Sunday, March 16, 2014

Writer Rachelle Greeff reviews Back to Angola in Rapport

"Jy sou tereg kan vra of die Suid-Afrikaanse boekebedryf nie oorversadig is aan oorlogboeke nie. Ja, maar wanneer hulle van dié kaliber is, nee. Die prismatiese aard van Back to Angola stel ’n nuwe standaard. Dis reisverhaal én oorlogvertelling. Net so vlot wissel dit tussen op die fiets en in die Ratel. Die militêre aspek lê grensloos langs introspeksie en nabetragting. In ’n mate verklaar dit ook iets van die padwoede, huisgeweld, onverdraagsaamheid, dwelm- en drankmisbruik waarvan ons elke dag hoor – of voel"

Read the full review here:

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Impressions from Cuito Cuanavale

Some more impressions from last year's visit to Angola. (This piece will be cross posted on my travel blog

A multitude of coloured buckets and bowls bloom in the sand next to Cuito Cuanavale’s high street.  The sight is as refreshing as a spring flower-bed.  And like a flower-bed they wait for water.  Down by the river, a water- truck is sucking water from the Cuito River to fill those containers and water tanks around the town.

I am at the site of the last major battle that the South African Defence Force fought in Angola.  Cuito Cuanavale, a town considered strategic during the war, is situated some 300 kilometres north of the border with Namibia.  It marked the end of government controlled territory.  To the south, Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA rebels were in control, supported by the SADF.  The outcome of the battle is still disputed, but whatever your view, most will agree that Cuito Cuanavale was reduced to rubble during the fighting.

Our Land Rover crosses the post-war bridge and we trundle down to the riverbank below where some men are washing their cars and motorbikes.  It seems like a futile exercise in a town where the high street is surfaced with sand.  Yet in a place so haunted by the horror of war, this most mundane of activities is one of many I witness that shows people are getting on with their lives ten years after the end of the war.  I join some of the men by stripping off and washing several days of travel-dust off my body in the cold river.  As I stand thigh deep in the water, rinsing soap suds from my hair, a fisherman poles past in his makoro, known in Angola as a chata or canoa.

Further on, the long, brown flood-plain grass doesn’t quite conceal the rusting dome of a tank’s turret.  I take a picture of an anti-aircraft vehicle, its cannons still pointed to the sky.  The remains of an abandoned pontoon bridge lies rusting in the silt below the road.

 We drive east past an outlying settlement, the Land Rover growling its way through the deep sand track into the Tumpo Triangle.  This area was first pointed out to me as we drove past Cuito Cuanavale Airport which sits high on the Cuito ridge.  “Down there,” said Patrick, our expedition leader pointing to the east, “that’s the Tumpo Triangle, where the South African tanks got caught in the minefield.  It must have been hell for them.”

A man in his late twenties is our guide to Tumpo.  He tells us that he looked out over the flood-plain during the siege.  He was seven years old.  He and his family sheltered from the bombardment in underground shelters.  His grandmother and several other close relatives were killed by South African shells.

We round a slight bend in the track and come nose to nose with a Halo Trust truck.  The Halo Trust is the non-governmental organisation, once patronised by the late Princess Diana, which clears minefields in many of the world’s past and current war zones.  The truck is packed with people returning from a long day of lifting mines.  There’s an impasse.  Neither we nor they are keen to leave the track to allow the other to pass.  If the Halo Trust crew is nervous about leaving the track then so am I.  Our guide is jittery.  He’s from Cuito and knows the dangers of landmines all too well.  “Don’t leave the road!” he warns.  Eventually the drivers compromise, each with a set of wheels on the track and the other set off it.  The two vehicles pass so closely that at one point I fear that the massive truck will tear the side off our Landy.

A little further on we stop at a small parking area, a clearing just off the track.  It is marked out by neatly placed stones.  There’s a little thatched shelter and a Halo Trust sign.  I gaze to the east, towards the tree line.  It’s where the South African assaults came from.  Occasionally a gentle breeze brushes the blonde grass.  The cooling Landy engine ticks away behind me.  What I’m looking at is just bush.  It’s quiet and peaceful here and in another part of Southern Africa I could be scanning for elephant, or kudu or even lion, but this place holds memories of war and the predators are buried in the sand. 

Patrick suggests that we follow the little footpath that leads from the parking area off into the bush.  He tells us that there are SADF tank wrecks out there.  He’s been to them before and thinks he can find them again.  One by one we shake our heads.  Our guide doesn’t know where they are, he’s never been.  As for me, the last time I was in Angola I had some near misses.   It’s probably safe on the footpath cut by the Halo team, but I have no intention of being blown to bits by a land-mine twenty-five years after my war here ended.

