Following Africa’s Outside Edge

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For this update we thought we’d offer Land Rover the opportunity to share a few excerpts from the hand written scribblings taken from Kingsley Holgate’s expedition journal.

The Landies are doing great but it is tough going.

The journey to Lobito, Angola

It’s Annelie Muller’s birthday, a boeremeisie from the Oos-Kaap, it’s her first expedition. She’s doing great, learning to drive the Landies and live in the bush – not always easy, pitch camp, strike camp – move, move, move forever up the coast. It seems timeless and endless. The sun is up, Renoster coffee on the boil and for breakfast pawpaw and big fat yellow bananas – our first fresh fruit in weeks.

We sing “Happy birthday”. Hunting dogs bark hysterically. Small figures in the distance, a panga comes down, chop, chop, chop. The hunter lifts a dark shape into the air – probably a little grey Duiker or maybe an antbear. Down from our hilltop camp we dodge the wag-’n-bietjie bushes and knyp our buttocks hoping there are no unexploded landmines about.

Can’t believe it, Lobito and straight into the arms of a Shoprite supermarket and the chance for Mashozi to stock up. Car guards with AK’s, we’ve hit civilisation. Oil and diamond revenues trickling south but still a great divide between rich and poor, mud shacks on the hills, mansions on the beach. A dude in a blue Porche Boxter wheelspins into the car park.

The hood goes up electronically – not the ideal car for dodging the serious pot holes but great I am sure for keeping the ego intact. Lobito established by the Portuguese in 1843 is still a grand place – a silver coloured mermaid statue in the bay, a roundabout centred with a high and dry fishing boat called Zaire and a thatched restaurant aptly named Zulu – great for us gang from KZN. A peri-peri flat chicken birthday lunch for Annelie and a homemade birthday card decorated with pressed flowers and the words: “Anna what better way of celebrating your birthday than living on the edge.”

The lunch drags on. “Camp here next to the restaurant,” says Mario. “How’s the crime,” I ask. “Was terrible, but then the chief of police decided to close the jails and open the graveyards, now things are quiet,” and so we camp on the beach of the restaurant Zulu.

Foz do Cuanza, the mouth of the Cuanza River

We shampoo our hair in the warm ocean, this is not the cold south Atlantic we know from the Cape of Good Hope and the Skeleton Coast. Driving through the traffic out of Lobito, markets, mopeds, blue and white minibus taxis, stray dogs dodging overloaded trucks, people friendly. After 30 years of war one feels that there is hope.

We pull off onto a side road to make brunch amongst bombed out buildings pock marked with bullet holes and UNITA graffiti. Chinese road builders come to chat and photograph the expedition. They’re intrigued by the flag decals of the 33 countries that run the length of the Land Rovers. “Aah! It’s a long load, all way lound Aflica,” says John, a little Chinaman with a toothy grin who delightfully transposes his l’s and r’s. “Good Chinese load ahead, vely good.” But we sit in the snake of a cue, a roadwork’s truck behind us plays roud music, Suki yaki amongst the baobabs and a two hour wait.

Just south of Luanda we set up an expedition base camp at Bruce Bennett’s Cuanza River Lodge – a great bunch of South Africans and the best place to stay if you don’t want to get caught up in the mayhem of the city. Assisted by Bruce and using our Yamaha powered Gemini inflatables we distribute mosquito nets to isolated communities living in the mangrove swamps. Local fishermen in their dugouts offer us sweet palm wine from a glass jam jar.

The Gemini inflatables don’t miss a beat as ducking our heads we take narrow channels between mangroves and raffia palms. Across the river is the Quicama National Park, “got eaten during the war,” we were told. “Elephant, buffalo, hippo – the lot gunned down and transported in military helicopters to a fishing trawler off shore where the carcasses were blast frozen and sold as bush meat up the coast.” Fortunately the baobabs and mangroves remain.

The chaos of Luanda

We set up a malaria prevention day in the heart of Luanda. Mums and babies at a clinic – life saving mosquito nets for all and even some live theatre acting out the dangers of not sleeping under a mosquito net.

