Angola | In the Acre of Death
It’s known as the Acre of Death. The last 18 km of the 60 km long narrow strip of beach north of the Kunene in Angola is marked “Extremely Dangerous” on maps.
When the spring tide is low, you can drive through to Tombua in the north, but only if you know the terrain and the way the sea and the weather will change. The alternative is a day’s detour inland through the Iona National Park.
Two years ago, the seasoned traveller Johan Badenhorst and his Voetspore team had a close escape in the Acre of Death.
Even back then, Johan wrote you need a bit more than just knowledge and experience to deal with it: “This place demands that you judge the tide right, that you have some skill as well as luck, and that you’re driving a decent vehicle.”
Experience isn’t everything
Now the Acre of Death has struck again. Anton and Annemarie Slabbert of Randburg have been crisscrossing Southern Africa for years. “We’ve been through all of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia,” Anton recalls.
The two couples who travelled with them, Lappe and Salomie Labuschagne and Wittes and Susan Heymans, all have more than 10 years’ 4×4 experience.
The group set off in mid-June − the Slabberts in a Toyota Hilux KZ-TE, the Labuschagnes in a Toyota Land Cruiser diesel bakkie called Boela, and the Heymans in a new Toyota Hilux 3.0 D-4D, with radio contact between them.
On Sunday, 20 June, they crossed the border at Ruacana. By Tuesday they reached the mouth of the Kunene, Foz do Cunene, their last stop before the Acre of Death.
“It all went relatively well until we got to Foz do Cunene,” says Anton. “En route we had to replace a damaged pipe between the main and extra diesel tank, and a big rock hit the wish bone underneath the bakkie, but nothing too serious.”
The plan was to spend two nights at Foz do Cunene, waiting for spring tide to enable them a hassle-free drive through the Acre of Death.
“When we arrived, the owner of the cottages we’d booked wasn’t there. He should have come from Tombua to unlock it for us and to advise us about the Acre of Death,” says Annemarie.
“We thought that if his plan was to get through the Acre of Death to us before spring tide, we too could get through earlier.”
Little did they know that the owner hadn’t made it through because a cold front blowing in from the south was causing waves of up to four metre. “Due to the large numbers of World Cup tourists, we couldn’t get a satellite phone. If we’d had one, the owner would have been able to warn us.
“Then a tour group arrived from the north, having just driven through the Acre of Death. Their Namibian guide gave us his tide chart and assured us we’d get through easily.
“As we had the right camping gear, we decided to set up camp on the beach, as closely as possible to the Bay of Tigers, the start of the Acre of Death.”
WEDNESDAY, 23 JUNE | Bye-bye, dear bakkie …
Following the guide’s advice, they decided the next morning to tackle the Acre of Death at 8 am.
“We calculated that we had to leave an hour before low tide,” says Annemarie. “And that’s where the fun started.”
Just before reaching the Bay of Tigers, you have to swing inland to avoid a salt marsh. “You drive inland, close to the dunes, before heading back to the sea around the swamps.”
Back on the beach, they made good progress, until Lappe’s Cruiser, which was leading the way to make a track, started overheating because he had to wait for a big wave every now and again.
Wittes’ Hilux took over the lead.
“Suddenly my bakkie sank into the sand. It just got sucked in,” says Anton.
He alerted the others over the radio and they turned around to recover the Hilux.
That’s when things went seriously pear-shaped.
“We broke two kinetic straps trying to pull the Hilux out, but it wouldn’t budge,” says Anton.
They also tried lifting one of the back wheels, of which the tyre had slipped off the rim, with the jack, but there was not enough space between the vehicle and the sand for the jack to fit in.
“We were still trying to dig out the bakkie when a huge wave swept through underneath the bakkie, and hit the dune.
“It caused the bakkie to get sucked into the sand even more. That’s when we realised it was time to get the hell out,” sighs Anton.
“I tied the spare wheel to the roof rack, grabbed the radio and locked the car. Goodness knows why!”
Annemarie grabbed their documents, her vanity case, handbag and camera and hopped into the single-cab Land Cruiser with Lappe and his wife, on Salomie’s lap. Anton got a ride with Wittes and his wife in the Hilux.
“If you draw a horizontal line on a map from the top of the island in the Bay of Tigers, it indicates more or less where we abandoned the bakkie.”
Just around the first corner, says Annemarie, the Cruiser’s clutch packed up.
“Fortunately, Lappe drove to a dune when he felt the problem starting. Almost at the dune, the wheels wouldn’t turn any longer.
“We buried the two spare tyres deep in the sand and anchored the bakkie to it with the winch and kinetic strap.
