(In best Jesse from the Fast Show voice:) ‘This week we have been mostly driving.’ Benguela and Lobito were exciting cities to drive through, vibrant with super cool dudes on scooters and beautiful girls with Rihanna-red weaves. I wish I’d been able to get a pic of the league of kids playing table football in the middle of a lawn on a traffic roundabout, but now we finally had cell coverage again I was busy loading the long overdue blog in between mopping the brow of a feverish child.
The road up the coast through Sumbe and Porto Amboim to Luanda was blissfully easy, and we only got stopped at 4 road blocks out of 8. We definitely overreacted last time: the vast majority of police have been very friendly and amenable, they love having a look round the truck and reading the explanation oficial in Portuguese (thanks for advising us to do that, Kingsley). They can’t believe it runs on oleo de cozinha; they look even more gobsmacked when it’s me driving.
There was just one young officer who was determined to nail us. Sampson foiled him by producing an International Driving Licence, a yellow vest and two breakdown triangles, but the trump card, as always, was a phonecall to ‘our man at the embassy’: Hugo from PUMANGOL Ondjiva. I don’t know what he says but he’s obviously does authoritative indignation very well, it always works.
I fulfilled my ambition to try baobab fruit – having read about its recent elevation to ‘superfruit’ status, I was intrigued. We bought two from side of the road, where they are hung from their stalks as Sampson said ‘like giant dead rats by the tail’. He broke open the rather spiky furry casing to reveal bizarre powdery dry chunks of pale pink with the consistency of polystyrene and the taste of sherbet around a black seed. Ruby has devised a method of shaking them up in a pill pot to make them more sweet-like. They’re quite yummy to suck, like Super C’s, but they don’t half coat your teeth.
There was a real buzz about Benguela, but when it was magnified 10 times in Luanda, the buzz became a headache. Huge and sprawling, this home to 5 million is very Jo’burg from a distance, quite green, with a distinct dollop of testosterone added to the drivers. The lorries thundering along were now joined by hundreds of blue and white combi taxis, and a host of Landcruisers with tinted windows.
The big difference is the lack of pavements: houses were perched by the side of the highway, on crumbly red mud; I can’t imagine how they survive the rainy season. I also can’t believe I was complaining about the litter in Springbok – here’s it’s on a whole different level. As we drove into the city, we gasped as a 2 year old rolled an old tyre into 3 lanes of traffic. Sampson was already struggling with a cough from the thick dust en route; he started feeling quite ill now with a sore throat from the added pollution. The sky is permanently fogged.
The SA Embassy was an oasis of calm and consideration in the midst of the clamour. We were welcomed by the lovely Nuria Giralt, who’s the only lady I’ve ever met who’s too tall for the truck. We were honoured to be granted an audience with Counsellor Mokwena, who gave the children badges and graciously shared his interview slot with Quequexi, Joao and Filomeno from the English Program of Radio Nacional de Angola. Everyone came out to tour the truck parked outside. Mr Oliphant impressed us with his capacity to speak 11 languages and Mr Mashini was so eager to help with advice about which route to take to the border. I hope he doesn’t mind me saying he bears more than a passing resemblance to Archbishop Emeritius Tutu, especially when he giggles.
Kind Nuria whisked us to Besas Shopping in her car to visit Shoprite, which apparently is one of the cheapest supermarkets in Luanda. It still pained me to pay R60 for 1L tub of yoghurt. Being in a fancy mall was quite surreal, we could have been anywhere from Sandton to Surrey. She shared some fascinating insights into the world of international diplomacy; we were very grateful for her guidance and hospitality.
Thanks to the costs of replacing our wobbly wheel, we needed to buy dollars. This challenge took most of the following day, as, in an attempt to strengthen the kwanza, since July the government has forbidden banks to sell them. After being directed to four different banks, we were told the only way was to withdraw kwanza from ATMs in several small amounts and then mission back to Besas Shopping to the cash transfer place which would issue dollars. Many thanks to Eunice who explained to the cashiers that we couldn’t show them a flight ticket to DRC, because we were driving. They couldn’t believe that’s what I was saying in my poor Portuguese because no one drives to DRC.
The Big Green Truck then got stuck in the worst tail back ever on the road north out of Luanda. There were three lanes of traffic going up a hill behind the harbour with the biggest potholes you’ve ever seen, waiting to feed into a roundabout without lights – thus completely stationary. Sampson ended up chatting to the lorry driver next to us; they even had time to pour over the map together!
As a result, we arrived at 5pm on Friday at Transfuel, the trucking experts recommended by our patron Emilio Costa of PUMANGOL. We weren’t feeling too optimistic that they’d still be there, being used to Capetonians knocking off at 3.30pm ahead of the weekend, but what a lovely surprise awaited us. Not only were we greeted like royalty, we were overwhelmed by the skill and speed of this dynamic team who work in shifts 24 hours a day.
We were welcomed by Pedro Benedito, who’s already driven from Luanda to Cape Town, twice, alone; the dapper Ivanilson Machado, zooming around on his Segway and suave charmer Rui Paiva, Zola’s sartorial hero, who was kindness itself. Mechanical engineer Guilherme de Oliverira stunned Sampson by sussing out in 5 mins what was wrong with the driving seat suspension and technicians Elias Tehinendele and Joao Muato sorted it out in another 10. Their level of English was so proficient, Sampson gave an impromptu comedy show on the forecourt. All in all, I think they enjoyed the Friday night entertainment.
So, in true Sampson style, once again we were facing a last minute push with just three days to get to the border before our DRC visas expire. The Big Green Truck does an average 50kmh on a decent road. They had told us 800km of good road, i.e. tarred, then 400km not so good. But on the road to N’Zeto there were so many ‘desvios’ around men at work on the brand new highway, we spent 80% of our time on dirt as challenging as anything so far. We were being bounced along so hard I was writing this lying on the bed in the back, wedged in with pillows to stop falling off, typing with one hand and holding my laptop with the other so it didn’t fly up and hit the ceiling. Sweaty.
Thankfully, the road from N’zeto to M’banza Congo has been a peach, and it seems like all the estimates were wrong as we’ve done 500km since Luanda and there’s only 75km to go. Even if the road is dire, we should still make it. I hope those are not famous last words.
We spent last night in a tiny village called Kimbindi, and it was such a relief to be out of the city breathing fresh air again. It’s supposed to be on the main road to the border via Lufico, but this became so narrow that Sampson was reminded of the lanes in Cornwall and became very worried about meeting another vehicle as there was just no room to make way. We hung out this morning with Tete, her mother and her six children, who ate squash and boiled green bananas for breakfast, and pressed on us a huge bagful of groundnuts. Francisco arrived on his motorbike with a parcel and was able to advise us, in French, to take the longer but better road via M’banza Congo – it was a good call.
I just want to wish a very Happy Anniversary to my parents Rob and Carole, who took us kids to the south of France for the summer holidays every year in a VW camper and instilled in me a love of travel, adventure and pooing in company. Miss you!