Angola | Where jungle meets desert
Tropical thunderstorms battered their convoy on the central Angolan highlands and desert heat scorched them in the lowlands along the west coast. In the second of our three-part series on Angola, Dale Morris pops in at the ruins of Jonas Savimbi’s house on a 1300-km circular loop.
Being a wildlife fan, I never imagined that I would enjoy travelling to Angola as much as I did. Yes, it is true that during a 35-year conflict most of Angola’s animals have been shot, blown up, snared, fished, and then introduced to the digestive enzymes of the country’s human population, but Angola still has an amazing diversity of sights to see.
The country has colourful friendly people too who, despite becoming independent in 1975, still retain a culture and character noticeably influenced by the Portuguese and the Catholic Church. And the cities, although chaotic and ramshackle, are vibrant, exciting and surprisingly safe.
The mountains of the highlands are resplendent with waterfalls and cloudy cliffs, the north feels like the Congo what with its wet red earth and tropical forests, while the arid coastal band to the west is reminiscent of Namibia.
The sea there is turquoise, the beaches are beautiful, the fishing is awesome and the off-road (and on-road) adventuring is good.
Most landmines have been removed, and if you are worried about running into a populace hardened by violence and war, then don’t.
The Angolans I met were among the most open and welcoming Africans I have encountered.
The first instalment last month of the three-part series about travelling in Angola, was about a group of South African tourists travelling in a convoy of six Toyota 4x4s on a southwestern circular route.
We visited the war-ravaged south, the Angolan highlands and the great Namib desert where dunes slope down to the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
This, the second instalment, is about another circular route of some 1 300 km. The route picks up from Lubango, capital city of the Angolan province of Huíla in the Angolan highlands, and travels inland northeast through beautiful verdant scenery to the frenzied city of Huambo.
After that, one can change course and head west to the coast on perfect new highways before reaching yet more madcap towns such as Benguela and Lobito where slums, bullet-riddled buildings and brand-new buildings sit side-by-side with sandy beaches and picturesque bays.
The route then turns south and passes through arid scenery where orange cliffs drop into a turquoise sea and little fishing villages dot the coastline.
Eventually, one reaches the main east-west highway back to Lubango, courtesy of the winding Leba Pass.
Lubango’s streets thrum with brightly dressed locals. Portuguese-language billboards and dilapidated colonial buildings attest to its Mediterranean influence.
This story is about the journey to and from Lubango. It’s a beautiful, fascinating circuit that requires a good six days of driving, or more if you linger at some of the highlights.
Pg. 2 | Landmine roulette
The first morning of our journey passed in a blur of heavy rain and frantic windscreen wipers. All we saw were the occasional, sodden, despondent-looking local at the roadside. But at least it’s not cold when it rains in the tropics.
Martin le Roux, our Namibian-born guide, leaned forward in our Land Cruiser and peered through the great grey wall of water through which we were driving. The beginning of the wet season was the best time to come to Angola, he told the convoy over the radio. “The back roads will not have yet turned into muddy rivers, but hopefully, enough rain would have fallen on the highlands to green things up and to get the waterfalls flowing.”
There isn’t a pothole in sight on the broad tar of the En280, the main north-south highway out of the city. It’s a shining example of Angola’s development since the end of civil war in 2002. But only for the first 250 or so kilometres.
Eventually, after passing through the drenched mud-brick villages and the war-damaged towns of Hoque, Cacula, Negola and Caconda we chanced upon a demining operation at the roadside.
We stopped and chatted with the work-team foreman who showed us the equipment that is being used to rid Angola of an estimated 6-20 million landmines.
The mine wolf, a giant reinforced bulldozer, stood parked in the mud on heavy-duty caterpillar tracks. Its driving cab, a tiny bulletproof box, nestled safely behind a massive curved metal shield.
Chains with weights on the end hanging from a bar at the front of the scoop spin as the vehicle moves forward. The weights thump into the ground and detonate any landmines they might hit. “The shield prevents the driver from going boom along with the mine,” the foreman said.
I asked to meet the driver, but he wasn’t there. “Needed a holiday for the nerves,” the foreman said.
By the time we hit the road again, the midsummer’s tropical sun beats down fiercely. Storms during Angola’s wet season are most often short lived, passing overhead with ferocity but then dissipating quickly.
When we entered the village of Cusse, steam was rising from the roads and the dilapidated mud-brick houses, giving the impression that the whole place was on fire.
Quite fitting, because it looks like it was the scene of a battle only yesterday. On either side of the road, houses stood broken and battered. Few, if any, had all four walls intact. If any place in Angola personifies war’s ability to destroy, it is Cusse.
