There is no greater joy than travelling — and sharing it with others


There is no greater joy than travelling — and sharing it with others

ANNELIESE BURGESS talks to Johan Badenhorst, presenter of the television programme Voetspore, on the eve of its 18th expedition, the last in a South American trilogy.


JOHAN talks to me from Bogotá in Colombia, from the kitchen table in an Airbnb. He is cheerful. It's just after six in the morning there. Lunchtime here.

He and his daughter were the forward team for the third leg of the “South American trilogy", as he refers to the third Voetspore expedition on this continent. But the rest of the team have arrived. The vehicles, which were shipped from South Africa, are ready for action. There are still a few logistical knots to iron out, then the wheels will start rolling towards Venezuela.

The single biggest challenge for any Voetspore expedition is just getting started, as we bring our own vehicles over," he says. “We have three vehicles, we are six people. We ride two by two. And we live in our vehicles with roof tents and the like. That vehicle is my home, it's my bedroom, it's my office, it's my absolute everything. So I fix it up in South Africa and bring it over, but to bring just one vehicle here costs about R200,000, so it's an expensive story.

But once we have our vehicles here, we stay for free. And we make our own food, so that's a drastic saving. Interestingly, South America, with the exception of Argentina, does not have organised campsites.

In Argentina there is an organised campsite in every town and you don't pay for it. There is a shower and a toilet and it's safe. But in the rest of South America there is no such thing. So we rely heavily on the overlanding community for advice and tips. You are connected on different apps, and then you hear where you can park. Sometimes it's in front of a police station and then you use the ablution facilities at the gas station across the street. Or sometimes it's just a quarry in the middle of nowhere.

This expedition will take three months, like the previous ones.

During the first expedition we visited Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile and Argentina. The follow-up, last year, was Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. And now we are doing Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and Brazil.

The only country in South America that we are not going to get to is French Guiana. At the Amazon river you have a choice to go up or down. It's one of the great adventures in the Amazon, so I chose to go down. This means we will drive from Suriname to a city called Manaus, and embark on a river ferry."

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Colombia’s turnaround

I ask about Colombia. The country fascinates me, like anyone who got swept up in the Netflix series Narcos.

There are three major cities, Cali, Medellín and Bogotá. During the big drug era there were the Cali cartels and the Medellín cartels. But today, Colombia has completely shaken off that stigma. And the people here get irritated when you refer to (Pablo) Escobar, because they are a different country today.

Last year we spent quite a bit of time in the heart of the country, for example in the coffee and cocoa regions. It's a beautiful part of the  world and the people are sophisticated. The farms we visited were really on a first-world level. Nina (his daughter) and I drove from Cartagena — a wonderful city in the north. An old Spanish fortress with an 11 km city wall that was built at the time to keep out the pirates. It's a wonderful country to visit.

I have South African friends who came here to travel and they said that if they ever had to emigrate, they would want to live in Medellín. It's a fantastic city. Wonderful art and culture and public transport systems. We spent some time in Cali last week and that city feels like it's deteriorating a bit. But Bogotá is completely different. It's almost like Johannesburg. It's the economic heartland. The commercial centre resembles Rosebank. Beautiful. Tidy. Pretty. Clean. And great restaurants and the like, but more on the outskirts it's a bit grim."

He tells of the road from Cartagena to Cali, which took him and his daughter almost two days to drive. “It's only 1,100km. In South Africa I often drove from my home in Pretoria to Kleinmond within a day. And it is 1,400km. I think we in South Africa are pretty spoilt. We complain a lot, but our infrastructure is quite on a different level if you compare it to places like South America."

Voetspore’s deep imprints

This is the 18th trip in 24 years since Voetspore started with a tour through Southern Africa.

And then we slowly but surely started travelling north and realised that Africa is a wonderful, fantastic, safe continent with friendly people. My favourite country in Africa by far is Ethiopia, because of the dramatic variety that one finds there. The lowest place on the continent, to the highlands, the different religions, the orthodox churches, but also the Muslims with a holy city like Harar and Haile Selassie who was a direct descendant of King David. Ethiopia is a bit of an island in Africa for me, so dramatically different from anywhere else that it is one of my favourite destinations on the continent.

But there are many others as well. Uganda is fantastic and so is Kenya. Four years ago we did a trip that followed the course of the Zambezi River, from Zambia all the way to Mozambique, through Zimbabwe. Every trip has its own unique charm.

