Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Gabonese Transport, Part 3

Near the beginning of this trip I took a bus ride in Mongolia. I described it in the blog like this:

Imagine a mechanical bull. That's right, the kind they have at those rodeo-themed bars. Ok, now imagine that you're sitting on that mechanical bull. Now, imagine that you're sitting on that mechanical bull in a closet. Now make that closet about half the size that you were just imagining. Maybe a little smaller. It's not just any closet, but more like Mrs. Trunchbull's "chokey" from Roald Dahl's Matilda. You know, with the sharp bits of metal sticking out of the walls so you can't lean against them. Ok, got it? Now, it's not just you on this bull.  It's you and your new friend, Sanjay, sitting sidesaddle. In the closet. Well, maybe it's more of a cubicle. You  can see over the walls a little bit. Now imagine that you take another 20 cubicles just like the one that you and Sanjay are in and pack them into a room of about 200 sq ft. Now put that room filled with all 43 of you on wheels. Now turn on all of those mechanical bulls. Now try to sleep. Welcome to the last couple of days of my life.

Oh yeah, and add in a puking kid, a couple of plastered old timers and three flat tires.

Since that day back in July, I´ve been bent and squeezed and crammed and prodded and strapped and balanced on all sorts of trains, planes, buses, boats, cars, trucks, motos, bicycles and even my own motorcycle for a bit. The roads have run the gamut from brand-new tarmac to a vague directional bearing across the steppe. I thought I had had some rough rides, but then I came to Gamba, Gabon.

Most sane people fly here. In fact, most of the westerners here either work for Shell (like my host), or are well-off tourists who are happy to pay upwards of $200-400/day to explore the nearby Loango National Park, so an extra couple hundred for the hours´ flight from Libreville isn´t so bad. I opted for the other route, described as a ¨route dur¨ (hard road) by locals. Psshh, no problem. I´m all about the ¨route dur¨

The vehicle

I fit behind the big blob.
When I bought my ticket, I had the option of ¨cabine¨or ¨derrière¨. Derrière was cheaper, so obviously that was my choice. I had a vague notion that this probably meant riding in the back of a pickup, but that´s not so bad. In fact, one of my best rides was in the back of a pickup in Cambodia a few years back with 25 sacks of rice, 15 dining room chairs, 2 other Americans (Dave and Elena, for those who know them), 13 Cambodians, all of our luggage, and a dog. The photo from that day actually is the background photo for this blog. On that day, however, our truck bed was slightly larger and I had just enough room to wedge my butt onto the edge of the truck, tuck in behind the cab with my center of gravity solidly within the vehicle, and hold on tight to some solid chunks of metal as we zoomed down the paved road.

In Gabon, ¨Derrière¨ means you get to share the space on a 2x6 strapped across the very back of the bed of the truck with three Gabonese dudes, grab onto whatever tarp or rubber straps you can bunch into your sweaty little fists and hope you don´t fall off the back. On the relatively smooth bits of road, that meant sitting was an option, as long as we didn´t hit any big potholes. Unfortuntely, there were very few ¨relatively smooth bits of road¨.

The Road

An hour after we pulled out of Tchibanga on the way to Gamba, we turned off of the ¨main road¨ and onto the road that ¨dances,¨ as my comrade on the bumper described it. Those of us on the back spent six hours on our toes with knees bent in an athletic, shock-absorbing position for the next six hours as we drove through some of the most loosely defined ¨road¨ I´ve seen. It ranged from bumpy dry riverbed to sloppy muck to actual currently running river:

Average bumps

Average muck

Average straight road

At least the hood is still above the water, even if the bumper isn´t...
In fact, out of all of the types of travel I listed above, there is one type that I was most reminded of as I balanced my way across the Gabonese countryside with a death grip on fistfuls of tarp: Dogsledding. It turns out, riding the back of this truck is very much like riding a light sled behind a strong team through a particularly rough portage trail, except with no handlebar or brake. One is constantly shifting weight from one foot to the other, thrusting hips from side to side to keep from falling off or tipping, and knowing all along that if a fall does happen, it might take a while for your ride to stop to let you catch up. On the plus side, hypothermia is the furthest thing from your mind, except as a seemingly nice alternative to the heat stroke that seems imminent from hours of exposure on the back of a truck in the equatorial sun.

Bridges are overrated
Occasionally we got breaks from our balancing act to maneuver the vehicle across two of the bigger rivers. One we got to bring ourselves across on the barge/raft shown above, and the other we had to wait for a larger, powered barge (which, in turn, we had to lift and push out of the mud by hand before it could start moving).

In the end, 8 1/2 hours after leaving Tchibanga, I arrived in Gamba, about 90km away as the crow flies.  The best part is, I get to do it all again on my way back! Here´s a bit of video from early on to give you a taste.

Oh yeah, and for the guys with me on the back, this is their ride to work.

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