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ANGOLA ADVENTURE – Cruiser Country

Toyota lays on an action-packed few days in south-western Angola with a trio of Land Cruisers

Story Angus Boswell
Pictures Cornel van Heerden & Angus Boswell

It’s taken Angola a long time to emerge from the civil war which ended in 2002. Its effects have dragged on for more than two decades. When war broke out in 1974, tourism effectively stopped. That’s changing. The old ruling elite are being sidelined, minefields have largely been cleared, and officialdom is letting go its cranky and slow Soviet practices when it comes to getting things done. One great aspect of the new spirit of glasnost is that South Africans no longer need a visa to enter this vast country. Its sheer size and mixed road network makes it a challenge for even the hardiest overlanders. The rewards are a chance to explore Angola’s rich cultural heritage and natural attractions, which vary from sandy desert to tropical forests.

The corrugated 25km river bed route to Flamingo Lodge (Photo by Cornel van Heerden)

The perfect country, then, for Toyota to launch the Namib special edition of its 79 Series double cab, and to bring along two other key members of a vehicle family that has justly earned a reputation as the ‘Master of Africa’. We only have time to explore the highlights of the Namibe province in the south-western corner, but what a great region in which to compare back-to-back drives in the Prado mid-sized SUV, 200 Series full-sized SUV, and the 79 Series double cab 4.5-litre V8 diesel.

Namibe and the desert

A group of journos cheat a bit on the long drive through Namibia, flying into Windhoek and taking a late afternoon charter flight to the town of Namibe with its brand-new airport. It’s very remote in Angola’s south, the view from the air dominated by seas of sand dunes broken by deep canyons. The crew from Will of Africa Safaris are waiting with the Land Cruisers, and we hit the freshly-tarred and traffic-free EN280 south as darkness closes in. Clearly, money is being spent on infrastructure.

The Flamingo Lodge turn-off looms an hour later; time to drop tyre pressures using the clever In-Deflate tool, which equalises across two wheels. Then it’s a 25km shocker through the dry bed of the Flamingo River, dodging rocks and bushes, hitting jumps, and rattling to the bump stops over severe corrugations. Our 200 Series is lapping up the punishment, keeping passengers insulated from the bangs and thumps underneath. A final stretch of sand takes us to the lodge, which is perched tenuously in the stony cliffs in a small bay – a collection of mostly basic wooden structures. Water comes from a pipeline to a distant river, electricity from a generator.

Sandstone canyons in Parque Nacional do Iona (Photo by Cornel van Heerden)

This fishing outpost is run by old Angola hand Rico Sakko, whose team takes things in their stride, putting on a brilliant seafood feast including the biggest oysters I have ever seen, and supplying a steady stream of cold drinks. It’s a festive night, headed by TSA’s sales and marketing man Calvyn Hamman and flanked by old friend Jean Engelbrecht of Rust en Vrede (who supplies the excellent wines). Johan Badenhorst of Voetspore fame is also there; he knows the area well. Will Jansen of Will of Africa Safaris is in charge of logistics, along with conservation expert Lorraine Doyle. Things could not get better; this is a proper collection of Land Cruiser owners and enthusiasts.

Welwitschias & red cliffs

Sunrise reveals the hard-topped dunes that backdrop the lodge, and a stretch of black, mineral-rich beach extending to the horizon. After a quick breakfast, there is a chance to jump into the 79 Series. It feels fully at home here: large and in charge. It’s a big and basic brute of a vehicle, and the Namib edition has a few extras to give it the edge. Over the same 25km gravel stretch towards the tar and the town of Tombua, what shines out is the capability of this truck. It feels unbreakable, roaring over the bumps with authority. The convoy stops near a giant specimen of Welwitschia mirabilis, and Lorraine explains its biology; it’s a desert specimen of great age, changing little over dozens, if not hundreds of years, fed moisture by the incoming fog which enables it to survive in this dry part of the world.

At a nearby guard post, we turn into a massive field of desert sand that slowly evolves into a brooding mass of abandoned concrete bunkers, a legacy of the recent war and a holding place for thousands of probably Cuban troops and their vehicles. Remarkably it was never discovered by SA reconnaissance fly-overs; all that remains are some scattered boots, a few bullet casings and thousands of rusting tins.

