01 May 2009

Lubango & Namib

The one thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to stay in Benguela for the long weekend. I had heard a lot about Lubango, which is the major Angolan city in the south of the country, about 7 hours by car south from Benguela. Earlier efforts to find a place to stay there didn’t work out (Angola is a bit short on lodging options and even the simplest accommodations are rediculously expensive), and the morning of the day I was to travel I still had no idea where I would sleep. In a last-ditch move I called a friend from the gym who had friends in Lubango and asked for help. In twenty minutes I had an invitation to stay with a friend of his, and two hours later I was on the road, catching a ride with some coworkers that were heading there to visit family.

As is the case for any roadtrip, the journey really is half the story. The road to Lubango is about 340km or so. It rises from sea level at Benguela to about 5,500 feet at Lubango, and about half of the total distance is paved. That means the half that’s not paved takes the most time, or about 5 hours of the total 7 it takes to make the trip. Cows and goats have free reign in the countryside, and the rainy weather sometimes makes for trouble on the dirt tracks. There are only a few towns along the way and very few options for roadside snacks or gas (and you don’t know where some of those homemade snacks have been, as a week-long sickness reminded me on an earlier roadtrip to Huambo), so pre-trip planning is definitely more important than it would be back home. The road inclines through baobab forests and keeps climbing through rich farmland until reaching Lubango, which is like a breath of fresh air.

Lubango is green, organized, and did not suffer as much as other towns during the war. I not only had the best pizza I’ve ever had in Africa there, but the best toasted ham-and-cheese sandwich too (imagine!) To top things off the local beer – N’Gola – is by far the best I’ve had in Angola. I don’t know if it’s the cooler climate (I found myself wishing I had brought my jacket even though it was the height of summer), the green surroundings, or the good cheap beer, but Lubango won me over in an instant.

I met the stranger that would play host to me upon arrival - Tony invited me into his tin-roof one-room abode and quickly made me feel welcome. The next-door bathroom was interesting and involved a spigot coming out of the wall about four feet up from the floor, so I got through the weekend washing my face but never endeavored to take a shower (cold water showers in the hot Benguela climate are one thing…but cold water bucket showers in a cold climate required a level of filth that I did not manage to achieve during my stay). I met his friends and we watched some cheesy Brazilian soap opera called “Negócio da China” before heading to the “mall” for dinner at an Italian restaurant. The mall was a scaled-way-down replica of the Shops at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, complete with a crude and ultimately unconvincing attempt to paint clouds on a blue ceiling.

The highlights of Lubango included the following:

Serra da Leba (pictured above)
A series of switchbacks signals the transition from the high plateau to the plain below that leads to the coast some 140km to the west. The scene is depicted on the 5 Kwanza note (with a value of about 7 cents it’s the bill everyone hates to accumulate).

Cristo Rei
There’s no danger of confusing this replica for the one on Corcovado, but it does occupy a commanding position overlooking the city. It’s worth a trip for the views, and to see the cows grazing on the steep cliffs.

You could be forgiving for thinking you were in Switzerland, at least if the fog lifts long enough to see the green valley what must be several thousand feet below the rocky outcropping you’re standing on. I had to catch my breath when the fog lifted – partly because it was so beautiful but mostly because I was trying to calm my fear of heights. The fog closed as quickly as it opened and I ran back from the edge.

Planalto Café
The best coffee shop I’ve been to in Angola and home to the aforementioned toasted ham and cheese, of which I think I ate 3 during the weekend. The quindim was delicious too.

Huila Café
Home of the best pizza just about anywhere!

On Saturday I convinced Tony to drive to Namib on the coast, and against all protocol I took the reigns of the rental car and enjoyed the leisurely two-hour drive to the coast immensely. The terrain changed from verdant to desert in that span and it was fun to watch the transition. It just so happened that we arrived at the same time as some of Tony’s friends from Lubango and our united group took advantage of the “Festival of the Sea” which involved live music on the beachfront promenade. There may have been a beer or two invovled, and our planned return to Lubango was pushed back by several hours on account of us having crap-tons of fun. The redbull at the brand-spanking-new 24h service station on the way out of town was a lifesaver, and we arrived back in Lubango without any trouble.

Namib Beach Promenade:

No, I don't want to date your cousin:

Making friends quickly in Namib:

I wasn’t able to join my colleagues for the ride back to Benguela, so I bought a bus ticket for the journey instead. It was pretty uneventful, although we did have to take a detour around a muddy section of the highway where some semis had gotten stuck. I remember some sections being pretty dusty, but didn’t account for how this would affect the luggage I had stored in the back until I got to Benguela and my black bag had turned brown. I discovered that whacking the hell out of the bag with a broom and using compressed air in the crevices will clean things up in a jiffy. Add that to the list of things that Angola has taught me…

The local 7-11 comes to you:

A sticky situation (this is the main national north-south highway):

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