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A journey through Angola, with contrasts and surprises

We arrived in Luanda via Addis Ababa. I was travelling with a great friend Leslie Nevison, owner of Mama Tembo Tours based in Lusaka, we are well-travelled but this is a new country for us and brings all the excitement of a real adventure into the unknown. The challenges of obtaining a visa in the U.K. (I did mine using a specialist agent who took most of the pain on my behalf) and having read Theroux’s Last Train to Zona Verde, gave me pause for thought about the arrival process. Immigration is the first of many good surprises; the queue is long but the process efficient and without any difficulties. Much quicker and certainly absent any hassle that I’ve endured in many other arrival halls, we soon check in to our hotel Ilha Mar, situated on a peninsula a few kilometres from the airport, where we later enjoy sundowners from the rooftop terrace looking out onto the Atlantic Ocean.

Angola sunset

An afternoon walk around the fort overlooking the city, my impression is of soft pink light – red rooftops, Portuguese colonial-style pink buildings – the contrast of beautiful old houses, some decaying, some well-preserved, nestled in between modern businesses. Dinner at a local marina is simple and delicious – fresh prawns, fries and wine. The incredible seafood is another of the great surprises of the trip. We eat fantastic fish every day from the restaurants of Luanda all the way to the very south of Angola and the desert and enjoy trying different Portuguese wines.

The next morning we fly to Lubango which is to be our base for the rest of the trip. Our safari is focused on visiting the different tribal people who are mainly concentrated in three provinces of southwest Angola: Huila, Cunene and Namibe.

Angola desert landscape

A day trip from Lubango takes us to two markets to the area where Mwila tribes live in the Huila plateau. The tribes are divided by their location in relation to Chibia town. Plain Mwila live to the east and Mountain Mwila to the west. Mwila women coat their hair with a red paste, oncula, made from crushed red stone, oil, tree bark, dried cow dung and herbs and decorate with beads. Women have four to six plaits, nontombi. To see someone with three plaits means there has been a death in the family and the other plaits have been cut off. Necklaces are meaningful to different periods of life. A young girl will wear a heavy red collar. At puberty the collar is yellow until she is married. Once married, women start to wear stacked bead necklaces, vilanda, which are never removed.

Muila Woman, Angola

Continuing south from Lubango, a full day’s driving took us to Oncocua, a town in the Cunene province. The main roads are well-maintained and there are few police checkpoints, all of which we pass with no problems. Speed of travel changes as we move off the tar roads. The drive through the bush is 120km and takes us four hours but the scenery is beautiful, pristine bush of acacia and mopane. In other countries you would expect to see this type of environment full of wildlife but years of the hardship of civil war have taken its toll on the biodiversity. The history of 20 years of civil war with landmines, poaching and bushmeat hunting to feed families mean we saw only the occasional steenbok. The road we are travelling on is safe though, trees are marked with paint, a sign that the area has been cleared of mines.

En route we stop at a village of Dimba people. The men are all away tending to cattle so we spent an hour with the women. A lady shows me how her bottom teeth had been knocked out. The practice of teeth sharpening and removal is widespread, a rite of passage and tribal culture, there are differing opinions on its origin. Some anthropologists believe teeth removal dates back to the slave trade when slaves would remove teeth to spite or reduce their value to slave traders.

Dimba woman, Angola

In Oncocua we camp for two nights in the heart of the village in the grounds of Maria’s Place, there are no hotels here. We sleep in pop up tents, meals are simple and dinner taken by torchlight, water for washing is a large bucket with a scoop. We love camping so with cold beer supplied by Maria and red wine we brought with us from Lubango, we are happy in our little spot. Each morning over morning coffee we watch the village come to life. Our guide Ozio lives with his family in Oncocua and he brings his delightful wife and children to say hello to us. He is a man of many surprises, a policeman when not guiding tourists and we watch a clip of him as an extra in the film 10,000 Years Before Christ!

Himba woman, Angola

Oncocua was our base to visit three tribes, Himba, Hakaona and Batwa, who live in around the Cunene river area. At each village, patience is required at the start whilst Ozio negotiates our visit and a small fee is agreed for the photographs. It’s a time to learn about the people, their culture and reflect on the vast differences between their lives and ours. In one village we ask if the headman has any questions for us, the answer is no. They have no need to understand us, the way we live has no meaning for them.

The Himba are famous for the distinctive colour of their skin and hair that comes from otijze paste, made with ash, butter and ochre. The paste is used to cleanse, protect from the harsh climate and prevent mosquito bites. Married women wear an elaborate hairpiece made of sheepskin called an erembe.

Hakaona women shape their hair with cow dung fat and herbs and wear a headdress, a kapopo. Hakaona girls are married from the onset of puberty; pubescent girls have long dreadlocks. Whilst we visit them in their village, we also come across a group of women on the road drawing water from a well. The stop is spontaneous and the scenery, the beautiful woods, make this a special moment.

Hakaona woman, Angola

The Batwa are fewer in number, living around Oncocua town. They are hunter gatherers and imitate the dress and language of the Himba. This is the first group of women that we encounter that are hungry and Leslie pays for a sack of maize to be delivered by our guide once we return to camp.

After our two days in the Cunene river area, we reverse our journey back to Lubango, with a rest stop at a homestead for lunch. After a night cleaning up in our hotel in Lubango, we head off the following morning for Moçâmedes, the capital of Namibe Province on the south west coast. We drive down the spectacular Serra de Laba pass – a 1000 km drop from Lubango to the tar road – hairpin turns and breathtaking views.

Serra del Laba pass, Angola

Moçâmedes was founded in 1840 by the Portuguese colonial administration and today retains some very interesting architecture, Art Deco style buildings in faded pastel shades. We now find ourselves in another contrasting environment, by the ocean, the coastline extending up from the Skeleton Coast of Namibia. Here we watch fisherman bringing in their catches, wander the fish market stalls and eat the best seafood of the trip.

The next day we find ourselves in the desert, driving to the town of Virei to meet the last tribal people of our trip, the Mucubal. The landscape is vast, open, brown sand dotted with the strange welwitschia plants that can live for 1,000 years.

Our first attempt to meet people fails as the local market location has been closed down and moved; clearly people do not like this change. Driving through the town, we see women washing their clothes from a deep open well so go to watch them work. The Mucubal women wear the most colourful patterned clothes we have seen, with elaborate headdresses called ompota. The cloth of the headdress is arranged over a wicker framework that once traditionally would have been filled with cows’ tails. They are famous for wearing a string around their breasts, oyonduthi, as a “bra”.

Mucabal woman, Angola

The best night of the safari is spent sleeping in pop up tents out in the desert by an empty Mucubal village under the huge night sky filled with stars and total silence. Our camping destination is Tchitundo Hulo, where in 1954 rock paintings were discovered dating from approximately 20,000 ago, some of the most important prehistoric art in the world. We drink red wine in camping mugs watching the sunset over the rocks, and as I look back over a fascinating experience, I think this is the perfect ending.

Lesley Pritt travelled with Leslie Nevison of Mama Tembo Tours.

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