On one side of the muddy street, a tattered Unita flag (depicting a cockerel crowing at a blood red sunrise) fluttered in a damp mist, while on the other side a yellow star on red and black bands, emblem of the opposing MPLA, hung from a telephone pole.
To add to the ambiance of destruction, the En280 changes from smooth new tar to a muddy network of dirt tracks and pond-sized potholes just before the outskirts of the village.
“Roads cannot be reconstructed until mine-removal teams have swept through the area,” Martin said when I commented on the condition of the road, “and the demining process has only just started in this region.”
That afternoon we set up camp in a field next to the road where I pretty much stayed glued to my campfire seat for the rest of the evening. The mine wolf hadn’t been here yet, and this being a former Unita stronghold, there were (at least in my mind) sure to be surprises just beneath the soil.
Pg. 3 | A rickety bridge
Crawling across a rickety bridge
The next morning, we hit the road, if it can be called that, for a further 60 excruciatingly slow and muddy kilometres.
En route, we passed the burnt-out husks of dozens upon dozens of transport vehicles, all of them left to rust in mud the colour of blood.
The highlight of that morning was the adrenaline-fuelled crossing of a rather large steel and wooden bridge between Catata Nova and Cuima that had obviously received a fair bit of deleterious attention throughout the conflict years.
Struts and supports were buckled and bent while beneath the main structure itself, an entire segment had fallen into the river. I watched from what I hoped would be a safe distance as the heavy convoy crossed, sending flakes of metal and wood falling from the underside of the bridge like leaves
from autumn trees.
And that’s when I remembered that dodgy bridges are the best place to get your legs blown off by a land mine. With that thought foremost in my mind, I tiptoed nervously back along the path I had taken while the drivers in our group crossed the bridge with white knuckles on the steering.
The landscape through which we travelled that day was one of tropical lushness – green grass, red earth and trees all around.
We entered an old eucalyptus plantation where Unita used to hide out, according to Martin. “The canopy of these tall trees not only concealed the rebels from overhead surveillance, it also protected them against bombs that would explode among the branches before hitting the ground.”
Wherever one looks in this part of Angola, one could see phantoms of war. They are even in the trees.
By the time we reached the scruffy little town of Caala, the potholes had all but vanished again and we were once more travelling on a very good quality tar road.
We can thank the Chinese for that. They are very busy rebuilding Angola, and we saw many Chinese road teams hard at work, supported by a labour force of minors.
In Caala, we took a little detour up a hill to where the most beautiful little church stood sentry above the town. Local people prayed on their knees at the foot of a tiny altar and all around, spread out across the emerald-coloured Huambo plateau below, giant granite koppies dominated the land.
From up here, Angola looked stunning; even its roads built by children’s hands and its broken-down cities.
Our next port of call was the city of Huambo, a place where huge factories stand abandoned, brought to a standstill by the war, but also where many new buildings are being constructed. Mortar-riddled houses and tenement blocks stand side by side with brand-new developments.
You can sense the speed of progress in Huambo where the central part of town is full of construction crews hard at work fixing roads, building edifices and filling up holes.
Near the CBD, we visited the old colonial-style residence of the late Unita leader Jonas Savimbi; a mansion of sorts that had fallen foul of enemy fire.
Graffiti covered what walls remained. Bullet holes were everywhere and the roof had collapsed. The only thing that remained intact was a giant opulent spiral staircase liberally covered with human faeces.
“MPLA troops came here and destroyed his family home after he was killed in action in 2002,” Martin said.
After tiptoeing through the minefield of turds that was Savimbi’s house, we headed on faultless tar a further 70km through green rolling countryside until reaching the little town of Alto Hama.
It is there that one finds the junction to Angola’s main east-west highway, an excellent quality tar road which branches away from the En280, travels through beautiful mountain scenery and then into arid lowlands before arriving some 230km further at the coastal port town of Lobito. (On our three-week Angolan roundtrip from Ruacana, we actually travelled north from Alto Hama and reconnected with the loop described here at Lobito.)
The lushness of the highlands and the tropical thunderstorms that keep the plants green up there make way for dust, rock, sand, scrub and dryness in the lowlands and along the coast.
The city of Lobito has three faces – the slums where people live cramped in mud-brick houses with corrugated roofs and a substrate of litter underfoot; the dusty CBD with its unpainted buildings reminiscent of scenes from Iraq; and the Golden Mile, an upmarket coastal suburb where huge, abandoned Portuguese houses line palmtree-fringed roads.
That night we camped in the upmarket part – on a sandy peninsula at the end of the Golden Mile – and dined on pizza from a beachside restaurant.
Pg. 4 | Shipwrecks
Shipwrecks and an oasis
The following day took us through the somewhat neater town of Benguela, just 30km south of Lobito, where we visited a quaintly dilapidated 1960s retro American-style outdoor cinema, a testimony to how little it rains along Angola’s coast.
