Tuesday, August 31, 2010

26 - Of Dumps and Gorgeous Gorges

Pointe Noire's main drag, Avenue du General de Gaulle
 Pointe Noire is the original dump. The guidebook says Congo's second city has beautifully paved streets and beautifully painted mansions. But the overall impression is that of a dump. Untarred streets and the pavements of those that are tarred are like mini-sand dunes. A taxi has just got itself marooned in one, mudguard deep. There are some nice tiled villas behind high walls, the train station built in the early 20th century is in a moderately attractive Swiss or German town hall style, and the only really nice streets are literally on the other side of the rail tracks (which are covered with trash) by the ocean, doubtless the expat oil workers’ bubble. Off-shore rigs mar the view from the beach.

Oil rig view from Pointe Noire's beach
 The main drag, Avenue Charles de Gaulle, is seedy in the extreme, with large oil company complexes, a big ugly, depressing grey Atlantic Palace hotel, and just a couple of very tatty pavement cafes to recall that this was once a French domain. The guide writer was clearly smoking some excellent stuff, which I must get my hands on. Anyway, it doesn't matter as this is only a way station to visit a chimpanzee rescue centre run by Jane Goodall, go to a reputedly spectacular gorge, and move on to the mountainous hinterland.
Railway station

Meanwhile a worker at the exceedingly seedy hotel (it still costs $64 a night) has latched on to me - my Passepartout. He's taken me to the central market to change money, found a way to do all my laundry for $20, instead of $2 a shirt, and now he's offering me his sister 'for special price.'

But the gorge at Diosso, a few miles north of Pointe Noire, is indeed spectacular - jagged red cliffs several hundred feet high amid luxuriant green rain forest, with smaller ridges and pinnacles in the huge bowl beneath. Kids of course block off the track to the viewing point to get a dollar – and why not? They don`t have many other opportunities to make a buck. Diosso is where the kings of the Loango kingdom are buried and there`s a scruffy tin-roofed museum that is closed anyway on weekdays. On the way back, a police checkpoint tries to stop the taxi for the regulation bribe but the driver just speeds through, shouting that he has already coughed up on the way going - not true, but they don`t shoot.
Pointe Noire-Brazzaville railway line as rubbish dup

Diosso Gorge

Monday, August 30, 2010

25 - A Bush Taxi In A Shooting Gallery

Farewell, Cabinda
 We pile into a bush taxi, a big fat market Mammy in the front seat and three of us squashed into the back of the small car, for the two-hour journey to the border with the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville or former French).This is the Togo Alley shooting gallery, where Cabinda separatists ambushed the Togo soccer team on its way to its African Cup matches in Cabinda in January, killing three people.

 We zip past a large modern stadium, then the Malongo base where all the expat oil workers live. They're helicoptered everywhere for security reasons, and the ground on their side of the wire fence is said to be heavily mined against infiltrators - ensuring that anyone fleeing violence on this side and scaling the fence has a very good chance of losing a limb.

We enter undulating rain forest, excellent ambush country for any separatist bazooka Joe. If separatist bullets don't get us, though, the driver's skills will – he's forever chatting up big fat market Mammy and giving her the glad eye, with only an occasional cursory glance at the road ahead. The car stops and big fat market Mammy gets out for a little squat and pee – well, that must have put any would-be ambushers to flight, because we reach the border without further mishap.

Cabinda's coastline

 The frontier is a large mud and dirt lot. Amid multiple shouting rugby scrums, we're swarmed by money changers who don't have the word 'no' in their vocabulary. A drunken group is dancing around in a circle, singing, chanting and holding bottles and cups smack in the middle of the dirt track. Photos most categorically verbotenissimo, honourable senhor, and most highly ill-advised with all those gun-toting guards about.

At the official health post on the Angolan side everybody is buying duly stamped yellow fever vaccination booklets, required by Congo, without having the vaccination; well, there's a giant step for public health. On the Congolese side, meanwhile, an official wants me to pay $20 for a cholera vaccination, which he assures me is required by both Congos.

‘We're not going to vaccinate you, we just put the stamp in your health booklet,’ quoths he, with a breezy smile.

‘His Excellency, your ambassador at the UN, assured me that I only needed the yellow fever vaccination,’ quoths I.

He is unimpressed. But a co-goon tells him to let me through without paying. He eventually does.

