Firstly, there was a very protracted period of violent unrest between local freedom fighters and Portuguese colonials; then throughout the 1970s and 80s South Africans got into a war with independence fighters from SW Africa (now Namibia).
The United States got involved, the Soviets got involved, the Cubans sent their troops in and the Nicaraguans stuck their noses in, making it one of the more confusing conflicts of the anti colonial/cold war period.
Sadly, after the inevitable collapse of Portuguese colonialism and the ‘glorious’ proclamation of Angolan independence, Angola did not become a peaceful nation. Instead, it plunged itself into several more decades of bloody civil war.
The two ‘BIG’ men of the time, Jonas Savimbi of UNITA and Jose Eduardo dos Santos of the MPLA, were unable to agree on how the country should be run and, perhaps more significantly, who should be running it.
So, rather than reach a peaceful compromise, these two enigmatic but brutal leaders along with their armies decided that the best way forward would be to destroy the country, its infrastructure and also its people.
…And gosh, what a thorough job they did of it too.
More than a million Angolans died.
When finally Savimbi was killed in February of 2002 the war came to an abrupt and merciful end and a new era of peace and reconstruction began.
Chinese, Europeans and Brazilian contractors vied for lucrative construction contracts, paid for by international loans backed securely by Angola’s fruitful oil fields. And now, in 2015 Angola is barely recognizable from what it was just a few years ago.
Most of its major highways have been rebuilt, and are so new that one could easily roller-skate along them. Cities, and their buildings, many of which had been reduced to rubble, are now growing like mushrooms on cow poop.
The railways are up and running, industry has been revitalized and the majority of landmines have been systematically removed.
All in all, Angola is now back on the map for travelers; the hardy ones at least.
At its worst, something like 67% of Angola’s population had been displaced from their homes, more than a thousand people a day were starving to death, hundreds of thousands of mines had been laid and pretty much every major road in the country had been reduced to potholes and mud.Dale Morris
“We go all over the place” said Jurgens Schoeman, the company’s proprietor, when I chatted with him over the phone.
And so, that’s how I found myself, a month later, sharing a cab in a trusty Toyota Hilux at the front of a 8 car convoy with with Martin LeRoux (A Namibian born guide, and a man with a beard to rival that of any ISIS fanatic)
“Its going to be a whistle stop tour of Angola’s western provinces” said Jurgens over the two way radio system linking all our vehicles.
“Ill be at the rear making sure none of you take a wrong turn” he continued “Martin, a man who knows Angola like the back of his hand, will be at the front making sure we don’t run into trouble”
It was to be a 4500 km round trip which would eventually take us from the mopani dominated miombo woodlands and arid deserts of the south, to the crazily hectic capital city of Luanda, way up in the north.
And what a remarkable odyssey it turned out to be.
We climbed to stormy highland peaks where waterfalls cascaded from sheer cliffs , we visited steaming jungles, saw towns and villages ravaged by war, and cities full of ruins but also full of hope.
We traveled pristine highways built by the Chinese, and potholed back roads. We marveled at magnificent landscapes, swam in crystal clear waters on empty desert beaches; and along the way we met a diversity of warm and friendly people with cultures as varied as the scenery through which we traveled.
From one region to the next, Angola’s geography, plant life, people and weather changes to such a degree that one feels as if one is traveling through half a dozen different continents and not just a single country.
There’s nowhere else quite like it.
However, to cover a country as vast as Angola in one long trip might be a bit of an undertaking for those pressed for time, but it is possible to break a North/South journey into three distinct loops; One in the very south; one more or less in the middle of the country, and the final loop taking in the bustling tropical north.
This installment of my three part story deals with the southern circuit; an epic route of coastal deserts, war torn towns and green and verdant mountains.
On the Look Out for Land Mines
Thatched mud hut villages, speckled cows and colorfully clad ladies with baskets on their heads gave life to an otherwise seemingly endless expanse of bush.
“The November rains have already started” said Martin as we navigated our way carefully through a few muddy quagmires “And it won’t be long before this route will be impassible”
It was very slow going, but fun nonetheless.
Along the way, we crossed the Cunene River via the seriously dilapidated Baines bridges, and then we passed the Calueque dam where Martin told us eleven South African military personnel were killed when Cuban Migs bombed the place back in the late 80s.
