Angola is one of those new-frontier travel destinations, which has been a closed door for decades because of civil wars and nonexistent infrastructure. But when protagonist of war Jonas Savimbi, the head of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita), was killed by the Angolan military in 2002 the stage was set for radical redevelopment.
Now, where there was once danger and uncertainty, there’s a sense of relief and progress, making Angola one of the hottest destinations for adventurous travellers.
It undoubtedly has a lot to offer and is a surprisingly safe and friendly place to travel. I recently spent six weeks there as part of a 4×4 convoy exploring the Mediterranean-esque coast as well as the towering highlands with their magnificent waterfalls and the steamy mountains of the north. We camped at the side of the road or in the bush and were met with nothing but the welcoming smiles of curious locals (even when camping close to cities).
Like Mozambique, Angola is suffused with the architecture and language of its previous colonial occupiers – the Portuguese – and it can sometimes feel a little like you’ve travelled to South America rather than Africa.
Catholic churches with ornate spires grace every town (and many villages too) while dilapidated colonial houses adorned with terracotta roofs and weather-worn wooden shutters line the streets. It’s a fascinating and atypical African destination with lots of character, made all the more exciting by the fact that very few tourists have as yet seen fit to venture there.
The landmines, which until recently plagued the country’s landscapes, have mostly been removed. Roads have been reconstructed, tracks are being laid and crumbling buildings and bridges are being replaced and upgraded faster than Hugh Hefner replaces and upgrades his girlfriends. In fact, you can now drive all the way from Oshikango on the Namibian border to the capital of Luanda on 1 250 kilometres of mostly brand-new roads.
That doesn’t mean an Angolan holiday will be a piece of cake though, far from it. Back roads are often riddled with rainfilled potholes large enough to attract breeding pairs of ducks. Hotels are rarer than chickens’ teeth (and often overpriced) and should you have a problem, say a breakdown, finding a qualified person to assist is going to be harder than finding an honest politician.
However, for the expeditionist – the person who tours in a group and is well equipped to deal with a problem – Angola presents an exciting challenge on a less-travelled road. If you’re not travelling with a tour company, make sure your vehicle is in tiptop shape, bring along some buddies as backup, switch on your GPS and get ready for an adventure of a lifetime.
Most first-time visitors to the country head straight for the coast – and so they should. Angola has a magnificent seaboard where sleepy little fishing villages punctuate a landscape of arid deserts and dry mountains. In the far south, dunes from the Namib slope into an ocean as blue as a sapphire, while further north chaotic cities and quaintly dilapidated Portuguese towns lie separated by miles and miles of rugged emptiness. It’s a great place to fish, so the fishers say.
But ignore Angola’s inland attractions to your own detriment. There you’ll find mountain ranges every bit as dramatic as the Drakensberg, waterfalls to rival the biggest and best in the world and a landscape as assorted as a bowl of mixed fruit.
Roughly speaking, if you plan on doing a driving holiday in Angola, you have two major south-north navigable routes to choose from. One hugs the coast, while the other will take you over spectacular highlands and across fertile rolling plains.
Our journey took us from the inland Namibian border post of Ruacana, on the Kunene River, northwards along the main interior highway all the way to Luanda. There, we turned around and headed back south on the coastal highway until hitting the end of the road and a sea of dunes at the coastal town of Tombua. This is a long, long loop of more than 3 000 kilometres, but it’s not necessary to travel such distances. Between the two north-south highways are plenty of east-west junctions, affording many opportunities to cut across from the interior to the coast (and vice versa). As such, an Angolan road trip can be as long or short as you like.
It’s dry, but you can drive it
One of the most scenic (and certainly the longest) of these east-west routes is between the southern inland town of Xangongo (or Ruacana) and the Kunene River mouth some 500 kilometres away. It’s a wonderful drive through the heart of Himba territory, where steep-sided mountains eventually give way to empty gravel plains and a rolling dune sea.
Bizarre-looking welwitschia plants lie like blown-out tyres beside towering koppies of red and grey boulders. Jackals slink between shifting sand dunes as you traverse Iona National Park and strange-looking succulents cling to existence in a waterless world where rain is known as nothing more than a myth to some of the younger Himba.
It’s a slow drive and it will likely take you a few days to get to the river mouth, camping at the side of the road along the way, but in this case the journey is the destination.
