The Chaos of Luanda
When recently I travelled there as part of a 4500 km round trip through Angola’s western provinces I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing.
Trucks did U-turns in the middle of multilane highways; vehicles drove on pavements; battered up cars and busses pushed their noses by force into grid-locked traffic losing mirrors and paintwork in the process.
There appeared to be no rules whatsoever governing the city roads; and what made things worse; very few people behind the wheel seemed to have the foggiest idea how to drive.
They knew how to use the horn; yes; they were very good at that, but as far as deciphering the more subtle controls of a vehicle (indicator lights, pedals, steering wheel etc.) they still had a very long way to go.
Sitting bolt upright and rigid in the passenger seat of a Toyota bakkie, I gritted my teeth, clenched my fists and occasionally squeezed my eyes shut as Martin le Roux, my Namibian-born guide, steered not only me, but also a convoy of eight other cars through the mayhem.
In the failing light of the early evening, rush-hour traffic reached its peak by paradoxically not rushing at all. Thousands of people, most of whom were carrying absurdly outsized luggage upon their heads, wound their way between sluggish vehicles and water-filled potholes.
Ladies proffered all manner of supposedly edible produce at my window − smelly prawns in clear plastic bags; bananas and mangoes, gloopy stuff that looked like frog spawn.
“You will die of diarrhoea,” he told me without taking his eyes off the traffic.
And as tempted as I was, I decided to forgo such gastronomic experiences based on Martin’s sound advice.
“You will die of diarrhoea.”Martin le Roux
It commences in the nondescript inland junction town of Alto Hama, some 760 km north on a pothole free highway from the Oshikango border with Namibia, and then turns northwest on a brand-new Chinese-built highway for 570 km to the coastal capital of Luanda.
There the road turns south and hugs Angola’s mostly arid coast for 460km before reaching the junction to the main east-west highway that connects the busy seaside town of Lobito back to our starting point in Alto Hama.
Along the way we saw lush rain forests, rolling verdant hills, tropical thunderstorms and colourful cultures as well as stunning waterfalls, bizarre rock formations, cavernous grottoes, shipwrecks, beautiful beaches and arid desert plains.
The villages in Angola are most often ramshackle and messy affairs dominated by street side markets where tropical fruits (mangoes, pineapples, bananas and tomatoes) add a splash of colour to the dust and the mud. The cities are just plain insane, but nonetheless, they all have oodles of character what with their madcap drivers and throngs of pedestrians crowding the spaces between the traffic.
But Angola, no matter how pretty it may be, is not for the faint hearted. There are too many things that can go wrong (bad infrastructure: no roadside rescue service; dodgy police; dubious prawns and landmines, to name but a few) but for those who can handle a bit of uncertainty, Angola has rewards well worth reaping.
I was travelling with “Live The Journey” a self-drive guided 4×4 adventure tour company, and as such, I didn’t have to stress about where I would sleep (beside the road wherever you want to, it turns out) what to eat (all meals cooked and provided) and how to navigate the minefield of paperwork and visas required to enter Angola.
All that was required of myself was to sit back and enjoy the many and splendid views that sailed past my windscreen.
The North-West Circuit Route
The scenery north of Alto Hama is dominated by greenery. It is lush everywhere you look, with woodland, emerald-coloured crops sprouting from a rust-coloured earth and huge monolithic granite mountains rising towards dark tropical skies.
If you’ve been to Spitzkoppe in Namibia or Yosemite National Park in the United States, you will have an inkling of how steep and bare and impressive the mountains in this region are.
I spent most of the drive leaning out through the window to take in the magnificence and enormity of the scenery through which we drove.
That afternoon we passed through the pretty little town of Uaco Cungo where Portuguese-style churches and houses were evident and memorable due to their advanced state of decay. Roofs were missing, while graffiti and bullet holes riddled their facades.
During more than three decades of conflict, most old buildings in Angola received a fair bit of deleterious attention, not least of all the edifices left behind by the ‘then’ hated Portuguese colonials.
The next morning, after a night spent camping in a quarry just outside of town, we awoke to the sound of children who had gathered around our laager to peer at the funny foreigners.
They were fascinated by out tents and our food and our gadgets (head torches, GPS units, 12V fridges; my camera) but after some good natured but ill-fated attempts at communication (no one on the trip could speak Portuguese) we decided that it was time for us to leave.
We shook hands, gave them some food, waved goodbye and hit the road.
Despite being born from war, I found the people of Angola to be surprisingly friendly and hospitable:- Even to a bunch of white South Africans (the onetime former enemy)
As with most major highways in Angola, the road upon which we were travelling (The En180) was mostly excellent-quality tar, built very recently by foreign contractors.
As such, the going was easy, but due to the occasional very deep pothole and, not forgetting the suicidal nature of Angolan drivers (trucks being the worst) we kept our speed to within safe parameters.