Now the Congolese police official at the next little kiosk wants $4 for entering my name into a big entry ledger.

'But His Excellency, your UN ambassador....' I trot out the same schpiel again.

Old Chief Constable Poker Face is even less impressed than his cholera cousin. But I eventually bargain him down to $1, and I'm through and on my way to Pointe Noire, Congo's off-shore oil drilling hub, principal port and second city.

View Cabinda to Pointe Noire and beyond in a larger map

Sunday, August 29, 2010

24 - Hypocrites

A Cabinda slum
 We fly over the vast mouth of the Congo River, bank over some off-shore oil rigs with dirty great brown wakes of Gawd-alone-knows-what fouling the water (no chance of a verboten photo because the plane's windows are even dirtier), and touch down in Angola's Cabinda enclave, sandwiched between the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo – once the Belgian and French Congos. In fact Cabinda was once called Portuguese Congo, conned out of a local kingdom by some phoney treaty in the 1880s, and run as a separate colony until 1958 when Lisbon decided to merge it with Angola. So one can understand oil-rich Cabinda's separatists' point of view.

But then it's wonderful how today's anti-imperialists see nothing wrong with adopting imperialism's legacy of vastly different territories and tribes jumbled together, viz India with Assam, Nagaland etc. which had no ethnic, linguistic or other links with India until the British merged them administratively; or Indonesia with Dutch New Guinea etc.
Cabinda's slumdog millionaires?

Cabinda is definitely rather tired, but it has a faded charm with some tree-lined streets and colonial buildings, a nice waterfront going south and a couple of gaunt steepled churches. The governor's palace is an attractive large African-style building and I manage to sneak a verboten photo from my hotel terrace. There are the usual slums, some of them 'upper class' with a few more solid brick buildings abutting the rutted, puddled mud streets, where joyful kids are playing.

Meanwhile yours truly is staying at the best hotel in town for $160 a night. This is because it is only $24 more than the hotel two classes below it. But curb your enthusiasm: this tatty dowager has most definitely seen better days, and although it has a/c, TV and hot water, it is only worth about $40 in a normal country. And don't have your washing done here. It's $4.50 for a T-shirt and $3.30 for socks or panties.
Governor's Palace

A Cabinda park

Church of the Kingdom of the World

Saturday, August 28, 2010

23 - Presidential Hiccup

My plans to go from Luanda to Soyo at the mouth of the Congo, where there's some major off-shore oil drilling, have gone for a burton. The guidebook says there are buses, but both expats and locals say the road is terrible, the buses never arrive because they break down, and those that do take forever - and then some. Well, memories of a scheduled 10-hour truck journey from Guinea to Guinea-Bissau that took 40 hours a few years back are rooting for discretion here, so I'm flying straight to Cabinda, the little Angolan enclave separated from the mother ship by the mighty river and a sliver of the Democratic republic of Congo.

View Luanda to Cabinda in a larger map

The national carrier TAAG has managed to get itself banned from going anywhere near European air space because of its 'spotty maintenance' record so I think I'll give them a miss. The expats say Air26 is the best company to take. The lady of the manor is driving me to Luanda airport for $35, but her van is boxed in by a dozen other vehicles in a crazy quilt maze on the dirt path behind the Soleme Hotel. It takes about 100 turns to finally manoeuvre us out onto the road, but as it's Sunday there's none of the usual horrendous gridlock.

Last views of Luanda on route to airtport

Soldiers, though, are already on street crossings and overpasses for the president's return from attending the World Cup opening in South Africa; expats say they close the whole city when he passes by. Fortunately his triumphant entry is some hours away.

The domestic terminal building is OK but the floor where the check-in clerks sit is littered with refuse – half empty food containers, plastic water bottles, reams of paper, and the clerks' chairs are in various stages of brokenness. But the Air26 clerks turn up right on time at 10 a.m., processing people efficiently - and no, none of them knows why the company's called Air26, and not Air27 or Air36. One says because it's an even number. Well, so is 36, but I let it drop.

Close to Agostinho Neto 'space needle' memorial
The goon at the Migration and Foreigners Service check desk, however, has every intention of dropping me. You need a special letter of authorisation to go to Cabinda, quoths he. But your ambassador to the UN said everything was OK for Cabinda, lie I. No, you can't go, requoths he. Is he looking for a 'gasosa' (bribe)? At this point another goon comes over and asks why I want to go to Cabinda. To look around and get out of your freaking country and on to Pointe Noire in Congo, quoth I. He must think ‘freaking,’ spat out loudly amid my Portuguese, means magnificent, because he smiles and tells his co-goon to let me through.