It’s a great success and is covered by local TV, press and radio. Back into the city words can’t explain the grid locked bumper to bumper to bumper traffic. A city designed to house 750 000, now home to over 5 million who’d run from the war. Litter and poverty living alongside the incredible wealth from diamonds and oil, shining black Hummers overloaded with chrome and spotlights. But there is a buzz in the city, sexy girls in jeans and jewellery, night clubs and bars, the feeling of Rio de Janeiro and Brazil, linked to Angola by the slave trade.

The Bay of Wrecks

North of Luanda the booming sound of waves drumming against the rusty hulls – a ships graveyard, we can’t believe it. Fishing vessels, cargo ships and oil tankers, the broken bones of vessels with great names like Karl Marx and Antonio. It’s as if an angry giant has picked them up and thrown them down all together in the bay. We camp beneath the red and white hull of the ship Lundoge – her rusted derricks sticking into the starlit sky.

The panga, cog and star of the Angolan flag on her funnel. The smoke from our driftwood fire stings our eyes. Bruce braais peri-peri chicken necks. A restless night in the rooftop tent. The booming gong sound of waves on metal, seafarers’ ghosts, shattered dreams and broken ships – the distant doef-doef of Friday night disco music carried on the South Westerly. The lights of Luanda in the distance, the thin silver sliver of the moon above the Bay of Wrecks.

The Road to Soyo and the mouth of the Congo

Thank goodness for our tough Land Rover Defenders. It’s a road to hell, wrecked trucks and potholes so deep that sometimes you need low range to tackle them, catching your tow hitch as you accelerate out the other side.

For fear of landmines camping, shitting and eating on narrow tracks or deserted quarries. At Ambriz interrogations by the navy, the administrator and the police end with us finally being allowed to camp on the beach on an old disused Portuguese tennis court – three love to the expedition.

At Soyo we are looked after by a South African de-mining outfit. Pieter Kok and Braam Rossouw head up the unit – great guys whose teams have risked their lives in Mozambique, the Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Bosnia and now Angola – they invite us for a ware Suid-Afrikaanse braai. Huge Brazilian chunks of beef on an open fire – we tap some Captain Morgan from where it lives in the Land Rover water tank. I sit next to a man with laughing eyes and a stubbled face burnt brown by the tropics. “Sure it’s dangerous,” he says. “But I am putting my daughter through a LLB at university – it will cost R247 000 and if lifting mines is going to pay for it, so be it – would you like a brandy? How the hell are you going to get over the Congo River,” he asks.

There is no bridge and its 26km across to Banana in the DRC. “You will have to be careful,” he says. “This place is bristling with military security because of the oil wells.” I look across the fire and give my son Ross a wink. Somehow we will have to make a plan. That’s the nature of following the outside edge.

Nervous as all hell

In 1482 the Portuguese naval captain Diogo Cão erected a stone cross at Ponta de Padrão at the mouth of the Congo. This in time led to great suffering as hundreds of thousands of slaves were exported along with ivory and rubber.

But times have changed and in the late afternoon we sit at the base of a replica of this cross whilst Eduardo the community leader endorses the expedition Scroll of Peace and Goodwill, alongside messages from Nobel laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.

As the sun sets mums and babies gather around the expedition Gemini inflatable for a malaria education session and live saving mosquito nets. Next day 83 men manhandled our three trusty Landies onto a leaking wooden barge called the Tumi Mi Tangwa.

She trades barrels of fuel from Angola for hardwood planks from the forests of the Congo. “Quickly the winch cable!” screams Ross as one of the boarding planks snap with a crack like a rifle shot and it’s only the winch that saves the Landie, the one that’s been sponsored by 600 school children from Centurus Colleges, from ending up in the drink.

The slow sweat and humidity of the Congo River burns down on us as the third Land Rover Defender, amidst shouting and screaming and organised chaos, is finally loaded. Two rusty antique 40HP Yamaha outboards, one without a tiller arm, the other with new spark plugs from our toolkit push us slowly out from the south bank of the Congo.

