Africa Dispatch: South Africa

South African cell: +27-780562152
me@christophbangert.com

Dear all,

we made it.
After 32.707 Kilometers on Africa’s road and about seven months of travel we finally arrived in Cape Town, South Africa.
To view a map of our epic journey from Daun to Cape Town, please click here:
http://web.mac.com/chihochiho/iWeb/Africa/Map%202.html

Chiho and I are in good health, which is the most important thing. Our trusted Land Rover is also doing very well, apart from general maintenance and countless flat tires there are no major repairs to report. Given the rough conditions in Africa like rain, heat, mud, sand, potholed roads and bad fuel, this is a miracle.

South Africa will not be the end point of our journey. We decided to drive the Land Rover back to Daun in Germany via East Africa, the Middle East, Turkey and Eastern Europe. Unlike for our arrival here in Cape Town we will have a strict deadline for the remaining part of the journey because we have a wedding to attend in Germany on August 8th. Our own wedding. This means we only have four and a half months time to reach Europe from here, which is very ambitious, but possible.

I haven’t been writing a dispatch in a long time, since Cameroon, actually, but before I venture into a short, yes, short, description of the journey from there to here, I would like to mention some things that have happened in the meantime. So here is the ‘shameless self promotion’ part of the dispatch:

First of all, I am very happy to announce that the Iraq book was published in Germany by Fackelträger, a Cologne based publisher.

It looks like this:
http://www.amazon.de …

There were only few copies printed, so order one soon, before they are all gone. My first book “Travel Notes” just sold out, only one year after publication.

The English version of the Iraq book is still available, though and can be found here:
http://www.amazon.com …

I was surprised to have won an “Honorable Mention” at this year’s World Press Photo Awards. An “Honorable Mention” is one of the smallest prices on offer at the contest, but I am very happy about it and well, very honored.

It looks like this:
http://www.worldpressphoto.org …
Strange picture, right? The image was part of a story I did for Stern Magazine last year about the German military’s mission in Afghanistan.

A story about the first part of my journey through Africa was part of the current GEO special Magazine, which has as it’s topic “Adventure Travels”. In addition to providing the images for this article, I was also asked to write the text, a task that I seriously struggled with, but I finally succeeded with the great help of the editor of the issue, Tom Dauer.

The magazine looks like this:
http://www.geowebshop.de …

I also had some of my Iraq pictures published in this month’s “green” GEO Magazine, which was a big success:
http://www.geowebshop.de …

Two pictures of mine were chosen to be part of the group show “BATTLESPACE: UNREALITIES OF WAR”, which premiered in New York last month and will tour around the US in the near future.
Check it out here:
http://www.battlespaceonline.org/

So much about self promotion.

I feel very lucky that despite my being away and taking time off from the daily news business I am still able to publish pictures and actively take part in all kinds of photography activities. I am also able, more or less successfully, to run a small business while on the road. The internet makes it all possible, but I am also paying a high price for this by spending much too much time working on the computer.

Before I forget, please remember to check out some new pictures and our latest video that Chiho just edited here:
http://africablog.christophbangert.com/

If you ever feel like reading about our trip in Japanese language, please go and have a look here:
http://web.mac.com …

I am writing these words from the front porch of a backpacker’s hostel. The place is very special, the outside of the house is painted completely purple. They have a bright white pool table and there are mirrors everywhere, even inside the shower…

Many things have happened. I don’t know where to start. Chiho and I parked the Land Rover in Cameroon and flew from Douala to New York on October 24th. There was a technical problem with the airplane and we had to wait for nine hours in Zürich. Exhausted, we arrived at home and immediately started to work feverishly on our Africa pictures for GEO, our Taxes, the Iraq Show and a million other things that had been waiting for us while we were on the road.

