Cross Country & Into Angola (Part 2)

In Adventures, Articles, Gallery, Places, Vehicles by Dale MorrisLeave a Comment

Being a wildlife fan, I never imagined that I would enjoy travelling to Angola as much as I did. Yes, it is true that the majority of Angola’s animals have, over the course of a 35 year conflict, been shot, blown up, snared, fished, and then introduced to the digestive enzymes of the country’s human population, but regardless of this, Angola still has an amazing diversity of wonders.

There are colourful friendly people, who, despite throwing off the chains of colonialism in 1975, still retain a culture and character which is noticeably influenced by the Portuguese and the Catholic Church. And there are cities which, although chaotic and ramshackle, are nonetheless vibrant and 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, and 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 really rather good.

If you are worried about landmines, then you will be pleased to hear that the majority of them have been removed. If you are worried about encountering a populace hardened by violence and war then don’t. The Angolans I met were amongst the most open and welcoming Africans I have yet to encounter.

 

If you are worried about landmines, then you will be pleased to hear that the majority of them have been removed. If you are worried about encountering a populace hardened by violence and war then don’t.Dale Morris
I recently wrote about a South Western circular route which was experienced in convoy style in the company of a guided self drive tour company based in South Africa. 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 instalment of my three part series on Angola, will recount another circular route of some 1300kms, starting from Lubango City in the Angolan highlands and traveling inland, north eastwards through beautiful verdant scenery to the frenzied city of Huambo.

After that, one changes course and heads in a westerly direction towards the coast on perfect new highways (built recently by foreign aid) before reaching yet more madcap towns (Benguela and Lobito) where slums, bullet riddled buildings and brand new construction sit side by side with soft sanded beaches and picturesque bays.

The route then turns south and passes through arid scenery where orange cliffs terminate into a turquoise sea, and pretty little fishing villages dot the coastline. Eventually, one reaches the main East West highway which will take you all the way back to Lubango courtesy of the winding Leba Pass.

Lubango city (The starting point for this journey) is certainly an interesting location all by itself. The main thoroughfares and streets are thrumming with brightly attired locals. Portuguese language billboards and dilapidated Colonial buildings attest to its Mediterranean influence. But this story isn’t about Lubango; it’s about the journey to and from there. A beautiful and fascinating circuit which requires a good 5 to 6 days of straight driving- or more if you intend lingering at some of the highlights (including Lubango City itself)


Out of the city, the main North South Highway (The En280) is a shining example of Angola’s developmental progress since the end of civil war in 2002. There isn’t a pothole in sight. Well, at least not for the first 250 or so kilometres. It rained so heavily on the first morning of my journey that I can’t really comment on the scenery through which we passed. All I saw were frantic windscreen wipers and the occasional sodden local looking despondent at the side of the road. At least in the tropics, it’s not cold when it rains and at least the road was smooth and safe.

Martin Le Roux, our Namibian born guide, leaned forward in our Landcruiser and peered through the great grey wall of water through which we were driving.
He picked up the radio set and started talking about the weather.

“The beginning of the wet season is probably the best time to come to Angola,” he announced. “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. Angola has a lot of lovely waterfalls.”

Eventually, after passing through a series of drenched mud brick villages and the war damaged towns of Hoque, Cacula, Negola, and Caconda, we chanced upon a demining operation at the side of the road. Here, we alighted from our cars and chatted with the work team foreman who showed us some of the equipment which is being used to rid Angola of an estimated 6 to 20 million land mines.

“The beginning of the wet season is probably the best time to come to Angola. 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.Martin
A giant reinforced bulldozer called the ‘mine wolf’ stood parked in the mud on heavy duty caterpillar tracks; its driving cab; a tiny bomb proof box; was nestled safely behind a massive curved metal shield.

“These chains hanging from this bar at the front of the scoop,” the foreman told me whilst pointing at a net curtain of heavy steel “spin as the vehicle moves forward. Weights at the end thump into the ground and detonate any landmines they encounter. The shield prevents the driver from going boom along with the mine.”

