Angola | On old boot tracks in Angola
Next to a rickety steel bridge over the Longa River the gun barrels of two olive green Russian T-55 tanks are pointing across the river. It seems as if the crew have simply made a quick pitstop so they could stretch their legs. But this is postwar Angola and the tanks have been standing here for years.
Wrecks such as these are a constant reminder of the 27-year civil war that ended in 2002. As are the long line of burnt-out wrecks of a supply convoy between Menongue and Cuito Cuanavale, as well as the three armoured troop carriers that came to a standstill, one behind the other, each shot out with a single shot.
For a generation of South African men too, Angola is only a war memory.
The first experience of this country for many of them was a baptism of fire in the rainy season of 1975/’76 during Operation Savannah when they had to brave mud, downpours and malaria mosquitoes.
I recently drove back on old boot tracks of war to visit the places where the SADF had been involved in heavy fighting: Cassinga, Cuito Cuanavale, Catengue, Ebo, Bridge 14 … names with which a generation of soldiers of 18, 19 years old were intimately familiar.
However, I also went back to experience the country’s natural splendour – and to tackle the notoriously bad roads.
Our convoy entered Angola through the bustling Santa Clara border post and then drove through Ondjiva, Cuvelai, Cassinga, Cubango, Cuchi and Menongue to Cuito Cuanavale.
Next, we travelled northwest through Chitembo and Huambo to Quibala, where we turned southwest and drove along the coast through Sumbe and Lobito to Benguela.
From Benguela we went to Lubango, and from there to the coast between Namibe and Tombua, and returned three weeks later through the much quieter Caluegue border post.
What tourist facilities?
Large parts of Angola are still untouched. It’s a country of contrasts: Landscapes vary from desert dull to subtropical green, from Karoo koppies to blue granite mountains, dense bush country to grassy plains.
You drive through twisty bends on mountain passes, on jeep tracks in the bush, roads with the occasional patch of tar, through rivers and streams and over narrow patched-up bridges, but also on brand spanking new tar roads and over modern bridges.
Tourist facilities are just about non-existent and you can pitch your tent under the stars every night.
Angola requires patience and vasbyt. This is Lesson #1. At the Santa Clara border post we are delayed for almost six hours while officials were nitpicking about imaginary faults with our visas.
When we hit the first of thousands of potholes within a few metres of the border post, I just know: This trip is going to be different. There are potholes everywhere, from tea-tray- to car-sized ones.
Just to stop you from becoming completely discouraged, you occasionally do travel on a good gravel road or even an excellent tar road. Just beyond Ondjiva we turn off on a lovely, broad white gravel road where we encounter the first signs of the civil war – two shot-out Russian T54 tanks.
We’re on our way to Cassinga and later on we turn off on a bush track to Mupa. It’s a bad track with dongas and pools of muddy water. We drive past hovels with round huts made of branches, black-and-red MPLA flags fluttering in front of each one.
Here our average speed is 20 km/h, and I realise what the experienced Angola travellers mean with Lesson #2: You don’t measure distance in kilometres, but in hours.
At Cuvelai I learn the third: Lesson #3: In Angola there are bridges and then there are those that are only rumours of bridges. The road surface on the narrow concrete bridge over the Cuvelai River is so full of holes it’s a miracle it hasn’t collapsed yet. We decide to drive through the knee-deep river instead.
We’re now in the Huila Province, still on a jeep track through the bush. Red-and-white stripes on tree trunks along the road warn us that this is still landmine country.
In between there are signs with a white skull and the message Perigo Minas! (“Danger, mines!”) on a red background.
This is Lesson #4: Never stray off the roads.
No one knows exactly where the mines are, as the legless people limping along on crutches attest to.
Pg 2 | Rugby anyone?
Does anyone here play rugby?
We push on to Cassinga, where Colonel Jan Breytenbach, who is accompanying us, led a paratroop assault on 4 May 1978.
Today it’s almost a ghost town. Ruins of houses from the Portuguese era stand like monuments along what used to be the broad main road, the walls pockmarked with hundreds of bulletholes.
While we are having lunch, local resident Pedro Jamba joins us. He was there, 32 years ago, says Pedro. There and there soldiers fell out of the sky, he points to the river and trees nearby.
The colonel shows Pedro the scar where a Swapo bullet hit him in the arm that day.
Pedro takes us to two mass graves. We walk through the tall grass to a concrete slab of 7 m x 6 m. Swapo officers and commanders lie buried here, he says.
