Angola is probably not on most travellers’ bucket lists but if you’re a lover of the outdoors and 4×4 driving, it really should be.
My dad once went to Angola, to fix helicopters during the border war. I’m sure most South Africans have a similar story about a family member visiting this former Portuguese colony and many are happy if their connection with this African country ends at a memory similar to that.
Angola remains rough and unforgiving. If things go wrong, there is no Helivac, AA or NSRI; you’re on your own and need to sort yourself out. And therein lies the allure: it offers the recipe for real adventure. It is a big country, with limitless locations that need to be explored. This is why Angola is starting to rank higher on the list of must-visit places of 4×4 enthusiasts and adventure motorcyclists.
Angola achieved independence in 1975 but a few months before that, it entered into a period of civil war which lasted up until 2002. This extended war rendered hundreds of thousands of people homeless. It is estimated that up to one million lives were lost in fighting, which ended only when Unita leader Jonas Savimbi was killed in 2002.
The effects of this prolonged conflict can be seen throughout the country. Development is far behind other African countries and basic government structures and procedures are yet to be refined.
Angola is not yet geared for tourists, the country was ravaged by war and is slowly trying to rebuild itself. Its main income, from crude oil, has taken a knock as the oil price plummeted. Accommodation, even when basic, is expensive but beer and fuel are cheap, between R4 and R5 a litre.
The tar roads are in fair condition but extremely quiet, with only the occasional vehicle passing by, yet the roadsides are littered with burnt-out vehicles. Up until recently, the country had no kind of insurance system in place so when cars were involved in accidents or broke down, they were set alight by owners, to make the vehicles unidentifiable, thus avoiding the salvage costs.
Wildlife is few and far between. There is livestock near civilisation but we didn’t see anything in terms of mammals, even small ones, during our four days. If it moves, it is hunted and eaten.
Angola has some amazing rock art and while the layers upon layers of sandstone look like they were formed by seawater millions of years ago, they were, in fact, shaped by wind erosion. The canyons behind Flamingo Lodge or the Red City are on par with sites such as the Lost City of Petra, yet only a handful of travellers have ever seen these sights.
When we heard that Toyota would be taking us to explore the country and tackle the infamous Death’s Acre, we thought it an extremely brave move. There is so much potential to go wrong; the country is still littered with landmines and most locals only speak their own kind of Portuguese.
The occasion: Toyota recently achieved cumulative global sales of its Land Cruiser series in excess of 10 million vehicles.
Sounds like a recipe for an epic adventure, right?
Tracing a lineage back to 1951, the Land Cruiser has been produced in multiple variants, derived from the original formula of paramount reliability and unquestionable off-road prowess.
Our arsenal for the trip included three Land Cruiser variants. The Prado, a medium-sized SUV offering seven-seat capacity, comfort, luxury and a choice of a 3.0-litre turbodiesel or a 4.0-litre V6 petrol engine.
The 200-series is the flagship of the Land Cruiser range and an amazing overlanding vehicle, with space, luxury and high-tech driver support technologies to take you anywhere. It is available in both the utility-focused GX and opulent VX-R grades.
Toyota recently announced the introduction of a bespoke double-cab derivative, enhanced with application-specific accessories. Bearing the Namib nomenclature, the Land Cruiser 79 takes inspiration from one of the oldest and largest deserts in the world. Namibe marks the most northern part of the Namib Desert so it was a fitting location to launch a vehicle that has been named after a desert that stretches over 2000km along the Atlantic coast.
Toyota believes the introduction of this special- edition model offers customers a ready-to-go vehicle prepared and equipped to tackle the most daunting challenges, so that customers don’t need to look to the aftermarket to equip their vehicles for their next adventure. This trip would test exactly that and more.
Doodsakker can be translated to Death’s Acre or the killing zone, which in military terms is an area entirely covered by direct and effective fire, an area of ambush in which an enemy force is easily trapped and destroyed.
This 75km treacherous stretch of beach south of Tombua, between the Iona National Park and the Kunene River comprises a narrow ribbon of sand between the Atlantic and tall dunes. It is advisably tackled only at low tide, preferably spring tide.
Many adventurers have lost their vehicles here, not getting their timing right, getting stuck in the sand or with technical issues and not being able to free their vehicles before the high tide returns.
It is a race against nature and the tides, not for the fainthearted and a rite of passage for any serious 4×4 enthusiast on the African continent.
Some said it was impossible. So we did it twice… and took photos.
Nature has the final say
We had taken all the precautions. We were travelling in some of the best, fresh off the showroom floor off-road vehicles you can buy. Our guide, Rico Sakko from Flamingo Lodge has traversed this stretch of beach hundreds of times and is the go-to guy for travellers looking for advice or needing to be rescued. It was spring tide, so the tide would be at its lowest. Everything was in our favour, so what could possibly go wrong?