“Then the tide started coming in big time,” she says. “The water washed up the side of the dune, passed through underneath the truck, hitting it again as it washed back down the dune. At times, the water lifted the vehicle, but the anchors held firm. We threw out as many emergency items as possible – water cans, important documents, bedding …”
At one stage, Lappe accepted Boela was a goner. Evening fell, and high tide came in again.
They radioed Wittes’ group about the broken clutch, without knowing whether they got through.
It was some consolation that they had food and water for at least a week.
They tried settling in for the night some distance up a dune.
Lappe watched the waves all night long and kept on covering the anchors as the waves were washing the sand from it.
Pg 2 | 23 June
Not long after the two vehicles separated, the new Hilux became stuck as well. Anton and Susan jumped out and started pushing. When the bakkie got going again, they hopped onto the back, clinging to the roof rack.
But the second time Anton couldn’t get hold of the roof rack, and having gained momentum, the Hilux had to keep going.
Wittes radioed Lappe to pick up Anton when he caught up with him.
“What could I do? I walked on, soaked my hankie and spread it over my head. It was hotter than 40 ºC and the easterly wind started blowing. I was only wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt – my sandals got left behind in the Hilux.
“The sand was burning my feet, so I tried sticking to the wet parts. I had to convince myself I wasn’t thirsty; and just had to keep walking … Estimating that two paces equalled a metre, I counted 4½ km before I reached Wittes and Susan.”
By this time the Hilux too had been anchored to the dune with the winch cable.
As the dune was more than 30 m high and had a slope of more than 45°, Anton says the sand kept shifting down. “You can’t quite get comfortable. It was the first time I heard roaring sand,” he says.
“By six o’clock that evening, with the tide going out, we heard the word ‘clutch’ and a great deal of cursing over the radio. We were relieved to hear the other three were still alive. But after that the radio went
Turning back was no option; they had to press on to find help for the rest of the group. “We wanted to reach Tombua, about 60 km further. Wittes’ GPS, which had an old version of Tracks4Africa’s maps, wasn’t of much use.
“Before 9 pm we headed inland, into the desert. It wasn’t long before we hit a swamp with such force that I thought we had hit a cow. Susan almost flew from the console through the window,” recalls Anton. “Stuck.
“The surface is covered by a 20 cm layer of sand, with water underneath. It was seriously cold and dark and our hi-lift jack was jammed by sand and sea salt. We tried to support the standard jack with bits of firewood, but it repeatedly sank in.
“By midnight we decided to take a rest – Susan on a mattress in the back of the bakkie, Wittes behind the wheel, and me on the passenger seat.”
THURSDAY, 24 JUNE | A day-long struggle
Anton says that when they got up at 6 am the next morning, Susan was already making coffee.
“We fixed the big jack with Q20 but it took a helluva long time just to jack up one front wheel so we could pack bags of firewood, floor mats and rubbish bags under the wheel. Susan became so tired she later started digging with her feet.
“The back wheels were even more of a challenge. We reversed, but within a metre or two, we were stuck again. Then you start from scratch. It was hot and the sun burned our feet mercilessly. Every muscle in my and Wittes’ body was tired and aching.
“Susan brought us food and ice blocks all the time. Without her we’d have given up. We weren’t hungry; but ate for energy.
“After digging out the vehicle for the fifth time, we decided to try driving forwards. It worked – only an hour before sunset!
“We saw other cars’ tracks and made good progress.
“Near the sea, we decided not to make the mistake of driving at night again, so we decided to spend yet another night in the desert. We managed to shower with the last water in the tanks and Wittes lent me underwear, a shirt and a pair of pants.
“At least I no longer had sand in my hair, ears, nails, feet and clothes.”
Back at Boela the Land Cruiser on the dune, Lappe, Salomie and Annemarie made it through the night. At low tide early that morning, Lappe walked into the sea with binoculars and saw the Hilux KZ-TE standing where they had left it.
“Then I realised my laptop, our dollars and my cellphone were still in the bakkie,” says Annemarie, “and I decided to walk back at ten o’clock that night at low tide.
“But by late afternoon, the tide rose with a tremendous force. When the sea wasn’t much lower at low tide, I decided against walking to the bakkie.
“We spent the day digging Boela in and anchoring the vehicle more securely when the water subsided.
“Later on I accepted that the bakkie was gone. I worried about Anton and the others all the time, but never doubted the Lord would help us.
“That night we climbed as high up the dune as we could to try to get some sleep, but in places the slope was more than 45º and the sand kept shifting down.
“At high tide the waves of up to 5 m high literally beat you off there,” says Annemarie.
Pg 3 | 25 June
FRIDAY, 25 JUNE | Energetic search party
Anton and the other two reached the village of Tombua that morning where they were welcomed with open arms.
