Sunday, September 23, 2007

Angola, it's not like they said (Ep.1)


This trip was going to be different.

I for one, have never updated my will before any other trip. And I wasn't alone. Out of the five of us that were going, three updated their wills and/or life insurance policies in the weeks before we left.

Where were we going?


Ok, so it may have been a bit of an over reaction, but I had a couple of concerns about this trip. Most of these concerns turned out to be baseless. Some turned out to be valid.

I'll get back to these as the trip unfolds.

For those who are unfamiliar with Angola, a short intro:

Angola was under Portuguese colonial rule since the 1500's. Around 1961 a violent uprising of the indigenous people signaled the start of a civil war that finally ended in 2002. Yes, only 5 years ago.

In 1975 when the Portuguese granted Angola independence, three new factions called the MPLA, FNLA and Unita, received military backing from Cuba (Soviet puppet) and South Africa (American puppet) respectively. All combatants planted landmines, some with maps, some without and many individual mines that did not form part of a mine field.

In 1994, during a lull in the fighting, studies were conducted on the landmine situation and estimates of between 1 and 2 million mines were mentioned. That is 1-2 mines per person in the country! Since then there has been an extensive ongoing clearing operation run by many different groups. The clearing of mines is clearly having a positive impact. In 2003 there were 270 reported new mine casualties, in 2004 191 and 2005 only 96.

Today the country is trying to stand up from the ashes. Fourty years of war leaves a lot of ashes.

So much for the history lesson, back to the trip.

The merry band of adventurers;





and finally me

Not much to say about the 3500km trip to Ruacana in Namibia except that we did manage to get some shuteye.

Against all expectation we find that Ruacana boasts a very nice new lodge with accommodating staff that are quite happy to let us leave the bus & trailer in their grounds for 2 weeks.

We load up and finally throttles get twisted and the trip starts.

First up is the border post. And for the first time (for me), at a Namibian border post, all the engine and chassis numbers are checked. Minutely and in detail. Which then also teaches Nardus that his 950's chassis number differs from his registration papers with one digit. Almost stops his trip right there. But sanity prevails and we finally mosey on over to the Angolan Customs and Immigration.

Now here's an interesting bit. You can only visit Angola by invitation. In order to get a 30 day visa you have to have a written invitation from a resident who will be responsible for you while you are there. So they are not really big on tourism.

Also stories abound about the border guards making travellers unpack all they carry down to the last tin, unless you offer a bribe. We had none of that. Although we know no Portuguese and they cannot speak English and all the forms are in Portuguese only, we had no trouble at all and found the customs and immigration people very friendly and helpful.

With high spirits we hit the road for all of about 60m before we get sidetracked for a beer break. Excellent, I like this country already.

In short thrift we are joined by the border police guy and the customs guy from the Namibian side? None of this officious officialdom shit over here. I like it.

Ruacana is a minor border post and it shows. When we hit the road again it's off into the bush on an enjoyable track. One rest stop later and we pull into Chitado. Chitado is one of those towns that were shot to shit and not yet rebuilt.

Some images of the town.

We manage to find the local pub. Check out the stock.

The first day of our trip and Fred is already missing his family.

An old timer getting comfortable. It was bloody hot, even the walls of the building was hot to the touch.

A not-so-old-timer getting comfortable. Notice the red ochre and fat mix that is rubbed into the skin. This is the Himba tribe. They are nomads that live in Northern Namibia (Kaokoland) and South Western Angola.

We socialize here for quite some time and the locals enjoy having their pictures taken. The digital camera again shows it's myriad of benefits. This woman belongs to the Herero. They share a language and distribution area with the Himba, but the two tribes do not inter-marry.

We reluctantly take our leave and the road turns into a lovely fast red strip with bouncies.

This lasts until we leave the main road and turn west. Almost immediately the twin track gets sandy and twisty and Fred gets his first opportunity to lie down with his bike. This was to turn into a common theme. A little later in the afternoon Nardus got his chance, Hennie early the next morning and myself shortly thereafter. Michnus made it to day three before he had his first lie down. All of us continued to get regular opportunities on a daily basis.