The other grave is about a kilometre away. It too is covered with a weathered concrete slab, but it is considerably bigger. “Cassinga Massacre, 4 May 1978”, the inscription reads. The soldiers and civilians who died on that day are buried here, all 608 of them, says Pedro.
Late afternoon we stop at the mining town of Jamba on the Cubango River. Under all the decay the Portuguese heritage still shows through, such as the broad streets and the rows of flame trees with their bright orange flowers.
Oxford professor Richard, who grew up in Durban, puts on his Springbok cap and takes out a rugby ball. We kick the ball around in the dusty street while a few children enjoy the spectacle. It’s not too long before they join in.
The police chief slowly drives past, but doesn’t interfere.
In Cachingues we want to refuel, but learn Lesson #5: Just because there are fuel stations all over Angola doesn’t mean they always have fuel. So don’t assume you’ll be able to fill up in the next town.
Here’s gasolina (petrol), but the gasóleo (diesel) pumps are dry.
Lesson #5 also has an appendix: Be patient when you and the fuel truck arrive on the same day.
It happened to us a few times and we had to patiently wait in long queues of cars, trucks, motorbikes and people with empty containers stacked on wheelbarrows.
Dust, more dust and potholes
Just about every village we pass through has a small church built by the Portuguese. Some have been vandalised, but others are well maintained.
Cubango has a pink church on the town square. It’s weathered, but still in use. Domus Dei (“House of God”) is written in large letters above the arched wooden doors with their heavy iron hinges.
Inside, a few women are scrubbing the floor and the roughly hewn benches.
It’s hot and we stop at the town bar to buy N’Gola Cerveja (an Angolan beer). Fabio, the owner, stands behind a wooden counter next to his chest fridge. He’s probably never had so many clients at once and looks overwhelmed. We buy his entire supply at 90 kwanza (R9) per beer.
In several places we see bridge sections lying in the river – mostly the work of South African recces, an ex-recce in our group tells us.
At Cutato there’s a new steel bridge, some distance from where the old concrete bridge was blown up.
The “new bridge” across the Cuchi River, by contrast, comprises sections of railway line placed side by side. The sections are ankle deep under the strongly-flowing water, and in places even deeper.
The Chinese are building and repairing roads, bridges and railway lines on a grand scale. En route to Menongue (previously Serpa Pinto) large trucks with Chinese drivers regularly roar past our convoy. The clouds of powdered dust they kick up just about force you to a standstill.
Because of that and the terrible roads we only drove 140 km today.
Pg 3 | In dangerous country
Still in dangerous country
We buy beer at Loja Eusvang’s neon pink shop on Menongue’s main road. Most products on the shelves are South African. A bottle of Nescafé instant coffee costs R200.
The narrow tar road from Menongue to Cuito Cuanavale doesn’t look too bad and we feel upbeat about the 170 km ahead – but alas, prematurely.
For long stretches there’s only a narrow strip of tar in the middle of the road, with sharp edges where the soil has washed away under the tar. In other places clumps of tar the size of large soup bowls cling resolutely. It’s simply impossible to miss all the potholes.
This road was a major route for Cuban and Fapla supply convoys. On one stretch you drive past a kilometre-long convoy of burnt-out wrecks – mostly fuel trucks, ammunition trucks and troop carriers. The steel point of a cannon shell is still laying next to one wreck.
The former recce tells us how they often lay in ambush on this road and how Cuban armoured cars once chased them through the bush for hours after one such an ambush.
Many of the wrecks have become a children’s playground. The steel sides of two Russian T55 tanks at the bridge over the Longa River have been worn smooth by countless tiny hands and feet.
On this road there are also two helicopter wrecks. One has burnt out, and the fuselage of another one, a Russian Hind 128 combat helicopter, lies in an open field next to a small village. A neat row of bulletholes marks the section, from top to bottom, where the tail has broken off.
Our visit to Cuito Cuanavale is short-lived, because to the people here the war is still a recent memory.
In the rest of Angola everyone is friendly, but here South Africans are still regarded with suspicion.
An official even threatens to throw our guide in jail.
About 120 km north of Menongue we get a pleasant surprise when the bad gravel road turns into a new tar road – the doings of the Brazilians who are at work here.
We drive on this luxurious road to Chitembo, where I encounter a young man on crutches. “Bom dia,” I greet him. “Mina?” I ask pointing to his empty trouser leg.
“Sim, mina (Yes, a mine),” he confirms. His name is Kambale, and like hundreds of others he became a landmine victim long after the end of the war.
