Angola - After the Shooting Stops

Angola is a large, semi-desert nation in southwest Africa directly in the path of long-period groundswell from the south Atlantic Ocean that was a colony of Portugal for nearly 500 years.

Angola is a large, semi-desert nation in southwest Africa directly in the path of long-period groundswell from the south Atlantic Ocean that was a colony of Portugal for nearly 500 years.

Angola, a Portuguese-speaking nation in southwest Africa is heavily reliant on seafood.

The Portuguese first dropped anchor in the calm bay of Luanda in 1498 and abruptly quit all their African colonies in 1975, leaving behind little but their language and sordid history of slavery and exploitation.

It is estimated that Angola had a larger population at the time of the arrival of the Portuguese than it does today, thanks to the depredations of the massive Atlantic slave trade. 

The Capela da Casa Grande, a 17th-century chapel where Angolan slaves were baptized before being put on slave ships for transport to the Americas.

The slave trade flourished for hundreds of years, effectively depopulating much of Angola, which exported millions of people to the Americas for labor in plantation agriculture. Angolan slaves went mainly to Brasil, which today is approximately 50% black or mixed black population.

Randy Rarick, from Sunset Beach in Hawaii, surfing in the south Atlantic Ocean in Angola, 29 years after visiting the country in 1974.

Other centers where slaves from Angola were offloaded for auction were in the Caribbean and in the United States, where Angolan slaves fetched good prices in New Orleans, Savannah and Charleston as they were said to be docile in temperament and hard workers in the field.

Cabo Ledo, Angola, surfing in the south Atlantic Ocean.

For the Portuguese, Angola and their other African colonies like Cabo Verde, São Tomé, Guinea Bissau and Moçambique were something of a “Promised Land” to poorer yet ambitious Portuguese, who emigrated to Africa by the thousands to seek their fortune.

Angola is a country of lefthand point breaks, with few rights anywhere.

Many were planters, drawn to the cheap land in depopulated Angola and Moçambique where they planted coffee and other export crops.

Portugal, unlike other European colonizers; particularly France, kept their African colonial subjects at arm’s length, happy to exploit the locals for their agricultural labor but less interested in educating them or incorporating them into the mainstream of Portuguese life and society. 

Randy Rarick, taking one of the local kids at Cabo Ledo for a surf lesson on his longboard.

Few colonials in any of the Portuguese colonies received more than a rudimentary education and when the decision was made to abandon Africa after nearly 500 years, colonies like Angola were completely unprepared to become functional, independent nations.

Palm trees on the Marginal, in the stately capital of Luanda.

Portugal had fought various national liberation guerilla movements in its African colonies for decades, the portion of the national budget going to the Army to fight in Africa approached 40% by the mid-1970’s.

Frederico d'Orey from Brasil, a former top professional surfer and fashion designer.

For a small country of less than 10 million citizens, the financial burden was unsupportable and led to the decision to abandon all the African possessions at once in 1974 and without further discussion.

Long period groundswell waves from the south Atlantic, breaking at Cabo Ledo in Angola.

The result was chaos and civil war in Angola after the departure of the Portuguese, as various armed factions with different independence visions and political philosophies struggled to establish dominance in the sudden vacuum of state power. Weapons flowed in from South Africa and the USSR and the countryside was rendered unproductive and unlivable, as people migrated to Luanda and the coast for protection.

Cabo Ledo near Luanda is a popular weekend surfing destination for expatriates working in the capital city.

Fighting continued literally for decades as two sides struggled to control the destiny of Angola, both supported by outside forces and part of the worldwide USA versus USSR proxy wars of the 1980’s.

After the end of the war in 2002, Angola was once again open to surfing adventurers after nearly thirty years.

The MPLA movement was nominally Marxist, receiving support from the USSR and other socialist countries, including Cuba which sent soldiers to Angola.

Randy Rarick, surfing on his Surftech longboard model in the south Atlantic Ocean.

