2005 - Land mines and lovely people
Well the last time I wrote Paul and I were suffering from severe sea-sickness on the ferry from Cabinda to Luanda, Angola’s capital!
Compared to the trauma of seeing our bikes being transported onto the ferry, getting back onto dry land was easy and after the inevitable 2 hour wait for immigration (well you see the immigration officer was ill, so we had to wait while they found someone else to do the tricky job of writing down our names from our passports) we were parked at the side of the road in Luanda wondering where to go!
It was here that we realised we were totally mute! Angolans speak Portuguese and unfortunately we don’t….not even ‘hello’. Paul wandered back into the port and tried to find someone who spoke English and who could give us some advice on the best way to get south to Namibia. I hung around at the side of the road attracting a ‘posse’ and by the time Paul came back, I was on nodding and smiling terms with about 25 young guys on mopeds! I quickly nodded and smiled my goodbyes because Paul had found a wonderful Angolan man, who insisted on taking time off work to lead us through the city to the road we needed. This was our first display of the unbelievable kindness and generosity of the Angolan people.
He took us via the city’s only petrol station, where there must have been around 200 people queuing (unusually for me this is not an exaggeration!!!). All the petrol stations in Luanda were destroyed in the war, which only ended around 2 years ago, so this single station serviced the entire city. Our escort had a quick chat to the attendant, explained we were tourists and then waved us to the front of the queue! Imagine if you had been waiting for three days to fill up your car and two foreigners push to the front…..I braced myself for the inevitable riot……but nothing happened. In fact the people we pushed in front of were waving and smiling…..I could see we were going to like Angola!
Eventually we left the choking traffic and said goodbye to our wonderful guide. It took the poor guy over an hour to lead us across the city in the appalling traffic and midday sun…….the heat was slowly dissolving us in our bike clothes and he had to turn around and go all the way back again (I am guessing he didn’t have air-con …nightmare).
From what we saw, Luanda seemed like a beautiful coastal city, but on the outskirts we were reminded of its sad history with abandoned and blown up tanks and artillery scattering the hillsides. The road was in fantastic condition and as we were not expecting a good tar road, our spirits were high…. nowadays we are very easily pleased! The scenery was also very unexpected, thick bush and rolling hills stretched out as far as the eye could see and whole towns made up of rounds mud huts set into hillsides, literally took our breathe away as we rode by.
In a country which was so recently at war, we expected to encounter tight security on the roads, but police roads blocks were conspicuous by their absence and the one we did stop at was wonderful. The policeman came over to the bike (as opposed to grunting for us to come to him). He then saluted and waved us on our way…magic!
After an afternoon of riding we hit the first big city, Sumbe and decided to find a bed for the night. Angola is a bit tricky when it comes to ‘budget’ travel! First of all camping in the bush is a real no no due to the copious amount of land mines just waiting to blow your limbs off as you go for a pee in the night! And secondly, it is UNBELIEVABLY expensive. Now being a Yorkshire lass, you would expect me to find everywhere, which isn’t free, too expensive, but you must admit that $35 for a hotel without running water is a bit steep! Somehow, decades of civil war haven’t managed to destroy the Angolan economy and there is pots of cash. This is great for the Angolans….. but bad for us!
We asked around a bit and were directed to the cheapest hotel in town. Paul left me outside on ‘bike watch’ while he went inside to find out the damage. When we arrived the streets were deserted, but slowly as I stood at the side of the road, mopeds would stop and stare and pedestrians were gathering. By the time Paul came back to the bikes, I was buried in a sea of people…..all nodding and smiling at me and I was being shouted at by the local policemen for causing an obstruction!!
Obviously the horrid hotel was way out of our price range and so with the help of a young guy who acted as our translator, we headed to the Catholic Church! We were followed by a group of about 20 young guys on mopeds, beeping their horns and circling our bikes….it was like a scene from Grease!! This was all very amusing until we realised that there was a service going on in the Catholic Church and their antics were seriously jeopardising our chances of a free bed for the night! Luckily the Padre (Padre Moses…good name for a Catholic priest!), was a great guy and didn’t hold our noisy fan club against us and said we could stay at his mission free of charge.
