Angolan Desert

After a bit of a slow start I set off around nine. This part of Northern Namibia had a couple of similarities to the rest of the country: it was flat and there was a headwind. Otherwise, it was quite different. The road was unfenced! Trees were dotted around, giving good shade. The grass between them was kept short by herds of cattle or goats, watched over mostly by children. Occasional small patches were planted with crops, mostly maize.

Traffic got busier (and typically aggressive) when, after about 40km, I rejoined the B1, which I’d left when I detoured to Ongwediva for my PCR test. Thankfully I only had about 20km to the border so I didn’t have much of it to endure.

I got to the border and was quickly stamped out of Namibia, no questions asked. I made my way over to the Angolan side, where they drive on the right (i.e. wrong!) side of the road. This’ll be the case most of the way from here, unlike East Africa.

It wasn’t immediately obvious where to go for immigration, but someone led me there. I handed over my passport and my e-visa to the immigration officials. They were very professional and friendly. One spoke good English, which was nice as my Portuguese isn’t great.

The Angolan e-visa isn’t paid for online, but rather at the border – an unusual but nice feature; normally the money is lost if the visa is declined. Officially one is supposed to bring all the documents used to apply for the e-visa, but they didn’t ask me for any. They didn’t even ask for my PCR test!

The price stated online is $120, but here they said it was 36,600 Kwacha. I’d heard of people paying for the visa with Namibian dollars here, so I’d brought some with me. The immigration officials phoned a money changer who came over and gave me a surprisingly good rate – a couple percent better than the bank rate, in fact.

Angola used to have a big discrepancy between the bank rate and the black market, but in the last few years they’ve allowed the currency to float freely. I suppose that at the border the rate is much more heavily influenced by purchasing power, and it seems that things are cheaper in Namibia – if the number of women passing through with sacks of food on their heads is any guide. I should note they were often accompanied by men carrying absolutely nothing.  Locals cross the border without need for a passport.

Even without the good exchange rate, the price in Kwacha was only $90 USD, a welcome saving of $30. It’s also nice to be able to save my USD as they’re a lot harder to come by than local currency.

Having exchanged my money I was led by an immigration official to a bank. I’d left my mask on my bike, accustomed to Namibia where they’re no longer worn. I wasn’t actually allowed into the bank office so the immigration official paid for me, and returned with my receipt and change.

I was given back my passport with a printed full-page visa, and it was stamped. The official found a page with a little extra space.for the stamp, rather than use one of my dwindling unused pages. I appreciated that.

It took about an hour, pretty reasonable for immigration in Africa. Nonetheless the English speaking officer apologized profusely for the delay, wished me good travels and said he hoped I’d come again. This was a good first impression!

The first thing noticable when I got out of the border area was the return of scooters (mopeds). I hadn’t seen these in such numbers for ages!

Out of the town, cars were back to being the dominant vehicle. But there were fewer of them and the road had a wide shoulder for me to ride in. These weren’t very common in Namibia or South Africa. I suppose they make more sense when you commonly have vehicles of differing speeds on the road – in this case, scooters and cars. Despite the shoulder it seemed like Angolan drivers moved over further when they passed than Namibian ones had.

A huge abandoned hotel

Between towns it was pretty quiet, but picked up again when I reached Ondjiva. There were some petrol stations, with some of the longest queues I’ve seen.

I went to the town’s Shoprite, and the prices there gave me a decent idea as to why so many people were transporting food from Namibia! I hoped that the prices there were higher at least in part due to import taxes, and that local food would be more sanely priced.

It was getting quite late so I did not ride very far out of town before setting up camp. Like Namibia, there was a lot of grassland, kept short by grazing animals and dotted with bushes. I found a place where there didn’t seem to be any people or animals, and pushed a fair distance from the road before setting up camp.

It was again a quiet road that I set off cycling along. Occasional sections were fenced off for crops, but mostly it was open grassland for communal grazing. There were some hamlets, a few small buildings usually made of corrugated metal.

Mongua didn’t seem to have that many people living in the village itself, but seemed more of an administrative location for the surrounding area. There were various official buildings and also a memorial.

Past Mongua the road headed west, and I flew along with the wind at my back. At one point I passed a very rusty tank.

I hadn’t gone to an ATM the day before, in Ondjiva, as I was running late. There weren’t any marked on my map in Xonongo but it seemed a large enough town to have a few. Thankfully it did. Once I knew I had money to spend, I bought a sim card and some food from a minimarket – I didn’t see any bigger shop. Prices were a lot more reasonable than at Shoprite.