The Himba, who you’ll no doubt encounter, aren’t yet accustomed to tourists and will most probably be as fascinated by you as you’ll be with them. They are remarkably beautiful people who still dress in the traditional style of brown leather and heavy jewellery and wear their hair in the intricate fashion their tribe is famous for.
Once at the river mouth, those who have come prepared (by that I mean extra fuel, satellite phone, convoy and kitchen sink) can drive off-road northwards along a dune-fringed beach for approximately 160 kilometres until reaching Tombua, the nearest coastal town.
This isn’t something that should be attempted by novices. If you get stuck in the sand, there’s a very good chance the tide will rise and eat your vehicle – and your insurance company will wet themselves with laughter should you try to make a claim. However, if you know what you’re doing or have an experienced 4×4 guide with you, the drive is surely one of the most spectacular on the continent.
After the towns of Ondjiva and Xangongo, the next real place of interest on the south-north inland highway is the bombed-out and broken-up town of Cahama. The war, although well and truly over, is still part of Angola’s soul and it would be a shame to go there and not pay at least a little homage to the country’s tumultuous recent past.
Reconstruction crews which have given face-lifts to many of Angola’s populated areas seem to have missed Cahama completely, and the streets and surrounding landscapes look as if a battle was fought here mere weeks ago.
Tanks and armoured vehicles lie broken between shattered buildings and half submerged among rusted, buckled shell casings. Children have made playthings from them, swinging from disused guns as if they were part of a jungle gym. A few kilometres outside of town you can visit a neglected monument to Cuban soldiers and graveyard and at the nearby Forward Base you can explore an eerie labyrinth of subterranean trenches and bunkers.
The large and sprawling mountain city of Lubango, some 200 kilometres north of Cahama is the next place along the inland south-north route where it’s possible to cut westwards to the coast. The 160-kilometre road is paved, new and worth exploring if for nothing more than to see the wonderful Leba Mountain Pass, which resembles a fairground ride more than a highway.
From a viewpoint on a nearby escarpment, you can watch trucks and cars navigate a series of hair-raising switchbacks that twist and buckle down steep gradients. If you get there in the early morning, you’re very likely to look down onto a scene of swirling clouds and mist-enshrouded cliffs.
Even if you have no intention of driving to the coast from Lubango, it’s certainly worth taking the 17-kilometre scenic trip to the bottom of the pass where you’ll find rain forests and giant baobabs giving shade and shelter to hawkers selling tiny dried chillies and rich tropical fruits. During the wetter months, feathery cascades fall from the sheer cliffs like wispy veils – it’s like the Drakensberg, but greener and lusher and somehow more alive.
Hectic highlands and memorable mountains
Lubango city sits on a plain high in the Angolan mountains and is a hectic and vibrant sort of place, made all the more lively by its lack of traffic lights. Chaos reigns supreme, as is the norm in all Angolan cities, but it’s a cheerful kind of chaos, one that is made lighter by the cool mountain air and the colourful nature of the people and their haphazard markets.
The Portuguese, when they lived there, constructed an array of beautiful houses and churches, a few of which still remain, and despite being tattered and ruined they’ve retained a paradoxical air of grandeur about them.
Another relic left behind in Lubango by the former colonials is an enormous monument to Jesus atop a hill overlooking the entire city. With arms open wide, he’s an exact, albeit smaller, copy of the Rio and Lisbon Jesus statues, although neither of those suffered the humiliation of having their fingers shot off. The monument is being given a gradual facelift and in a few short years from now, the bullet holes would have been filled and the fingers reattached.
Yet more colonial artefacts can be found on the green, fertile plains of Humpata, some 20 kilometres from Lubango. Here, a monument and a series of well-kempt graves bear witness to the brave (but perhaps foolish) South African Boers who walked thousands of kilometres through a waterless desert in search of a free farmer’s Utopia. It’s easy to see why they chose the region. Today, fields full of strawberries and cattle characterise the most productive agricultural province in the country.
The first groups arrived in this area in 1881 and by 1905, there were about 2 000 people working the land and dreaming of a Boer republic. Alas it wasn’t to be. At the time, Angola was controlled by the Portuguese, who made the refugees honorary citizens because of their willingness to populate the interior, but eventually relations soured as a result of differences in language, religion and attitudes. Come the 1950s, most of the dorslandtrekkers, as they were known, had turned around and walked back into the desert from whence they’d come.
Dazzling birdlife and grandiose scenery
Sadly, you aren’t likely to find very many (if any) large mammals in Angola. Most have been hunted out and the six national parks are badly neglected. However, efforts are underway by various NGOs, especially in the northern Cangandala National Park where giant sable still exist.
