The fifth instalment of the popular Voetspore adventure travel series has kicked off on SABC2. Last month we focused on the team’s experiences in Angola, but the adventure became even bigger in the DRC, Congo and Gabon. It was a jungle out there, says producer Johan Badenhorst
Text: Danie Botha
Photographs: Rey van Rensburg and Gideon Swart
The sun was just peering over the horizon, but Voetspore television programme’s Johan Badenhorst was in a jovial mood. And he spoke in his mother tongue when he was stopped at a makeshift roadblock.
“More ou maat! Hoe gaan dit met jou?”
“Je veux de l’argent de péage! Mille! Mille!” retorted the surly man in French, brandishing an AK47 rifle.
Johan, who has a basic command of the French language, understood that the gun-wielding man at this rickety bridge crossing was demanding “toll fees” from him. And thousands of them, too. So he put on his friendliest face, and boldly continued in Afrikaans.
“Nee, dit gaan lekker met my ook! Sjoe, jy lyk asof jy met ‘n Camel kan doen. Vat so. Hier’s vir jou ‘n sigaret.”
The bandit, part of the so-called Ninja gang that terrorises travellers on the main road between Brazzaville and Ponte Noire by demanding exorbitant and illegal toll fees at gunpoint, took the Camel cigarette, and pocketed it. But he wasn’t finished yet.
“Non, non! Donnez-moi de l’argent!”
The drugged bandit still wanted money, Johan realised. The fact that the AK47 was now in his hands, instead of resting on his shoulder, also helped make this translation as clear as day.
“No, don’t worry about us, my friend. We can look after ourselves. We’re only on our way to Ponte Noire. I’m sure we can handle the bandits along the way,” Johan continued in Afrikaans, pointing at the automatic Russian-made rifle.
By now the bandit was getting just a little bit flustered. On the other side of the bridge more traffic had arrived. Here was this “stupid” South African who couldn’t understand a word he was saying, and on the other side of the bridge were local travellers, who knew better – and would pay the “toll fees” without argument.
He demanded more cigarettes, waved the Voetspore convoy through, and focused his attention and AK47 on the oncoming traffic. Back in Johannesburg after his west African ordeal, Badenhorst chuckles at the incident with the Ninja gang.
“In Africa it is highly advantageous to be able to speak some of the local languages, or at least understand a bit. But at other times, like at that roadblock, it’s easier to play dumb. At least we had been forewarned, so we had a plan.” Fellow campers in the parking lot of the Hippocampe Hotel in Brazzaville had told them about the bandits.
But let’s start the story at the beginning. This leg formed the second part of the Voetspore team’s journey up the less-travelled western coast of Africa. The first leg started in Gansbaai in the Western Cape, taking the convoy through Botswana, Namibia and Angola.
After an eventful border crossing into the Democratic Republic of Congo (see separate box), the team spent a week exploring the area before heading to the capital city, Kinshasa. One of the highlights was the spectacular Chistes de Zonges waterfall, which came standard with an official “camping area”.
“The camping area was, in fact, just a piece of grassland, with no facilities. We also headed to the Kisantu Botanical Gardens, about two hours’ drive from Kinshasa, and this little excursion was well worth it,” says Johan.
During war times (and the DRC has seen a lot of those) the gardens were apparently used as a military camp. A Jesuit priest, Justin Gillet, established the gardens more than 100 years ago. He is said to have experimented with cross-pollination, and in a small and well-preserved museum on the premises there are some examples of his own varieties of tomatoes and lettuce. The well-restored gardens turned out to be quite a revelation.
And then… Kinshasa.
“We’d heard stories about the city beforehand, but nothing can quite prepare you for this place. It’s the most dangerous, most inhospitable African city I’ve ever been in,” Johan says.
“We could never leave the vehicles unattended. Petty theft is rife, and the thieves will steal the paint off the 4×4 if you give them half a chance. There were obviously no camping facilities either, so eventually we camped in the garden of a friend of a friend of a member of the British embassy.
“The police are aggressive and no photographs are allowed in the city, never mind a television camera. We went ‘sightseeing,’ and found some beautiful places, but every time we thought of taking a photograph or video footage, 15 policemen would appear, reprimanding us. It wasn’t pleasant at all.”
There were some small highlights, though.
“The city is full of international expats, and at least we could watch some rugby and have a braai,” smiles Johan.
So the Voetspore crew was rather relieved to leave Kinshasa behind and take the ferry to Brazzaville. It was a revelation. Brazzaville was everything Kinshasa was not.
“This city was beautiful and its people were friendly and welcoming. But there was also no campsite, so we pitched our tents in the shadows of the Hippocampe – a hotel that welcomes campers, provides a hot shower and has a restaurant.”
It was here that they heard about the Ninjas and also met some interesting fellow travellers, such as a South African who was also heading north… on a bicycle.
After running the Ninja gauntlet, the group arrived in Ponte Noire to find a contingent of South African contract workers busy erecting cellphone masts.
“The Congo was in the midst of national elections, and on the actual day of the elections no vehicles were allowed to drive on the roads. So we had a great time with our fellow South Africans, braaiing and watching some movies on M-Net,” Johan says.
The team then made their final border crossing into Gabon… another eventful affair (see separate box). This was the same area in which the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr Albert Schweitzer, established a hospital in 1913, and attended to 2000 patients in the first nine months after the hospital opened.
Also on the travel plan was a visit to the northern part of the Loango National Park. But before they could get there, they had yet another obstacle: the Rabi oil fields.
“As it happened, a South African stationed in Gabon, Jaco Lew, was listening to the radiosondergrense broadcast on the internet when he heard that we were heading his way. So he contacted me via e-mail, asking which routes we were going to take. I told him we were heading for Loango, and he said we obviously didn’t know about the restricted oil fields directly in our path,” says Johan.
But Jaco swung into action, acquiring the necessary paperwork and permission for the Voetspore team to go through. When they finally arrived at the gate of the park – the first-ever private vehicles to do so – he was waiting to make sure they were okay.
“If it hadn’t been for Jaco, and the radio broadcast he heard, we would never have been able to follow that route. He helped us a great deal,” Johan says.
Loango proved an awe-inspiring experience. “We saw jungle elephants, red river hogs, crocodiles of various shapes and species, more bird species than I knew existed, hippos… plenty of game. Then there were the massive trees and rivers. It was an unbelievable experience.”
Aft er the park, the Voetspore convoy snaked its way towards Libreville. Along this route they discovered a rather unsavoury local practice – the selling of bush meat. All along the tree-lined route were carcasses of wild animals for sale. These included monkeys, gorillas, leguan, bush pigs, and crocodiles.
“Much of the ‘bush meat’ is that of endangered species, and the locals seem unperturbed about exterminating their wildlife resources. They seem to have a ready market among local buyers, as well as the many Chinese contract workers in the country,” says Johan.
The trip was nearing its end and the three Nissans soon found themselves in a container, on a cargo ship, heading back to South Africa.
“We probably could have driven back to South Africa, but it would have taken at least 10 days. And by that stage we were rather tired and just wanted to get home, so flying was the easiest and fastest option. Pity that the vehicles took all of two months to get back here, though.”
And the next adventure?
“I would like to take our viewers from Gabon all the way up the western coast to Casablanca. I reckon that would be, well, the mother of all 4×4 overland trips.”