Cunene, the last province of Angola

What will the dirt road look like after all the rain? Lightnings struck almost all night long. It was one of the most violent weather I have seen on my trip, and fortunately I was under the roof of the school of Ediva.

I am now in Cunene, the last province of Angola before reaching Namibia. The main cities are Xangongo and Ondjiva, along the highway, which I avoid to favour a scenic small road to the Ruacana falls. It should be a tough one. The most optimistic advice I have received about this small road has been “It should be fine, but don’t take it if it’s rainy“.

 


 

Luckily, the soil is rather sandy than muddy. I will get very dirty, but it’s not that bad. Had it be the same mud that clogs up the fenders and blocks the wheels, I would have to make a U-turn and find the asphalt as soon as possible. I have 200 km of dirt road ahead, it will be difficult. I hope the soil dries quickly.

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No, seriously? I just cycled 1 km

 

Only a kilometer after leaving my shelter, I am facing a river. Right in the middle of the road. Well, the “fun” begins! There are motorbikers struggling to pass it too. They tell me a Land Rover just passed without any problem. They still have to unload their luggage and help each other to make sure their motorbikes are not getting stuck in the water. It’s not that deep but the current is strong. Their motorbikes are releasing a lot of dark exhaust gas when crossing the water.

Is it gonna be like this all the way? They say it’s only here. There is a small bridge 50 meters further, but it’s too small to absorb the whole river flow when it rains. Yesterday, this river cutting the road didn’t exist. If it rains strongly, even more than last night, they say no one can pass.

The road to Otchinjau after the rain
Safe river crossing

 

Well, to be on the safe side, I decide to carry my bicycle and luggage in three trips. Flip-flops are compulsory for today.

The road to Otchinjau after the rain
May the road remain above the rest of the land …

 

It rains twice during the day, during which I find a shelter not too far from me. But certainly, it won’t make the road better.

The road to Otchinjau after the rain
Even motorbikes have to go out of the road to progress. With narrower tires, I’m forced to as well

 

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The road to Otchinjau after the rain
From that moment onward, I’m fine with having mud all over me

 

The land on both sides of the road is completely flooded. Herdsmen make cows and goats walk on the road itself, making it even worse. My feet sink into the mud when I walk the bike. It’s not possible to cycle everywhere, when the soil is too soft and too wet. Today I really feel like cycling at the bottom of a broken public toilet.

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The road to Otchinjau after the rain
Trying to find a “dry” way into the bush

 

The road to Otchinjau after the rain
Come here!

 

Of course, I uploaded here the worst photos. It’s not as bad as it was in Sierra Leone, but at least there, between the puddles, the soil was hard. Here, it’s sand all the way, so even when I can ride the bicycle, my tires sink into the sand, and I spend much more energy than what I would on a clean surface.

Besides the water, there are also natural tire-breaker road blocks on the road: branches of thorn tree often laid perpendicular to my direction. If I have a puncture in the middle of this shit, it will make the Top 5 of my worst days.

I progress very slowly and naturally I am getting hungry. I doubt there will be food before the town of Otchinjau. I just had some leftovers for breakfast, and now, past 2 pm, I hesitate to stop and cook. On the other hand, I want to be out of this. I opt for waiting.

The road to Otchinjau after the rain
Great! Oh, wait, the road forks here, maybe the path on the right is better …

 

The road to Otchinjau after the rain
The path on the right

 

I arrive in Otchinjau after 57 km in the mud that exhausted me more than any distance on the tar. I should still consider myself lucky, for not having punctured and not having to clean my clogged up fenders every 200 meters. I waited for Otchinjau to eat a lot, and seriously hope there is some food for sale.

Otchinjau
Welcome to Otchinjau

 

The shops are closed. Permanently or just for now, I don’t know. I keep asking people, who send me here and there, but I can’t find anything to eat. I am still in the cycling mood and leave for Chitado, a border town, disappointed. That is when a girl shout at me in English from a house. In English, really?

She is a school teacher, and learnt English in Namibia. And there is a shop adjacent to her house. She calls the shopkeeper for me, who opens it, and I can buy bread! Plenty of small bread buns, I eat ten or twenty of them. It’s just bread, but it’s fresh and feels so good when you’re really hungry. It’s actually not so often than I can find fresh bread.

Otchinjau is quite a big town for the remote location. It gathers maybe 1000 inhabitants. Os professores say there is nothing on my next road before a small hamlet in 37 km. No school. With what I saw pouring last night, and considering the fields are flooded, I won’t risk camping.

They suggest I stay for the night here at the school. I cycled from 7 to 15, and there is still time for some more kilometers until the night, but it’s probably wiser to stop now. I will stay at the school of Otchinjau. Once relieved from the self-imposed pressure to cycle more, I realize that I’m indeed exhausted.

There is a bridge separating the town from the administrative quarter, with the school, the city hall, the police station and the community health center. The bridge is torn down. Hence, people must cross the river in flip flops.

