5am! Are you having a laugh? The bus didn’t leave until nine!! I could have had a good lie-in, although this will form the pattern of the next week of travel.
The trip to the Angolan border was fairly uneventful, but I was happy that I got a seat all to myself, I wasn’t squished like a sardine, three people to a seat. And – shock horror! The driver’s mate gave out sandwiches and Cokes to everyone on board! How cool is THAT? Must be the first time that has happened since I was in Central America back in February.
At the border. I didn’t have any of the hassles alluded to in the Lonely Planet. It did take them an hour to stamp me out (the ‘chief’ wasn’t there!) but apart from that, I got over the border without any problems, and (amazingly) no bribes. Happy days.
I crossed into the Angola village of Noqui, which I guess translates as Nowhere. I was literally in the Middle of Nowhere – or at least that’s how it felt. With no real public transport to take me the 400km to Luanda, the capital, I had to take a truck-taxi, like in Congo, laden with people in the back. It took the truck about five hours to clear the border, and by the time it arrived in the village, it was already 9pm. I managed to snag a space in the cab. The driver wanted an astronomical $100.
Forget Norway or Japan. Angola is THE most expensive country in the WORLD. A can of coke is £2, the cheapest, grottiest hotel is at least $80 a night, a piece of chicken from the side of the road will set you back €4. Wow. And I thought DR Congo was expensive.
I haggled him down to a (still a rip-off) $70, and I thought we were on our way.
Don’t be silly, Graham. T.I.A.
We parked up and went nowhere. I fell asleep in the cab, the poor thirty-odd people in the back of the truck had to sleep under the stars.
I was roused at 6am and thought great – we’ll be in Luanda tonight. My phone had stopped working and I needed to get a Angolan SIM card, but there was nowhere selling them, which meant that I was incommunicado for the day.
We got as far as the edge of the border town of Noqui before we were all told to get out. Which we did…and waited. And waited. They had gone back to DR Congo to pick up some sand. Once that was unloaded, I grabbed my bag, ready to get going.
But hang on, we’ll be back soon – they returned to DR Congo to pick up some more sand. When they eventually returned, it was midday. I helped them unload the sand, but we still hung about for an hour while, oh god knows why.
Then… finally… we set off. The truck was something from the 1950s, probably built in Stalin’s Russia. I was squished in, three people on two seats. We drove for a few miles. Then we STOPPED AND CAME BACK TO NOQUI.
We then hung about for another hour while they did something or other. Then finally, almost 24 hours after I first crossed the border into Angola, we started moving.
Well, I say moving but don’t let that fool you into thinking that we were moving anywhere fast. We weren’t. The road, such as you could call it a road, bore more resemblance to a dried up riverbed and our average speed was a steady fifteen miles an hour. Plus, we stopped every five seconds for little or no reason. These guys were in no hurry to get anywhere fast.
As the day wore on (and we broke down seven times), it was obvious that I wouldn’t be getting to Luanda tonight. I had no choice but to grin and bear it.
But there was one devilish thought buzzing through my head. What if I don’t get the hell out of here before my visa runs out? The Vogons would relish the opportunity to throw me in jail again and I’d be damned if I was going to let that happen.
So I slept a second night in the truck cab. Again I was awoken at 6am; why, I have no clue, as we didn’t set off until after nine. Apart from the beautiful silver, fatty, fat, fat trees, the landscape is remarkably unappealing. Charred by war and slash and burn farming, much of it is blackened and barren. Angola has a lot of flat, fertile lands, but because its government is wearing oil goggles (1.4 billion barrels exported a DAY), they’re not interested in farming. Which is a shame, as otherwise Angola could easily feed itself and those around it; but as in all resource-rich, cash-poor African states, a mixed economy is beyond the capabilities of the drongos in charge. They can’t see the profit in it.
We reached the Mbenzi-Congo junction at around lunchtime, turning towards Luanda, but then pulling over at the side of the road for over an hour.
The police came along and papers were shuffled about. Some of the people in the truck were from Congo and didn’t have the necessary paperwork, so there was a bit of a kerfuffle going on. I hid in the cab, but eventually, one of them saw me and ordered me out. I handed over my passport – look, I’ve got a visa – they gave it back to me and one of the policemen told me to come with him and motioned to his motorbike. He muttered something in Portuguese and then said a word that was bound to make my blood run cold.
I walked slowly back to the cab to pick up my bags.
It couldn’t happen again. It couldn’t.
I could. T. I. A.
T. I. A.
I took a deep breath – if they arrested me, I was truly stuffed. My phone was not working, the Congolese police had taken my spare and my UK SIM card (hence the dearth of Tweets recently) and nobody knew where the hell I was. I should have been in Luanda yesterday.
