Country number: 172
Territory number: 212
When? May 2019, first leg, going on to São Tomé e Principe
How? Plane and car
“By all accounts the Angolan people, the great majority of them poor, illiterate and living in isolated villages or urban slums, carry out their civic responsibilities with great dignity and patience. The two voting days in Angola are another confirmation that anyone who mouths the cliché that Africans are not ready for democracy is simply ignorant of the facts. African politicians, however, are a different matter.”
Karl Maier, Angola: Promises and Lies
Spend the night on the plane from Schiphol, chatting to a charismatic French guy who is in the oil business. He lives in Luanda with his wife and children and has been in Paris for training. What with that and the economy class seat (business is £5000 one way in this oil and diamond driven economy) I haven’t had a lot of sleep. It’s searing hot, twenty degrees higher than in the UK, so I’ve soon got a banging headache. The interminable wait to get my visa doesn’t help. You can now get an e-visa authorisation, very quickly, whereas up to last year visas were nigh on impossible. There’s a new president and a lot of money seems to have disappeared with the old one, so Angola now needs tourists. However, there are still several queues at arrivals to negotiate for form checking and fee paying and only one man in charge of visa operations. And that’s after I’ve waited half an hour in the wrong queue.
It’s difficult to be grumpy when all the Angolans are so delightfully friendly. Even the men in immigration. Then I’m met by Paulo and Climaldi who are beyond delightful, so I’m doing my best to look thrilled when they tell me I’m going on my city tour straightaway, as my evening flight to Lubango, in the south, has been moved to mid-afternoon.
Fortunately, there are few major sites, though Luanda is a boom town. It was recently voted the most expensive city in Africa for expatriates. There are glass scrapers and chic restaurants sandwiched between oil tanks and shanty towns. The government are busy demolishing the latter and replacing them with two-lane highways and shopping malls. I’m unable to establish whether the dispossessed people are being rewarded with superior living quarters. I read that some are being moved 20 kilometres away. Unsurprisingly, they’re not very happy about it.
I’m not sure whether to be sorry or not when it turns out that a considerable chunk of what I have been scheduled to visit is closed on Mondays. Climaldi, who has been allocated guiding duties, says ‘he had not been informed’. Nevertheless, he turns out to have a silver tongue. He talks us into the park surrounding first President Neto’s towering and strangely splintered phallic monument and I’m given special permission to take pictures. Some of the exhibition halls at the military museum in Forteleze de Sao Miguel are also shut. But the famous blue tiled interiors (azuleros like those in Porto) are still accessible, and there is plenty enough artillery from the civil war decorating the walls and terraced fortifications outside, if I had the inclination to gawp at guns; the outlook across the city Bay of Luanda and harbour are splendid. There’s also the huge neo-renaissance National Assembly and the ornate yellow Iron Palace (built by Gustave Eiffel and used as the French Embassy). According to Climaldi the palace is never open anyway. There’s even a sprinkling of art deco around here
Next, an open air market where most of the goods piled high on wooden trestles are hidden under an assortment of cloths. Those stall holders who are open for business seem to be slumbering peacefully next to their wares. Last up, a tour of all the embassies, a row of opulent villas, cheek by jowl with a couple of spare presidential palaces; they all have a great miramar (sea view) across an up and coming peninsula – more shanties earmarked for destruction. They’re to be replaced with smart hotels and beach bars.
And that’s my zombie tour. I’ve survived on caffeine from Coca Cola. And I’ve also escaped unscathed from the car. I’m not sure if Climaldi is unfamiliar with the vehicle, but so far, he’s scraped both the front and rear bumpers on kerbs and nearly taken out a motor cyclist and two pick-ups. He seems oblivious to the sound of horns pursuing us down the road. And, talking about survival, I’ve already got mosquito bites. I need to get out the anti malarials.
Next Lubango, with the national airline Taag. I’m reassured to see a nicely painted 737 waiting on the tarmac. Hopefully the oil money means new well-serviced planes.
Guide, Wilson (the last Wilson I met was my driver in Bolivia) is late to meet me at the airport when I arrive. He says he’s been cleaning his car. He’s six foot six at least, so I’m not going to remonstrate. Tonight’s lodge is so far out of town it doesn’t have an address. It’s very peaceful, with thatched bungalows.. A few surprised looking impala, and a posse of 30 or more peacocks patrol the grounds.
It’s a mountain fresh morning, with sparkling clear air and blue skies. The road is bumpy and unmade, winding through tall aloes that frame the sorghum fields and more distant mountains. We’re off to see the Muila people to the south and the Handa to the north. The itinerary says this is so I can learn about their culture. Wilson has other ideas. He knows that tourists only want to take pictures.
