Angola, Land of Endless War
At Ondangua, northern Namibia, I met up with the convoy I was travelling with into Angola. We encountered no border controls and continued on past Ruacana Falls to Xangongo, which was once a prosperous Portuguese town, but now most buildings had no roofs and the town was quiet and overgrown. Many of the crumbling buildings’ white-washed facades were riddled with bullet holes. In some places, the road was not clear and the convoy needed to back track several times. On one such occasion, when the convoy had stopped, we heard faint music to the east. We followed the sound and found the road lined with people walking to a nearby village, joyously singing hymns.
Piet, a rugged and amiable member of the convoy team with Johannesburg registration plates, spoke in Portuguese to one of the passing Africans. He translated that the Madala (wise old man) had said, “He reckons his people were emerging by the thousand each day from the jungle, children with stomachs bloated by malnutrition, scrawny mothers dressed in rags and terrified fathers who feared punishment for supporting the defeated rebels.” Piet looked away and gulped, “The Madala and the other village elders felt that the fog of war was still slowly lifting in Angola, revealing a country close to the Dark Ages, with millions of starving, homeless people, following years of living wild in the bush.”
The convoy continued further and came across a woman walking towards Xangongo, now some 15 kilometres behind us. She stepped off the road to allow us to pass and shaded her eyes against the bright sun. She hitched up the weeping child she carried on her bony hip and found a smile for the passing vehicles. Piet told all the drivers before leaving Xangongo that the Madala suggested they do not stop to hand beggars food as thousands would come charging out of the bush looking for similar sustenance.
Regardless of this caution, I could not pass the woman without rendering some aide and rummaged through the cooler box, handing her two sandwich packs. The woman gently placed her child on the gravel road, ripped open the cellophane packaging and then stared at its contents in awe. She had clearly no idea what she held in her hand. The child began to cry and held his arms up to his mother who knelt down and fed him broken off pieces of the bread. I saw that one of his eyes was gummed with infection and his drum-tight, distended stomach strained over his splayed ribs. I said a silent prayer and continued.
In treacherous stormy weather we travelled on toward Chibemba and met up with our Police escort. It must have been quite a sight for the locals – not since the South African Defence Force arrived in the mid 70′s had this town seen such a large convoy of vehicles. Piet spoke with the Police Captain at length about their recovery from Africa’s longest running bush war. He translated, “The Captain says there is a vast population living in fear deep in the bush, a long way from international aid organisations, and some did not even know the war was over.”
Once passports were checked, names and registration numbers noted down and vehicles given a cursory inspection we once again moved on. The Police were driving Land Rovers and armed with cheap imitation Oakley sunglasses and very real AK’s and each had a leg hanging over the side of their bucking and bouncing 4×4. The front convoy vehicle got stuck in thick black mud and one of the Namibian drivers came to the rescue with a snatch strap, which he hooked up and snapped the Land Rover out of the mud sending the drivers’ head reeling back against the headrest, his eyes staring wildly forward and a silly grin on his face.
At sunset we stopped for the night outside Honga; in a very colonial fashion the men put up the tents and set out their canvas chairs. The party relaxed, the temperature eased down to around 30 degrees and there was a collective sigh at the sound of the ceremonial opening of the first beer. A while later a group of Himba tribesmen appeared from amongst the trees. They walked up to the campsite, leant on stout poles and gabbled on in their native tongue, frowning and pointing. Without warning, the Police Captain shot a round into the air and the Himba dispersed. He settled back against the tree, pulled his cap over his eyes and laid his AK across his chest.
Dinner that evening was a barbequed goat which one of the Policemen procured from the woods. With the proverbial bull of campfire chat and lots of alcohol, the convoy and Police escort partied till very late. The policemen were drunk before dinner and spent the evening maintaining that state. Later the Captain became trigger-happy and used moths for target practice.
In the middle of the night, a donkey (Himba owned) felt the need to play and made a racket galloping around the campsite, neighing for all his worth. I felt certain the Captain’s weapon was the most thought about item during that long night.
