Lost in Luanda – Angola

EO with Johan

About not fitting in, here is an example. Sitting with a bunch of people telling their “horror” stories about been lost in a strange city, I also have one to tell, but because it is not in Paris, London, New York or Rome, it is not that exciting as their stories. But here is my lost in a foreign city story.

A surprise awaited me upon my return. After going through the normal rigmarole, finding out my combat boots had been stolen, and dodging the psychotic Angolan, I arrived at Longa to find most of the camp broken down. The canteen guys were still around and I asked them where the hell my guys were. After the change I was now part of a Rapid Deployment Team. They said that the guys had left to go fight, but did not know where. I got a ride back to Caba Ledo to ask the Ops guys where everyone was. They were so vague so as to be of no help whatsoever, so it was back to Longa, as I dared not hang around Caba Ledo with no protection from the Angolan.

Finally an Ops type that was passing through told me I had to go to Luanda.

Off I went with the first truck I could find; some mechanics were going into town and I hitched a ride with them. This was the first time I had seen the capital, and to describe it to someone who has never seen an African country at war is virtually impossible. A few years later I tried to describe it to some Belgian people I was working for, and they would not believe me until they saw it for themselves.

As one neared the city there was a huge market which spread for kilometres on either side of the road. One could, for a price, purchase almost anything there. It was more expensive than the village markets. An example is that an African Grey parrot cost a couple of hundred Dollars, and we had bought one for five cigarettes near Longa … Angola. Coca Cola was twice the price of any other soft drink, and chimpanzees in chains were sold openly.

Once inside the city itself, the amount of rubbish I saw piled in the streets was incredible: as much as two or three stories high. Luanda did not smell too good. All of the buildings had bullet holes in them; most had no window panes. Shops with very little for sale had a wooden board across the doorway and business was conducted over this makeshift counter.

The variety of vehicles was stupendous: from cars that must’ve dated back to the 50s, to vehicles that were so new on the market they were not even available in Johannesburg yet. Everyone just drove as they saw fit; the traffic cops stood on metre-high concrete blocks, presumably because they would just have been run over otherwise, and blew whistles while waving their hands all over the place. As I was on the back of a huge Russian six-wheeler truck, I had a grandstand view of all of this. More than half of the civilian population were missing limbs: it was a city of war-injured people. The first hour in that city was too much for my senses to handle all at once. I believe, but have never seen, that a battalion of soldiers had cordoned off a section of Luanda and that was the only area foreign visitors were allowed into.

We drove through this mess and came to the airport. The military and civilian airports shared the same runway. While I was stuck waiting for a lift to join my mates I saw even more incredible things at the airbase. Hundreds of broken down helicopters; a helicopter graveyard like the legendary elephants’ one surrounded the base. I did not go into the building itself but slept under one of these helicopters for a few days.

On one occasion a MIG was attempting to deploy. There was a small, semi-tarred road between the base and the runway. As the MIG was taxiing toward the runway a truck entered from the opposite side. They met up somewhere near the middle; the truck driver did not want to give way and began blowing his hooter, the MIG, I don’t think, can reverse, so a stalemate ensued. This went on for quite some time. Finally they both conceded to put one wheel over onto the grass and they squeezed past each other. The MIG roared off, presumably to fight in the war somewhere. While all this was going on, there, on the main runway of a recognized international airport, was a chap on a bicycle, a couple of donkeys, and the inevitable cows and goats. Normal airports have trouble with birds, for God’s sake!

By some strange coincidence Charmaine had caught a flight with Air Portugal to London and was sitting on that tarmac at the very same time as I was. They had collected all the passports and would not allow the passengers to leave the plane. She got a small glimpse of that country before the passengers were instructed to draw the window shutters. We only found out months later that we had been mere metres from each other.

While all this was happening, another chap that had been on leave found me; at least now I had company. So far, all we had found out was that the Rapid Deployment Team was in Durban. Now, Durban is a big, coastal, holiday city in South Africa, and we believed this to be highly unlikely, although in Angola anything was possible. We speculated that perhaps they had all been given leave together, and that maybe it was true. Our other piece of information was that a bunch of Russian pilots were going to be going to Durban soon. We started searching for the Russians. Any white people we came across were greeted with: ‘África do Sul, Durban?’ All we got was stares and a whole lot of jabbering in Portuguese.

Then we bumped in to one of the “talks” who was based in Luanda. He had some food for us, for which, by now, we were exceedingly grateful. As he had transport, he asked if we would like to go up to the Old Portuguese Fort with him. We jumped at the chance; it gets boring sitting next to a runway. The drive up to the Fort was exceptionally beautiful, typical of this country where everything jumps from one extreme to another. The lagoon at Luanda it the second biggest in the world. In the lagoon are small islands where the Portuguese had built mansions. Because of their inaccessibility they had remained intact despite the war. In the sea itself one could see the oil rigs that were a big cause of all the strife in this beautiful country. The Fort itself is very old, dating back to the 17th century, with the some of the original cannons still in place, but being Angola, some had tumbled off their stands and the soldiers had found them to be convenient toilet seats. They were full of shit – the cannons, I mean.

