Friday, 26 March 2010

Angola

13.3.2010 – Day 84 – Sonongolo, DRC


The 5 of us left Kinshasa this morning at 6.30 to beat the rush hour. The drive out was quiet and easy. I’ve been here a few days, but Kinshasa I’ve seen doesn’t equate to the 14 million mega-city I’d expected. We headed down a good road through grassy rolling hills toward the Angolan border. After a couple of hours we pulled over by the3 side of the road for a stretch, water and toilet stops. As we were getting ready for off again, I put the key into the ignition of the bike, turned the key, pressed the starting switch. Immediately a small puff of black smoke blew from under the ignition and the bike wouldn’t start. There was a clear smell of an electric burn. In an instant my mind flicked through the probable future – burnt out electrics, say goodbye to the others, find a truck to Kinshasa for the bike, go to Yamaha garage, get diagnosis, fly out parts, deal with customs, get bike fixed then start out for Angola again in a couple of weeks time. Nightmare!

I pushed my bike under a tree and talked about it to Rouven (mechanic) and Daniel (an electrical engineer). They told me to try and start the engine again. Miraculously it started once, started twice and didn’t smoke. Unbelievable! It must have been all the rain affecting the ignition causing a one-off spark. What a relief!

This part of the DRC has much more in common with the rest of Africa than Kinshasa 0 bustling little market towns: friendly, colourful and loud. Tonight we are staying in the small Catholic Mission. We spend the afternoon sleeping under a tin roof shelter, shading ourselves from the sun. The village is small and spread out with a network of muddy dirt roads connecting all corners. We found the bar later in the day which a lad opened for us to get warm cokes. We couldn’t find shops apart from the tiny mobile phone credit shop in a 2m x 2m reed shack. Everything in Africa is micro-distributed – coke is delivered to slums by hand cart, water is sold by the bag from the side of the road, fuel is sold by the bottle, electricity comes from generators, photocopying is done from a photocopy machine ON the street, a public phone is a mobile phone on a table under a parasol, a taxi is just a shared car, laughing cow cheese can be bought by the slice and hotels can be rented by the hour.

14.3.2010 – Day 85 – Tomboko, Angola
We’re staying in another Catholic Mission tonight, but in a new country! At a time when the Catholic Church is getting such bad press, coming to these missions shows Christianity at its best. Most are simple places, often in a compound which sometimes have rooms. Last night and tonight we’re not charged to use the bedrooms, although we like to give a donation. Some of the missions are in pretty remote settings and being welcomed in by a smiling priest feels like coming home. I particularly like the priests’ shirts here. The cut and print of the shirts are in traditional African style but the prints depict Christian themes – perhaps the local diocese with photo prints of the bishop integrated into the design.

The roads today have been mostly dirt. The first 80km or so was single track and a little rough. After a short section of Chinese built tarmac road (they do get everywhere!) it was first graded gravel road. Unfortunately, later in the day there was a huge thunder storm with the loudest bang of thunder I’ve ever heard. The rain in itself is fine but it makes the dirt roads very difficult at times. It’s still raining tonight. I really hope tomorrow’s roads are going to be OK.

The border crossing into Angola was easy but very slow. We were told the border would open at 7.30am but although most of the officials were on time, the important dudes rolled up at 9.30 in a merc with all the stamps and paperwork. It’s a bit of a problem really, as we only have a 5 day transit visa for Angola and with the late border opening and rain this afternoon we are already behind schedule.
Angola is a very friendly place. In the scattered villages amongst the rolling green grassy hills, most people wave and smile – amazing really for a country that has had a 40 year civil war which only finished just 8 years ago. Most of the older buildings seem to be derelict, covered in bullet holes or both. There is very little here but all the buildings of any size are new (garages, schools, offices, etc). The war must have taken a terrible toll on the country. I spotted my first shot down Russian helicopter today – but I couldn’t get a close look as we’re back in landmine country. Better get used to peeing on the road again then!

15.3.2010 – Day 86 – Luanda, Angola

Every muscle in my body aches. I’m tired and exhausted but happy. We set off this morning in the North of Angola at 6am. We arrived at an extremely expensive hotel in Luanda at 8pm: a 14 hour day. It seemed like all day thunder clouds surrounded us, but miraculously we never really got wet. Today I’ve motorbiked virtually ever possibly surface – let’s see: sand, deep sand, wet sand, graded gravel, ungraded gravel, compacted mud, wet mud, puddles, tarmac, broken tarmac, pot-holed tarmac, oh yes, and deep mud, corrugations and no road at all!
The countryside here is rather empty, I’m guessing partly due to the war emptying out the people into the safer cities. There is some wildlife though: snakes, monkeys, a multitude of birds and butterflies and some rodent-type things that I’ve got no clue what they are!? Most of the big wildlife was killed off during the war and today I saw a guy with a gun trying to kill off the rest of the animals – he had 3 monkey-type things (dead of course) around his neck. The few towns we passed through were desperate-looking places – again all old buildings were either riddled with bullet holes or burnt out and destroyed. We stopped at a small market for bread and avocado in one of these towns. A young pregnant lady came to talk to us. 2 guys with sticks and wearing the emblems of the Angolan Government started shouting and threatening her. Andrea put herself between them to try and calm things down. Next, when we were topping up our tanks with wine bottles of petrol from a house by the road, another guy came over acting like Jaja Binks, speaking a mixture of Portugese and English – he wasn’t right in the head at all. Both sets of men seemed unpredictable and volatile. The first 2 were how I’d imagine Mugabe’s ex rebel fighters – new heavies for the Government – maybe these guys were similar? What does 40 years of civil war do to a nation?