(Photo by Cornel van Heerden)

Our route moves to the Parque Nacional do Iona, which is signposted but unmanned. Red dusty roads give way to a maze of canyons, a layer cake of the millennia. Our hosts set up a camouflage net tent in the blazing sun and we explore this ancient canyon complex in the Cruisers, learning about its origins and telling tall stories over the lunch table.

The journey back northwards is in the Prado with its D-4D diesel and comfy pews, following the dust trails and tar back to the Flamingo Lodge turn-off. Even with tyres deflated the SUV doesn’t have quite the sheer grit or bump compliance of its heavier-duty cousins. We are banging through yumps, slowing down for sections the other trucks are speeding through. Yet our tests rate this vehicle right up there for off-road capability. The evening treat is a drive into the massive amphitheatre behind the lodge, another marvel of stacked cliffs enclosing millions of fossils. Huge rivers must have flowed here; a legacy of this landscape which is said to be 56-80 million years old. At sunset, a picnic is set up overlooking another stretch of empty, unspoilt beach. Life’s tough in Africa!

Abandoned bunkers that housed thousands of troops during the war (Photo by Cornel van Heerden)

The double Doodsakker

A very early start sees the convoy leave the lodge as the sun is rising, tackling the riverbed stretch in the Prado. It’s best to drive slower than the rest, particularly when negotiating bigger dips. Breakfast on the run is at a newly-built fuel station in the tatty fishing village of Tombua, where dozens of three-wheeler ‘Keweseki’ mini-trucks made in China arrive, the local utility option of choice, along with the usual buzz of 125cc Chinese motorbikes. Fuel is a third of South Africa’s inflated price, the equivalent of R4/litre – perfect for a fleet of thirsty 4x4s.

The plan is to tackle the infamous Doodsakker, a narrow 50km passage between the Namib’s dunes and the Atlantic that leads down to the Cunene River mouth. Timing is critical: to get through at dead low tide the Cruisers race the clock along incredible sand flats where giant flocks of cormorants wheel and turn, feeding on stranded sardines. The beach drive is a blast. Traction control off, in high-range, I put foot along the packed sand, churn through a few soft sections where the waves are still rolling up a narrow 15-metre stretch of beach, and take a few watery hits when a wave surge is mistimed. The Cruisers are in their element: bombing the tough stuff. A squad of adventurers in hire vehicles – mostly 80 Series Cruisers – rollick past with wide grins. There’s a theme here. Rico’s crew have gone ahead to a small inlet where a rubber duck with two 50hp motors is moored. The boat struggles to get on the plane on the flat sea with its big load but is soon humming over the 8km stretch, which links to the Isle dos Tigres in the distance. This island used to be the endpoint of a huge fish-rich bay before the connecting sandbar was washed away in the Sixties.

A white Namib edition perched among Toyota flags greets us on the island; it’s the first vehicle to drive there since the last residents left the surrounding ghost town in 1974 – nearly 46 years. The crumbling buildings would have been painted in vibrant colours, and are all on stilts to prevent sand build-up underneath them. There’s a cemetery, an old fishing factory, and a still-intact church with a lookout tower. Lunch is served in what used to be the central hall and bioscope. Then it’s time to leave, as the wind is riffling the sea. The Cruiser needs to be loaded up on the 10-metre square raft, purpose-built by Rico and his team. A few of the journos have gone AWOL to the lighthouse on the island’s northern tip. There is no way to contact them and the tide waits for nobody. After their return, it’s a three-hour operation to load the vehicle on the raft and tug it to the striped dunes of the mainland which give the island its name.

Sunset picnic on a deserted stretch of Angolan coast behind Flamingo Lodge (Photo by Cornel van Heerden)

The slow pace on the boat is great, and bizarre in a ‘Heart of Darkness’ way, though we’ve missed the tide window and it will be too dark to tackle the alternative route along the dunes. Still, a recce trip up some nearby steep dune faces and a slip face or two gets the adrenaline going. Driving along the spines of impossibly-perfect dunes as the sun sinks is sublime. I get stuck a few times before getting the hang of easing down the slope to gain momentum. You want to be in high range with the diff locks off. I get stuck in low range, not wanting to stop and hold up the convoy. A rookie error. A final steep pitch to a vantage point overlooking a tiny bay reveals nothing for miles, apart from great ranks of dunes.

