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!
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.”
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
After some uneven back-and-forth kind of travel in the outskirts of Luanda yesterday, we “slept in” this morning until 8am before starting out day with a drive to Cacuaco for a stroll around a local fishing village.
My gut feeling here was that since tourism here is still raw and developing, I would recommend keeping on the periphery and not to getting in the way at the market.
So we spent about 10 minutes here before heading off to the airport for our 12pm flight to Lubango.
Not since Tuvalu since I got a handwritten plane ticket!
I think they accept priority pass at the domestic airport?
Alas but nobody was there to check me in. It was very rude.
After a half an hour delay passing the time over some coffee and two of us doing 300 pushups in the waiting area, we finally boarded our flight at 12:30pm.
We landed after an uneventful 1.5 hour flight in Lubango, where we got screened for a fever (COVID-19 fears are real even here!) and had our visas checked.
Picking up our checked luggage and driving off promptly at 2pm south for Namibe, we then had a quick lunch in the city proper before stopping at a viewpoint on Serra da Leba cliff:
There’s also some street art along the highway:
After a 3 hour drive, we arrived at Namibe at 6pm, just in time for the golden hour and enjoying a kind of splendid city atmosphere that immediately reminded me of Cienfuegos and Havana in Cuba.
We then checked in at our hotel in the outskirts and had an early dinner before turning in at 10pm.
The next day was…not very efficient and a string of mishaps.
Although we had been informed by our local guide to wake up at 6:30am for a morning drive out to visit a few tribes, nobody showed up when we did just that. Half an hour went by before we got word that only one of the drivers “just woke up” and another car “wasn’t working.” So we shrugged our shoulders and went for breakfast where another hour went by. Then another. It wasn’t until 9:30am when anyone showed up with an update and a single 4×4 to take only part of the group. Not wanting to lose any more time and get back to Lubango too late, we sent half the group out on the itinerary while the 3 of us stayed behind for a second 4×4.
About 45 minutes later at around 10:15am a second jeep showed up, with the other guide informing us that there had been an additional delay because of some “oil issues” with his borrowed vehicle. Undeterred, the 3 of us remaining packed the 4×4 and set off.
An hour later we soon crossed through the town of Namibe and off-roaded into the desert. The litany of abandoned cars here became a fitting harbinger of what was to come.
About 45 minutes into the desert, our jeep suddenly stopped driving. The engine wouldn’t start, and we started to smell smoke.
Yep, you guessed it. Aforementioned “oil issues” turned into “engine failure.” We got out and began to pay our respects to a dead vehicle that was now stranded in the middle of the desert, 45 minutes from the nearest city.
And yet by pure dumb luck and before any sort of worry set in, we only had to wait a mere 1-2 minutes before a good samaritan — driving his family and 3 goats on the back of his pickup truck — stopped to help resurrect this husk of metal. He quickly took out his black toolkit, looked at our engine, picked up an empty aluminum can off the side of the road, ripped off a shard, and performed some heroic McGyverish maneuvers.
After about 10 minutes of trial and error, this good man finally got the engine back up running again but warned us to not to drive too quickly. So we thanked him, got back in our 4×4, shut off the A/C, rolled down the windows, turned around our jeep, and limped our way at 18km/hour back to Namibe. What would have been a 45 minute drive took us about twice as long at 1.5 hours.
Once we arrived back into town, we stopped back at the car shop where our guide had originally picked up the jeep and tried to switch to a new vehicle. By then our jeep was so murdered by the elements that the staff had to manually push it back out from the garage into the street.
To add insult to injury, the car shop had no other vehicle for us to switch into. So our guide ran off without explanation, returning about half an hour later with a small Volkswagen beetle (so much for a 4×4 and off-roading for today!). By then it was about 1:30pm. At this point I was amused at the whole morning, sitting in a café across the street, and enjoying the whole comedy of errors as long as we were all alive and safe. We decided to head straight to Lubango.
But then a different spectrum of emotions emerged.
Here’s a Preface:
I’m a big believer of not judging anything from your high-horse/backseat/armchair unless you experience it yourself and form your own opinions.
That said with all my experiences, I am far past a point of no return in being a perfect person. Travel can be fraught with so many ethical conundrums that it becomes a mess, and if we look through it from such a lens, my hands are filthy.