Back in town we pull over to buy some supplies at a little general store.   Like many of the buildings here it is made from grey breeze-blocks.  It’s hot inside and some children are watching a soap-opera on an ancient television set.  We buy our essentials and leave. The children don’t flinch from the screen.  When we start off again Patrick has to engage low range to get us out of the deep sand next to the road.  I find myself wondering why money has been put into building a new airport when the residents have no running water.  Why an expensive war monument has been built when electricity comes from small generators.  So much effort has gone into creating a “peace garden”, ironically full of tanks and rocket launchers and even a MiG23 fighter jet, when one needs a four by four just to pull off the high-street.  These questions are echoed by several Angolans I meet later in my journey.  People here are resilient, they have to be, but there are murmurs of dissent.

As in many countries, the marketplace is the hub of the community and Cuito’s colourful little market represents a community getting on with life.  Patrick is in search of fresh fish and I’m looking for fresh vegetables for my dinner.  I don’t speak Portuguese so I wander around plucking up the courage to ask for prices.  Eventually I buy a selection of delicious looking vegetables including tomatoes, onions, garlic and peppers.  Other stalls sell t-shirts and baseball caps, rucksacks and household implements.  The market is busy and it seems that there’s not much in the way of daily necessities that one can’t buy here.

Patrick can only find dried fish though.  “You have to get up very early in the morning and go to the river at about six o’clock if you want fresh fish,” our host informs him.   It’s too early so he doesn’t get his fresh, Cuito River, fish.

Once Cuito Cuanavale was a scene of devastation, and the war still clings to it in the form of military wreckage and bad memories.  Yet, as people do everywhere, the inhabitants are rebuilding their town and living their lives, blooming like those colourful buckets in the Angolan sand.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Legacies Of Apartheid Wars Conference - 4 - 6 July 2013

There will be a unique conference as part of the South African National Arts Festival's Think!Fest this year. 

The conference is bringing together ex-concripts, ex-liberation fighters, informal township fighters, family who lost loved ones as well as others affected by the wars of the Apartheid era.  There are also offerings from the arts and I will be talking about my bicycle journey.

With a national debate that seems increasingly polarised, this conference is going a long way towards contributing to a more constructive national dialogue. 

Ex-combatants are again putting themselves on the front line, but this time in the service of peace.

LAWs on Facebook

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Upcoming Event: A Talk and some slides at Rhodes

I will be talking about my journey and showing some slides next week at Rhodes University. 

Please come along if you have an interest in the "Border War", peace-making, healing journeys, post-traumatic stress or dialoguing about the effects of South Africa's past on the present.  Cyclists also welcome!

Date:  Tuesday, 19th of March
Time:  1600

The venue is to be confirmed.

 This is a History in the Making seminar in partnership with the Legacies of Apartheid Wars Project


Monday, November 5, 2012

Patching punctures in the soul

 A version of this story was first published in Ride Magazine

When I noticed the rear-wheel puncture I knew what was going to happen next.  “Oh no, not here.” I muttered to myself as I anticipated the curious gallery likely to gather to watch my repairs.  I’d pulled off the tar to buy water at a collection of shack-shops.  It was bustling with young men.  This was in fact a one-stop shopping centre for motor supplies.  Instead of water I found motor oil, brake pads and assorted other things useful to 2-stroke motorcycle owners, but not to a cyclist with dwindling water supplies.

I noticed the puncture as I was wheeling my bike through the soft sand back to the tar.  Already the shoppers had stopped to stare at the sight of me and my fully laden bike.  I pushed the bike up to a ramshackle fence lay it down in the sand and unpacked it.   Although mechanically inept I can handle a tube change, but the audience was growing and with it my performance anxiety.

My tyre-levers produced a disquieting murmur of disapproval.  I glanced up furtively at the frowning experts of many thorny bike-problems.  Once the tyre was loose enough from the rim I slid my fingers under the edge to loosen the rest.  A murmur of approval rippled through what was now a crowd of at least sixty men.  I found the offending thorn and pointed at it with an emphasised “aha!”  Three of the spectators leaned in close and nodded grimly.  Tube in place, I produced my pump from my water-pack with a theatrical “ta-da!”, now warming to my audience.  But this was no laughing matter, their frowns frozen on their faces.  Even the theatrical bows with which I ended the show elicited stony-faced silence.

I was several days into a 1500 kilometre tour from Cuito Cuanavale in south-eastern Angola, to Tsumeb in Namibia.  Last time I’d been in Angola was during the war in 1987 when as a 20 year-old conscript I spent three months in the often thick forests between Mavinga and Cuito Cuanavale.

During my trip I rode through the tall trees of the beautiful forest that covers much of the south-eastern corner of Angola. I also crossed many of the rivers that journey with impunity across national borders.  Several hundred kilometres into Angola I crossed the wide Kuvango River which starts life in the highlands of Angola and ends in the vast swamps of the Okavango Delta.  I crossed the Kunene at the vibrant, if a little scruffy city of Matala, and remembered that as a conscript, twenty-five years earlier, I had swum in the same river at the Hippo Pools near Ruacana Falls.  These and other rivers provide vital water for people to drink, bathe and wash clothes in.  In many places on one side of a bridge I’d see women washing themselves and their children, with clothes and bed-linen draped over bushes.  On the other side men would be washing themselves, their motorbikes and their cars.  At the Cuito River I took my bike, white with dust, from the back of the Land Rover and gave it a full immersion baptism before washing myself in the clear, cold water.

