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
“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
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
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
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