Travelling in Africa requires a special kind of adventurer, says Johan Badenhorst. He has to be well equipped, have a clear plan and an innate love for the continent. But most of all, he needs patience.
On our most recent Voetspore journey – the one that took us through the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – our photographer, Gideon Swart, made a very keen observation. He said he knew many people who boasted about the fact that they had no patience. They pretended that being impatient was actually a virtue.
These people say they cannot tolerate standing in a queue. If the highway is congested, they will get off it and take a back road, even if it means that their journey will take an hour longer.
Gideon says he’s got news for you, if you are that kind of person: you will never see the Congo.
Border crossings and roadblocks in Africa are getting easier to negotiate. Two years ago, when we arrived at the Kenya/Ethiopia border, I was surprised to see how the Ethiopians had jacked up their act. On a previous visit, five years earlier, the crossing seemed to take an eternity. All the forms had to be completed by hand. They did not accept the internationally recognised Carnet de Passage. They designed their own import/export permits.
Now everything has changed. Ethiopia has a new computerised system. Your passport is scanned, you look into a little camera, the official presses “enter” on his computer, stamps your passport, and off you go.
We had a similar experience crossing from Angola into Namibia. The Santa Clara border crossing used to be notorious for its delays. Customs officials took their time, checking passports, scanning documents, requesting that vehicles be unpacked… Many travellers avoided Santa Clara by crossing to and from Angola by using small border posts like Calueque or Ruacana, even if this involved travelling long distances off road.
When we approached Santa Clara recently we were surprised to see brand new buildings. Gone were the dilapidated structures, still bearing the scars of the Angolan civil war. Now officials were working behind computers in air-conditioned offices. The crossing, for six people in three Amaroks, took less than 20 minutes.
The fact that it was a Sunday afternoon probably contributed to the feeling that no one wanted to delay our journey, yet the new systems were an indication that things are changing for the better.
It is not only the border crossings that have become much simpler.
Angola was also known previously for its roadblocks, before and after every town. I can remember travelling through Angola with Koos Moorcroft for the first time in 2008. Koos had us prepared in military fashion. We had stacks of photocopies of passports, vehicle registration papers, yellow fever certificates, letter of invitation and, most importantly, our visas. At each one of these roadblocks, all the details had to be supplied to the officials. Travelling through Angola was a tedious business.
But on our last journey through this fast developing country, we were stopped only once for officials to check our passports. The stop, just north of Ambriz, took about 15 minutes and gave us a good opportunity to stretch our legs.
So things are changing for the better in Africa… until you get to the Congo.
The DRC is an extremely difficult – some would say impossible – country to travel through. There are a number of reasons, including its brutal history, its colonial past, its vast size and also its location.
It’s in the centre of the African continent, and this implies that the equator cuts through the Congo. The Congo River is one of the most perennial rivers in the world. It is constantly fed by “the rainy season” – in either the northern or southern hemisphere. This has a severe impact on the country’s infrastructure. Even in the so-called dry season, road conditions are extremely difficult.
It’s less than 600km from Bunia to Kisangani yet it takes days, sometimes weeks, to negotiate. On our journey we got to a point where more than 300 trucks we held up as two other trucks were stuck in a mud hole. Later on we learnt that the number had grown to more than 500!
The road between Bunia and Kisangani is part of the “transcontinental highway” from Mombasa to Lagos. The road conditions make this probably the most congested road on the continent.
As the poor infrastructure delays traffic in the DRC, so the officials have developed a way of gathering income. Many of them have to wait, sometimes for months, to get their salaries. The capital, Kinshasa, is just too far away.
So the employees started claiming some kind of toll at each roadblock. They call it “small money”. Others call it bribery. I know that if you don’t pay these fees, you will not travel through the eastern and central parts of the DRC. Negotiating a “good” price takes time. Throwing dollars at the official may speed up the process, but it will also create a big hole in your pocket.
The rain forests of central Africa make it very difficult for the police and army to control vigilante elements. The Morgan rebels operate in the area between Bunia and Kisangani. They hide in the thick forest. They are impossible to detect from the air, as the forest gives them perfect cover.
When the rebels are in need of food, money or anything else, they merely strike at the unsuspecting travellers on the highway. In this forest you have nowhere to go. The rebels take whatever they want.
The only way of avoiding the Morgan rebels is to get good information, town by town. Before you proceed to the next town, one should always enquire from the security forces whether the rebels have recently been active in the area. If they have been around, wait until you get the all clear from the police. Only then can you proceed. This can take days, sometimes weeks
Getting to Kisangani is not simple. If you make it, you can continue your journey down the Congo River to Kinshasa. This journey is by barge. Apart from flying, there is no other way.
The problem is that there is no time-table for the barges. They wait for freight to be loaded before scheduling a departure. No one travels downstream with an empty barge. But the freight is on the 300 to 500 lorries, stuck on the road somewhere between Bunia and Kisangani!
Once more the waiting game starts – again for days, sometimes week. There are no guarantees. No set time-tables.
Even when you finally get on a barge, no-one can say when you will get to Kinshasa. Along the way, cargo may be loaded, or off-loaded – sometimes passengers, vehicles and freight.
The barges also get stuck on sandbanks – for days at a time.
Setting a time-table for a journey through the Congo is thus impossible. Just know that if you are a person who claims that impatience is a virtue, you will never see the Congo – and you will be poorer for that!
* Listen to our Podcast with Johan Badenhorst here.