Chloe and Mike fixing the car. Credit: Charlie Hatch-Barnwell

Crossing the Congo

Chloe Baker (2003) describes her extraordinary drive across the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2013 and the impact this has had on people’s perceptions of the country.

The full article can be read in Johnian magazine issue 42, now available online as well as in print. Read a shorter version of the article below:

After completing my medical foundation training, I took a year off to consider my options. Mike, my boyfriend at the time, had always dreamed of driving around Africa and I wanted to improve my French in order to work with medical emergency aid organisations in the future such as Médecins Sans Frontières. We therefore settled on driving through West Africa.

Chloe driving during the trip. Credit: Charlie Hatch-Barnwell

The beginning of adventure

We set off in February 2013, but not long into our journey many conflicts broke out and terrorist kidnappings took place across Mali, Algeria, the Central African Republic and northern Nigeria — precisely the regions we had previously planned for our return leg. The outward journey had gone very well, and we were confident of our car maintenance abilities, navigation and negotiation skills, so we decided to cross the Democratic Republic of the Congo to get home.

We discovered that the only way this had been done with a car was by barge, and so we made it our mission to find a place on the next barge heading north out of Kinshasa. Despite our best efforts, however, the only barge in town left without us and no one knew when the next would get in. Increasingly short of time, we decided to head out overland instead, following the roads marked on our maps and unable to confirm with anyone whether they still existed.

Chloe and Mike after a problem with the Land Rover. Credit: Charlie Hatch-Barnwell

The challenges

A total absence of drivable roads, mishaps with the car, and bizarre intrigues, misunderstandings and communication problems with officials all hampered our progress in equal measure. There were now three of us in the car — myself, Mike and his childhood friend Charlie, who had agreed to join us for the Congo leg of our journey when we decided we needed another man in the car for security.

The suspicion we generated manifested itself most dramatically when we were arrested for 24 hours by a district chief and kept under armed guard in his house. The next day, once we’d finally negotiated our freedom and left the village, we discovered that 40 to 50 trees had been felled overnight to block our route: perhaps the guns and police had been there to protect us overnight rather than intimidate us. We spent two days chopping a path through the felled trees with machetes in order to reach a small river — with no bridge. Building a raft to float the car across seemed like a simple and refreshing challenge by this point, compared to the confusion, unease and bluffing of the previous few days. At least we understood the laws of physics that would have sunk our car had the raft failed.

This is just one example of the many strange situations we found ourselves in over the 2,500 mile journey. When it wasn’t people stopping us, the terrain and the car would conspire to arrest our progress. This trip taught me that I can withstand pressures I didn’t imagine I would ever be subjected to, and find solutions to problems I couldn’t have conceived existed beforehand.

The two and a half tonne Land Rover making it safely to the other side of a river on a raft which took three days to prepare and build. Credit: Charlie Hatch-Barnwell

The discoveries

The biggest surprise of the trip was the incongruence between the descriptions of the country that we read in our “guide book” and other travelogues, and the reality. It is, of course, undeniable that the Congo has a dark, violent and complex history, and interactions with officialdom can be extremely unpredictable. Yet it is also a country of all sorts of human beings, many of whom are trying to make their way in life with honour and dignity. This point is best illustrated by advice from the guidebook, stating that you should always greet an official with a note in the palm of your hand. We did not pay one single bribe during our entire journey across the Congo. It would be a lie to say that we were never asked, but it was rare that any serious pressure was exerted on us to pay, and indeed we met many officials who would have been offended had we tried to bribe them.

Chloe verifying directions with locals on a map they had never seen before. Credit: Charlie Hatch-Barnwell

Slowly we began to realise that our perspective was unique, since we were the only people to have travelled overland across the country. We were also unrestrained by working for a religious mission, aid organisation or the United Nation. We felt compelled to share our views.

The reaction

The response to the book we wrote has been varied. Many people who have made similar journeys have been excited and inspired by the book, contacting us to ask for further detail. Others, including those who work in sectors which profit from the perceived danger of the Congo, either directly or inadvertently, have been less positive and welcoming of our contribution. Since the book is as honest as we could make it, there is plenty of material for those who wish to point out the mistakes we made or our own shortcomings.

We are conscious that our perspective is limited by our route, our individual encounters, the time of year and pure chance — and the book should be read in this context. Our personal experiences are just one small piece in the jigsaw of understanding this complex country.

Read the full article, including more detail about the journey and Chloe’s next steps, in Johnian magazine issue 42, now available online as well as in print.

Chloe and locals building a bridge over a fallen tree. Credit: Charlie Hatch-Barnwell