Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Snow Cycling - Not a problem in Angola

For all my friends in the UK.  This blog posting from the Guardian might be of interest.  Don't sit around the fireplace stewing, get out on the bike!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Beyond Cuito Cuanavale – Latest route information

Thanks to Julian Hocken from the HALO Trust - - in Angola, I now have a much clearer idea of some of the routes south of Cuito Cuanavale, at least as far a Mavinga.  The bad news is that the roads are, as I suspected, little more than sand tracks which means I probably can’t cycle them.  The good news is that there is a truck that travels one of the routes from Cuito Cuanavale to Mavinga about twice a week.  However, the term good news might be a little optimistic.

The 200km Kamaz Route, named after the Eastern European truck, is driven twice a week by a whisky assisted driver through areas still criss-crossed by mine belts.  The truck is piled high with people and their possessions and covers the distance in one 24 hour thrash.  So quite aside from the risk of being blown up, I could be written off by a drunk driver.  I’m feeling a little reluctant but I am considering this option. 

Mavinga is a prize because I would cross the Lomba River just north of the town.  The river was a prize back in 1987 too.  It is a natural buffer, a geographical stop-line for the defence of Mavinga.  It was also the scene of probably the most trying day of my life. The place where I spent an entire day in the middle of some of the most intense fighting of the war and at times I thought I would die there.  I didn’t die there, but many men did.  I really want to see that river again.  It seems an important part of what you might call my quest;  maybe going there will help to put some of the ghosts to rest.  But I won’t risk losing my life for the experience;  one day of close shaves on the Lomba is enough for this lifetime.

Beyond Mavinga I still have no information so I don’t know whether I could continue south to the Namibian border.  If I decide to take the risk of the Kamaz route I wouldn’t want to have to backtrack to Cuito by the same method.  I want to be sure that I can keep on south from Mavinga.

Julian has also given me detailed information about an alternative route which would take me from Cuito to Ongiva, a town about 40km’s north of the Namibian border and another landmark for me.  I think road might be passable by a forty-something on a bike, at least for most of the way.  This might end up being the road I choose. 

As an aside, I was part of a small operation in mid-‘87 before the main invasion later that year, called Operation Benzine.  Our mortar platoon, along with elements from the artillery, bombed FAPLA’S defensive positions around the town of Ongiva.  As we drove up the Old Portuguese road towards the town, the front of our column was ambushed.  Even though I was way back in the column, watching tracer bullets climb slowly into the night sky towards us and RPG rockets self-detonating up ahead was a frightening experience.  I wrote in my journal:  “ I’ve tasted a bit of combat and I never want to experience it again...”.  If only.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Landmine Deaths Triple - News Headline

Landmines continue to be a problem in Angola particularly as funding has decreased for the likes of the Halo Trust.  Read this article from today's News24 website:

Landmine Deaths Triple

A Note on Timing

A few people have asked me when I’ll be undertaking this journey.  The answer is that I haven’t quite decided yet.  It seems to make sense to do it when the weather is cool and before the rains gain momentum.  I was thinking August or September.  The former is drier, the latter warmer and also gets into anniversary territory.  We entered Angola on the last day of August.  Here’s what I wrote in my journal at the time:

“1 Sept 1987       First day of Spring
                [Op. Modular]

Angola – We’ve been in Angola since yesterday afternoon.  We left Bittersoet*  early yesterday to begin our 400km drive.  Our route took us up the Caprivi Strip, following the Kavango River.  We crossed the river just after the turnoff for Botswana and replenished at a place called Buffalo**.  We then turned left and into Angola.”

This time I’ll be doing the journey in the reverse, coming down from the north.  I really hope that I can, more or less, retrace my steps back to the border via Mavinga.  It somehow feels like a good way to close the old circle.

I didn’t set out to have this journey coincide with the anniversary of my involvement in the war, but it does have a certain appeal.  From experience I know that ghosts are closer to the surface around anniversary time so maybe they’ll be more easily laid to rest.

