Room Service at the President Hotel
by Edward Truter
The country was high and flat, and the cool air pouring into the cab through the open windows as we cruised along at an easy clip past fields of waving grass and fruit orchards and bustling roadside stalls was the perfect temperature to invigorate us after the long days we'd spent down on the hot plains. The tarred road narrowed and dipped, and for a while a bright, frisky little stream ran teasingly alongside us as it twisted and turned between rocky walls. We rounded a corner and felt the world falling away beneath us as we soared high above densely forested slopes, sheer ochre cliffs and wispy waterfalls. We were just 80 kilometers from the sea, on the Serra de Chella pass, Angola.
I was on a working trip, one that so far had proved rather interesting in parts. I'd arrived in Luanda a few days earlier, paid US$90 for a taxi ride into town, and booked into the Hotel de President. A barrier beach separates the sea from a lagoon, from where Luanda city sprawls over the inland hills. The hotel is right on the water at the road entrance to the harbour. At sunrise the next morning a colleague collected me for the ride back to the airport to catch another flight. We were driving along the esplanade when movement in the water close to the road caught my eye. My reaction almost caused us to have an accident; a maelstrom of feeding predators was chasing bait right up onto the pavement. Instinctively my body tried to exit the moving car there and then. That was my first unforgettable impression of the many I now have of an unforgettable country.
A broken telephone had resulted in my arriving in Luanda a little unexpectedly, so no onward flights had been reserved for me. One of our facilitators (a facilitator is employed full time to deal with the logistical and administrational intricacies that are part and parcel of operating in a developing country) had obtained a ticket for me on the black market (I don't know exactly how).
Of all the airports I'd been through, Luanda's was the most chaotic. On domestic flights one drags one's own luggage out to the plane, where the men and woman are made to queue separately (who knows why?). I was the last to board, having been made to wait to see if my allotted seat really did exist. It seemed that it didn't, and the plane filled up with me still standing on the tarmac. Then ensued a lively and somewhat tense argument between an inebriated AK47-toting guard of sorts, my facilitator, the airline owner, and the poor soul who was getting bumped off the plane. At one point the airline owner, standing at the top of the stairs, was beckoning to me to board, while the armed guard at the bottom keenly barred my entry.
The flight south to the town of Lubango was mostly uneventful except for breathtaking glimpses here and there of the fascinating coastline. It did get a bit scary when it seemed that, without us noticeably losing altitude, rugged mountain peaks were coming dangerously close to scraping the undercarriage. Soon mountains surrounded us and channeled us into a long valley, the sort of place where a pilot would have only one chance to do it right. At Lubango, another facilitator, Inacio, a senior Portuguese-Angolan gentleman of the old school, met me. Inacio was shameless. He drove his vehicle out to the 737, dived into the hold, rummaged through the luggage to find my stuff, cleared my passport through seemingly impenetrable chaos, and then made fun of the Lubango traffic officers directing midday traffic by pretending he was going to run them down.
Somehow I survived the enthusiastic Latino driving style and eventually arrived at our bush camp near Onccua, 40km north of the Cunene River. Many of the buildings in tiny Onccua and the old Portuguese farmhouses in the area bore the pox marks testifying to the sickness that is war. Interestingly, our camp builder was an ex-recce, who occasionally met those he'd fought against in earlier times. It was strange the way they compared notes more like old friends instead of the enemies they'd been.
Generally, Africa is somewhat lacking in geographical diversity. We in South Africa are spoilt by the almost ever-changing landscape in our country, and we are never too far from mountains. But to the north of us much of Africa is an almost featureless plain. In Senegal, for example, the plains stretch forever, so that 900 kilometres inland the maximum elevation is still only 300 metres above sea level. One of the things that make Angola special is its geographical diversity. As one journeys from south to north and climbs in elevation until reaching the high plateau at Lubango, the country becomes gradually greener. But then, turning west towards the coast and the town of Namibe, one crosses the 2000m-high plateau for a short way before reaching the Serra de Chela pass. Here the road is steep, constantly switching back on itself. (During the "troubles," South African forces bombed this pass to sever coastal supply routes.) In just a few kilometers, which feel more vertical than horizontal, one goes from 1000 mm of rainfall per annum and a mild climate to hot and muggy surroundings and tropical fruits at the bottom of the pass and then through a transition into true desert. Nearer the coast a massive canyon swallows the road and one gazes constantly upwards and marvels at the carved innards of the earth.
