We were all very sad to leave Blessings. If we didn’t have a DRC visa deadline hanging over our head, we’d have been quite happy to stay another week. After a morning of Monkey Madness – the game evolved to the point where if you ran towards Mad Monkey and hugged him, his fierceness would evaporate – the kids gave some small gifts to their friends and we left. Zola had tears in his eyes as Big Reg pulled away.
We stopped outside the centre of the village to buy bananas and, chatting away, Sampson pulled out onto the left hand side of the road – only waking up to his mistake when he saw another truck coming towards us on the same side, eeek!
Almost immediately we were out of the fertile valley and rising into dust on another bone-shaking road, though it wasn’t as bad as the one north of Ondjiva. This was less sandy, so we were averaging 25kmh for the next 80km rather than 15kmh, although school got quite challenging when things started to vibrate and slide. Ruby was trying to draw a graph but abandoned lessons altogether when the books started jumping off the table.
On top of that, it was the day of Joy’s funeral and Sampson was feeling quite low. At noon, as we reached the top of another rocky outcrop, I persuaded him to try the satellite phone just once more – he’d failed to connect a couple of days previously. Thanks to Inmarsat pulling out all the stops, the first successful call was to his brother – Mark was thrilled to speak to him ahead of the service and know that Paul had received his recorded speech and photos of Joy’s Gift.
Halfway to Benguela, a lorry crammed full of beautiful ripe tomatoes overtook us at high speed. For the rest of the day, we had fun spotting ones that had bounced out on the white dusty road. These tomatoes from heaven made a delicious meal with the last of our South African bacon that night, as well as lunch the next day. Tomatoes here taste like tomatoes used to taste like when I was little – not mass produced tasteless supermarket fare, but bursting with flavour like the vibrant fruit they are.
We slept the night in a valley surrounded by steep hills. There was no pao left, and our cereal supplies had long been exhausted, so for breakfast I invented Truck Pudding– a poor man’s rice pud with UHT milk, raisins, cinnamon and vanilla boiled up and left in the eco-cooker until the milk goes creamy. The kids clamour for it even when we have bread now.
Sampson had only noticed the air leak in the last hour of the previous day – we’d heard a loud CRACK during the afternoon, and suspected a stone had hit the pipe from the compressor. In the morning it became a problem as we couldn’t build enough air pressure to power the brakes. We crawled along at 4 bars, the minimum needed (we usually run at 7), with the patch Sampson had put on squealing its disapproval of such a dangerous move. Attempting the steepest slope so far, the Big Green Truck lost power because of a blocked filter, stalled and rolled backwards. Somehow Sampson managed to pull off to the side.
By some miracle, there was a big tanker of water coming down towards us, and a guy with a pipe hosing down the deep dust ahead of it to give it traction. It was the best chance we were going to get, so Sampson changed the filter, patched up the air pipe for the second time and we set off again with our hearts in our mouths. With minimal brakes there was no option of a hill start! I swear Joy and Reg were pushing us with their spirits, because it just didn’t seem possible to get up that slope – it was about 1 in 3. Sampson has never sweated so much in his life.
Thank God it was as the tanker driver said: once over the top, it was downhill the rest of the way, and in only another 10km we were on a beautiful new highway complete with hard shoulder. Then the knocking started. Sampson pulled over, scared that the brakes had locked on. As he fiddled around he shunted the pipe and found how to fix the air pressure. So the squeaking stopped, but when we set out again the knocking became a thudding. Sampson could feel it through the steering wheel but I was convinced it was worse on the passenger side. We limped into Dombe Grande, a lovely little town in another green valley, and asked the road construction centre guys to look at it – their busy mechanic reckoned we could make the 50km to Benguela so on we went.
Driving through the town I felt an uncanny affinity for the place and really didn’t want to leave. It was 4pm and I wasn’t confident we’d make it to Benguela before everything closed anyway so I persuaded Sampson to turn around and we went back and asked the police loitering outside the station for a local mechanic. An officer on a motorbike escorted us to Senhor Ferreira, who jumped in to listen.
We drove up and down the main road, and he suddenly opened the door and leant right out. I was terrified he was either going to fall out or lose the Dometic freezer we have by the front seat. He told Sampson to pull over and showed us what he saw – the back wheel on the passenger side wobbling all over the place. One of the bolts had sheared off completely and the rest had had their threads ground off and their nuts ruined. If we’d carried on to Benguela, the wheel would have come off; we could have broken the axle, smashed the diff or rolled the truck. Eeeeek.
It was one of those Good To Be Alive moments. That long hug with my Hub seemed a suitable way to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary, which had been somewhat overshadowed in the midst of everything else.