And besides, who in their right mind would want to go fast anyway, what with all of the beautiful mountain scenery to look at.
Quibala, some 80km further on, was the next town of any note, and rather like Uaca Cungo, it comprised a mixture of modern soulless buildings and dilapidated Portuguese edifices.
I suppose after spending the past thirty years dodging bullets from a civil war or having his legs blown off by landmines, the prospect of climbing the sheer face of a thirty-metre tree could well seem tame to the average Angolan.Dale Morris
After passing Quibala, the granite mountains and the local people vanished, and for a further 185km we saw nary a soul but for the occasional mud hut and proud village rooster.
Wearing giant crowns of leaves, huge healthy baobabs stood at the roadsides, small ladders made of wooden pegs spiralling up their enormous trunks.
“Can you believe that the locals climb up those pegs to collect the baobab’s fruit,” Martin told me. “Looks dangerous, doesn’t it?”
I nodded, but supposed that after spending the past thirty years dodging bullets from a civil war or having his legs blown off by landmines, the prospect of climbing the sheer face of a thirty-metre tree could well seem tame to the average Angolan.
Later, after crossing the Cuanza River on a brand-new bridge, we reached the dump of Dondo. Officially, it’s a town, but it had about as much charm (and about as much litter) as a landfill site. On the upside though, while the rest of the convoy went to fill up tanks and empty bladders, I chanced upon a young boy selling baobab fruit from a steel bowl balanced atop his head.
I brought one and ate it − it tasted like Styrofoam. I’ll stick to mangoes.
From Dondo, we detoured to the east on another good-quality road that took us through several police checkpoints where uniformed officers did their utmost to find discrepancies with our paperwork.
My passport was a little bit damp courtesy of being caught out in one of Angola’s many afternoon thunderstorms, and this provided the official with the only opportunity he could think of to extract some money from me.
“We have a problem,” he told me, to which I responded, “we dont” and much to my surprise, he conceded. I leaned out of the window, plucked my passport from his fingers, smiled sweetly and wished him all the best with the coming advent of mass tourism to Angola.
“The authorities are getting better by the year,” Martin said. “I think they have been briefed from above to go easy on tourists.”
We then drove up mountain passes through remnants of thick tropical forests where locals lined the roadsides selling tropical fruits. One man proffered a rabbit sized antelope from beneath his banana-thatched stall, but as with the prawns in Luanda; I declined.
A further 205 km up a road littered with the burnt-out husks of vehicles (yet more evidence to Angolan’s poor driving skills) we reached the little town of Lombe. From here we took a 50km detour north on shiny new Chinese tar to the spectacular Kalandula Falls, the third biggest cascades in all of Africa.
This awesome wall of water roared over the lip of a vertical cliff, casting rainbows across the breadth of a sheer kloof as it fell 105m into a cauldron of churning spume below. Clouds of cooling mist billowed through a forest canopy.
Sadly, I had very little time to enjoy either the falls or the pretty girls in bikinis who were flouncing around in the waterfall’s plunge pools, because within fifteen minutes of our arrival, a fierce thunderstorm rolled in and doused us all in rain.
That night, we camped in another damp quarry alongside the road and hoped for better weather in the morning.
The fog soon burned off though and before long we had packed away our tents and were once more on the road, heading towards the spectacular granite koppies of Piedras Negras (Black Rocks)
Here, we drove for 10km on dirt tracks between towering domes of blackened stoned, some more than 400 m high. Some formations among them resemble jelly moulds and others look like fingers pointing at the sky; and between them all, patches of beautiful rainforest and huge looming baobab trees lend further ambiance to a place already thick with atmosphere.
We stayed quite a while at Piedras Negras, exploring a circular loop road that meanderes among the giants. We alighted from our vehicles and walked to the top of one of the larger mounds, where we were treated to breath-taking views across a bizarre landscape of oddly shaped rocks, mountains and trees.
We then retraced our tyre tracks all the way back to the main north-south highway (the en180) and turned north again for the last 180 km to Luanda.
The scenery along the way was certainly something to write home about − I have never seen so many huge baobab trees in my life. There were thousands of them; all lined up along the highway looking grand and stately, as baobabs tend to do.
Inevitably, we got stuck in traffic upon hitting the city proper, and as such, there was plenty of time for me to take in the industrious surroundings that is Luanda. I have never seen a city in such a hectic phase of construction. Wherever I looked, I saw half-finished skyscrapers festooned with hundreds of swinging cranes.
Massive construction projects where underway everywhere, road teams hammered away at the surface beneath our tyres; street lights were being erected, electricity pylons were being heaved upright.
Luanda is a city being rebuilt, the capital of a country that ground to a standstill for more than 30 years due to civil war, but is now in the process of being reborn.
