'We passed bombed-out cars, trucks, buses; their charred remains occupying the middle of the road'

The ultimate adventure capitalist braved war-ravaged Angola and found that the work ethic was alive and well
WITHIN a few days of our arrival in Pointe-Noire, we crossed the border into Cabinda, which is separated from Angola proper by the Democratic Republic of Congo’s outlet to the sea. I had not told Paige that I had heard on the BBC that secessionists were kidnapping foreigners that week and holding them hostage. But when we reached the regional capital, the city of Cabinda, it became pretty clear pretty quickly that there was political unrest. We were clearly in a war zone. The hotels had been destroyed; the entire city appeared to have been firebombed. No sooner did we arrive than we started making arrangements to get ourselves farther south.

We had asked the Angolan Ambassador in Gabon how one got from Cabinda to Luanda, the Angolan capital — from one end of his country to the middle. “There is a regular ferry two days a week.”

“Have you taken the ferry?” Paige asked, by now suspicious of all official pronouncements.

“I was on it last year. It takes two days to travel from Cabinda to Luanda. It’s nice, don’t worry,” he said with a smile.

In bombed-out Cabinda, once we found a hotel, we wasted no time investigating the ferry schedule.

“There is no ferry,” we were told. “There has not been a ferry for decades.”

Passing the airport, I saw a gigantic Russian cargo plane on the runway. I drove the Mercedes out on to the airfield and raced across the tarmac. The cargo plank was down and loading was under way. Overseeing the operation was a two-star general in the Angolan Army. He was headed to Luanda.

“Will you fly us out of here?” I asked.

He said he would do it for $400.

“I’m leaving in 40 minutes,” he added.

We raced back to the hotel, got our stuff, and, even pausing to deal with a dead battery, we made it back to the airfield on time.

“We’re ready to go,” I told him.

“Where’s the twelve hundred dollars?” What could I do? Twelve thousand would have been cheap. I shelled out the $1,200 as fast as I could, before he changed his mind.

Inside the plane were probably 300 people. There were soldiers, civilians, old men who looked like lawyers, young people who were clearly students, men and women of all ages, a mass of people sitting on the floor, lying on the floor, standing, every form of humanity you can imagine. And even as the plane was pulling away and the crew members were pulling up the cargo plank, they were pulling people aboard. There were no seats, no safety precautions of any kind.

With the exception of the six Russian and Ukrainian aircrew, we were the only outsiders on board. The others were obviously friends of the general, or people who had influence with him.

Upon landing 45 minutes later at an airbase in Luanda, we would discover that this cargo plane was one of two on lease from Russia to the Angolan military. While we were airborne, the crew invited Paige and me to visit the cabin. Paige took them up on the offer, and I followed a little later to see what was going on.

When I got there, the entire flight crew was drinking vodka. I turned down their offer to join them, figuring somebody had to keep his wits about him.

Two months later, listening to BBC Africa, I heard that the plane had crashed and that everyone aboard had been killed. Two months after that, the second aircraft went down.

Situated on a large bay in picturesque surroundings, Luanda, in the absence of war, could be Rio or Stockholm. But war had made it a hellhole, seedy and run down, its buildings collapsing, everything in disrepair. Walking streets named for communist heroes — Avenues Che Guevara, Karl Marx, Fidel Castro and the like — we shared the sidewalks with a crushing population driven from the countryside by war. Everywhere I looked, I could see a strong entrepreneurial spirit at work, enormous amounts of energy and motivation just waiting to be harnessed.

It reinforced an impression that had begun to build again in me as I travelled through Africa, whose population has an image in the West of being congenitally lazy or crooked or both. Nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout Africa, I would encounter vast numbers of people with talent and drive willing to labor from dawn to dusk, their work ethic no less powerful than the Chinese.

We were heading for Benguela, a port city we had been told was controlled by the Government. All along our route we passed bombed-out vehicles, cars, trucks, buses; their charred remains occupying the middle of the road.

“We must be nuts,” said Paige. “This is a serious war zone.”

About 25 kilometers outside the city, as we were coming up to the rise of a hill, a soldier stepped into the road and stopped us. An official made his way down the hill and told us we were not allowed to go any further. We pleaded, we argued, to no avail. We were forced to spend the night by the side of the road.

That night was the only night during the entire trip that Paige actually cried out of fear. She insisted on sleeping in the car. Surrounded by all these soldiers, adolescent boys, laughing in the dark, she had no idea what they wanted, whether it might be money, her, the car, me. We spent the night terrified and rose very early the next morning.

It was when we reached the top of the hill that everything was made clear to us. About 300 meters beyond the hill was a bridge. And the reason we had been refused passage was that by the time we arrived, the bridge, as it was every night, had been mined. They mined the bridge to prevent the rebel forces from either crossing it or mining it themselves. They removed the mines every morning. Had we crossed the night before, as the young soldier had been prepared to let us do before his commanding officer intervened, we would have been blown to pieces.

As we travelled south, we traversed some of the most beautiful countryside we had seen on the trip, completely untouched. The border crossing into Namibia took a matter of minutes. The immigration agent actually said: “Welcome to Namibia. I hope you will bring investors.” They actually seemed glad to have us there.

The town just across the border, Ondangwa, was booming. Angolans came here to buy all the goods unavailable at home. There were warehouses, shops, hotels. I was approached by a smuggler who was associated with the rebels in Angola and who offered to buy my vehicles and pay me in diamonds. When I finally got him to accept that neither Mercedes was for sale, he offered to sell me the diamonds for cash. He said they were worth $70,000. I paid him $500. I was very proud of myself. It was just one more skilful deal on the black market by the Indiana Jones of investors.

From a diamond merchant in Tanzania, I learned that they were glass.

Adventure Capitalist by Jim Rogers is published by John Wiley & Sons at £14.99. To order your copy at £11.99 + £1.95 p&p call Times Books Direct on 0870 160 8080 or visit www.timesonline.co.uk/booksdirect

            The Mulindwas Communication Group
"With Yoweri Museveni, Uganda is in anarchy"
            Groupe de communication Mulindwas
"avec Yoweri Museveni, l'Ouganda est dans l'anarchie"

Reply via email to