Breaking camp before dawn and travelling further north the following day took us through some breathtaking mountainous areas. At one point we were surrounded by peaks that changed colour; from black to blue to green and then as the sun picked up the undergrowth so the flowers brought the landscape to life. All the towns we passed were shot up, with bombed out Police out-posts.
We stopped off at Huambo – another town shattered by bullets, mortar and artillery fire. At the Police station, which displayed their country’s colours on a flagpole which clearly had not been taken down since independence, passports were again collected. This was a ritual that had to be followed in every town we stopped in. Names, registrations and who travelled with who was noted.
The drive north was picturesque. The setting sun shone through the dust cloud chasing the vehicle ahead; with a foreground of pale green grass contrasting against the pink mountains. Rounding the next bend was a town out of a spaghetti western. Again all shot up and left to rot. The theme tune from “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”, sprang to mind.
That night we slept in rooms adjoining a brothel/disco. The Police escort’s soon found company and thankfully, the loud music drowned out all the other sounds.
The following morning a young African boy was begging by the entrance. He told Piet his sole possession was a tattered anorak. He had not eaten in two days. His legs were blistered and scarred. One of the prostitutes explained that children like him often suffered such injuries because without any clothes or bed linen they were forced too close to the fire at night.
The Police Captain announced he had been radioed by his HQ to change tack. There had been an incident in a town on the route we were to have followed and as such, the Captain decided to head due west, to the coast. It was a hard drive along roads that had long since dissolved into rubble and sand tracks. We passed many beggars, purposefully walking to who knows where. It was clear that starvation was the norm in Angola. We eventually arrived in the coastal town of Cubal, I was awestruck at the beauty before us.
Whilst the convoy pitched tents and got themselves ready for another night of festivities, I detached myself from them and took a long walk along the beach, six-pack in hand. I found a small cove and sat on the powdery white sand to watch the pink sunset. I turned my walkman up and felt certain Dire Straits had been sitting on this very beach when they composed “Brothers in Arms”.
A while later a young, good-looking African couple emerged from the trees. I beckoned to them to join me so we could enjoy the sunset together. The woman’s name was Manuela and her companion was Enrique; in broken English they managed to explain that they were nurses at the nearby Lobito hospital and had worked at several others throughout Angola. Enrique, nodding gravely, told that the civil war had started before he was born and now that it had ended, they were still treating landmine victims, many of whom were children. Manuela said the hospitals were rundown and medicines were in short supply, often requiring that they treat injuries without anaesthetic or even painkillers. Roads that people thought were safe suddenly became death traps and casualty rates were rising. Enrique told of the hospital’s latest landmine victims and described how his patients lay numbed with grief, their stumps swathed in bloody bandages. Enrique felt worse still was the stench. He told of a woman who had lost both legs in a blast that killed her child and husband; next to her was a 12-year-old boy who triggered a mine that shattered his leg and left his mother and brother dead. “These were just ordinary people, out looking for food or water, or travelling from one village to another, who had simply stepped on the wrong patch of earth”, added Manuela.
The following morning the convoy and Police escort travelled further north along the coast, towards Kissama National Park, nearing Luanda. I was lost in thought and mechanically followed Piet’s Land Rover and was slightly bemused when he fish-tailed through muddy tracks. I turned on the radio and relaxed, thinking of my family and friends. A loud explosion shook through my Land Cruiser. Ahead of me Piet’s vehicle was engulfed in smoke — flames coming out from the undercarriage. He had detonated a land mine. I looked on helplessly, sure in my mind that Piet had been killed. But as the flames and smoke died down, I realised that he was alive as he was shouting profanities out the window. The landmine had exploded by the side of the road, clearly it had been aggravated by the numerous vehicles passing by and was finally triggered by Piet’s 4×4. The force of it had blown in his side window and caused damage to that side of the vehicle, throwing it of course and into the vegetation. But Piet was fine, albeit, shocked. Angola truly seemed to be a country of endless war.