Otchinjau

 

How can people live with a river cutting the town in two?“, I wonder. One teacher tells me that there are plans to rebuild the old bridge, but it’s been like this for ages. And that, actually, is not a big problem: the river is not permanent, it’s just here because of the rain, but it will last no more than three days. It is usually dry. “It didn’t really rain for two years here, and people have nothing to eat“. Really, so I’m just having bad luck to take this shit road today? Else, it could be a very nice one.

I set up my mattress in one classroom and go to the posto do saúde to charge my phone/GPS. There is a generator running for public lighting and public buildings from sunset until 10 pm. Hey, this is Angola, enjoying a much higher quality of life than my previously traveled countries.

There is nothing else to do in the evening, so I end up passing a cloth in between each of the 100 links of my chain, and polishing it with oil. My chain dived into the mud and collected sand. The Hebie chain guard I am using is good to keep off the dust and dirt, but once it goes into the water and mud, it keeps the wrong things inside. And I don’t like a chain that sounds like sand grinding. Probably it will get dirty tomorrow again, but after all, I have nothing to take care of but my bicycle. After my stomach, of course.

 


 

The five meter wide river cutting the town is no more than a big puddle now. No more flowing water. The drying up was quick! Yesterday must have been the best day of the year for the kids, who were cheerfully jumping in it.

School of Otchinjau
What happens when you sleep at a school and don’t pack up before 7am: a bunch of kids observing you through the windows

 

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The river is gone already

 

The road to Chitado is sandy, but much better. Chitado is bordering Namibia, so in just 100 km, I will be done with Angola. I can see where streams have formed yesterday, and luckily all the river beds are dry already.

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No wet feet today!

 

There is almost no one here, just cows. No one has a reason to travel here, as the inhabitants of Chitado can meet the tar road somewhere else. It is 100 very quiet kilometers.

The road to Chitado, Cunene

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Brand new school and water system

 

Roadside cooking
Roadside cooking

 

Obviously, I won’t find food by the road, and the small villages I was told about are not there. Or maybe they are withdrawn a few kilometers in the bush.

Just after lunch, I hit the section I was warned about: stones. Undoubtedly no small car could pass here. I have to push and lift my bike, but I’m not that annoyed: I know these are maybe the last very bad roads of my journey. I have been for a year in places where good roads are surprising, and I will be soon in Namibia, supposedly the best road network of the continent. So, how harmful can thirty minutes of stones really be? It’s part of my routine.

The road to Chitado, Cunene

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The road to Chitado, Cunene

 

I have been drinking as little as possible to save water. If I have unlimited access to water, I can easily drink 10 liters in a day like this one. However, if I finish a bottle in a go, I sweat it quasi instantly. I can also refrain from drinking too much, having just a few sips regularly, and it takes me further.

With all the rain yesterday, I thought the rios would have plenty of water, but they are completely dry already. The soil absorbed the water and there is nothing flowing. I cross so many sand beds. I asked a herdsman where can I find water. He looked at me strangely, “just drink from the puddles!“, these brown water puddles where cows rest and drink. No thank you … but from his point of view, in such a usually dry place, it must be a blessing not to have to walk for a day with the animals until a pump or a permanent water hole.

The road to Chitado, Cunene

The road to Chitado, Cunene

The road to Chitado, Cunene

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Traces of trees entirely pulled until the village for firewood

 

The road to Chitado, Cunene
Intermittent river

 

The road to Chitado, Cunene

Tribes of Cunene

 

As in the valley of Bibala, about half of the women are topless with colorful garments. It feels like cycling in a cliché postcard of Africa. These moments are specially enjoyable because they are rare.

Towards the end of the day, I arrive in Tapella. A surprise town! I didn’t expect it. The town in unmapped, but has plenty of brick houses under construction and a sonda. The sonda is the name here for what I have seen first in Cameroon, the rotonda pump. It’s a Dutch model of water pump, less tiresome than the German hand-pump or the French foot-pump.

With plenty of water now, I’m not worried about the evening: I can camp anywhere and cook spaghetti.

Tapella, Cunene
Sonda in Tapella (and, rare enough, it’s the man at work!)

 

Tapella, Cunene

Tapella, Cunene

 

It’s easy to find a camping spot as practically no one is living along this road. But much more difficult to cook: the fire is attracting all the insects around. Not only they try to bite me, they also like to commit suicide right into my food. And for the “bad luck of the day”, there is a hole in my new mattress. I knew it was not normal to feel deflated every morning of the past few days. My silicon gel fails to patch it (plus, the tube had broken at the bottom, drying almost all of it), but I still have a small quantity of superglue to deal with it (and to patch my fingers in the same time).

If I sum up the amount of “shit” I am taking today, no food + scarce water + stony unrideable road + insects eating me + hole in the mattress, I should be quite in a bad mood. However, I’m doing alright. I have been used to it so much that I’m living it peacefully, almost as if I were unemotionally immune to failures and TIA-moments. There’s no easy life for someone riding a bicycle in these lands anyway.

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Today, the gravel road is fine, except for five meters of fresh mud. Before I realize it is the wrong kind of mud, I have already cycled one meter into it. Not even one wheel rotation, and my rear fender is clogged up. I can recommend the VSF expedition bikes (mine has been wonderful) expect for one design glitch: the piece of steel bridging the two seat stays tubes, and holding the rear fender, is too close to the wheel. As a result, the clearance between the tire and the fender at this point is minimal, and it collects sticky mud very easily, in a funnel effect. The mud gets compacted and hardens like concrete, offering me 10 free minutes of cleaning with a wood stick (for one meter of sticky mud cycling).