While you shouldn’t visit Angola with a view of spotting wildlife, birds are another case altogether. There’s still quite a few of them left. The Lubango area is particularly good for birding and with a keen eye you should be able to find several charismatic species, such as the endemic Angola cave chat and Ludwig’s double-collared sunbird. If you’re not a birder, you’ll just have to make do with some of the most dramatic mountain scenery you’re ever likely to find in Africa.
Apart from a few relatively closeby waterfalls, quaint mission stations and pretty Portuguese villages, another thing you shouldn’t miss if staying in Lubango or Humpata is a trip to Tunda- Vala, a series of sheer cliffs and dramatic clefts at the very top of the region’s mountains. Here you can peer down into a narrow kloof so deep and steep it takes between six and eight seconds for a stone to hit the bottom.
Once you leave Lubango on the southnorth highway, you’ll pass through a number of villages and towns which still bear the scars of conflict and strife. Craters and rusted bridges, bullet-riddled facades, burnt-out convoys, ghost towns and ruined factories tell a story of the recent past. Yet alongside the dilapidation there is vibrant life in the shape of Angolans going about their daily business and there’s a positivity that is sometimes starkly at odds with the signs of destruction.
‘The war is long gone,’ a man in an orange helmet told me as we paused for a while next to a rural de-mining operation. ‘We’re just cleaning up the mess now. It’s good work. All good work.’
Like many of the bigger towns in Angola, Huambo, the former home town of Jonas Savimbi, received a heavy dose of deleterious attention during the war decades, and a trip to his family mansion is worthwhile if you plan on passing through. No doubt once a splendid Portuguese-style palace it has been reduced to a pockmarked shell, a befitting monument to a man who kept a war going way beyond its sell-by date.
Further north still, 180 kilometres shy of the madness of Luanda, you can take a detour from the south-north highway and strike out east via the town of Dondo and onwards through sweltering, rainforest-clad mountains. The route passes through the unremarkable centres of N’dalantando, Lucala and Malanje before arriving at the spectacular Kalandula Falls, Cangandala National Park and the bizarre and beautiful Pedras Negras, a collection of strangely shaped rocks that rise out of the surrounding forests like giant black mushrooms.
At 105 metres, Kalandula Falls are among Africa’s largest by volume and are undoubtedly one of Angola’s most remarkable inland attractions. They cascade noisily through a beautiful forest-clad valley where rainbows dance across billowing clouds of spray.
From there, you can backtrack to the south-north highway and drive a further 170 kilometres north to Luanda on the coast. It’s certain you’ll get stuck in traffic there, surrounded on all sides by honking mayhem and friendly madness, but take a closer look at what you see through your window. Construction cranes and work teams are everywhere. Bulldozers, jack hammers, Chinese trucks borne down with materials, machinery and scaffolding. Compared to the varied scenery of rural Angola, the city may look like chaotic hell, but in reality it’s the vibrant heartbeat of an entire nation that is burying the past and powering on headfirst into a new, rebuilt future. And as a visitor, it’s quite a privilege to see it before everyone else has.
To label Angola’s wars as complex would be the understatement of the century. They variously involved Portugal, South Africa, Congo, Namibia, Cuba, Russia, America … am I forgetting anyone? Oh yes, the Angolans themselves.
The issues started in the 1950s, when the Portuguese colonial ‘masters’ who’d had a presence in Angola for 400 years were asked by the indigenous population to leave. They refused and, in 1961, an armed conflict began between Portuguese authorities and various independence groups, including The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) and, a little later on, Unita.
Angola gained its independence in 1975, but the various liberation groups were undecided on who would best fill the power vacuum. They opted to settle it with conflict and so began the civil war. Global Cold War superpowers became involved, with America and South Africa siding with FNLA and Unita while the communists got into bed with the MPLA.
On 22 March 2002, Jonas Savimbi, the leader of Unita, was killed, ringing a death knell for the war and ushering in a new era of stability and peace which has endured ever since.
Estimates of the number of landmines laid down during Angola’s protracted conflict range from six to 20 million units. That’s around one mine for each Angolan. However, many of these have been removed across the country, with the exception of one or two regions, mostly in the east.
Mines are painstakingly searched for and destroyed using specialised machinery before construction work of any kind is undertaken, but mine removal is never 100 per cent perfect and it’s always good to take precautions.
