other than that, I repainted it, had the doors repaired as they were falling apart, overhauled the engine, electrics and brakes, remodelled the dashboard and fitted a new sound system, which turned out to be pretty essential. The seats were left in the standard, three-perch configuration, reserving the load bay for gear.
What did you do to get 9Bob expedition-ready? Mike:
As we knew nothing about overlanding, we did a lot of research online to find out what kit was essential, like a tyre inflator and a fuel/water separator. In addition to the roof rack which was already included in the sale, we had a pair of Laycorn boxes and I modified the side of the vehicle to carry more spares and tools. We wanted enough parts so that if something were to happen and we didn’t have a certain component I could repair it so that it at least got us to the next town. Alongside the bull bars and raised air intake, we also fitted a sump guard, new BF Goodrich tyres and Koni dampers to cope with the tough terrain, and plenty of universal joints, that we were told by fellow overlanders would need frequently replacing – they weren’t wrong!
And what about the logistical side of things?
Chloe Baker: Besides sleeping bags and netting hammocks, a month’s worth of food and a medical kit, we didn’t really have any other supplies. Also, as we weren’t totally sure of the route we were taking from the beginning we didn’t bother getting any visas in advance. British nationals don't need a visa to travel through France, Spain, Morocco, Western Sahara and Senegal – so it was only when we got to Mauritania that we needed to get one on arrival. This kind of dictated our trip throughout north and west Africa, if we could get a visa for a country we’d go there. Other than that all we needed was a Carnet de Passage, which entitled us to temporarily import the Land Rover duty-free, together with separate car insurance which you could buy per region.
With conflicts in northern Africa cutting off options to loop back to the UK you made the decision to cross the DRC. I understand it’s at that point you then recruited Charlie for the extra man power?
Mike: Correct – by that point 9Bob needed some TLC, and to that end he was invaluable especially in terms of bringing us out essential parts, such as a spare fuel tank, a new clutch which had conked out on the drive to the DRC and lots more chemical metal adhesive, which had already proved invaluable in the previous four months for fast, easy repairs.
Charlie Hatch-Barnwell: I turned up thinking this would be fun, a bit of a holiday, and as soon as I turned up they put me to work straight away.
Mike: The sump guard was horribly twisted by that point, so the first thing we did was give a big metal hammer to Charlie to try and straighten it out. Chloe: Do you remember the exhaust had fallen off as well? Charlie: We had to replace the wheel bearings, too. There was a good five days of work.
And you weren’t put off when you were told at passport control that three foreign cars had passed in two years? Chloe:
No, that’s when we decided it was a good idea – we wouldn’t have been so motivated if we were fighting against a path that lots of other tourists had taken. Obviously we decided not to travel though unsafe areas, where there was active fighting. Mike: We knew it would be difficult but it had to be done. I read a lot of books about it when I was younger and I thought it sounded exciting. We weren’t reckless, and we spoke to everyone that we could give us information before making any decisions.
What about corruption among officials?
Chloe: We’d already dealt with so many corrupt individuals we were fairly confident it wouldn’t be a problem in the DRC. And up until this point, we had managed to avoid paying any bribes. The policemen do try to obtain money from you but they weren’t really malicious; generally, they wanted us to progress with our journey.
Charlie: You just had to be firm, and they’d never been told no before, so they were just a little confused as to what to do and how to react. Obviously it gets a little frustrating at times because it happens so regularly but you’ve just got to be nice and stand your ground. All of the guidebooks advise everyone to be prepared to pay, so what’s the first thing tourists do? They pay.
Mike: And that’s part of what is messing up the country. Chloe: The white man has the watch, but the black man has the time, so it’s also a case of being extremely patient with them. To be honest there was only one incident when we felt threatened and it turned out to be a huge misunderstanding between what the officials had told the locals about our intentions.
As well as the physical aspect of the journey itself, the book is also about the Congolese people that you encounter and your own emotions. Which of those stood out for you the most?
Charlie: Physical for me. I didn’t realise there would be that much work. I'd lost seven kilos by the end.
Mike: For me, it was the emotional side of things, definitely.
Chloe: Same, and that’s what made it. All of the other stuff, like the physical side of it was hard and I was constantly hungry but everything was within our capabilities.
You say that the country held a certain romance for you all, which seems incongruous given six million lives have been lost as a direct result of fighting, disease and malnutrition. Charlie:
The Congo is a beautiful country. Even though it is war-torn you cannot believe what the guidebooks say; it has had so much bad press from journalists sensationalising everything and making it appear worse than it actually is - it’s just not like that. You can be sat around a fire, with the stars above you, and locals are sharing this abundance of wonderful produce with you, like papaya and sugar cane. The setting is stunning and all you can hear are the sounds of the jungle – you can’t get more romantic than that.
