This article is brought to you as part of Corona's "Someplace Else" series: Travelling The Strangerlands with Warhol's Children. You can check out all the pieces here.
We learned of our fate at noon, just moments before our hurried departure.
Three diplomatic SUV’s were strategically parked at our exit, awaiting their superior's command. We pulled up the slack in our tattered jeans, for belts were once more in our possession, and were again able to march like civilized people. My watch, I had not seen for a long time, so upon regarding both the time and date I was able to confirm just how long we were detained. Delivered to us were our typical traveler’s wardrobe and my Firewire surfboard duo, awfully dusty and more than slightly offended by our past month of neglect. Now fully reunited with our items, we drew our last breath inside DRC’s national security prison, trudged out the heavy wrought iron access, and exhaled, free men on the other side. This isn’t really the typical ending to your average surf trip, but then again this wasn’t your average surf trip.
Normally, when you see a 21-year-old Australian galloping out of Johannesburg airport with a coffin under his arm, a traveler’s wardrobe on his back and a stupid grin, comparable to that of a 4 year old with a Tonka truck, you might rightfully assume he is there to surf. You also might hypothesise his first stop to be Durban, buying a car, taking a bus or hitching a lift along South Africa’s famous surfer’s route. One would expect the usual suspects of New Pier (Durban), Supertubes (Jeffreys Bay) and Dungeons (Cape Town, if they’re tough as nails) and the inclusion of a few ‘secret spots’ they found along the way. And maybe even for the number of adventurous souls, their surfing exploration might include your Mozambique, Namibia, or maybe even Madagascar before eventually packing the bags and enduring another 25 odd hours on a 747 going back to where they came from. But, you might also be mistaken.
Of course it was necessary to get my tourist on, using Facebook to tag all the surf sites in Blue Crush 2. I will even admit to having scored a hostel job, preserving my stay in J’Bay for a sweet 2 months, but that’s not the point. The point is that this eager little bunny kept going.
The Mission was simple; to hitchhike with a pair of surfboards from South Africa to Morocco… That’s it. Of course the aim of the Mission being to get stoked in every country possible, following the western coast whenever possible and getting around however possible, but also taking in mind my severe (but predicted) lack of funds. This Mission had been labeled Thumbs Up Africa, (ha ha, you get the pun?) and though it had begun as amazingly as you would expect any surf trip to run, it kinda didn’t end up that way.
In Jeffreys Bay I departed with a Portuguese/South African bloke named Lydon Sergio (I called him Serge) who couldn’t really surf but was thought to be an asset to the trip, for I supposed he could keep a look out for sharks, cook dinner, be a bodyguard against African rebels or even just act as a pack mule to carry all my crap. But most of all I figured it would be a little more sane travelling and conversing with another human, as opposed to the possibility of sitting alone on a beach throwing abuse at a volleyball named Wilson.
So with my newfound confidee, the path from Jeffrey’s Bay was to extend to Cape Town and north towards Namibia. Surf was great at Elands Bay setting us off to a good start and upon marking our territory upon Lamberts Bay for almost a week even managed to squeeze in an unexpected little surf with Jordy Smith at YoYo’s (as you do…).
Pushing through SA’s diamond mining region was a bit of a struggle but in the end we managed, actually squeezing in sneaky surf at Alexander Bay, by the Namibian border. Namibia was a nuisance, completely restricting their southern coast to Namdeb (diamond mining) for personnel only, but in return for our initiative to educate a number of high school and primary children in the practice of water safety and surfing we were granted a single day permit to surf the fabled Elizabeth Bay wave, (Google it, but it wasn’t really that good).
All in all our time in Namibia was productive, even scoring some surf at Donkey Bay (aka Skeleton Bay), the guns and went to Cape Cross, absolutely shitting myself surfing with over 2 million seals as they bumped my board and played leapfrog over the nose. So with all that success we were bound to have some kind of failure.
Angola is a prick of a country to get into at the best of times, but when you’re naively standing at the border saying, “I didn’t know we needed a Visa,” or, “Here, can’t a nice new Benjamin Franklin help change your mind,” then your chances are significantly diminished. Especially when their bewilderment confirms the fact that your Portuguese/Spanish isn’t as good as you thought (and no, Serge ironically didn’t speak Portuguese). So, $200 later we had a couple of happy immigration officers and still no Visa, or anything more than we had before the attempt. Long story short, Angola couldn’t be done. So, we decided to go around.
Just a quick note to anyone willing to travel around a country they couldn’t enter; its best considering how friggin’ big the country is first and then contemplate whether it’s just better to get a flight over. The latter will most likely be cheaper, a lot faster, and a hell-of-a-lot less trouble. You see, our decision to travel around Angola took us almost 5000km and more than two months, one of which was spent in jail and essentially busted our whole damn trip to pieces – but we shall get to that in a moment.
The ‘little’ side excursion drew us east through the Caprivi, home of the bushman you might have seen on the 70’s comedy ‘the gods must be crazy’, then wound up staying like every other tourist at Victoria Falls. It all looked nice but being a surfer, I couldn’t resist the urge to surf a river wave, one rapid flowing savagely enough to push out a sweet barrel during January and July. Time didn’t permit me to get shacked but I did enjoy a bit of hard-to-get with the old Victoria, battling to stay on a wave and eventually bailing after misjudging a big floating log for a crocodile and deciding that I am in fact, very scared of them.