Our convoy reaches Huambo (formerly Nova Lisboa) by late afternoon. It’s a big place and it was one of Jonas Savimbi and Unita’s strongholds.
The city suffered severely during the civil war, and some of the buildings have hundreds of bullet scars on the walls. In other places large chunks were torn out of the walls.
Between Huambo and Cela (formerly Santa Comba) the landscape starts changing. It’s less overgrown, and there are numerous grassy plains.
We’re still driving on a good tar road that apparently goes all the way to Luanda, and we encounter much more traffic. Most people drive like kamikazes, overtaking on solid lines on blind rises and simply push you off the road when another vehicle approaches.
This explains all the wrecks on the roadside. One of our group says he has counted a wreck every 5 km or so. He stopped counting at 50.
The subtropical landscape becomes increasingly beautiful, with wild banana plantations, mango and avocado trees and flowering shrubs next to the road. Giant granite formations point at the sky like fat fingers.
In a valley the broad Queve River forms an intermittent shiny line.
At lunchtime we arrive at Cela.
My friend Sakkie goes looking for the church that was used as a hospital during Operation Savannah in 1975.
Sakkie took a photograph there of surgery on a wounded Cuban. But a new housing development has since overrun the church.
In 1975 this area was the scene of heavy fighting between the South African forces and Fapla, aided by Cubans. At the Nhia River where the battle of Bridge 14 took place, the Chinese have since built a new bridge and there is no sign of the old one.
At Ebo we pitch camp on a soccer field near where seven Eland armoured cars were shot out on 23 November 1975 by Fapla and Cubans, and a Bosbok reconnaisance plane was shot down.
The wrecks of the Bosbok and two armoured cars are displayed at the foot of a giant granite koppie. The four South Africans who died were buried in this area.
When a group of boys start gathering near our campsite, Richard takes out his rugby ball and gives an impromptu “rugby coaching clinic”. While he shows them how to sidestep and tackle, a few boys flatten him in a group tackle.
Later on a formidable South African pack forms a giant scrum against about 20 Angolan boys. There’s a lot of shouting and noise, and the “match” only stops when it gets too dark to see the ball.
Pg 4 | Into baobab country
Into baobab country
We’re now headed for the coast, and from Gabela we quickly descend 1 200 m to the coastal plain in the direction of Sumbe (formerly Novo Redondo).
We stop at a roadside market selling bunches of bananas, fresh paus (Portuguese rolls), avos, guavas, lemons, sweet potatoes, potatoes and peanuts. Even goats and pigs are traded.
The tar road to Sumbe is in a good condition and we put foot for a change. The subtropical forests gradually yield to open plains with low koppies – pure Karoo. But here, instead of thorn trees, there are baobabs wherever you look – big and small.
Outside Bing we stop at a picnic site some way from the bridge over the gushing Queve River. Further down the water tumbles over cliffs in two large bubbling falls.
Above one waterfall a row of baobabs begging to be photographed are etched against the sky.
In the afternoon we drive into Sumbe, past a stately, pink manor house that was the residence of the Portuguese governor during the colonial era.
During the South African forces’ occupation in 1975 it was Col Breytenbach’s headquarters. The governor fled immediately, he recalls.
“Even his clothes were still in the cupboards. I borrowed one of his shirts, but left the rest as they were,” he says.
One of the treats of the tour is each night’s bush camp, but we trade it for Angola’s untouched white beaches a few times.
At Baía das Pipas (“Bay of the Grebes”), 40 km north of Namibe, the waves provide background music as the quiet desert surrounds you.
While the sun is setting over the ocean fishermen are moving their nets – attached to giant floats – to the beach.
At Baía Farta, south of Benguela, we put up camp against a rough granite mountain that runs into the sea. That night the sun spreads its glow wide over the sea and leaves an orange layer on the bumps of the waves.
We have now covered 2 200 km in Angola.
A tortoise, submarine and other sights
Lubango is one of Angola’s most beautiful cities. Upon our arrival there in near-darkness, the white Cristo Rei statue overlooking the city with outstretched arms is bathed in light.
The smallest of three similar statues (the others are in Rio de Janeiro and Lisbon), a part of the mouth and nose were shot off during the war and there are two bullet holes in the left cheek.
After breakfast the next morning we drive up the mountain onto the plateau with its rock formations.
We’re heading for Tundavala, an impressive volcanic crevice in the mountain, which falls 2 300 m from the plateau down to sea level.
The road twists and turns around granite blocks. One looks like a tortoise peeking over the road, another like a submarine on a stand. You get the feeling that the boulders were roughly moulded and then sprinkled here.