After only a few days in New York I left to Amsterdam to attend the Joop Swart Masterclass, a workshop for young photojournalists organized by the World Press Photo Foundation. On the way to the airport I managed to pick up the first advance copies of the Iraq book, that had just arrived that day. An exiting moment for Chiho and me to finally hold the completed book in our hands. By rental car I drove from Amsterdam to Hamburg to deliver my Africa images to GEO. I spent most of the night before the meeting in my friend Martin’s apartment in Hamburg working on the images and captions. Dead tired and terribly jet lagged I arrived late the following night back in Amsterdam. Due to a misunderstanding between me and the excellent staff of the Masterclass team, it turned out that there was no hotel room reservation for me that night and I ended up driving around Amsterdam at 2:00 AM looking for a place to stay. Without success. Not even a lice infested mattress under a bridge was to be found that wasn’t already occupied by someone else.
In my small Opel rental car I spent three hours sleeping in a car park at the airport before I returned the car and took the train back to the city. I was so tired I did not even wake up once despite the freezing temperatures.

Things started to brighten up as soon as I had eventually taken a hot shower and met the other participants of the workshop. The group was very diverse and consisted of some of the most gifted and interesting photographers I have ever met. We functioned very well as a group from the start and with the help and guidance of the invited “masters” or teachers, we experienced a highly productive and inspiring event.

Personally I wasn’t too happy with my images that I had taken as a “homework” prior to the workshop, a set of pictures about Senegalese fishermen and illegal immigrants. I was terribly angry at myself that I hadn’t been able to come up with better work. An important, but painful lesson to learn. Sometimes it does not work out. And as my friend Rocky Balboa used to say: “It’s not about getting knocked down, but it’s about getting up afterwards.” Or something along these lines…

Back in New York a mountain of more work awaited me, but only one day after my return a problem appeared: A pain in the butt. Literally. When I went to the doctor two days later he sent me straight to the emergency room. The pain had become severe and I wasn’t able to sit or lie down any longer. We were only one day away from a public lecture I was invited to give at the International Center of Photography and two days away from the long awaited book launch of the Iraq book with an exhibition opening and all. My parents were on the way from Germany to attend the proceedings and so were my sister and her husband from Florida. Chiho and I had been working so hard for months to prepare and plan everything and now we found ourselves waiting around in an emergency room in some hospital in Queens instead of putting final touches on everything.

The verdict was spoken later that night and it was decided that I had to have a surgery the next morning. A huge infection had developed deep inside one of my butt cheeks for an unknown reason and it had to be opened up. Only later I found out that the “tiny cut” that the surgeon would apply, would in fact be a huge and deep hole in my cheek. When I asked the doctor if I would be able to deliver my speech the following day, he just smiled. “It will be painful.” he said.

It was.

Only three hours before my lecture I was still in a hospital bed. After finally being discharged, Chiho and I jumped into a taxi (I was laying in it, because I still couldn’t sit), drove home, changed our clothes and stumbled into another taxi. We drove for two minutes only to discover that the draw bridge that connects Greenpoint, where we live, with the rest of the world had been drawn up. A time consuming event that occurs only every three months or so. All other roads into the city were jam packed wit cars. Rush hour in New York. It was getting late. Only one hour to go before the lecture. A nervous call from ICP. We climbed out of the car and I limped down the stairs to the subway station. We made the final edit of the pictures for the presentation on the laptop computer on the V train. Standing up all the way, of course, as I would not be able to properly sit for the next ten days.

We arrived just in time. The lecture was a big success and everybody had a good laugh about my butt story.
Also the exhibition the following day was an event Chiho and I both enjoyed a great deal, despite me still being a bit shaky on my legs. Many friends and colleagues came to celebrate with us.

In the following weeks I slowly recovered and was well taken care of by Chiho, who cleaned the wound several times a day and thereby prevented it from getting infected again. What would I do without her…

We managed to send out many copies of the Iraq book to editors, magazines and colleagues but also to friends and family. Up to this day we receive many kind and encouraging words in response to the book from both, photography people and ‘normal’ people.