A short rest stop amongst some Baobabs.

As I mentioned, it's nice and hot and a bit of shade is welcome.

We start hitting river beds and Nardus gets some excercise.

Michnus on the throttle.

Nardus piloting his leisure liner.

We decide to make camp under a huge tree in the river bed and it's good to get the kit off. Still hot as hell though. It only cooled down just before dawn the next morning.

Sunset on day one and no body or bike is broken. Yeah baby, life is good and it's gonna get better.

The next day were' up and at it early. It only starts feeling like a trip to me if the day starts with me waking up on the ground somewhere next to my bike.

The day starts out with no plan to reach any place in particular. Let me explain. The route we are planning on following is the source of most of my concerns. It goes through a wilderness area where we need to be self sufficient in all respects.

Depending on terrain, we expect it to take 4 - 6 days to reach civilisation again. This presents 4 problems.

1 - Fuel. We would have to carry a full tank plus an extra 30l each. That's a shitload of weight and space. One solution would be to take a backup vehicle. None of us were keen on that idea though. It is after all a BIKE trip.

2 - Food. We would have to carry enough food for a week. This is not too difficult. Generally one can survive comfortably on a tin of canned food a day. So each rider just have to carry 6 or so tins of bully beef or chilli sardines (for the gourmets) or whatever tickles your fancy.

3 - Water. This is a bigger problem. Riding would require you to have at least 4-5 litres of water per person per day. There's just no way you can carry that on top of the fuel load. And fuel gets preference. And when you are short of water things can turn very unpleasant. What we do is each rider carries 5l of water. That's enough for one day or maybe even two if the riding is easy. Our route will take us to the mouth of the Kunene river where we can stock up on river water. We figure we could reach the river mouth (Foz do Cunene) at the end of day two. (We were wrong of course, it took us 4 days.)

4 - Medical emergency. There is always a possibility of getting hurt on any trip. Here however, help was going to be far far away. We were able to obtain a couple of ampules of Pethadine for that crushed-pelvis-with-bones-protruding situation. We also hoped to be able to secure a satellite phone, this however didn't happen. So if you were not able to ride out, you were going to have to wait at least 5 days for someone to come get you. I don't deal well with pain.

So that's why we aren't going anywhere in particular. With all the beer drinking yesterday we know we have no chance of reaching Foz do Cunene by nightfall. So we are just going to ride to where we get to.

The morning ride is excellent, varying from splendid sightseeing to some more challenging stuff.

We meet some locals along the way.

They have good looking cattle.

But the people are even better looking. This girl is bringing the cattle to drink.

We take a break here and try the water but our stomachs would never make it.

We have some lively discussion regarding where we are going to sleep. There is a road (I use the term loosely) heading down to the Kunene river. There is also a track leading from the river which intersects the road we are on some ways further. It would be good to sleep at the river and it wouldn't hurt filling up our water supplies.
On the other hand, the track leading from the river has this warning on it.

If we can follow this track we won't have a problem. If we can't and have to backtrack, we may run out of fuel before we get to Tombwa (civilisation).

Why do we believe that we may be able to follow this track? The maps we use are Tracks for Africa The maps are continually being updated and we had the newest version which shows a track skirting the dead end.

Nardus was also able to confirm that someone had driven that route 2 months ago. We agree that if we can see any tracks left by a vehicle we will follow this route.
The 'not recommended' and 'dangerous road' warnings of course makes it irresistible.

We are delighted to find a borehole and our water problems are solved for another day.

We are heading for the Kunene and there it is. That green strip. The mountains behind is in Namibia.

When we get close to the river we find a police post and a settlement. We have been told many stories of corrupt police. That you have to report to the police in every town. That they ask for copies of all passports and other papers. People even take documents with with lists of the travellers and their passport no's, explaining the purpose of their trip in Portuguese etc.

As we stop in front of the police post, Hennie's approach is to make the universal down-the-hatch sign and shout "CERVEJA" at the approaching policeman. Less than a minute later and we are downing beers under a tree with the police.

Before long we are joined by more policemen including the commanding officer or 'Sergeante Primero'. More people join and things get festive. We learn that the settlement is called Monte Negro.