I knew that I’d be camping wild on many nights so I carried a tent, sleeping bag, stove etc.  I also carried about six days’ worth of food and up to seven litres of water.  In bigger towns I sought accommodation to wash my dirty clothes – I only took one change – and to clean myself. In hindsight I could have managed without the tent and made-do with a groundsheet.

I returned to see Angola in peacetime, to enjoy the beauty of the bush and meet the people who live the country that is in its tenth year of peace following thirty years of civil war. 
I thought about the ways I could travel and settled on cycling because I wanted to have the closest possible contact with the people and the landscape.  It worked.  I exchanged greetings with just about everyone along the road.  Motorcycles would give me a friendly toot, people sitting outside the ubiquitous tavernas, would shout greetings or laugh in surprise.  Often I would stop for a chat.  I don’t speak Portuguese so this usually took the form of me listing as many of the towns as I could remember between Cuito Cuanavale and wherever I found myself.  The average response consisted of eyebrows shooting upwards at great speed followed by the Portuguese equivalent of “All the way from Cuito?” “Yes”, “On a bicycle?” “Yes”.  Then there could be hoots of surprised laughter.  I couldn’t tell whether I was being judged to be strong and courageous, or insane.  Probably the latter.

My longest day came after I decided to push all the way to Lubango in what turned out to be a 126km ride.  I knew the regional capital of Huila Province was up against the mountain but I hadn’t reckoned on the number of hills I’d have to climb at the end of a long day.  Then, looking forward to a hot shower and a cold beer, I was told that the place I’d chosen to stay was halfway up the mountain.  It was like arriving in Cape Town after nine hours cycling to be told you needed to climb Kloof Street to get to your guesthouse.

The infrastructure, though improving rapidly, is still ravaged by the war.  Guesthouses are not always to be found, and when they are, they’re often full.  In a R300 a night pensão my “shower” consisted of squatting over a bowl of cold water with only a candle for warmth and light.

The roads were surprisingly good.  Road-builders are laying tar at an incredible rate.  I enjoyed hundreds of kilometres of good tar, and a fair bit of old colonial tar, which was potholed, or shell-holed.  Where in a car one would have to slow to a crawl to negotiate the damage, on my two narrow wheels I was usually able to find enough unbroken tar to cruise comfortably without breaking my rhythm. 

Once or twice I found myself riding on a section of gravel that had been compacted in preparation for tarring.  I ignored the no-entry sign and flew along the smooth surface while cars and trucks battled the loose gravel and sand on the parallel detour.  Later in the ride I’d have no option but to ride a similarly poor section of sandy road and spend a good deal of time picking up myself and the bike after falling.  Then the road-building ended and I was on an old rutted gravel road.  The trees came to the road’s edge creating a beautiful avenue which tunnelled off into the green-fringed distance.  The ever-present mine-fields were closer so I perched on the road-edge when I took a snack-break.

When it got rough it was very rough.  And as it got roughest, so my good fortune deserted me.  On the worst piece of road, all loose gravel and sand, I started a bad bout of traveller’s guts.  I stopped regularly to rest.  I had to cover over fifty kilometres.  Nothing compared to the hundred kilometre daily average I was managing, but this was a difficult of section, I was dehydrated and, at one point, heaved my much needed lunch into the sand.  I was miserable, sick and felt very alone.  I was in the middle of nowhere and needed to keep going. 

I made it to Kuvango, on the river that eventually drains into the Okavango swamps, and holed up in a friendly but thread-bare pensao.  No flushing loo and a limited supply of water which arrived in a bowl every morning only accentuated my discomfort. I spent three days recovering.

My bike, although a source of amusement amongst more image-conscious friends back home, was viewed as a piece of high-tech by many of the Angolans I met.  Near Xangongo one very cool dude on a shiny Chinese two-stroke even offered to buy it.  “Then how do I get home?” I asked with an exaggerated shrug. “No problem, no problem.” He said, without explaining how the problem be solved. 

My scraped old mountain-bike has lugs to attach a carrier and the v-brakes, even I can maintain.  I imported the Brookes saddle and touring carrier for double the R1300 I paid for the bike.  For touring I figure that high-tech is a liability considering that the nearest bike shop capable of fixing, say, disc-brakes, was probably in Windhoek, about 2000kms from my starting point.

I crossed into Namibia at Oshikango, relieved that I could have long conversations in English and have long, hot showers.  I felt satisfaction at having crossed a chunk of Angola on two wheels relying only on leg-power and having said hello to just about everyone along the road.  I only had to cover the remaining three hundred kilometres to Tsumeb to complete what had been a rich and rewarding ride on my aging Silverback mountain-bike.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012