Lobito, Angola

The Benguela Railway as it once was

Lobito is a town and municipality in Benguela Province in Angola. It dates from 1905 and owes its existence to the bay of the same name having been chosen as the sea terminus of the Benguela railway to the far interior, passing through Luau to Katanga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The population is about 800.000

Lobito, was built on a sandspit and reclaimed land, with one of Africa’s finest natural harbours, protected by a 5 km long sandspit. The old municipality (concelho) was created in 1843 by the Portuguese administration. The town was also founded in 1843 by order of Maria II of Portugal, and its harbour works were begun in 1903. Large developments, however, were not stimulated until the completion in 1928 of the important Benguela Railway, which connected Portuguese Angola with the Belgian Congo. Under Portuguese rule, the port was one of Angola’s busiest, exporting agricultural produce from the interior and handling transit trade from the mines of southeastern Belgian Congo and of Northern Rhodesia. Fishing, tourism and services were also important. The carnival in Lobito was also one of the most renowned and popular in Portuguese Angola. After independence from Portugal in 1974 , Lobito’s port activities were limited by disruptions to the railway during the Angolan Civil War (1975–2002). With peace and stability, in the 2000s, Lobito started the process of reconstruction.

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Benguela Railway

We boarded the train in Lobito for the 90 minute jouney to Benguela. They put the old carriages on for us: these must have been something in their prime, and were very interesting today. Along the way we passed vast yards of rusting old trains from the original railway, replaced now by modern Chinese locomotives.

The railway line roughly follows old trade routes between the ancient trading centre of Benguela and its hinterland of the Bié plateau. In 1899, the Portuguese government initiated the construction of the railway to give access to the central Angolan plateau and the mineral wealth of the then Congo Free State. A concession, running for 99 years, was granted to Sir Robert Williams on 28 November 1902. His Benguela Railway Company took over the construction which commenced on 1 March 1903. By 1914 when World War I started, 500 kilometres had been completed. Construction was halted until 1920 after which the railway's connection to Luau at the border to the Belgian Congo was completed in 1929. The primary purpose was the export trade and the "domestic Angolan traffic would be of secondary importance." Passenger trains also ran between Lubumbashi and Lobito, connecting with passenger ship services to Europe. This provided a shorter route for Europeans working in the Katangan and Zambian Copperbelt.

In its heyday, the Benguela railway was the shortest way to transport mineral riches from the Congo to Europe. The line proved very successful and profitable, especially in the early 1970s after Zambia closed the border with the then Rhodesia. The railway reached an operational peak in 1973 when it transported 3.3 million tons of cargo, generated freight revenues of $30 million, and had 14,000 employees. Until the early 1970s, the railway was operated entirely by steam locomotives, oil-fired from the coast to Cubal, and then wood-fired from Cubal to the interior. Wood was supplied by eucalyptus trees grown on company-owned tree plantations. Steam locomotives outnumbered diesels as late as 1987. Soon after Angola gained its independence from Portugal in 1975, the Angolan Civil War broke out. The railway was heavily damaged during the war and progressively fell into disuse. The workshops in Huambo were destroyed. Ballast cars had to be coupled to the front of locomotives to detonate mines. By 1992, only 340 km of the railway remained in operation. When the 99-year concession expired in 2001, only 34 km remained in service, along the coast from Benguela to Lobito. The railway was 90% owned by Tanganyika Concessions Limited (Tanks), a London-based holding company. Société Générale de Belgique purchased a minority share in Tanks in 1923 and acquired a controlling interest in 1981. The Belgian company remained the controlling owner of the railway when the concession expired in 2001, at which point ownership of the railway passed to the Angolan government.

After the Angolan Civil War ended in 2002, the railway was reconstructed between 2006 and 2015 by the China Railway Construction Corporation at a cost of $1.83 billion. A deal was reached for China to back the project, and large qualities of Chinese material began arriving in 2006, enabling China Railway Construction Corp to reinstate the line in stages. A freight train reached the border with DR Congo in August 2013 and the project was completed in August 2014. However there were no regular passenger or freight services. The rebuild has raised the maximum speed from around 30 km/h to 90 km/h, with a 30 h journey time from Lobito to Luau. All equipment was sourced from China and is to Chinese technical standards. Around 100 000 Angolans were employed during the reconstruction works, with 10 000 receiving specialist railway training.

The presidents of Angola, DR Congo and Zambia attended a ceremony in Luau on 14 February 2015 to officially mark the completion of the Chinese-backed project to rehabilitate the 1 344 km Bengulea Railway between the port of Lobito and the DR Congo border. The presidents unveiled a plaque, rode a train for 12 km and planted trees.

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On exiting the train from Lobito, we were taken into the city of Benguela for a dance display, and a visit to the church- where the slaves had been baptised before being sent off to their lives in captivity .

The town, a Portuguese fort from 1587, was founded in 1617 by the Portuguese under Manuel Cerveira Pereira, 8th Governor of Angola (1604–1607). It was long the centre of an important trade, especially in slaves to Brazil and Cuba. Besides the churches of S. Felipe and S. António, the hospital, and the fortress, there were, as of 1911, only a few stone-built houses.

Due to the civil war in Angola (1975–2002), which lasted more than 20 years after independence from Portugal, the important Benguela railway line closed, with only the short distance of 30 kilometres (19 mi) between Benguela and Lobito remaining operational. In the mid-2000s, with a more peaceful environment, rehabilitation of the railway between Benguela and Huambo commenced. In 1983 Benguela had a population of 155,000. During the civil war the city of Benguela increased its population due to refugees from the countryside. While the colonial part of the city consists of relatively good-quality houses, as of 2011 most of the refugees live in slum areas.

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Returning from Benguela to Lobito, we detoured for many kilometres down a dirt road to get to a dam/weir on the river, a pleasant spot in a very beautiful valley. There was a brief stop at the remains of the old Portugese fort before returning to the ship. Then on to Luanda.

On to Luanda, Angola

African Trip