The road to the airport was blocked.
It took a while to figure this out. Traffic stopped, for no reason that we could see; but no oncoming traffic was coming the other way, which was suggestive. Though it took a while to realize this, because every other vehicle, in an attempt to get ahead, had swung into the oncoming lane, so that the road was filled solid. Big trucks bearing pallets of refined copper from the mines, minibuses with young men hanging off the back: all stood idling, waiting. Every minute or so a bicycle loaded with bundles of charcoal would pass us, heading for town.
Eventually we saw that the cars up ahead were, with great difficulty, turning around. A bus began to work its way back and forth, sawing through the mass of stalled vehicles, until it miraculously managed to get pointed back towards town. The whole mass began to ferment, break up, and turn back. And we started to wonder if we would reach the airport in time for the (single, daily) flight to Nairobi.
But we had a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and a driver who knew the lay of the land. So we left the main road, and cut across fields of red clay. There had been heavy rains the night before, and the red clay of Lubumbashi, when wet, turns into astonishing masses of glutinous mud. We lurched and swerved and plunged, sheets of dirty water flying as we slammed down into deep ruts and potholes. Once or twice the wheels began to spin and we feared the worst. But our driver knew his business, and we recovered and lurched onwards. Off to one side we could see the accident that had blocked the road: an ugly looking thing involving a bus and one of the copper trucks. The airport road would be blocked for hours to come. Four-wheel-drive cars could attempt a long detour around; everyone else would have to go home.
We passed through a small settlement, and then another. People came out to watch us go by, pointed down the road, and shouted -- That way! That way! Children waved and waved.
In a little bit we came to a field of brick-makers. The red clay of Katanga makes excellent bricks -- you can see them all through the town -- and all around Lubumbashi, the beehive shaped brick-kilns dot the plain. To make the bricks, you must first add a certain proportion of sand or fine gravel; this is done by hand, the sand dug out of a sand-pit and then carefully sorted by fineness into piles. The field of brick-makers was dotted with these piles. The track we were following ran through it, and the brick-makers, scenting opportunity, had blocked it. How much to pass? Swift negotiation: a thousand francs (about $1.10) per vehicle. Fine. Bills were handed over, a dozen hands lifted the impromptu barricade, and we went bouncing and rumbling between the piles of sand -- hundreds of them, each about the height of a man's hip, because this is most convenient for quick shoveling.
And so we came to the airport, where we went through various formalities and then sat in the lounge waiting for our flight, which was an hour late.
* * * * *
The Nairobi flight cycles endlessly through the loop Nairobi - Lubumbashi - Harare, Zimbabwe. So we flew to Harare, and spent an hour on the runway there.
I didn't see much of Zimbabwe, so I don't have anything to say about it, except that the descent to Harare airport is very steep and swift. Oh, and Zimbabwean English has diverged noticeably from the accents of Kenya and Uganda. There's probably an interesting story behind that.
* * * * *
From Nairobi downtown to the airport is twenty minutes at five in the morning, well over an hour otherwise. Plan accordingly!
On the plus side, the hotel here is great. As I think I mentioned a couple of posts back, the Lubumbashi Park is all faded grandeur. Very faded. The showers lack curtains and the hot water is tepid, the aircon broke down the day before we checked out, and the room was constantly full of mosquitoes. I never did figure out where they came from. I will note that the experience of mosquitoes in the tropics is very different than in temperate climes. A room full of mosquitoes in Germany is "damn it, can't sleep with these things whining in my ears!" In Lubumbashi it's "what's the active ingredient in my anti-malarials? Are there resistant strains around here? Do I want to get up and google it?"
Anyway. Back in Nairobi, and back to Kinshasa tomorrow.