On the final stretch approaching the capital, I became aware of passing more amputees and even more skeletal remains of blown up vehicles on the side of the road, as well as the now ubiquitous bullet-ridden buildings. I recalled the facts and figures I found when doing my Angolan homework back in Cape Town and had expected to see what was reported, but it did not quite prepare me for the reality. To see, smell and feel the desperation whilst driving through the miles of shanty huts on the outskirts of the city was something else. Up the sides of one of the hillsides I passed was a vast rubbish dump that extended as far as the eye could see, filled with decomposing, slimy, stinking trash with potholed pathways climbing through it. Appallingly, hundreds of families lived in hovels hardly distinguishable from the rest of the dump. Babies were crawling on the edge of stagnant pools, women cooking, squatting amidst unbelievable squalor.
I became distracted by what seemed to be a riot going on up ahead. As I neared I saw two men dressed in faded fatigues, one beating a woman with the butt of his AK whilst the other restrained her, laughing at her pathetic attempts to shield the blows directed at her head. She was screaming and shouting in a language I could not understand. The head Police vehicle hooted in recognition of their comrades who, in turn, cheered at the passing convoy. I glanced in the rear view mirror and quickly averted my gaze when I saw the rifle butt coming down on the defenceless woman’s head again.
Driving through Luanda was an experience in itself. The streets of the capital were the worst I had ever seen with potholes of lunar proportions, temporarily filled with water, providing perfect homes for mosquitoes. My impression of Luanda was that of an old abandoned city that no one cared about any more. The reality was that millions of people lived in the area, many in temporary homes that had become all too permanent – sheds, garages and in one case, a family living inside a chicken coop. On my way through the city I saw people maimed either by war or landmines. Men, women and children came running up to the vehicles, begging for food or money or anything else we had. One man came up to my window when the convoy had momentarily stopped; he could hardly speak. It appeared that he only had half a face. This was a savage land and I struggled to take it all in.
On arrival at our hotel, Piet pointed out the feature wall adjacent to the reception area. Hotel management were clearly patriotic as this wall, historically used for executions, was riddled with bullet holes and covered in blood stains yet elegantly lit with a soft up-light.
The reception area was swarming with what I assumed to be conference delegates. The air-conditioner was clearly ineffective as the room was unbearably hot and there was a strong, distinctive choking smell of sweat. It was more like a goat market than a four-star hotel.
Where is Angola?
Angola is in the equatorial tropical region of Africa’s west coast, directly above Namibia. In the northern half of the central plateau there are humid tropical conditions and in the high regions of the south, it has a dry tropical climate. On the northern part of the coastal plain it is humid and temperate, while the centre and the southern part are affected by the relatively cool Benguela current. In the interior highlands, the rainy season lasts from November to April followed by a cool dry season from May to October. Rainfall is high in the north and in the central highlands (average 1,250-1,750 mm) and decreases rapidly along the coastal plan (average 250-1000 mm). South of Benguela the average is less than 100 mm a year. In the capital Luanda, is on the coast, the climate is humid during the rainy season (October-May). Luanda has a microclimate with a rainfall substantially lower than that of the surrounding areas – with temperatures ranging from 25 to 30C. In the cool season, from mid-May to September, average temperatures drop to 18-22C.
Getting there: Flights to Angola www.expedia.com
Where to stay?
Accommodation in Luanda is pricey. Room rates fluctuate frequently. Ms. Paula Castro in Luanda Tourism Office (+244-2-92605400) could advise you.
Le President Meridient (4 star), Luanda, ph +244 (0)2 330 037
Mundial Hotel (4 star), Luanda, ph +244 (0)2 336 141
Panorama Hotel (4 star), Luanda, ph +244 (0)1 337 841
For extended visits a guest houses is recommended:
Ilha Lodge’s (Ph +244-(0)2-392231) pricing is modest and includes all meals and laundry service. The guesthouse is 60 km out on the Ilha. It has a nice cozy setting with a small garden and is more private than a hotel. The guest house can arrange for transportation and translators.
Passport, two photographs, one application form, fax invitation from (Business, family or friend) need to be sent directly to the Embassy, company or personal letter, return ticket or itinerary. Fee – one entry – £40.00 (max. 30 days stay) – two entries – £80.00. Additional documents may be required and it usually takes two weeks to be issued.
