Road tripping across Angola

As I write this I am sitting in my car on Angolan tracks outside the northern town of Mucondo, a stones throw from the border of the DRC. Wild camping. As in camping out in a equatorial forest hidden from the road. Around me I hear frogs and birds and can see the last remnants of a sunset in the west. The sun casts a golden blanket over the top of the forest as it sets. Its magical. And alive. Very much alive. I can hear every sound. Smell every scent. Or so it seems. But I have a story to tell. It’s the story of what we have experienced on the road. So here goes.

Some days ago we left the safety of our campsite at Chifumso chimp centre and started driving west towards the Zambian Chavuma border with Angola. This border crossing is in the centre of the far western province of Zambia. It’s is very remote. We knew that very few overlanders had ever crossed it. In fact we discovered that no trucks or service vehicles even go there. Just people on foot with relatives in both of the two neighboring countries. Or so we are told by the local village people.

But it has always been my dream to cross this border. Remote and wild. Somewhat edgy. Just what I need to get going and deal with my inner angst. And also I just need to see what’s out there and trust the people and the process.

So we decided we are gonna cross it regardless, until we read in iOverlander that the ferry to cross the Zambezi River on the Angolan side was no longer working. Which means we couldn’t access the west road we had planned to access into Angola. That stopped us in our tracks. And the “what if” discussion started in the car on the way there. So many unknowns surfaced. Such hard choices.

The safe option was to drive the long way round to Luanda by going south via Mongu to Katima Mulilo, then west though Caprivi strip into Namibia, and then north through Ruacana into Angola and drive the long road north to Luanda. An addition of many, many thousands of kilos and a south drive when we should be going west and north. But the safe option holds all the advantages of reliable fuel and a tar road all the way there.

The alternative was to trust our instincts and risk the remote and unchartered Chavuma-Caripande border. That means we go west and stay west and climb a bit north to get into the same latitude as Luanda. Way shorter and way harder. We go off road all the time. And we go into the unknown in regard to river crossings and the road and weather conditions. And the rainy season has just begun. It’s a hard choice.

After much debate and deliberations we reluctantly decided to follow the safe and reliable route. Something in our heads as start up grandparents tugged at that conservative family-loving gene in us. So we typed “Mongu” into the GPS. Garmin told us to do a U-turn and head back east again to find the track south to Mongu. Bitterly disappointed we turned around when we were just short of the town of Zambezi in far west Zambia, and only 120kms from the Angolan Caripande border.

Our discomfort with our choice was palpable in the car as we drove back on our tracks. So we stopped at the next village. I needed a conversation with the people on the ground. We found some old men under a tree and sat down with them and opened up our big, yellow National Geographic “African Adventure Atlas” book and talked to the old men about our route dilemma and our choices. They convinced us : go west through Caripande. And they gave us fuel to boot. So we turned around again and headed west for the border once more. Believing. Hoping. Trusting ourselves and the people on the ground to guide us.

When we got to the town of Zambezi, a mere 20kms from the border, we went to the police to find out if a border crossing was possible and whether anyone ever comes over from the other side. Again we sat under a tree. Again the locals assured us that in our cruiser it could be done. Emboldened once more we headed out to the border on a damp, dirt track.

Crossing Zambian immigration was a breeze. English politeness in a organized and clean immigration and customs office with plenty of smiles and handshakes. A very pleasant experience. Arriving at Angolan immigration was a rude wake up call. First a military screening. Then a long wait to find the immigration officer in the village and we are shepherded into a tiny, dingy broken room, riddled with bullet holes from the civil war. The room is dark and cool and somewhat desolate and gloomy, free of any modernities like power or lights, but with a single shaft of light from an empty window frame to light up the ancient desk. Portuguese only. Not a word of English. So lots of hand signals and explanations and patience before we are finally stamped through with a 30day Angolan visa in our passports.

Then to customs in another broken down, even darker and gloomier, room next door to get a temporary import permit (Tips) for the car. But first a thorough search of the car. Everything is taken out. Searched thoroughly. Until they satisfied and done. Then four calls follow to four officers higher up the command chain. Lots of in house negotiation before we get approval to pass. And we are given a single sheet of paper for the car without the official stamp, which we were told to get at the first town on the Angolan side. Clutching our paper like a lifeline, we headed out into the unknown.