I asked to meet the driver but he wasn’t there.

“Needed a holiday for the nerves” the foreman told me. The mine wolf certainly looked formidable, but I can’t imagine the stress of having to drive one every day through fields of unexploded ordnance.

By the time we hit the road again, the weather had improved dramatically, as is the norm during Angola’s wet season. Storms are commonplace, but they are most often short lived, passing overhead with ferocity but then dissipating quickly under the fierce glare of a midsummer’s tropical sun.
When we entered the village/town of Cusse, steam was rising from the roads and also the broken mud brick houses, giving the impression that the whole place was on fire.


Quite fitting,’ I thought to myself because, if there is anywhere in Angola which personifies war’s ability to decimate then it is Cusse. It really 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.  On one side a UNITA flag fluttered in a damp mist whilst on the other, the emblem of the MPLA (the former enemy) hung limp from a telegraph pole. To add to the ambiance of destruction, the En280 road changes suddenly from smooth new tar to a muddy network of dirt tracks and pond sized potholes just before the outskirts of ‘town’.

“Roads cannot be reconstructed until mine removal teams have swept through the area,”

Martin told me when I passed comment on the condition of the road.

“And as you saw earlier, the demining process is still underway in this region.”

That afternoon we set up camp in a field next to the road where I erred on the side of caution and pretty much stayed glued to my camp fire seat for the remainder 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.

The following morning, we all awoke with body parts intact and hit the road, if it can be called a road, 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.

 

Watch where you’re going. Bridges were a favoured place for both factions to lay mines. There’s bound to still be some around here.Martin
My travel companion on this journey was a war book written by the Author Peter Stiff, and in it I read that 10000 followers of Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA party were ambushed as they travelled in convoy through this region. Only 12 people survived that incident, and to me it felt as if we were driving through a landscape of ghosts.

The highlight of that morning was the adrenaline fuelled crossing of a rather large steel and wooden bridge which had obviously received a fair bit of deleterious attention throughout the conflict years. Struts and supports were buckled and bent whilst 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.

 “Watch where you’re going,” Martin shouted down to me as I skirted behind a tree for a pee. “Bridges were a favoured place for both factions to lay mines. There’s bound to still be some around here.”

Thankfully, the bridge remained upright, and if there were any mines around, I didn’t set them off.

The landscape through which we travelled for the rest of that day was one of tropical lushness. Grasses were green, the earth was red and trees stood all around.


“This particular patch of forest we are travelling through just now,” said Martin as we made our way through an old and un-harvested eucalypt plantation, “is where UNITA used to hide out. The canopy of these tall trees not only concealed the rebels from overhead surveillance, it also protected them against bombs which would explode amongst the branches before hitting the ground.”

It seemed to me that wherever one looks in this part of Angola, one can 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 traveling on a very good quality tar road.

“The demining crews are working from both directions,” said Martin, “and soon this whole route will be a glorious testimony to the Chinese who are busy rebuilding Angola.”

I asked what their interests in Angola were.

“Lucrative contracts, paid for by oil backed loans,” said Martin. “Angola has plenty of oil fields up north and although it looks poor on the outside, it is in fact one of the richest countries in Sub Saharan Africa- and certainly the most expensive to live in.”

A fitting tribute to a man whose cravings for power led to the deaths of more than a million Angolans.Dale Morris
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 alter and all around, spread out across the emerald coloured Huambo Plateaux below there were giant granite koppies dominating the land.

From up there looking down from God’s little house, Angola looked ever so pretty, full of magnificence and potential for the living souls who have suffered so much through countless years of unnecessary war.

Our next port of call was Huambo City, a paradoxical place where huge factories stand abandoned, brought to a standstill by the war, but also where new buildings are being constructed in abundance. There, mortar riddled houses and tenement blocks stand side by side with brand new developments.