Zambia, other than one river wave, held no real interest for me, as surf was not one of its strong points. My target was, at this stage, just to push for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a.k.a. DRC or DR Congo as the homies like to call it. This country, ironically, is the #1 poorest country with a GDP of just $348 per capita and has the lowest human development index value (at 0.286 for anyone who wants to know), in the world due to unspeakable poverty, corrupt officials and high levels of government rebellion, currently pronouncing the nation as an official warzone. Yet, within just 2 hours at the DRC embassy in Lusaka (capital of Zambia) we had ourselves a valid, month long visa stamped exceedingly large and obnoxious into the centre pages of our travel books.
Ignorance and naivety are not normally words accepted by travellers, especially when they have “done it all” and “seen everything”. We, in this case, also adopted this philosophy, gallivanting brilliantly touristic-ly into a country where the president’s first deliberation was to have his brother incarcerated, preventing any sibling overthrow.
We got off to a good start, however, and entered the country with no real problems (my disjointed French wasn’t really a problem but more of a teething issue that would resolve itself once I recalled my dusty vocabulary). Roads, shops and business suits held the first few cities in good stead, sparking our wrongful assumption that our travels in this country would be a cinch.
It was only on our 4th day amidst the DRC chaos that our initial perception of civilization changed. It diminished right at the moment we boarded that of a 20 tonne, open frame truck, on a 2-day, non-stop bush route to the next main village. There was no room in the cab, for already 10 contortionists had managed to twist their way inside and even the truck itself was loaded to the brim, so much so that a bit of rope and a tarp permitted an extra 300kg to be lashed to the vehicles rear. The only way (a.k.a. the cheapest way) to get there was getting real close and personal with 50+ locals, sitting excitedly uncomfortable on a cross-bar thoroughly enjoying a new experience. That is until, of course, after 3 hours of travelling on a dirt track, more suitable for mountain biking, fatigue takes over and you realize, “This thing ain’t stopping. How do I sleep?”
Over three weeks it took to travel the whole stretch in DR Congo, over 2,200 km. Finally we had arrived in the countries capital, with 6 days left on our visa and just as much life as expected from 3 rounds in a ring with Mike Tyson. As lifeless as we were, our first priority stood in the sights of getting a visa for our next country, Congo (the non-democratic-republic one). So with that mission first settled, our passports in the hands of the Congolese embassy we hitched straight to the beach, aiming to wash the dust off our boards with a refreshing bath of salty water. Another two days of travel finally saw us to the beach and excitement had taken over as I ran straight from the bus, fully loaded, like the crazy white man Africans hear about in stories.
Choosing to sacrifice a couple of months traveling to your ultimate surfing mecca is insanely tedious but somewhat bearable. However when you arrive at your oasis to discover the well dried up just weeks before, you might as well just blend your surfboard into a smoothie and drink up a foam/fiberglass cocktail, because that’s about how disgraceful the situation was and about the greatest use of a surfboard at that instant. I could understand a ‘lull’ or even a, ‘should be better next week’ situation, but to find out that ‘la grande mer saison’(French; the big ocean season) had ended just weeks before was like having stitches ripped open and pure vodka poured into the open wound. It hurt bad, is what I’m trying to say.
And as if only to light a match dangerously close to the gaping, flammable wound, I blurted out the ole’, “could this get any worse?” And of course, it did.
Now ill try keep this short, leaving your own imaginations to run wild, for words can’t really express the true emotion of the matter. It began as we hitched to another potential surf spot, along the tiny coast of DRC, and were made aware by immigration officers of the military base we had just entered. Never had they seen a surfboard before and certainly were they not to believe our intentions to stand on them in the water, especially considering there were no waves. So when it came to my less than fluent French, it was only a matter of time before it was out of our hands. They eventually demanded to see our documents and as though that burning match had touched the alcohol sodden wound, instantly we were up in flames and the future didn’t look so good, as evidently our passports were at the Congolese embassy, back in Kinshasa, the country’s capital, and all we had was a photocopy (travel fail right there).
This eventually snowballed into a big argument about the struggles of African tourism, their nations flaws and our innocence, and eventually a 2-day police escorted journey back to Kinshasa.
Now being a prisoner to the DRC’s immigration bureau, there was nothing we could do but wait. Six days passed and call requests were continually denied leaving us in a close state of hysteria. Toying with our emotions and crushing our spirit seemed high on their cynical agenda, for twice in this time we were released and send to Brazzaville (capital of the other Congo, North of DRC) only to be denied entry and imprisoned once more in DRC confinement.
Our body mass slowly depleted, as a single portion of rice made up our daily rations and sleep twisted more into a hobby of sorts, stripping away the stagnant hours spent awake, normally reserved for boredom and frustration.
Finally surrendering to the bricks of corruption, after our tenth fucking day, we exchanged a carefully concealed $50 note for the use of a prison guard’s cellphone. We called our respective embassies and soon expected release.
We spent a total of 24 days in Congolese detainment, (Soon, was actually 14 days but it was better than the months and years being suffered by our unfortunate cellmates), of which our next 2 weeks were spent in the DRC high security prison as a dangerous threat to national security. The official report indicated our intention to assassinate the president, having been held suspect of planting high-grade explosives beside the big man's holiday house, near where we camped on the beach. Eventually we were set free and deported back to our home countries but after almost a month at the mercy of a nation at war, you get home, check the forecast and seeing 6 foot northerly’s on tomorrows schedule you realize that sometimes its easier just to stay at home.