This could well become the favourite pic that I have of my bike.

Nardus takes on one of the policemen in an arm wrestling competition. For the first time since I've known him he loses. I don't think the policeman was even aware that Nardus was hanging on his arm, he was just posing for the camera.

We are later shown the gym that produces such unbridled power.

We have such a good time that we decide to stay over with the good people of Monte Negro. They are delighted and shows us a prime spot under a tree on the beach. We only did 60 km for the day but WTF, you gotta go with what feels good.

As soon as we get to the river we go for a swim.
The Kunene has crocodiles. Plenty crocodiles.
Have a look at the thorns packed on the bank in the foreground. That is to discourage crocs from using this beach as a hang out. As soon as the locals see that we are going to swim regardless of their warnings, they join us. Their instructions appear to be: swim close to the bank and swim as noisily as possible. The water is just fantastic.

For most of the day my bike has been acting up. Now this is an issue for me. I have never done a trip such as this, where the bike's reliability is paramount, with any bike but BMWs. This would be my first on the 640. I have built my confidence in the bike by logging 11 000 problem free kms on it on other trips where recovery was not an issue. In fact, beforehand I was more concerned about Hennie's Dakar which is 'well used' to put it mildly. His response was that he was still going to tow a KTM in Angola.

Now my bike is bogging and stalling all over and blowing big black clouds of smoke. Bastard. So as soon as we are cooled down I start stripping the bike. The smell of the smoke tells me it is not rings but more likely just a too rich mixture. It turns out to be exactly right. The choke cable enters the carb in a metal bend which had pulled out of it's housing and is keeping the choke open.

It's always a good feeling to fix an ailing bike on the fly. Happy happy. I also put some effort into resurrecting my faith in my bike and we are partners again.

The good people of Monte Negro even do room service and we get some refreshments. We are also offered a goat, but myself, Hennie and Nardus have some residual issues with goat meat from a previous trip.

We are joined by the community and this unplanned stop in Monte Negro turns into the highlight of the trip.

Because Monte Negro lies at the end of a dead end 4x4 track, visitors must be scarce and the locals are even more interested in us than we are in them. We spend the afternoon having the best time with them.

This will probably be Hennie's favourite pic of his bike.

Michnus turns out to be extraordinarily popular. The women can't keep their eyes of him.
Lovely family portrait. The little one has Michnus's mouth, don't you think?

The men don't do the fat and ochre thing that the women do. Also where everything the women wear is hand made, the men accessorise with western clothes. Still very decorative.

Mike, Sergeante Primero.

Simone; Nardus and I joined him and friends that night in his hut for a party. They very kindly played us the only tape they had with Western music. The radio runs off batteries that are charged by a solar panel. We actually found the Herero songs quite a bit better than 'our' tape.

You just cannot take a bad picture of this girl.

Have a close look at the hand made decoration/jewellery. Carved lead and a variety of other utility parts. The shell is a prized possession. It has to be fetched from the ocean which means crossing the Namib desert. Later on we will cross it and you will see that it is a big deal.

Any idea how heavy that neck ornament is?

Later the afternoon the goats come down to drink and is chased away with rocks. On enquiry it appears that they cannot drink here because of the crocodile threat! But swimming is OK?

The beers do their job and I take a local for a spin up the riverbed and almost have my nipples torn off.
Surprisingly, when we return there are no more takers.

My good friend Casul on the right. Must be a monkey in the tree.

Yep, it is.

Here's something that intrigues me. Speaking for myself, I would have thought that after decades of war one would sort of have had enough. Yet, everywhere we saw camouflage and military apparel being used as fashion items. I think about that often still.

The locals assure us there is fish. Hennie conclusively proves them wrong.

And to end a perfect day, a perfect sunset on the river.

Oh yes, check out our fridge.

Monte Negro blew our minds. Fantastically friendly people, we made many friends. What makes it so exceptional is that we had no way to communicate as we did not understand a word of Portuguese (except 'cerveja') or Herero. They did not understand a word of English or Afrikaans. Yet we spent hours and hours being thoroughly entertained. This trend was to repeat itself every where we stopped.