The over 100kms drive from the Caripande border to Cazombo is almost indescribable. Sand tracks with unseeingly deep troughs of water all the way. We dip and soar into large puddles of water every minute or two, water shooting out over the bonnet and smothering the windscreen with mud repeatedly. We cross countless rickety, wood constructed, single vehicle bridges over rivers and vast wetlands. Most of the bridges are so broken down that we had to get out and walk a navigation track to follow to cross the bridge safely and just hope and pray it would hold our 3.5 ton cruiser.

As we slowly clock each kilometer we are gripped by the knowledge that whatever happens to us, there is certainly no turning back. We find fear and resolve all at the same time. Undeterred by what’s in front of us because we know what’s behind us. And we can’t go back.

Huge cumulonimbus clouds build up in front of us. Against the forest framed sky they are huge and wild and spectacularly beautiful. Images of the Great Plains of Africa flood our brains, or so we tell ourselves. And no sooner is our admiration of the cloud formations over and then the rains come down as the darkness set in. Hard rains. Belting down in sheets so strong that my wipers are on their fastest speed to keep my visibility just vaguely alive. The rain turns the already muddy tracks into long stretches of sheer mud and sliding madness. Travel speed is reduced to 10 to 20kph. We haven’t seen a vehicle track, let alone a vehicle, in eight hours. The trooper is heaving and creaking and rocking and sliding. Our Garmin, loaded with open street maps, is giving us directions. Follow the track it says. Follow the Garmin I say. Hope and hope and hope again. Bit by bit. Step by step. Kilo by kilo. We hold on to our commitment. Fighting fear and fatigue. Hour after hour. Until finally, finally we arrive in the small town of Cazombo. Breathless. Speechless. Exhausted. We can think of only one thing : head for the police station.

It’s a Sunday night. There are people everywhere. Dark bent shapes of poverty huddled up against the mud and rain. We are asking everyone we see in the pelting rain and darkness : “policia?”. We are all alone but strangely we are not lonely. Foreign country. Foreign language. But we are trusting the humanity of the people around us. They WILL direct us. And they do. We arrive at a big blue building with a sprawling back yard and “policia” written all over it.

After much negotiation in broken English, and using google translate on our phones, we are finally given permission to sleep over in the police yard at Cazombo. But only after we had shown the cops our cruiser and our sleeping and eating arrangements and the details of the route we have travelled to get to them. From Cape Town to Cazombo that is. The cops form a half moon of sentries around us. And watch us. So we start eating our veggies. And they watch. We get unchanged and into bed, whilst they still watched. Like we were some weird kind of aliens from another century. We left them still watching us as we fell into a deep and forgiving sleep. Feeling accomplished. But mostly just relieved and secure under the watchful stare of a half moon of cops in the yard of their station at Cazombo.

At dawn we are serving coffees to the cops and negotiating how to find the commissar to give us our vehicle stamp. More waiting under trees – this time at the commissars house. More negotiation and explanation. More passports and drivers license and ownership papers being inspected. And finally we get the Tips stamp on our piece of paper and we can leave Cazombo to head north. Feeling all cop cared and cleared and rather squeaky clean.

Then followed four more days of hard off road driving. The jeep track turned into a “road” north of Cazombo. The road was more like a wide mud slide that weaves and cuts into hill after hill of endless and glorious equatorial forest. After each hill the road drops into the valleys of rivers and mangroves and open wetland and grassland plains. Up and down and up and down, again and again. Hour after hour. Day after day. We are riding this mud highway. Riding behind rows of massive trucks through deep ruts of mud and water and slide and more mud and more water. The road swings onwards and upwards and into what was once tar and now turned to mud. Or rather half mud and half broken tar. The worst. Huge potholes. Massive rutting. Deep dongas across the road. All that with more mud and slide and bump. Patience and more patience required. Speeds of 10 to 20kph maximum. We have done 500kms at least when we are told we face another 200kms of this madness. My heart sinks but my resolve steels. We have already done a huge chunk of the 2.500kms Angolan east to west crossing. I won’t give up. I can’t. We drive on. Day after day through many hard long days from dawn to dusk. Finding wild camps at the side of the road in the forest at dusk. Stopping to rest. Eating. Ablutions. Sleeping. And starting again with the first bird calls at dawn. Day after day. For five days in a row.

