Monday, June 02, 2008

The Angola Blitz

I wish I'd had more time in Angola. It is visually stunning and easily one of the most beautiful countries in Africa as most people who've been there will agree. But with a 5 day transit visa only, Angola becomes a driving blitz from hell. From north to south it is over 2000km of roads, most of which are in a total state of decay and full of potholes. We were worried about the truck actually making it since the cumulative effects of the journey have not favoured it thus far. There was also worry about huge fines on the other end if we overstayed our visa since we haven't heard of anyone actually making it across the country in only 5 days. Some have been busted but most haven’t and it’s also been generally accepted that extensions are impossible to get, so in the end we just decided to haul through as fast as we could. It was rough.
Angola has also had a decades long civil war that ended only a couple of years ago and since then the country has only seen a handful of tourists pass through. Banditry concerns have dropped dramatically but the risk of land mines has not, and the destroyed roads and non-existent tourist infrastructure also make it a challenge. Angola is the only country other than Afghanistan where we saw destroyed tanks left sitting in the fields. We also had to switch from French to Portuguese (which none of us speak).
The good news was that the people were friendly and we didn’t run into any major difficulties. Thanks to the Chinese (who are rebuilding all the roads, not only in Angola but all over central Africa) there were even stretches of good tarmac and we made it in the 5 days. It involved long days of driving and a lot of stress but to us it felt like we’d done the impossible and the sense of relief and accomplishment was huge when we finally got across the border. Now for a play by play......
We had an early start (6:30am) from Matadi and surprisingly had no trouble at all crossing the border into Angola. The moneychangers were the only ones in the world that I’ve seen that actually rounded up the change in your favour during exchanges and the Angolan border guards ended up changing our dollars at a very favourable rate too. DRC and Angola are still in dollar mode and want only US dollars for exchange. They don’t like Euros at all which was a problem for us as we were very low on dollars as a group by that point.
The first day saw us travelling past baobab trees and funky cactus trees with tall stems and what looks like a normal cactus sticking out on top like a palm tree. The villages were large with huge spaces between homes on either side of the road. It seemed like the people were afraid of vehicles because they really moved off the road when they saw us coming. The red earth and baobabs reminded me of parts of Mali. The road was horrible but we were determined to make good time so trashed the truck and ourselves on the bumpy dirt roads. We had to stop for police in M’banza Congo while waiting for Ben to catch up (he had a flat tire) and just by stopping in the town we attracted a huge set of onlookers which quickly surrounded us. They were all nice but very curious and we haven’t attracted that kind of attention in a long, long time. Later that evening just at sunset we were stopped by some more police in Nzeto that were completely and totally drunk. We tolerated them for a little bit not sure what to do but the locals just told us to run so we just drove off in mid-sentence and hoped they didn’t have any guns.... We bush camped that night on a secluded beach with the sound of big crashing waves and crabs with coke can sized bodies running underfoot.
The following day we had even worse roads but made it to Luanda, the capital. It is more American than European in style with skyscrapers and a huge port but also has a Portuguese fort overlooking the harbour. We camped in the parking lot of the yacht club and had a nice view of the city from across the harbour. Angola is a major oil exporting nation (diesel is less than $0.50/L) so has lots of money to invest in its rebuilding if it wants to. Angola is set to host the next Africa Cup in 2010 so there is tons of reconstruction being done on the outskirts of town and on roads all over the country. It was decided that we would have to try a little harder if we were going to make it in 5 days so the following morning we were up at 4am and on the road by 5am. Before that our schedule for weeks had been fairly consistent at a 6-7am departure and drive until just before sunset ~6pm and bed between 8 and 9pm. That day we managed 600km in only 13hrs when the sun finally set. Thanks to the Chinese we considered that to be an excellent day. Most of the road was good though there was a lot of construction and little dusty detours and we were absolutely covered in dust from the trucks ahead of us by the end. We'd climbed up onto the central plateau of Angola which is roughly 5000ft. We’d left the overcast coast and moved into open grasslands and a big, blue sky with small mountains around us that apparently characterizes much of southern Africa. It is a beautiful sight. We bush camped outside Huambo. Huambo is a major provincial capital but was completely destroyed in the civil war so there are lots of damaged buildings and destroyed tanks in the area. After freezing all night (we were nowhere near the high 30’s we were used to) we left again at 5am for another full day of driving.
The road was destroyed tarmac with huge potholes and extremely tedious and slow driving. We made 100km after 4 hours or so and realized we were going to have a problem. The road is so bad that all the cars have created new dirt roads alongside and only the cattle and goatherds use the real road anymore. After an agonizingly slow, painful and long day that saw us break a window and snap the big hook off the winch (yes, it was that rough) we bush camped again, well after dark, just outside Lubango.
The final day we managed to cover the last 400km in decent time on a mix of graded and corrugated gravel/dirt road after yet another early start. The landscape had flattened out on the plateau and become much drier to woodland savanna. We have definitely and sadly left the tropics. The most depressing part about the tropics and route really was the lack of wildlife. There were so many times we looked out the window and thought “where are the animals?”. Wars have destroyed them all through land mines, habitat destruction and hungry displaced people. Angola actually had birds but for the most part through central Africa we saw nothing but the bugs and an occasional animal held up for sale as bush meat alongside the road from Cameroon through Gabon, the Congos, and Angola. Actually make that all of Africa so far......
The border was somewhat chaotic on the Angolan side but again we had no problems. The Namibian side might as well be home. We are no longer in "Africa" and as soon as we crossed we figuratively popped the cork on the champagne to celebrate the end of an overland journey. From here on it is possible to continue without any driving challenges and stick to tarmac the whole way and every country is well touristed and set up for travellers. Of course we'll find ways to make it interesting.....


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