Before we share our Angolan
experience, it is important to first set the scene.
Sadly, the Angolan government are not tourist friendly and they
only allow overlanders 5-days to cover the 2,000 kilometres from
the northern border with DRC to the Namibian border in the south.
On the face of it, this task does not seem too tough but bear in
mind that Angola has only just emerged from a 27-year civil war,
which brings all sorts of challenges.
The roads are in a very bad state of repair, many crumbled away,
many riddled with enormous pot holes after years of neglect. Add to
this very stark risk of land mines that still scatter the
country-side. A favourite of the rebels was to plant landmines
along the roadside in order to catch unsuspecting travellers. For
this reason you can't venture off the beaten track and have to be
very selective about where to camp.
Not to mention, the rainy season which adds to the cocktail of
We consider Angola to be the last rugged and hostile country
before we hit the developed world in Namibia and Southern Africa.
Like a final twist in the tail, Angola was going to throw
everything at us - all the challenges of our African adventure so
far would be multiplied for us here, and we only have 5 days to do
it. With a looming penalty fee of US$75 a day per person for
overstaying the visa, we were ready and pumped for the challenge.
We were ready to take on Angola.
We drove up the hill to the border early in the morning. At the
brow of the hill there was a police building, a basic wooden
barrier and then, Angola. It was strange to go up the hill speaking
French and come down speaking Portuguese. We were immediately at a
complete loss as neither of us have a single word of Portuguese.
the Angolan officials were friendly and clearly used to travellers
who can't speak their language. By 10am we were through and ready
to begin our Angolan sprint.
But there was no sprinting to be done today as the appalling
state of the first stretch of road became immediately apparent. It
began with horrendous potholes and disintegrated tarmac and then
deteriorated further into the most challenging 'road' we have yet
come across. The north of Angola gets lots of rain and the muddy,
sandy, rocky track was scarred with enormous ruts and gulleys,
which had been carved out by the water. Sometimes we had to
straddle the gulleys and at other times we had to try and cross
them. Interspersed with all this was mud, along with large pools of
water and some rickety bridges.
Needless to say, the going was painfully slow and made all the
more painful by the impending visa deadline and our growing sense
of despair at this seemingly impossible challenge.
After four hours of driving we had covered less than 60
kilometres. At this rate I calculated that if we continued at this
speed it would take us 66 days to reach Namibia. Only 61 days more
than we have got.
We passed through lots of villages along the way. The first few
seemed rather intimidating, with lots of demands for food and money
but after a while we felt much more welcome, hearing shouts of 'amiga' and being waved at by everyone. It is just a shame that we
will hardly get the chance to engage with any of the locals during
our Angola rally.
The road improved slightly but we decided to call it a day at
5pm having covered a disappointing 110 kilometres - just over a
20th of the total distance.
Finding a bush camp in Angola is complicated by the continued
threat of landmines. We
were very relieved to happen upon a perfect spot – a cleared area
with a couple of derelict huts and enough bushes to conceal us from
the road. We had time to set up and eat before night fell.
As we were preparing for bed, a dramatic light show began in the
sky. A storm was brewing and the lightning was flashing across the
entire sky turning everything from black, to eerily light and then
back to darker than before. Lying in the tent we listened to the
rain thundering down, glad that we were safe and dry and that we
had come past the worst of the road before the rain. In a strange
way, heavy rain is reassuring when you are bush camping. People
certainly weren't going to be wandering about looking for trouble in
We were driving again by 6.30am,
determined to make the most of every daylight hour. Before long we
came across our first police stop. Our carefully learnt phrase
detailing our urgent predicament escaped us so we resorted to 'bom dia'
'Luanda' and lots of smiling. Maybe not speaking the language
will be to our advantage after all as the policeman gave up very
quickly and waved us on.
The road was slightly faster but equally
as depressing today. It was a road which had once been tarmac – a
very long time ago. It would doubtless have been built by the
Portuguese. They left 35 years ago, after which Angola plunged into
a devastating civil war, which lasted for 27 years. Any
infrastructure dating back to the Portuguese era is now
unrecognisable, having fallen into decay or been blasted to pieces.
This road was a perfect case in point. There were more holes than
tarmac and frequent sections of mud and sand. Not being able to
help clock-watching, we became more and more frustrated as we
crawled towards Luanda.