If hiking, stay on the path and keep to the road when driving through rural areas. Don’t walk along disused railway lines and refrain from wandering around bridges, especially the blown-up ones. Exercise caution if you go poking around abandoned houses and don’t cross any empty spaces where you see craters or blown-up vehicles.
Also look out for official skull-and-crossbones signs and other rudimentary indicators such as a small pile of rocks or a plastic bottle tied in a tree. If you’re not sure, ask a local.
For more information and updates on mines in Angola, visit www.sac-na.org.
Angola is a big, diverse country with dry deserts at one end and wet rainforests at the other. As such, the weather differs from region to region. Broadly speaking though, the rainy season starts around October or November and ends in April or May, while June and July are usually dry. During the wet season roads can become quagmires and bridges get washed away, but the waterfalls (of which there are many) will be spectacular.
It’s a 750-km journey from Windhoek, Namibia, along the B1 highway to the border post at Oshikango, a busy truck stop where you should expect a lengthy wait at passport control. Ruacana is a much quieter entry point (take the C46 from Ondangwa) but the condition of the roads on the other side can be a little challenging.
Accommodation and campsites can be found at Otjiwarongo, Otavi, Tsumeb and Ondangwa along the Namibian stretch to the Angolan border.
Finding a place to stay in Angola isn’t as ‘easy’ as in most other African countries and although there are hotels in all the major towns on the route (Ondjiva, Xangongo, Lubango, Humpata, Huambo, Luanda, among others), you shouldn’t expect to just walk in and find a room.
Research your route well in advance and use the internet to locate hotels in places you want to stay. Book early and reconfirm before you travel.
I didn’t stay in any hotels while in Angola, but camping in the bush or at the side of the road seems to be fine (and safe too). Use resources such as Tracks4Africa GPS maps and Google Earth to find campgrounds and lodgings along your planned route.
I stayed at only one official campsite on the entire sixweek journey. Fazenda Jamba Campsite in Humpata is run by a South African farming couple, who are very knowledgeable about the area.
Camping costs $10 (about R80) a person a night. Email email@example.com or find them on Facebook.
You’ll find a variety of restaurants in the main cities, but don’t expect much once you leave suburbia.
Also keep in mind Angola is expensive – meals that would cost R100 in South Africa could easily cost five or six times that much (and probably won’t taste as good either).
Stock up on non-perishable food stuffs (and meat if you have a freezer in your vehicle) before you enter Angola and cook your own food rather than eating out or shopping at an Angolan supermarket.
You can buy comparatively cheap perishables such as fruit and vegetables from local open-air markets.
MapStudio (www.mapstudio.co.za) produce an excellent road map of Angola and Tracks4Africa (www.tracks4africa.co.za) has a GPS map crammed with useful advice and area data.
The Bradt Guide to Angola is by far the best book for the independent traveller (www.bradtguides.com) and visit the blog site (bradtangolaupdate.wordpress.com) for updates on all things related to Angolan travel.
Most tour agents will assist their clients with visa applications, just make sure you give yourself adequate time for the process. Tourist visas should be applied for in advance and can take upwards of six weeks to finalise. You can read the visa requirements and download application forms from www.sa-acc.co.za. If you’re travelling with an organised group or using an Angolan travel agent they will need to provide the embassy with a supporting letter.Visit www.angola.org to find the current contact numbers and street addresses for Angolan consulates in South Africa.
Always have your passport on you. It’s illegal not to and roadblocks are quite common. Make sure your vehicle registration papers are in order before heading to the border and keep a road-safety triangle and a fire extinguisher in your vehicle.
The good news is that although just about everything else costs an arm and a leg, fuel is around 70 per cent cheaper than in South Africa and wild, roadside camping is free and generally safe.
If exploring by car or 4×4, bring everything you’d need to be self-sufficient. This includes spare parts for your vehicle, camping and cooking gear, food (such as canned goods, coffee and wine) and competent friends, complete with a reliable 4×4.
I travelled with Live the Journey (www.livethejourney.co.za), a self-drive company which arranges guided and catered trips throughout Angola (it also assists with visa applications).
There are various other companies specialising in Angolan packages. Birders may be interested in the 19-day safari offered by Rockjumper Adventures (www.rockjumperbirding.com), while Namibiabased tour guide Martin le Roux (email firstname.lastname@example.org) is a veteran of Angolan travel and can tailor packages to your preferences.
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