Brighton to Cape Town Overland by Motorcycle
6th February 2008
Once on the Angolan side of the barrier, operations were more efficient despite our complete lack of portuguese language skills. We got away with a combination of english, french and "Bom dia". The road started out in reasonable condition, but we didn't have to travel far into Angola before the road degenerated into a washed out dirt track, technically challenging and enough to prevent fast progress. Of course, the quality of a road tends to reflect the amount of traffic that actually uses it, so it should have come as no surprise that it was not until 3.15pm that we saw a vehicle coming the other way - it was the to be the only vehicle we saw outside of the towns at the start and end of the day's ride.
The Catholic mission in Tomboco is presided over by a Mexican priest who made us very welcome, and refused any payment for our stay. He explained that there wasn't really anywhere to get any food in town, and, after we'd already cooked for ourselves, eaten and cleared up, he arrived with a steaming dish of pasta with meat sauce and six cans of chilled beer. We thanked him profusely and packed the pasta away into a couple of plastic food bags to be used for the following day's lunch if need be. Just as we were finishing the packet of biscuits we'd settled on for dessert, a nun appeared with a couple of pineapples for us, which we then saved for breakfast.
Back on the road early the next morning, we headed for N'Zeto where we hoped to be able to top up with fuel and pick up the rumoured good coast road. The road from Tomboco to N'Zeto was intermittently reasonable tarmac, potholed tarmac and dirt track. When we arrived in N'Zeto, we discovered that there was no fuel at the petrol station, only from plastic containers at the side of the road, and the road from there towards the capital, Luanda, was another dirt track. We filled up the CCM, and put a few litres into a jerry can for the Africa Twins should we not find any fuel before the capital, and this proved to be the right decision as Dan's bike spluttered to a halt at the side of the piste before we'd found any more fuel for sale. The rate of progress towards the capital varied with the quality of the road, but as we approached Luanda, the road improved and we felt we were rejoining the developed world. Civilisation Part One consisted of a petrol station with a shop selling chilled drinks, snacks, biscuits and canned goods. Out back was Civilisation Part Two: a flushable toilet with toilet roll and a hand-basin with running water.
We skirted through the Capital as best we could. We had a waypoint for a possible overnight stop at the Naval Club out on "Luanda Island" but as we passed through shortly after lunchtime we decided to head instead for a waypoint we had for a beach camp at Cabo Ledo, further south.
The road out of Luanda leading southwards was excellent tarmac and as we approached the waypoint, we guessed we had to head down through a quarry to reach the beach. This we duly did, and as we rode down the track from the clifftop to the beach we spotted some sunshades erected on the beach and headed towards them. When we arrived at the rope barrier between us and the sunshades, the kid manning it looked somewhat surprised to see three large motorbikes and even more confused when we tried to explain in phrasebook-portuguese that we wanted to camp there for the night. Eventually, he agreed that we probably could, so long as we headed south down the beach away from where we were headed. He agreed that we could come through the gate to do so though, and we headed towards the beach proper to see how far we could get. The sand looked soft so we sent Chris on the lightweight CCM ahead, and he made it to the firmer damp sand at the water's edge without too much drama. Dan followed on his Africa Twin and made it about three yards before sinking it up to its rear axle in the soft sand, right next to a party being held under an olive-green canvas shade. In Monty Python style, Dan dismounted his stricken steed and left it propped up in the sand as he stepped away to look around, and didn't so much as flinch as it then fell over onto its left pannier. One of the girls at the party started taking photos of the bike, and a portly gentleman in shorts and t-shirt came over to say hello. He explained in english far better than our portuguese that we'd stumbled into a prohibited military area, but that we probably could camp if the commander of the special forces (who'd be along in a few minutes) agreed to it. He himself was an army commander, and the guy with the Tom Selleck 'tache dancing with one of the bikini-clad teenagers was a senior officer in the airforce. He brought us over a beer each and told us to join them and relax until the other commander arrived. With Dan's bike eased out of the deep sand and back to the safety of the firmer ground, we did exactly that and did our best to chat to the assembled military chiefs as local dance music pumped out of the back of a Volvo SUV.
When the commander of the special forces arrived, we were already onto our second Heinekens, and it came as quite a relief that we were not going to be asked to get back on the bikes and find somewhere else to stay. He told us we could camp down here or stay in his house up on the clifftop where we could have food drink and a hot shower. Deciding we'd already got a good deal staying where we were and that it would be less complicated to stay in the tents than in a senior Angolan military man's house, we thanked him for his generous offer and set up our tents.
Soon after dark, the party was packed up into the back of the Volvo and transported up to the house on the clifftop where no doubt it continued well into the early hours. We however got a good night's sleep and rose early the following morning to make the most of day three of our five day visa.
From the Cabo Ledo military party spot to the dusty industrial pit of Lobito the road was good tarmac and the miles were covered at high speed. After the usual traffic and hassle of travelling through a major town, progress from there to Benguela was also fast and the tarmac continued for about 20 miles beyond Benguela before finally running out. Teams of Chinese road builders are steadily extending the new road towards the Namibian border, but for us the route from there consisted of slow twisty dirt-track diversions with patches of deep dust followed by excellent well-kept piste.
As his Africa Twin slithered at 70mph down a long steep slope with numerous little tracks traced into the pale powdery surface, Dan couldn't help but note the similarity between this and the pistes he'd normally be playing on around 13th January - in some ways this part of Angola was a bit like Val D'Isere. For the most part the piste was smooth, straight and free from deep ruts so the big bikes could despatch even the dustier sections at speeds up to 80mph with the sensation of perfect control. Progress was to be slowed somewhat when Ed and Chris rode briskly over a crest only to find a couple of Angolan kids on a little chinese bike dawdling in the middle of the piste in front of them. The ensuing evasive manoeuvres sent Chris to their left and Ed to their right - only to see the scooter edging towards the righthand side of the road and straight into Ed's path.