Practically speaking, I will have just over 7 months, post-festive season, to get in shape and to raise some money for charity.

*a temporary base near Rundu.  Translates as Bittersweet, quite aptly I think!
**we must have been close to the 32 Battalion base

Monday, December 6, 2010

Map of Angola

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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.]

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

By Bicycle?

So my plan is to undertake a long distance cycle ride.  Over the years I’ve done a lot of travelling and by various means on differing budgets.  In my twenties I hitch-hiked around Europe.  I’ve hitch-hiked extensively in South Africa, Zimbabwe and in Namibia.  In the Philippines I had wild and colourful rides in jeepneys (which come a close second to South Africa’s minibus taxi’s for wildness!) and banca’s or pump-boats which are glorified canoes, sometimes quite big, sometimes tiny, with outriggers and single cylinder engines of varying reliability.  I’ve slept in flea-pit hostels in Hong-Kong, in the long grass next to autobahns in Germany, on beaches in Greece and under the vast starry skies of Africa.  I’ve also done the 5 star hotel, business class, luxurious but experientially sterile form of travel.  This trip needs to be different.

Southern Africa is increasingly well trodden by relatively wealthy South Africans driving big 4x4’s whose daily fuel bill would probably feed an average family in Africa for weeks, if not months.  I sometimes drive one too.  When I do, I enjoy the comforts and cruise control, the air con and the engine power.  But quite aside from the cost of driving long distance to Angola and back, I don’t want to be hermitically sealed from my experience.  I feel a resistance to arriving in some of the poorest communities in the region with a vehicle kitted out like some Victorian-era expedition.   Every time I pack my 4x4 for a trip to the bush I ask myself how come I struggle to get all my kit into this diesel guzzling monster when once I could go anywhere and do anything with only what I could carry on my back?  Perhaps this is the cost/benefit of affluence and middle-age!

The point of this trip is people.  Cars go too fast and can insulate one from the travel experience.  I haven’t been on a motorcycle for twenty years so I’d likely kill myself if I tried something like this on one now.  Walking is my preferred way of getting in touch with the landscape and with people but to cover great distances one needs almost unlimited time.

I could use public transport but I have a strong urge to do this journey under my own steam.  And if I’m to undertake a sponsored journey, I’m not sure folks will part with money for me to catch a bus from Luanda to Namibia!

A bicycle then.  On a bicycle I can cover great distances at a pace that allows me to take in the country, to breathe it, feel it and live in it.  It also enables human contact in a way that travelling by car or motorcycle cannot possibly rival.  It’s also an affordable option.  Now the question is, can I do it?  Will my body be capable of it rather than is the journey possible by bike?

For some interesting reads on travelling long distance by bicycle have a look at Riaan Manser’s “Around Africa on my Bicycle”  and Rob Lilwall’s “Cycling home from Siberia” .

Some Background

In 1987 I was in the SADF as a rifleman.  A conscript at the bottom of the military pile.  In early September I had been on the Namibia/Angola border for about 9 months.  It was then that my unit was sent into Angola to support UNITA, the rebels, against the army of the Angolan goverment, FAPLA.  I was with a mortar platoon in a mechanised infantry unit.

This blog isn't intended to provide a history lesson on the Angolan bush war, or to document the experiences of a lowly infantryman in that war.  There are plenty of accounts now published on the internet and in old fashioned book form about that.  This is intended to record a project rooted in the present.  My planning, thinking and hopefully carrying out of a journey through Angola.

My journey is part personal quest:  to go back to the place that has, in some ways, mildly haunted me for the last 23 years or so in the hope that the one or two remaining ghosts be put to rest.  And part putting something back, doing some good for those who live in Angola today.  In this spirit, I hope to raise awareness (and hopefully some money)  for one of the NGO's that are lifting landmines in Angola so that people can move about the land, farm and play safely again.

This is a journey rooted in the present. It is about Angola today and about how my experiences there have informed my present.  It is about making meaning as a white male South African who feels deeply part of this continent.  Even if I fought on the wrong side of a grubby local war.