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The road to Chitado

 

Chitado, Cunene
Chitado entrance: on my right

 

By noon, I reach Chitado, the last town of Angola! On my right hand side, old ruins are lined up, all scarred with bullet marks. Namibia, occupied by the South African army “unfriendly” to MPLA supporters, is just 5 km away, on the other side of the Cunene river. On my left hand side, new administrative buildings are sharply contrasting.

Chitado, Cunene
Chitado entrance: on my left

 

Chitado is a really strange place. Straddling the Angola/Namibia border, enjoying the import business, but lost in the middle of nowhere. Beyond the administration, most of the people live in simple houses, and many of them are shops. The currency in use is the “randi”, name given to the Namibian dollar (as 1 South African rand = 1 Namibian dollar), and they convert prices into Angolan kwanza to let me pay. I wander from shop to shop to find the best exchange rate for who can buy my kwanza leftovers. The products they sell are mostly from Namibia. Even SIM cards are from MTC, the main Namibian cellphone operator. There is no signal in Chitado (no Unitel, no Movicel), but people catch the MTC signal from a nearby hill. It’s Namibia in Angola.

The border with Namibia is just 5 km beyond the village. The people tell me it’s possible to take a canoe to the other side. I have been recommended a lodge (with wifi) which lies just across the Cunene river, but this border-crossing is for locals only: I need the Namibian immigration stamp in my passport.

Bread and cans are the only things to eat. I sit under a veranda while several groups of people stop by, in turn, to watch me. I am told there are eight ethnic groups in Chitado. Muchimbas, Mundimbas, etc. Each group has a different clothing style. Women are colorful. The Mundimbas, better known in Namibia as the Himbas, are almost naked with their skin covered by red pigment. One man is wearing a kilt, high boots, a ganster tee-shirt, with traditional hairstyle and bracelets. Unfortunately, most of them ask for 50 dollars (5 USD) for a picture. I guess I am the only tourist of the year, so I don’t know where can they pick this money-for-photo habit.

Himba young men in Chitado, Cunene
Himba young men in Chitado, Cunene

 

The Himba young men are shaved except for an elliptic area in the center of their head. They cover it with a similarly shaped hat, leaving some kind of pony tail point out (better seen here). This hairstyle indicates they are single.

Chitado, Cunene

Chitado, Cunene

Bullets on walls, Chitado, Cunene

 

I want to go to the lodge just across the river, but I will have to cycle upstream, 40 km east, to Ruacana, for the dam, bridge and official border post (and then 40 km back upstream). I’m still in Angola, but with the MTC SIM card I received from Dave, I can already catch the Namibian signal. It’s not a surprise that cellphone coverage is so bad in Angola that a Namibian SIM works better!

Close to the Namibian border, Cunene
Catching the signal

 

Close to the Namibian border, Cunene
Another dry river bed crossing

 

These are my last kilometers in Angola. I have spent 51 days and 2816 km on the roads of this mysterious country. I have mixed feelings about the people, having found here the lowest levels of education, general knowledge and manners I have ever come by. The paranoid police checks were very annoying. On the other hand, people have been, as usual, very friendly, I have always felt very safe, and something to be noted for Africa, I have only rarely been called “eh you White man!

Now, about the country, it has been a fantastic eye-opener. I didn’t know what to expect, and have been delightfully surprised. Not only the landscape is stunning, with a great potential for tourism, but also the infrastructure is developing at an extremely fast pace. Major focus is placed on the road network, health centers and the police. In only twelve years of peace since independence, it seems Angola has already achieved a lot and taken years of advance on its neighbors. Money is plentiful. No doubt that a lot is wasted and siphoned off, but also a significant part is poured into the country. No doubt that the gap between the rich and the poor is huge, but to me, from my saddle, I would say Angola is the country I can think of with the brightest future.

Plus, with Morocco, it has become my favorite cycling place.

Close to the Namibian border, Cunene

 

I reach Kunene dam just before night and camp there, by the lake. I can see the lights of the dam, and is this rumbling noise the Ruacana waterfall?

Ruacana dam and lake
Ruacana dam and lake on the Cunene river. The hill behind belongs to Namibia

 

While cooking, big yellow spiders walking like a crab are joining me. Yesterday, one of them walked in between my legs just while I was lifting my cooking pot. My gesticulation made me spill boiling water and I burnt my ankle.

The sky is clear, all the stars are present (I presume), but I am not comfortable with the lightning bolts at the horizon in all directions. I was thinking of going into the lake for a bit of cleaning and washing, but I remembered people asking me to be careful because of the crocodiles. Dave saw several on the other side of the border, just 5 km downstream, so I won’t risk it at night here. Well, I can wait for daylight tomorrow.

By the way, I don’t know if wild animals think of my tent as a hard shell, or if they know they can walk on it and eat the human inside, like a reverse Kinder Surprise.

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