Of course there was also some criticism. Some was very helpful, others made me extremely angry. I spontaneously sat down and wrote an outline for my next book. I’ll show them. Damn it. On December 7th I left alone back to Africa. Chiho was leaving to Japan a few days later. She had been planning to visit her family and take care of some things back home for a long time. For the next two months I was on my own again and some of the most difficult part of the journey lay ahead of me.
After being thrown back into the shocking tropical heat of Central Africa, I picked up the Land Rover from our friend Hans’ company in Douala, where it had been safely parked. The month long trip to New York, Amsterdam and the emergency room was terribly hectic and exhausting, but also rewarding and productive. It is hard to interrupt a long and ‘epic’ journey like mine. In a way you always start all over again after an interruption. The same problems to find the right traveling pace, peace of mind and mental balance. The same anxieties and confusion like in the beginning of the journey have to be overcome.
In addition to this disorientation I felt very lonely. I missed Chiho from the start. I realized very quickly that the time in my life were I loved and preferred to travel alone for long periods of time, like I had done during my Latin America journey, was once and for all over.

I drowned my sorrows in endless and stubborn driving. I drove and drove. For days and weeks. In Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon I applied for visas to Gabon, Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo and also met some fellow overland travelers. Mike, Chris, Dan, Ed and Chris were traveling by motorbike from Britain to Cape Town and Thomas did the same from Cologne in a Toyota Land Cruiser and Ab and Mathijs came from Holland in a Nissan Patrol. Some of the guys have websites:
http://brighton2capetown.googlepages.com/
http://www.motocrossafrica.co.uk/
http://www.mikeybeckett.com/

After saying goodbye to the traveler’s gang I left in high speed gear and drove through Gabon towards Congo. Gabon, a small and seriously oil rich country is one of the most stable countries in the region. But also here there are great problems looming beneath the surface. The greatly impoverished population in the countryside barely manages to survives as peasant farmers while businessmen in the cities drive big Mercedes cars and make big money.

I spent Christmas with some elderly and kind nuns from Spain and France in the Catholic mission in Lambarene, the same small village in the Gabonese jungle where the Albert Schweizer Hospital is located which was founded and run by the famous doctor, musician, cleric and humanist.

Through an extremely remote area I made my way to the border with Congo. The smaller one of the two Congos is located north of the river carrying the same name, used to be a French colony and is still in the recovery process following a civil war that during the late 1990′s devastated many towns and its capital Brazzaville.

The road leading from the West of the country to the capital is feared among travelers as one of the worst parts of a Trans-Africa journey. And it has it all: Mud holes, sandy tracks, illegal roadblocks by rebells, legal roadblocks by soldiers, perfect tarmac, lousy tarmac with potholes the size of a family car, river crossings and dusty gravel roads.

I was very lucky and made it through without much problems and just a minimal amount of bribes. My fellow travelers Ab and Mathijs, who came this way only five days after me had a very different experience. They got hopelessly stuck in the mud several times and were threatened by Kalashnikov and hand grenade swinging rebels.

I spent New Year’s Eve in Brazzaville with a new friend of mine. Peter is a teacher from Uganda. In the corse of his life he was forced to flee from one conflict to another. It almost seems that war was following him like a curse. He had to flee Uganda under Idi Amin reign and went to Khartoum in Sudan. When the civil war broke out there he fled to Kinshasa in Zaire and worked as a teacher in the American High School. Interestingly it as the same school that George W. Bush attended as a teenager. His father was the ambassador in Kinshasa at the time. Peter said he was an unruly student. And he laughed while he said it.

When war broke out in Congo in 1998 between Laurent Kabila’s Congolese government and rebels supported by Uganda, Rwanda and Sudan, Peter being Ugandan, found himself on the wrong side once again. He was arrested by Kabila’s forces who tortured him. Joseph Kabila, the then president’s son, and current president of the Democratic Republic of Congo interrogated Peter personally and had his men brake his shoulder. The Red Cross saved Peter shortly before his scheduled execution and brought him across the Congo River to Brazzaville. For eight years Peter was squatting in a windowless car garage waiting for his seven children and his wife, who were still stuck in Kinshasa, just across the river to be allowed to follow him.