On days like these you find yourself coming up with all manner
of positive speculations about how and why the road is surely going
to improve around the next corner:
"Did you see that CAT digger, they must be doing road works
"That truck had Chinese writing on it, they must be moving in!"
"I saw a two-wheel drive car in that village, that must mean the road gets better
"I'm sure we're gaining some altitude, there won't be so much mud
from now on"
And when all else fails:
"Here we go. The tarmac is going to start around the next
corner. Excellent, excellent. Here we go!"
And of course sometimes we just revert to plain old
"There, look in the distance. That is definitely tarmac.
Oh, no its not."
We did see evidence of the Chinese invasion of Africa, in the
form of more compounds and Chinese trucks. Something about their
presence here seemed slightly disturbing and we realised after a
while what it was. From the outside, it appeared to us that there
was no local Angolan involvement in these road building contracts.
The Chinese were even driving all of their own trucks. This is not
the answer to Africa's problems. The last thing they need is a
'flash in the pan' solution. Africa struggles to think in the long
term, always seeming to go for a quick fix and not managing to
maintain anything over time. If China are willing to provide that
cheap fix but do not commit to train locals or even involve them in
the work then this will turn out to be extremely unhelpful or even
damaging for Africa.
In another twenty years the roads will surely be a remnant of
their tarmac glory and who will be there to bail them out then?
Moreover, you can't help but wonder what part of Africa's soul she
is selling for some short-lived tarmac.
The good tarmac did eventually start just as our day was ending
but at least it provided us with some hope for tomorrow. We bush
camped on the beach, just in time to see the sunset.
Two days down. 440 km covered. 1,400 km to the Namibian border.
It had rained again in the night,
enough to make our track down to the beach very slippery for the
return journey. But with the hope of good road, nothing could
dampen our spirits. We had left at 6am with the hope of getting
Luanda while it was still early. There aren't many quiet moments in
African cities but we figured that if there was going to be a
quieter moment then first thing on a Sunday morning must surely be
The tarmac didn't disappoint and we made it to the outskirts
of the city by 7am, only to be thrown another of Angola's
curveballs – more torrential rain. What is more, Luanda appears to
have no drainage system, at least not enough to deal with this
We had two seemingly straightforward tasks two achieve: getting
money and getting diesel. Neither of them turned out to be that
simple. We had to cross gushing torrents of water to get to several
ATMs, which were all off. At one, Neil had to wade up to his knees
in water and the wait whilst the generator was turned on and the
ATM was booted up. After 15 minutes we still hadn't had the green
light so we gave up and carried on. By the time we finally found an
ATM which was on, had money and was happy to give us some, we were
both drenched, muddy and pretty fed up.
The second task was to find diesel. You wouldn't expect this to
be hard in an oil country but, not unlike Nigeria, many of the
pumps and stations were empty. We eventually found one, figured out
that 'gaseole' means diesel whilst 'gasolina' means petrol (that
would have been an easy yet costly mistake) and we were free to
leave the capital.
If only it was that easy. Our planned route out was blocked by a
truck stuck in the mud, right in the centre of the city. To our
left were sandy cliffs with the most depressing slums we have seen,
balanced precariously up the sides. The cliffs were strewn with
rubbish and rivers of putrid water were running between the shacks
and down on to the street below. The air stank of sewage and it
seemed to me that it wouldn't be long until more of these cliffs
came tumbling down, bringing their inhabitants with them.
We managed to navigate ourselves another way and discovered that
barely a few hundred metres from these slums was affluence,
expensive cars, broad avenues and lavish living. That's Africa in a
nut shell. Maybe it's also what Angola doesn't want you to see.
By 10am we were out of Luanda and the road was good. We knew
that this was make or break day. If we could cover 600km – more
than we have ever driven in a day – then we could still be in the
running for our five day deadline. If anything slowed us down today
then we knew we would have to admit defeat and accept the flack at
It was great to feel the wind in the car as we drove. It was a
sure sign that we were finally going at a decent speed. We seemed
to have left the humidity behind and the scenery took on a
distinctly Southern African feel over the course of the day: grassy
plains, rocky outcrops, mountainous backdrops and aloes. And of
course we were granted frequent glimpses of the beautiful,
intensely blue, Atlantic Ocean.