The palm-studded beachfront has many attractive, yet rundown, colonial buildings, but what is most striking about Benguela and Lobito is that there is no evident war damage.
Further south, we travelled through bare, brown, arid hills dotted by scrawny donkeys. We detoured to the nearby sea and visited the beautiful Baia Farta (which does not mean Bay of Wind, but rather Bay of Plenty).
The coast is rugged and bare, the sea is the most brilliant azure, and the shallows are home to numerous shipwrecks. The Portuguese scuppered their vessels rather than let them fall into “enemy” hands when they abandoned the country en mass during Angola’s independence drive, Martin said.
Children played in balmy water among great hulking wrecks of fishing vessels and warships while their parents attended to wracks of drying fish outside their mud-brick houses.
We continued south for a further 50 or so kilometres, passing through an arid hilly landscape like in Namibia, until suddenly we found ourselves in hot humid lush greenness and between giant palm trees.
It was if we had been transported to an entirely different country.
We were in Dombe Grande, an oasis in the desert, announced Martin. Farming here clearly thrived on underground water. The little town was the most pleasant I had yet seen in Angola. Portugese buildings – flat-roofed adobe-style houses with curved windows and slatted wooded shutters – dominated, and for once there had been very little vandalism to the edifices.
Palm, fig and mango trees grew everywhere while street vendors in brightly coloured saris and headscarves sold deliciously fresh looking mangoes, bananas, and pineapples.
Before moving on, we paused for a while at an enormous abandoned sugar factory. In an eerie, post-apocalyptic scene, giant machinery, pipes and vats stood still and empty beneath a cavernous roof while rays of dusty sunlight shone through panes of broken glass.
But one day soon, no doubt, the cogs will once again turn and this factory will thrum to the sound of thousands of workers. Such is the progress in Angola since the guns fell silent.
As soon as we left the valley of Dombe Grande, we were once more back in the stark, barren desert of Angola’s coastal region. The road loses its veneer of tar and becomes a wide and well-graded gravel road like in the Karoo.
The further south we ventured, the less vegetation we saw. Soon we were passing through a moonscape of bare earth and rubble.
We travelled over the well-graded, easy Baboon’s Pass, which straddles a series of low rocky hills on the gravel road between Dombe Grande and Santa Maria. “Just a year back,” said Martin over the radio, “this road was little more than rubble and rocks. You needed a serious 4×4 to get over and you needed to be seriously good at driving it too. Now you can do it in a sedan, and come next year, this whole section will probably be tarred.”
No doubt, some of the adventure of driving through Angola has been nullified by the new roads, but there is still a helluva lot to see.
I looked at the stark bareness of the heat-blasted landscape through which we were travelling and I thought, “I wouldn’t want to break down here”.
Our rest stop for the evening was a delightful little secluded bay named Santa Maria, the beauty of which was worth ten times the effort of driving the tough and slow 12-km 4×4 diversion (and a 2-km beach driv
e) to get there.
That night we camped on the beach. Some of the men in the group tried to fish, but sadly for them, only a few tiny tiddlers were taking the bait.
Ghost crabs scuttled around among our gear and gentle waves lulled me into a deep and peaceful sleep.
Pg. 5 | Spoiling for a fight
Spoiling for a fight
The following day, I arose to a sunrise that turned the surrounding hills and cliffs into glowing walls.
The snorkelling was good and I saw many a large fish, crayfish and oyster but chose to keep their presence a secret from my travel companions who no doubt would have descended upon them with wide-open maws.
Anyhow, I needn’t have worried because the rest of the group were busy dealing with a uniformed policeman who, as if by magic, had materialised from the desert to inspect our paperwork.
His sidekick, a man weighted down with an automatic machine gun and a belt full of grenades, took up a vantage point behind a rock beside the only road in and out of the bay.
The officer’s less than subtle hints for a bribe were ignored, and eventually he conceded to let us pass. As we left in single file, I waved cheerfully at the chap behind the rock. He smiled back at me.
“Some of the officials are still in that war frame of mind,” said Martin as we left, “and that’s why I recommend that you travel in convoys here. The more of you there are, the less likely it is that someone will try funny business with you.”
Fully intact, we moved back onto the main highway and once more headed south on graded gravel to the little fishing village of Lucira.
The rest of the day was spent visiting coastal fishing communities such as the one at Lucira where pretty beaches curve into red stone cliffs and bright blue waters. Rundown boats limp in and out of harbours, black smoke billowing from their exhausts, holds brimming with fish.
While they colonised Angola, the Portuguese set up a series of fishing ports and processing factories all up and down the desert coast that have now been commandeered by local communities.
