It’s a late start from Lubango today. The boat carrying diesel hasn’t arrived from the northern oilfields, in Cabinda, and there are long queues for fuel. West through the hills we visited yesterday, to what Wilson tells me is the second most beautiful mountain pass in the world, Serra de Leba. Number One is in China he says. I shall have to look it up.
Before descending, we stop to admire the ribbons of hairpin bends cascading neatly down the escarpment. It’s another great view. Guide, Wilson’s uncle also happens to own the restaurant overlooking the pass, so a very early lunch is called for. I’m thinking it must be a tranquil place to live, but maybe not. Uncle is already on the beer.
The ride down is scenic but not exhilarating, which is fine by me. Our road takes us past towering cliffs, through more craggy blue mountains and patches of baobabs. Beyond the mountains the Namibe Desert and golden boulder strewn flat lands, followed by equally spectacular dirty yellow mesas, as we drop down to the coast and Namibe City. Well, everyone calls It Namibe, but according to Wikipedia it changed its name to Moçâmedes in 2016.
I’m never sure if Wilson is lost or giving me a city tour. We drive very slowly down every street in Namibe, which has a faded slightly Caribbean flavour and yellow and pink Chinese hotels identical to the garish constructions in Lubango. There’s a fishing harbour with a flotilla of small blue boats bobbing and the people are unloading today’s catch direct to the market behind the dock.
Dinner in a fish restaurant further along the quay. Buttery clams, perfectly cooked lobster and a very good caipirinha. Things are definitely looking up on the food front.
My hotel is on a cliff overlooking the sea. It’s very smart and my room has a balcony facing the water, but appearances aren’t everything. Three out of the four light bulbs in my room don’t work. Neither does the phone, so I can’t summon help. This is still Africa.
South through the coastal desert to Tombua, a harbour town set amidst pale sand dunes. I’m lulled into thinking I’m in Europe for a while, the roads are so well maintained, with No Overtaking signs and neat petrol stations along the route. Angola is not what I expected. Media coverage of the long wars has tainted my views and it’s not chaotic, or at all hostile. It's definitely, however, a country of two faces. This fishing port, is very much back to developing world, with the salting and drying of fish, mainly sardines, on the sand. Women wearing spotted headscarves are smashing rock salt with heavy sticks, whilst others gut the catch wielding huge knives. There’s a further flurry of activity around the boats, mainly involving the men, while children scurry into the water to help - or hinder. The whole is backed by some very grubby brick dwellings. The town itself can be summed up as uninteresting and it boasts yet another pair of those hideous Chinese hotels.
But first Wilson says he has a surprise. We head up a desert track across a small oasis to arrive at some epic scenery. I’ve seen some amazing rock formations this last year, in Djibouti, Chile and Bolivia especially, but this well off the beaten track spot might well trump them all. The pastel greens, yellows, reds and pinks are superior to those in any painted desert I’ve previously seen. There are a plethora of huge golden buttes and the cliffs themselves are arranged into an endless formation of ancient cities and temples. It could be the treasury at Petra, adjacent to a maharajah’s palace, followed by a cathedral or two. Wilson says some Brazilians have been here making a film called The Promised Land. It would definitely make a great movie set. I would go for a remake of Dune, I think.
Arco has yet more remarkable desert scenery to admire. This time, there’s a freshwater lagoon with sandstone arches spanning the access track and framing the faded lime and mustard hued mesas reflecting in the blue water. Wilson says that escaped slaves used to hide in this area, living in the many caves. I’m thinking the formations look like a pagoda in the Forbidden City this time. We’re on the edge of Iona National Park here, which runs down to Namibia around the Cunene river delta. The guidebook says it used to teem with wildlife, but this has all gone now, driven out by war and poaching. It also says that the car park at Arco is renowned for snakes. I’m glad I read it after we had visited.
We’ve gone to the other extreme with lunchtime today and are heading back to town to eat at three. Except that we have a burst tyre and Wilson has to demonstrate his mechanical skills after we’ve skidded to a halt.
And Paulo in Luanda has phoned to say that my flight back to the capital tomorrow has been cancelled. I can’t go till Sunday afternoon. This is definitely Africa.
The Mucubal are a nomadic people and the women are famous for their unique headdress called the Ompota. It is made of a wicker framework, traditionally filled with a bunch of tied cow tails, decorated with buttons, shells, zippers and beads. The Mucabal ladies don their hats and bracelets with much giggling. I’m not surprised they don’t want to wear them every day. They are rigid and cumbersome, even if the bright colours do set off their high cheekbones very effectively. The women are shy and graceful and bare-breasted like the Muila, though they bind their chests with narrow strings of beads called oyonduthi.