There is a lot of infrastructure going in at the moment in Angola – but Angola is starting really from year zero – there must have been absolutely nothing left after the war in this part of Angola. These men to me seemed like they had traumatic stress disorder – and I’m not surprised. One guy I met today told me he was glad I was visiting Angola. He wanted me to tell people at home how people suffer here. From what I’ve seen, I’d say he’s spot on. The houses in this bit of Angola are the most simple affairs – either sticks made into a frame then in-filled with mud or just made out of grass. There is rustic and beautiful, then there is the downright desperate. It seems in many of these African countries it doesn’t seem to be a problem for the police to drink on the job – it sure makes them chatty anyway!
16.3.2010 – Day 87 – Huambo, Angola

For the first time on this trip I’ve allowed myself the excitement to think I’ll actually finish my dream of crossing Africa. Southern Africa is feeling very close now and it feels like we’re leaving the lush green and steamy equatorial regions. I’m painfully aware though that ever day brings its dangers and one wrong move and the trip would be over. The traffic is the biggest hazard. This morning being particularly frightening while leaving Luanda – some drivers are absolute lunatics: idiots. The road sides and roads themselves are littered with old and new wreckage from horrific high speed accidents, despite the roads today being very quiet and in superb condition. We did another big push today, trying to get to the border before our 5 day transit visa expires. By mid morning we had climbed up onto the central plateau – a fantastically beautiful green landscape peppered with rock towers and hillocks.

The new tarmac road sweeps between the huge vistas – just stunning riding. Thunder storms were never far away today, sometimes in the distance, once catching the edge of a big downpour, and once we got a full soaking in the eye of the storm. Angola is difficult to understand – especially on such a fleeting visit. Today we passed more poor villages and passed towns with buildings covered with bullet holes or simply blown up during the war, but things here in the centre of the country are much better. So much infrastructure has been built since the cease-fire in 2002. 5 star hotels sit side by side with demolished war torn buildings. Highways have been built, banks opened, restaurants sell Moet and bridges are being repaired. I wonder if it is any coincidence that the Northern rebels lost the war and now live in an area with virtually nothing, while the centre and south are getting huge investment and help?

I’m enjoying Angola and its people – even if I don’t really understand what’s going on: it’s just a shame you can’t go wandering due to all the land mines. Oh – today we found the first fuel station in Angola (mostly filling up with black market petrol from bottles until now). It’s a bit confusing – diesel is called gaseleo and petrol is gasoelin! Diesel has a green pump handle and sticker and petrol has orange. Very confusing when you only speak Portugese sign language!

17.3.2010 – Day 88 – Lubango, Angola

I’m so tired tonight, I can hardly bring myself to write the diary. Another 12 hard hours of biking. Most of the miles were on fantastic new roads but mush of the time was spent bumping down dirt roads and half prepared new roads. Again, the landscapes are just fabulous. Huge rock towers push out of the ground. I really am struggling – so I’ll keep it brief. This part of Angola makes me feel like we are already in Namibia – or is it Portugal? So much infrastructure going in. OK – must sleep – last big push toward the border tomorrow on the last day of the visa! Nighty night.

PS – broke the video camera today – both cameras now damaged!

18.3.2010 – Day 89 – Oshikango, Namibia

Well, we got out of Angola just in time not to over-run our 5 day visa and into Namibia just before the border closed for the day. It’s been 5 long hard days, but Angola continued to surprise us. It really is a country on the move. Most people live in desperate poverty, but infrastructure is being put in at a hell of a rate. The north of the country seemed like a pretty desperate place, but the rest of the country looks like it’s on the up. The people are amazingly up beat, friendly and proud of their country. The Portuguese are back in force, regaining the position they had before the war. The Chinese are here also – like in much of Africa – I get the feeling that Angola will be a place of great change in the next 20 years.

We travelled 2000km down the entire length of the country – in the North rain forest and tropical grass lands and the central plateau (so beautiful) and the more arid south. Angola surprised us every day – such a place of contrasts – the cheapest fuel in Africa (but none at the pumps) and the most expensive hotels. We travelled on fabulous new tarmac roads and spent hours toiling on dreadful dirt roads with the Portuguese influence. Some towns remind me of spaghetti westerns or lovely red tile-roofed villages from the Portuguese countryside. Things are changing so fast.

I spoke to a Portuguese man who arrived back in Huambo in 2002 after the civil war had finished. He told me that there were only 3 cars in town at the time. Now there are literally thousands ploughing the streets. It’s a shame I only had 5 days for Angola, but at the same time I’m glad to be in Namibia and out of the bureaucratic web that surrounds travel through most of Africa.

I’ve arrived in the part of Africa that I remember and love and I’m looking forward to spending time here as well as showing Tracy around when I meet her down in Cape Town in 10 to 12 days times. So, first thing tomorrow? Buy some biltong! Yum!

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