We’ve taken the precaution of tying one of our Gemini inflatables alongside and bolted to the transom is our 30HP expedition Yamaha ready and running. In our top pockets we have money and passports. If a storm comes up the overloaded barge will roll and the expedition Land Rovers will drown – we’re shitting ourselves. Imagine the embarrassing sat phone call to Lesley Sutton at Land Rover South Africa.

On the edge

Jeez! She rolls like a cork in a bathtub each time a swell comes in from the Atlantic. It seems to be made worst by the Landies’ independent suspensions as they rock with the motion.

“Who’s got the bloody knife, c’mon guys – we chatted about it last night. Okay Ross, you’ve got it. If this thing rolls cut the Gemini inflatable free and jump for the tiller bar. Anna, Mashozi, you’ve got life jackets. If the barge rolls jump for the duck – don’t worry about anything else other than your lives.

You’ve all got bucks and passports and emergency kit. Shit! There she goes again.” The skipper senoir Jose chugs towards calmer water near a mangrove island. Still over 20km to go. In 1842 the experienced naval captain Diogo Cão was astounded by this enormous river mouth, larger than any a European had ever seen. He wrote that For the space of 20 leagues [the river] preserves its fresh water unbroken by the briny billows which encompass it on every side; as if this noble river had determined to try its strength in pitched battle with the ocean itself…

Modern oceanographers have discovered more evidence of the great river’s strength…a hundred-mile-long canyon, in places four thousand feet deep, that the river has carved out of the sea floor. And this is what we have to cross. The sweat trickles down our backs; amidst the tension Mashozi smears cheese squares and bully beef onto Portuguese bread. The skipper battles the current. Binoculars show the Port of Banana all bliksemed by war. We throw anchor.

The immigration officer monsieur Paul sits in a blue painted palm frond hut. Behind him hangs a picture of Le Général Major Joseph Kabila, Président De La République Democratique Du Congo. Fortunately Paul speaks Swahili so we can talk. It’s Independence Day and the Primus beer is flowing like water.

Everybody jolly as now in reverse, low ratio diff lock with the help of 87 laughing, joking, singing Congolese, thick hardwood planks supported underneath by 45 gallon drums, the three Landies, nicknamed Mary Kingsley, John Ross and Lady Baker, roll onto “terra firma”. Somehow the Zen of Travel has been on our side – we’ve remained true to sticking to the edge and the Landies haven’t missed a beat.

Pigmy roadblock

Thick green equatorial forest, fan palms, tree ferns and palmnut vultures. Commotion on the red dust road. Pigmies in masks, their entire bodies covered in layers of dry banana leaves – no arms or legs or head – just mask and leaves, little grunting noises. People at the roadside singing and jolling, ten dollars to pass – it’s the custom.

Plastic chairs and tables under palm thatch. Primus beer in thick brown bottles – we shake hands with the secretary of the village, Captain Morgan is decanted from the tank into two big plastic mugs. We dance and sing – we’ve survived the river.

No-man’s-land

We’re trying to reach Cabinda. The boom is down. DRC immigration officials are having a shouting match. We’re surrounded by litter, crows and humidity. We give out mosquito nets to smiling mums with babies on their backs busy climbing on to an old military truck. The men stop their arguing – now they want nets. They’re for mothers with children we explain.

The sun sinks in an orange ball over the Atlantic. It’s better at night. The decayed buildings, filth and litter fade into darkness and all you have is a circle of faces around the fire and the soft glow of the moon. Next morning the vultures want money or they will search the Landies piece by piece. Ross is outraged and blows his top in Swahili. “Last night we were raffiki’s, friends. We shared our fire and food with you. You saw us unpacking the Land Rovers, our food and equipment.

You shared rum from our tank, we gave pregnant mums and children mosquito nets and NOW! you want to search us? We don’t bribe. You know we are a humanitarian expedition. The head of immigration has endorsed the Scroll of Peace and Goodwill we are carrying around Africa – you’ve read the goodwill messages from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.” The border guards breaks into a smile, lift the boom and shouts “Kwaherri – safari njema, goodbye and a good journey.” Border crossings are all drama – each one like a game of chess.