So, he heads straight for the chief’s compound and instructs the head wife to round up some of the other women, who appear, dressed in their finest regalia, bead necklaces and head-dresses and topless; they divide their hair into plaits (or dreadlocks) and cake each section (or nontombi) with coloured mud, adding long trails of beads. There’s no messing about with ceremonial dancing for the punters here. Wilson orders the ladies to take off their plastic shoes and demonstrates how and where they should pose. He says his father was a photographer before the civil war; the women don’t seem to mind and he orders me to pay them 1000 kwanza, (roughly 2 dollars a head). A little girl nicely got up in yellow beads and a tiny skirt only receives 500. The other, mud spattered and shock-haired children watch shyly, squashed together on a large tyre. Wilson says they don’t get tourists here. And that’s it. No-one so much as shows me inside one of the one-roomed mud brick houses, until I ask. Then it’s a cursory peek.
The afternoon is even more bizarre. We drive through the traffic of Lubango to the large market near Huila. There, Wilson send runners in search of the Handa women, famous for their huge bead necklaces- they never take them off. He gathers up five or six and herds them away from the rubbish of the market, over the road to the sorghum fields – there’s still some plastic to avoid here. They giggle while they pose and I’m attacked by hundreds of tiny needle thorns, which makes them giggle more. Wilson once more acts as photographer’s assistant shouting directions. Solo poses and a group to finish, whilst a crowd looks on.
A quick whizz round the market (in the pick-up) and we’re off.
Charismatic Frenchman (who has tracked me down on Facebook) warned me that that the food was bad here, even though some of the restaurants seem very presentable. He’s right. It’s mostly very salty and fried until it’s so tough I can’t get my knife (or teeth) into it. It doesn’t help that everyone speaks Portuguese and very little English. I can have a reasonable stab at deciphering menus with the help of my limited Spanish. Though last night I thought Wilson had pre-ordered me beef for dinner and I got chicken. (Well I’m fairly sure it was chicken.) But there isn’t a menu at breakfast. The smiling waitress has just waved an egg and can of frankfurters at me. I make a thumbs down towards the the can and she’s gone to try and find the cook.
Directly south to Chibia, an affluent little town that is thriving because of its proximity to black marble quarries. It has broad avenues of low pastel colonial houses, lined with flame trees, and most of the shops are glass fronted. There are working ATMs. This is very upmarket Africa.
We proceed out of town, to yet another market, rows of booths made of woven wood. It’s very quiet here too. Wilson says this is because it’s not Monday. I’m feeling the days of my trip could possibly have been better arranged. Not to be deterred, Wilson is straight into tracking down an assistant, who duly returns with half a dozen Muila ladies. They are sporting more clay in their locks than yesterday’s women. The adolescents also have mud necklaces. Stacked beads are only for married women and the rows increase as they age. They never take them off. There are also two bewildered babies to act as accessories. Today, my backdrop is the market booths and more distant fields of sorghum. I’m not going into those again. I’m still picking out thorns and scratching my bites.
Much to Wilson’s bewilderment I wander round the stalls, after I’ve arranged my subjects, observing what little activity there is and trying to talk to the local people. Wilson and his assistant check to make sure I don’t want any more models. There’s a very cute little girl with a doll, so she is duly photographed and paid. And then we’re off. A dozen or so teenagers clamber into the back of our pick-up for a lift to school. They’re running late. I’m not surprised – it’s 11 kilometres up the dusty road.
In the afternoon I’m a proper tourist. We drive up into the mountains, through boulder strewn hills to the edge of an escarpment and a stunning view down the 2000 metre (if you believe Wilson and 1,000 metres if you believe the Bradt guide) Tunda Yala Gorge and across the plains below. It’s a tranquil spot, though the Bradt guide says that rebels were blindfolded and made to walk over the edge here. Wilson says only one person has died here – they drove their bike over the edge accidentally.
Last, a tour of Lubango. It’s almost encircled by mountains, crowned with a 30 metre copy of Rio’s Cristo Rei statue and a Hollywood style Lubango sign. This city is also prosperous and well organised, with numerous deep candy civic buildings, lots of churches and a pair of monstrous Chinese hotels, one bright yellow, one a very nasty shade of pink. Chinese construction work abounds around the area. They built the roads (which are fairly well maintained) and donated at least one hospital. Wilson says that the new president has told them to go away now. They’re not getting the minerals.
Up to the Cristo for another panoramic view. Like the sphinx, his nose has been damaged by bullets, but this time it was the Cubans rather than Napoleon. They’ve done their best to repair him. The Lubango sign is even more battered close up. Wilson is bored with taking pictures of me and rounds up three more Muila teenagers who are hanging around the statue trying to pick up some extra money. He’s bargained them down to 500 kwanza for all three.
