G Adventures West Africa. Day 7: Lobito and Benguela, Angola

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Pics: Municipal building, Benguela; young women in national dress; locals

turn out to wave during our train journey; Chinese-built bridge on the

Lobito-Benguela road.

There’s an old African saying that goes (something like) ‘when two elephants

fight, it’s the grass that gets trampled’ and so it was with the people of


Turning up in a country with such a tragic reputation for civil unrest and

outright war was always going to generate some apprehension. For the best

part of 40 years, Angola was torn in a vicious and bitter struggle, firstly

with the stubborn Portuguese who would not relinquish the territory despite

the drain on resources, then after independence in 1974, among the various

factions looking to dominate the spoils. The parallels with Vietnam, East

Timor, Cambodia and Burma are there, except (thankfully) without the Pol Pot

type genocide.

UNITA, MPLA, SWAPO and the FNLA (splitters!) propped up by various

international powers including the USA, Cuba, the USSR, China, South Africa

and even neighbouring Zaire fought vicious set piece battles for control of

the resource rich nation. The Soviet-Cuban backed MPLA prevailed and almost

immediately went to war with South Africa who were then in control of

Namibia to the south. Hostilities in various forms continued until just a

decade ago.

Despite the presence of many uniformed men in one capacity or another, I

didn’t see a single AK47 or overt military presence. Like so many countries

released from the devastating grip of war, the regular folks are keen to get

on with peace and rebuild what they have. Commerce, industry, agriculture

and tourism will all play their part in the reconstruction, social and

political. Financially, however, things may have toppled out of balance as

our tour leader, Paul Wesson of Eco Tur (a Brit living in Angola for some 30

years) tells me: “This is now the most expensive place in the world!”

The Chinese influence is the first thing I noticed. Against a backdrop of

fading, crumbling Portuguese colonial architecture, the Asian economic

powerhouse is rebuilding roads, bridges and railways. Chinese workers are

camped alongside their local colleagues erecting everything from power poles

to airports. Some cynic sneered that the Chinese buildings will only last

five years thanks to shoddy concrete and there was some evidence of that

around the port of Lobito with semi-complete multi-storey buildings

collapsing before they were even finished.

Oil is the new gold in Angola. The port is chock full of rig tenders, while

offshore the night horizon blazes with their tell-tale incandescence. With

the unrest in Nigeria, it seems Angola is now neck-and-neck with its

northern cousin as the primary African producer. Just where the billions of

dollars are going is another question and during our 35km train ride to the

neat seaside town of Benguela, the dirt poor locals turned out to wave us

cheerfully on our way. Their houses, built variously from salvaged wood, tin

and railway sleepers were the equivalent of South Africa’s shanties, albeit

significantly cleaner. The wide, paved streets of Benguela were swept

spotless with a general, pleasing absence of litter.

The quick and almost reflex action of locals to break into smile and

exchange cheery waves was a most heartening discovery. It speaks volumes for

the resilience and resourcefulness of Angolans – and Africans in general –

who see their best interests in the now and the future, rather than wallow

in the misery of history.

Our full day tour encompassed really just seeing what there was. A small

market and dances in the central park, visits to significant buildings and a

quite respectable buffet lunch at a seaside restaurant. A handful of locals

cavorted in the meagre surf, occasionally stopping to peer curiously over

the wall as we sipped local beer in the courtyard. A small group of

schoolchildren stopped to chat and exchange inquisitive glances as we

re-boarded our vintage buses to complete the tour.

It remains to be seen whether Angola will capitalise on its new-found

prosperity or tumble in fiscal anarchy like so many of its neighbours. Watch

this space.

For more information on tours in Angola, see www.eco-tur.com

For more detail on this itinerary, see www.gadventures.com > West Africa

More images at www.flickr.com/photos/rodeime

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