Monte Negro will always be special to me though.

Yesterday was such a lovely day of excesses and decadence. Today will be the day we pay for those. And I'm not talking money here. I'm talking 'sweat of your brow' kind of shit. Today we tackle the 'landmine track' referred to before.

Less than a km and I get dumped on my face.
You deserved that you lazy bastard.
Pay attention. Today we're gonna ride.

We do a riverbed and an extreme river rock section within the first 5km which wakes us up nicely and gets the beer converted into sweat in no-time. Sorry, no pics, everybody was a bit shell shocked.

As we turn away from the river we quickly realise that the word "track" is a bit optimistic. (me)

It's rocks, rocks, rocks, rocks and some more rocks. The bikes are handling like crap. I referred before to the 30 litres of petrol each was carrying in addition to his full tank. Let me put that in perspective for you:

That's the fuel only.

The packing priorities was clear to everyone. First fuel. Then water. Then tools. Then the optional stuff such as bedding, mattress, tent, clothing and all the stuff one would normally pack.

The massive weight of the fuel and water makes your bike a stranger. I was riding a pogo stick front connected to a drunk hippopotamus at the rear. Not lekker at all.

And still it is rocks, rocks, rocks. First gear, second gear stuff. We take so many forced rest breaks I doubt we will ever make it to Foz do Cunene.

The 950 comes into it's own however. The weight of the bike allows it to track straight and ignore all but the ugliest rocks. (Nardus)

Because the rocks determine your line, the thorn bushes are just plain having their way with you. My gloves gets ripped to shreds.

I'm pretty impressed with the new pants I'm trying out. No tearing even though the thorns are drawing blood.

And still more rocks. (Nardus)

Sometimes it just gets plain silly.

What is worse is that you cannot afford to go down. If you are going to try and save the bike you will break something. If you abandon the bike, it will get damaged.

We are not in a place where you can depend on help.
Best case scenario - someone rides out to get help. That's one day if all goes well.
To get to a place where an evacuation vehicle can be sourced, another day.
For a vehicle to get to where we're at, three days minimum.
To get back to the border, two days.
That's 6-7 days before you get to Ruacana and then you still need to get airlifted to the hospital of your choice in South Africa.

It's risky riding and it takes everything you have. All of your skill and all of your concentration.

And did I mention rocks? (Hennie)

Let's talk about Fred for a moment. This is him.

I have done many trips with Hennie, Nardus and Michnus. This is my first full trip with Fred. It will be Fred's first serious trip. His dual sport experience is limited to the 3000km he has put on his new Dakar. Ordinarily we would not take someone like that on a trip such as this.

But Fred is not ordinary. He is by far the fittest of the group. He's like a Sportsmans Illustrated poster boy. He ran the Comrades marathon (5 times). He rowed the Duzi Canoe Marathon. One week before this trip he completed a 230km day/night mountain bike race. This is what clinched it for me. If he is a mountain bike racer, how difficult can the transition to a motorcycle be?
Fred was the unfortunate donner who was going to find out.

We ride out of sight of each other due to the dust. The second last oke stops periodically and check that the last oke is still coming. Fred comes out of a drift and loses it, going down heavily. His body twists around but not his right leg, this is trapped under the bike. He lies in the sun with fuel dripping on his leg. After lying there in pain for a while he realizes that the next oke isn't coming.

The next oke is supposed to be me. As fate would have it I get a rock that punches through my tyre (specially bought Michelin Desert) and through the bottom and top of my tube, just as Fred goes down. So I am a km or two down the road fixing a flat in the same sun that Fred is lying in. Blissfully unaware.

It takes Fred the better part of 15 minutes to extricate himself. The bike is heavily loaded with all that extra fuel. Have a look at the marks where he thrashed about the dust.

I was confounded by the helmet under the bike until he explained that he would lift the bike and wedge the helmet, rest, then do it again until he got out.

He had an opportunity to do a lie down every day so far but this is the first one that hurt. His ankle and knee got twisted and his chest also took a knock.

But, we have to ride and so on to more ...... rocks.

