The Serra da Leba Pass, a wonderful desert ride, the Atlantic Ocean at last, and then the surprise gem of Namibe

"Into Africa" More than a Motorcycle Adventure
Howard Fairbank
Thu 27 Feb 2014 08:08

15:11.02S 12:09.03


21st February, 2014


Well as you may have seen from our Google map position, this is the furthest West we have been, and is the furthest west I’ll be for quite until I get into the Cabinda area of Angola, early March.  This trip is really helping me map out the continent of Africa!


We woke to a foggy day, it seems like this fog is a part of life in Lubango, the 2000+ metre high escarpment causing the moist sea air to rise, cool, and ‘cloud’… The plan was to leave as early as possible to enjoy the Serra de Laba pass with as little traffic as possible, but with the fog in place, and a glimpse of the sun working to burn it off, we decided to ‘slowdown’ and take a leisurely, residencial, garden breakfast. We ended up talking to an 38 year old, enlightened Angolan, who had travelled and worked ‘the world’, in the IT industry and was now back in Angola to ride the boom. John was intrigued by our adventure pursuit, and particularly the more remote Angolan places we were visiting. His father-in-law is the Minister of Tourism, and this guy provided a fascinating perspective on why Angola seemed so unfriendly to tourists: Apparently, the government is paranoid about foreigners coming in under false tourism pretences, and then stealing the business opportunities away from Angolans. So the attitude is one of self-preservation, and holding onto their independence, keeping out the camouflaged exploiters, or at least controlling who is able to ‘exploit’ and what they can exploit.  Given my experience so far in the other African countries, this seemed to make a lot of sense, and also explain why Rob and I on our motorcycles have only experienced friendliness, and no harassment. We look totally the part of adventure tourists, and can’t be confused for massive scale opportunist exploiters! John went on to say how very keen Angola was to get its tourism industry going and how guys like us could add so much value to the local industry by just sharing what we see and learn along the road where few tourist orientated people have been…. We explained to him how we saw a need for a radical shift in orientation, from removing this protective shield and providing a facilitating and enabling environment that welcomes tourists into the country. It will be interesting to see how Angola manages this in the coming years, but there is no doubt that the potential rewards are there. We were about to head off and ride one of the countries ‘highlights’…..


        The Serra da Lada Pass billboard for Namibe


Having left Lubango’s chaos, knowing we would have to be reluctantly back, fighting through the city tomorrow, we were soon back up on the top of the plateau, passing the turnoff to Christo Rei, and then in temperate rural plains, scattered with small farm holdings. Coming to the top of the pass, I could see the horizon-less, falloff to the valley floor in the distance, with the fissures, similar to Tunda Vala, around plateau rim. We paid out $5, one way toll, to once again friendly, toll keepers, and then we were into the pass, and I was immediately struck by the colour of the giant volcanic fissures, as they contrasted with the greenery haphazardly placed where the crevices could support rooted life.



              Near the top of the Pass

The 25 kilometre pass, drops 1000m down to the coast plain, in a tortuous concertina of switchbacks which forced us to keep our attention on the road. From the bottom of the pass the coast plain then gently loses the 700 metres to sea level, in the 140 kilometres to the Atlantic ocean. The seemingly insignificant, yet logistically significant port of Namibe, 172 kilometres from Lubango, was our nightfall destination.


                                 A waterfall at the top of the pass


I have ridden amazing passes all over the world, and have to say this one ranks up there with some of the best, and it was well worth the ‘detour’.  The decision to carry on to Namibe, was full of risk, as the travel guide did not make the long ride seem worthwhile, but in the end my adventure spirit and our desire to ‘have a dip in the Atlantic, drove us to explore this isolated town.



Forget Namibe, and the Serra de Laba pass, for a desert lover, the ride from the bottom of the pass to Namibe justified the whole trip in itself. As we descended the pass the temperature rose rapidly from the almost  temperate coolness of the plateau, to a harsh dry heat down below. There was a transition zone, green with natural vegetation and subsistence farmer pastures, a few scattered villages, with local seemingly selling tourist wares, but as we stopped to look it was apparent that the goods were items made in the villages for other, passing locals, whose location further into the desert didn’t afford them the access to the natural wood and other raw materials found in the cooler wetter transition area.  