We left Flamingo Lodge at first light so we could reach the Doodsakker at around 9am, just in time for low tide. The entry into Iona National Park was quick and seamless, thanks to our Portuguese-speaking guide. Within minutes of entering the park, we spotted thousands upon thousands of cormorants and immediately knew this was going to be a special day.
Our plan was to push through to the middle part of the Doodsakker, near the so-called Camp Relief. There we would leave the vehicles, jump on the rubber duck and head to Tigres Island. Upon our return, we planned to tackle a trickier loop back to Flamingo Lodge along a dune route.
The trip through the Doodsakker was fairly uneventful, spring tide had given us about 15m of beach and meant that we could get through to Camp Relief without getting our feet wet.
We then took the rubber duck, which Rico had towed through the Doodsakker, to the island, which is about 10km across the water. This island was once part of the peninsula but was separated in the ’60s and eventually deserted. We had lunch in the old bioscope in between exploring the island and the remnants of its old buildings. A Toyota Land Cruiser Namib had even been towed across on a barge to make exploring the island a little easier. And this was where the trouble started.
We needed to be back on the mainland by around 4pm in order to tackle the tricky dune route out of the Iona National Park in daylight.
The route featured proper dunes measuring over 100m and slip faces easily over 50m: this was not something you wanted to tackle at night.
But one of our fellow travellers got carried away exploring the island, taking the Land Cruiser all the way to the deserted lighthouse on the other side, delaying the day’s proceedings significantly. Upon their return, the bakkie was quickly loaded onto the barge and the trek across the Atlantic began. With only two 70hp outboard engines towing the barge and the swell picking up, it was slow going. There I was, in the passenger seat of a Land Cruiser Namib, being towed at 5km/h, on a barge, by a rubber duck, across the Atlantic Ocean.
After two and a half hours, we arrived back on the mainland but we’d missed our window of opportunity; it was too late to return via the dunes and the beach past Camp Horror (where the Voetspore team had nearly lost their vehicles to the sea years earlier) was covered in waves. Our only option was to wait it out until the next low tide at 9pm.
Tackling the Doodsakker in the day is one thing, doing it at night is a whole different story. The cooler temperature means the sand remains wet and soft while visibility is greatly reduced even though the entire Land Cruiser range has great headlights and the Namib features some pretty powerful spotlights. Fortunately, we had an experienced guide and we made sure we kept his tail lights in view at all times. It was a mad dash across the beach; for 30km we kept moving at a rapid pace, stopping would most certainly mean getting stuck.
We kept going, dodging the breakers where we could and getting splashed by the spray constantly; go too high up the narrow beach and you risk getting stuck in the softer sand, go too low – where the sand is harder – and your vehicle is most certainly going to get wet. At times it was simply a case of aiming in the general direction of the car in front of us and keeping the accelerator buried. With some teamwork between driver and co-driver, helping to pick out the best line, operating the wipers and window washer and holding on for dear life, we made it through unscathed and without getting stuck.
We had made it through the Doodsakker for the second time that day, at night, unscathed. Could it be this easy? A couple of kilometres later the lead vehicle hit two cormorants, who have a habit of going for the lights, completely shattering the windscreen and showering the cabin with glass. The occupants were unscathed, but the Doodsakker had the last laugh.
Tired and worn out, we made our way back to Flamingo Lodge, arriving just before midnight. Despite the day’s setbacks and tribulations, our travelling party was in high spirits; that was a proper day of off-road driving, a real adventure.
The rugged construction and Toyota’s commitment to continuous improvement has produced a range of Land Cruisers which have empowered customers around the world to conquer any terrain. Our four days proved that, with the only issue being the loss of a single number plate and the aforementioned cracked windscreen.
It was a real adventure we were looking for and that is what we got.
A special cruiser
The special-edition Land Cruiser Namib has been optimised with subtle visual upgrades and various extra equipment. The front grille features a mesh design with prominent Toyota lettering, which is similar to that of the Hilux GR Sport and takes inspiration from the original Land Cruiser models. Unique Namib badges can be found on the flanks alongside the Land Cruiser brand mark as well as on the tailgate.
Ruggedness and utility come standard thanks to a steel front bumper with integrated heavy- duty nudge bar and headlight protectors. Large, high-intensity LED spotlights ensure optimum visibility under all conditions. A tubular rear step with integrated towbar make loading and towing a breeze, while protective loadbin skins round off the package. The Namib is available in Ivory White and Sand Beige.
Inside the glovebox is an added cooling duct to chill drinks via the vehicle’s air-conditioning system. The seats have been fitted with bespoke grey canvas seat covers, embroidered with the dune-inspired Namib logo, the edges of which have anti-scuff panels to prevent degrading of material during ingress. Under the front passenger seat is a compressor, making the task of deflating and inflating tyres a simple affair.
