As Johan Badenhorst and his Voetspore team started off on their latest overland adventure in the east of Africa, the trip seemed rather mundane. It wasn’t much different from travelling in SA. But then they arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo. GG van Rooyen spoke to him about the journey…
When the Voetspore team set off on their seventh African adventure – this time travelling along the equator – they hardly felt as though they were traversing the “dark continent”. After all, they were starting out in the east of Africa, a part of the continent they had travelled through many times before. Moreover, the region had enjoyed a lot of development over the last decade or so.
“In many ways, travelling through Kenya, and even Uganda, is a lot like travelling through SA,” says Johan. “The roads are in pretty good condition, there are plenty of shops where you can stock up on supplies, and you can even use your ATM card to draw money at a local bank.
“In fact, the only early section of our journey that could truly be described as tough was the road between Nairobi and Mombasa. And even here, the roads weren’t in particularly bad shape. It was just the heavy truck traffic that made it such a nightmare.”
INTO THE DRC
Once they hit the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), though, the situation changed rather dramatically. It was pouring with rain when they arrived. There was also some confusion about the border post they were supposed to use.
“In the end, it took us a day just to get into the country, mostly because we had initially been sent to the wrong border post,” says Johan. “Suddenly, there was a huge language barrier, since they speak only French in the DRC.”
Another problem was rebel activity in the region. Because of the unrest in the DRC, people are understandably on edge, especially when they see a convoy of kitted-out 4x4s approaching a border post or checkpoint.
“Crossing a border in that part of the world is quite different from what we’re used to. They searched us thoroughly when we entered, but not because they were looking for the usual ‘contraband’ such as whisky,” says Johan. “They were checking to see that we weren’t smuggling weapons into the country.
“The moment you cross over from Kenya, everything changes. Suddenly, every second person is carrying an AK-47. Even so, most people were extremely friendly, but there was a massive presence of people in military uniform.”
As soon as the group crossed the border, roadblocks became a constant irritation. Every couple of kilometres there would be another roadblock, and, of course, a little money would have to change hands.
“Officials at roadblocks expect you to pay what they call ‘small money’ – a sort of fee that they charge in exchange for performing their task.
“They always start off asking for $100, but luckily you don’t end up paying that. I was usually comfortable giving them around 2000 Congolese francs, which is around R20,” says Johan. “Once you’ve given them at least something, they allow you to carry on.”
Johan and his team managed to travel through this rather turbulent area without encountering any true danger.
“We never really felt threatened while travelling through the country, but there is a specific way to travel through such a worn-torn area. You never drive after dark. You stay safe by travelling from town to town in daylight hours.”
It also helps to find out from locals whether guerilla forces are active in an area. If it turns out that there are indeed military forces along your intended route, you wait in a town until you get word that they have moved along.
It is also a good idea to travel early in the morning. Why? Well, your average rebel tends to unwind at night with a bit of alcohol and other illicit substances, which means that they aren’t very active in the first hours after dawn. This is, therefore, the best time to set off for the next town.
“We often got to a town as early as 15h00, but then we wouldn’t continue on to the next town, because we didn’t want to be in a no-man’s-land when it got dark,” says Johan.
A RIVER OF MUD
The Voetspore team’s biggest challenge, thankfully, didn’t come from rebel forces. Instead, it was one stretch of road that proved to be an almost insurmountable obstacle.
Surprisingly, the road that posed such a massive challenge was part of the transcontinental highway – the DRC version of the N1. It didn’t look the same, though!
“This was the road that theoretically connects Mombasa to Lagos, though you would never have guessed it was such an important road. It was in a terrible state.
“The first 600km was unbelievable. It was undoubtedly the worst national road I have ever travelled on. The road is rutted, eroded and incredibly muddy, and the moment a vehicle gets stuck, all the vehicles behind it have absolutely nowhere to go,” says Johan.
Because of the dense forest, there was no way around immobile vehicles. At one stage, Johan and his team encountered no less than 300 trucks waiting to get around a vehicle that was stuck in the mud. To recover a single vehicle could take a day or more.
So how did Johan’s party manage to get around all these trucks?
“It took us about seven days to complete the 600km stretch, but this included a wait of a couple of days. Two of our team members contracted malaria, and we had to wait for them to recover before we could continue. Since we were travelling along the equator, malaria was obviously a big danger. We were lucky that only two of the six of us got ill, and that no one contracted cerebral malaria.
“When we started travelling again, we gave a policeman a lift, and he helped a lot in helping us through this pile-up. The fact that we were also willing to pay some ‘toll fees’ also helped. When we got to very bad sections we were allowed to squeeze past the trucks and go right to the front, though this was still a slow and tricky process.”
RIDING THE RIVER
Once the team had negotiated this terrible road, it was time for a very different challenge. They would now load their Amaroks onto a barge and spend a couple of weeks travelling down the Congo River. They knew that this part of the journey would be interesting, but they had no idea just how tough it would be.
“We arrived at Kisangani and thought we would be able to get onto a barge and start travelling within two days or so. Sixteen days later the barge still hadn’t moved! This was when we decided to have our vehicles transferred onto another nearby barge. Eighteen days after arriving, we finally set off again, but three days later the barge anchored at Bumba, and we spent another 12 days waiting.”
When the barge finally set off from Bumba for Kinshasa, the going was slow. This wasn’t a conventional barge. It was really just a large container that was pushed by a rather small boat. As it made its way downstream, and more passengers climbed on board, a very crowded informal community developed.
“We were lucky in that we travelled ‘first class’,” says Johan. “We had a small compartment at the front of the actual boat, while our Amaroks were transported on the container. But still, we spent 28 very long days on the river.”
By the end of the trip, there were about 60 vehicles and 350 people on the barge, so things were getting very crowded.
With the help of canoes, traders would also visit the barge regularly, attempting to sell just about anything you could imagine. Worms, bats, snakes and monkeys freshly sourced from the surrounding jungle were often available, though Johan and his team stuck to more conservative cuisine.
“Having to spend so much time on the river, we ran out of food, but luckily we could buy vegetables and fish from the traders. There was no shortage of what they called ‘Mzungu food’ (Mzungu is the Swahili word for “white man”), so we never went hungry,” says Johan.
Once they reached Kinshasa, the worst was behind them. The team had survived everything that the DRC could throw at them. The roads had been terrible, rebels had been a constant – though thankfully unseen – threat, and malaria had struck down two members of the team, but they all made it through in the end.
It was a trip they won’t soon forget. They had conquered the worst “national road” in Africa, and travelled down the Congo River, deep into what Joseph Conrad once so dramatically termed “the heart of darkness”.
Travel in Africa is never boring!
* You can listen to our Podcast with Johan Badenhorst about the trip here.