Luckily there is some hot, meaty stew waiting for the stranded part of the group back at the ramshackle collection of huts, which Rico has called Camp Relief, in the lee of a shoreside dune. The next low tide is at 23:00, so it’s waiting time. But at 21:00 Rico makes the call: “Keep your pace, don’t stop, follow in my tracks. This is serious stuff, we can’t afford a mishap.” And the Cruisers hit the Doodsakker for the second time in a day. Slushy sand sections threaten to bog the Prado, though the driver keeps his foot planted and gets through. A full-on wave blast, on two or three occasions, threatens to engulf a few of the vehicles. Its teeth-gritting stuff with a few whoops of fright thrown in. As the critical part is done, Will’s loaded 70 Series Cruiser hoves into view stranded halfway up the escape dune. What happened?

The pace is stern; no hanging about. Then the white Cruiser ahead slows and the brake lights come on – a bunch of cormorants have smashed into the windscreen. A small patch of clear glass is enough to see through, so it’s on to Tombua for a quick refuel and then the gravel torture test back to the lodge for a quick bite, a welcome drink, and a dose of shut-eye.

The famous pass

The adventure’s last day begins with another very early start, aiming up the tarred EN280 to Lubango and its international airport. I grab a 200 for this stretch, with some intent, wanting its cruise control and effortless ability to travel distances at pace and in pure luxury. The tar is heavily potholed in places, the small towns – with evident Portuguese heritage – are bustling with people going about their commerce. Angola is on the rise, and the towns are mostly neat and clean, though there are stark contrasts in wealth. Open dry plains dotted with baobabs and the occasional farmer’s subsistence plot mark the route north. The big attraction is the Serra da Leba Pass, which comes upon us just as the vegetation becomes lusher. Its bends are as dramatic as the pictures show, the views over the surrounding plains are re-exposed with each new turn. This really is an engineering marvel, which gives way just over its crest to small businesses dotting the roadside and the town of Lubango. Here, busy streets, shopping malls replete with Checkers outlets, and traffic jams due to roadworks are all too familiar.

Serra de Leba Pass – a remarkable engineering feat (Photo by Cornel van Heerden)

As for the vehicles, nothing’s gone wrong in any way, despite serious hammering over all sorts of terrain – apart from a dinged bumper due to driver error. The Cruisers are typically ready for more, confirming their reputation as tough and reliable, can-do 4x4s.

Parque Nacional do Iona

Angola’s largest national park covers just over 15 000 square kilometres in an area extending 180km south from the Cunene River to the Curoca River in the north, ending some 200km south of the town of Namibe. It’s been a park since 1964 but suffered heavy faunal losses from poaching during the war years. New management, under non-profit conservation organisation African Parks (www.africanparks.org), might change the lax controls. A region of vast plains and massive shifting dunes, along with zones of weathered sedimentary mountains and cliff faces, it is considered to be southern Africa’s only true desert. Iona is contiguous with the Skeleton Coast National Park of Namibia (and the Namib-Naukluft Park below that), forming an unbroken 500km of coastline alongside the Atlantic Ocean’s Benguela Current, responsible for a cold upwelling, which makes for rich fishing territory and characteristic heavy fogs inland.

Isle dos Tigres

Discovered in 1486 by Portuguese sailor Diogo Cao and established as the fishing village of Tigres from the 1860s, the island is named after the characteristic striped dunes on the adjacent mainland. In the past, this was the Baia dos Tigres, linked to the mainland by a narrow isthmus, and so the higher temperatures of the bay formed and nurtured it as a rich marine spawning ground. A fish processing factory and community comprising more than 50 houses and a church were built to capitalise on this industry. However, in 1962 a water pipeline supplying the 1 500 or so inhabitants was ruptured in a storm and carried on flowing, severing the narrow sand bar. Water was initially shipped over to the island, and plane drops of food and medical supplies continued, but the last remaining residents were evacuated when war broke out in 1974. It’s been a ghost town since. Toyota’s Namib edition was the first vehicle to drive on the island in 25 years.

