Primer on Cabinda
Formerly known as “Portuguese Congo” and no larger than the state of Delaware, Cabinda is a curious little region sandwiched between the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Having endured a 30 year long struggle to claim independence from the rest of Angola, it likely may become one of the next world’s “newest” countries give or take a few years (decades?). We’re arriving here early before that happens.
The reason why Angola wants to keep Cabinda is because the region is rich in natural resources and one of its wealthiest: it supplies 65% of Angola’s oil! Nevertheless, it remains one of the least visited places on Earth and where things can get a little rough during our 2 weeks in Angola.
Arriving from Luanda to Cabinda
Barely getting much sleep after arriving last night from Lubango (especially since the guy next door to my motel room was having an epic fight with his wife), we rushed to board our 5:50am TAAG flight from Luanda to Cabinda.
Class C on TAAG means business class! It just meant I got a bigger chair and a quick meal of cheese, dried meats and fruits all saran wrapped onto a tray.
After an otherwise uneventful 45 minute flight, we landed an hour later at 6:50am at Cabinda’s sole airport.
Amusingly, someone checked in their shoes as luggage. Must’ve been over the baggage minimum.
Once we hit arrivals, there were no signs of the massive police and military presence they had warned us about.
Exploring Cabinda City (There’s Not Much)
Our local guide’s uncle Jovanny promptly picked us up outside arrivals and we began our quick city tour of Cabinda. There’s not much in terms of “tourism” so you have to do your best with the following 3 “sites”:
1 May Park:
The Church of the Immaculate Conception:
And Central/Municipal Market:
At the market we got a glimpse of the famed Cabinda wood, aka their Viagra.
Exploring Outside Cabinda City
After driving an hour around the city, we decided to venture outside Cabinda, which we had been warned not to do earlier in the trip due to safety reasons. So many kidnappings and clashes occur on the road between the towns of Cabinda and Malongo that there is now a highly profitable helicopter service that takes oil workers and businessmen from the airport directly to Malongo!
State departments around the world also continue to cite the random roadside attack on the Togo national football team in 2010 as the reason for this region’s notoriety as an active “war zone” and “separatist” region, although nothing as major has since happened.
Nevertheless, our local guides from Cabinda insisted that we still leave the city, citing a significant improvement in the security situation and that there was nothing to worry about. We went on their word.
After all, they said, “there’s nothing else much to do here in Cabinda.”
The only thing that “happened” was when a soldier stopped our car to make us delete a photo we took of a random river. They’re bored. Power trips.
We then passed through the towns of Cacongo and Malongo in an unsuccessful attempt to see the “bacama” (Angola’s version of voodoo).
Then we made a random unannounced lunch stop in a random soulless banquet hall in Buco Zau, where we ate with the soldiers stationed there (they made us turn our cameras away).
And then after 3 long dreary hours on the road, we finally reached Maiombe Forest Reserve, the biggest rainforest in Angola. Not many tourists have ventured here: It took 20 minutes of intense discussions between our local guides and the military stationed there to let us get out of the car.
They wanted us to drive the 3 hours back to Cabinda, get special written permission, make a reservation, and then return to visit the Forest Reserve.
And yet saner minds prevailed. After checking our passports and taking our names down letter by letter, they sent off a senior officer to guide us to the river. They told us the only thing we could not do was to take photos of any chimpanzees we saw (they inhumanely locked them away in squalid cages).
We hiked about 20 minutes towards the river.
After 10 minutes here, we turned around and headed back for our jeeps. That’s it! As our local Angolan guide shrugged his shoulders and said: “We are definitely not ready for tourism.”
So by 3pm we headed back to the city of Cabinda.
As if were the theme of the second half of this trip, however, we suddenly felt our tire go flat. And we did not have a spare tire.
Luckily (or unluckily?), however, this all happened next to a lake/marsh not even marked on the map.
So we decided to take advantage of this sign from the universe and pay a few boatmen 4000 kwanzas to ferry us around the lake for a few minutes. Although these boats are meant for 2, we barely made 4 work before threatening to sink our boat completely.
In the meantime our driver Jovanny also successfully flagged down a Good Samaritan to spare a tire.
After an hour, the tire was quickly replaced and we drove another hour and reached the Monument to the Treaty of Simulambuco.
It somehow still exists despite etching in Portuguese that Cabinda should be an independent country from Angola!
Then we checked into our lodgings and had dinner at the swanky Apolónia. Despite the upscale ambience, the dinner is buffet style where they even weigh your plates as if we were at a bodega.
Afterwards we officially finished our trip, enjoying one final round of drinks with Rik and Ingrid back out hotel bar. We also did our best to politely ignore all the sex workers aggressively interrupting us to get them a drink.
They also sport a very unique shower head. I never seen something like it before.
Crossing into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) from Cabinda
The next day we enjoyed a lazy morning by the hotel pool before having a late lunch back at Apolónia among an international mix of soldiers from Brazil, USA, Portugal, Namibia, and Angola who seemed to be there socializing and inspecting a construction site by the restaurant.
With nothing much else to do, we decided to peek at the Cabinda/DRC border about a 20 minute drive south from the city.
The security staff in the pink structure that issues exit stamps may appear strict here!
However, they seemed to not care when I asked to walk across no man’s land and across the border into the DRC without needing an Angolan exit stamp or DRC visa.
They replied as long as I didn’t take any photos and walked back into Angola within their eyesight, it would be fine.
They also didn’t chose not to stamp me out as “we don’t want you to be kidnapped when you reach the other side.”
“By not officially getting an exit stamp, you’re still under our protection.” I guess that makes sense?
So I did just that as I crossed through no man’s land.
And then I reached into DRC territory.
Except for the photos part since they also didn’t seem to really care about that and looked the other way.
And Google maps even proves that I made it. I’m actually in the DRC!
Although I didn’t wander any further than here, I spent enough time across this border in the DRC to have a drink, take a dump, and say hi to the guards there, to the point I didn’t really feel it was a big deal at all.
Whether or not it counts is entirely up to me (or you as my humble reader), but I know I’ll visit the DRC properly when I swing by Burundi next year. Count this as much as you can count my visit to Paraguay?
Returning back to the city, we then kicked back at a smaller Apolónia café for an hour before heading back to the airport to check in early.
We then returned again to Apolónia proper for a 3rd meal there!
Afterwards we quickly stopped to say hi to our guide’s aunt as he needed to drop something off.
We then headed back to the airport one last time for our return 8:50pm flight back to Luanda.
Keep in mind like in Comoros if you have checked luggage, you’ll need to claim it a second time on the tarmac so they know to load them into your flight.
Once we returned to Luanda, we got to stay at the best hotel in town, the HCTA Talatona Convention Center Hotel (they have a full working gym!).
Now waiting for our 11pm flight out of the country, where I’m now catching up on all the COVID-19 stuff I need to be prepared for when I return to work tomorrow back in NYC.
It’s ironic that even though I just spent the last 48 hours traveling through an active conflict zone and region notorious for a brutal civil war, I still my life would still be more in danger back home. Hopefully this won’t be my last trip in a while.
On the bright side, since nobody’s traveling these days (let alone to Angola), I got “business class” again on an economy fare.
See ya back home!
- At time of posting in Cabinda, it was 25 °C - Humidity: 94% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy