Text and photography: Fred Strauss
The republic of Angola has been decimated by civil war.
After receiving its independence from Portugal in 1975, the country immediately fell into violent conflict. In a struggle for power, fighting between the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) broke out shortly after the country was granted its sovereignty.
The struggle was fierce and lasted more than 25 years. Unsurprisingly, it caused widespread devastation. It is estimated that as many as 1,5 million lives were lost. Over four million people were displaced.
In 2002 the conflict finally ended, but the country was in ruins. The majority of Angola’s infrastructure had been destroyed.
The good news, however, is that the country is quickly being rebuilt, and evidence of the war is fast disappearing. There has been an immense improvement since my last visit in 1990.
As we travelled through Angola in April we passed construction projects wherever we went. Roads and bridges are being rebuilt, power lines are being put in place and large structures such as stadiums and airports are being constructed.
Towns that were filthy and dishevelled 20 years ago, such as Lubango, are now neat and ordered. A lot of progress has been made.
Travelling through the country today, one never feels threatened. The people are friendly and the officials are helpful and polite.
To be sure, if you venture far you will still need a 4×4, especially in the more remote areas. You should also carry at least 60 litres of drinking water and enough fuel to travel around 600km at low speeds.
But while you need to come prepared, Angola now offers a wonderful overland experience to 4×4 enthusiasts.
Our trip started at Rundu in Namibia, south of the Angolan border. Here my wife and I met up with some friends, as well as Marius van Zyl, an experienced guide who regularly leads tours into Angola.
From Rundu we drove to Katwitwi, where we crossed the border in the afternoon. Not long after entering Angola, we pulled off the road and made camp for the night.
The next day we travelled to Menongue, a reasonably large town with quite a few shops. After stocking up on essential supplies, we left Menongue on a pretty decent tarred road. Thanks to the condition of the road we made excellent time and managed to travel at an average speed of around 110 km/h.
At 4pm we stopped for the day. Marius and his assistant, Manny, left to find the local chief to ask for permission to camp in the area. This was something they did every night, and consent was never refused. Marius warned, though, that one should never pay for the right to camp close to a town. If no facilities are provided, there should be no payment.
We spent the following day traversing central Angola at a leisurely pace. Around 4pm we once again started looking for a place to camp. Marius left to explore a nearby off-road track. After a while he informed us via radio that he had discovered an excellent camping spot near a farm.
Carefully, we ventured onto the track. It was deeply rutted and we had to move very slowly. After travelling on the road for a while, one of the vehicles in the convoy nearly landed on its side. The 4×4 had hit a spot in the road that had obviously been drenched by rain and was now tilted at a precarious angle. Thankfully, Marius was able to recover it with the aid of a kinetic rope. We continued on and spent the night close to the farm.
The next morning, as we were heading back towards the main road, we encountered a police vehicle. The police had apparently been informed that there was activity near the farm (which, we now found out, belonged to a general) and had sent a vehicle to investigate. Once they realised that we were simply a group of holidaymakers, we were allowed to proceed.
Our aim was now to visit the Kalandula Falls just north of N’dalatando, on about the same latitude as Luanda. But unfortunately, a bridge along our route was closed. We would have to detour via Quibala to the west.
This road was in much worse condition than the previous one we’d been travelling on. It took us about four hours to travel the 173km to Quibala. Once there, we set up camp at a wonderful spot in the town, right next to a little Catholic church. When everything was unpacked, we sat back and marvelled at the peace and quiet of rural Africa.
But the tranquility was short-lived. Promptly at 6pm, three diesel generators started up in a small building about 20m from our campsite, and they kept going until midnight!
Bleary eyed, we slunk out of Quibala the next morning.
We now travelled through what was arguably the most scenic area of Africa that any of us had ever seen. An impenetrable forest with huge trees and lush tropical vegetation lined the road on both sides.
Before we knew it, we were at the Kalandula Falls, and they were equally spectacular. Water plummets off the edge of a plateau into a narrow gorge 150m below. The gorge runs for about 1km and then widens into a flood plain. There are also lovely, placid pools above the rim of the waterfall that are ideal for swimming.
After spending the night close to Kalandula Falls, we headed for the Pedras Negras, a group of spectacular outcrops about 180km from the waterfall. These monolithic rocks are fascinating and reminded me of places such as Paarl Rock, the Spitzkoppe in Namibia, the Matopos in Zimbabwe and Uluru (previously known as Ayers Rock) in Australia.
Here we turned around and slowly started to work our way back towards the Namibian border.
We again passed through Quibala, but this time decided to give the generators a miss and instead camped on the Queve River, to the west of Gabela. It was very humid and the temperature next to the river, even at night, was high. That was an uncomfortable night.
Marius now took us straight down the coast to Lobito, and at lunch we sat down to freshly grilled fish and some chilled white Portuguese wine at a beach restaurant. We were told that we could camp on the beach, right next to the restaurant. We could also use their restrooms and get ice from them. Bliss.
From there we drove south for four days, camping on the beach each night. We then turned inland and traversed the beautiful Leba Pass. This pass, with its breathtaking views and hairpin bends, is one of the most memorable roads I’ve ever travelled on.
After stopping briefly at the Tundavala Gorge and Angola’s famous Christ statue, we entered Lubango. Although the town had been hard hit by the war, it now has a vibrant economy. For tourists there are plenty of imported delicacies on offer in shops. We purchased Chilean red wines, fruit juices from Portugal and exquisite Portuguese tinned black beans. If you have the chance, I suggest you try these beans with a rare steak.
There’s nothing better.
The trip was nearly over. After two more days we were at the Santa Clara border post. Once over the border, we shared a farewell lunch.
Our journey through Angola had been extremely pleasant. Although there is still work to do, the country looks very different from 20 years ago. Thankfully, Angola seems to have finally managed to put its brutal, painful past behind it.
Wildspace Adventure Safaris arranges guided self-drive tours into Angola. The guide, Marius van Zyl, is competent, friendly and knows the country well.
While Angola’s roads are continually being improved, an off-road vehicle is still needed for rural travel.
Ensure that you carry enough fuel to complete at least 600km when venturing away from the main cities. Thankfully, diesel in Angola is fairly cheap, around R3 per litre.