Well, the room really took my breathe away, but what it lacked in running water and cleanliness it certainly made up for in location, as the church was perched on the top of a hill overlooking the town and the ocean. With the help of sign language and our translator Paul managed to agree to take Padre Moses, and a couple of his English speaking mates for a meal at the most expensive restaurant in town….fantastic! I won’t say how much the meal cost, but lets just say our free accommodation turned out to be a huge false economy!! Saying that the evening was hilarious and Padre Moses turned out to be a cool dude, who wanted to continue partying to the sound of his car stereo when we got back to the church!!!
The Angolan people were as big a shock to us as the breathtaking scenery. During the evening one of the Padre’s friends told us he would tell his children and grandchildren about the day he met two foreign people on motorbikes travelling to South Africa. He said it was a very special day which he would remember this day for the rest of his life because seeing tourists in Angola meant he could believe for the first time that the war was really over. It was emotional stuff, which was only out done by the price of the beer in the restaurant!
The next day we headed out very early on what we had heard was going to be the worst part of the journey. Two friends who had done the trip a couple of weeks before said it was ‘ an offroader’s dream’…..so I was dreading it!!! Initially, it wasn’t too bad and as we got further south the terrain became desert and reminded us of being in Morrocco again. Apart from Paul stopping for lunch in an army shooting range the morning was uneventful, but after lunch the road gradually degenerated and before we knew it we had left all traces of civilisation behind us and were riding along a rubble track. The only evidence that people had once been there were the burnt out trucks and tanks at the side of the track. It was hard to say whether these were blown up in the war or had driven over land mines….either way it wasn’t looking good!!!
Although we hadn’t reached any junctions or taken any turns we both felt that this couldn’t possibly be the main road joining the northern and southern parts of the country, but as our petrol reserves got lower we had no choice but to keep going…. As the road got worse and we got tired I started to drop the bike and at one stage climbing a rocky hill I got the middle of the bike stuck on a huge bolder and was rocking backwards and forwards like a see-saw….you see, you just can’t teach people to ride like me!!
Where did everyone go?
I made it to the top of a rubble hill !!
By nightfall we knew we were on the wrong road because we hadn’t seen a soul all day and we should have gone through 2 biggish towns. Worse than ever, we had seen a lot of wild animals including baboons. This meant there were no humans around for miles and miles or they would have been eaten long ago! So crossing an unknown mystery mountain range, we had no choice but to set up camp for the night. This was a total nightmare, we hadn’t expected to be stuck in the middle of no-where and stupidly didn’t have enough water, then there was the prospect of running out of petrol and having to walk to Namibia….oh and of course there were the afore mentioned land mines to consider! Well, we started by throwing large rocks onto our chosen ‘camp-site’ at the side of the track and when none of them blew up I chose my least favourite leg and did a quick mine-sweep….amusing now, but a little disconcerting at the time! We then had our last sip of water and set up all our pots and pans around the tent and prayed for rain!!
Surprisingly we both slept really well despite our predicament and woke in the morning to find a few useless millimeters of dusty dew in the pots and pans …..you see my time in the Brownies wasn’t wasted!!! It is amazing how a new day brings new optimism and we continued riding towards no-where, then like a mirage in the desert we spotted….not water…even better…a 4-wheel drive coming towards us! We flagged them down and found out that we had almost crossed the mountains and we would join a tar road in a couple of Km’s….what a stroke of luck! When we hit the tar, I literally cried and Paul was punching the air as we road on the beautiful smooth surface……then it suddenly ended and became a sand track again……typical! Luckily a man with a donkey informed us we were going the wrong way on the tar road……it is a miracle that we have managed to make it this far with such an appalling sense of direction!
So we were finally on a road, but which road we had no idea. We thought we were heading south through the centre of Angola, but when we finally reached the west coast it was obvious something had gone slightly wrong!!!! Onwards and upwards though….we were just pleased to have water and petrol at our disposal again.
We had arrived at the desert town of Namibe on the Skeleton Coast, where we stocked up on water and some food. While buying a bunch of bananas from the side of the road, a local bus stopped and the driver and a couple of passengers got off to find out who we were…they thanked us for visiting Angola and got back on the bus and drove away….what a country!
After Namibe we headed inland towards the Namibian border, leaving the desert behind…again and entering into the mountains…again, but this time on roads!! Yet again Angola took our breath away, with Alpine style scenery and the price of a manky hotel with no running water!!!
It was a real shame that Angola turned out to be so pricey because it was an amazing place and certainly one we would both love to return to…….if we win the lottery! However, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I heaved a huge sigh of relief when we reached the Namibian border…. civilisation at last!
Posted by Paul Jenkins at 12:24 PM