The children watch quietly from a shelter. This feels more like a proper visit; some of the ladies are basket weaving and corn grinding It’s a beautiful setting, dominated by a towering volcanic plug. Nevertheless, they’re moving – some of the houses have already been dismantled, thin logs lined up on the earth. Wilson says the men have already gone.
Up the road, a gaggle of young ladies selling charcoal, who Wilson says are his friends. So, they have to be photographed and paid. I’m more and more uncomfortable about the commercialisation of the visits. It feels too much like a person safari. I’m happy to see the people rewarded for having visitors – they are all so poor and exist with next to nothing. The juxtaposition of the haves and have nots in Angola is stark. But I wish the photography was not the main event, could be done in a less intrusive way. Wilson says there isn’t time for this….
Even further round the volcano, at Garganta, is the home of the Nguendelenga people. I’m told there are only 200 or so of them left in existence, so it's not very aptly named. A group are sitting by the roadside plying their wares and most of them clamber excitedly into the back of the truck for the ride to their compound, a circle, barricaded with brush. There are 20 people, including warriors brandishing knives and bows in there, so I calculate we have ten percent of the tribe with us. The women are again bare-breasted, but have intricate woven and piled hair, covered first by a net and then by bright cotton headscarves. They cover their necks with red mud to highlight their thin gold necklaces. Wilson goes to town here – the excitement indicates high expectations - and ultimately demands I pay 12000 kwanza. I tell him I’ve nothing left now for his tip.
Another late lunch of goat stew with beans in a local café at Bibala, nestling below the ridge down which we descended earlier this week. It has a huge railway station with pretensions well beyond the size of the town. We’ve criss-crossed the line several times. It runs from Lubango to Namibe and was built mainly to carry the black and white marble to the coast.
From Luanda south to Lubango, with the national airline Taag. I’m reassured to see a nicely painted 737 waiting on the tarmac. Hopefully the oil money means new well-serviced planes.
Guide, Wilson (the last Wilson I met was my driver in Bolivia) is late to meet me at the airport when I arrive. He says he’s been cleaning his car. He’s six foot six at least, so I’m not going to remonstrate. Tonight’s lodge is so far out of town it doesn’t have an address. It’s very peaceful, with thatched bungalows.. A few surprised looking impala, and a posse of 30 or more peacocks patrol the grounds.
It’s a mountain fresh morning, with sparkling clear air and blue skies. The road is bumpy and unmade, winding through tall aloes that frame the sorghum fields and more distant mountains. We’re off to see the Muila people to the south and the Handa to the north. The itinerary says this is so I can learn about their culture. Wilson has other ideas. He knows that tourists only want to take pictures.
So, he heads straight for the chief’s compound and instructs the head wife to round up some of the other women, who appear, dressed in their finest regalia, bead necklaces and head-dresses and topless; they divide their hair into plaits (or dreadlocks) and cake each section (called nontombi) with coloured mud, adding long trails of beads. There’s no messing about with ceremonial dancing for the punters here. Wilson orders the ladies to take off their plastic shoes and demonstrates how and where they should pose. He says his father was a photographer before the civil war; the women don’t seem to mind and he orders me to pay them 1000 kwanza, (roughly 2 dollars a head). A little girl nicely got up in yellow beads and a tiny skirt only receives 500. The other, mud spattered and shock-haired children watch shyly, squashed together on a large tyre. Wilson says they don’t get tourists here. And that’s it. No-one so much as shows me inside one of the one-roomed mud brick houses, until I ask. Then it’s a cursory peek.
The afternoon is even more bizarre. We drive through the traffic of Lubango to the large market near Huila. There, Wilson sends runners in search of the Handa women, famous for their huge bead necklaces - they never take them off. He gathers up five or six and herds them away from the rubbish of the market, over the road to the sorghum fields – there’s still some plastic to avoid here. They giggle while they pose and I’m attacked by hundreds of tiny needle thorns, which makes them giggle more. I wield my Nikon SLR, Wilson once more acts as photographer’s assistant shouting directions. Solo poses and a group to finish, whilst a crowd looks on.
A quick whizz round the market (in the pick-up) and we’re off.