It’s a late start today. The boat carrying diesel hasn’t arrived from the northern oilfields, in Cabinda, and there are long queues for fuel. West through the hills we visited yesterday, to what Wilson tells me is the second most beautiful mountain pass in the world, Serra de Leba. Number one is in China he says. I shall have to look it up.
Before descending, we stop to admire the ribbons of hairpin bends cascading neatly down the escarpment. It’s another great view. Wilson’s uncle also happens to own the restaurant overlooking the pass, so a very early lunch is called for. I’m thinking it must be a tranquil place to live, but maybe not. Uncle is already on the beer.
The ride down is scenic but not exhilarating, which is fine by me. Our road takes us past towering cliffs, through more craggy blue mountains and patches of baobabs, to another small and quiet market. The Mucabal people live in this area and frequent the stalls. They are renowned for their large box like hats. However, they have left them at home, on the grounds that they aren’t very comfortable to wear. Wilson persuades then to agree to bring them on Saturday when we make the return journey . No people photos today then.
Beyond the mountains the Namibe Desert and golden boulder strewn flat lands, followed by equally spectacular dirty yellow mesas, as we drop down to the coast and Namibe city. I’m never sure if Wilson is lost or giving me a city tour. We drive very slowly down every street in Namibe, which has a faded slightly Caribbean flavour and yellow and pink Chinese hotels identical to the garish constructions in Lubango. There’s a fishing harbour with a flotilla of small blue boats bobbing and the people are unloading today’s catch direct to the market behind the dock.
Dinner in a fish restaurant further along the quay. Buttery clams, perfectly cooked lobster and a very good caipirinha. Things are definitely looking up on the food front.
My hotel is on a cliff overlooking the sea. It’s very smart and my room has a balcony facing the water, but appearances aren’t everything. Three out of the four light bulbs in my room don’t work. Neither does the phone, so I can’t summon help. This is still Africa.
South through the coastal desert to Tombua, a harbour town set amidst pale sand dunes. I’m lulled into thinking I’m in Europe for a while, the roads are so well maintained, with No Overtaking signs and neat petrol stations along the route. Angola is not what I expected. Media coverage of the long wars has tainted my views and it’s not chaotic, or at all hostile. It’s definitely, however, a country of two faces. This fishing port, is very much back to developing world, with the salting and drying of fish, mainly sardines, on the sand. Women wearing spotted headscarves are smashing rock salt with heavy sticks, whilst others gut the catch wielding huge knives. There’s a further flurry of activity around the boats, mainly involving the men, while children scurry into the water to help – or hinder. The whole is backed by some very grubby brick dwellings. The town itself can be summed up as uninteresting and it boasts yet another pair of those hideous Chinese hotels.
But first Wilson says he has a surprise. We head up a desert track across a small oasis to arrive at some epic scenery. I’ve seen some amazing rock formations this last year, in Djibouti, Chile and Bolivia especially, but this well off the beaten track spot might well trump them all. The pastel greens, yellows, reds and pinks are superior to those in any painted desert I’ve previously seen. There are a plethora of huge golden buttes and the cliffs themselves are arranged into an endless formation of ancient cities and temples. It could be the treasury at Petra, adjacent to a maharajah’s palace, followed by a cathedral or two. Wilson says some Brazilians have been here making a film called The Promised Land. It would definitely make a great movie set. I would go for a remake of Dune, I think.
Arco has yet more remarkable desert scenery to admire. This time, there’s a freshwater lagoon with sandstone arches spanning the access track and framing the faded lime and mustard hued mesas reflecting in the blue water. Wilson says that escaped slaves used to hide in this area, living in the many caves. I’m thinking Forbidden City this time. We’re on the edge of Iona National Park here, which runs down to Namibia around the Cunene river delta. The guidebook says it used to teem with wildlife, but this has all gone now, driven out by war and poaching. It also says that the car park at Arco is renowned for snakes. I’m glad I read it after we had visited.
We’ve gone to the other extreme with lunchtime today and are heading back to town to eat at three. Except that we (literally) have a burst tyre and Wilson has to demonstrate his mechanical skills after we’ve skidded to a halt.
And Paulo has phoned to say that my flight to Luanda tomorrow has been cancelled. I can’t go till Sunday afternoon. This is definitely Africa.