Vaccination against yellow fever, cholera and typhoid are also required. Visitors are also strongly advised to take malaria prophylaxis before, during and after a visit. Vaccines for rabies and hepatitis A and B are also recommended. Consult your doctor for medical advice about vaccinations and prophylaxis. Tap water is not recommended for internal consumption. Stock up on bottled water or use a filter system. Vegetables and fruit should be carefully washed or peeled if eaten raw.
Medical services are limited and medicines difficult to obtain. Visitors should take a stock of medicines; those who must take medical injections should bring disposable syringes and needles if travelling outside the main urban areas. Angola has both public hospitals and private clinics. Below is a list of general medicine private clinics. All work in association with various types of specialists and have dental departments. As medical specialties vary from clinic to clinic, you should always check in advance before seeking medical assistance.
Clinica Alvalade, Rua Garcia Resende, 35. Ph +244 (0)2-323540
Clinica Anglodente, Rua de Karipande, 1 Travessa,. Ph +244 (0)2-337919 or 336445;
Clinica Mutamba, Rua Pedro Felix Machado, 10/12 Ph +244 (0)2-393783, 395283;
Other types of clinics in Luanda include: Stuart Mill Medical Clinic, Rua Helder Neto, 42. Ph +244 (0)2-322048. General practitioner with doctors from South Africa. Fisiomed Av. do 1 Congresso, 9. Ph +244 (0)2-396924. Clinic for physiotherapy. Imagimed Av. do 1 Congresso, 9 Ph +244 (0)2-396924. CT scanning available.
Medical evacuation companies: Medical Rescue International (MRI) Ph (0027) 11-4037080. In Luanda Ph +244 (0)2-337939; 24-hour Life support system and flies directly to Windhoek or Johannesburg. Professional Aviation South Africa Ph (0027) 11-824101818; SOS Worldwide South Africa Ph (0027) 11-4034490; West Air Aviation Namibia Ph (264) 61-37230/31/32/33.
As a result of the civil war, internal security procedures are tight. Travellers should carry identity papers with them. It is good practice to keep copies of important documents in a separate, safe place. Street crime is not a major problem in most Angolan towns, but armed robberies and attacks on travellers on roads outside the main urban centres have increased recently. Exercise caution in Luanda, as you would in any major urban area. Travelling around at late hours is not advisable. Car-jacking, especially of foreigners, is a new phenomenon in Luanda. Avoid travelling into remote suburbs or rural areas without a guide.
Travel within Angola?
Taxis: Difficult to find, although there are private companies operating. There is no taxi service between the international airport and the capital, Luanda. Visitors must either be picked up by sponsors or use the transport service provided by the Meridien Hotel (arranged in advance against payment).
Rental Car Services: Travellers staying for any length of time may wish to consider hiring a car and Angolan driver. Avis has three offices in Luanda — one at the airport (no telephone), one at the Hotel Tropico (Ph +244-2-391698 or 331755) and one in the city centre (Ph +244-2-326528 or 321551).
Air: TAAG (Linhas Aereas de Angola) connects main urban centres. There are separate helicopter/planes services to Cabinda. It is no longer necessary to carry a document authorizing you to leave the city of Luanda (Guia de Marcha).
Road: Major roads are in relatively good condition and traffic is now free to travel between provincial capitals. Identity papers should be carried to facilitate passage through any checkpoints encountered. A valid national or international driving license is required. Upon presentation of a valid driving license, an Angolan driving license may be issued. Driving is on the right side of the roadway.
Buses: Extensive routes, but crowded conditions. There is a flat fare within Luanda. Provincial services are poor though the government plans to allow privatized bus services.
Rail: Operated by PCFT and CFB. The Benguela railway is under repair after the civil war. Three classes; second and third class usually fairly basic; no sleeping cars or air-conditioning. The coastal stretch between Lobito and Benguela operates a regular passenger service and there is irregular freight traffic between Lobito and Huambo.