Charismatic Frenchman, who I met on the plane, (who has tracked me down on Facebook) warned me that that the food was bad here, even though some of the restaurants seem very presentable. He’s right. It's mostly very salty and fried until it’s so tough I can’t get my knife (or teeth) into it. It doesn’t help that everyone speaks Portuguese and very little English. I can have a reasonable stab at deciphering menus with the help of my limited Spanish. Though last night I thought Wilson had pre-ordered me beef for dinner and I got chicken. (Well I’m fairly sure it was chicken.) But there isn’t a menu at breakfast. The smiling waitress has just waved an egg and can of frankfurters at me. I make a thumbs down towards the the can and she’s gone to try and find the cook.
Directly south to Chibia, an affluent little town that is thriving because of its proximity to black marble quarries. It has broad avenues of low pastel colonial houses, lined with flame trees, and most of the shops are glass fronted. There are working ATMs. This is very upmarket Africa.
We proceed out of town, to yet another market, rows of booths made of woven wood. It’s very quiet here too. Wilson says this is because it’s not Monday. I’m feeling the days of my trip could possibly have been better arranged. Not to be deterred, Wilson is straight into tracking down an assistant, who duly returns with half a dozen Muila ladies. They are sporting more clay in their locks than yesterday’s women. The adolescents have mud necklaces. Stacked beads are only for married women and the rows increase as they age. They never take them off. There are also two bewildered babies to act as accessories. Today, my backdrop is the market booths and more distant fields of sorghum. I’m not going into those again. I’m still picking out thorns and scratching my bites.
Much to Wilson’s bewilderment I wander round the stalls, after I’ve arranged my subjects, observing what little activity there is and trying to talk to the local people. Wilson and his assistant check to make sure I don’t want any more models. There’s a very cute little girl with a doll, so she is duly photographed and paid. And then we’re off. A dozen or so teenagers clamber into the back of our pick-up for a lift to school. They’re running late. I’m not surprised - it’s 11 kilometres up the dusty road.
In the afternoon I’m a proper tourist. We drive up into the mountains, through boulder strewn hills to the edge of an escarpment and a stunning view down the 2000 metre (if you believe Wilson and 1,000 metres if you believe the Bradt guide) Tunda Yala Gorge and across the plains below. It’s a tranquil spot, though the Bradt guide says that rebels were blindfolded and made to walk over the edge here. Wilson says only one person has died here - they drove their bike over the edge accidentally.
Last, a tour of Lubango. It’s almost encircled by mountains, crowned with a 30 metre copy of Rio’s Cristo Rei statue and a Hollywood style Lubango sign. This city is also prosperous and well organised, with numerous deep candy civic buildings, lots of churches and a pair of monstrous Chinese hotels, one bright yellow, one a very nasty shade of pink. Chinese construction work abounds around the area. They built the roads (which are fairly well maintained) and donated at least one hospital. Wilson says that the new president has told them to go away now. They’re not getting the minerals.
Up to the Cristo for another panoramic view. Like the sphinx, his nose has been damaged by bullets, but this time it was the Cubans rather than Napoleon. They’ve done their best to repair him. The Lubango sign is even more battered close up. Wilson is bored with taking pictures of me and rounds up three more Muila teenagers who are hanging around the statue trying to pick up some extra money. He’s bargained them down to 500 kwanza for all three.
Back in Lubango, after visting Namibe, we’re in a Portuguese/Brazilian restaurant for dinner. Picanha - thin sliced beef and more bean stew. We’re now behaving like a married couple. I read my book and Wilson watches the football on the television. His team, Sporting Lisbon are playing Porto in the Portuguese version of the FA cup final. It’s down to a penalty shoot-out, but Sporting take it on the last kick, so all is well.
Now I have the day to fill before my postponed flight. I was supposed to return to Luanda yesterday. At breakfast they sneak the frankfurters past me, hidden inside my breakfast omelette. Then Wilson takes me to a local waterfall. Some small boys show us around three very small separate rocky sections, but the cascades hardly deserve the name of fall. The slippery scramble up and back and the children’s acrobatics and cavorting are more memorable.
Wilson declares that he knows a place where we can have lunch and watch the Monaco Grand Prix. It’s a sort of down market country club, with a small swimming pool and plastic chairs and tables. It’s somewhere to sit quietly in the sun and relax, even if the seats are a little punishing. I ask Wilson to confirm when the Grand Prix starts. He goes to ask and returns with the news that they don’t have the sports channel here.
Eventually, to the airport. I’m apprehensive, as I don’t have a new ticket, especially as the check-in clerk looks perplexed when he scrutinises my passport. ‘But there was a flight to Luanda yesterday,’ he announces. This is so definitely Africa..
Sao Tome next.
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