So at the very least I strive to minimize the impact of my sins on this earth by seeking “Truth” with a capital T, which has created a habit of constantly locking horns without the boundaries of what society considers “acceptable.” After all, most of the things we take for granted without a thought today would instead be considered taboo if it were not for those who have challenged the status quo of generations past. I thus relish in the rebellion in critical thinking, questioning established institutions and “rules”, reading between the lines, and then touching the burner (and yet the caveat being that as long as any of my actions and any downstream ripple effects don’t directly harm anyone, have unsolicited negative consequences, or interfere with anyone’s daily lives) — it’s the core of what excites me when I wake up every morning.
And then today, these feelings came: Even rebels have boundaries.
I have certainly taken portrait photographs on my travels more than a handful of times. But why does today feel completely different, even when having verbal consent? Why would it be today that I would reach some kind of personal limit where I couldn’t even bring myself to participate?
When our local Angolan guide insisted that we take photos of local tribes along the way back to Lubango, why couldn’t I help but feel he was being exploitative by encouraging and we were being equally exploitative by going along with this? Why couldn’t I help but feel as if our guide was some kind of pimp driving along the road asking us “you like this tribe? Want to stop for a photo?” Why couldn’t I help but feel we were on kind of objectifying dehumanizing safari?
It’s not so much the feeling that counts as much as understanding the meaning behind those feelings.
Our guide reported that from the tribes’ side, it was understood that members would agree to have their photographs taken if they got paid 500-1000 kwanza per person. So a monetary transaction was expected here? This was not a “Humans of New York” campaign where we could spend time to get to know them, hear their stories, invited into their homes, exchange a meal of perspectives, and they would in turn fully comprehend and understand the purpose of our photographs. Or even better, like in Mumbai’s Dharavi, photography is officially banned; instead you can tour around with a responsible NGO who then sends you an album of responsibly taken “ethical” photos for your personal use. I would have appreciated even a semblance of such efforts by our guides, but alas, at the same time Angola is still developing these infrastructures.
On a brighter side of better behavior, my fellow travelers made efforts to soften the blow; one had a Polaroid camera which photos he gave back to the tribes, and another tried to have a conversation with the locals and ask meaningful questions via the guide translating, but I still felt the guide wasn’t being very helpful and just wanted to drive to the next stop. There was no conversation.
At one point I thought maybe I should be giving everyone the benefit of the doubt in that the local tribes are also fully onboard? And yet because Angola is infamous for its extreme inequality gap and so underdeveloped in tourism, such a scenario would be on the unlikelier side of the spectrum. It also didn’t help that a random police officer had stopped our guide sometime in the afternoon, made us drive to the local station, and told him what he was doing was not allowed (The guide’s defense was that the officer wanted a bribe and there was no such rule).
Therefore I wince over how it is much more likely that our local guide is a willing participant in exploitation, where downstream patronage — foreign or domestic — further exacerbates an inequality. Furthermore, our local guide replied with an unsatisfying answer when we asked him about whether he was being respectful in his approach to these tribes: “I go to the tribe and I say I have these tourists who are interested in your way of life and would like to take a picture.” *Crickets*
So what ended up happening today was except for the police station, I sat in the car in a form of borderline bratty but silent protest. Despite the guide repeatedly asking me to pay the tribes to take a photo without otherwise starting a conversation with them, It just felt all wrong to me; I smiled politely the best I could and declined.
Circling back to how the very nature of travel is fraught with ethical dilemmas that it can never be perfect, I don’t want to come off across as ethically superior to anyone and I don’t want this to sound like self-righteous condemnation. As I have said in my preface, I myself am far from a perfect person and I plead guilty to having towed the line so much that my entire life has stretched ad infinitum into an endless gradient of grays. So instead of unsolicitedly imposing any sort of personal ethical standards onto others, I’m thus here on my own platform to describe and vent an intense feeling I couldn’t control, so that I may hopefully ultimately ascertain a meaning behind why I feel the way that I do, and that as part of the problem I may do better next time.
But where I can’t control emotions (who can, really?), I certainly can control my own actions — Tomorrow I’ll skip out on the second day of this “tribe safari” and finally enjoy some time alone to myself.
So after a whole afternoon of driving and discussing this, we finally reached our hotel in Lubango by 7pm where I continued this conversation with my other 2 fellow travelers over dinner and we all seemed to be on the same page.
But what about the other half of the group in the first car that had left earlier before us? They ended up driving back to Namibe instead of onwards to Lubango due to another miscommunication. So they turned back around, reaching our hotel by midnight where we were finally reunited. Oh Angola. Baby steps.
The next morning I stuck to my promise and sat out the morning’s activities while the rest of the group set out to visit a few more local tribes. I took my time with breakfast and caught up on a lot of housekeeping.