At the last moment the passenger on the smaller bike turned and with a dig in the driver's ribs and a look of horror in his eyes the two bikes connected and fell down in tandem. Ed sprang to his feet and stepped forwards to the prone figures to find the passenger unhurt but the rider clutching a gash to his heel which had received no protection from his Hawaian flip-flops. Chris arrived a moment later and he and Ed had the passenger wrapping bandages around his friend's foot before a passing pickup was flagged down and both boys were taken to a nearby hospital. Ed's bike was found to be functioning but with extensive cosmetic damage and it wasn't long before the three riders were following some hasty verbal directions from a passer-by to the hospital.
Before we could find it a police roadblock loomed and it was soon apparent that they had already been alerted to the accident. Dan and Ed were allowed to proceed to the hospital while Chris remained with the police.
It is sensibly our approach never to drive in the dark but even with this core mantra there are occasions where we found ourselves doing just that. After the accident we found ourselves still 60km from the mission and daylight in short supply. Chris' CCM was positioned where he could follow the light beams of the larger bikes - the headlight on his bike not only a design afterthought but also broken. Despite riding through a fantastic sunset on the way, the three relieved bikers arrived at the Mission tired but intact a couple of hours later.
From Quilengues, we had another full day planned. We knew that most of the way from there to Lubango would be more of the same dusty piste until the last 25 miles or so, and then good tarmac into the town and for an unspecified distance out the other side. Sure enough, this prediction was correct, and as we returned to a tarred surface for the run into Lubango, we came across Civilisation Part Three: a signposted public picnic bench at the side of the road under the shade of a tree.
After pausing for the customary biscuit and water stop, we were back on the road for the run into Lubango, and then back out of town and heading towards Xangongo. Xangongo looked like a likely place to stop for the night - it would leave us with a short run to the border the following morning, and was large enough to maybe have somewhere to stay. We weren't far out of Lubango before the tarmac gave way once more to the familiar smooth dusty piste, and we arrived in Xangongo to find all the hotel options expensive, unwilling to allow camping, full, or all three. By chance, Ed got chatting to someone in the street who could help, and we were led to a patch of ground with a concrete and corrugated iron shelter serving as a makeshift church. We were invited to camp outside, between it and another man's house, and once the tents were set up, Chris spotted that his rear sprocket was very badly worn - so bad it was missing a tooth. This was not good news, but we figured we had no option but to ignore it and hope that it got him to Windhoek in Namibia where he should be able to sort a replacement. With nothing possible to help the bike, our attention turned to the evening's food.
While Dan guarded the tents and made polite conversation in French, Ed, Chris and one of our hosts headed into town to find some ingredients for supper. No sooner had a tin of tomatoes been purchased we were confronted by two immigrations officers asking to see our passports. Chris easily obliged but Ed, who is usually never without his documents, had left his back at the bike and it soon became clear that document checking was only to be the vehicle for leveraging money from rich travellers. What also didn't help was that one of the officers was drunk and despite being given a free bottle of water by Ed to buy time and the chance to go and get his passport, the two officers began to talk US dollars and the possibility of a night in the cells. Despite our host's pleading the officers were not about to give in and Chris was despatched into the darkness to find the passport with Ed's bike keys.
Ed was now left to face an uncertain future alone with the drunk officer who attempted to hail down bike taxis to take him to jail only to relent at the last minute while he went off to get another drink and allow Ed to wait for his friend to return. When Chris did eventually return, having navigated his way through the darkness and sandy paths and found his way back with the documents, the officer decided to step up his efforts to get us to jail despite the local people insisting that the immigration offices were now shut for the night and that they should resist going with the officer. The passport which Chris had brought was put into the pocket of the more sober officer who remained in the bar. A pickup was flagged down and they were instructed to get in, which they resisted much to the officer's annoyance. A crowd of interested locals had formed and they continued to tell Chris and Ed not to get in. During the developing commotion, and with the help of the young people of the crowd, an opportunity presented itself and Ed and Chris escaped back to where the sober officer was drinking with his girlfiends and the two, now fugitives, were instructed to sit on the steps while the sober officer finished his drinks after which we would accompany him back to his house as a punishment, or something. To the relief of both tourists the drunk officer had disappeared and after sitting on the naughty step for half an hour, the passport was returned and Chris and Ed were released with a stern ticking-off.
Enough of the evening had been wasted to prevent the procurement of all required ingredients, and by the time Ed and Chris returned to the camp, it was getting too late for anyone to be bothered to cook, anyway. A quick snack was prepared from the few items of food that were available and palatable cold, and the exhausted adventurers retired to their tents for the night.
The following morning the group rose early and headed for the border with Namibia. It was only 80 miles or so away, and with the weather holding out it was not going to be difficult. On the way we passed a couple of abandoned tanks left over from the twenty five years of civil war that ended in 2002, and stopped for typical tourist photos. We arrived at the border mid morning, and were stamped out of Angola at a little after 10am. We were within the 5 days allowed - in fact we'd crossed Angola in under 95 hours, despite a road accident, a hospital visit and an arrest. After a confusing half hour or so at the Angolan customs and immigration offices watching in disbelief as locals handed over passports with increasingly large banknotes tucked inside, we were on our way into Namibia.