Driving from Congo to South Africa
Coen and Shahnaz van Wyk
(Photos will be added once we have a better internet connection)
We had come to the end of four years duty in the Congo’s, and were planning to sell both vehicles before returning to South Africa. In the end mine was sold, but my wife’s Jeep Cherokee was not. Someone had promised to buy it, but had pulled out at the last minute. There was no space to put it in our container, so the only solution was to drive it from Brazzaville to Pretoria. No big deal, we had done the same after our tour of duty in Kampala, but in this case there were a number of negative factors.
We knew East Africa, had friends all over, and could speak the language. In this case we were in the end of the rainy season, we knew nobody in Angola, and we did not speak Portuguese. Our map was a Michelin map of Southern Africa, though we got a UN map of road conditions in Angola, dating to November 2007. Also, the Cherokee had standard road tyres, on a trip that promised to be interesting. However, what to do? We packed what we thought we would need, cashed the airplane tickets, and set off.
The first leg was to cross the Congo river to Kinshasa. We knew the ropes, having crossed to Brazzaville in mid 2005, but this is always a medieval experience. Hassles from passport officers, customs officials that needed another payment, an import document to buy for $ 15 but no receipt, but in the end, with some help from colleagues at the Embassy we were through and back in Kinshasa. Two valuable days were spent next to the pool of friends’ while recovering from the last few late nights, as we said good bye, and again, and again.
Then, on Monday we set off down the road to Matadi. We had some local knowledge, all of which turned out wildly wrong. Approaching Songololo on the good, though somewhat potholed main road, we saw two policemen, and stopped to ask the way. They pointed out a small dirt track that led in the general direction of Angola, magnificently signposted, and we doubtfully set off down what had been described as the main route between Kinshasa and Luanda in the rainy season. The first ten kilometres or so were reasonable, and the border crossing interesting, as we had to get the Angolan Chief of Immigration out of bed where he was having his siesta, his junior having taken time out to go shopping. Then we were off towards Mbanza Kongo.
The road soon deteriorated into some of the most extreme off road conditions that I had tackled with the Cherokee, and we made it, but not with much margin. However, we encountered minibus taxis from Kinshasa in various stages of decrepitude, many returning!! Twice we tried to help other travellers that got stuck, one Pajero that had slid into the shoulder of the road on a soapy smooth laterite road, and his smooth tyres just could not pull him out onto the flat road surface. Another victim, in an ancient Mercedes panel van that had been converted to a taxi, had a bad battery. Having stalled on a hill, he tried to start by running backwards down the hill, but only succeeded in ramming the side of the road. The Cherokee with a nylon towrope budged him about a meter at a time, skidding on the smooth, slippery road surface, but since the youngsters were fooling round and not getting rocks behind the wheels at each tug, we did not make noticeable headway. In the end, with evening approaching, we had to abandon him and his load.
It was interesting to see that there were road works under way, and soon, we hope, trucks will not need to chop down trees to pack under the wheels in order to win through muddy holes. On one particularly slippery hill a bulldozer pulled a heavy truck that would have been at home on a motorway, up the hill, where its tyres were spinning helplessly. Halfway up they encountered a previous victim that had been helped up a difficult bit, and presumably then went off on its own. Now they were stuck again. The bulldozer driver without ceremony set his blade at the right height and pushed the truck before him, while pulling the other! We coped with the hill and the mud, and slipped by at a place where the road was wide enough, as we had visions of the tow chain snapping, and the truck sliding down on us.
Mbanza Kongo is a disorganised mess, but with some of the most helpful people we were to meet, and we slept at the Eastrella do Kongo hotel. Police had flagged down a driver and told him to guide us to the hotel! Next morning we filled at Willy’s container filling station, and tackled the stretch towards Caxito.
Long stretches of road was good, with some badly potholed parts. As we descended to the coast past Tomboco we saw some lovely bridges that had been knocked down in the war, and replaced with bailey bridges. The scenery here was very nice, with green hillsides, some small mountains, and all empty, calling for cultivation or some cattle.
Nice gravel roads alternated with laterite, but in some places heavy lorries had created bad corrugations and potholes, which got worse as we approached N’zeto. Close to town my optimism was rewarded with an enormous pothole, and soon after we were in town, and had a flat tyre! We replaced the offending tyre with our handy spare that lived on the roof rack. This was an error, as this was really our spare of last resort, having been badly holed in the Serengeti, some years ago. It should have been replaced, and we should have used the normal, best spare but were too lazy to dig it out of the boot.