By the time the group finished, they picked me up at 12:30pm for a street stall lunch and then a city tour of Lubango’s surroundings.
We returned to the edge of the Serra da Leba cliff this time for a viewpoint on the other side to see the Tundavala Gap.
Then we headed up the mountain to the famous Christo Rei statue, a near exact but smaller replica of the one in Rio.
And we then were dropped off back at Lubango’s airport for our 5:30pm flight back to Luanda.
- At time of posting in Namibe, it was 24 °C -
Humidity: 81% | Wind Speed: 4km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy
After returning last night to Luanda, this morning we woke up bright and early at 6:30am for a drive to Kissama National Park, arriving there at 9am.
Here in the park you supposedly can go on a safari for the local wildlife, but our prepared safari jeep was inexplicably missing and that “it was coming.” So instead of waiting around for an indeterminate amount of time, we switched our planned afternoon river safari to the morning, leading to a very uneventful but meditative 40 minute boat trip, heading up and down once each way along the Kwanza River.
We spotted maybe 2 birds and no other wildlife. Whatever, I got to practice some mindfulness and breathing exercises here.
After returning back to the main camp from our river cruise, we asked reception once again for an estimate for our safari jeep that was still nowhere to be found. However, the receptionist shrugged his shoulders and didn’t seem interested in wanting to help us. Reading the signs and not wanting to wait outside in the sun for another indeterminate amount of time, the group unanimously elected to cut our losses, abandon the safari and leave the park early. A couple in the group even chose to return directly to Luanda to rest.
So those of us remaining grabbed a late lunch at a nearby gas station and visited the famous Moon Viewpoint for sunset. You’d be forgiven if you mistaken this for Bryce Canyon.
Then approaching Luanda’s outskirts, we stopped briefly at the very small national slave museum, a tiny structure with 5 rooms located on a hill in Morro da Cruz. The museum is also connected to the Capela da Casa Grande, a 17th-century chapel where slaves were baptized before heading to the Americas.
After 30 minutes there, we then strolled briefly through the art market across the street before driving onwards to Kilamba.
This neighborhood of Kilamba was once infamously known as a Chinese built ghost town where only 10% of residences were occupied. It has since regained recognition to become a lively area and otherwise normal neighborhood within the Luanda metropolitan area.
Don’t miss the street art nearby!
Once back in Luanda proper, we then celebrated with a traditional Angolan goodbye dinner at the swanky Lookal Ocean Club before saying farewell to the first part of the group!
- At time of posting in Kissama National Park, it was 35 °C -
Humidity: 65% | Wind Speed: n/a | Cloud Cover: clear
After an overnight stay by Calandula Falls and before beginning our return to the capital, we quickly took a morning dip at the local natural springs by the falls.
After our dip, we then began our return drive back to the capital of Luanda at 9:30am.
When we reached the city of Cacuso an hour later, we did a little urban exploration of some of the bullet-ridden colonial structures in the city that were used as stations during the civil war.
There is an unspoken respectful protocol here where we recommend that you ask for permission before entering any of these buildings, but nobody seemed to care or want to turn us down.
One of the structures has been converted into a makeshift al fresco Brazilin Jiu Jitsu studio:
Afterwards we stopped at a regional training initiative and heard more about how the locals live in this remote area of Angola.
We then drove on a few hours west to the impressive Pedras Negras do Pungo Andongo, a series of mysterious monolith black rock formations spectacularly shaped in the form of animals, standing high above the flat African Savanna.
These black stones were a place of resistance surrounded by mystery and magic against the Portuguese colonizers.
Most can handle an easy hike up a few stairs and trails to the very top of these monoliths, which took us all 10 minutes max to reach.
Enjoy the views from the top:
If you’re feeling really thorough, another 10 minutes’ drive can lead you to the sacred footprints of Queen Ana de Sousa Nzinga Mbande, which proves to the locals here that the Angolan queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba was one of them.
Then after a quick lunch at a random pitstop in Dondo, another 4 hours later and we were back in Luanda by 8pm.
- At time of posting in Pungo Andongo, it was 21 °C -
Humidity: 88% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: mostly cloudy
A little video I just quickly edited in of what we saw the past 48 hours:
How did we get here?
Well we began our journey yesterday morning, waking up early from Luanda at 4:30am for the slow 6am train heading towards the province of Malanje. We headed out at 5am for a morning drive and arrived at the train station by 5:30am.
We then were allowed to board the train at 5:50am, right before it promptly departed at 6am.