The information screens screens in the departure lounge are not working, and every so often an employee comes round shouting out the next departing flight. This may sound stone age, but it's a damn sight better than your regular public address system in the first world sputtering, squawking and crackling away in Klingon.

More views going south to airport
Our boarding time has already passed and suddenly the whole freaking airport has shut down. Passengers who already boarded buses to go to their planes are brought back. His Freaking Excellency is about to land on his victorious return from the World Cup. So now we're all stuck waiting for HFE.

After nearly an hour a gleaming all-white plane with three tail jets glides in, His Excellency's Air Force One. I'm tempted to sneak a verboten photo. The lady to my right won't cause any trouble; she's reading a book of prayers - currently one to Saint Bras – which I assume is to make up for the maintenance reputedly lacking with Angolan air companies. But the gent on my right is a hulking great soldier with a revolver strapped to his hip, so my photo remains in pectore.

HFE has apparently still not moved his arse out of the vicinity because we are still stuck half an hour later. Still, this also happens in the first world. Remember Clinton holding up everybody at Los Angeles airport while he got a perm aboard Air Force One? We finally depart about two hours late.

Friday, August 27, 2010

22 - Geological Mystery

Black rocks of Pungo N'Dongo

 From a distance they look like huge humps sticking out of the flat savanna, mammoth outcroppings. Called the Black Rocks of Pungo N'Dongo, although they are grey, they soar up to 650 feet above the plain. No one can explain how they got there since they are so out of whack with the surrounding geology. One looks like a lion with drooping eyes, another like an enormous circumcised penis; they come in all shapes and sizes. There are a dozen or so groups of them on a 10-mile frontage.
Pungo N'Dongo ravine

 Inside one group ravines gouge their way between the crags, the slopes and summits covered with light green grass and darker trees; a school and sports facility nestle in the bowl at the bottom. King N'Gola and Queen Ginga are said to have sought refuge here as they battled the invading Portuguese in the 17th century, and their purported footsteps in the rock are preserved as a shrine under a shelter.

One massive outcrop serves as a backdrop for the dirt poor village of Carima – a collection of mud huts with several TV antennae and a couple of satellite dishes on the straw roofs; the black and red flag of the ruling MPLA party with a gold star flaps outside. The red and green flag of the former rebel UNITA, now a political party, is less common here.
More rocks
Nearby a Brazilian company is helping to start a sugar plantation to produce ethanol. And in the neighbouring town of Cacuso yet another mine victim hobbles along on crutches, one more Angolan who survived the war only to be caught in the maze of booby-trapped fields sown by the three decades of conflict.

Queen Ginga's footprint

Carima village in the shadow of the rocks

Oh yes, and the geological mystery? Muggins discovers the answer: elementary, my dear Watson, New Age giants put them there, it's their leggo.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

21 - On a High

Kalandula water falls
The Kalandula Falls are indeed spectacular, bursting out of the rain forest on the brink of an escarpment and plunging some 350 feet over a 340-yard frontage, mists of spray and shimmering rainbows shooting upwards as the foaming white waters plummet down to the savannah below. A field of boulders stretches from an ugly brick lookout along the rim, all marked with the usual graffiti – Gelson loves Ermingilda, 1920 etc.- where a steady foot will get you that little bit closer to the falls, reputedly the second or third highest in Africa, and an unsteady one will get you apeing them. On the opposite side, half way up the slope, is an ugly inn built by the Portuguese colonists for an ever better view – now just an inaccessible wreck from the to-ings and fro-ings of the civil war.

The Lucala River wends its way from the falls to join the Kwanza

After such a magnificent panorama we leave on a high. The driver is on a roll. A coiling snake slithers across the road as we approach – now it slithers no more. A road-crazed hen can't make up her mind. We pass on with a wake of white feathers behind us. Still no people, though. The driver is truly chagrined – not that he hasn’t yet managed to prang a human, but at having hit the animals.

And the ubiquitous litter bugs
Back at the newly opened Yolaka Hotel, a collection of prefabricated tin huts for $104 a night, we watch the South Africa – Mexico World Cup match in the bar. South Africa scores and the barmen start dancing.

