It was hard to see the woman clearly behind the thick Perspex, as my own refection was getting in the way, my face merging with hers like a double exposure photograph. By a careful process of elimination, I realised that it was HER eyes I could see rolling in irritation, and not my own! Her voice then came through the little circular holes in the pane with great depth and authority. “Why do you want to go to Angola?”
I was nervous as I knew that few people were granted a visa, and certainly not without applying from their home country. Here I was, at the Angolan embassy in Windhoek, Namibia on a long-shot.
“I am on a record-breaking mission to ride a motorbike on all seven continents”, I said with as much confidence as I could muster. It really wasn’t relevant but it sounded good.
“I emailed you in advance and I was told I could have a few days to record my journey. It won’t take long!” The woman stared at me so hard I was convinced I would turn to stone, then she rolled her eyes again, huffed, and slid a form under the perspex barrier, a barrier I had assumed was to protect her from the public, but now I wondered if it wasn’t the other way round.
“Fill this in and come back tomorrow with the documents listed”, she hissed, and wafted her hand at me, clearly indicating that I was dismissed.
I had not intended to go to Angola. It just started calling to me as I got closer to its border. The advice on the UK Government website says, ‘DON’T GO’, but in my experience, these websites are often outdated or over cautious. I knew a few people who had gone through unscathed and loved it, and so I decided to chance my luck. After a couple more days of paperwork, eye-rolling, and open irritation at my very presence, I was granted seven days. It wasn’t much but I took it and ran.
I hoped the embassy was not reflective of the country, although I had evidence to believe the contrary. The only woman I know to have gone there solo in the last few years is a fellow adventurer named Jo Rust from South Africa. Jo decided to attempt to become the first woman to cycle around Africa back in 2011. Whilst in Angola, she was held up by a gang of thugs, who stole all her belongings (including her bike) and made a run for it into the bush. The Governor of Zaire province got to hear about this and stepped in, sponsoring the rest of her trip. Jo, however, wisely decided to go home and swap her pedal power for a motorbike before continuing – although she had never ridden one before. In 2012 she attempted the route again. This time she was tied to a chair and had a gun held to her head as they demanded money. Thankfully she got out unharmed and, in true grit fashion, she continued her journey and successfully completed her mission. Jo now runs her own off-road training company in Johannesburg and, ironically, lists Angola as one of her favourite places!
Arriving at the border, I was greeted by the usual crowd of touts offering to guide me through for a fee. They were friendly but pushy, until one of them recognised me. To be more accurate, one of them recognised my bike and exclaimed, “Rhonda the Honda! You were on television! I saw you!”
I had been on a popular TV program called Carte Blanche a couple of weeks previously and, since then, Rhonda was being recognised throughout South Africa and Namibia. Clearly I was just the side kick, whose name was so easily forgotten. When I confirmed that this was indeed Rhonda, he looked down and appeared to be talking to his shuffling feet, “Oh my God, Oh my God, stay cool! STAY COOL!”
Once he had composed himself again, we all chatted a while and I was on my way with lots of advice and the usual warnings of impending doom in Angola. A woman on her own? In Angola? The consensus was that I was crazy. The border guards were of the same opinion, but I am used to this. It happens in almost every country.
Successfully over the border, I weaved my way through the usual throng of money changers and sim-card sellers shouting, ‘No thank you’ at each one as they lurched forward with their offerings. Finally, I was out and onto the open road and feeling that familiar buzz of anticipation at what lay ahead. There is always something special about entering a new country. A mix of emotions that never seems to leave you no matter how many borders you tackle. Angola was my 43rd country on this journey, and yet I still felt a mixture of nerves, excitement and wonder as the unknown stretched out before me. It’s a great feeling and highly addictive!
After the border came the aggressive foot-deep pot-holes that anxiously waited with open mouths. They threatened to eat me whole with any momentary loss of concentration. The sun was slowly cooking me alive in my riding gear; like a boil-in-the-bag meal, making me more digestible for the potholes. After the first few kilometres though, the roads became surprisingly smooth. The traffic was practically non-existent, and the only buildings were those made of sticks and mud.