So Breakdown no. 2. We’ve been in Dombe Grande for four days and I was right to like it on first sight. It is a pretty little town, and seems very prosperous after Blessings. The people are well fed, well dressed and superbly coiffed; there’s a bar with tables outside; some of the children’s bicycles even have tyres. There are many leafy avenues and a comfortable feeling that there is no great need to hurry about anything, which makes me suspect it gets a lot hotter here in the summer. Most amazing of all is how clean it is; so many women spend their mornings sweeping the dust in front of their houses with twig brooms, and there are municipal sweepers doing the same in the roads in their yellow and blue uniforms. There are even litter bins!
Snr Ferreira had to mission to Lobito to get 8 nuts and bolts for the spare wheel, and it cost $200 just to get them engineered to fit. He and the ever-smiley Gunxo worked all weekend getting the new wheel torqued, and fixing cracks in the air pipe and a fuel tank. We’re parked on some waste ground opposite his house, which is so much nicer than being on a garage forecourt, though we do tend to attract an audience of bored children on their way to and from school. Zola has become a local hero due to his skateboarding prowess.
On our first trip to the market, after a minute of wandering through the lanes of old sewing machines and displays of gorgeous wax print cloth that all the women wear wrapped round them so effortlessly, fruit and veg and pasta and eggs and doughnuts all piled up for sale, Ruby hugged my arm and said ‘Isn’t this fantastic? I’m so happy to be here’ – exactly at the same moment that I was feeling the euphoria of ‘Wow, we’re really here, doing it.’ She loves the novelty of everything, the excitement of not knowing what’s around the next corner, the kaleidoscope of colour, as I do.
Shy Zola on the other hand was really hating the attention. Even though it’s now Ruby and me sticking out like sore thumbs, he still feels overwhelmed because people address him in portugues assuming he is Angolan. They also want to know if he’s a boy or a girl because he’s too beautiful and has dreadlocks. I explain to them he is ‘minho filho lindo’, child of my heart (pointing), not my womb.
We stocked up with tomatoes, peppers, aubergine and some green stuff we hoped was more spinach than kale – it turned out to be delicious. We also tried mabuki – a hard amber-coloured fruit with giant pomegranate-type seeds inside that start off sour like grapes and sweeten as you suck them like chewy prunes. Mmmmm.
On our second day here, we set out to find sugar cane, which the kids had been lusting after ever since we first saw children chewing on it. We walked right through Dombe Grande, past the faded turquoise, lime and red painted buildings on the main road, past the mercado and out towards the river. We followed a trail of cane-munching tots and asked their mother if we could buy some. My attempts to explain had the whole family in stitches. After Senhor Pedro cut a couple of canes for us, the women insisted I take pictures of them in various poses. No one smiles for photos, but they laugh uproariously when they see the results, it’s wonderful. On the way back we hitched a lift in a scooter taxi, Zola’s ambition since we arrived. He was absolutely thrilled to speed along the bouncy dirt roads behind the market, holding on for dear life – his helplessly grinning giggle was a treat to behold. Driver Marcana was so pleased with the sensation we were causing he refused to take payment.
The town has it’s own generator but the power goes off about 6pm, so households that can afford the $200 have their own mini ones which rumble around us all night. After 10 days, we finally ran out of water – we had been aiming to fill up at PUMANGOL in Benguela – so we were lucky that Senhor Ferreira has his own bore hole. His wife Tininha has been very kind, lending me a stiff brush and a wash board to get the oil out of Sampson’s shorts, letting the children play with the baby chicks, giving us huge bananas and peppers. We were doing so well stretching the food we’d bought in SA and Namibia, had managed to spend hardly anything in expensive Angola – but now our budget has been completely blown by another $650 mechanic bill. It’s a sad fact that the only things that come cheap in this country are bread and petrol, both of which I can’t consume.
On our third day here, overlanders Bram and Julie from Belgium rolled up in their Landrover – they’re also travelling clockwise, but are more than half a continent ahead of us having started at the top. They are an inspiringly young and handsome couple, in what the author of Just William would describe as ‘rude health’, smelling of soap with almost offensively shiny hair, beaming smiles and perfect teeth. They’ve been on the road for 10 months. Tsk, Europeans… Check out their website www.africa360.be
Every mother delights to wake pre-dawn to the sound of her child throwing up – Zola this time, but he at least made it to the loo, right next to our bed. Bless him, he has a fever and is uncharacteristically floppy and needing cuddles like he’s three again. I’m loving having the time to be a fully devoted Mom – it’s so unusual, it feels special for all of us.
Written on 12th August