Voetspore diary, with Johan Badenhorst

In our travels on the African continent over the past decade we have relied heavily on the old man. Corrupt customs official, rogue policemen at impromptu roadblocks, bandits with their “toll gates” and ordinary Africans – when they heard we were from South Africa, the attitudes changed drastically.

“Madiba! Bafana Bafana! My brothers?”

This is how we were greeted. The old man made it possible for us to travel the continent with the blessing of the local people. This had been the case over the past 150 000km. Except for one day at Matadi.

Problems actually started a few days earlier. We were on our way from Gabon, through Brazzaville in the Congo and the DRC to Angola. Our experience the previous year, travelling north, made us decide that crossing the mighty Congo River at Kinshasa was not a good idea. That is one of the most challenging border crossings in the world and we’d done it before. Therefore, we thought, let’s try something different.

One option was travelling via Point Noire through the Angolan enclave of Cabinda to Matadi. It looked like the alternative route.

We knew about the problems with Angolan visas. Ours were arranged from South Africa. We were to pick them up at the Angolan border post at Matadi. But these were single entry visas.

It was unclear if entry into Cabinda would constitute the single entry. After leaving Cabinda we had to travel overland through the DRC to the Matadi border post to Angola proper. We feared it might create a problem as the single entry would have been used in Cabinda. So we decided to head straight for Matadi.

In South Africa, Garth Diers had told me about a possible border crossing at Londela Kayes. He mentioned something about building your own road from time to time and having been thrown into jail, but somehow, when we decided to make a dash for Matadi, I forgot about those remarks. So we set off from Dolisie and headed for Matadi.

The trip didn’t start off well. Just outside Dolisie, direction Brazzaville, we took the turnoff to Londela Kayes. Soon the track became a footpath. The roads also disappeared from our GPS. It was clear: few people had ventured in this direction with 4x4s in the recent past.

A problem developed. Francois had been driving with one broken leaf spring since Dakar in Senegal. Up to that point the Cruiser had managed. But the condition of the roads, or actually the lack thereof, created other challenges. All his Cruiser’s springs collapsed, with the exception of the main spring. He was driving at a snail’s pace, trying to protect his one remaining blade. The progress of the convoy was very slow.

That night we camped in the middle of the “road”, as there was no traffic. Not that day. Not the next, or even in the foreseeable future.

The following day we struggled towards Londela Kayes. Progress involved a lot of road building, winching vehicles from ditches and asking any local, in our best French, the route to Londela Kayes. It became something of an expedition.

We were happy to get to a border post with Frontiere Police, Customs and Passport Control. Our passports were stamped and we were pointed towards the south — towards the DRC.

On the GPS it became clear after a while that we had crossed the border. The “road” remained a footpath. It must have been many years since the last vehicle travelled in this part of the world. Yet a few decades earlier there were well maintained roads in the area. We could see the deep ditches on the side of the road, built for the rainy season when the heavens opened and water had to be diverted away from the road. Now these ditches became obstacles. Our vehicles fell into them time and time again and the winches on our Cruisers worked overtime.

Just as the sun set we managed to get to a village. The villagers were restless and angry. They screamed and shouted and rocked our vehicles. We managed to attract the attention of the local chief, who led us to safety.

We travelled to the next town. Progress was slow. The roads were more manageable, but we never got above 30km/h because of Francois’ broken springs.

It was past midnight when we got to Kikenge. This is where the chief had indicated we should spend the night.

The following morning the chief accompanied us to Luozi, where there was an even more important man. We arrived at the town just after midday, by which time “the important man” was highly intoxicated. He checked our passports. It took him more than an hour to do so. Then he asked if we had some whisky for him. Thereafter we were allowed to leave.

We crossed the Congo by ferry and then took the main road to Matadi, arriving at the harbour city just after 10pm.

The guys were happy to reach Matadi, even though it is one of the worst African cities imaginable. It is dirty and there are no facilities — no camp site, no ATM, no decent hotel. Matadi is a place to pass through – as quickly as possible.

We had another reason for making a speedy departure. On the Skeleton Coast there is the Doodsakker, or Acre of Death, where the tide can trap you. The previous year it had nearly swallowed our vehicles. This year we were to give it another go. But we could do it only during spring tide. We had an appointment to keep, and we were already running late.

The following day was a Friday, and our first priority was to get Francois’ Cruiser fixed. It took all morning. We eventually got a set of blade springs that we could get to fit. Just after 2pm we set off to the border.

We were confident of getting into Angola, but our optimism was misplaced. At the border, the officials wanted to know where we had entered the DRC. There were no stamps in our passports. Furthermore, my son, Streicher, had no visa for the DRC. We’d been told he could get one at the border, but we had crossed at a place where there were no customs officials. It all developed into a bit of a problem.

Eventually we went back to Matadi, paid a fine, got Streicher a transit visa, and once again set off to the border. The next question was: did we have Angolan visas?

No, we said, we’d get them on the Angolan side of the border. No, they said, you have to go back to the Angolan consulate in Matadi. It was a pity it was after 5pm, because the consulate closed at five. We could try the next day at 8am.

We went to the local Convent and set up camp. Early next morning – a Saturday –we were in front of the Angolan consulate. The guard said: “Set ferme. Ouvert a 8 heure, Lundi”. Or, “We’re closed. We open again at 8am on Monday.”

We were devastated. We tried everything. One more day in Matadi was going to be too much. It is probably the worst place on earth to be stranded. And we were going to miss the chance of driving the Doodsakker.

I phoned the South African embassy in Luanda and asked if they could help. No, they said, they were busy with a big party. It was Madiba’s birthday. Aha, I thought. This could help. I phoned the Angolan Consul

General. I told him it was Madiba’s birthday, and if we could get emergency visas, we could still make the party that evening in Luanda. He just laughed. Then he repeated the phrase: “Set ferme. Ouvert a 8 heure, Lundi.”

All over the continent people jump at the mention of Madiba’s name. Not so with the Angolan Consul General at Matadi.

We had to go back to the Convent, spend another two days in the dump and try again on the Monday. Eventually we got our visas – at four o’clock on the Monday afternoon. Then we made a dash for the Doodsakker on the Skeleton Coast.