Sunset over the Yolaka Hotel

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

20 - Travelling in Style

Today enough of the buses – I'm travelling in style. At the enormous cost of $375 a day I've rented the car and driver for two days to go several hundred miles inland to see what are billed as a spectacular water fall and a superbly weird collection of giant boulders on the savannah. Anyway, the bus to the nearest town, Malanje, would take nine or 10 hours and then there’s no regular transport to the falls.

View Luanda to Kalandula and Pungo N'Dongo in a larger map

Trees a policeman decrees verboten
Large sections of the road, tar-surfaced by the Chinese less than three years ago, are already cratered with deep pot holes; and where they are not pot-holed they are ribbed, ridged, wrinkled, valleyed and gulleyed. The Chinese apparently put on too thin a surface, and never laid proper foundations or made drainage allowance for tropical rains. They built this, as with other work here, on credit, accepting future batches of Angolan oil for payment. Now the Chinese road workers have buggered off home, leaving the Angolans to try to repair the mess – but still taking their oil payments. We pass a huge Chinese factory compound where all the workers are Chinese, many of them criminal prisoners according to expats here, living on site. Again, so much for trying to give unemployed Angolans jobs.

The change from arid to rain forest along the route
Away from the coastal flatland we rise through a totally different ecosystem of thick rain forest to the plateau. We pass a mother carrying a completely fair-skinned albino baby on her back. Albinos are not uncommon; here's hoping they treat them better than in Tanzania or wherever, where they kill them as sorcerers or for some other superstitious reasons. As usual people throw drink cans and other garbage out of the windows. And as usual, we pass the regular crop of wrecked vehicles, including a spectacularly overturned truck in a river where the driver thought better of taking the bridge.

 We are stopped at many police checkpoints where my passport is scrutinized. Just as well I have it with me, and not merely the photocopy, since one foreigner was recently arrested when he only had the copy. He was taken to the police station and held pending someone bringing his passport from the hotel. It was a Friday, the person with the keys to the hotel safe was away for the weekend – which the guy then spent in a prison cell, leaving the country in disgust when he was finally released on the Monday and swearing never to come back.

Another verboten tree
At one checkpoint the cop smiles sweetly at the driver and says: 'Have you got a good week end for me,' another euphemism for bribe. The driver says he has nothing. At another, muggins takes photos of some baobab trees in the forest, in the exact opposite direction from the checkpoint. The cop reads me the riot act: 'You should always ask administrative permission to take any photos; you can't go around like that just clicking away.' Gee, Officer Krupke, pu-lease!

Verboten or kosher? No policeman to advise here

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

19 - Bring on the Clowns

There are three clowns on the bus from Huambo to Luanda, besides your usual quiet Angolan passengers. There's the fat noisy meister-clown up front who spends his time bellowing to his two co-clowns down-bus, that is when he's not staggering up and down the aisle to quaff some more liquor with them, sitting on everybody's arm rest in the process. The meister-clown is called Rosario, a name more commonly associated with women; one of the co-clowns, even fatter than his master, wears dark dictator wrap-around sun-glasses. They're like cartoon caricatures. And so it goes on – bellowing, staggering and quaffing up bus and down bus. Would that the driver would slam on the brakes and propel Rosario through the windscreen. My bad!

                                                                               Huambo to Luanda

Roadside views
We have too many stops, for police checks, food purchases and, of course, peeing – squatting, blanket-draped women to one side, upright men to the other. But the scenery is splendidly otherworldly, worthy of Lord of the Rings or Avatar – weird giant grey crags and pinnacles jutting out of the savanna on the plateau; extensive copses of baobabs, all pot-bellied with crazily twisted upper branches, as we descend towards the coast.

More roadside views
We pass an overturned tractor-trailer spilling tomatoes and other produce all over the roadside, a crashed car wrapped around the entrance to a bridge, and the skeletons of many earlier wrecks. Our driver's wearing a park ranger type hat straight out of Smokey and the Bandit, and can't give any idea when we'll arrive. The important thing is to 'arrive well,' quoths he. There are several companies doing the route. Asked which is the best, a fellow passenger says it depends on the driver. Sounds like a bit of crap shoot against crashing.

