Monday, August 16, 2010

11 - Going South

 Luanda's bus stations are far from the centre and horrendous traffic jams mean you have to leave at 5 a.m. to be sure to get the 6 a.m. departure, at a cost of $50 for the taxi. The journey south to Benguela passes through mainly arid flatland, dun coloured with low bushes, thorn trees and cacti, except for a section near the arrival, where huge mainly bare crags soar up inland. The towns on the way - Porto Amboim, Sumbe, and the sprawling outskirts of Lobito - are again vast slums with mostly mud-brick hovels crushed against each other on the brink of cliffs, dozens of rocks holding down their corrugated tin roofs. And again, there is the wall-to-wall cascade of refuse befouling the ravines.

                                        South from Luanda

The bus is OK except that the door keeps on popping ajar, prompting the driver to continually stop and smack it into place. The road too, though only a narrow two-laner, is tarred and we zoom along at quite a clip, past many a bleached roadside skeleton of less fortunate cars and trucks that have crashed into each other or leapt into the abyss. Everywhere we stop, the driver leans on the horn for minutes on end to get people back on board.

I'm sitting in the front row right behind the driver, and in fact I'm so carried away by our progress that I swing my legs back and forth in the excitement, landing my right boot smack on his right elbow. Let's just say that this clearly does not go down very well - and I learn a few more local Portuguese swear words.

Benguela - Nossa Senhora do Populo church

 We arrive after nine hours, a horde of motor bike taxi drivers swarms the bus, and we have to battle our way out, until a tall policeman with a long stick arrives, prompting the swarmers to opt for discretion. Benguela itself is a very pretty little town - wide open green squares with tall palms, plenty of lordly pink colonial palaces and mansions, picturesque little churches, and mile upon mile of beaches with craggy mountains in the background. It used to be called the white man's cemetery until the malarial swamps were drained a century ago. And it's much safer than Luanda, meaning you can walk around at night without too much paranoia.

Benguela - Morena beach

But its main claim to fame is the Benguela railway which in colonial days brought copper nearly a 1,000 miles from the mines of Congo and Zambia. Needless to say, UNITA rebels with their bombs and mines took care of that during nearly three decades of civil war, and now the Chinese are here to try and rehabilitate it, rebuilding bridges, re-laying tracks and demining its whole length.

A Benguela square

As far as accommodation goes, I've hit the jackpot with my inn choice - the intriguingly-named Nancy's English school and Guest House; sounds like some kinky sex joint. It's run by an American expatriate - Nancy Gottlieb - who is away at the moment, and is housed in a pretty, sprawling pink cottage right in the colonial centre, five minutes from the sea. It`s much better than the high-rise, block-like brick Praia Morena Hotel - praia means beach – which is in the commercial area miles from the beach of its name. And by Angolan standards it's dirt cheap at $90 for a room with a/c, shower, TV and breakfast. All very cozy.

A quiet Benguela street

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