Maurice Schutgens heads to Angola and with only a day to spare, explores what he describes as ‘one of Africa’s greatest mysteries’
For many, Angola is the last piece of Africa’s travel puzzle. Once known as the mighty Kingdom of Ndongo ruled by Ngola (kings) it is a country that has been virtually ‘closed’ to the outside world since it cast off the shackles of Portuguese colonial rule. It is a country that has been shaped by a painful history of war and conflict, and yet today it is experiencing transformative change as certain as it is unpredictable.
For most, knowledge about Angola starts and ends with war. This is unfortunate but unsurprising for a country that was embroiled in a bitter complex civil war that spanned 27 years and caused immeasurable damage. While the war ended in 2002, its scars are yet to fully heal. Tourists, therefore, haven’t flocked to Angola’s shores in great numbers and it is this that has transformed the country into one of Africa’s greatest mysteries.
The plane banked steeply over the dazzling waters of the Atlantic Ocean below us, the sun casting blinding reflections of the newly built skyscrapers rising from Luanda’s central business district. But it was something else altogether that caught my eye – the sprawling shanty towns (locally known as Musseques) home to the majority of Luanda’s eight million souls. It was literally a sea of humanity contained in a chaotic maze of corrugated iron dwellings. I knew, well before the tyres kissed the tarmac, that Luanda would be a city of unfathomable contrasts.
Luanda was undeniably hot and somewhat humid, probably a climate not too different from when it was founded in 1576 by Portuguese explorer Paulo Dia de Novais under the flowery name of São Paulo da Assunção de Loanda. From the moment of its birth and for centuries after, Luanda’s existence was inextricably linked to the movement of human cargo: the slave trade. Some three million souls destined for the plantations of South America and the Caribbean passed through its port. It was something to contemplate as the taxi whisked me through traffic.
I parked myself in the Hotel Continental just a stone’s throw away from the Baía de Luanda (Bay of Luanda) and situated directly next to crumbling facades of houses built some 400 years ago. Luanda is however more than a few crumbling buildings; new construction projects are springing up across the city with an insatiable appetite, from modern gated condominiums in the Talatona neighborhood and Chinese financed (and built) skyscrapers to fine dining establishments along the bay. There is no doubt that this city is Angola’s heart; a cosmopolitan and frenetic city, alive and heaving just below the surface.
The next morning at sunrise, I hit the Avenida 4 de Fevereiro, situated along the bay, for a run. I swept past the Banco Nacional de Angola, a stunning relic of architecture with its perfect pink dome designed by Vasco Regaleira and inaugurated in 1956, before backtracking and heading for the Ilha do Cabo (Cape Island), a long spit of land jutting out into the Atlantic and lined with restaurants. By the time I got back to my hotel, Luanda was starting to wake from its slumbers and I prepared to head down the coast.
Nearly half a century ago Parque Nacional da Quiçama (Kissama) was teeming with an abundance of wildlife, from the critically endangered Giant Sable to a nationally important population of elephants roaming freely in this 12,000 km² park. Initially established as a hunting reserve, its birth as a national park in 1975 coincided with the eruption of civil war and like many of Angola’s National Parks, Quiçama was abandoned. Today, driving through the park, it is clear that while Quiçama no longer hosts the multitudes of wildlife like it did in the past it is experiencing a resurgence of sorts and offers the best opportunity for spotting wildlife close to Luanda.
In the late afternoon we left Quiçama behind us and headed back towards the capital, with one brief stop. The Miradouro da Lua (Viewpoint of the Moon) is one of Angola’s most spectacular natural sights, a lunar-martian landscape of deep shades of red and pink and earthy browns intricately carved by rain and wind over time. The cliffs tumble down to Angola’s wild coast in the distance. It is one of Angola’s most easily accessible sights just an hour (40km) out of Luanda.
I returned to the city just in time to head up to the imposing Fortaleza de São Miguel guarding the entrance to Luanda Bay, constructed by the Portuguese in 1576. It is Luanda’s oldest surviving building and home to the National Military Museum. Along with several planes and artillery housed in the courtyard it offers sweeping views of the surrounding.
As night fell, I headed out in search of a meal. Luanda’s cuisine is famous for its strong Portuguese and Brazilian influences, with signature seafood dishes. For those on a culinary adventure, sampling traditional Angolan dishes like Funge ( dish made with cassava flour) and Muamba de Galinha (aromatic chicken stew) are a must. I played it safe with the fresh lobster curry eaten on the rugged wooden deck of the contemporary Cafe del Mar, situated near the end of the Ilha do Cabo.
Make no mistake, Angola is outrageously expensive and difficult to travel around, but is absolutely raw in every sense of the word. Hidden within its borders lie mystical waterfalls, impenetrable equatorial rainforests and isolated beaches. It is an unexplored paradise and so as the Angolan Proverb goes: “The mysterious road beckons the young man”. I know I will return; sooner rather than later.