Monday, December 6, 2010

Route to The Land at the end of the Earth

So first things first, a light workout to start the week, just over an hour instead of the usual hour and a half.  It included a session on a stationary bike.  Not as much fun as a real one but an awful lot safer than attempting suicidal slalom down Jan Smuts Avenue in Johannesburg.

Having just got off Skype to Paul of Eco-Tur in Angola -  -  it seems that the roads in Angola are equally dangerous and maybe I’d get more “real” practice by trading the exercise bike for a real one on Jan Smuts after all!  Baby steps...

My task now is to decide on a route.  I’m open to suggestions for this and I’m happy to change it as the journey unfolds.  My favourite form of travel is when the itinerary is flexible.  I don’t need to have a string of hotels booked in advance; I prefer to take each day as it comes.  That, by the way, is how I found myself sleeping in the long grass next to an autobahn, but that’s another story.

I’ve decided to start the journey in Luanda, the capital of Angola.  I want to end my journey in Tsumeb in Namibia.  The trickier part is the bit in between.  I am planning a route that will take me into the south eastern province of Cuando Cubango.  It is in this remote corner of Angola, endearingly called “the land at the end of the earth”, that I fought as a 20 year old conscript.  It is also an area that is still heavily mined – the kind that go bang, not the type that produce diamonds - and I am investigating the latest situation.

One route I’ve looked at would take the coast road from Luanda to Lobito.  It looks like it could be a scenic option.  From there I would turn east to Huambo and onwards to Menongue and beyond.  Following my conversation with Paul, it seems that the coast road is busy with large trucks going to and from the port of Lobito, to the capital.  The road is narrow and windy and the truck drivers are, shall we say, less than careful and faster than sensible.  The inland route, I’m told, would be far better as the road is wider and there is less traffic.

From Huambo I’ll ride on to Menongue, a name that still has a sinister ring to it.  It was from there that the Migs of the Angolan air force flew their sorties.  Sitting around our vehicles under camouflage nets, bored yet edgy after days or sometimes weeks of inactivity, the radio would come to life with the words “victor victors in die lug”.  Victor victors being radio language for enemy aircraft.  This less than good news was often followed by the instruction: “wapens los”, meaning we could take a pot shot at anything flying close enough.  I have to say that my instincts told me to keep a low profile as my rifle was hardly a match for this multi-million dollar, or rather rouble, aircraft’s weapons systems.  So instead, we’d stay close to our foxholes until we were told it was all clear.

Menongue then, is the first waypoint, as I travel into the darkest recesses of my own history.  It’s a marker from the war that says, “You’re back, this is where you fought your war.  This is where you’ve experienced fear like never before and never since.”  In a way, this place marks the beginning of the journey towards my personal heart of darkness, that piece of wilderness between Cuito Cuanavale and Mavinga where I spent three months experiencing emotions on the fear/terror continuum.

In practical terms it seems that I can cycle all the way to Cuito Cuanavale, the place where the war ended.  The outcome of the battle is contested, both sides claiming victory, but to continue arguing this point is to continue the war by other means, I think.  Maybe it is because my service ended before the end of the war that I am not overly concerned with who won.  Maybe, also, because a victory in this war was hollow given the regime I was fighting for.  A war fought two whole countries away from my own.  In the bush, winning a fight meant surviving another day.  So it was important then.  Now though, we need to build something new.

From Cuito Cuanevale I want to get to Mavinga.  This town was strategically important for UNITA.  The airfield helped keep the rebels and the SADF supplied.  Just north of the town is where I saw my first real fighting and took part in the important battle on the Lomba River.

The road from Cuito to Mavinga is, from what I’ve been able to learn, a bad road of deep sand.  I’m not going to be able to cycle it.  It may be possible to hitch a lift on a truck and as long as I can satisfy myself that this road is free of landmines, this is what I’ll do.

I’m still investigating whether I can get to the Namibian border from Mavinga but it may be possible to hitch another ride.  Again, landmines may be one of the biggest obstacles.

[If you have any information on any of the routes I’ve mentioned, feel free to leave me a message.]

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