If you ever get to this spot you’ll know it’s the backside of the world. We sit with the flies and the litter. Six local piss cats watch a French soap opera at full volume – the speakers distorted like hell. “Go back to Muanda, back to the DRC, get a visa from the Cabinda consul,” says an arrogant little bloke in a red t-shirt. “But,” we stutter. “Immigration in Soyo told us we would be okay with our existing Angolan visas.”

The finger comes out. “You go back to Muanda.” So we’re in bloody no-man’s-land, stamped out of the DRC, but no entrada into Angola, Cabinda. Soldiers with AK’s everywhere protecting the oil riches. Finally we are able to buy visas at 78 USD each and 19 ½ hours and a hundred meters later, the boom at Posto Fronteiro at Yema, gateway to Cabinda, is lifted. It’s no bloody wonder that not too many people are doing what we do. Fortunately the ordinary people we come across are absolutely delightful, but oh my god, when border officials are bad, they’re fukin bad.

Cabinda

Cabinda is a hilly with big trees, lots of military, oil wells, cinnamon brown surf washed north from the mouth of the Congo, small wooden houses with rust coloured corrugated iron verandas, music booming from bars. Two American oil workers with big beers in their hands shout “Hey, we love you man!” as north of Cabinda city we drive past the beach bar at Cacongo where the forest lies in a long crumbling hardwood jetty and big dugout canoes wait for the surf to flatten.

We meet Donna Vanda, plump and smiling in a bright yellow blouse, black pants and gold handbag. Donna joins us for a peri-peri feast at the bar restaurant Barracão. Once again she reminds me of the people of distant Brazil, the music, the dancing and the food – the slaves that took this culture across the Atlantic, the Portuguese caravels that took peri-peri to Europe and South America. We call for water, the chilli is hot, Donna laughs and sweats.

This is the best peri-peri in Angola she says – you have to find the tiny gindungu pequeno chillies, the small ones – you buy them for 50 Kwanzas a bunch in the market. We grind them in a mortar and pestle she says, then add garlic and onion, salt, lemon and olive oil. We order steak and flat chicken served with thin slices of green tomato and chips – the whole spread with gindungu peri-peri. Early missionaries to the Congo region were horrified by the polygamy they found here. They thought it was the spices in the African food that provoked this dreadful practice – we find our peri-peri feast a delightful way to celebrate our Land Rover crossing of Cabinda.

Malaria is bad here. We stop at the Centro du Saudi, the small clinic in Massabi to give out mosquito nets. There’s a mama on a quinine drip and a baby seriously ill with malaria. At least they now have nets and thanks to the expedition’s Right to Sight campaign seven poor sighted people in Massabi now have spectacles – Congo Brazzaville here we come.

Humanitarian Action – Saving and Improving Lives Through Adventure
In a Land Rover supported campaign called “Teaching on the Edge” the expedition had distributed 22 mobile libraries to remote schools up the West Coast of South Africa, and in Namibia around Luderitz, Walvis Bay and Ruacana.

The Land Rover supported One Net One Life malaria prevention campaign in which mosquito nets are distributed to pregnant mothers and to children under the age of five is in full swing as is the Right to Sight programme in which spectacles are given to the poor sighted. In Angola thousands of pencils, pens and exercise books have been distributed to remote bush schools.

At Centro de Saude Boavista, a downtown clinic in the centre of Luanda mosquito nets were distributed to pregnant mums and babies. This very successful event went out on local radio, TV and press, the story of a South African led expedition caring for the people of Africa. At Ponta de Padrão at the mouth of the Congo where Diogo Cão first erected a stone cross in 1482 we distributed mosquito nets to pregnant mums with babies and continued to do so as we made our way across the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cabinda and now to our expedition base camp just north of Pointe Noire on the coast of the Republic of Congo, or as many call it Congo Brazzaville.