Patching punctures in the soul

Words and photographs by Paul Morris

As expected, a curious gallery gathered to watch. I’d pulled off the tar to buy water at a collection of shack shops but found only motor oil, brake pads and assorted things useful to two-stroke motorcycle owners. I noticed the rear-wheel puncture as I was pushing my bike through the soft sand back towards the tar. The shoppers had already stopped to stare at the sight of me and my fully laden bike. I pushed my beast to a ramshackle fence, laid it down in the sand and unpacked it. Although mechanically inept, I can handle a tube change, but the audience was growing and with it my performance anxiety.

In Angola, I learned that touring at a cycling pace is ideal for healing inner wounds and replacing bad memories with better ones.

Out of the foxhole
I was several days into a 1 500-kilometre tour from southeastern Angola to Tsumeb in Namibia. The last time I’d been in Angola was during the war in 1987 when, as a 20-year-old conscript, I’d spent three months in the thick forests between Mavinga and Cuito Cuanavale.
I started the journey at Cuito Cuanavale because it had been an almost mythological place in my war, never really seen as I sat in a foxhole in the Angolan sand.

One day on my journey, I met a Cuban who fought at Cuito Cuanavale when I was in the attacking army. We spoke no common language but connected in a way that only old soldiers can. We held each other like long-lost brothers, and another scar felt healed. I later met ex-PLAN soldiers and felt humbled by the adversity they had faced and the courage it took for them to take to the bush to fight for what they believed in. They too reached out to me with a magnanimity that shone light into a previously dark place in my soul.

I had returned to Angola to enjoy the beauty of the bush and meet the people of a country in its 10th year of peace following 30 years of civil war. I thought about the ways I could travel and settled on cycling because I wanted to have the closest possible contact with the people and the landscape. It worked. I exchanged greetings with just about everyone along the road. Motorcycles would give me a friendly toot, people sitting outside the ubiquitous tavernas, would shout greetings or laugh in surprise. Often I would stop for a chat. I don’t speak Portuguese so my contribution usually consisted of listing as many of the towns as I could remember between Cuito Cuanavale and wherever I found myself. The average response consisted of eyebrows shooting upwards at great speed followed by the Portuguese equivalent of “All the way from Cuito? On a bicycle?” Then there would be hoots of laughter. I couldn’t tell whether I was being judged to be strong and courageous or insane, but the latter seems probable.

 

Lunch break – most villages have small shops but these are often badly stocked, especially if you’re a vegetarian, so I carried six days worth

 

Beauty and logistics
I rode for many hours through the tall trees of the beautiful forests that cover much of the southeastern corner of Angola. I crossed the wide Kuvango River that starts life in the highlands and ends in the vast swamps of the Okavango Delta and the Kunene at the vibrant, slightly scruffy city of Matala. As a conscript, 25 years earlier, I had swum in the same river at the Hippo Pools near Ruacana Falls. These and other rivers provide vital water for people to drink, bathe and wash clothes in. Next to the bridges I’d see women to the one side, washing themselves and their children, with clothes and bed-linen draped over bushes, while the men washed themselves, their motorbikes and their cars on the other side. Evidence of war decreased with every kilometre beyond Menongue and my thoughts turned slowly from the past and its grim rusting reminders, to the beauty of the bush and the openness of the people I met. I became absorbed in my immediate task of journeying, feeding myself, finding a place to sleep and with every meeting along the way. The war receded both in its manifestation in the landscape, and in my mind. The further I travelled from Cuito, the less I thought about war.

My longest day came after I decided to push all the way to Lubango in what turned out to be a 126-kilometre ride. I knew the regional capital of Huíla Province was up against the mountain but I hadn’t reckoned on the number of hills I’d have to climb towards the end of a long day. Then, looking forward to a hot shower and a cold beer, I was told that the place where I’d chosen to stay was halfway up the mountain. It was like arriving in Cape Town after cycling for nine hours, only to be told you needed to climb Kloof Street to get to your guesthouse. The infrastructure, though improving rapidly, is still ravaged by the war. Guesthouses are not always available, and they are often full. In a R300-a-night pensão, my shower involved squatting over a bowl of cold water with only a candle for warmth and light.

Because I was camping solo I’d try and stay out of sight, after making very sure I was nowhere near a minefield of course.

Smooth with the rough
Road-builders are laying asphalt through Angola at an incredible rate and I enjoyed hundreds of kilometres of good tar. There was still and a fair bit of old colonial tar to, and this was potholed, or rather shell-holed. In a car, I would have had to slow to a crawl to negotiate the damaged sections, but on my bike I was usually able to find enough unbroken tar to cruise through comfortably without interrupting my rhythm. Once or twice, I found myself riding on a section of gravel that had been compacted in preparation for tarring and I flew along the smooth surface while cars and trucks battled the loose gravel and sand on the parallel detours. Later, I’d spend a good deal of time picking myself and the bike up after falling on old rutted gravel road roads where the trees came all the way to the road’s edge, creating an avenue which tunnelled off into the green-fringed distance. Here, the ever-present minefields were closer and I clung to the edges of the road whenever I took a break.

When the going got rough, it got very rough. At the roughest point, both my good fortune and gut flora deserted me and I started to suffer from a bad bout of traveler’s guts. On a piece of road that was all loose gravel and sand, I eventually heaved my much-needed lunch into the sand. That day I managed nothing like the 100 kilometre average I had maintained earlier, and just over 50 kilometres left me feeling miserable, sick and very alone in Kuvango. I holed up in a friendly but threadbare pensão where the lack of a flushing toilet and the water that arrived in a bowl every morning only accentuated my discomfort. I spent three days there recovering.

The scars of war are still evident all over Angola from tanksized potholes in the roads, to up-turned, bombed tanks and troop carriers rusting in the bush.

Two-wheeled calling card

My bike is a source of amusement among my more image-conscious friends back home, but was viewed as a high-tech marvel by many of the Angolans I met. Near Xangongo, one very cool dude on a shiny Chinese two-stroke even offered to buy it. “Then how do I get home?” I asked with an exaggerated shrug. “No problem, no problem,” he said, without explaining how that problem would actually be solved. My only equipment extravagance was a leather Brooks saddle and touring carrier. That cost double the R1 300 I paid for the bike. For touring, I figure that high-tech is a liability. The nearest bike shop capable of fixing something like disc-brakes was probably in Windhoek, about 2 000 kilometres from my starting point.

Now that I’m home again, my journey continues by other means. Where I once felt a constant pull to return to Angola and put some ghosts to rest, now I need never return. And if I do, it will be for very different reasons.

About the author

The bike tour Paul Morris  took in Angola was an exercise in healing, but not all his travels have been that serene. On a minibus taxi journey to Zimbabwe he ended up driving after the driver fell asleep behind the wheel of the brakeless missile one time too many.

Patching punctures in the soul
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