Part of the courtyard served as a Military Museum and I was surprised to see a captured Ratel there. The South African government had never admitted to losing any of these armoured vehicles, to my knowledge. There were also a few of the troop carriers known as Buffels; all the armoured glass was cracked from rifle fire but as far as I could tell no shots had penetrated the interior. Talk about “Proudly South African!”  The view from the walls of the Old Fort was unbelievably beautiful, and from a distance the city of Luanda looked wonderful.

We had to return to the airport and try to find these mythological Russians. The “talk” gave us a lift and bade us good luck and goodbye. There we were, sticking out like a sore thumb in so-called friendly territory, with no idea what would happen next.

We were sitting around contemplating life when we heard a big noise above all the normal comings and goings of the planes. A huge, and I mean huge, silver plane had landed and was taxiing toward us. This was the first time we had seen an Illusion: a Russian cargo plane. We had no idea of its origin so didn’t get excited about it being Russian; only when the doors opened and white guys stepped out, did we pick up interest. We approached them with the now-standard greeting for all the people we thought could help us: ‘África do Sul, Durban?’  Much to our delight, in a mixture of many languages, including Russian, I think, they confirmed that they were off to “Durban”. The plane was there to pick up troops and some armoured vehicles to ferry to “Durban”.

Now, we knew it was highly unlikely that it was the same Durban that we were thinking about; it would cause endless shit, on an international scale, if we landed all this stuff in “our” Durban. While the troops and vehicles were being loaded we had time to look at this amazing craft. Firstly, and I repeat myself, it was huge. In front it had a bulletproof glass bubble just under the cockpit; I learned that this is where the navigator sat. The rear opened up, as all cargo planes do, with a ramp that vehicles could drive up. Because the armoured vehicles were so heavy, the Russian crew attached cables and used a winch to pull them on board. The other door was right up in the air, about two metres high – I had the opportunity to verify that height later.

Once all the kit was loaded, a large group of Angolan soldiers boarded, and we climbed up the ramp with our kit and rifles after them. The Russian crew got busy up front and the plane’s engines started to whine. We were very excited to be going somewhere. We did not know where, but it felt good just to be going. This gypsy is always happy when traveling. Then we sat around, and sat around. I needed a smoke and found out what ‘no smoking on the plane’ sounds like in Russian! No problem; the ramp was still down, and I strolled down it to have a smoke.

There I was, minding my own business and having a smoke, when the ramp suddenly went up! Now I panicked. My meagre little bit of kit and my AK were on that bloody plane; alone in Luanda was bad enough, but with no weapon, was too scary to even contemplate. I ran round the front and shouted at the pilot and navigator. The flyboys did not even notice me. I heard my mate shouting above the now terrible din of the engines. He was standing in the doorway high up in the air. I ran up to him and tried to jump and catch hold of the bottom of the doorframe. It was just too high, and I missed a few times. My mate used his brain and somehow hooked his feet so he could hang half-way out the plane, which was now moving! In one last, desperate attempt I jumped; spurred on by adrenaline, it was a good one, and he managed to grab me by the wrists and haul me aboard.

As I have mentioned, I am pretty small: a whopping 58 kilograms, boots and all, on a good day: This is sometimes a problem in a military situation, where everyone tends to be twice my size, but in this instance … was I thankful! The Russian crew found this all very amusing and I swore at them in all the languages I could think of, at which they just laughed some more.  I eventually forgave them when they produced some breakfast for us. It was powdered eggs and some strange-tasting sausage, but after not eating much at all in the last few days we were grateful.

It seemed we had just taken off, in the usual Angolan style: almost straight up to +- 32 000 feet, when we started going straight down again. It was useless to ask what was happening so I went to the navigator’s bubble to have a look. The Russian gestured that I should sit in the spare chair. It was amazing, sitting surrounded by glass, even under my feet. I saw a small runway in the bush beneath us; I don’t know how that pilot aimed for such a tiny thing. As we came close to the ground my feet involuntarily lifted up and the ground rushed past in a blur.

Looking around, I knew exactly where we had landed. Caba Ledo. Now what? Talk about from the sublime to the ridiculous. We had made no progress in our mission to find our team at all; worse, we seemed to be going backwards, and I really didn’t want to be near that psycho Angolan.

Again, I experienced the frustration of being in a country where I couldn’t understand anyone. It didn’t turn out too bad though, as we learned we had just stopped to pick up a few more vehicles. That plane could carry an amazing amount.

Then we were off again, to “Durban”. After the Angolan lift-off I climbed under one of the tanks and, using my kit as a pillow, pulled my bush hat over my face and fell asleep.”

From The Chronicles of the Mexican Horse Thief – Angola

Nosce te ipsum

View the Mexican Horse Thief’s Page

Short Story






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