The hunt has begun in the Republic of Congo's capital city, Brazzaville, and I've got kitenge in my sights. Brighter is better: I will know the precise specimen I am after the moment I see it. Reds speckled with navy blues, forest greens swirled with mustard yellows, purples splashed with the oranges of Africa's setting sun.
The women of this city wear kitenge – colourful, printed African fabric – as though it were a uniform, though it's not consistent at all; it is bought in the markets in seven-yard lengths and crafted into constructions as glorious and independent as the wearer herself: skirts topped with sweetheart blouses cinched artfully at the waist; sleeves puffed into floral bouffants; peplums frothing tutu-like about the hips; headdresses flaming skywards; floor-length dresses worn to the market like fabulous shopping-day ballgowns.
The colour is intoxicating. I've just a few hours in Brazzaville, and all I want is my own piece of kitenge. But officialdom has other ideas. The president is on the move today – he's attending an African Union summit in Kigali and the streets are being blocked off so that his motorcade can reach the airport unencumbered. Truckloads of presidential guards prowl the streets, their purple berets whizzing by like polka dots in the afternoon sun.
"There's not much to see in Brazzaville anyway," says my guide, Melly Batonda.
But it looks to me like a pleasant little city. I've flown from the vast wilderness of Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the country's north to this settlement buzzing on the banks of the Congo River. From the air I'd seen the sandbars and broad swirls of water separating the peaceful Republic of Congo from its notorious neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I'd seen that country's own capital city, Kinshasa, rising like an older, bolder sibling on the opposite banks. How must it feel to be stared down by that 11-million-strong behemoth when your country's entire population tops just a third of that, I'd wondered?
But on the ground I see that Brazzaville puffs and preens and prances as assuredly as any other. The city streaks past me in psychotropic glory, women gliding by in their kitenge dresses, shopfronts painted in primary colours, the roof of Basilique Sainte-Anne crowned with glazed, malachite-green roof tiles (we can't go in today since they're holding a remembrance mass for a late former president, said to have been dispatched in the late 1970s with the help of the current president), and the green taxis beetling about like toy cars.
"Everything goes with Mother Nature," Melly says.
"The taxis in Brazza are green for the trees we have here. In Pointe-Noire they're blue for the sea. And in Dolisie, Congo's third city, they're yellow for the sand."
But sometimes things are brown. We've raced through the streets, heading off the president's motorcade and arriving unhindered at Marche Poto-Poto – "the market of mud".
"This place is muddy," Melly says. "Everything is built on top of water."
In the fabric quarter, the market's sludgy foundations are diminished by the oasis of colour levitating above them. Textiles bloom brighter than the brightest summer's day, more vivid than nature ever intended. They spill onto the pavements, hang from eaves, decorate shopfronts in unrestrained floridity.
West African men dressed in suits sewn entirely from kitenge sell lengths of cloth to similarly clothed women. Indian and Arab traders unfurl swathes of waxy fabric made in Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire and the Netherlands and probably China, too. But there are too many colours to choose from. One lavish swatch of kitenge blends into the next, blurring before my eyes in kaleidoscopic fury. I am caught in the bright headlights and blinded by their beauty.
It's time to go. I've a flight to catch and the presidential procession is converging on the airport; delays are expected.
"Five minutes," Melly says, leading me into one last shop.
And there I find it, buried deep in a pile of fabric: seven yards of kitenge patterned in arabesques of turquoise and pink and yellow, with the regal face of an African woman poised at their centre. I snap it up, jump across the muddy dribble into my taxi, and am transported swifter than the president's cavalcade direct to Brazzaville's airport.
Etihad flies to Abu Dhabi from Sydney and Melbourne twice daily, and onwards to Brazzaville via Nairobi with codeshare partner Kenya Airways. See etihad.com
Brazzaville is the starting point for The Classic Safari Company's seven-night safari in Odzala-Kokoua National Park, renowned for its critically endangered western lowland gorilla conservation program. The itinerary can be tailored to include a city tour and accommodation in Brazzaville. See classicsafaricompany.com.au
Brazzaville is the starting point for The Classic Safari Company's seven-night Odzala-Kokoua lowland gorilla safari. See classicsafaricompany.com.au
Catherine Marshall travelled as a guest of The Classic Safari Company.