There is a rule on this road. We learn it from the actions of the truckers. The rule is: no rules. Or more accurately : only the road rules. This means you can pass left or right. Drive right or left. Do whatever you need to do to ride the slides and jolts and sheering bumps of the road. But do it with respect for the other. Predict. Think. Preempt. Ride that road. Ride and ride it again and again. Ride free and ride safe by respecting the road and each other. That’s how it goes. All the way. The truckers know. You learn the way of the road and follow the truckers wisdom.

At one point we are locked behind a mini bus of sorts carrying thirty odd passengers. It splutters and chockes out diesel smoke and gets stuck and then freed from the mud twice in front of our eyes. Each time the passengers all get out and get to work – pushing and shoving and digging. Until finally it gets stuck again. Deeply stuck. More digging and shoving. Now people are breaking branches off the bushes. Stuffing the branches under the wheels deep into the red mud. Heaving and pushing and pulling by maximum collective human endeavor. But the mini bus won’t budge. It is stuck solid. An hour of attempts at freeing the bus passes and it’s still immovable. Some of the passengers are head to toe in the thick red ocher colored mud. Their clothes are wrecked. Sweat and mud and flies everywhere. And still the hot sun beats down. Relentlessly.

We are watching and talking all the time from inside the cool cabin of our cruiser. We know in our hearts that there is an unwritten rule on African roads: you don’t leave a brother stranded on the road unless there is nothing you can do to free them. Absolutely nothing. So we follow our heads and our hearts. We get out and get dirty with the people too. Pulling a tow rope from my recovery gear I’m under the cruiser and hooking up. Angolans hook up the bus. The first reverse attempt in low four wheel drive snaps the steel hookup on the bus. So we start again. This time a passenger dives way deeper into the mud under the bus. I can’t see what’s happening but he hooks us up again somewhere under the chassis of the vehicle. And we good to go. Test two. Hard reverse pull. Mud spinning wheels of the bus. Diesel smoke and anticipation thick in the wet hot air. And magic: the cruiser pulls the bus out in low ratio reverse. Amazing. There is great celebration. Much hand clapping and congratulations and smiles. A palpable relief fills the space where hopelessness once stood.

With the bus free I can now kick into second gear low ratio forward drive and cruise gently passed the happy crowd of passengers. They are free to travel and we are free pass. The road rule complied with to the letter. The cruiser is king. All good to go on our way. Someone else will help them if they get stuck again. My conscience is clear.

It’s an epic trip with a singular end goal: to reach Kalandula Falls and the pure pleasure of some stability of a badly pot holed, yet tarred, road.

We find that pleasure just outside Malanje. The road smooths out into more tar than mud. And then more tar and less mud. And more. And more. Until at last it is almost normal for stretches of two, then five and then more kilos. Until it finally becomes a normal African tar road peppered with the constant lookout for giant potholes. And you can cruise and swerve and avoid a pothole and then fly free once more. And so it goes. All the way to Malanje and onwards to Kalandula Falls.

Finally let me say this : we feel steeled and strong. Really. We feel like we have faced some of the most treacherous roads and edgy conditions in our Angolan crossing. And we made it. We are one month into our trip. We are ready. Ready for the great north drive. Ready for whatever Africa throws at us. Morocco here we come.

3 thoughts on “Road tripping across Angola

  1. Thank you for sharing, you’re a great writer. We are considering entering Angola from Zambia too. What time of year did you cross? I’m worried we’ll be tom early in the year.

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    1. We crossed at the beginning of December .and caught some hectic downpours, as the story tells. But we made it across what Angolans call “the place of the forgotten people”. That’s the term they use for the vast eastern side of Angola. Worth visiting. Especially if you want to forget. And remember, forever.

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  2. penny carroll

    Incredible! Gavin, your writing gives us a back seat ride on your journey. I can feel the intensity of the road surface and change. The sheer unknowns kept me reading till the end to make sure you & Lou made it! Safe travels brave explorers! Thank you for sharing this journey-

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