At 5pm, an hour before sunset, we still had 110km to go. At
maximum Land Rover speed that is still well over an hour's drive so
we made the executive decision to break one of our strictest
African rules and drive into the dark, just this
once. If we could get to Lobito tonight then the challenge was
still alive and we knew that the road was good.
That was before another almighty thunderstorm decided to erupt.
The rain was like an exaggerated scene from a bad soap opera, only
worse. Neil's 13th and 14th hours driving of the day were spent
going about 30kmph in the dark and the rain, willing Lobito to
appear on the horizon. Fortunately, Angolan driving far surpasses
any other driving we have experienced so far in Africa. All the
other vehicles were driving slowly with headlights and hazards on,
for which we were very grateful.
Driving into Lobito wasn't pleasant, with no street lights,
unclear street markings and many, many impromptu 'swimming pools' in
the middle of the streets.
The hotel we were heading to from the GPS was a building site so
we had only one remaining option – a very classy 4 star
establishment, ironically named Hotel Terminus. We felt slightly
embarrassed as we traipsed into the front lobby, suddenly acutely
aware of how dirty we were after three days without a shower and
wading through Luanda's rivers.
In the lobby we met Samuel, the immaculately dressed hotel
manager. We tentatively asked the price of the cheapest room and
baulked at $300. We then, even more tentatively, asked if we could
camp in the car park. His answer was music to our ears: "No
problem. No problem". This is the wonder of African generosity and
common sense. Can you imagine a Hilton in the UK taking pity on a
pair of skanky campers? No chance.
We smartened up as much as we could without a shower and decided
to buy some beers in the bar. The meals were ridiculously
over-priced but we accepted the hors d'oeuvres, which were brought
with drinks, and charged for. We noticed that most diners had
merely picked at the bread, butter, cheese, olives and tuna. We, on
the other hand, devoured every last morsel between, not so subtle,
squeals of delight about real cheese, real butter and real olives.
When the barman brought the bill we hadn't been charged for the
snacks, which wasn't a negligible amount of money. Maybe it was the
way we landed on the food like we were starving, maybe it was
because we didn't order a meal or maybe it was because we both
looked decidedly tatty around the edges but when we tried to point
out the error to the waiter he responded, once again, with that
age-old wonderful African answer to everything: "no problem, no
So we had made our 600km by a very fine margin and managed to
get some sleep parked in amongst the shiny 4x4, still smiling about
Angolan kindness and real cheese.
I've always considered bidets to be
one of those slightly superfluous items which well-to-do people
have in their bathrooms but which nobody ever really knows how to
use. However the bidet took on a whole new identity for us today as
we discovered one in the very nice restaurant toilets. To a person
who has had several days without a shower, a bidet has unending
potential, and we maxed it out.
Today's drive was more good tarmac, except one painfully slow
section of 50km during which the road once again descended into
chaos. At one point we had to wait for a digger to finish fixing
the road before we could pass. I took photographic evidence in case
it was needed for our excuses at the border.
We did have some amusing sights to keep us sane. We saw a
policeman in Benguela directing traffic who had clearly missed his vocation as
a Michael Jackson double. With his white gloves, his rhythmic
whistle blowing and his ability to turn every action into a funky
dance move on his traffic podium, he certainly kept us entertained.
We saw a crazy giant gecko-type creature, probably about a metre in
length, sitting in the middle of the road. We watched as luggage
fell out of the side compartment of a coach, accelerated to let
them know and were quite amused but how utterly unphased all the
passengers were. And we passed another truck stuck in the mud.
Rather than getting stressed, the driver had seen it as an
opportunity to have a quick bath and was completely naked, fully
soaped up, in the middle of a muddy pool of water. We all saw the
funny side as we drove by!
We also saw some more harrowing sights. Several old, rusted
tanks can still be seen along the edges of the road, some covered
in graffiti. It is a telling reminder of how recently this country
was wracked by in-fighting. We also saw a horrendous accident,
where a truck had driven straight through the barrier and off the
edge of a steep embankment. Help was at hand but it shows that when
things go wrong in Africa, they go very, very wrong.
