Words & Images Andrew Middleton
Don’t get blown up by a land mine, Andrew,” was my farewell from a friend as I heaved my laden bags from the boot of his car. What great mates I’ve got, eh? But, in all honesty, I had no idea what to expect. Angola would be my longest trip to date for SA4x4, and the first ‘real African’ country I’d be visiting. You’ll see what I mean by that later.
Tedious red tape snarled things earlier because I first lost, then found, the passports; got my visas at the last-minute, and then a dodgy contact in Namibia attempted to scam me out of R2900 − all of which made me nervous. Also, I’d met the man I’d be travelling with only once, in a scorching desert, when he casually and unexpectedly told me that I should join him on his next trip to Angola. “Sounds cool,” was my automatic response. And with that, I began my journey into the unknown.
With all the red tape and planning behind me, it is still a few months before I land in Namibia, meet guide Danie Van Ellewee – better known to all as Jakkals – and drive 750 kilometres in his brandnew last-gen Hilux to a place called Eha Lodge near Ruacana, right on the border of Namibia and Angola.
It’s a fairly basic campsite, and serves as the rendezvous for us and the clients to meet, and to enjoy some well-deserved beer and steak. Our convoy is made up of 14 tourists in eight 4x4s, plus our Hilux and the old EFi Cruiser belonging to the second guide, Matthew Sakko.
As fast as we’ve arrived, we are packed, with our wheels soon churning up the dust. First stop on day one: Ruacana falls. Only ten minutes from our campsite, the mist can already be spotted rising into the horizon as the full flood of the Kunene River became airborne before dropping 120m to a swirling pit beneath. Like the shattering crackle of thunder playing on continuous loop, the tumultuous flow shreds the silence; but it’s also an exhilarating farewell to Namibia as we cross into Angola.
Thanks to the aforementioned scam artist conning me into bringing R2900 to the Nam border, but never turning up, I have some beans in my pocket for things I need most: foreign currency and biltong. Three kilos of Namibia’s finest dried cow are acquired en route, but (unbelievably) getting a supply of Kwanza, Angola’s national currency, is even easier. It’s a three-step process: arrive, get passport stamped, and then swap rands with one of the many gents who walk up with thick wads of bank notes. You need to haggle a bit, as I manage only 10 Kwanza to one rand (about the same as the bank rate). Had I waited for the Portuguese-speaking guide, I would have got the 15-to-one of the going Black Market rate.
Thanks to the crash in oil price, Angola’s main economy has gone belly-up, along with the value of the Kwanza. As a result, black-market dealers are turning to hotels and border posts to exchange currency like the struggling Kwanza for rands or US dollars. It’s a win for tourists needing hard cash, and (despite the presence of police with AK47s in hand) nobody bats an eye at our slightly ‘extralegal’ exchange.
At last, after sorting money and passports, we are moving; and immediately the vibe has changed. For the rest of the tour, no English will be heard outside the convoy, we won’t see another white face, and our rig will remain in 4×4 mode 90% of the time.
The road up to Ruacana’s border from the Nam side is good, for reasons familiar to many; but as soon as you enter Angola, things get nasty. Rutted gravel, countless river crossings and fast-changing landscapes are the order of the day.
We set up our first camp in a dry riverbed deep in the bush. Treated to soft ground and a prime sleeping spot, we’re welcomed by the last warm summer rains of the season. The dense, syrupy smell of quenched African soil rises from the steaming earth – you’d make millions selling this as cologne.
Soon a few curious local tribeswomen tentatively approach. They must be greeted warmly, as the Himbas rule the roost here, and if they feel threatened, your stay will be less than savoury. Luckily, guide Jakkals knows his way around Angola, and soon we’re settled, but I have to ask him: “Why here, in a random river under the stars?” Jakkals explains: “In Angola, you don’t book a campsite for 18:00 and pay the warden. Here, we work on Africa time: drive till two hours before sunset and hope for the best.” Jakkals shows me all the campsites he’s marked on his Garmin over the years of travelling in Angola – they’re everywhere, dotted across his GPS screen like holes in a dart board. There’s a campsite for every occasion, so each tour is different from the one before.
We’re up at six, to pack and tuck into coffee and breakfast before driving deeper into the interior. We know which way we’re going, but not where we’ll end up. It’s this unpredictability that keeps things interesting. You simply can’t plan time in Africa; a random police checkpoint in the middle of nowhere, six hours from the nearest goat farm, can take three hours to pass… or they’ll just let you go. Who knows?
As we tour through the veld, the evidence of Angola’s long civil war (that ended in 2002) shows its pockmarked face: beautiful old buildings perforated by rifle shot, or crumbling from mortar blasts. It’s also hard to miss all the red and white stripes painted on trees or rocks, warning of land mines. By now, most of the mines have been cleared, but, on a little exploration into a river bed for my morning tea, I find the holes where landmines were once buried easy to see. Unfortunately, nature has suffered greatly from the war, and you’ll spy no large game at all outside of parks. Everything on four legs, besides livestock, has either been blown to bits or poached to extinction by locals.