“It’s nice to be traveling through this region without worrying about being shot at” said Martin who was part of the action back then “Being here brings back quite a few memories. Not many of them good”
Later that afternoon, as rainy season storm clouds gathered, we reached the B1 highway just outside of Cahama town where we visited a destroyed Cuban base littered with shell casings and abandoned heavy artillery. A warren of bunkers, occupied by bats, and shored up by logs, snaked beneath the ground like a maze. It was an eerie place; full of spiders where once young soldiers, confused and afraid, fought and died for causes they likely had no understanding of.
We visited a graveyard and memorial to 117 of those young Cuban men, but it was a sad and forlorn place; decaying and neglected, with only a few roughly hewn wooden crosses remaining to honor the memory of those who had died.
That night, in somber mood, we pulled off into the bush on the outskirts of Cahama so as to avoid the attention of too many curious town residents. They had all seemed friendly enough when we drove down their shell shocked streets, waving and smiling at us from bullet riddled houses, or from the rusted wrecks of burned out tanks- But the war would still be fresh in their minds. They had all lost limbs and property or relatives to the “enemy” in the South- So why push our luck?
We drove a few kilometers out of town, and erected our tents among battle debris, some of which, to my ignorant eye, took on the ominous specter of land mines. Every half buried gear cog, sardine tin, protruding piece of metal and bottle top seemed threatening to me, but I drew solace and confidence from the fact that there were copious cows milling around between the bushes, all of whom had the correct quantity of legs.
On the following day we visited several nearby war sites in and around town before heading 140kms north east through Huila province along the newly sealed north/south highway.
Rumor has it, the police and the military will still throw people over the cliff if they felt the crime deserved the punishment.Gary
After that, we headed up onto Angola’s highland plateau region to the town of Humpata where we camped at a strawberry farm run by a South African couple named Gary and Erica.
“This was the very place settled by the dorsland trekkers in the early 20th century” said Gary as we stood admiring his rows of ruby red strawberries. “They were a group of Afrikaner boer families who traveled through the Kalahari and the Namibian deserts to find fertile lands as far away as possible from the influence of the Souties”
“Erica and I, in a manner of speaking” he continued “Are the new wave of South African farmers who are coming back here to work the land again.”
The soils in the Angolan highlands are very fertile and ideal for growing all manner of crops, which, in turn, is attracting the interest of foreign farmers, like Erica and Gary, who are bringing their knowledge and agricultural expertise to the country.
Humpata itself is very close to the bustling mountain city of Lubango, and as such, it makes for a relatively quite and pleasant place to stay for a few nights whilst exploring the region’s many attractions not least of all, the city itself which is full of vibrant character.
Above Lubango, a massive statue of Jesus Christ (one of only three on the planet) stands as if on sentry duty with arms open wide, but not even he could escape the consequences of war. Until recently, his fingers were missing and his face was full of pockmarks; courtesy of gunfire. Next to his massive plinth stands a giant rusted anti aircraft gun.
I don’t think he would approve.
As well as the dorsland trekkers graves and a monument erected to their perilous journey, Lubango and Humpata has some very interesting things worth taking a look at.
The infamous, yet beautiful, Tundavalle is a highland viewpoint where sheer cliffs drop more than 1000 meters from an escarpment to a verdant plain below.
“During the civil war” said Martin as I peered nervously over the edge “Many people were thrown over here”. It made my toes tingle just thinking about it.
Later on, as we sat around a campfire at the strawberry farm campsite Gary asked me if I had seen any bodies at the base of the cliff.
The following day saw us back on the road again, heading this time in a westerly direction down the magnificent and awe inspiring Leba Pass.
The paved road consists of a series of hairpin loops and seriously tight turns that will take you straight down a giant cliff face before meandering back and forth across some very steep foothills.
I sat atop the roof of Martin’s landcruiser and enjoyed the ride as if I were on a rollercoaster; hands gripping tightly to the roof rack’s metal bars.
The En280 highway (of which the Leba pass is a feature) is a pristine and smooth hard top road (thanks to international development funds) and as such, it’s pretty much plain sailing all the way through the arid lowlands to the large coastal city of Namibe some 160 kilometers west.
Once there, we visited a giant disused Iron ore facility on an abandoned dockside. Massive earth movers and scoops stood silent above motionless conveyer belts.
“For decades, most large scale mining came to a halt because the rail lines were out of commission” said martin as we continued our drive towards the busy city center “But thanks to development efforts, it won’t be long now before all this heavy machinery will be turning once again”
The Middle of Nowhere
We visited some man made caves, cut into sandstone cliffs on the edge of town which were once used by Portuguese colonials to house slaves destined for far off places. Again, it was a sobering site and a stark reminder that Angolan people have suffered for eras.
