Tuesday, 19 September 2017

What a difference a border makes - Visiting Angola

I had not intended to go to Angola. She just started calling me as I got closer to her border. The advice on the government website says ‘DON’T GO’, but if you do want to go you have to go to your country of origin to apply for a visa. I decided to chance my luck at the embassy in Windhoek (Namibia) anyway, and after much eye rolling and open irritation at my presence, I was granted seven days. I took it and ran!

I hoped the embassy was not reflective of the country, although I had evidence to believe to the contrary. The only woman I know to have gone there solo in the last few years is a fellow adventurer named Jo Rust of South Africa. 

Jo Rust
Jo decided to attempt to become the first woman to cycle around Africa back in 2011. Whilst in Angola, she was held up by a gang of thugs, who stole all her belongs (including her bike) and made a run for it into the bush. The Governor of Zair province got to hear about this and stepped in, sponsoring the rest of her trip. Jo, however, wisely decided to go home and swap her peddle power for a motorbike before continuing – although she had never ridden a motorbike before! In 2012 she attempted the route again. This time she was tied to a chair and had a gun held to her head as they demanded money. Thankfully she got out unharmed and, in true grit fashion, she continued her journey and successfully completed her mission. Jo now runs her own off-road training company in Johannesburg.

However - I also know a few other people who have reported nothing but wonderful experiences. I was prepared to give it a go, relying on my usual attitude of ‘keep smiling and all shall be well’. The 27-year civil war had been hard on this country and had wiped out most of its infrastructure, but that had ended a few years ago now. Times had surely changed? After all, people still believed Iran and Colombia were dangerous and yet they were now two of my personal favourites.

Crossing the border took 3 hours. No drama - just hot and a little autocratic in nature. No surprises there. Before long, I was on the other side and riding through the crowds of money changers and sim-card sellers - then onto the open road. I was feeling good and excited to see for myself what Angola was really all about. I had a good feeling about this place already.

Angola has a rustic beauty, uncorrupted by tourism. I did not see one other traveler whilst I was there and, much as I selfishly loved having the place to myself (seeing a way of life that few get to see), I wondered if perhaps a little tourism might help. People here are living off the land, but not living off the FAT of the land by any means. It is a tough way of life in a harsh environment and I respect them immensely for getting on with it against all the odds. Not that they have a choice of course!

The roads were surprisingly good, bar the odd foot-deep pot-hole, and the people I met were mostly friendly. In fact, I’d say 95% were exceptionally friendly, smiling and waving as I rode by or stopped to say hello. Some of the children ran away in shock as they saw me coming, and others just stood with jaws open and eyes wide! These 95% were worth coming to visit. They were so welcoming that I stopped in as many of their wooden villages as possible, refusing to just ride by. I wanted to interact and enjoy moments, not just wave and ride past (so easy to do this and then write in my blog later about how lovely everyone was!). The language barrier was not really an issue. We all got the gist but, as always, it would have been extra lovely to be able to express ourselves beyond the smile and the warm gestures.

Of the remaining 5% of people, 4 % appeared grumpy - particularly some of the Himba tribe women I met along the way! They really did not want to smile, although I did get a smirk out of one when the others weren’t looking! I pulled my drone out at one point and missed an amazing bit of footage (one I doubt will ever be repeated), where I thought I was recording and sent the drone up a few feet in the air. The girls came running over, slightly wary, but then came looking at my screen and squealing in delight as they saw themselves on the screen. I only had a few seconds of battery left and so I had to pull her down quickly. That’s when I realized I had not pressed record! Arghhh!!

Then there was the 1% who felt threatening and quite possibly drunk. My ride out was a long and very hot one. Temperatures must have been in the 40's and, despite drinking lots of water, I was feeling the effects. My eyes had strangely swollen up, and my concentration was low. I stopped as often as I could for some shade and a cold drink whenever an opportunity presented itself. There was no other choice but to keep pushing on slowly but surely in this manner. On this occasion I stopped at a little shack that looked like a bar of sorts. I was not greeted here with the usual shock, then smiles. This time I was greeted with looks that unanimously said,‘What the hell do you think you are doing stopping here?’. I was tempted to clear out there and then, but it felt like I was already in too deep as I was surrounded very quickly. I took my helmet off and smiled broadly at everyone. ‘Hello, Hello’, I said, addressing each face in the crowd individually. No one smiled back, and some positively scowled, with eyes that led me to believe they weren’t averse to violence against strangers on their turf. 

To panic and run now would possibly have evoked the behaviour I feared (like a hunter reacting to the chase), and so I pulled out my poker face and continued to the bar to get some water. I sat down and started drinking, but didn’t take my jacket off. I would take a few swigs and then leave.

Suddenly one of the guys spoke English to me. It was broken and very basic, but he asked me a couple of questions in a friendly manner. Still, I could feel other eyes burning a hole in my cranium! I replied chattily to him as if I didn’t have a care in the world, and then within a couple of minutes I got up to leave, to stares and hushed conversation. The English speaker’s tone changed. ‘Give me money for beer’. He stepped towards me menacingly. I did not want to say no and so, instead, I went for diversionary tactics and said in the jolliest voice I could muster, ‘That is so lovely. Enjoy. Have one for me will you? Cheers’. I pulled my helmet on as slowly as my rising panic would allow and rode out of the soft sand and back onto the tarmac without looking backwards. I don’t easily get intimidated. Practice makes you pretty good at seeing things for what they are, where many would get nervous unnecessarily. For the first time in a long time, I felt pretty damn nervous at that moment!

Thankfully, that was the 1% and it was worth it to meet the other 99% (yes even the grumpy ones!).

The countryside is so beautiful with community wells dotted along the road. This is where life happens! Cows are watered, clothes are washed, and kids do the to-ing and fro-ing with their buckets of water back to their homes. There are always chores to be done here. I will not be so presumptuous as to cast a shallow comment like, ‘They are happy with their way of life’, because I have no idea and I get tired of hearing people say such things. It’s almost patronising! I would imagine life is very tough here, and most people were skinny. They did, however, have a smile for me and, in my short time, I did feel a sense of community. I guess you have to rely on each other in these conditions! You know it’s tough when hundreds of flies aggressively attack you when you stop to make a drink or some food on the side of the road – going for the eyes and mouth where they
can get a little morsel of moisture!

I hate flies!!!

Would I go back? For sure. This time though, I would take more money. Labango city was shockingly expensive and I didn’t take enough with me. No wonder the kids were eating out of the bins here. How anyone can afford to eat is beyond me.  A tin of tuna and some water cost me the equivalent of £5!

If you are considering visiting, then bring as much money as you think you might need as your cards will not work here and it is difficult to find money changers after the border. 


  1. What a great adventure within a greater adventure!

  2. Pity you only had 7 days, Angola has so much more. If you go to Maun in Botswana, I will email you name and number for a Friend that can get you good rates for the park.

    1. It was a surprise to get anything at all so not a pity. A great pleasure ;)

      I am now in The Old Bridge campsite. Do you have a contact who can help with something tomorrow? Maybe someone I can call?

  3. Awesome write-up Steph

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