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Johan Badenhorst – a Journey down Africa’s West Coast to Cape Town

1 July 2009

  • The team with Pelican 16, a vintage South African Air Force Shackleton Mark 3 maritime reconnaissance plane that went down in the Western Sahara desert in 1994, on its way to an international air show in the UK. Miraculously, all 19 crew members walked away from the crash.

Johan Badenhorst and his intrepid Voetspore team left Casablanca in Morocco in the beginning of May 2009, on a journey down Africa’s West Coast to Cape Town. Although still on their way, the team has already achieved one objective… to find the wreck of a South African Shackleton plane in the Western Sahara

Text: Johan Badenhorst

It was a first for the Voetspore adventure television team. We left on an overlanding trip… not in cars, but cocooned in a passenger plane, destination Casablanca in Morocco.

The Toyota Land Cruisers (two 70 station wagons, and a pick-up) left weeks earlier on a cargo ship. We were to collect them in Casablanca, and our journey south could then begin. But first we had to contend with the journey by air. And it seemed as if we were part of the Amazing Patience Test reality television show.

Our first flight to Doha, Qatar, was filled to the brim after the previous night’s flight was cancelled. After the flight was delayed for more than an hour, we were finally on our way. We arrived at Doha late in the evening, and had to wait around until 1.45am to catch a connecting flight. On the schedule was a stop in Tripoli, Liberia, then on to Casablanca.

We shared the plane with about 20 young Moroccans – but the last thing on their minds was sleep. Instead, they made full use of the free drinks and had a raucous party, until the wee hours.

Just before 8am we finally touched down in Casablanca, following a brief stop at Tripoli (where we were not allowed to leave the plane). The formalities were quickly and efficiently dealt with, and Lourens (Human) and I set off in search of the shipping agents and our three Toyota Land Cruisers. The friendly staff informed us that the ship was only leaving Valencia in Spain that day, but it should arrive in Casablanca within 48 hours.

And so started the next stage of our journey: the long, long wait. We went sightseeing, and marvelled at the Hassan II Mosque, the biggest in the world after Mecca. No less than 25 000 people can pray inside, and there’s space for another 80 000 outside.

Our local guide took us to a traditional restaurant. You buy the raw meat at a butcher (about R40 for 500g), take it to the restaurant area at the back of the same shop, where they roast it on a fire. It’s called kefta.

The next day we went back to the shipping agent… no ship, and no Toyotas.

We visited Rabat, 95km north of Casablanca. Saw great attractions, experienced new things.

The next day we went back to the shipping agent… still no ship, and still no Toyotas.

So, some more exploring then, in Marrakech, 300km south of Casablanca. We did a lot of sightseeing. The city’s buildings, none of which stands taller than six storeys, are all painted in the same terracotta colour. It’s a beautiful place, and we decided to stay over, since the area has a lot of attractions.

Two days later we were back in Casablanca, and the shipping agents. What? Still no ship? They will call us when the ship, which is due any day now, arrives.

So we spent some more time exploring Casablanca, getting administration sorted out, eating, sleeping.

By Day Seven of our trip, the call finally came… the ship had docked. We should present ourselves at 9am the next morning, with all the necessary paperwork.

At precisely 9am the next morning, we presented ourselves. Now, you could have the long version, but I’ll spare you that. The short version is that by 9pm we finally took custody of the three Land Cruisers, after 12 hours of being sent from pillar to post.

On the ninth day of our trip, we finally hit the road in the Cruisers. South! Well, not quite south yet. First we headed in the direction of Tangier, the harbour city that connects Africa and Europe, and the West Coast. We could actually see Europe from there. Then we headed off, farther along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. It was a beautiful little road, and from a distance we could see the famous Rock of Gibraltar.

Just after passing the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, we found the one and only campsite along this stretch coastline, near the town of Tetouane. It is called El Boustane, and has remarkably good facilities.

That night we had Moroccan lamb – which we had brought all the way from South Africa, to enjoy in Morocco.

The next day, with the Cruisers repacked and a couple of things adjusted, we pointed the Toyotas’ noses in the direction of Fes, 300km away. We drove on back roads, through mountain passes, through small villages, eventually through a flat section lined with fields of wheat. It was truly remarkable scenery.

Arriving in Fes late in the afternoon, we found some suitable terrain for camping and, after a canned pasta dinner, turned in early.

We were up early the next morning, and waited for a guide. In Fes you don’t find a guide, he finds you. Jib Driss found us, and he turned out to be great. He took us to a lookout point where one could see the old and the new Fes. This is the oldest city in Morocco, with the oldest university in the world.

After spending more time exploring by foot, it was clear that Fes is the heart and soul of Morocco. One day here is not nearly enough to fully appreciate the place, but because of the late arrival of our vehicles, we were behind schedule and had to push on.

We travelled through the heart of the Atlas Mountains. Spectacular scenery. We drove through the university town of Ifrane. Past Azrou, with snow still lying on the higher mountains. Later we arrived at the little town of Zaida, bought some lamb chops, and settled down at a wonderful campsite, next to the main road. There aren’t many campsites in Morocco, but the few that are there are really nice!

On the 12th day of our adventure we covered 600km, 300km of which consisted of slow-going mountain passes.

Late in the afternoon we arrived at Quarzazate, a beautiful and extremely clean city. But we had to go on, over the mountains, via one of the most awe-inspiring mountain passes in the world.