A roof console features rear-facing LED lights, two- way radio compartment and microphone cord hook.
Underneath, the Namib has been fitted with Old Man Emu suspension, while maintaining the existing payload and towing capacity. The tyres have been upgraded to larger 265/75/R16 Cooper Discoverer S/T Maxx versions, complete with white lettering, affixed to durable 16-inch alloy wheels.
The suspension has taken the edge off what can be a slightly harsh ride in standard form, making the Namib a vehicle that driver and passengers can spend a lot of time in comfortably.
Under the bonnet is the revered 1VD-FTV 4.5-litre turbodiesel engine, churning out 151kW and 430Nm from as low as 1 200r/min.
The Namib edition retains all of the standard Land Cruiser 79 Double-Cab V8 specification, including a touchscreen audio system with built-in navigation, Bluetooth, front power socket, power windows, tilt and telescopic steering column, remote central locking and anti- theft system.
A three-year/100 00km warranty is provided while customers can purchase optional service plans according to their needs.
This Namib is exactly what many customers want. It has all the required accessories already fitted, approved by Toyota and covered by their warranty, giving buyers a turn key solution to any 4×4 adventure. Only 60 of these Namib editions were produced and naturally, they were all snapped up in no time. Fortunately, there are plans to do a second run early next year for those customers who missed out.
Visiting Baia dos Tigres or Tigres Island is not something many people get to do as you need to drive to the middle of the Doodsakker and tow a boat while doing so. Then throw in a 10km boat ride across Tiger Bay, named because of the black stripes against the high yellow sand dunes.
The island has created a sheltered bay and its warmer water attracts an abundance of rich marine life. As a result, in its heyday, there were three factories on the island producing fishmeal and canned octopus.
The settlement started to flourish in the 1950s after a pumping station was built on the Kunene River and a pipeline was laid to pipe in fresh water. By 1960, about 1 500 people lived on the island. But this pipeline, which was the proverbial lifeline of the island, would also cause its demise. In 1962, a heavy storm severed the pipeline over a weekend. The pipe’s water continued running into the sea until Monday morning and by that time, had washed away enough sand to separate the island from the mainland. From there the sea took the island back piece by piece. Today, there is a 10km gap that gets bigger by the day.
Between 1962 and 1974, water was transported across the bay on barges and stored in tanks. When the civil war broke out after Portugal distanced itself from the former colony, the community packed up and took whatever they could back to Portugal. The last few inhabitants were rescued by an SAAF Super Frelon helicopter and just like that, the island was completely deserted.
All the buildings were built on pillars about 2m off the ground, which made keeping sand out much easier. This has also stopped the sand and wind from reclaiming these buildings over the years.
All the buildings were painted in bright colours; yellow, pink and blue, reminding me of the houses in the Bo-Kaap. These bright colours beautifully contrast against the sand, even after years of decay.
Despite the vandals having picked the buildings apart, the southern end of the island is still guarded by the fading yellow Roman Catholic Church building, with its unique wind vane that features a sailing boat. Between the church and the hospital is a wide main road, which was the town’s airstrip, too, built out of large concrete blocks. The doctor visited once a week by light aircraft and the planes brought mail and supplies.
On the day of our visit there were small fishing boats off the shore but the Land Cruiser that Rico towed across the bay was the first car on the island since 1974. On my walk along the beach, I discovered the remnants of a rear axle and leaf springs, possibly from one of the four Land Rovers that were once on the island.
Our flight home was scheduled to depart from Lubango Mukanka Airport and that saw us heading north-east from Namibe the following day. The first part of the road is straight and boring with its fair share of potholes but it is interesting to see how the landscape transforms from desert to fertile farmland. The last obstacle before Lubango could easily have been a destination in itself.
Serra de Leba Pass rises to 1 845m above sea level in just over 10km. The most challenging part of the climb is a short section of 1.7km, with seven hairpin turns. The pass is situated about 35km from Lubango, linking it to Namibe in the south.
Legend has it that the pass is named after a Portuguese woman and road engineer who designed and built the road. She died after she viewed it on the very day the project was completed, and actually never got to drive the entire length of the pass. The road is a marvel of engineering given that it was built in the 1970s. It is said to be built in such a way that it is kind to the brakes of heavy vehicles. There’s probably some truth here: the truckers that passed us did seem to be going pretty quickly and using very little engine braking.
At the top is a tollbooth but only those travelling down the pass need to pay. The authorities do not charge those who have made it up the pass.
Lubango is a fairly large city and was well known for the Portuguese inhabitants that once outnumbered the local population.
Overlooking the city is the Christ the King statue, a Catholic monument and shrine overlooking the city of Lubango. It was inspired by the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro and is said to face that site precisely.
Text: Reuben van Niekerk Photographs: Cornel van Heerden