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.