At Namibe (the old Moàamedes), we joined colleagues who'd rented an entire beach camp. The water in Namibe Bay was a little murky, but the temperature felt okay and I was just itching to make a cast. We had an informal meeting outside the office building, which only my body attended as my eyes ranged over the water for signs of life. I thought I saw a little splash here and there but maybe I was just imaging it. But when I saw, with no mistake, a big mullet being knocked cartwheeling into the air by some charging predator, I couldn't take it any longer. It was time to excuse myself and make a few quick casts before dark. But by the time I hit the beach it had gone quiet and all I could do was watch some local boys catching sand steenbras on handlines.
Chatting to two colleagues got me all worked up when they spoke of a pier on the north side of the bay where they'd seen a local boy lose two dorado on a handline and seen others swimming by. Where in the world have you ever heard of dorado being hooked from the side? Amazing.
We spent the next two days working in the desert. It was interesting work, though we did make some disturbing finds when, in a number of places, we came across the weathered bones of springbuck where apparently whole herds of these animals were mowed down from the air by the crews of Cuban helicopter gunships. Other game, like black rhino and mountain zebra, had suffered similarly, but I believe that small numbers of some species do remain, so maybe one day that wild country will be truly wild again.
Fortunately every week comes with a Sunday. And Sundays, no matter what, are fishing days. So early Sunday morning we stopped quickly at the local fishing dock to check the offshore catch_which turned out to be mostly kob, geelbek, various red sea breams and yellowbelly rock cods_before we drove past the olive groves on the edge of town to the pier in the northern nook of the bay.
I rigged up a bait-casting outfit with a surface plug for starters. It was a long walk to the end of the pier and I was in a hurry to get there, but also didn't want to pass up all of the water on the way. So I half ran, half walked, casting as I went. As I got further out I started seeing more baitfish hanging around the pylons in the clear, green water. Some local lads were fishing handlines off the end of the pier, and lying scattered about were numerous amberjack, Atlantic bonito and jack crevalle. When my surface plug brought no hits after a few casts I changed to a leadhead jig. I watched the boys. They were jigging herrings out of the dense shoals of fish in the pier's shadow and using these as live-ish baits by hooking them in such a way that they sank in shimmering circles. One by one each bright herring would flash in the sharp desert sunlight as it sank, and just as it would disappear from sight a handline would come tight as another of what must have been a hoard of predators below accepted the offering.
I started letting my leadhead sink deep before retrieving it fast and erratically. Each time I had follows, but no matter how I adjusted my retrieve I could not drive the fish to strike. I went through a whole bunch of unsuccessful lure changes, while all the time the locals continued to get action. Thinking a bit harder about the situation and watching the injured herrings carefully, I concluded that the key might be to use a very flashy lure with a broad profile and erratic action. A big silver spoon seemed to have the right qualities, so I hurled one out and retrieved it for maximum flash just below the surface. Like a bullet, a bonito shot out of the blue to clamp the spoon in its jaws. The code was cracked. But (there's invariably a "but"), just then an official-type person arrived to say that fishing from the pier was for locals only and that I needed a permit.
Walking back, I stopped to watch a big bonito tightly ball a school of herring by swimming in ever-diminishing circles around it and then making a rush into the bunched bait, an act of perfect predation.
After the pier, we followed a track to the northern point of the bay, where we stood on top of sandstone cliffs and watched dark fish shapes cruising along the walls below, and also saw some local fisherman returning from sea in boats made from polystyrene packing material. Where the walls were lower,I couldn't resist making a few casts, even though it would have been impossible to land a fish there. I just hoped I'd be able to pull the lure away in time, but I pretty much hoped I wouldn't get a hit at all. Sanity prevailed and I gave it up after three casts. I've never been to the Sea of Cortez, but from the paintings I've seen and the old fishing tales I've read, the rugged coast north of Namibe must be very similar.