When you are travelling through Southern Angola in the bush, cars (and especially 4x4s) are an extremely rare sight. In fact, during our entire 11-day tour, not one other tourist 4×4 was spotted. The primary mode of transport for most of the local folk is the motorbike. Branded ‘Kewesiki’ (in at least four different variations) or ‘Hondar’ (gotta love the Chinese) these little commuter bikes create their own narrow paths between the rocks while moving anything from a man with his goat, to a family of four. Every now and then, you’ll spot a lonely-looking chap on the side of the trail offering Coke bottles brimming with unleaded. He’ll ask 250Kz (or around R20-R30) for a litre – he won’t be cleaning your windscreen or checking pressures, either. The bike paths link countless tiny villages and operate as taxi routes for paying passengers to the more remote areas of Angola.
After passing innumerable farmlands, crossing a hundred dry streams and going deeper north-east, we enter Iona National Park. At 15 200 square kilometres, it’s the largest park in Angola, and is characterised by rolling meadows of unimaginable beauty, springbok that herd by the thousand, and another lonesome police checkpoint – just when you thought you’d escaped all remnants of civilisation. And it’s here, in Iona Park, that we accidentally come across a hidden gem like no other. We are running out of sunlight to reach the camp – a place called Foz Du Cunene – when we decide to follow an unused trail to one of the dots on Jakkals’ GPS.
As we approach, Namibia’s sand sea can be spotted tumbling into the Kunene – a continuous avalanche of sand from dunes well over 200m high. Thwarted by the torrent, Namibia’s sand sea never makes it into Angola because the Kunene continuously washes it downstream, creating the great bay at Kunene Mouth. The spot we are aiming for, marked on the GPS, has rarely been visited by anyone, but was chosen by Jakkals when viewed from the other side of the river a few years back. As we get closer and descend into the river-cut valley, our secret beach becomes visible. Marked by swirling rock pools and giant palms, the oasis is large enough for our convoy to spread out near the river’s edge.
That night, as we prepare Eland steaks on a driftwood fire, we watch the furious river smash its way through the sea like a blunt axe. We feast under a milky way that’s like an ocean of diamonds tumbling across the sky.
Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? Like a painting. Just wait till you get to the next stop – an old police check at the Kunene River mouth. Set up to guard the Kunene River mouth from poachers, the whole place looks like it’s been abandoned. Alas, it has not. There are still police living here, and still checking passports in a place that is at least a day’s drive (in any direction) from civilisation. The derelict blue buildings are slowly being swallowed by the desert as police fish for food and reluctantly check our papers. Most of the buildings are filled with sand, and look rather the worse for wear. A few years back, the police living here lost radio contact and tried hiking to the next nearest police stop in Iona Park, 80km away. The results of that parched expedition were predictable – none of the men was seen alive again.
Having seen the strangest police post I’ve ever come across, I find it’s time to get the hell out and open the throttle as we head towards Kunene mouth. Whooosh! The wind feels like jet wash, only colder, as the grey sky, grey sea and miles of sand remind us of how small we are. Those who venture out here alone are very brave indeed.
Having sampled the mouth and its brutal gale, we all climb back into our heated 4x4s and make haste to the next wild camp. During the next couple of days of driving north up the coastline, the scenery changes from plains to dunes, and the wind gives us a break for a while. We’re on our way to one of Africa’s most revered 4×4 destinations – the Death Acre.
The Doods Akker, as it’s also known, is a 90km stretch of dunes reaching the sea without an intervening beach – a continuous sandy avalanche, slowly being swallowed by the Atlantic. When the tide is out, a narrow strip of firm sand can be driven on, but if you misjudge the tides… well, the name says it all. We camp in a sand bowl on the beach in anticipation of the morning spring low tide; but, despite our best efforts to escape the wind, it catches us. My pop-up tent begins rolling up a dune with the bags still inside it while I frantically add wood to the potjie fire in what’s becoming a sand storm. Amazingly, Jakkals and his team still manage to prepare a delicious oxtail stew, despite everything being blown away and covered in grit. While cowering in my tent, and fighting off the wind while raindrops splash through my mosquito netting, I realise it could be worse – I could be warm and dry in an office somewhere.
After packing up and shaking the sand out of our ears, eyes and every other orifice, we set off for the Death Acre. Wriggling its way along the shoreline for as far as they eye can see, the narrow trail is submerged and washed away at every high tide, making timing vital − get stuck there, and you won’t be the first; but it will (most likely) be the last time for your vehicle. Apart from our occasionally having to splash through some sea water or accelerate over a soft patch, the acre itself proves spectacular, yet uneventful, and everyone comes out unscathed.
These days, the only people who really use the Death Acre trail (marked ‘extremely dangerous’ on the GPS) are the occasional tourists (that’s us) and sports fishermen. Further north, beyond the acre, in places like Tombua and Namibe, long lines and nets comb the sea for anything with a heartbeat; as a result, in order to get their catch, anglers must drive south to the death acre, or at least come close.