After one stop the three clowns come on with more booze, the chickens in the back start crowing, and I make smiley faces at a little child. She starts bawling; now all the other infants join in. I stare back out of the window. Gee, officer Krupke, it's not me.

Baobab groves
 At one stop, we start off only to screech to a halt again. Rosario has forgotten to get back on. As we approach Luanda, Rosario helps departing passengers at intermediate halts to retrieve their cases and sacks from the hold. I get off to make sure he doesn't help them retrieve mine. Back on board the three clowns are having a great time, beer bottles in hand. Funnily, they're all OK individually, even if too loud.

At last, after 10 hours, we reach the final stop on the industrial outskirts of Luanda, 20 kilometres from the centre. For some obscure reason the three clowns have started to fight, shouting at each other and making threatening gestures and mock charges, but not before one of them explains to me how to get to where I want to go. There are, of course, no taxis. Instead whole convoys of blue and white candongueiro mini vans manoeuvre in and out with their conductors lurching half-body out of the windows and shouting destinations. I am to get the van to Chongolese and from there another to Maianga.
A portly baobab
They are jam packed, with music blaring at 1,000 decibels. Several refuse me because of my case, but with the help of a local I get on one, paying a seat for the case. The traffic is horrendous but we eventually make it to Chongolese, where the conductor helps me get on one for Maianga. Wow, this is easy, I must do it more often.

After a couple of kilometres, the brakes give out and we slither to a shaky halt. It's out once more to hunt for another craft. Again the usual hassle over the case, but fellow travellers are yet once more very helpful. The traffic gets worse and worse, especially near a local police station where a cop is holding everybody up in an interminable line to let his buddies get home. At last the candongueiro stops at its turn about point; miracle of miracles, it's only 50 feet from the Soleme inn. Who needs a $50 or $100 taxi, anyway, in this traffic snarl? And the total cost? $4 for both muggins AND case.

One of Luanda's smoother running streets

Monday, August 23, 2010

18 - More Huambo Zambo

Huambo's government palace across main square in upper city
The upper city of Huambo is dominated by a vast square in front of the pink government palace (photos verboten), with streets radiating out obliquely. Yours truly plays mouse and cat with the security forces, sneaking the odd oblique palace shot. Likewise at the equally photo-verboten pink national bank mansion in the lower city, darting out from a tree shadow to snap another quickie. When the cat is away (or asleep), mousey-me can play with a leap.

Huambo was founded by the Portuguese nearly 100 years ago under the name Nova Lisboa (New Lisbon) as the centre of the large agricultural area on the central plateau. It's quite
'Verboten' National bank in lower city
an extensive city meant for some 2 million people, but suffered heavily in the war as it went back and forth changing hands. Many buildings are still pockmarked with shell impacts, others by small arms fire, some high-rises are virtually destroyed or in various stages of disrepair, and there are now only about 500,000 inhabitants.
War damage on October 5 street
 A stroll down October 5 Street by the side of the Benguela railway line can give a fair impression of the war’s devastation, and the halting attempts at repair and rebuilding. But at about 6,000 feet the climate is ideal, and there are plenty of trees and green spaces throughout the city to relieve the gloom; at the western end of town a cemetery unfurls its ornate mausoleums and avenues under a canopy of trees like a miniature garden city with cathedrals. 
More war damage

Chinese workers are laying new crazy paving on the sidewalk outside a nice little pavement cafe in the upper city, giving a whole new dimension to crazy. They first tore up the pavement to lay new water pipes, according to a friendly fellow tea-drinker, but these were too narrow and burst under the pressure. Then they laid larger pipes, but put mud under the crazy paving instead of porous sand, ensuring some magnificent buckling during the rains, and equally magnificent dives by Huambo's high-heeled divas on their way to afternoon tea. Now they’re on their third try, putting down a sand foundation. My fellow drinker swears Angolan worker could do much better.

Cemetery avenue
Which leads us onto the subject of corruption, with the current rulers' switch from communism to capitalism, getting the gravy both times round. But then, as they say, capitalism is the exploitation of man by man while communism is the opposite.

Opposite is a lovely park in front of a pink mansion with two fountains and a copse of beautiful trees marred by one glaringly fake plastic orange and yellow palm tree. Now why would they do that? But the cafe's a great place to see the Angolan world go past – crippled beggars pulling themselves along the curb; more footless mine victims; a briskly walking woman nonchalantly suckling her child; walking vendors hawking shoes, sunglasses, and all sorts of knicknacks; lots of children, some of them shoeless; your ordinary average citizen going about his or her business; and of course the Chinese taking jobs from unemployed Angolans.