“We were immediately received at the mayoral ‘palace’, or official residence. A search party was organised, consisting of two mayors, police officials, the head of immigration and environmental affairs and a number of other officials. They were in two Land Cruisers and a quad.
“They only got back at ten that night, empty-handed.” Anton says he initially got a fright, but Ze, a tourism official from the Philippines, showed him a video of the three sitting on a dune next to Boela. They couldn’t get to them with the Cruiser, but Ze had made it to them on the quad.
Meanwhile, at Boela on the dune, morale was low. They didn’t know whether Wittes’ group had been able to drive out to get help. At low tide, Lappe walked some distance southwards and sat on a dune. From there he saw a washed-up tyre.
“Then we saw our possessions strewn all over the show. Even the fridge,” says Annemarie.
The next thing they saw was the bakkie. The waves were rolling it towards the beach, and then the sea was drawing it in deeper. It had broken up. There was no way we’d get anything back.
“The greatest loss was my bird books and mammal books – with years’ notes. Also T-shirts and vehicle stickers we’d collected on expeditions. And our Bibles too.”
The group decided that Salomie had to walk the 15-17 km to the end of the Acre of Death, where a vehicle could turn inland, into the dunes.
“We knew once Wittes’ group reached that point, they would be okay. But we feared they were still stuck in the Acre of Death, just like us. After all, Wittes’ clutch also started slipping when we tried recovering Anton’s bakkie,” she says.
Eventually Salomie hiked 12 km along the beach before turning back. “As far as I was walking, I saw the washed-out possessions of Anton’s group – from the fridge and groceries to the seat’s foam rubber.
“I had to fight back the tears all the way.
“It was very hot and I hadn’t taken enough water along. Fortunately, I picked up water sachets that had washed out of Anton’s vehicle.
“My feet almost gave in, because I had to walk against the side of the dunes at high tide. A number of times the water trapped me against the dune.
“At least I could return with the news that Wittes’ vehicle was nowhere to be seen up to the escape route to the dunes.
Annemarie found a pair of Anton’s shoes. Food and water sachets lay strewn around.
By late afternoon they heard the roar of a motorbike and saw Ze approaching on the quad from around a dune.
“We were greatly relieved to see people. Ze explained that a rescue team couldn’t get through because the sea was still too rough. He said they would fetch us at low tide the next morning.”
Annemarie says they were very despondent. “We had to spend another night on the dune, half upright, with our lower legs and feet increasingly swollen because of the long time we spent sitting on the dune.”
Pg 4 | 26 June
SATURDAY, 26 JUNE | Knights on a quad
Anton left Tombua early in the morning with a search party of 14, but the Cruiser could only get to within about 9 km of them.
“Then I hopped onto the quad with Ze and we drove all the way to our friends.
“What a wonderful feeling to embrace Annemarie, Salome and Lappe. Big tears were shed.
“As for our Toyota, I could still see bits sticking out of the water.”
The plan was to send Annemarie and Sal
ome back on the quad bike, but Salome insisted on remaining with Lappe, and that Annemarie needed Anton.
Eventually, Anton and Annemarie were carted off like sardines on the back of the quad bike.
Lappe and Salomie prepared for another night.
Following the same routine as with each tidal change, they jacked Boela up, moved sand in underneath the wheels and let it down again, dug sand out from under the bakkie and fastened the anchors.
SUNDAY, 27 JUNE | All’s well that ends well
Just after dawn, while the tide was going out, an Afrikaans guy from Tombua, Jakes du Toit, reached Lappe’s group in his Land Cruiser VX turbo diesel. Three helpers rode up on the quad. Jakes immediately dug out the anchors and, in a flash, packed everything.
Jakes towed him across the beach at speeds of up to 60 km/h, sometimes right through the waves.
At the endpoint, a big party from the town awaited. “The mayor of Tombua hugged us and photographs were taken.”
At last, everyone was safe.
Four days later, the Hilux and the Cruiser’s clutches were replaced and Lappe, Salomie, Wittes and Susan could continue their journey beyond Luanda.
Anton and Annemarie, however, had to return home. For three days, the Tombua mayor treated them like royalty. He even organised toothbrushes and a doctor.
The businessman and pilot Mike Bosman, who was visiting the Flamingo fishing camp, offered the Slabberts two free seats on his Learjet. They flew from Namibe to Cape Town.
Everybody in the group are still keen to travel, though. “We’ll try the Acre of Death again, for sure, this time with a local guide,” says Anton.
“We also won’t leave two hours late because of wrong information. And never again without a satellite phone,” he chuckles.
“Next time we’ll drive right up to the Congo.”