Taking the bus to Epulu seemed straightforward enough: Buy a ticket, board the bus (Les Enfants D'Abord), and get off in Epulu. But, as you may have guessed, not everything goes as planned in the Congo.
In Beni, the bus station posted fares to the various towns their buses traveled through...Butembo, Bunia, Komanda, Mambasa, Beni, etc. Epulu was not posted, but we knew the bus would be passing through. So, we got a price quote of $20 per person, and the bus would be arriving in Beni at 10:00am that day. It was 9:00am at this time. Doing the math, my guide and I figured we'd get to Epulu by late afternoon. So, we ran back to Hotel Source Kabungulu, grabbed our bags, checked out, and went back to the bus station. Just as we were about to buy the ticket, the attendant said the bus driver decided he wasn't coming that day, and so the bus was delayed until the next day. Splendid.
We spent the rest of that day trying to arrange other rides to Epulu, but eventually returned to the bus station to buy a ticket for the next day when we realized the bus was the cheapest way to go. Of course, when we returned the price was now $25, which is the full fare to Nia Nia...though Nia Nia is hours beyond Epulu. We were told to come back at 9:00am the next day for the 10:00am departure.
At 9:00am sharp the next day we arrived at the bus stop. 10:00am came and went, as did 11:00am, and 12:00pm. My interpreter and I decided that if the bus did not arrive by 1:00pm we would demand a refund and look for another ride. Sure enough, at 1:00pm the bus showed up...looking overcrowded, and extremely dangerous to step foot in. With no backup plan, we boarded. Only then did we realize that the bus was not going to go to Epulu that day. Instead, it was only going as far as Mambasa, then continue to Epulu the next day. Splendid.
I scored the seat right behind the driver, which had a good view, but was anything but comfortable. I sat between my interpreter and another man on a bench meant for two people, with my legs wedged between bags and the driver's seat. There were no working gauges on the bus. The speedometer was always on zero, as was the RPM dial, and the fuel gauge was always on empty. But, before we left Beni, the driver made sure to have his deluxe horn fixed...so as we passed through villages he could blare various horn sounds at the kids. If this bus was going to plunge off a cliff, at least I could hear Dixie (or maybe a lazer horn sound) as the bus and I desintegrated upon impact.
The four hour ride from Beni to Komanda was uneventful. By "uneventful," I mean that we only had to stop a minimum of five times for police checks in which my papers were scruntized and my name recorded in their records, and the barrel of an AK-47 hanging off the shoulder of a policeman got dangled in my face as he climbed over people in the bus to check their paperwork. Luckily, the trigger was not sensitive.
In Komanda, the bus pulled over unexpectedly at 4:45pm, and the driver said something to us in Swahili. I turned to my interpreter and found out that the bus was not going any further that day, so we had to spend the night in Komanda. Splendid. Apparently 7km up the road was the bridge across the Ituri River. However, earlier in the year an overloaded truck collapsed the bridge, which meant the only way across was on wooden rafts and ferries that are hand-pulled across the river. Those rafts stopped working at 5pm, and the bus would never make it in time.
We were welcome to sleep on the bus, though that was the last thing I wanted to do. Sitting in the darn thing was uncomfortable enough. Luckily, not far from where the bus stopped was a restaurant (see my review of Restaurant Taux du Jour), and the owner had rooms to sleep in. I'm not sure what the other passengers did (there was another hotel in town, though it was a dump even for Congo standards), but my interpreter and I had a good nights sleep and didn't see any other passengers where we slept.
The bus was supposed to depart at 6:00am the next morning. Amazingly, we left at 6:15am. Ten minutes later we were at the Ituri River, in a queue to cross the river. The process was simple: all the people get off the bus and cross the river on a raft, the goods are unloaded and floated across on another raft, the bus is then floated across on another raft, and then the goods are loaded back on the bus, followed by the people. I figured it would take an hour. Four hours later, as I sat in the bus writing in my journal, I realized we wouldn't be leaving anytime soon as the men outside seemed perplexed as to how they were going to fit everything back in the bus. Somehow, though, they got their act together and we were on our way at 11:30am...five hours after we arrived at the crossing.
The next four hours were relatively easy. The road is dirt, but flat and smoothe. We hardly had any police checkpoints, and only had one extended stop in Mambasa. The scenery changed to more forest and jungle surroundings, and we soon reached the entrance to the Okapi Reserve. Epulu, though, was another hour or two down the road, deep inside the reserve. It's called the Pan-African Highway, though by American standards it would be better called a bad, rough, terrible, dirt path.
At 3:30pm we reached Epulu. The bus dropped us off right at the gate where I was supposed to go, and then it continued on it's way after the driver checked-in with the park rangers.
While we waited at the river crossing near Komanda, we asked the driver when he would be returning to Beni through Epulu. He said "Sunday", which was two days too late for us. It didn't matter what he said, though. I feel like I will never want to take that bus again, if I ever had to. But, I must say it was a really awesome experience, and I have a bunch more stories to tell from my trip because of it. Plus, it was only $25.