Wow, our first real experience of Africa over the weekend was a great adventure. Spectacular waterfalls, giant rock formations, dinner dramas, pigs, goats, chickens and a flying car.
Normally we’d have left it a few weeks before embarking on a weekend trip like this, but Elliot is going back to England this weekend so we wanted to do it while we’re still all together.
Our guide and driver — Paul of Eco Tur Angola — picked us up at the embassy in his huge Toyota 4×4 at 6am on Saturday morning, and we then drove to a nearby hotel to pick up the final member of the tour, a Chinese businessman from Hong Kong called Eric. The party then headed south to Luanda Sul to pick up some sandwiches for lunch before swinging East and out of the city towards the bush. You couldn’t call what we drove through jungle per se, more savannah and scrubland. We drove for miles and miles on roads that alternated between cheaply thrown down tarmac and dirt track. As we drove along Paul provided an interesting commentary and Eric added his own entertaining comments. He is in Angola to do market research for his business, and his catchphrase — which seemed to apply to pretty much everything we saw — was, “Interesting”. He’s also stick thin and a heavy smoker, and when the conversation turned to food his contribution was, “No food OK. No drink OK. No cigarette I die.”
As we drove along we passed scores of villages, one every couple of miles or so. Each village was very small, with between ten and twenty houses, each about the size of my kitchen and made of mud bricks with thatched roof. Dogs, chickens, goats and pigs trotted loose among the huts and in the road. The goats were best at heeding Paul’s toots on the horn, and the dogs were the worst, sometimes remaining lying down in the middle of the road until we were almost on top of them.
There were people everywhere. sat grouped together near the roadside in the villages and travelling along the road to the next village by moped or, more commonly, on foot.
We finally got to Kalandula and the Falls by mid-afternoon, and it was well worth the long trip of around 500 kilometres. The viewing platform gives the classic view that you see here, and on every other photo on the web. It is a truly spectacular sight.
If that’s not enough for you, you can walk around and onto the smooth rocks above the falls, even the point of looking over the edge. It’s very dangerous and would never be allowed in Europe or the U.S., but here there are no officials, no barriers, not even a warning sign of the 100 metre plunge to certain death that awaits. People are just left to look after themselves, and so they do.
After the falls we headed to the nearest city of Malanje for our overnight stay at the Palacio Regina hotel. Sounds pretty fancy doesn’t it? Well let me tell you. It isn’t. Having said that, I’m used to European standards of accommodation and need to remember that this is Africa, and you need to adjust your expectations accordingly. The shower cubicle door was loose and the drain didn’t work, so the four inches of water that gathered around Karen’s feet as she showered cascaded onto the bathroom floor, soaking her clothes. There was a colour TV in the room but it was a twelve inch screen and only showed two channels, one of which appeared to be showing the African version of Top Gear, and the other a bizarre Portuguese game show where the object seemed to be to pair up young men and women and encourage them to cop off with each other in front of a live studio audience. Eventually I had to tear myself away and down to the bar to join Paul and Chinese Eric for drinks and dinner. The six of us were the only group there so we sat in front of the wall-mounted plasma screen — complete with thick black line down the picture two thirds in — to watch the World Cup 3rd place playoff between Germany and Uruguay. The waiter came to take our food order, and about ten minutes later he returned to say that Abigail’s Margherita pizza was not available. Wait, no. Not JUST the Margheria, they don’t have ANY pizzas. Fair enough thinks Abigail, I’ll have the grilled chicken. Ten minutes later he comes back to say grilled chicken is off, so she orders spaghetti bolognese. Guess what happened ten minutes later? Eventually she had to order a steak like the rest of us. Given the delay in getting the order finalised we prepared for it to be half time in the football before the food arrived. By the time we heard the ref’s final whistle we were starting to get really quite hungry (and it was nearly 9.30). We were finally beckoned through to the restaurant where we ate a very ordinary meal, and everyone who had steak complained that it was overcooked.
We fell into bed full at least, if not satisfied.
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Next morning we had a quick breakfast in the same restaurant and then loaded up our gear for the next leg of the journey. Paul looked after us very well and the back of the Land Cruiser was a veritable tuck shop of goodies: crisps, fruit, sweets, sandwiches, flasks of tea and coffee, a working fridge full of cold drinks, even a fold out aluminium table complete with table cloth. We could stop just anywhere and have a little picnic by the side of the road, and we did, several times.
Our first stop on Sunday morning was to visit an orphanage in Malanje. Paul was hoping that we’d catch the children singing at Mass in the pretty church but we were too early and the locals were sitting on the steps outside. We stayed for a while and chatted with some of the kids and the Portuguese priest, but eventually had to move out to stay on schedule.
After another hour or so bumping along the dusty roads we arrived at the Pedras Negras, or Black Rocks, which are a mysterious outcrop of huge rocks formed by compressing smaller rocks together; some say it must have been glacial at one time.
To get there we had to leave the road and travel the final few kilometres down another bumpy dirt track no more than one vehicle’s width between fields of long grass and bamboo. Right in the middle of the Pedras Negras is a small community complete with church and school. Paul took us to the far end of the road where a flight of steep and wet stone steps led to a reasonably gentle clamber up on top of the only accessible stone. From there we could see all around and look down on the community’s main square. All over the top of this rock were piles of small rocks made by previous visitors.
After a picnic lunch we began the long drive back to Luanda. Paul suggested taking a short cut: it would cut an hour and a half from the drive — only six hours instead of seven and a half — but the catch was the first 60 kilometres was dirt track. We reluctantly agreed because we all wanted to get home in time to watch the World Cup final. So it was bump, bump, bump at speed for the next two hours, still passing tiny impoverished villages every few miles. Despite being a dirt track in the middle of nowhere it was regularly used, and we passed several large trucks going the other way. The regular traffic encourages the villagers to set up impromptu stalls at the roadside selling fruit, charcoal, and anything else that they think tired travellers will buy. Finally the dirt track changed to tarmac and we all cheered, only to boo again a few miles later when an earthwork barrier about three feet high across the road indicated that the rest of the tarmac was out of bounds. Paul had to turn off onto a small dirt track that ran alongside, but a little further on he spotted a gap in the bushes and we swerved back onto the smooth surface, this time breaking the rules by driving on the ‘closed’ part of the road. OOh! We had no idea why it was closed but it was smooth so we didn’t care too much. Paul bowled along at a pace and we were just starting to relax when all of a sudden he started braking suddenly. Just up ahead was another three-foot-high earthwork barrier and despite three attempts at cadence braking (the car didn’t have ABS) we drove into the barrier, the front of the car shot up in the air, and we came down with a bump, with the back of the car three feet above the front. Once the stunned silence had passed and we’d all realised no-one was hurt we all fell about laughing.
The rest of the drive home was relatively uneventful, and I spent it either dozing in the passenger seat or selecting a new playlist on my iPod, which was hooked up to the stereo.
On returning to Luanda it was getting dark and the chaotic traffic left me yearning to get back out to the wide open spaces. Paul dropped us back home, we trudged up the stairs to our house, cracked open some cold beers and flopped down on the sofa, just in time for kick-off.