I turned off here on to a minor road, consisting mainly of sand. It went southwest which may seem like the wrong way, but there were places I wanted to see. I stopped in the shade at the edge of town. Some people passed, with just a wave or a “boa tarde” (good afternoon). None stopped to stare, another good thing about Angola! I’m sure it’ll change in the next few countries…

The road was initially mostly quite deep sand. Though mostly ridable it was slow going.

The road did improve after a while. There was a raised road in the middle that was firm, but bumpy. Tracks on either side were sandier. I typically stuck to the solid ground. After a few hours I saw some old bits of tarmac in it; seemingly it was paved once.

I reached a village with a building that seemed to be a shop and stopped to buy some cold water. A car had just overtaken me, and the driver came over to talk, in English. He worked in Ondjiva and had seen me cycling through Mongua this morning, and asked about my trip.

Later on, two goatherds came up to talk to me as I sat in the shade. They were a middle aged woman and her adult daughter; I spoke to the daughter in Portuguese. After a while she asked what language I spoke then called out to her sister, Paulina, who’d worked in Namibia and therefore spoke English.

I rode on for a little while longer before going to set up camp. It took a little bit of walking around to find somewhere relatively free of ants but I did find a spot in the end.

Campsite visitor

The next morning there were more crops being grown. Since leaving the tarmac I’d been riding parallel to a river; now I was slightly closer to it.

After a couple of hours I reached the village of Naulila, a few administrative buildings and some shops.

From Naulila I had a choice of routes. The “main” road continued southwest before turning back north. There was a shortcut that went directly west. I initially set off along this somewhat less defined path.

It deteriorated after a while and I was a little concerned it could end up as just unrideable sand. I decided to go on the “main” route, and cycled a couple hundred metres back to it. It wasn’t in great condition either, but there was sometimes a a parallel track used by motorbikes; that was usually better.

There were not many people at all out here. It came as quite a surprise then to pass a school. It was also quite a surprise to see the teacher and many of the students wearing masks, in such a remote area.

At a junction I joined a bigger road, mostly gravel, heading north to the village of Calueque.

There was a minimarket there, where I stopped for water. I was now just a few kilometres away from the Namibian border, and the shop had some Namibian peanut butter – which I bought. I then rode on, and crossed the Cunene, the river I’d been riding along.

The road continued to follow the river, but now on the north bank. There was a big agricultural project that went on several kilometres. There were machines (not common here!) and hundreds of tents, presumably housing for workers.

Past the end of the farms, the road deteriorated somewhat and also got a lot quieter. I now saw someone only once an hour or so. Some of the people I did see carried bows and arrows. The bows were quite small, I imagine they are used for small animals like squirels.

In the evening I camped not far from the road. I wasn’t really out of sight but in these communal grazing areas I’m not too fussed as it doesn’t really seem to be private property.

After a couple hours riding the next morning I reached Chitado, a town large enough to have a shop. I had to ask around to find it, though. I sat in the shade next to the shop, drinking a cold drink and eating some food, and talking to some passers-by (in Portuguese). They asked about my trip, and one guy asked if I knew they spoke French in the Congo. I assured him I did.

I said my goodbyes and set off. Following people’s directions to the shop had got me a bit turned around, and I initially set off the wrong way. The people I’d been talking to shouted out to me and set me right.

Outside the town with it’s brick buildings, I passed a small collection of traditional huts. To begin with the road here was pretty good, gravel rather than the usual sand.

The good surface didn’t last that long and before long I was back to struggling through the sand. After a couple hours, I reached a village. I figured it’d be sensible to stock up on water so I spent quite a while wandering around the village before giving up, then finding a shop on the main road

Not long after I reached a junction. My reason for making this detour was to see some of the Himba people. I hadn’t done so yet, so I decided to extend the detour, and turned left. There were quite a lot of huts, animals and crops in this area, with tracks crisscrossing everywhere. There wasn’t really what you’d call a road.

As is common for deserts, there were lots of thorns about. I won’t go into detail of every puncture but let’s just say I was getting pretty tired of them!

Past the populated area, the tracks coalesced back into a road and led into a particularly barren and empty part of the desert. As usual here I didn’t bother going far from the road to set up camp. As I have been since entering Angola, I just set up the inner tent and not the outer; it’s getting warmer.

After repairing a puncture I set off, initially through a very empty landscape. After a while I reached some huts, with a few flocks of goats milling around. They often seem to be on the march with no obvious owners around; I suppose they know where to go to get water.

After the huts it was back to being pretty empty for a while. I saw a few people out walking, including some Himba people. I asked a woman if I could take her photo; she asked for some money. I agreed. The Himba are relatively used to people being fascinated by them so asking for money is quite common. She accepted the 1000 Kwanza (£2) note I offered.