The opposing UNITA movement was headed by Jonas Savimbi, a charismatic leader who won the support of the US and South Africa. With the MPLA receiving funding from the coastal oil and gas industry and UNITA getting funding from the interior diamond industry, the fighting seemed certain to go on indefinitely.

Water temperatures are surprisingly cool in Angola from the influence of the Benguela Current, which brings cold water north from the south Atlantic.

Both sides were major buyers of arms from international dealers like the Russian Victor Bout, the “Merchant of Death” who flew in vast amounts of weapons from the collapsed USSR stockpiles and sold them for a huge profit.

Cabo Ledo is a long lefthand point break on a sandbank, open to groundswell from the south Atlantic Ocean.

In the midst of the fighting, an election plan was negotiated with both the MPLA and UNITA agreeing to participate under United Nations supervision and abide by the results, with a first round held in 1992. President Dos Santos of the MPLA was eventually declared the winner over Savimbi and UNITA and Savimbi responded by returning to war.

Professional surfer Bizuka Barros was born in Angola during the Portuguese colonial period and grew up in Brasil and Portugal.

After initial gains in the interior of the country, Savimbi and UNITA were beaten back, having lost the support of the US and South Africa after Savimbi broke his word to abide by the election results, rejecting an offer of the vice-presidency and returning to war after losing what was generally agreed to be a free and fair election to Dos Santos and the MPLA.

Frederico d'Orey and Randy Rarick, watching the first set of waves at a new wave in southern Angola.

With UNITA left to fight without allies and  largely a spent force in the field, Savimbi was killed in 2002 by Angolan government troops. The killing was supposedly carried out with satellite phone tracking intelligence supplied by the American CIA, who wanted to bring the conflict in Angola to an end. 

The left points at Cabo Ledo, south of Luanda, is Angola's most popular surfing area.

With Savimbi dead, the UNITA movement collapsed and the MPLA declared victory in the Angola Civil War in August, 2oo2 having fought in various phases against various opponents since the early 1960’s.

Frederico d'Orey, surfing in the south Atlantic Ocean in Angola.

By the end of the fighting in 2002, Angola was littered with landmines, guns of all descriptions and other dangerous debris of war and did not have a tourism or visitor industry at all.

Bizuka Barros, surfing in the south Atlantic Ocean in Angola.

People did come to Angola from outside the country, but they did so for business in the oil, diamond or arms industries. The country did not issue tourist visas and there were no tourists in the known sense, despite Angola’s attractions of African wildlife and spectacular desert scenes in the southern desert and the forested areas of the east and near the northern border with DR Congo.

Angola-born Bizuka Barros, surfing in the south Atlantic Ocean in Angola.

For surfers, the end of the civil war was good news. Few, if any people had surfed in Angola for many years, since Randy Rarick, Brian Hinde and Peter French had passed through the country and surfed empty left points on their Land Rover expedition from South Africa to the DR Congo in 1974, when Angola was still a colony of Portugal.

South African surfers wasted no time in driving north, into areas near Luanda and the southern Namib desert that had either not seen anyone surfing for decades or had never been surfed at all. 

Randy Rarick, checking the surf at a left point wave in the south Atlantic Ocean in Angola.

Cabo Ledo, a series of left points a short drive south from the capital of Luanda, quickly became a popular surfing location on weekends. The expatriate workforce in the capital could drive there, surf and camp for the weekend and return to work on Monday, something that had been impossible during the war years.

We landed in Lunda, the capital with Randy Rarick, returning to Angola on his first visit since 1974 and Nuno Jonet, a Portugal national who was born in Angola, met Randy in Luanda in 1974 and left the country in 1975 at independence. 

Randy Rarick, waxing his longboard with local kids on a small day at Buraco, a left point wave near Luanda.

Joining us were Bizuka Barros, a much-traveled professional surfer from Portugal who was born in Angola when it was a colony of Portugal and Brasil pro surfer and fashion designer Frederico d’Orey, so we had plenty of Portuguese-speakers in our group.

As normal tourists were virtually unknown in Angola immediately following the end of the civil war, we relied on Bizuka’s father to make an arrangement for a car and give us the Letter of Endorsement in Portuguese we needed to apply for the visa to enter the country at all. 