The Doodsakker

This dangerous 50km passage sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and steep dunes of the Namib Desert runs northwards from Foz do Cunene (mouth of the Cunene River) to the town of Tombua. Long considered a rite of passage, literally, it was named by former SA army sergeant major Koos Moorcroft, and has claimed more than its share of vehicles. It must be driven without delay during low spring tide, or at neap tide low, taking into account weather and swell conditions. Impassable rock sections can also be exposed after heavy swells, so consult Tracks4Africa updates (www.t4A.co.za) and local operators such as Rico Sakko of Flamingo Lodge and Angola Adventure Safaris (+244 (0)92 349 4992/ +244 (0)93 378 2226).

Serra da Leba Pass

Built in the 1970s to a design by a team led by a Portuguese woman Maria Alice Leba, this dramatic 10km-long pass rises from the lowlands of Namibe to 1 845 metres above sea level in a very short, steep stretch that ends 36km south of the town of Lubango. It is characterised by multiple hairpins fronted by steep surrounding cliff faces. Part of the tarred Estrada Nacional 280 (EN280), its 56 curves and twists have earned it a reputation as the best stretch of road in Angola. Strangely, a toll is levied on vehicles driving down the pass, but going up is mahala.

LAND CRUISER FAMILY

PRADO

Offered in three trim grades (TX, VX, and VX-L), with either a 3.0-litre D4-D turbodiesel or V6 4.0-litre petrol. The diesel derivative we drove, due for replacement, puts out 120kW and 400Nm, and is coupled to a five-speed auto transmission, with a claimed 8.5-litres/100km fuel index. This mid-sized luxury SUV in the top trim grade has all the mod-cons including KDSS, MTS, and centre and rear diff locks, offering luxury and seven seats. It’s the ideal family vehicle. Like the others carrying the Cruiser moniker, it can take a punch, though it is more of a cross-over than an out-and-out workhorse.

200 SERIES

The true Master of Africa when it comes to bullish 4×4 ability, the 200 is an evolution of the bulletproof 80 Series, now boasting independent front double wishbone suspension and a multi-link rear set-up, coupled to Toyota’s KDSS levelling system. The gutsy 4.5-litre turbodiesel V8 available in SA, with 195kW and 650Nm it is coupled to a six-speed auto and a full suite of 4×4 gear including Multi Terrain Select and 360-degree view cameras. The pinnacle of luxury with a giant touchscreen and other comfort technologies, it uses sensible 285/60 R17 rubber and comes locally in two grades: basic GX (with a snorkel and rear barn-type doors) and ultra-plush VX-R. For ultimate ride comfort in the harshest of terrains, the 200 has no equal at this price point.

79 SERIES NAMIB EDITION

The 70 Series range is considered the original workhorse 4×4 that has kept going under the most difficult load-carrying conditions, earning it a solid reputation in applications from agriculture to the military. Put that down to the classic formula of ladder-frame chassis, solid axles front and rear (both with diff locks), coupled to leaf springs in the rear and coils upfront. It is offered in single- and double-cab variants (and the 76 Series Station Wagon), with a 4.0-litre V6 petrol, 4.2-litre straight-six natasp diesel, and 4.5-litre V8 turbodiesel with 151kW and 430Nm. The Namib edition double cab, inspired by the challenging conditions thrown up by the Namib Desert, uses the latter engine. It was conceived around a late-night campfire by Toyota sales and marketing VP Calvyn Hamman and friends, including Jean Engelbrecht of Rust en Vrede. Apart from cosmetic changes, including a new honeycomb grille and badging, it is accessorised with a range of well-chosen overlanding-ready goodies, which in this case do not void the 3-year/100 000km warranty. These include an ARB bullbar with high-intensity Lightforce spotlights and a sturdy rear tubular step bumper with an integrated towbar. The load body is given a protective skin, seats are covered with Namib-branded canvas covers and a roof console added with a storage binnacle, LED lights, and two-way radio mount. The suspension has been upgraded with Old Man Emu hardware and the tyres are 265/75 R16 Cooper Discoverer ST Maxx items on 16-inch alloys. This is in addition to the standard touchscreen audio with navigation, ABS, and central locking. This is a utility vehicle, so no traction control and other nannies. Transmission is a five-speed manual.

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