The Mucabal ladies are in their compound today and don their hats and bracelets with much giggling. I’m not surprised they don’t want to wear them every day. They are rigid and cumbersome, even if the bright colours do set off their high cheekbones very effectively. The women are shy and graceful and bare-breasted like the Muila, though they bind their chests with narrow strings of beads. The children again watch quietly from a shelter. This feels more like a proper visit; some of the ladies are basket weaving and corn grinding It’s a beautiful setting, dominated by a towering volcanic plug. Nevertheless, they’re moving – -some of the houses have already been dismantled, thin logs lined up on the earth. Wilson says the men have already gone.
Up the road, a gaggle of young ladies selling charcoal, who Wilson says are his friends. So, they have to be photographed and paid. I’m more and more uncomfortable about the commercialisation of the visits. It feels too much like a person safari. I’m happy to see the people rewarded for having visitors – they are all so poor and exist with next to nothing. The juxtaposition of the haves and have nots in Angola is stark. But I wish the photography was not the main event, could be done in a less intrusive way. Wilson says there isn’t time for this….
Even further round the volcano, at Garganta, is the home of the Nguendelenga people. I’m told there are only 200 or so of them left in existence. A group are sitting by the roadside plying their wares and most of them clamber excitedly into the back of the truck for the ride to their compound, a circle, barricaded with brush. There are 20 people, including warriors brandishing knives and bows in there, so I calculate we have ten percent of the tribe with us. The women are again bare-breasted, but have intricate woven and piled hair, covered first by a net and then by bright cotton headscarves. They cover their necks with red mud to highlight their thin gold necklaces. Wilson goes to town here – the excitement indicates high expectations – and ultimately demands I pay 12000 kwanza. I tell him I’ve nothing left now for his tip.
Another late lunch of goat stew with beans in a local café at Bibala, nestling below the ridge down which we descended earlier this week. It has a huge railway station with pretensions well beyond the size of the town. We’ve criss-crossed the line several times. It runs from Lubango to Namibe and was built mainly to carry the black and white marble to the coast. Back in Lubango we’re in a Portuguese/Brazilian restaurant for dinner. Picanha – thin sliced beef and more bean stew. We’re now behaving like a married couple. I read my book and Wilson watches the football on the television. His team, Sporting Lisbon are playing Porto in the Portuguese version of the FA cup final. It’s down to a penalty shoot-out, but Sporting take it on the last kick, so all is well.
Now I have the day to fill before my flight. At breakfast they sneak the frankfurters past me, hidden inside my breakfast omelette. Then Wilson takes me to a local waterfall. Some small boys show us around three very small separate rocky sections, but the cascades hardly deserve the name of fall. The slippery scramble up and back and the children’s acrobatics and cavorting are more memorable.
Wilson declares that he knows a place where we can have lunch and watch the Monaco Grand Prix. It’s a sort of down market country club, with a small swimming pool and plastic chairs and tables. It’s somewhere to sit quietly in the sun and relax, even if the seats are a little punishing. I ask Wilson to confirm when the Grand Prix starts. He goes to ask and returns with the news that they don’t have the sports channel here.
Eventually, to the airport. I’m apprehensive, as I don’t have a new ticket, especially as the check-in clerk looks perplexed when he scrutinises my passport. ‘But there was a flight to Luanda yesterday,’ he announces. This is so definitely Africa..
Angola gets its name from the ancient Kingdom of Ndongo, whose kings carried the title of “ngola.”
A significant part of the country is located outside its borders. Cabinda Province, with an area of 2,812 square miles, is located between the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo. This is where the oil is. Angola is the largest oil producer in Sub-Saharan Africa, and in 2007 the country became a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Oil accounts for over 90% of Angola’s total exports and oil revenue accounts for 80% of the government’s revenue. The Angolan economy is one of the fastest growing in the world with an annual growth rate of 7%. However, the immense wealth of the country is held by a small minority of the population, while over 40% of Angolans living below the poverty line.
While diamonds also make up a significant percentage of the country’s exports, most of the revenue from diamond exports is lost through smuggling.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to set foot in Angola. The Portuguese explorer, Diogo Cao, arrived in 1484. Angola gained independence from Portuguese colonial rule in 1975 after years of armed conflict. Cuba (and Che Guevara) played an instrumental role in Angola’s struggle for independence by supplying freedom fighters with weapons. The country’s ensuing civil war lasted from 1975 until 2002.
In the mid-20th century, Angola was a major agricultural producing country, but years of mismanagement and civil wars have made the country food deficient and reliant on imports from neighbouring countries. China is Angola’s most important trading partner, as China receives 45.8% of the country’s exports.
After several years of war, the country has a shortage of men, and it is not unusual for a man to have several wives. Almost 70% of the population is under 24 years of age.
To see more of my photos of Angola visit this page.