Changing the tyre collected a small crowd of helpers and commentators, and the observation was that the replacement tyre had “poco aria” We were pointed back the way we came, and at a truck that was parked under a tree with some work going on, we asked again. The indication was to wait. Some time later the mechanic or driver stopped hammering on the exhaust pipe, and started the truck engine. Then he pulled a long hose from a hidden recess, connected it to a valve in the engine, and pumped the tyre. No money was asked, but the hangers-on were happy to receive some cigarettes.
N’zeto still showed the signs of its erstwhile glory, but now is a sad collection of tumble down buildings and not much else.
We headed for Caxito, with the idea of bypassing Luanda the next day, our map seemed to indicate a nice road that would short-circuit the city and put us on the road to the south. The road was bad to very bad, with short stretches of tar interspersed with corrugated gravel, and badly potholed laterite. Road works improved some of it, and messed up some of it. At the end of this stretch the Cherokee looked like a Camel trophy vehicle! Some of the mud lasted till Pretoria.
Caxito for us was a muddy town, close to a military base, with not much going for it. Avoid Caxito. We found the Hotel Bhengo. Aviod the Hotel Benga. Rude staff, expensive rooms, no hot water, a miserable, expensive restaurant with limited menu: avoid hotel Bhengo.
As the seafood I had promised my wife still was not forthcoming, I was constrained to change plans and take the coast road. This meant passing through Luanda. With peak morning traffic, major road works, no maps, and only a vague indication of direction we took three hours at the 100 or so kilometres from Caxito to the southern suburbs of Luanda. We never saw our bypass to the main southern road, although it may exist. But soon after Luanda we found ourselves on a velvety, new road where I had to remind myself not to run at 140 km per hour! Passing through a reserve just south of Luanda we saw… two chameleons.
The kilometres slipped past, and soon we had to stop for fuel, and money, in Sumbe. Soon after my wife heard a different sound to the car, and I thought that was a good moment for a stop. We found that the “poco aria” problem was back!! We turned back a few kilometres to a “recauchutagem” which, we had deducted, was a tyre repair place. Two friendly young men helped us get the car on the jack, had the tyre off, and shook their heads at the results of some 500 kilometers on the Serengeti repair. They helped me fit the good spare, which we should have done in N’zeto, and soon had the flat tyre off the rim. The cause was a piece of wire, which reassured me, I thought it had been the bad pothole I had hit! They fitted the inner tube that I had been carrying around for the last six years, as I did not fully trust their patches. In hindsight I should have trusted them here, and fitted the tube to the Serengeti tyre! That way we would have had two spares instead of one and a half.
Half an hour later we were on our way, and enjoyed the views of the sea on our right, until we began to descend into Lobito. The last 15 kilometers were terrible, patches held together by more patches, very heavy trucks, and we were very tired. Road works did not help, once we skidded down a hill on fresh, wet tar, and not even the ABS brakes made any difference. Fortunately this and a second emergency stopping event did not result in damage, and soon we were looking for accommodation in Benguela.
This is a graceful old town, with some really nice architecture. We soon found a hotel, but thought its smart appearance did not justify the prices ($ 130 per night). So we went looking for the cathedral. The priest, Father Pietro, was embarrassed, normally they would have had housing run by the nuns, but just then there was a conference of sorts. However, he refused to refer us to a “pensao” and insisted that travellers were like angels, and he had to extend his hospitality. So we ended up dining with him, and sleeping in the loft, on two mattresses. The next morning he had left for mass in a distant village, so his partner, Father Custodio, saw us off after having fed us breakfast.
The next day started out well, on a nice road, as we had been promised by people in Benguela. But soon the road deteriorated. Extremely heavy traffic had destroyed the old road, and while road works were going on everywhere, we encountered some of the worst conditions on this stretch. At times the heavy corrugations and loose rocks reminded me of a remark by my grandmother, on a motor trip to Kimberly in the thirties: “Why do we not just stop and throw rocks at the car?” When you are on a road like this and know that you have another 400 kilometers to do today, then the voyage loses some of its flavour, even when travelling through some magnificent scenery. We stopped a few times, and hoped that the “desminagem” that had left their signs all along the road really did get all the mines….
Once up on the plateau the roads were better, and we aimed for Cahama, where the map indicated an isolated hotel. Now we were in the “Operational area” and getting closer to home. However, passing through the last town before Cahama we saw a “pensao” and decided that this was enough for one day.
The Pensao Chibemba was in what had been a well built house in the old days. The kitchen with marble tops is used as a store room, and the old water tanks are still in use, cooling the house and catching the rain water for watering the garden.