But that didn’t distract me from appreciating the beauty of this country, and there is no place so stunning in all the world as Angola’s coastal deserts. And that’s where we were heading to next.
The smooth tarmac out of Namibe had become a mirage in the searing heat of the desert, and as such, it looked for all the world as if we were driving, convoy style, along a shiny shimmering river.
43 kilometers south of town, we turned west down a wide waterless river bed and headed a further 25 clicks, on deeply rutted, bone jarring, headache inducing sand tracks towards Flamingo lodge; a sport fishing retreat of some renown (or so I am told)
Along the way we passed sandstone cliffs of the most startling orange as well as ancient welwitchia plants that looked more like burst truck tires than the living things that they are.
Flamingo lodge is situated in a beautiful setting, surrounded by a coffee colored desert and the green/blue tones of the Atlantic.
It really is ‘the middle of nowhere’
Upon arrival at the lodge, the men of our convoy (all of whom were avid fishermen) headed post haste up the beach in their Toyotas to where they had been told that the fishing was particularly good.
Sadly (for them) they came back empty handed, grumbling that perhaps the fishing here was not as good as legend would have you believe.
But then the manageress; a pretty little lass in her early twenties; came in with a box full of fish, squid and lobsters.
“Just caught this lot” she announced to the men who were consoling themselves with cold beers.
“So I guess seafood is on the menu tonight…again”
Her husband groaned from behind the bar “I eat fish every day here” he told me “And now I shit like a seagull”
This is the famous acre of death. It’s a stretch of desert beach where the dunes are so steep and so high that there is no escape should you misjudge the tides.Martin LeRoux
Along the way, we pulled off to visit the remains of a huge Cuban base that despite being hidden in the vastness of the desert, had not saved it from being destroyed. It’s was eerie place; am abandoned ghost town in a flat and featureless landscape, where sunken bunkers and tunnels once hid a fighting force of perhaps 2000 men or more.
“Estimates put this complex at around 10 square kilometers” said Martin as we milled around rusted scraps of military junk and a giant pile of sardine cans and bones. “And reports indicate that Castro’s 50th elite division was once stationed here”
Our next detour off the main highway took us across the stark open gravel plains of which the desert in this region is comprised, and then we drove down a series of shallow lifeless rocky canyons. It was akin to driving on the moon.
Four kilometers later, and much to my utter amazement we arrived at the beautiful turquoise green lake Arco; an isolated desert oasis which has no inflowing or out flowing water. Fresh water ‘seeps’ from beneath the surrounding rocks and dessert, and upon its shores, frogs sing happily.
There were fish and insects and greenery and a myriad birds, alive and happy in their little oasis in the middle of one of the harshest deserts on earth.
Not for this first time, I found myself truly amazed by Angola’s contrasts and surprises.
Retracing our tracks to the highway, we then entered the shifting dunes and lifeless plains of the Iona National Park, after passing through the pleasant, end of the road, coastal town of Tambua.
Then, after cutting 23 kilometers across a barren sandy plain (off road) we pulled onto a huge empty desolate beach and began the most adventurous section of our journey yet.
Ghost crabs scuttled away from us in panic, some of the slower ones cracking like nuts beneath our wheels.
We traveled like that for around 35 kilometers, passing the wreckage of fishing boats and ships, before red and black stripy dunes began rising on our left hand side; effectively cutting us off from any escape from the sea.
“This is the famous acre of death” Martin told me “It’s a stretch of desert beach where the dunes are so steep and so high that there is no escape should you misjudge the tides”
Many people have tried this route: a number of them have failed with disastrous and highly expensive consequences
“Time the tides wrong, and you’ll be in serious, serious trouble” said Martin.
“And although the desert is a deceptively soft looking place; all smooth and curvaceous like the lines of a well honed woman. It’s hot like one too, and just like a beautiful lady, should you disrespect her you’re sure to get seriously burned”
The drive through the acre of death is one you are unlikely ever to forget. Stress levels are on high alert, especially when the sea starts to lap at the base of those beautiful 60 meter high dunes, but the scenery is so stunning that the (calculated) risk is certainly worth it.
We passed briny marshlands where flamingos waded through the shallows; a backdrop of mountainous dunes behind them, and we skirted the edges of blue water bays where mussels the size of mangoes clung to shallow black rocks.
It is ‘wilderness’ at its very, very best.
Giant Mussels & Beach Parties
An ill timed breakdown would undoubtedly lead to the loss of a vehicle. Perhaps even a life.