Brasileiro Frederico d'Orey, surfing in the south Atlantic Ocean in Angola.

Bizuka’s father was a serving officer in the Angolan army, having switched sides at independence, leaving the Portugal military and joining the MPLA and fighting in the field for the next 27 years in the Angolan army, so he had a lot of connections we could use that made our visit possible, as we were not in the oil nor the diamond business.

We set off for Cabo Ledo in a posh Toyota Land Cruiser, with a driver seconded from the Angolan army, to handle any checkpoints or encounters with soldiers. We found a place to stay that also had food with Senhor Quieroz, another former military officer; this time with UNITA, who had a new development of several beach cabins just back from the main point.

Randy Rarick, pointing the way to a left point wave in the Cabo Ledo area, located just below an Army camp, making access difficult.

We had seen some very high prices for ordinary things in several shops in Lunada, but staying in Quieroz’s basic cabins at USD $100 a night brought home to us how Angola was regularly rated one of the world’s most expensive countries. The decades of war had made almost everything scarce in the country; and expensive, as there was little business activity.

After a few days with Quieroz, eating fresh lobster for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as a seafood exportation business was Senhor Quieroz’s main line of work, we set off further south to look for more of the empty left points Randy had surfed on his first trip to Angola in 1974.

Bizuka Barros, surfing in the south Atlantic Ocean in Angola.

We took a turnoff from the main road and saw a fellow carrying an AK-47 on his shoulder with a bandolier of bullets, walking on the side of the bumpy dirt track. We stopped and asked in Portuguese how far it was to the beach. “Tres horas” was the answer, or three hours. 

Groans filled the Land Cruiser as no one wanted to go bumping down this terrible dirt track for the next three hours and our driver did not like dirt roads anyway as he said they were frequently mined, so we thanked the soldier and made a U-turn back to the main road.

A few minutes after we got on the main road, Bizuka said in English “Wait a minute. It’s not that far to the beach. He said “tres horas” but he is walking - he means it’s three hours WALKING to get to the beach”.

We had the driver turn around and went back to the turnoff and started bumping down the track to get to the coast. Sure enough, after only thirty minutes or so, cultivated fields appeared, a few thatched huts and then a village, just behind the beach.

People and places in Angola, in the south Atlantic Ocean.

We stopped and got out, a few adults stared at us and the little kids ran away in fright, so we figured this was not a place that received a lot of visitors, of any kind.

We walked to the beach to where we could see the point. Randy and Fred were sitting on the sand when the first set came through, a clean head high left point wave that had most likely, never seen any surfers before as we were not in an area where Randy had surfed previously in 1974 and there were certainly no surfers in the village.

Long lines of groundswell in the south Atlantic Ocean.

We went back to the car in a hurry and offloaded boards, asking our driver to explain to the villagers who had begun to gather in curiosity around the car who we were and what we were doing - and, ask them if they have ever had surfers here before!

A group of fisherman and little kids watched Randy, Fred and Bizuka paddle out, up to the top of the point, where they each caught a wave on the next set, working it over all the way to the beach where the crowd was now at least 100 people. They cheered wildly as Bizuka went for an aerial in the shorebreak, quite pleased with the unexpected entertainment.

The villagers were excited to see the waves of their village ridden by surfers for the first time.

Later, our driver told us he had a long chat with several of the fishermen, they had founded the village fifteen or more years earlier as they were originally from an inland province and came to the coast to escape the fighting. 

They had to learn how to fish when they got there, as they had been farmers and no one had any knowledge or experience with fishing, but they learned. He said in their time at the village, they had never seen anyone surfing the waves.

Angola, in southwest Africa, on the Atlantic Ocean.

 The man said he did not know such a thing as surfing the waves in the ocean was possible, until he saw it with his own eyes.


Text and Images © John Seaton Callahan / surfEXPLORE

Want more from  ?

Join azylo to get the latest stories from the author in your feed. Don’t miss a single story.

Recomended for you

View All