You can sense the speed of progress in Huambo, and the central part of town is full of construction crews hard at work fixing roads, building edifices and filling up holes.
Chinese foremen are everywhere. Near the CBD, we visited the old colonial style residence of Jonas Savimbi; a mansion of sorts that had fallen foul to 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 which was liberally covered with human faeces.

“MPLA troops came here and destroyed his family home after he was killed in action in 2002,” Martin told me.

“A fitting tribute,” I thought to myself. “To a man whose cravings for power led to the deaths of more than a million Angolans.”


After tip toeing through the minefield of turds that was once the great Savimbi’s palace, we got back in our vehicles and headed, on faultless tar, a further 70km through green rolling countryside until reaching the pretty 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 230 kilometres later at the coastal port town of Lobito.

In the Lowlands, and alongside the coast, gone was the lushness of the highlands, and gone also was the tropical thunderstorms that kept the plants green up there.
Instead, the landscape close to sea level is characterised by brown dust, exposed rock, sand, scrub and dryness. Comparing Angola’s lush highlands with its western dry lowlands is like comparing gin to honey.

The ramshackle city of Lobito itself is split into three distinct sections- The slums, where the majority of people live surrounded by mounds of stinking garbage, in mud shacks. The CBD with its dust and unpainted buildings reminiscent to scenes I have seen from Iraq; and then there is the Golden Mile; an upmarket suburb on the coast where huge Portuguese houses (most of which are abandoned) line leafy roads where palm trees sway.

Its like chalk and cheese.

That night, we camped on a sandy peninsula at the end of the Golden Mile and dined on Pizza from a beach side restaurant.

The following day took us through the somewhat neater town of Benguela (just 30kms south of Lobito) and there we visited a quaintly dilapidated 1960s retro American style outdoor cinema (a testimony to how little it rains along Angola’s coast). Again, like most places and buildings in Angola, it has a feeling of dereliction and abandonment. Flaking paint, cracked tiles, and rusting trellises.

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.Marin le Roux
The palm studded beach front was very picturesque and there were a great many attractive (yet run down) looking colonial buildings to see, but what struck me most about Benguela (and Lobito) was that there was no evident war damage.

“The fighting was never so fierce down here,” said Martin.

Further south, we found ourselves travelling through a semi-desert, characterised by bare arid hills, scrawny donkeys and lots and lots of dust. Unlike the highlands which had been green and verdant; the lowlands are brown and harsh.

Then 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 coastal scenery is rugged and bare, the sea is the most brilliant azure, and the shallows are home to numerous shipwrecks.

“I believe 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 told me.

Children played in balmy water amongst great hulking wrecks of fishing vessels and warships whilst their parents attended to wracks of drying fish outside their mud brick houses. We continued on our scenic drive south for a further 50 or so kilometres, passing through an arid hilly landscape reminiscent of Namibia, until suddenly we found ourselves in a bizarre area of lush greenness, giant palm trees and hot humid air.
The change was so sudden it was if we had been transported to entirely different country.


“We are in Dombe Grande,” announced Martin. “A very lush oasis in the desert where underground water allows for the growth of productive agriculture.”

The little town of Dombe Grande was the most pleasant I had yet seen in Angola. The dominant architecture was that of the Portuguese, and for once, there had been very little vandalism to the edifices. Palm, fig and mango trees grew everywhere whilst vibrantly attired street vendors sold fresh fruit of all shapes and colours.
It almost felt like the Caribbean.

Before moving on, we paused for a while at an enormous but abandoned sugar factory.
Giant machinery and pipes and vats stood still and empty beneath a cavernous roof whilst rays of dusty sunlight shone through panes of broken glass. It was an eerie place, full of post apocalyptic atmosphere, 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 now that the war is well and truly done with and there is international interest in helping the country back to its feet.

As soon as we left the valley of Dombe Grande, we were once more back in the stark and barren desert that typifies Angola’s coastal region. The road loses its veneer of tar and instead becomes a wide and well graded dirt road like those you would find in the Karoo.