Like Madagascar — a place unlike any other place in the world I've travelled to. The lemurs, the baobab trees, the people, the landscapes.

One year, my son, Streicher, and I rode motorcycles right through India. It was a special experience. We travelled through the countryside, camped in the middle of nowhere and slept on beaches. It had an incredible charm. This is actually what we try to do with every trip. To travel within a country rather than around a country."

Suriname and Brazil

And what does he believe will be a highlight of this third South American expedition?

I'm really looking forward to Suriname — black people, descendants of the West Indies slaves from Tijuana, Jamaica and Cuba and so on — they speak Dutch. The history is fascinating. The English and the Dutch entered into an exchange agreement, 200 or 300 years ago. The Dutch thought it was a good thing to have sugar cane plantations, so they exchanged New Amsterdam, which then became New York, for Paramaribo, and here today Holland sits with the colony of Suriname and the English sit with New Amsterdam. It's probably the worst exchange ever made, if you look at what New York looks like today and what Paramaribo looks like today," laughs Johan. “And with our Afrikaans and their Dutch, it's going to be nice.

And then we leave the colossus for last. The mighty giant of South America — Brazil. To give you perspective, if you put the south of Brazil on Cape Town, its northern tip is in Ethiopia. That's how enormous it is."


Johan says that over the decades of Voetspore's existence, filming has become much easier because cameras and equipment have become so small that they can pose as tourists.

With today's cameras, we almost look like we're taking pictures. In addition we have a lot of action cameras where people don't even know you're recording. For example, I have a camera in my vehicle that records 360º. And then of course we make a lot of use of the drone to give perspective of where we are. Most people are unaware that the drone is in the air, because it's so far away you can't even hear it. If you're not in people's faces like that, you get much better material. It is by way of the highest exception that we show up somewhere as a television team.”

But their vehicles attract enormous attention, he says.

People stop us just to take a picture. The vehicles are not readily available in South America and they are also properly equipped. So people want to open up and see where our kitchen or the fridges or the inverters are. So we don't arrive in a place unannounced but we try to blend in with the environment.

We're really only a reality show in a sense, so we try to take in everything that's around us. We have a plan but the script actually happens on the editing bench. We look at what we found and use it to put the story together. In the end, the series consists of 13 hour-long episodes, but for that we shoot probably 600 hours of material. Many times it's footage from four or five cameras, a drone in the air, the camera in my car and footage from a bunch of other action cameras. And then we use different angles to be able to tell the story. So that's really where the big work is — when we get back home and we have to work through all that material to tell the story.

And because we're telling the story largely through natural sound, you really just have to sit on your ass and study every single second that's there. A sequence that takes us three months to shoot will take us six, seven, eight months to edit.”

Food, love and joy

I ask about the food on their expeditions.

We have two relatively large freezers, one in my vehicle and one in Stefan's (Sonnekus) vehicle. I remember about two years ago we were with a South African in Paraguay who imported Dorper sheep. There are no mutton sheep in South America, only wool sheep, and then he packed our freezers full of mutton so that we could at least roast a rib on the side of the road and chops and things like that, but that's by way of exception.

“Most of the time it's a case of us eating what people eat there. In Colombia, especially in the north, it is mainly pork and a lot of chicken too. In the south, in Argentina and Uruguay, it was mainly beef — the best steaks in the world. Uruguay also has very good beef. And then when we get to the coast, we eat fish and shrimp and so on. Such a trip is ultimately also a culinary adventure."

How does he remain so enthusiastic about travel after a quarter of a century of Voetspore?

Well, it's better than working," he jokes. But then he gets serious. “It's ultimately very hard work and there are many challenges too. Being away from home for three months has a very big effect on my relationship with my wife. We've been married for 34 years now, although she claims it's 25 because I've been away from home for so long.

“And it's not just me. There's the rest of the team too. Stefan has a wife and children, so does Max. Norbert has a son.

There is no doubt that it is work, but I believe you should enjoy your work. There should be no moment in a day where you regret what you do. One day I heard from a guy who said that next to love, there is nothing that makes a person as happy as travelling. And then I want to add — even more so by telling people about it.

And that's exactly what we do. We travel, we experience it, we enjoy it and we share it with other people. That's what makes it really, really fun for us."

♦ VWB ♦

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