Early the next morning we steamed through Cahama, and saw the signs of the war: two tanks shot out. From here on we were in oshana country, dead flat terrain, with water pans from time to time. No more baobabs were to be seen, but thick bush veld. Eventually Santa Clara turned up, and we prepared for the border crossing by filling with cheap Angolan fuel, at a filling station comprising a massive tank with a pump stuck on the end. Then we descended into the burocratic mess of the border, from which we emerged two hours later. Travelling through the massive duty free shopping area south of the border we reflected that this was so much better, and less expensive than war….
Once in Namibia the roads were magnificent, and the litres bigger, though more expensive. (In the Congo I once filled 80 liters into a tank that is supposed to take 70 liters at maximum!) We stopped for the night just outside Etosha, and passed through it the next day. After vast expanses of Congo and Angola denuded of every living beast we enjoyed seeing antelope wandering also outside the parks. Once we stopped to admire some dung beetles in the road, when a tourist vehicle backed up and pointed out a big young male lion under a tree. They squashed the beetles backing up! Once through Etosha we made for the Swakopmund road, and slept that night at Irmi’s guest house in Karibib. My wife found Namibia lovely and green, much nicer than the Free State! But at Karibib they had not had rain and she could see what it could be like.
The next day we decided that we just had to taste the Atlantic sea food, and so we headed for Swakopmund, via the Spitzkoppe, as she felt that Namibia was all flat! Having learnt that it is not a good idea to drive too fast on the nice gravel roads, we reached the Atlantic once again. The Tug restaurant cost less than the restaurant of the hotel Bhengo, and had sea food, although the prawns came from Indonesia. Makes you think.
That night and the next were spent with friends in Windhoek, recuperating, and getting used to the Southern African environment. I used the opportunity to change the car’s oil, have the tyres repaired and the wheels balanced. The Serengeti tyre elicited a “hau!” and Tiger Wheels managed to find a replacement. I also took the opportunity to reverse into a pole, the only damage the car suffered on the whole trip.
The next morning we were off early, and made for Upington. Flat scenery, long kilometres, not much to report, except a nail that caused a slow leak, pointed out to us by a policeman at the entry to Upington.
We found accommodation at the WaterFront guest house, and crashed out exhausted. The hostess woke us at our request at 06h30, and by seven we were on the last stretch. Kuruman, Vryburg, Sannieshof, Delareyville all slipped by as we pushed to get through Johannesburg and Pretoria before the afternoon rush. We made it, and pulled into the driveway in Pretoria, after 5434 kilometers, tired but happy to be home.
While we had been prepared to camp, we found accommodation of sorts all the way. Camping would have been cheaper, we paid on average $ 70 per night. Some nights more, some nights nothing. However, we wanted to do the maximum distance, and would have found that difficult without good rest and good food. A more leisurely camping holiday would have been nice, and in a few years the trip will be boring, if they build all the good roads all the way to Matadi.
We used a Garmin GPSMap 196 to supplement the Michelin map. On a few occasions it was good, for instance driving into Mbanza Kongo it had the left turn into town to within metres. Often, however, it showed us driving about five kilometres off shore! Several times it lost the plot completely, insisting that there were no roads near our destination! This included Pretoria!! We could have done without, though it was an interesting item to have. A better paper map would have been better. Or maybe I should learn to better program the Garmin?
We averaged about 40 kilometers per hour the first two days on the road, then improved. On the last day we did close to 100 km per hour average. Our average over the whole trip was 66.2 kilometers per hour, and we spent almost 82 hours on the road, over eleven days.
Would we do it again? Probably. It was not intended as a holiday, more a delivery trip. However, we met nice people, saw places we did not know, and had fun. It would be interesting to go back to the south of Angola and do some exploration, but not in the rainy season! And preferably not in the heat of January/February. Although it was cool on the plateau, up at Chibemba. The car showed signs of getting to the temperature margins when doing 130 km/hr in the south, near Karasburg and Upington.
Paperwork: In Namibia and South Africa we needed nothing, nobody asked for the car’s papers and hardly looked at our passports. Leaving Angola was also painless, though there were some doubts as to whether my wife needed a visa to enter Namibia or not. Up in northern Angola it was a different story, we were stopped several times by police, who wanted a “manifesto” for the car. Diplomatic number plates and official looking papers with lots of stamps helped. All were polite, and offering cigarettes, almost obligatory in the Congo’s, elicited frowns, though they were accepted. A “bon dia, senor!” worked, and a few “por favour” and “molto obrigado’s” probably did not do any harm either. Travellers may be well advised to have a formal-looking “manifesto” drawn up, listing the contents of the vehicle, and have this stamped at as many border posts and police posts as possible. Translations into Portuguese and, for the Congo, French, may help. Again, get it stamped!
Coen van Wyk
A Forum to ask questions and share advice that pertain to self drive, self-sufficient overland safaris to Angola. Questions about border procedures, National Parks, Lodges and destinations welcome.
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