It crossed my mind to leg it, but given the horrific number of landmines still dotted around the countryside in Angola since the end of the forty-year civil war in 2002, I thought better of it. I took my bags and took my chances. He wanted some money for petrol, so I gave him a couple of dollars. One of the truck passengers spoke a little bit of English so I appealed to him. HELP ME.
He spoke to the Vogon and we managed to fudge the situation. The cop gave me the two dollars back and I headed back to the cab faster than you can say THANK CHRIST FOR THAT.
The police then left, with a cluster of Congolese stuffed into the back of their minivan. The driver and the owner of the truck started walking and I was left by the side of the road not knowing what the hell was going on with just a bunch of Angolan mothers for company. A pick-up truck stopped. I ran over and asked to be taken to the next town. Damn that $70, I guess I’ll just have to let it go.
The next town turned out to be just a mile or so down the road, and – even better – the bus to Luanda was due in half an hour. Talk about landing on my feet. The guys in the pick-up sorted me out with something to eat and drink. I was given some bush meat that tasted like a cross between pork and chicken. I hope to hell it wasn’t monkey.
I don’t have much of a problem with eating most things, but seriously, monkeys are a wee bit to genetically similar, it would be the gastronomic equivalent of incest. Plus I REALLY don’t want to get ebola.
The bus arrived on schedule (amazingly!) and I paid the fair (a whopping $50) and took my place sitting next to the driver on the metal hood that covered the engine. Peter, the driver, spoke good English and was a big jolly man who took the terrible road (he does this trip four times a week) in his stride.
In contrast to Captain Slow in the Truck, Peter thundered along as if potholes, adverse cambers and the impenetrable clouds of dust were no problem at all. By dinnertime, I was confident that we would reach Luanda before midnight. Peter let me use his phone to call Emilio, my CouchSurf contact, and I asked him to e-mail Mands to let her know that I was still alive.
Peter paid for my dinner of fish, rice and beer and we were about to hit the road when there was a problem with the engine. The driver’s mate spent an hour or so fixing a hose that had split. He used cigarette filters, superglue and rubber strapping. Soon enough, we were back on the trail, but Africa was to have the last laugh. After being stopped at a police checkpoint for over an hour (everyone had to get off the bus, have their details taken down and then when we got back on board), the grease monkeys were once again fiddling with the engine.
We drove another few miles before stopping again. I curled up into a ball on the engine shield and fell asleep: my one true superpower. Anytime, anyplace, anywhere.
I woke up resoundingly NOT in Luanda. We hadn’t moved all night. Peter was nowhere to be seen. I was determined to get to Luanda by any means necessary. A 4×4 pull up and once again, I ran over to the driver to ask if he could take me to the next town. Get in, mate, no problem. The 4×4 took me all the way to the minibus area outside Luanda where I said my Thank You’s and jumped a mini bus the rest of the way. I arrived in Luanda at 11am, three days since I crossed the border.
Three days to go the same distance, which could’ve taken three hours had the road have been good, there were no checkpoints and the vehicle was remotely roadworthy.
I contacted Emilio, my CouchSurf contact, and he came to pick me up through Luanda’s perennially grid-locked traffic. The bus south leaves in the morning and Emilio was hosting a house party tonight, so I elected to stay for the night. It wasn’t too much of a difficult decision. I LOVE house parties.
Luanda is not an attractive city. Allied with the Soviet Union before the Fall of the Wall, Angola is a mess of concrete even when you don’t take into account that the civil conflict raged for 40 years, some say 500 years.
Emilio and I grabbed some lunch in the airport as it was close to his workplace. Angola is eye-wateringly expensive. It’s £10 for a sandwich. After lunch, I managed to download a couple of drivers that I needed to get my previously virus-ridden laptop back on track and then we headed over to Emilio’s flat. After sleeping on buses and trucks for three nights, the shower was more than welcome.
Emilio is a French guy who’s been living in Africa all his life. He grew up in Brazzaville, Congo, lived in Conakry, Guinea and even stayed in Cape Verde for a bit – talk about my least favourite places!! His knowledge of Africa is second-to-none and he works for a logistics network, pretty much like Alex and Michael in Kinshasa. Running logistics in Africa? Crikey! They’re madder than me.
The party was great. I met a stack of cool people and drank more than I possibly should have. I was just a little giddy at the prospect that in just a couple of days, I would be out of West and Central Africa. As Jake Shears once sang, it can’t come quickly enough.