Angola has a rustic beauty, uncorrupted by tourism. With just one border crossing, my surroundings had changed quite dramatically. A landscape made unique by its abundance of magnificent baobab trees towering regally over the other shrub life, offering a welcome shade to the cattle and goats. I, too, would take refuge here once in a while, resting my back against their enormous trunks and sipping from my Kriega hydration pack, whilst trying to ignore those aggressive flies that you only find in arid conditions such as this. The type of fly that goes for the moisture in your eyes and mouth with a steely determination, emphasising the constant battle for survival that comes with this kind of uncompromising environment. It’s a landscape that will swallow any bush or beast that does not follow a few basic rules. It is a leveller and in that, I guess I find a certain comfort. I do hate those damn flies though.
Whenever my hydration pack ran dry, I would stop and top-up at one of the community wells that were dotted along the roadside at fairly regular intervals. This is where life happens; each one a hive of activity. Cows are watered, clothes are washed, and kids do the to-ing and fro-ing with their buckets of water back to their homes. There are always chores to be done here. The young boys seem to predominantly be the cattle and goat herders, while the girls do most of the water carrying. Occasionally when I stopped, some of the younger kids would run, screaming for cover, not sure what to make of this strange sight. I must have looked like an alien to them.
I did not come across a petrol station for a while and so I stopped at the next village and shouted “Gasolina?” at a group of young men who were busily propping themselves up against a wooden hut. They pointed over my shoulder at an old man sat outside another hut, surrounded by green wine bottles. The old man looked leathery. He had a kind face that told the story of a life of labour under a baking sun. A semi-toothless grin spread across his face as I approached, and he popped a cork in anticipation of my steed’s requirements. Rhonda was fed four bottles of his finest essence before we were waved off by the small crowd that had gathered to check out the new girl in town.
I did not see one other traveller whilst I was there and, as much as I selfishly loved having the place to myself (seeing a way of life that few get to witness), I wondered if perhaps a little tourism might help. People here are living off the land, but not living off the FAT of the land by any means. It is a tough way of life in a harsh environment, and I respect them immensely for getting on with it against all the odds.
The 27-year civil war, which officially ended in 2002, was largely continued for so long due to ethnic tension in the country after independence from Portugal in 1975. Diamond interests and power struggles raged on for years and wiped out most of its infrastructure as the dominant liberation movements refused to share power with a multi-ethnic society. Old tanks lie abandoned on the roadsides, as a harsh reminder of a very recent history that brought this country to its knees – and keeps it there.
The city of Labango sees a shocking contrast between rich and poor. Homeless kids scavenge for food with the mangy dogs amongst the rubbish that piles up on every dusty street corner, while the rich are the only ones who can afford even the simplest of commodities. The price of groceries is way above that in the UK, and a simple one-course meal in a very basic restaurant can set you back the equivalent of £20. I did not stay long. It was beyond my budget and with my plastic being of no use here, I was in real danger of running out of what little cash I had brought with me.
Heading back onto the country roads I pointed my wheels west, on a course set for some serious switchbacks in the beautiful Serra Da Lebba mountain range.
This road was surely built with bikers in mind. A steep 1.7km climb with seven switchbacks, it’s one of the famous hair-pinned roads in the world. In spite of its beauty, it has been the location of many fatalities and has long since been assigned the name ‘The beautiful precipice’. It was a short but wonderful ride that had to be done both ways, twice!
My ride back to the border the following day was long and hot. I would stop regularly to drink some water or make some sweet coffee under the shadiest trees I could find. After disturbing one snake, I developed a ritual of stomping around loudly and shouting, “Go away snakes. I’m here now!” before settling down to enjoy my beverage. Whilst stomping and shouting on one such occasion, I suddenly became aware of a host of eyes watching me from behind a tree on the other side of the road. It was a group of young girls, unmistakably of the indigenous Himba tribe, famous for the red mud-like mixture they wear in their hair, and often on their skin. It is actually a mixture of animal fat and Ochre, possibly used to protect them from the sun.
After a little persuasion they came over and joined me. I must admit, they weren’t the happiest bunch I had met. Everywhere I had stopped, I had been greeted by inquisitive eyes and big friendly smiles. It seemed at first as though these girls had made a pact NOT to smile before coming over. However, this all changed once the drone came out, which did raise some smiles, and a great deal of excitement. At first shocked at my flying machine, they then giggled and chattered away as they crowded around to see themselves on the screen in my hand. Sadly, it was one of those moments where I realized – later – that I hadn’t pressed record. An amazing moment destined to be kept between me and the Himba girls. As the old saying goes, what happens in Angola, stays in Angola!
And then another border, and another adventure was about to begin. Africa is amazing.
This article first appeared in issue 21 of Overland Magazine.