I met an educated and proud African man who, despite his hopeless poverty and traumatic experiences, managed to be neither bitter nor resigned. He just never seemed to give up. I learned a lot from Peter the teacher and I was grateful to have met him. I recorded a long interview with him and took some pictures. Some weeks ago my mother in Germany received a telephone call from Sweden. It was Peter. He just wanted to let me know that he was fine. He and his family were finally reunited and the Swedish government granted all of them asylum.

My Land Rover and I crossed the Congo River on a bright late afternoon after we had patiently waited for almost six hours before we found a spot on the small, rusty ferry boat that, while chained to two identical, but engine-less boats makes the 45 minute long crossing from Brazzaville to Kinshasa three or four times a day. The ferry is constantly overloaded with goods which are transported by aggressive and drunk young men. I saw two serious fist fights during the course of the short river crossing. Policemen and men in civilian clothes on the Kinshasa side were geared up with batons and thick robes which they used to bring some sort of order into the fighting, shouting and sweating mass of passengers, porters, beggars and thieves that simultaneously loaded, unloaded, embarked and disembarked the old vessel. In the middle of all this pushing and crushing into each other stood I with my Landy, desperately trying to get off the boat. I only succeeded after handing over my passport to an uniformed official, a decision that I was wondering if I would regret when I saw the man disappear into the crowd.

I was lucky though, and after a half hearted attempt to extract some sort of bribe from me, I was the proud owner of an entry stamp for the Democratic Republic of Congo, the bigger one of the two Congos and former private estate of King Leopold II of Belgium. The country has been in turmoil ever since its creation which is caused by its incredible riches in minerals and a succession of corrupt, dictatorial governments ruling over 62 Million people who have little in common with each other. In contrast to the East of the country which is still experiencing violence from rebel groups, former rebel groups and the army, the west of the country and Kinshasa has been calm for some time now. From Kinshasa I drove west towards Matadi, a town on the banks of the Congo River that is located close to the border to Angola.

It is difficult to get a visa to Angola. I know of travelers, who applied for a tourist visa in the Angolan Embassies in Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo and DRC only to fail miserably each time. If you are intending to travel by road from Europe to southern Africa via West Africa your only hope is the tiny Angolan consulate in the border town of Matadi. If for some reason the visa is denied here, you journey is over. The only visa that is issued in Matadi is a 5 day transit visa. It is almost impossible to cross Angola in just five days, though. The roads are too bad, the country too big.
I luckily got the transit visa. A great relief. Together with my new travel companions, Ab and Mathijs from the Netherlands with their 20 year old Nissan Patrol that looks like it is coming straight out of a Mad Max movie, I crossed the border into Angola. We had met several times before on the way and decided to travel through Angola together. I was very happy not having to travel through this country alone. Although Angola is yet another country currently recovering from decades of civil war, the overall security situation is good at moment. The main problem for travelers who are on a rather tight budget is that the few places to stay that Angola has to offer are extremely expensive, so the only option is wild camping, which is much easier and safer with two vehicles. You just have to watch out for the land mines. Angola is still one of the most heavily land mined countries in the world, although Angolans told us that there is progress being made in de-mining the countryside.

Eight days we spent in Angola, a country, which struck me as one of the most hopeful places that I visited in Africa. Roads and other infrastructure are being built everywhere. I saw few villages that did not have a brand new school building. People were mostly full of hope, although the mental scars of a society that spent the last 40 years at war were obvious and plenty.

When we entered Namibia, after a week of camping in gravel pits along the road, on beaches and parking lots we were dusty, tired and hungry. We stumbled into a huge supermarket and were sheer overwhelmed by the variety and quantity of products on offer. After many months spent in Western and Central African countries where we were happy to buy whatever little there was on offer, I just couldn’t decide what to buy when faced with such choices. Namibia and South Africa have European or American standards in almost everything and I have to admit that despite my joy to finally be able to buy real gummy bears and eight different kinds of toilet paper again, I was suffering from a slight culture shock.
For two weeks I spent each day working on the Land Rover in a small northern Namibian town called Tsumeb. Some long overdue maintenance work had to be taken care of and I also bought and mounted a brand new roof top tent on the car. The days of unbearably hot and sleepless nights that Chiho and I spent in the cramped and stuffy back of the Land Rover were finally over.