With the benefit of hindsight, would you have changed anything about the trip?
Charlie: It we’d had more planning time, it wouldn’t have been such an adventure. Chloe: I think if we’d carried any more supplies it would have caused problems for the Land Rover as well, and in terms of travel documents there was very little we could have done in advance anyway.
Mike: I agree, instead we were deep in our resilience and determination to succeed, and all of our equipment was designed to carry out multiple functions – we had a manual winch which we could use at the front or rear, lots of ropes, axes and machetes, a shovel and a pair of sand ladders. If you’re facing a problem you can construct a tool to help you get out of it but there’s not necessarily a specialist bit of kit that will help you. We had to be very practical.
What were the weakest points of the Land Rover during your trip?
Mike: When the steering box ate one of the gears it was the single biggest disaster. It required a five day delay as I searched for spares in a nearby town, eventually finding a replacement for $650 from a Land Rover that had been abandoned by an aid agency.
Chloe: There was that stretch of potholed road do you remember? Because the lorries have lower gear options, they’re slower than cars, and normally we’d coast but we couldn’t disengage our engine, so we stalled it a couple of times and then poor Mike had to push start it in second gear, often uphill, with the lorry drivers laughing at him. The handbrake also got stuck on at one point. And when we had a fuel leak, the diesel rotted all of the suspension bushes which was annoying. We also broke a suspension spring, which made the ride really crashy and unpleasant to drive.
And the strongest points?
Mike: Being able to lock the diffs to provide fine control, which combined with brute force will get you across really bad terrain, like boulder fields, or allow you to place it exactly where you want it, such as over bridges.
Charlie: It’s such a big vehicle that to be able to hold its own at weird angles with two tonnes of kit was amazing.
Mike: Having done a five-year stint in the British Army, I’ve had some experience of Land Rovers, so the resilience didn’t really surprise me – they’re just an awesome bit of kit. We were on a tight budget so we were restricted as to what we could buy, but one of the main reasons I went for a mid-eighties Ninety is because it’s mainly mechanical, there’s no fancy kit or loads of electronics to go wrong. It’s engineered to perfection. Saying that, keeping 9Bob going without having a mental breakdown was one of the most challenging aspects of this trip for me.
Were you pretty devastated when you had to sell 9Bob? Chloe:
Yes we were – poor old 9Bob, but we had no choice - the political situation had suddenly deteriorated and we were in rush to get back so I could start a new job. Mike:
It is probably working for some militia in the civil war. Chloe: We feel really bad. Charlie:
I don’t. You sit in the middle of that car for 60 days and see what you think of it. Mike:
I still believe it’s there – I think our next challenge should be to return and buy back 9Bob.
At one point you had to rebuild a bridge and make a raft in order to get across the N’Djili River. With no previous experience how did you achieve both of these tasks?
Charlie: I watched MacGyver religiously when I was kid.
Mike: And I was in the scouts! In all seriousness, none of us had any engineering expertise, so you look at what’s the minimal viable option required for the problem, which was to find tree trunks long enough to cover the existing bridge. When it came to the raft, it was more complicated, but we took what we learnt as kids and applied the same logic.
Chloe: We bounced ideas off each other, and took help and advice from our extended team of workers that we recruited and planned everything out slowly and meticulously.
Mike: Exactly, we were aware of the risks so it was simply a case of reducing them – we tested it first for example with the villagers – their combined weight equating to that of 9Bob, and also swam across to gauge the currents. Once we were happy we decided to do it in two crossings – one with our personal belongings, the other with the vehicle.
Chloe: Getting the raft across was one of the most memorable moments of the trip –the villagers were really excited with what we achieved, and it was infectious,w especially as we were so exhausted at that point.
Has this experience changed your life in any way?
You learn about yourself – the best qualities and the worst qualities because they’re all on display. Charlie:
It taught me the impossible is possible – nothing can stop you. Chloe:
And you couldn’t do that unless you’re with such good friends. Charlie:
Exactly. If something really went wrong and the proverbial was to hit the fan you’d know that we would all come together instantly. Mike:
And that’s what is essential to completing a journey like this: trust, patience and being able to work as a team.READ THE BOOK
From obstructive officials to impassable roads and hostile crowds, Crossing the Congo is an offbeat travelogue of what it takes to traverse some of the toughest terrain on the planet in an old Ninety. Largely told through the eyes of Mike Martin, he reveals how the journey took its toll on him and his co-travellers, but that against all odds and through teamwork they managed to get through it. Available from https://www.amazon.co.uk/Crossing-Congo-Over-Water-Place/dp/1849046859 and priced at £20 this book would make a superb Christmas present for any Land Rover fan or adventurer.