Second gear, third, second, third, second, third. We eventually stopped counting the gear changes as we went up, down, up, to 2260m. Then down again. The sun absconded, and we completed the last stretch in the dark, deciding to push through to Marrakech.

The GPS showed a camp site just outside the city and we eventually found it – but it was actually the fancy Dar Zarraba lodge! Luckily the friendly staff let us sleep in one of their traditional Berber tents.

Agadir was our goal the next day, but the 200km road leading there was in bad shape and filled with heavy trucks. It took us four hours to complete this section. At the Camping Alantic Parc, 25km north of Agadir, we discovered one of the best campsites so far. That night we had bully beef and mash… dinner fit for a king!

After changing money and completing some administrative tasks in Agadir the next morning, we tackled the 600km stretch lying ahead of us that day.

A strong crosswind restricted the Cruisers to a safe cruising speed of 100 km/h as we started heading into the Sahara. In the southern part of Morocco it was soon clear that our film cameras (even though we had all the paperwork) were no longer as welcome as they were in the big cities. At a roadblock in the town of Tan Tan, we were detained for 30 minutes while all our details were taken down, phone calls made, and our vehicles inspected.

Driving out of Tan Tan, a traffic officer stopped us. We had ignored a stop street, he claimed. He wanted to write a fine, but insisted on seeing some cash first. We refused. Eventually he grudgingly wrote out the fine, and we paid him with a travellers’ cheque. We had lost another 30 minutes, leaving one very unhappy traffic officer in our dust.

The sun went down and we still had more than 100km to go to the Le Roi de Bedouin camp, apparently one of the best stopovers for overlanders doing the West Coast thing. But alas, when we finally arrived there, we found that the place had closed down! There was no one around!<
br>The wind was howling and it was bitterly cold. So we made camp right there, had soup and rusks, and went to sleep.

It was an extremely cold night, and much colder than we had ever thought the Sahara would be. The next morning we hit the road to Laayoune, a tax-free city where we filled the Cruisers’ tanks with diesel, at R5 per litre.

The increased police and army activity in this area was apparent. With a 30-year old conflict still raging between Morocco and the Sahrawi Polisario “rebels” over territorial disputes in the Western Sahara, that was hardly surprising. Fortunately we had the right paperwork, as we were stopped at the entrances and exits of all the towns, and sometimes in between too.

But in the town of Boujdour the routine check took on a different angle. A policeman demanded a certain travel insurance document – which we were assured in Casablanca was not needed. He said it would cost us about R3000 for this permit – for our one day left in Morocco!

But… if we help him, he will help us. R220 would make the problem go away, and the team wouldn’t have to drive all the way back to Agadir to secure the R3000 worth of mostly worthless documentation.

We don’t normally pay bribe money. This time we did… and felt very guilty about it.

We covered the nearly 600km on a very good road to the town of Al Dahkla without further hassle, arriving there by 6pm. That night we camped at the town’s deserted campsite. It was again bitterly cold, and the wind was pumping. It was our last night in Morocco.

The next morning we left Dahkla, but someone who saw our television camera reported us to the police. After another lengthy check, we were finally on our way to the Mauritanian border post.

On the Moroccan side the paperwork took 45 minutes to complete, and an official demanded some alcohol in exchange for not confiscating gear in the Cruisers. No man’s land between the countries consisted of a narrow track through a minefield. We almost got stuck in the soft sand too!

On the Mauritanian side a long queue awaited us. After more than two hours, we finally arrived at the front – only to find a guard closing the gate! The officials were off to have lunch. We had to wait another 15 minutes.

It was bribe time again, we soon realised. These officials were not even subtle about it: they matter-of-factly demanded a “small gift ”, in exchange for not unpacking our vehicles, and confiscating what they fancied.

It eventually cost us coffee and tea, toothpaste, a packet of cigarettes, and R200.

Just after the border post Sidi, our Mauritanian guide, was waiting for us. He would spend the next few days with us, and would prove invaluable. Arriving at Nouadibhou, it was clear that this country is one of the poorest in the world. It’s very run down.

Yet the Baie de Levrier campsite proved to be quite good! That night we went for dinner at the Le Merou in the Nouadibhou, finding excellent cuisine, beer and wine.

The next day we tackled the real Sahara, the real 4×4 stuff . We were now also edging closer to finding the wreck of Pelican 16, a South African Air Force Shackleton Mark III that went down in Mauritania in 1994. It was on our list of “must do’s” for this trip.

Ahead of us was a long day of difficult desert driving. How man or beast survives in this inhospitable climate boggles the mind. The earth is flat and devoid of any plant growth. The wind howls non-stop. Sand gets into every nook and cranny. It’s not pleasant.

Late that aft ernoon we made camp on a flat piece of nothing. The next morning everything was covered in sand, but we were in good spirits. If we pushed along, we might reach the wrecked Shackleton before sunset, about 300km north-east of our positi on, in Polisario territory.

Pitch black mountains rose from the flat earth, surrounded by the red Sahara sand. Beautiful.

Then, in the middle of the Sahara Desert, we were stopped at a Polisario roadblock. Sidi did the talking, and we were waved through.

By 3pm we saw something in the distance. It was blue grey. It was Pelican 16. It was a special, emotional moment to find the old Shackleton where it lay broken in the middle of the Sahara desert. We explored the plane, climbing in and over everything. I even phoned Hartog Blog, the coordinator of the fateful flight in 1994.

We decided to pitch camp right next to the plane. Even the wind played along, and went away. We could finally braai a few chops!