  The unexpected green patches in the desert                       Strange roofed houses in Caracula

The Lubango area being a significant production location (iron ore, beef and other farming) was a source of goods that needed to be shipped elsewhere, and so a 180km long railway line connects the city to Namibe, giving the port a strategic role in the development of southern Angola. The road we were on runs parallel to this railway line, which has recently been renewed through assistance from the Chinese. This is one long straight railway line, with essentially only the small, iconic desert town of Caracula providing a respite on the huge desert plain. We stopped there to explore, chatting to the locals, who were friendly but also overtly inquisitive about our mission into their harsh environment.


Some 30 kilometres from Namibe the scenery became even more desolate and lunar like, but surprisingly the path where the road went, took us into some large hills and valleys, and either side were mountain forms, dramatically sculptured by the desert winds. Seeming out of nowhere in the middle of this lunar nothingness, a view down from one of the sculptured plateaus showed us a lush green valley floor, clearly sustained by a significant perennial flowing river, and then underground water. The unexpected vista in the middle of this nothingness, and its contrasts were awesome.


Almost a consistent part of this whole Angola road experience, has been seeing the inordinate number of destroyed motor vehicles on the sides of the roads. Badly damaged in accidents, and then completely stripped of all but the mangled body. Here in the desert the carnage was the worst we had seen, and I was still left wondering how so many vehicles could be written off like this in what seemed like fairly straight and safe roads… It was also clear from the evidence of extensive, yet low impact excavation that extensive mining exploration had been carried out in the desert. A  few sizeable stone and mortar house townships, with no apparent source of water, blending in against the greyish soil, provided a challenging picture of what some people have been forced to define as paradise!


The final spectacle before Namibe, provided a clue to the seasonal variations this area faces. A 200 metre long bridge, across a totally dry river bed. Nothing unusual, except the substantial concrete bridge had been washed away, and the dry river bed showed that it had seen torrents of water flowing down it, sometime in it’s not so recent past. All was dry, and the dusty detour road took us into the river bed, begging the questions as to how this dryness and desolation, can all change so quickly?


Soon after this, we climbed out of a palm tree lined valley, and as we summited there in front of us was the Atlantic Ocean…. The sea at last! Both Rob, and I are sea people, and we had discussed how, after all the long dry, dusty roads, we were ‘just’ looking forward to diving into the Atlantic. For Rob, it was also special as he felt he had traversed the width of the continent from the Durban, his home town in South Africa, on the Indian Ocean, right across to the Atlantic coast.


Well as we entered Namibe, I could feel this immediate bond with the place, it felt very colonial Portuguese, nice buildings, wide, palm tree lined, boulevard, and then a sign saying “Praia das Escadinhas”…. I do know “Praia” means beach, so right turn and there we were on the delightful, restaurant lined, promenade that runs parallel to the coast, and the best beach Namibe has to offer. Rob and I had a bet as to what the water temperature would be? With my Cape Town, experience of the chilly, 10 degree C Atlantic, and understanding of the influence of the north flowing Benguela current on the Namibian, Skeleton Coast, I estimated the ocean would still be cold, at around 16 degrees C. Rob with his warm, Indian Ocean reference point, punted 20 degrees C. We couldn’t wait to try it. Chose an iconic colonial, Portuguese, seaside restaurant, as our spot for lunch, parked the bikes on the beach, and then darted into the water for that first swim! Rob the winner, the temperature was probably even warmer that the 20 C Rob had settled for…! Just perfect, and once we settled into a seaside lunch, in very, a ‘non African’ ambiance, we wondered what more would ever need in life… Haha!


            The Atlantic, Fishing boats and Namibe Castle                        Statue at the entrance to Clube Naval


After lunch we explored the whole town and surrounding area on the motorcycles, both concluding that this was a very special place, and very much deserving of the effort of riding from Lubango.


We stayed as the only guests at the pleasant campsite at the northern end of the Marginal. Unbeknown to us at the time, we pitched our tents under the shade of two trees, both of which turned out to be the night homes of hundreds of egrets, who over the period of the night sprayed our bikes and tents with their droppings! Other than that, the camping was just great, with not even a sleeping bag needed, in this warm, ocean side desert like climate.


With the thought of having to go back through Lubango again tomorrow, I suggested we get up early, and leave just before sunrise, in the hope that we could experience some great early sunrise, desert landscapes.    


                       View up to the pass on the road back


Tomorrow, the end destination is Benguela, and with almost 500 kilometres riding we would have a long day ahead!