Fred starts taking pictures of rocks?

And stil more...

Ok, I have a hundred more of these but I'm sure you get my point. There were a lot of rocks.

And of course there is also riverbeds just to test the spread of skills.

Michnus fails the test spectacularly. That dust cloud out front is him connecting a large rock.

Another rest stop.

We see some strange plant life.

As the sun sets we pull into a riverbed to make camp.

And there we find something to put our easy, privileged lives back into perspective.

This morning a donkey threw this boy off and stepped on his arm causing it to fracture and the bone to stick out the bottom of his arm.

They are on their way to Namibia for medical help. To walk to the nearest Angolan town would take weeks. They have been walking all day. They have a further 3 day's walk to get to Namibia. We set the arm and give them some pain pills.

I suddenly think a little differently about the idyllic lives these free nomads lead.

As we lie in the riverbed we take stock of the situation. Everybody started with 5 litres of water this morning. No-one has more than 500 ml left. We are nowhere near Foz do Cunene. If tomorrow is going to be like today we are going to have a serious problem. We pin our hopes on Iona. The National Park takes it's name and we know there is a Police post so it should at least have a shop. Hopefully we can also stock up on some tins of food.

Everybody is hurting after the day's riding but I notice that Fred is very quiet. His knee isn't giving him any joy.

We have a look at the GPS stats and I almost laugh out loud. Moving average for the day: 26 km/h. That's at the top of first gear for fuck's sake. I sure as hell hope that tomorrow isn't more of the same.

The next morning the coffee gets made early because that's the last of the water. We are wanting to use the cool morning to get to Iona.

Deja vu.

Luckily it turns out to be only a scare. Once we hit the main road to Iona things improve markedly.

So much so that we start seeing the beauty in nature again.

And it's always enjoyable to breathe the morning air from the seat of a bike.

Here and there a bit of a climb, but it is just entertainment.

We even get to use third gear! What a joy.

We run into a frenchman doing Africa solo. He's done over 300 000km in this Land Rover. All in Africa. Talk about hardcore!

This was to be the only vehicle we saw in 6 days of riding. It was in fact the longest I have ever ridden without coming across any other vehicles.

We get to Iona and find that we seriously overestimated the place. It is one school building.

Nothing else.

No shop to buy food, no nothing. Not even a hut. Just veldt, and this school. Unbelievably, the school is operating.

What you see here is a common theme through-out Africa. It still gets to me every time though.

We now get to another of my concerns, mentioned at the start of this report. We are now in the middle of Parque Nacional do Iona. National Parks as a rule do not allow motorcycles. We had long discussions on this aspect when planning the trip. The consensus was that the odds that we would run into a patrol is remote enough for us to risk it.

Hennie and Nardus have been jailed in Botswana specifically for this reason. Angola is the very last place on my list of preferred places to be jailed.

The police post in Iona is a couple of kms up a dead end road into the mountains. We can very easily bypass them.

But, we need water. When you need it, you NEED it. So we pull into the police post. Once again, we find friendly, helpful folk that let us get water from their containers. I suck down a quick litre and fill again. Man I like this country.

And things just gets better, Iona is the last of the mountains and we ride into the soft velvet plains.

It is just fantastic to open up. Damn! It's the first opportunity on this whole trip.

I have no words to tell you how sweet it is.

Look Ma, no rocks!

And it's pretty.

We start seeing Welwitchias, in fact lots of Welwitchias. This means that we are entering the Namib desert.

The sign says it all. We should be fine.

As the desert starts to unfold we hit a horribly corrugated section. But we cannot let the tyres down as it is interspersed with embedded rocks. So we we just rattle on.

We cover a lot of distance.

And some more. Strange how the nothingness of a desert can be so beautiful.

We make up a lot of time lost over the previous days.

We make a detour to go and see what the Kunene looks like as it cuts through the desert.

Cooling off time. This trip has everything. We are very fortunate.

Ok, that's it for now. I need to get some sleep.

Here's a teaser for the next installment.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You guys rule I just spent the afternoon reading and enjoying your trip . It is now 1-16-2016 I'm reading from Boston MA