Apparently, the GDP of Angola is one of the fastest growing in the world. Peace, it would seen, most certainly brings prosperity.
The GDP of Angola is one of the fastest growing in the world. Peace, it would seem, most certainly brings prosperity.Dale Morris
“When the Portuguese colonials were chased out of Angola in the ’70s” Martin said as we explored the broken hull of a beached tanker, “they sabotaged all their boats rather than let them fall into the hands of the civilians.”
And wow, what a thorough job they did of it too. I looked up and down the length of the beach and counted dozens of boats ranging from modest trawlers to enormous tankers. It was a strange site, a sort of post-apocalyptic graveyard for sea vessels.
Other places of interest we visited were a war memorial to the Angolan armed struggle, and a few quaint churches that somehow survive among the towering new buildings of the city centre. However, a city is a city and we were all quite glad to be on our way later that afternoon.
That evening, in stark contrast to the manic nature of Luanda, we found ourselves camping on a beautiful empty beach, south of the city and directly on the border to Quicama National Park.
Here we searched for sea turtles at night, and although none were seen, their tank-like tracks crisscrossed the beach bearing witness to the fact that Angola is still an important breeding area for these rare marine reptiles.
A Very Different Landscape
Arid scenery and coffee-coloured dust replaced the greenery and tropical storms. Towering euphorbias reached for a sky totally bereft of clouds.
It was hot as hell.
Quicama National Park was barren and rather featureless and totally bereft of people and wildlife, but that did not detract from its stark and empty beauty. The cold Benguela current strips all of the moisture from the air along this stretch of Angola’s coast, and therefore it hardly ever rains. There is no colour here; no life, and no water, but just like the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, it is hauntingly peaceful.
Things looked a little more hospitable at Porto Amboim, 250km from Luanda, a quaint little coastal town with a pretty turquoise bay with hundreds of fishing canoes.
Near the beach, open-fronted bars, surrounded by towering palm trees, offered the members of our convoy an escape from the heat and a chance to sit back and enjoy a cold drink.
That evening, after passing through the scruffy and busy town of Sumbe, Martin lead us off the main road and down a little sidetrack to the sea.
“Nice?” he asked me when we arrived at a beach, but of course it was a rhetorical question. The bay near which we camped that evening was stunning; a beautiful little secret of a place surrounded by the most gorgeous sandstone cliffs.
As the sun dipped into the ocean, the cliffs glowed the colour of fire, and the sky turned tomato red.
Martin had yet another treat for us the next morning, only this time it wasn’t a beach or a mountain or a forest; it was the most enormous cave I have ever seen, let alone ventured in to.
After a difficult climb down into a forested valley, he walked us into a cave mouth that must have been easily 80 m high. Inside, shafts of light filtered down through holes in the roof, giving the place an angelic cathedral-like atmosphere.
If it were not for the thousands of bats circling overhead and the millions of giant cockroaches rushing around on the floor, I may have been quite taken by the place, enough to ask if we might not pause a while and have our lunch there.
As it was, I was put off the idea slightly when a dying bat fell from the ceiling and bounced off my head.
If it were not for the thousands of bats circling overhead and the millions of giant cockroaches rushing around on the floor, I may have been quite taken by the place.Dale Morris
“This cave network probably goes on for countless miles,” Martin said over the sound of rushing water. “And this river travels underground and reappears somewhere on the other side,”
It was an amazing site indeed and a fitting climax to what had been an unrepeatable journey of discovery for me and my travel partners.
From Oasis in the deserts to giant waterfalls, huge dune seas, and massive mountains, Angola had, once again, surprised me with its amazing natural sights and ever changing landscapes.
The rest of the day’s journey took us through arid plains and dusty brown hills. Huge mountains of the Angolan highlands loomed in the east some distance away, while the bright blue Atlantic twinkled in the west.
And then, to complete our Angolan odyssey, we took the east west highway (140 km south of Sumbe city) which slowly climbed back into ever green highlands, leaving the dusty aridity of the coast behind.
After a total of 280 km of uneventful driving, we once again pulled into the sleepy little town of Alto Hama from where this loop had started.
The journey had come to an end, as sadly, had my time in Angola.
It was a time for reflection (and a few cold beers as well)
I had initially travelled to Angola with preconceptions that perhaps I would be visiting a dilapidated nation, still suffering from more than three decades’ civil war and economic stagnancy.
I expected aggression and hostility (especially towards we South Africans) and I had expected to see a people ravaged by war.
What I found though was a country back on its feet again. The people appear friendly, the highways and major roads have mostly been rebuilt; the landmines have nearly all gone and the different regions offer a diversity of experiences to the avid explorer. It is a place of great hope and positivity for the future.
I entered Angola with one thought in mind − to get through it in one piece and then leave as soon as possible. But by the time I left, Angola had captured my heart and all I wanted to do was to return as soon as I possibly could.