Our new South African-made tent is spacious, comfortable and most importantly, well ventilated.
In Tsumeb I also met Claudia, Thomas and their son Leon, a German family that is traveling with an old Hanomag truck. (http://www.afrikatour.de/)

As soon as the Land Rover was ready again it was already time to fly to Germany. My mother’s 60th birthday was celebrated in Daun and I wanted to be there. Chiho arrived in Germany from New York and Japan, and after less than two weeks we were back in Africa again. Together we traveled around Namibia a bit and visited the well known Etosha Pan National Park, Swakopund, Sussusvlei and finally the Fish River Canyon. We liked Namibia a lot, which has truly stunning natural beauty to offer, friendly people and a great infrastructure. The only drawback are the for African standards high travel costs and the many German tourists. If you are driving through the emptiness and wideness of the spectacular Namibian desert and are suddenly faced by a bus load of white legged, khaki pans and sun hat wearing crowd of elderly Germans who all ask you the same question: “Did you really drive down here all the way from Germany???” (The great irony lays in the fact that many of these ‘all inclusive tourists’ actually don’t know where exactly they are when they say this.)

Only two days after crossing the border into South Africa we reached Cape Town.
Chiho, who is sitting next to me just had a quick look at my text and started laughing. “You wanted to keep it short!”
Oh well.

Best
Christoph.

Christoph Bangert
-photojournalist-
currently in South Africa
cell South Africa: +27-780562152
me@christophbangert.com
http://www.christophbangert.com/
http://www.iraq.christophbangert.com/
http://www.travelnotes.christophbangert.com/
http://africablog.christophbangert.com/
http://www.laif.de/

12 thoughts on “Africa Dispatch: South Africa

  1. martin

    Congratulations!!!!!!!
    Great Trip, wonderful videos, you insired to fulfill my dreams to travel to africa!

    Best

    Martin

  2. Margot B.

    Eigentlich ist das Ziel jetzt erreicht!! Herzlichen Glückwunsch!!!
    Aber bei einer sooo schönen Penthouse-Wohnung müsst Ihr noch ein bisschen weiterfahren.Gute Rückreise!
    M.B.

  3. gigi

    I visited your website a couple of days ago, until then I keep going back. Your work is amazing. I would like to ask you millions of questions; in particular how you work with large format in such deprived environments. Probably when you come go back you could give me some useful tips. I will be immensely grateful.
    Regards
    Gigi

  4. bernd hölscher jun.

    hallo!
    grandios! schön! toll!
    …und ich hab mal unten ferngeglotzt und chips gefressen, während ihr oben schlieft…
    ein schöner hauch von dem, wovon man so oft träumte, und der weg war zu weit…
    keep on rocking!
    bernd

  5. M.Bangert

    Hallo, kleiner Bernd,
    da untertreibst du aber! Bist du nicht auf den Brettern, die die Welt bedeuten, gelandet? Und das ganz erfolgreich!
    Keep on playing! M.B.

  6. Steffen Heine

    Servus Christoph.

    Wir haben uns in Südafrika, ich glaube am Hole in the Wall gesehen, war damals schon von eurer Reise begeistert und bin es durch eure Website noch mehr geworden.
    Euch nur das Beste, gute Zeit und genießt die wunderschönen Eindrücke die ihr nie vergessen werdet.

    Liebe Grüße Steffen

  7. bernhard

    Hallo
    schön, dass Ihr es gesund und munter (bis auf diese A**** Nummer) geschafft habt.
    Weiterhin alles Gute
    bernhard

  8. Siggi

    I let too many months go without following your Africa (and Europe and Queens hospital) adventure…as always, a wonderful read for these tired eyes. And, it’s always a relief to learn you’re both doing well, too. Whenever the opportunity avails itself, I do a bit of shameless promoting about your travels and books. Hey, it makes me look “worldly” myself, but it might be more convincing if I got a car and a life. Shhh! Don’t tell anyone my “world” is about as wide as a Metro card and I rarely photograph anything, anymore. (Reasons, unknown.)Cheers!

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