Earlier this year a small group of South Africans from various walks of life travelled by road through nine of the 18 provinces in Angola in the short period of just ten days. My observations on that trip may be of interest.
Angola is a land of “have nevers”. To name a few: I have never seen so many small motor cycles, I have never seen so many new filling stations, I have never seen so many baobab trees, I have never experienced such good cell phone coverage, I have never seen so many Toyota vehicles, I have never experienced such beautiful beaches, I have never seen so much rubbish and filth and I have never seen so many potholes. The list of “have nevers” could go on for ever.
The nation is moved by small capacity motorcycles and scooters. They are everywhere. Crash helmets are optional and three people on one steed is considered quite normal. Twice viewed were three adults with one baby on the back of the furthermost passenger. The bikes carry everything from crates of beer to fresh produce. Names of their steeds of choice include Dakar, Hero, Leopard, Boxer and Keweseke (not to be confused with Kawasaki). In fact there were also Kawasiki and Kewaseki makes and I am sure a lot of other derivatives. Most had the suffix “sport” added to the title. I am sure they all hail from China.
The bikers line up to refuel at a specially-designated pump at filling stations, such is the volume of them. They buzz like demented hornets at one speed – flat out – through dense traffic and on the open road although, here, they seem quite slow. It is only in the nose to tail traffic grind that they seem so manoeuvrable and fast. There are extremely few accidents and I have to take my hat off to the skill of these two wheeled kamikaze pilots. Their ability to ride in really bad sand and over serious off-road terrain would put some of our best South African motocross pilots to shame. Really serious big time transporters use a three wheeled version which looks like a motor cycle at the front but a bakkie at the rear. At night it would seem that motorcycle lights are optional but that would also go for a good deal of four wheeled vehicles as well. Texting while riding through heavy traffic seems a skill that a lot have developed.
Where ever you go, be it in town or in the middle of nowhere, you come across brand new filling stations. All are powered by oversized generators and sport amazingly clean toilets and well stocked shops. The Kwanza, the local currency, is king as trade in US dollars has been suspended and credit cards just don’t cut it. One major snag is that quite a few of them don’t have gasolina or gasoleo (petrol or diesel) for sale, a somewhat curious situation. The pumps are there, as are the shops and the ubiquitous AK47 toting security guards, just no fuel. It appears that all establishments that handle cash use prominently displayed armed guards. Fuel is cheap by our standards at about R10/litre for diesel but was much lower, at about R5, a few months back. The difference is to increase the tax base for the government to steal as the oil revenues have taken a bit of a hammering of late. As an aside wherever you go, and especially at filling stations, you find election posters of Eduardo Dos Santos, their long time President, beaming benevolently down at you. From my limited understanding of the Portuguese language the wording is very similar to the truth-stretching text put out on our own election posters. Sounds and looks familiar doesn’t it? As our Number One visited Angola some time before our local elections this year one can only wonder who got the idea from whom. Dos Santos may well get away with it but we all know what a joke it was back home.
Baobabs of various different types line the countryside. I thought Malawi had a lot but Angola is in a super league of its own. That could also be said for welwitschias, the 3000-odd-year-old plants that live in the most arid of conditions. Some we saw, and we saw dozens of them in a dry river bed near the town of Namibe in the south of Angola, were as big as a Toyota Land Cruiser. There were also forests of Cassinga Angola, a very strange looking plant/tree/shrub with crescent like foliage, but I understand there are similar types in RSA, although I have never seen them. The vegetation changes dramatically once past Lobito from sparse Namib Desert type plants struggling to survive to a proliferation of lush green undergrowth. This becomes more noticeable the further inland to the East you travel.
Cell phone coverage was notable for its excellence. It wasn’t everywhere, mind you, but very seldom was it not available on the main roads. As with the abundance of clean loos at filling stations, it did make travelling much more pleasant and of course safer.
Just because one is travelling on the main arterial road in Angola does not guarantee the road condition. Heading south from Luanda on the B1, the most important road in the country, the tar deteriorates rapidly. The potholes are huge and ongoing. Driving on the side of the road offers little respite and 30ks per hour is a reasonable average speed. Sneakily there are long stretches of good tar every now and then that lull you into a false sense of security, only to encounter a 300-400mm deep pothole, as wide as the whole road, lying in ambush. Many abandoned passenger vehicles with trashed suspensions attest to the quality of Angola’s finest arterial. The closer one goes towards Huambo, Jonas Savimbi’s civil war headquarters, the worse it gets. East Londoners should have absolutely nothing to complain about by comparison. Huambo is the second largest town after Luanda in Angola by the way.
The other aspect that East Londoners should be thankful for is the cleanliness of our streets, taken in the relative context of those in Angola of course. I have never seen such an accumulation of refuse and filth ever. It is difficult to understand how people can live in such squalor. No refuse has been collected since the indecently quick departure of the colonial administration some 40 years ago. Plastic items such as bottles are of course the worst offenders and, as only bottled water is drinkable, there are mountains of these. Once walked over they do tend to flatten down so one finds oneself walking on carpets of compacted trash. Health conscious municipalities such as Luanda, Lobito and Benguela do take their trash disposal seriously. What little they do collect they throw into the sea which the tides carry away. A brilliant solution to a simple problem. Further south on the deserted and glorious beaches of the National Park of Iona all this rubbish, especially the plastic, is deposited at the high water mark. No real problem as very few Angolans go there but a bit of an eyesore for tourists, to say the least. A lot finds its way south past the Cunene mouth onto beautiful Namibian beaches but the less said about that the better.
When it comes to four-wheeled vehicles of choice, or necessity, Toyota is the make that rules the roost. In the rural areas it has almost a 100% market share, be it bakkies, trucks or the ubiquitous blue and white taxies. Particularly impressive is the Toyota Tundra, a vehicle we don’t get in RSA which is similar in size to a Ford E150. This is however beyond the affordable level of 99.9% of Angolans. The rest drive tired-looking, two-wheel and four-wheel-drives that are way past their sell-by date. There is a disproportionate number of aging Toyota Tazzes, although that model also seemed to score the highest number of pothole-broken suspensions. In towns the numbers change with Toyota dropping to a modest 90-95% market share. Hyundai ranks a poor second and there are other car manufacturers represented but in very small numbers. Fat cat government officials drive top-of-the-range Toyota Land Cruisers and Nissan Patrols. Why not? Mercedes and BMW sedans are just too soft for this part of Africa and don’t feature much at all. The towns would not be complete without their blue-and-white taxies. They are almost as plentiful as the motorcycles and are driven just as badly. It made me quite homesick to drive amongst them in the cities as their considerate driving attitude reminded me so much of our own well-disciplined taxi fleets.
We came to Angola to see Angola and that we did. The beaches to the south are stunning, even despite the jetsam (or is it flotsam? I am never quite sure) deposited at the high water mark, and they go on forever. The statue of Christ (just like the one in Rio) overlooking the town of Lubango is spiritually moving as is the holy gathering at Pedras Negras. The Calendula Falls (third largest in Africa) and the mighty Kwansa (Cuanza) river are breathtaking spectacles not to be missed. The game fishing is outstanding and the people are friendly. On top of all this the list of “have nevers” is endless. Will I go back? Maybe, but there again, maybe not.