From the cliffs we drove to the south of Namibe, which is mostly stretches of surf with flat, patchy reef here and there and a few low cliffs. We ended up in a rather arbitrary spot, but I noticed a subtle feature down the beach and decided to check it out. There was a shallow reef a short way out, protecting calmer water inshore where baitfish might be hanging out. I had a follow on my first cast with a hammered spoon and on my second throw I hooked up solidly to a fish that gave me a good pull in the surf and turned out to be a leervis. Then I changed to a leadhead and caught a whole bunch of reddish-coloured sea bream similar to South African santer, except that they preferred the nooks and crannies of shallow reefs in the surf zone.
We slowly leap-frogged back north towards Namibe, stopping wherever the coast looked interesting. I caught more sea bream and also saw something that really proved how pristine this coast is. An Italian NGO employee was fishing in a shallow rocky bay, and it was abundantly clear that he had not been a fisherman for very long. He had a typical (awkward) European-style surf outfit and was using shad for bait. Not shad fillets but literally half a good-sized shad at a time. He'd heave this into the bay and only minutes later would be tight to fish that mostly broke him up. He landed a 4-kg yellowbelly rock cod while I watched and lost one much, much bigger at his feet. Apparently the yellowbellies or garoupa as the locals know them, were plentiful, an indication of how untouched it was.
At sunset we fished off a sandy point that reached far enough into the ocean that it felt as if we were at sea, just the spot for intercepting passing fish. The wind was pumping from behind and helped to sail my lure way out into the bay to cover plenty of water. The fish were there, all right, but they weren't very aggressive. My surface plug drew lots of follows, a few hits and fewer hookups, and all I ended up with was a shad. But one hit was interesting: the fish struck from the side, porpoising out of the water, and from what I saw as the evening sun caught its flanks I think it was an amberjack. Then darkness caught up with us and ended what had been an eye-opening fishing day.
Over supper that night I heard of how some of our staff had taken a walk on the "dourado" pier that morning just after I'd left and seen a number of dourado cruising below. Something else that came out of the evening's conversation was the story of a young South African who had settled in Namibe and mounted a canon of sorts (provided by the local military) on a ski-boat, which he used to keep illegal foreign fishing vessels out of the area. Good idea!
We left Namibe the following day and drove south alongside the sea to Tombua before taking the arduous overland route back to camp. As much as Namibe is a quaint, pleasant town, Tombua is a dump. It's overly dirty and has that real shit-hole feel about it. But there's a vast lagoon there, with a sandspit that reaches far out to sea that should offer some interesting fishing opportunities.
The 200km trip back to our bush camp decided me once and for all that the Camel rally is something I never want to try. Inland of the desert we arrived at the Bero River at midday, only to find it in full flood. The wisest thing to do was to overnight at the river and hope that by the next morning the level would have dropped. So we spent the afternoon walking about the beautifully rugged and wild country. The only people out here are nomadic Himbas, who mostly ran away or just melted into fresh air when they saw us. We passed a springbuck at the roadside, and judging from the dumbstruck look on its face it had never seen a vehicle before. We did manage to cross the river the next day, although it was complicated and turned out to be the first of twenty more crossings, some of which we waded by torchlight that night, but that's another story in itself.
At camp the following day I inspected a few puddles in the previously dry riverbed near our tents and was surprised to discover small fish flitting about in them. I wasn't able to catch any but they looked like some sort of Barbus. I suspect they'd been washed downstream from spring-fed pools in some of the surrounding mountain gorges.
I flew back to Luanda on a Saturday afternoon and got a room on the 14th floor of the Hotel de President, which faces the port and lagoon. When I couldn't spot any movement in the water close by I used my binoculars to scan the top end of the lagoon where previously I'd seen the bait chased onto the pavement. The binos revealed seething masses of baitfish and predators going berserk, as if they hadn't stopped since the last time I'd seen them. The action was incessant, but unfortunately too far away for me to make it there before dark.
At dinner that evening (where I had to wear a pair of borrowed, ill-fitting long trousers thanks to hotel management considering khaki shorts not kosher), my colleague Julio, who is Angolan born, told me how, when he went swimming at the beaches along Ilha de Luanda, the barrier beach, gamefish would drive schools of bait right into the bathers, with frantic fish slamming into the human swimmers. Julio also announced that he had organized with a friend of his who had a boat to take me out the next day_news that almost had me forgetting to eat my pudding.
