The notorious Acre of Death in Angola is a 50km stretch of beach driving that is said to have claimed countless 4×4s over the years. Johan Badenhorst and his Voetspore team have run the gauntlet a few times, and reminisce about the great and the slightly less great experiences he’s had on that 50km-long challenge
On the south-western part of Angola, there is a notoriously dangerous stretch of coastline referred to as the Acre of Death or Doodsakker. Many vehicles have been lost when overlanders miscalculated this 50km section. If you do not read the tides correctly (or if you do not pay attention to weather forecasts about the swell on the ocean), this place can cause a sudden stop to an overland journey. I know. In 2007, we very nearly lost three vehicles and a trailer in the Doodsakker. We were on the fifth Voetspore expedition, travelling from Gansbaai to Gabon.
For the Angolan leg of our journey, we employed Koos Moorcroft, previous sergeant major of the army and by then, tour operator and guide in Angola. Koos was familiar with the Doodsakker. I believe he even gave this stretch of beach its name. We arrived at Foz do Cunene where the Kunene River runs into the Atlantic. After spending the night at the pump station a few kilometres upstream, we were ready to tackle the stretch up north. It was full moon. Spring tide. This is the only time when the Doodsakker can be attempted as the Namib dunes run into the sea. You need a window when the ocean pulls back just a few metres to allow vehicles to pass. Our timing was perfect. So we thought.
We drove north. It was a perfect day. En route we stopped to pick some of the massive black mussels that grow in the plankton-rich waters of the Benguela Current. We stopped for video recordings of a jackal on the dunes. We had to delay our entry into the Doodsakker until just after 9am as the tide was to be at its lowest at 10am. But there was another factor that we did not bring into our calculations…
Before we left Foz do Cunene, Koos phoned Rico Sakko. Rico is the owner of the Flamingo Lodge, located between Tombua and Namibe. Rico had been in Angola since the 1990s and few know this place better than him. Rico said to Koos that we should not attempt the Doodsakker as a high sea the previous day had opened rocks at two sections preventing vehicles to pass, even during low spring tide. A calm sea is needed to wash the sand in between the rocks. The Voetspore team held a meeting. We argued that perhaps the rocks were open, but there was a chance that the sand had been washed in again during the last spring tide. Against the advice of the expert – and against Koos’ wishes – we decided to attempt it. We were blinded by the urge to get the better of this stretch of coastline.
We arrived at the rocks at 10am. They were washed open and it was impossible to pass. Furthermore, the swell of the ocean was more than three metres. This meant that the waves ran all the way up to the dune. There was no time to turn back, huge breakers were pounding the coastline. We phoned Rico again. He said there was little he could do. His advice was that we try and sit it out for 13 hours and try to drive back to Foz do Cunene at 11pm. That is, if the Atlantic had not taken our vehicles.
We secured our vehicles the best we could by driving them up the dune. What this meant in practice was that the vehicles stood with their noses up the dune and their rear ends on the beach. We unpacked everything we thought could be taken out with a chopper. Then we waited. It was a very long wait. As the tide came in, the waves started knocking the vehicles as well as our trailer. It was very scary but there was absolutely nothing we could do.
Parking the vehicles up the dune worked. The waves caused them to be dug in deeper and deeper, but did not drag them into the ocean. That night, at 11pm, according to Rico’s instructions, we drove back with the occasional wave breaking through underneath the vehicles. We arrived at a place of safety, away from the sea, at midnight. We set up camp, Koos christened it Camp Relief.
A few years later my family and I, with friend Ampie Kruger and his family, made another attempt to drive the Doodsakker. Again we were advised not to do so:a huge swell had opened the rocks making it impossible to drive between Tombua and Foz do Cunene. We had to take the other option – the difficult, uncomfortable, rocky road in the interior. This time we listened.
I’m fortunate to have had several other attempts at the Doodsakker and have been able to succeed. The last time was in May, with a convoy of 16 vehicles. I led a group of 28 guests on an Angolan adventure. Rico was our guide and this time there was something very special about the trip. Our group included two cancer sufferers. Stoney was in the process of having his lymph nodes treated while Leo was recuperating from breast cancer, a cancer more and more common, even among men. There was something very symbolic about the battle of these guys and conquering the Doodsakker.
First, you had to get the facts right, like we did with our first attempt. But that is not all you need to know. You also have to listen to the experts. You have to trust their advice and not follow your own stubborn beliefs. You should also listen to the people around you and depend on their advice: Rico gave Koos a message on the satellite phone at Foz do Cunene and Koos relayed the message. But, in our blind ambition to conquer one of the holy grails of overlanding on the African continent, we wouldn’t listen.
We were extremely lucky not to lose anything on the Angolan coast. The next time we listened. This allowed me to go back to south-western Angola over and over again. I trust that Stoney and Leo also have a Koos and Rico to help them in their battles. Cancer is a terrible disease, often with fatal consequences. But with the right advice, the right guidance and the correct treatment, cancer can be beaten.
Good luck to Stoney and Leo and all of those who battle to conquer their individual acres of death. And who during this battle, continue to seek adventure. Spend some quality time with those near to you because as Ryszard Kapuściński said in his brilliant book on the Angolan War, every day is “Another day of Life”.
Text: Johan Badenhorst