When I saw Himba men, they were usually going past on a moped – it was typically only women who were out on foot. I did see some youths watching cattle, who let me take their photo. Himba men have most of their head shaved, except for a mohawk-like crest which extends perhaps 20cm from the back of their head in a waxed ponytail.

2 goats, a man and a boy

The road then began to climb somewhat. Worse than the gradient was the fact that the surface changed to big, loose rocks. They made riding difficult when it wasn’t impossible. Its saying something when I was glad for the return of the sand!

Having had a few punctures this morning, and struggled up the hill, I was concerned about running out of water. I had about 40km to Oncagua the next town I knew of, and 2 litres. Normally that’d be more than enough but the sand made for tough going and I was averaging about 12 kilometres an hour. I tried to drink slowly, and didn’t stop to eat.

About 15km before Oncagua, I saw some buildings and went to investigate. A man on a motorbike led me to a water source, where a topless woman was doing laundry. Himba women are usually topless, and it doesn’t seem that uncommon among the Portuguese-speaking Angolans in this area either.

Some Himba women carrying heavy loads on their heads

I gathered some water, then rode off to find some shade in which to filter it. I didn’t think I was riding particularly quietly, sliding in the sand and bumping across the rocks, but a Himba woman walking ahead of me evidently hadn’t noticed me. She turned around when I was quite close and screamed with surprise, then laughed good-naturedly.

After filtering the water I sat in the shade for a while and tried to eat, though my appetite was somewhat reduced due to being a bit dehydrated. I struggled to drink the water too – I find warm water a bit nauseating when I’m overheating, which isn’t great. I decided to continue on, focusing on getting to the town where I hoped to get some cold drinks.

I made it to the town, which had a small stream. I was about to cross it when some people called out and seemed to be saying that section was slippery, so I crossed elsewhere. I asked around for a minimarket and some people led me there. I bought some drinks which were cool, if not cold, and loaded them up onto the bike. Rather than rearrange everything properly, I took the stuff that had been in my frame bag, put it in a backpack and wore that – it was late so I wouldn’t be riding much further.

It was a fairly big town with its own generator, electrical cables and even street lights! On the edge of town there were rows of orderly houses, which looked similar to those built in South Africa to replace the townships. The ones here were bigger with more space around.

I made my way out of town and rode on a few kilometres in twilight before heading off to set up camp amidst the trees.

The next morning I continued along, initially on a generally flat, sandy road. The surface was generally better here, and the occasional vehicle passed – mostly motorbikes, but some 4x4s too.

The road climbed for a while, then levelled back out again. The surface was now smooth, hard-packed dirt. I was able to ride much faster now, which I enjoyed.

After a while I reached a point where, according to my map, the road curved left. However in fact the road seemed to go straight on and it was only a small track that went left. I remembered seeing something on iOverlander about a road not on the map, and looked it up. Indeed, in the next town there was a marker which mentioned the beginning of a shorter, unmapped road to Oncagua. I decided to hope that it was this road – the road on the map took a big curve, so if this went straight it’d be 25km shorter and a better surface besides.

Indeed it did continue to go straight towards the next town, and I was very glad for my decision. A couple kilometres before the town my tyre began to go flat; I pumped it up and continued on. After asking around a bit I round my way to a shop. I bought some things, then set about fixing the puncture. I could tell it hadn’t really held but I decided to ride on anyway, as a bit of a crowd had gathered around me.

I stopped in the shade and had another go at fixing it. For some reason it was quite a struggle to get the patch to stick and it took several attempts. I was still feeling the effects of yesterday’s slight dehydration, and was getting some cramps. At one point some water went down the wrong way and I choked a little, which sent my entire abdomen into a cramp. Cramped abs and choking isn’t the most fun combination.

After a while I seemed to have the puncture sorted and set off again. The road was now back to tarmac, which was nice. I don’t really know why it was tarmac though – this wasn’t really a town so much as a village, with no electricity or phone signal. I don’t know why it justified 60km of tarmac but I was glad it had.

A few kilometres later the puncture failed again. Some cattle herders passed and stopped to stare at me. Angolans generally don’t do this much, certainly less than in East Africa. But there’s something about a white man fixing a puncture that seems to fascinate people. Unfortunately this is the time I most dislike people staring at me, perhaps in part because of the feeling I can’t get away.

Finally it worked and I managed to cycle on for another hour or so, then make my way from the road and set up camp amidst the bushes.

May 4: 115 km

May 5: 136 km

May 6: 108 km

May 7: 90 km

May 8: 78 km

May 9: 94 km

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