I'm now back in the UK recovering from a quite extraordinary trip to the Republic of the Congo. My aim was to reach the little-visited Lake Tele in the remote north of the country in an attempt to find put more about the mokele-mbembe, a legendary creature that is supposed to roam the area.
We flew up from Brazzaville to Impfondo and were promptly arrested at the airport: although we had valid visas, we didn't have a "permit to be tourists". We – my guide Jean-Pierre, a wonderful Cameroonian, and I – were taken from the airport by police and had to spend an unbelievably frustrating day being marched from bureaucrat to functionary, all of whom wanted their "cut", before we could get the stamps we needed on the correct permits that would allow us to travel further.
We were eventually released a day late and made our way to Epena where a boat took us down a remote river to Boha, a village whose inhabitants claimed to own Lake Tele.
At the village we started to negotiate access to the lake, a two-day walk away. We needed porters and guides. Time was tight so we wanted to get moving. But the villagers were less interested in time or schedules than they were in money and how much we were going to pay for the privilege of seeing their lake.
We first had to pay the government-appointed village chief. He then took us to the village elders. They were sitting in a semi-circle, armed with spears and machetes and looked an incredibly scary bunch. Negotiations started, but we could only speak to the elders through the village porte-parole, a young man whom we were not convinced was translating our requests all that efficiently.
The elders demanded an extortionate amount of money and, when we refused, things got very heated, with a lot of waving of spears and fists. This went on for hours and hours, with our precious time ticking away.
Finally, in the middle of the afternoon, we came to a financial agreement. This, said the elders, called for a celebration: lethal bottles of jungle gin were produced and consumed. The whole village got very, very drunk and it soon became clear that nobody was going anywhere that day.
The chief indicated which men he had selected to be our porters, but as they were all drunk, it was difficult to make a judgement as to their efficacy in this role. We were offered blackened, smoked catfish and lumps of dried cassava for supper. This was washed down with more jungle gin and I started to feel quite peculiar. Suffice to say that my night in a tent in the village was a difficult one bowel-wise and I awoke drained and weak and not much looking forward to the day ahead.
We tried to assemble our porters only to discover that one of them had gone mad in the night. He was suffering from hallucinations and had started hacking at himself with a machete. He was covered in blood and screaming blue murder. For his and everyone else's safety, he was subdued and tied to a tree.
Then a huge argument broke out among the villagers because we had pitched our tent near the chief's hut. This, according to the elders was wrong: "Lui, c'est l'état!" screamed the eldest elder, his eyes reddened with anger. The chief hit back and a full screaming match ensued with much shaking of spears. We backed away quietly and started looking at our boat longingly and wondering if we would ever get out of this Conradian nightmare. I was starting to wonder whether the real monsters might not be right here in the village.