At the top we peer down into the narrow crevice. It’s so deep you can barely see the bottom with the naked eye.
Joua, a former Fapla officer who is accompanying us, tells us that the MPLA interrogated dissidents here during the war before they were shot and their bodies thrown down into the depths.
In the late afternoon we drive on to Humpata, a few kilometres outside Lubango, to the graves of and memorial to the Thirstland Trekkers.
It’s a fertile part of the high plateau and you can see why the trekkers settled here after their many hardships.
One of the most beautiful passes you can imagine, the Leba Pass, is a few kilometres further on. From a lookout the series of hairpin bends look almost unnegotiable as they curl down the mountain.
The view from the lookout is like a painting: massive cliffs bathed in pastel hues, a tall, thin waterfall and layer upon layer of mountains in the background.
We slowly negotiate the hairpin bends that take you about 1 700 m down from the plateau to sea level. The pass is 35 km long and has 88 bends, 36 of those the hairpins for which Leba is well-known.
We have now covered 3 000 km and the good tar road to Namibe is a welcome relief. Initially rocky koppies and shrubland surround you, but gradually the landscape changes into a sandy desert landscape. The Namib Desert ends at Namibe, or starts there, if you’re looking south.
Welcome and goodbye
At Namibe a sign welcomes visitors in four languages, even Afrikaans. From here we drive south along the coastal road to Tombua (formerly Porto Alexandré) to look for the well-hidden underground Cuban military base that was built in the desert in the 1980s. The network of bunkers and tunnels is astonishing.
We’re reaching the end of our tour, and we turn south in the direction of Cahama. Both fuel stations in town are dry and once more our jerry cans come to the rescue. (Part of Lesson #5: Always keep your jerry cans full.)
That night we pitch our final camp, about 100 km from the border post.
We spend our last night around the campfire and it’s as if the night sounds join forces to give us a farewell concert.
But Angola has one last surprise.
On the jeep track among mopane trees the next morning, we encounter large stretches of pot clay where cattle had left deep tracks in the rainy season.
Now it’s a bumpy track that shakes and vibrates everything that hasn’t already been shaken loose.
We continue like this to the Caluegue border post, where we cross the Cunene on a narrow bridge.
The tour was an adventure in many respects.
It was a privilege and adventure for everyone to explore the country.
But for some it was an opportunity to close a chapter in their lives and find peace.
*Dolf travelled as a paying customer of Live the Journey
Tel 021 912 4090 | Web www.livethejourney.co.za
Pg 5 | I want to go too
Best time: May-October
Stay at least: 2-3 weeks
Unspoilt Africa and friendly people
Cape Town: ± 2 300 km; Johannesburg: ± 2 900 km
Sound like a boffin:
Angola is carrying out an extensive reconstruction programme and aims at building a million new homes by 2013.
I want to go too!
It’s quite an experience to drive back to the old war haunts, to see the neglect, but also the regeneration. That, and also the natural beauty, the friendly people and challenging roads make it a memorable trip.
The best time to go?
May to October are drier and cooler. Avoid the rainy season when some roads are impassable.
4×2 of 4×4?
Definitely 4×4, but due to all the new roads being built, larger parts of the country will become accessible to 4×2 drivers in the next year or two.
What do I have to take along?
• Clothes for hot days as well as icy nights.
• Take at least 50 litres of drinking water. Bottled water is sold in bigger towns.
• An extra spare wheel and spare parts are a must
Fuel is cheap (diesel is about R3 per litre and petrol R4). Ensure you always have enough fuel for 800 km of driving.
What are the dangers?
• Landmines are still found in some areas, but the roads on the route are clean.
• Take anti-malaria precautions.
• Also take a well-stocked first-aid kit. In some parts of the country medical assistance can be a two-day drive away.
Where can I stay or camp?
Angola doesn’t have a tourist culture yet, and only the bigger towns offer tourist accommodation, but it’s expensive. For instance, the Palanca Negra Lodge outside Lubango charges about R1 000 per person per night (and it’s not a luxury resort). Rather camp in the bush in landmine-free areas, or on the unspoilt beaches.
ALSO READ: A different Angola by Anton van Schalkwyk
Into Angola’s wilder side Rulan Heunis
If you don’t want to go on your own.
Live the Journey’s next Battlefields tour is from 16 May to 3 June 2010.
The pace of the three-week tour is easy.
Three meals are provided daily.
Contact them on Tel: 021 912 4090; Web: www.livethejourney.co.za
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