With less than 48 hours left on my visa, Emilio’s wonderful driver, Yuri, picked me up at 5am to drop me off at the bus to Benguela, half-way to the Namibian border.
Once again, the bus didn’t leave until 9am, so I was once again duped out of a decent night’s sleep. It was a whopping FORTY QUID for a seat on the bus, but at least the road was good and I got a seat all to myself. I think. Actually, I’m writing this two days after the journey and I’ve got to say that I really don’t remember anything other than the fact that I arrived in Benguela in good time, it only taking a few hours to cover the same distance that earlier this week, took me three days.
In Benguala, I hopped on another coach only to discover that I would have to wait until the coach was full before it left. Usually this is the case with shared taxis and you can be waiting up to a day for the seven or eight passengers needed to set off.
This coach needed another FORTY passengers.
I waited a few hours, but with only a trickle of passengers turning up, I demanded my money back and crammed myself into the back of a small taxi-van playing African Sardines, shoehorning twelve people (and their luggage) into a space designed for eight. I had pins and needles all the way to Lubango, the next big town.
The driver of the van was great and helped me find somewhere to stay for the night, which turned into a bit of a mission. Eventually I got a room for the cut-down (!) price of $50. It was filthy, there was no toilet, no shower, no television, no AC and I had to be out by 6am. It was half-past midnight when I arrived. If it was a room in a ‘normal’ country, I would be loathed to hand over more than $5.
I seriously doubt that I’ll be coming back to Angola in a hurry!
Got up at 6am. Bus left at 9. If you think there’s a pattern emerging here, THEN THERE IS AND I’M GETTING A LITTLE BIT SICK OF IT.
The journey was uneventful, but was tinged with tension – my visa expires today. I HAVE to leave Angola today or I might well find myself back in jail… The border closes at 6pm. Stupidly, the bus is scheduled to get in at 5pm. Why it didn’t leave a couple of hours earlier (seriously, what difference would it make?) is quite beyond my programming.
So every time we stopped, I found myself jiggling my legs, chewing the inside of my mouth and repeatedly looking at my watch.
After a few hours, I had a thought. What if the border closes 6pm Namibia Time? Namibia is an hour ahead of Angola. That would mean that the border would close at 5pm. Why on earth would a bus running to a border be scheduled to arrive just as the border closed?
Because THIS IS AFRICA.
My spidey-sense tingled and I considered sneaking across the border, going to the British Commission in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, and saying I had lost my passport. I couldn’t hack being detained again. I just couldn’t hack it. Not after Congo. Unhelpfully, the road from Lubango to the border was only decent for the first few miles. After that, it was (yet another) dirt track. Although on a positive note, they are building a new road, so in a couple of years, you’ll be able to run from Windhoek to Luanda in less than twenty-four hours.
Although Luanda to Kinshasa will no doubt remain an unfathomable mess.
The bus arrived (surprisingly) on time at 5:10pm. I got out and my bus buddy Cliff who was returning to South Africa, told me that he was going to take a short cut out of Angola as the paperwork involved in getting a visa to this damn place had confounded him as well. I was tempted to join him, but being a whitey, I’d stick out from the locals like a sore thumb. I ran to the border.
It did close at 5pm!
The man was closing the gate.
I ran through the gate, muttering something about an emergency and pegged it over to the emigration window, slapping my much worn passport against the glass. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, MY VISA EXPIRES TONIGHT, PLEASE STAMP ME OUT.
The woman wordlessly took my passport, sighed and turned her computer back on.
I could have kissed her.
I got my exit stamp and then strode over the imaginary line that separates Angola from Namibia.
The first country since SENEGAL that I didn’t need a visa to get in to! That’s over twenty countries, two passports full of stickers, stamps and scribble. I quickly filled out a form and the immigration officer stamped me in. The process took less than five minutes.
I met up with Cliff on the other side and there being no night bus to Windhoek, we went for a drink. It cost 75p for 750ml of Carling. That’s more than a pint!
In Angola, you’d be lucky to get a 330ml bottle foreign beer for less than a fiver.
Can I say it?
Okay, I’m going to say it, but please don’t think this makes me racist.
CIVILISATION AT LAST!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I feel wonderful. I feel like I’ve crawled through four months of crap and come out drunk on the other side. I couldn’t be happier to be Out Of Africa. Even though I’m not. Namibia, South Africa and Botswana are the richest, most developed nations in the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa. Here, I may as well be in Europe. But this is just an interlude – before too long I’ll be heading up into East Africa – the night terrors of Rwanda, Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia await.
I may be finished with Africa, but Africa is not finished with me. Not by a long chalk.