Despite getting tickets for regular seating, train staff refused to let us sit in our seats, “forcing” us (erm inviting us?) instead to stay in the much more luxurious Chinese-designed dining car and having it all to ourselves.
We had our own police minder watching us the entire time.
Along the way we got to see glimpses of the lush greenery of rural Angola . . .
And we were allowed to get off at several stops to stretch our legs.
After about 8 hours on the train, however, we approached the outskirts of N’dalatando and therefore only halfway to Malanje province. For your reference, a car ride would’ve taken only 3-4 hours to get to this point from Luanda!
Therefore at our local guide Joao’s suggestion and seeing the failed opportunity cost of taking another 8 hours to reach Malanje by train, we called for our driver — who had departed a few hours after our train from Luanda — to meet and pick us up instead at N’dalatando station.
We promptly disembarked at 2pm, where somehow our van literally was already waiting for us outside. Unbelievable timing.
Given that we had our van and it would now take only 90 minutes to reach Malanje by car, we kicked back on African time with coffee at the Terminus Hotel and walked around town for 15 minutes.
We then set off back on the road at 4pm, where we then arrived at 5:30pm at our lodge Pousada de Calandula. We noticed this might be the “best place” (only place?) to stay in town.
These were my views outside my room, where I had a complete view of Calandula/Kalandula Falls:
No doubt, as you can see why, these falls are one of the most famous landmarks in Angola.
And to make things even better, there is no WiFi allowed at the hotel! The point is to stay off the grid at a place like this, which made for great conversations with our group by an outdoor campfire and BBQ.
The next morning after breakfast we began our day at Kalandula Falls right outside our lodge. Instead of taking the car, we decided to hike down into the lush greenery.
A local guide from our hotel helped us navigate below the falls over some slippery rocks and mud to get a better vantage point.
After a few photos here, we then drove back to our lodgings where we took a quick pee break. Then I had to make an unusual medical decision for one of our travelers who was suffering from a huge periodontal abscess in his upper hard palate.
Given that it was only getting worse and he was a little older, I recommended that he be driven back to Luanda immediately to begin antibiotics and having his abscess drained in sterile conditions. First casualty of the trip.
So our guide Joao took him by car back to the capital, while our other local guide Ricardo set us off for an hour’s drive to the city proper of Malanje, after which the province we were in is named. Then we detoured to the village by Kwanza Rapids where we glimpsed scenes of everyday life and kids playing in the natural springs.
We then hiked up 5 minutes up the rocks for a quick view of the rapids themselves, where women wash their clothes and well-known gaps drag the water down at phenomenal speed.
Since we came during rainy season, we couldn’t cross past this point. During dry season we were told you can possibly hike to the other side, currents permitting.
We then turned back to the city of Malanje to explore more of the city itself.
We had a quick buffet lunch and strolled for about 40 minutes around town beginning from the city center:
…to the central church.
We then drove back to our lodgings by Kalandula Falls reaching home in the evening.
- At time of posting in Malanje, it was 21 °C -
Humidity: 89% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy
We spent about 45 minutes walking up and down the coast taking in the eeriness of having this whole place to ourselves.
Nearby we noticed a group of boys preparing their makeshift boat on its maiden voyage.
After an hour here and bribing a police officer to not report us (we’re technically not allowed to be here taking photos), we then drove back south to the Monument to the Kifangondo Battle, which commemorates the struggle for the independence of Angola.
On the last day of Portuguese colonial rule in Angola, which formally received independence only hours after the fighting, this was where the ELNA guerillas (supported by Zaire and South African military) made one final but unsuccessful attempt to seize Luanda from FAPLA’s 9th Brigade and and 200 Cuban military advisers/allies.
After ELNA was defeated and FAPNA/MPLA declared victory to establish the People’s Republic of Angola, Fidel Castro himself arrived here after the battle to mark the Angolan-Cuban alliance.
After 30 minutes at the memorial, we then drove back to Luanda to partake in its annual carnival parade.
Angola may have established its independence from Portugal long ago, but like Brazil, some elements like carnival are just going to stay.
We followed one group in particular who visited nearly every single restaurant and store along its route to give them their blessings. We lasted only 2 hours with them before the summer sun withered us down.
They’ll do just fine without us.
After carnival, we then hit the town for classic Angolan fish for dinner!
An Angolan omakase if I’d say so myself.
I made a mess. As per usual.
- At time of posting in Luanda, it was 31 °C -
Humidity: 70% | Wind Speed: 24km/hr | Cloud Cover: mostly sunny, dreadfully humid