In my room that night I figured that the big fish I'd seen feeding in the bay were probably moving in from the sea at first light, and that perhaps I could put myself in their path and catch one. Early the next morning I hit the lift with my bait-caster rigged and was soon casting a big Zara Spook from the pavement outside the hotel. On about my tenth cast came a loud watery explosion and the Spook disappeared. Jack crevalle are strong fish (stronger than their ignoblis cousins, I think), and that fish gave me a serious wind, bringing early morning traffic and pedestrians to a halt and I soon had a goodly-sized crowd watching the fray. I killed the fish and took it back to the hotel chef for a fry. Carrying a dripping fish over plush lobby carpets and up a shiny lift did not exactly endear me to the management, served them right for making me wear long pants in the tropics.
One might wonder why the locals haven't netted the baitfish into oblivion the way they have done along so many other parts of the African coast. I'm not sure of the reason. In some regions it is just not in the people's culture to fish, so that may be the answer. I saw only one boat in the bay, the crew trying their best to net big mullet, but they looked like raw beginners and the mullet schools were literally running circles around them.
The next day I met Frank, a German who'd come to Angola and liked it so much that he'd married a pretty mulatto girl and stayed. We met on the mainland opposite the northern point of Ilha du Mussolo, another barrier beach forming a 20-km-long lagoon that is Luanda's playground. At the jumping-off point were two or three enormous sheds storing hundreds of boats. Not the usual African craft but the very best of modern pleasure and sportfishing boats manufactured in America. It reminded me of the marinas in the Florida Keys. The place was alive with people making ready to spend their day on the water, and the scene made me realize how little we South Africans know of Angola. The war may have isolated the country and ruined it in parts, but there was still some fun to be had.
Frank's pad on Ilha du Mussolo was a tasteful set-up consisting of a number of small wooden buildings in the grass and palm veld and was a fair distance from the weekend bustle. The lagoon looked pretty good too. I walked upstream with a surface plug on my bait-caster and a leadhead on the spinning rod. The channel was pretty much featureless so I put my first cast into the roots of a tree that straddled the drop-off. A cubera snapper struck almost immediately. Along the edge of a small flat I hooked a good fish on the surface plug but lost it at my feet when the hooks pulled. I'm not sure what it was, but it looked like a liche, a leervis look-alike that occurs in the tropical waters of western Africa.
No fish were visibly feeding, but the channel was full of cubera and almost every cast turned the water behind the lure red as groups of them jostled to get into striking position. I landed fourteen before noon. Cubera attack their prey headfirst, so I'd removed the points from the front trebles on many of my lures, which caused me to miss a lot of hits. The surface plugs certainly got them worked up.
I ate a quick lunch and then crossed the barrier beach to the sea. The surf had a nice fishy colour and had just the right amount of movement. But the longshore current was carrying heaps of waterweed from the Cuanza River and this made fishing nigh impossible, so I opted to jog back to the lagoon. Just as I was leaving, there was a massive hit right in the last wave that was almost certainly made by a big jack crevalle. Speaking of the Cuanza, I saw the river from the air where it flows through remarkably people-less savanna, and I heard via the grapevine that Luanda fisherman still catch big tarpon there.
Back at the lagoon the tide was rushing in fast, and this together with a black storm coming up out of the west gave the air a lively feeling and again the cubera climbed all over my plugs. Upstream nearly a kilometer away the water was pushing onto a flat between the channel and the beach, and I saw something there that I still see in my mind's eye almost every day. Starting at the channel and roaring across the flat was a wall of spray two metres high and fifty metres wide made by a school of predators plowing into baitfish. This was repeated six times, and each time it had me open mouthed at the size and swiftness and fury of the onslaught. I never got to find out what fish they were, as the storm was coming on fast and it was forty kilometres by boat back to Luanda; we had to get started before the weather caught us.
I think back often to my brief time in Angola and what I saw there. But I think even more often about the destructive war that has dragged on there for so long_a war no longer about political ideals but rather one of convenience to bulge the pockets of a few of the top brass on both sides. So many African countries suffer from the same disease, thus denying their common citizens a decent life and preventing the rest of us from experiencing many beautiful places and some spectacular fish and fishing.
(Ed is a geologist who gets around a good deal, always with a rod or two in his baggage.)