Voetspore Diary: Be safe
It’s been more than 16 years and over 250 000 kilometres, including 40 countries. More border crossings and roadblocks than Johan Badenhorst can care to remember. More nights under the stars in the middle of the veld, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, than he can count. Amazingly though, Johan and his respective teams have never had any major security issues on all the trips. So how does he do it?
The Voetspore team has hardly had a problem with security on 11 expeditions. So the question beckons: Is this just luck? To a certain extent, yes. We have been extremely fortunate. Once a gas bottle was stolen in Uganda. They brought it back later that day. One of our guys lost a jacket in Tanzania. This was due to carelessness. One evening the mattress that my son Streicher put out to dry disappeared and now an Ethiopian has a good night’s rest every night.
Gideon’s flip flops went astray during a night’s camping in one of Africa’s most populous countries. But that’s about it. No other theft. No other threat to our security. No threatening behaviour by the locals. There was one night, perhaps, when things could have gone the other way. We crossed from Congo Brazzaville to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at a place where, as we learnt later, there was no border crossing. It was early evening. Some of the locals have had a few drinks too many. We were uncertain where to go as there was no road indicated on our GPS or maps.
Some of the gathering crowd started shaking our vehicles. I got a little nervous. But Lourens had a plan. He asked Streicher to donate his soccer ball. At first Streicher was a little reluctant. But then he, too, realised the seriousness of the situation. He kicked his ball down a hill as hard as he could. The whole village ran after it. The potentially dangerous situation was sidestepped. With a soccer ball. Another time we got arrested in Agadez in Niger. The interesting part is that we did not get arrested because we did something wrong. We got arrested for our own safety. The police chief of the town in the middle of the Sahara was worried that the belligerent Tuaregs would kidnap us and demand a ransom. He did not want this to happen on his watch. So he arrested us and kept us under house arrest until the next armed convoy left Agadez.
These two incidents are the only two I can recall where there was some cause for concern. The main reason we haven’t had any security problems over the last decade and a half is that we’ve avoided conflict areas. There are so many parts of Africa that we would still like to visit, but many locations are no-go zones for the moment. We were lucky to visit Timbuktu when we did. In the recent past it became a war zone with ISIS being active in the area. The same can be said of the city Gao with its beautiful dune rouge adjacent to the Niger River. The north of Nigeria is currently partly controlled by Boko Harram. In 2009, we drove to the interesting cities of Kano and Maiduguri. Today it is virtually impossible.
On the other side of the continent, Al-Shabaab is in charge of large parts of Somalia with their influence spilling over to Kenya from time to time. Lamu is a beautiful town on the Kenyan coastline. Currently it is a place tourists should avoid. But that is the story of Africa. It is probably the most adventurous continent to travel, yet you should always be aware of the fact that there may be political instability. That is why you should do your homework and always be aware of recent situations. A while ago, the countries round the bulge of Africa were inaccessible. First there were wars in politically unstable places like Liberia. Then the region suffered under the scourge of Ebola. Now it is probably safe to go to Toga, Ghana, Benin, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Don’t be scared to travel Africa, as it is a wonderful continent with friendly, hospitable people. But like anywhere in the world, be aware of potential problems. At the moment, South Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Chad, Central African Republic and probably the eastern part of the DRC and Burundi are places that overlanders should avoid. With a little patience, who knows, perhaps one day we will be able to travel from Casablanca to Cairo, or from the northernmost point of the continent in Tunisia right down the middle of Africa, all the way to the Cape of Good Hope. Meanwhile, we bide our time and visit the areas where the risk is minimal and the experience, exceptional.