So, when we escape the trail, the extent of the fishing becomes clear. The wrecks of large fishing vessels pepper the coastline, along with small beach markets supplied by countless fishermen. At Tombua Bay, where we stop for lunch, the ghostly scene is characterised by seven shipwrecks. Apparently (but don’t quote me on this) the ships were part of a foreign-aid donation after the war, intended to help impoverished fisherman head seaward in vessels safer than their home-built jobs that all too often sink, causing drownings. The large, high-tech, diesel-powered ships naturally required maintenance, which was neglected. The ships thus ground to a halt in the bay, where they will likely remain until Mother Nature reclaims her beach.
With the Dood Akker, the rivers and the dunes all quickly becoming a memory, civilisation approaches. We’ll be staying at the Flamingo Beach Lodge for a couple of days, catching fish and visiting the nearby city of Namibe. The city itself, a sprawling metropolis, has a massive port – one of Angola’s three primary ports. And one that serves as an education for me; when I mentioned that I’d never been to a ‘real African country’ before, I was referring to the organised chaos that characterises every large African city.
We visit the harbour to buy fish bait, where a woman with two octopi sees my camera, then spins round like a top while flinging tentacles and fishy slime in all directions. Turns out Angolans don’t much like photos. In general, though, the Angolans we meet are extremely pleasant and happy to attempt conversation, even though our Portuguese is limited to a few words.
Visiting Namibe’s gigantic market was another shocker. From a roller skate in literally any size, to the innards of a goat, you can buy absolutely anything. We find an entire shop dedicated to selling secondhand motorbike indicators. I negotiate the price of a cold beer with my notepad and sit back for a while as the world spins around me.
As we leave the city, another oddity rises over the horizon. A Chinese-built city comprising hundreds of blocks of flats lies completely deserted, with only a few Chinese workers on the outskirts showing any signs of life. In an effort to please the people, these cities are popping up all over Angola; but, as apartments are selling at close to USD100 000, nobody can afford to move in, and the cities’ highways lie silently in the dust.
As our trip draws to a close, we set off east towards the large city of Lubango in the Huila province, via one of the most spectacular roads I’ve ever driven on. Traversing three or four different climate zones in just ten kilometres, Serra da Leba Pass rises to well over 1800m from its base just above sea level. Built in the 1970s to connect the city of Lubango to Namibe, the pass is named after its designer, Serra da Leba, who tragically died the day on which construction ended. So spectacular is the scenery and so sharp the many hairpins, that it’s no wonder many have died here, flung off the edge by gravity and distraction. The Dorsland Trekkers, or trekboere, also came to this area, not content with life in South Africa during the late 1800s. Settling in south western Angola, the Boers lived and died here, and their graves and monuments still stand to this day, in perfect condition.
We set up our tents for the last time on the cliffs of Tundavala, just 10 minutes from the industrial sprawl of Lubango. At exactly one kilometre straight down to the flats below, the giant cliffs were quite often used for executions: prisoners were forced to walk off the edge to their doom. Luckily for us, we’re not going off the edge; but, unfortunately, the jagged rocks and hazy sunset mark the full stop at the end of our epic adventure.
In Angola, we’ve discovered a country of fascinating culture and great natural beauty, from the beaches and dunes and the flat plains of Iona Park to the raging Kunene River. We’ve only scratched the southern surface, yet it’s been the trip of a lifetime.
You’ll need a proper 4×4 with low range and good clearance. For your own comfort, a roof-top tent or similar comfortable sleeping arrangement is recommended. Vehicles will be heavily loaded and may struggle in the large dunes if they are low on power. (TDI Defenders and 4.2 Cruisers may need a few run-ups at dunes). Make sure that your 4×4 is reliable and serviced, because if it breaks down in the middle of the Dood Akker, you’ll not be seeing it again.
Fuel, as always, is a vital requirement. You’ll need at least 1000km of range at an absolute minimum – there are no fuel stations in the desert, and the man with coke bottles of unleaded can’t help much, either.
‘Live the Journey Tours’, and specifically our guide, Jakkals, specialises in taking tourists to spots they can’t visit without the help of a guide who has years of experience and knowledge. By ‘can’t visit’, I mean that if you got stuck out there, you’d be is serious trouble. For this reason, your choice of guide is as important as keeping your wife happy – either way, the success of the trip depends on that person. Danie Van Ellewee (or ‘Jakkals’, as he is known to everyone) has been touring Angola for years and knows the country like the back of his hand. He was one of the first operators to venture into Angola after the war.
A trip with Jakkals doesn’t always follow a strict itinerary: constant improvisations are made to suit the scene, or deal with the curve balls often thrown up by operating in a remote place; and a tour often veers off into new territory – sometimes gems are found like our river camp; sometimes not. This unpredictability is what keeps the spirit of adventure alive and differentiates his tours from more rigid affairs.
As always, safety is of the utmost importance, and all tourists will remain safe and sound despite changing conditions and terrains. Where needed, guidance is given when driving over obstacles; it is noteworthy that, after our 11-day tour in harsh terrain, no vehicle damage was recorded on anyone’s 4×4.
Two meals a day are provided and dinner especially is particularly extravagant. No matter what the weather, we made a plan and always prepared five-star food − from duck breast to Eland steak and everything in between.
Jakkals and Live the Journey tours also do many other trips around the world and in Africa. Contact the guide directly or visit the website for more information.