Fake palm amid lush natural vegetation

Market shoe shop under the trees

Sunday, August 22, 2010

17 - On The Road Once More, with Feeling

Hordes of women with babies on backs, cases on heads, some with squawking chickens in hand, are swarming to get on the bus from Lubango to Huambo; the huge dusty hold at the back is jampacked with massive sacks and yours truly's bright red case. My seat’s in the middle, but the SGO bus company's maitre d' or whatever you call him summons me up front to replace a woman with a child - children are not allowed to sit in the front. This is great unless the driver is contemplating a full frontal crash.

                                                      Lubango to Huambo
A woman with a huge box comes on, knocking off everybody's head as she moves to the back; now she's told to bring it back up front, again knocking everybody's head off. The front is so cluttered that we'll never make it out in an emergency. On the outskirts of town, the driver stops, stands up and reads us the riot act – no throwing of tins or other objects out of windows, everybody to behave nicely, and we're going via Catengue because a bridge is out on the far shorter route.

Want to buy a chicken?
Everybody in fact is very well behaved, especially the children. People using cell phones are talking very quietly – Americans on trains and buses, please take note. Several parts of the tarred road degenerate into a terrible maze of rutted holes and dirt tracks. Every now and then we stop for the calls of nature, blanket-draped women squatting and squeezing on one side of the road, men standing and watering the other.

The engine cowl is now leaking a little stream of petrol all over the front and everybody's rushing to pick up their cases, complaining that their clothes are already contaminated. There's an awful stench of oil, and smoke has now joined the stream of petrol. Now the bus's engine alarm has started ringing. The driver stops at a little halt amid the beautiful scenery of African savannah – yellow grasses, leafy topped trees, almost bald baobabs, and jagged mountains in the distance.

Home at last for some passengers
He checks the oil and water, phones the chief mechanic at SGO's headquarters and explains our predicament. We've already been going for eight hours. Can we proceed, he asks. Yes, he's told. After a little tinkering beneath the engine cowl with a spanner we're off again. Smoke continues to pour out, then miraculously stops. Not so the alarm, which accompanies us for the rest of the ride.

We journey on past two giant stony peeks soaring erect from a rounded mountain top like two massive nipples, past a herd of cows whose herdsman we miss running over by a screaming hair's breadth, past sugar cane sellers where we stop and buy so that everyone can munch and chew. Alongside the Benguela railway, the setting sun gilds the exhilarating landscape. By the time we reach Huambo, we've been going 13 hours.
Strange crag formations between Lubango and Huambo

We arrive in total darkness, the street lights are out, and there's no way to see into the giant dust bowl of a hold to locate my formerly red case - and even less way that I'm going to hoist myself up and into the swirling mess. Instead, perfect gentleman that I am, I prevail upon a local lass to do me the honour, which she willingly does. My bad!

Outside there's not a taxi in blacked-out sight. This calls for initiative. Jabbering, jawboning, I verbally carjack a light-skinned guy who's waiting in the wrong place for a friend. He drives all over the outskirts in the darkness, trying to locate aforesaid friend by tracking him by cell phone in Arabic. They're from Mauritania and are working as traders. After many a false direction, and equally as many false stops, we finally run him to earth miles away in the Sao Joao quarter, just as a motorbike bandit screeches off, thwarted in his attempt to snatch his shoulder bag.

Now we're off to the Academico quarter, trying to locate my home away from home for the next couple of night - Pensao Mae Lina (Mother Lina's Place), one of the cheaper joints in town at $85 a night. We phone them several times, get precise directions, and get just as precisely lost. In the end they have to drive out to guide us in to port.

Hmm, Mother Lina's Place has some red lights outside; now what can that that mean? But at least I've got a roof over my head and a shower - and Sidi, the driver, refuses to accept any money for his pains. Mother Lina, meanwhile, doesn`t turn out to be a madam after all. Things are looking up.