“Its happened” said Martin “On more than one occasion”
That night, after a further 35kms of beach driving, we made camp in the desert close to the ocean and dined heartily on giant mussels which the group had collected.
The following morning we awoke to a brisk howling wind, but this didn’t stop the fishermen in the convoy from kitting up early and trying their luck with the fertile waters at the mouth of the Cunene River.
And lady luck was (on this occasion) watching over them; for it took less than a minute for the first fish; a kabeljou; to find itself on the beach, gasping in disbelief at the crowd of happy human faces peering down at it.
Instantly, a beach party began; the car stereos came on, the beers came out and the fish were landed so plentifully and easily it was as if they were committing suicide.
It took less than an hour to bag more than 30 fish, which were processed and filleted right there on the beach.
It was a happy moment indeed for the majority of the group; a climax of note to what had been a seriously fun and adventurous drive.
The last leg of our circular journey took us in a westerly direction which roughly followed the course of the Cunene River. We traversed vast and delicate sandy plains and 22kms later we left the open glare of the desert and followed a two spoor track which wound its way between dramatic arid mountains where giant welwitchia plants sprouted from the ground between acacia trees and other strange succulent looking plants.
Traditional Himba tribes people greeted us from the roadside, their hair platted in intricate styles with ochre and mud.
We traveled then for two more days in that dry and baking region, ever so slowly along roughly made stony tracks; camping in dry river beds, but eventually, after 300 very tiring but scenically rewarding kilometers, we arrived back at the Ruacana border crossing.
And that was that. The first part of my three loop Angola Trip was over.
Angola is a surprising country to visit for those who do not know it. Thirty five years of war has affected it in, perhaps, unexpected ways. The people are friendly and, on the outside at least, peaceful and probably tired of conflict. The highways are mostly new, yet the back roads remain enchantingly rough, ready and waiting for the adventurous 4×4 driver.
It’s not an easy country to travel around, not yet anyhow, but the rewards, as I discovered first hand, are well and truly worth the extra effort.
Instantly, a beach party began; the car stereos came on, the beers came out and the fish were landed so plentifully and easily it was as if they were committing suicide.Dale Morris
There are several border crossings to choose from, Oshikango being the most well known and frequently used. The road on the other side (B1) is pristine tar all the way to Lubango.
The Ruacana Border post is far less busy, but you will have to cope with difficult roads on the other side.
What can I see and do there?
- Southern Angola is full of surprises.
- Battlefield fans will enjoy the numerous wrecks and ruins of previous conflicts which are, to put it bluntly, quite difficult to avoid.
- The larger towns of Lubango, Namibe and Tombua are all worth a visit and have plenty of flavour and character.
- The Leba pass, the magnificent escarpment mountains and the many waterfalls there are also a draw card.
- The highlight though has to be the Iona National Park; A giant desert full of mountains, gravel plains, soaring dunes and empty beaches.
The best time to go? Go twice. Once in the wet season so as to enjoy the waterfalls and lushness of the highlands (but be prepared for torrential downpours and difficult river crossings) and once in the dry season to see the contrast (and to have an easier time of it driving)
How long is the trip? Around 7 to 10 days should see you through the southern Loop. Remember, you need to get yourself through Namibia and that will take a few days at least if travelling from SA.
What types of terrain will I be driving on? Everything from sand to mud to rocks to sexy new tarmac.
4×4 or 4×2? The major routes between the main cities can be travelled on in a sedan (the roads are that good) but for any real exploration away from the main drag, a sturdy 4×4 is essential. Never travel alone.
What should I take along? The cost of food and imported goods in Angola is astronomical. Bring your own canned goods and coffee etc. Buying fresh produce from local markets is cheaper.
How much fuel do I need to take?
On the main highways, it is rare that you will travel more than a hundred Ks or so without reaching a fuel station. Fuel is much cheaper in Angola than in SA. For the desert stretch, make sure you have plenty of fuel. Fill up at Tombua and bring Jerry cans too.
(Double your normal fuel consumption when making the calculation).
Where will I stay? In dome tents is travelling with Live the Journey. Camping is fantastic in Angola. Unlike South Africa, it’s mostly safe to camp anywhere at the side of the road (be informed about land mines however)
Visit www.cnidah.gv.ao for more info on landmines.
To travel with Live the Journey Visit www.livethejourney.co.za
To hire Martin as your convoy or group guide email email@example.com
Angola - Part 2
Continue the adventure as Dale Morris goes deeper into Angola and discovers a treasure trove of wonders.
Sign up for our newsletter to be notified when the next part of the article becomes available.