We continued to Bentiaba, an oasis 50km south of Lucira in the middle of the desert that has a giant prison as its centrepiece.
One of our stops south of Bentiaba was at Inamandango, a stunning little beach at the end of a dry river where a small community was harvesting the largest oysters I had ever seen. A trivial amount of money was exchanged between some of the convoy guests and the fishermen and within no time at all, people’s 12V fridges were being stacked full of boxes of oyster and crayfish.
It didn’t look particularly sustainable, but such is the cost of progress né?
After travelling for about another 100km across a mixture of flat and featureless gravel plains, inhospitable hills covered in pole-like euphorbias, and areas covered in huge sandstone boulders, we pulled off the main highway and headed towards our rest stop for the night.
We set up camp that night on the coast between the two villages of Baba and Mucio right on the edge of a coral cliff where the desert sands met a clear turquoise sea.The men tried in vain to catch some fish, while I sat and enjoyed the sight of a whale slowly drifting by.
Pg. 6 | Let’s move it, folks!
Let’s move it, folks!
Sadly, mornings in the deserts must be a hurried affair. One doesn’t wish to linger under a rising desert sun. We had to pack up quickly and take cover in the air-conditioned shade of our vehicles.
The better part of the day was spent on unmapped coast-hugging tracks past small fishing communities and grand, rugged coastal scenery before, some 50 or so kilometres later, we joined the main east-west highway between Namibe and Lubango, the starting point of this loop.
From Namibe, you could drive back to the highlands on a pristine new highway, away from the deserts and up the amazing Leba Pass, a steep road with numerous hairpins.
It’s 140km of easy driving through an ever changing landscape of arid plains and dry mountains followed by lush green foothills, soaring cliffs and then finally, back to the welcoming, bustling Lubango.
It’s a great circular journey, which shows a country that itself has come full circle, with previously war-damaged towns villages and cities becoming hectic hives of growth and high-speed development. Conversely, the desert landscapes and the quaint fishing villages appear to be standing still in time. Precisely this contrast makes Angola so intriguing.
Pg. 7 | Fast facts
Best time: March-September. You could go in the wet season (November – April) when the highlands are lush, as well as in the dry season (May – early November).
Stay at least: a week
Experience: An often overlooked country with awesome and diverse scenery and fascinating cities with a war torn past. Tropical mountains and flat sandy deserts.
Know-all: If left to grow, an oyster can reach an age of 80 years or more and grow to be well over 36cm long. Oysters and crayfish are still plentiful along the Angolan coast due to a lack of overexploitation.
I want to go too!
How do I get there? Although the road from the Oshikango border crossing is pristine tar for 500km all the way to Lubango, rather cross the border at Ruacana or Calueque. As Oshikango is the main border post between Namibia and Angola, it’s hectic, and you could wait for anything up to six hours to pass through it.
What can I see and do there? The highlight is travelling along the coastal route through the desert and visiting numerous quaint fishing villages that can only reached by 4×4. Visit the vibrant cities of Lubango (where you could explore the Leba Pass and see the Cristo Rei statue), Huambo, Lobito, Benguela and Namibe, all of which have their own lively character.
How long is the trip? Go for 10-12 days, and travel a little further north to Sumbe.
What types of terrain will I be driving on? The main route is tarred, but when you reach the coastal villages, you could explore on good gravel roads or 4×4 tracks. There are some truly awful muddy bits near Cusse.
4×4 or 4×2? You need a 4×4 for the access roads to some fishing villages and for finding a bush camp off the highways. Other than the 60-km section near Cusse, the main routes are all doable with a sedan.
What should I take along? Imported goods are very expensive in Angola. Bring your own canned goods and coffee, but do buy local fresh produce from markets, as this is cheap. Look out for Unicef hand-pump wells found at almost every town and village. The water from these is safe to drink. Charcoal and wood can be purchased from vendors at the side of almost any road.
How much fuel do I need to take? Fuel stations are common on the main routes, as well as in every town.
Where will I stay? In dome tents if you are travelling with Live the Journey. Unlike South Africa, it’s mostly safe to camp anywhere at the roadside, if you have a guide with you, but be informed about landmines (visit www.cnidah.gv.ao for more info on landmines).
What does the trip cost? A ten-day trip for a group of 16 costs around R10 000. The price includes a guide, 3 meals daily, showers and chemical toilets.
Do I need a visa? Yes, and it can take over six weeks to process a visa. You need a letter of invitation from a person or a company in Angola. Your tour company could arrange this, or ask a hotel that you plan on staying in.
Where do I book? Contact Jurgens Schoeman from Live the Journey on 021 912 4090; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.livethejourney.co.za