Countryside corner shop

Saturday, August 21, 2010

16 - Sunset Boulevarding

Namibe's waterfront church and government building
Horace Five King's hour has inflated into two. We drive down the coast a short distance, past the little church atop its low bluff, to a swimming haunt where the Atlantic sparkles azure against the stark brown barrenness. Now Mr. Five Kings wants to buy a fish for his boss while I want to hurry on back to visit the reputedly breathtaking Tunda-Vala volcanic fissures on the other side of Lubango. Just before the church, we drive down the shore where he purchases an enormous specimen for $30, stuffs it in the boot. And we're off! For 10 minutes. Mr. Five Kings has forgotten a huge cooking pot in his house, so back we go again.
Mountain view south of Namibe

By the time we've returned to Lubango, he wants to deliver his catch to his boss first before it goes rotten. It's getting late, the sun's going down and it's time for me to assume a leadership role. No way, says I, I've paid $250 for the day and I'm gonna make my day. We drive on down an increasingly rutted track until we hit some rocks that our 4X4 does not take kindly to. Out we get to cover the rest by foot. HFK says he needs to take a right royal shit, and disappears among huge boulders, perched precariously every which way on top of each other as if by some titan's hand. I forge on ahead, leaving him to his business.

It must be at least a couple of miles among the boulders and then across an open mesa. The sun's rays are getting lower and lower. And then, there it is, awe-inspiring, the Tunda-Vala volcanic fissure, a narrow crevasse plunging like a dagger's jagged slash into the craggy escarpment, glowing like a bloody wound in the klieg lights of the setting sun. Some 3,500 feet below, a green carpet of trees unfurls to row after row of mountains disappearing into the golden-red haze.
Tunda-Vala volcanic fissure
Here, not so long ago, criminals and rebels were blindfolded and shot on the very brink or told to walk over. My vertigo pushes me back from the edge. HFK comes puffing up, complaining that his thighs are chafed by such hard walking. Shall I blindfold him?
From the top of Tunda-Vala

It is now virtually dark. We make our way back; a couple of couples are making out in the bushes. At last we reach the car. What’s that smell? The stench inside is strong, gamey, nay verily putrid indeed. Perhaps Mr. Five Kings had a point. We should have delivered the fish first after all.
Sunset over Tunda-Vala

Friday, August 20, 2010

15 - Driving with the King of Kings

Roadside market at village outside Lubango
There's a magnificently scenic road from Lubango to Namibe on the coast. I could go by bus for about $25 each way, but it takes twice as long, about three hours going and four coming back, and you can't see much from the bus or make stops. So I rent a car with driver for the day at $250 – an Angolan bargain. What’s more, I can use him for another scenic trip afterwards.

Leaving the hotel we pass a car that has wrapped itself round a tree in a tangled mess – its driver drank too much last night; no dead but several seriously injured. My driver is Horace Five Kings (Horacio Cinco Reyes) - and no, he doesn't know who the five kings are. He's both fast and skilled, but keeps on burying the huge little finger of his left hand in his nose; OK, I can still shake his right hand.

Eggs, anyone?
Every now and again we pass people on crutches, missing a foot or leg – one more mine victim in what is still, eight years after the end of the war, one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. Near the little villages long lines of market shacks stretch out along the roadside where locals sell the vegetables and fruit they have grown – oranges, onions, carrots. A little girl wanders around with her little sister, almost as big as she is, affixed to her back with a blanket. Further on plastic bags filled with eggs hang from trees, awaiting the next driver-customer.

Suddenly we come to the most incredible chasm as the road switchbacks down the Serra da Leba escarpment to the Namib desert below; 1000-metre-high rock walls ablaze with broad vertical bands of reds, yellows, greens and orange interspersed with grey, above a sea of emerald trees - except, that is, for the brown-bark baobabs with their fat tummies and almost leafless top-knot branches.

Serra da Leba Pass

One hundred miles from Lubango, the little port of Namibe slumbers on its low sand-stone cliffs above the cobalt Atlantic, not particularly beautiful but picturesque all the same, even if there's a terrible faecal pong near a tiny broken wooden jetty. To the south stretches the brown Namib desert far away into Namibia. On the water front several inviting little cafes beckon and Horace Five Kings leaves me for an hour. He works as a driver in Lubango but his home is in Namibe and we've bought up whole markets of food on the way for the family.

Oh dear, the huge little finger of his right hand is now engaged in a little bit of nasal prospecting as well. Right, no hand shake at the temporary farewell after all! Sorry, old bean, I've got arthritic thumbs.

The South Atlantic at Namibe