The further South we ventured, the less vegetation we saw, and soon we found ourselves passing through a moonscape of bare earth and rubble. The Baviaans pass over which we travelled was well graded and easy navigate.

“But Just a few years back,” announced Martin over the radios, “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 next time you pass here, the whole thing is likely to be tarred.”

No doubt, some of the adventure of driving through Angola has been nullified by the new roads that have gone in recently, but the pros outweigh the cons. I took a look around at the stark bareness of the heat blasted landscape through which we were travelling and I thought to myself ‘I wouldn’t want to break down here.’

Some of the officials are still in that war frame of mind. And that’s why I recommend that you travel in convoys here. The more of you that there are, the less likely someone is going to try any funny business with you.Marin le Roux
Our next port of call, and our rest stop for the evening, was a delightful little secluded bay named Santa Maria. It was a tough and slow 12km 4×4 diversion (and a 2 km beach drive) to get there, but the beauty of it would have been worth ten times that effort.
We camped that night on the beach whilst the men in our group tried to catch fish.
Ghost crabs scuttled amongst our gear and gentle waves lulled me into a deep and peaceful sleep.

The following day, I arose to a sunset which turned the surrounding hills and sheer sandstone cliffs into glowing walls. The snorkelling was good and I saw many a large fish, Cray fish 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 had appeared from the desert as if by magic to inspect our paperwork.

His side kick; 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 fell on deaf ears, and eventually he conceded to let us pass. As we left in single file I waved cheerfully at the chap behind the rock who, I am happy to report, 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 that there are, the less likely someone is going to try any funny business with you.”

The rest of the day was spent visiting coastal fishing communities and pretty beaches where rundown boats limped in and out of harbour; black smoke billowing from their exhausts; holds brimming with fish. The Portuguese, when they ‘owned’ Angola, set up a series of fishing ports and processing factories all up and down the desert coast which have now been commandeered by local communities.


One of our stops was a stunning little beach at the end of a dry river where a small community was busy 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, peoples 12v fridges were being stacked full of boxes of oyster meat and crayfish.
It didn’t look particularly sustainable, but such is the cost of progress ne?

After travelling for an additional 100 or so kilometres across a mixture of flat and featureless gravel planes, inhospitable hills covered in pole like euphorbias, and areas full of huge sandstone boulders, we pulled off the main highway and headed towards our seaside rest stop for the night.

Again, like the previous evenings camp, it was a very special place where windblown desert sands spilled like water over stout coral cliffs. The sea, clear blue and inviting, splashed against rock faces, whilst just off shore a whale of some sort slowly swam by.

Sadly, the mornings in the deserts must be a hurried affair purely from necessity. One doesn’t wish to linger under a rising desert sun, and so, as much as I would have loved to have stayed a while in that beautiful place, we had to pack up quickly and take cover within the air-conditioned shade of our vehicles.

It didn’t look particularly sustainable, but such is the cost of progress ne?Dale Morris
The better part of that day was spent on unmapped coast hugging tracks, again visiting small fishing communities and grand and rugged coastal scenery before, some 50 or so kilometres later, we joined the main East/West highway between Namibe City (on the desert coast) and Lubango in the highlands (which is from where this journey began)

From this point, we drove back towards 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 140kms 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 hustle and bustle of Lubango City and the end of this particular story.

It was a most interesting journey for me; a circular loop where previously war damaged town’s villages and cities have become hectic hives of growth and high speed development. Conversely, the desert landscapes and the quaint fishing villages appear to be standing still in time. Angola, truly is a country of contrasts.

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About the Author

Dale Morris

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I am a full time professional writer and photographer, specialzing in travel, adventure, conservation and wildlife. My motto is "Make people smile, even if they shouldn't"! I have been working around the world, and have raised orphaned chimps in Africa, tagged marine turles in Costa Rica, and documented monkey behaviour throughout South America. I regularly contribute to BBC Wildlife magazine, Africa Geographic, Men’s Health, Asahi weekly, AA Traveler, Vacations and Travel, Getaway, and many others.

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