Towards the end of the day, as we approached Lubango, we passed
Tango on the side of the road. It was great to see him and to know
that he was also making good progress towards the deadline. We
couldn't stop for long but we plan to meet up in Namibia, to
It was getting late as we passed through the very small town of
Chibia but we immediately got the sense that this was a friendly
town and thought we should seize our last opportunity to spend some
time with Angolans.
This was when we met our next lovely Angolan – Tasha. She was
brought up in Cape Town, spoke fluent English and was able to
translate for us at just the right moment. Thanks to her help with
communication, the manager of the bar-come-guesthouse kindly let us
camp for free and use a hot shower, which was certainly a blessing
after 4 days with only a bidet. We are quite impressed with
ourselves that we have got through Angola paying nothing for
We chatted to Tasha over a beer and a delicious Portuguese steak
sandwich. She couldn't understand at all why we only had five day
visas, explaining that Angolans are warm, friendly and extremely
open to tourists - a conclusion we had also drawn based on our very
limited experience. She made us promise that we would go back and
let her show us around. I would love to keep that promise.
After a cold, cold night, our first of
many, we woke up wracked with nervous excitement. It felt like the
day of a final exam or the last day of the school term. The
challenge was still achievable but we didn't have any time to waste
and we set off in the pitch black, at 5.30am.
We knew that today
was going to be a numbers game. We had 400km left to cover and it
was all about our average speed. The border closed at 6pm so we had
to be there by 5pm to be safe. We also knew that the road was going
to be bad at points. And it was. For 120km in the middle of the day
it became very difficult and extremely slow. Clock watching and pot
hole watching don't go well together and tension and exhaustion
levels really began to kick in.
In remarkably good time, however, thanks to our pre-dawn start,
we were back on good road and the statistics looked good. We had a
quick stop to fill up with a stash of ridiculously cheap Angolan
fuel (20p litre) and to spent our remaining Kwanza on some
celebratory drinks for the other side of the border.
Then it was the countdown. When we realised with surety that the
visa deadline was in the bag – it was 3.30pm and we had 20km to go
– the enormity of the past five days, and indeed the past three
weeks, began to sink in.
Namibia isn't just the prize for crossing Angola. It also
represents the end of the most challenging portion of our trip. We
are choosing not to go straight to South Africa but, still,
entering Southern Africa marks the end of many of the risks and
fears we have faced along the way. Central Africa, with its
temperamental weather, its bad roads, its volatile politics and its
ridiculous visa regulations, had been hanging over has consciously
and subconsciously since we left the UK. We battled with decisions
to bypass it by shipping, we listened to, and compared, endless
fear-mongering traveller's tales, we prayed lots and we decided to
go for it. We are so glad that we did.
Reaching Namibia today is the most significant landmark we have
had so far. In getting here, I have personally overcome many fears,
we have seen some startling beautiful places and met many wonderful
people. It has undoubtedly been merely a fleeting impression of
each country but I am so glad that we have arrived in developed
Africa with the perspective of the developing continent.
As we sat in the organised border enclosure, I could see
glimpses of civilisation on the other side of the fence. Fatigue
hit us both like a wall and we suddenly felt overwhelmed by
turbulent emotions. Neil, despite all the driving, was buoyant with
excitement as, for him, Namibia reflects so much of South Africa,
that it feels quite like a home-coming already. I knew that I was
also very happy to be here. I was relieved to have overcome so many
hurdles and I knew that I was gagging for some good meat and a
glass or two of chilled rosé. But I also knew that I would miss the
chaos of West and Central Africa. I would miss the developing
world, its raw humanity, its simplicity, its lack of sterility and
regulations. I would miss the infectious warmth and vibrancy of the
people and I knew that I would want to go back sometime soon.
The reverse culture shock was intense as we walked into a Wimpy,
staring wide-eyed at the menu with its bacon and cheese, mochas,
cappuccinos, muffins and so much more. All of a sudden we could
speak English and drive on the left. We could shop at Pick 'n Pay
and be assured of good tarmac. We could have hot showers and expect
toilet paper and soap. If we chose we could live a completely
Western lifestyle. It was very exciting and a bit frightening all
at once. I think I quite enjoyed being outside of a consumer-driven
But for tonight, sleep was calling us and we were so relieved we
had made it and that tomorrow we wouldn't have to drive a single
kilometre – not one.