Having visited Angola on two previous occasions – in 1970 and 1990 – Fred Strauss returned to the war-torn state recently to see how it had changed. What he discovered was a beautiful, peaceful country that was breaking free of its violent past and quickly reinventing itself.
The republic of Angola has been decimated by civil war. Aft er 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 Liberati on of Angola (MPLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) broke out shortly aft er the country was granted its sovereignty. The struggle was fi erce 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 confl ict fi nally 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 constructi on 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 fi lthy 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 offi cials are helpful and polite.
To be sure, if you venture far you will sti ll 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 off ers 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 aft er 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. Aft er stocking up on essential supplies, we left Menongue on a pretty decent tarred road. Thanks to the condition of the road we made excellent ti me 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 faciliti es 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. Aft er 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. Aft er 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 kineti c rope. We conti nued 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 conditi on 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 litt le Catholic church. When everything was unpacked, we sat back and marvelled at the peace and quiet of rural Africa. But the tranquillity was short-lived. Promptly at 6pm, three diesel generators started up in a small building about 20m from our campsite, and they kept going unti l 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 vegetati on 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 fl ood plain. There are also lovely, placid pools above the rim of the waterfall that are ideal for swimming. Aft er 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 fascinati ng 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. From here we travelled briefl y in a southerly directi on, and then turned west towards the coast. We again passed through Quibala, but this ti me 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 fi sh 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 beauti ful Leba Pass. This pass, with its breathtaking views and hairpin bends, is one of the most memorable roads I’ve ever travelled on. Aft er 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 off er in shops. We purchased Chilean red wines, fruit juices from Portugal and exquisite Portuguese ti nned black beans. If you have the chance, I suggest you try these beans with a rare steak. There’s nothing bett er. The trip was nearly over. Aft er 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 sti ll work to do, the country looks very diff erent from 20 years ago. Thankfully, Angola seems to have finally managed to put its brutal, painful past behind it.