A few thousand feet below us, great swatches of forest mottle the desolate savanna plains of southern Angola.

It is a place to hide armies.

One is there now: the antigovernment force of Jonas Savimbi. We are going to see him and his war.

Just now, 30 minutes before touchdown on a dirt airstrip in the bush, the nerves are acting up. All day, through a long, clandestine flight in a battered Viscount cargo plane, we have monitored the sky for Angolan Migs and their Czech and Cuban pilots. Even a near miss from a rocket would take this old tub down. It will be good to get on the ground.

Our pilot, a graying Portuguese bantam rooster -- middle-aged like me -- makes a lovely landing. It is winter here; the sandy strip is dry and hard. Nightfall is near.

It is easy to imagine coming in to the sound of gunfire. We come in to the sound of music. Two dozen boys and girls, waving red and green UNITA flags, sing in the beautiful a cappella harmonies of Africa as we get off the plane. The words, in translation, are banal propoganda slogans, but the melodies are sweet.

Jonas Savimbi, doctor of philosophy (Lausanne University), president of Unita (the Portuguese initials for National Union for the Total Liberation of Angola), commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FALA), is waiting for us. He is full-bearded, a big imposing man in a green beret, carrying a slender black cane, his symbol of command. His uniform is a dark green field jacket, with green trousers tucked into combat boots. At his side is Miguel Puna, UNITA's secretary general. They could pass for twins.

Around them and scattered in the bush on either side of the airstrip are UNITA soldiers, many of them in ankle-length greatcoats of brown and green. The coats are products of Eastern Europe, like the weapons the men are carrying -- AK47 rifles, grenade launchers, pistols -- and like the big cargo and troop trucks parked at the strip. This is the booty of war, evidently captured from the forces of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the reigning government in Luanda, 700 miles northwest of this forest lair. We are near the village of Luengue, 100 miles north of the frontier with the South African-controlled territory of Namibia.

Our plan has brought supplies of food and medicine and a dozen or so men, women and children -- relatives and friends of the men in the bush. The rituals of reunion, the unloading of cargo and the loading of trucks are time-consuming. It is dark as we get under way with headlights blazing. We follow a sandy track through high grass to a base camp a few miles away. The choral society is still singing from the back of a truck. f

Soldiers sit by watch fires around the perimeter of the camp. It is cold now; before dawn it will be near freezing.

We assemble in a circular grass hut. Savimbi is there with a half dozen lieutenants. With me is an Englishman, Fred Bridgland, the only other journalist on this trip of fools. He is writing a biography of Savimbi and is a great admirer of the man. Savimbi hopes for a new convert in me.

The whole purpose of this mission, he explains, is to carry his message and the reality of his situation to American to persuade opinion-makers and the new administration that UNITA is a strong and viable option to the Marxists in Luanda, that he is not a puppet of the South Africans who give him certain aid and comfort and that he will, in any case, prevail.

The talk goes on. God willing, it will end soon. One day began at 4 a.m. in another country, which will remain unnamed under the terms of the agreement made to get on this trip. We have flown for many hours, have intruded on the airspace of other nations and have dined on one slice of bread and three sardines. It is no time for heavy conversation.

After a while we are led to huts. The African sky is an immense tapestry of winking diamonds, a beauty to make the heart ache.

We awake to a glorious day. It is bright, clear, cool; sweater weather. Birds chatter outside my hut. We are in a grove of trees -- mopane, ironwood and a species the Africans call "The Cry of Blood" because it secretes a crimson sap. Wildflowers bloom.

This is my first chance to observe a war of liberation -- rebellion, if you prefer -- from the guerrilla side. The spaciousness and relaxed atmosphere of this camp come as a surprise. I suppose I expected to find little men burrowed into holes. Instead, there are grass houses furnished with thatched chairs and thatched beds. I have a writing table made of saplings and a crude bench outside for sitting in the sun. Trucks and Land Rovers move through the camp.Soldiers in motley dress sit around cooking fires. There is much laughter and horseplay. Antelope graze in the distance. Game is abundant.

In colonia times, Portuguese officials maintained hunting camps in this area and built the airstrip here for their outings. A wrecked Toyota land rover still sits in the bush by the strip; a barely legible sign on it says, "Fabrizio -- Professional Hunter."

The ancestors of these Portuguese found other attractions in Angola. They arrived in the 15th century and during the next 500 years took out of this country approximately 4 million slaves, fortunes in diamonds, iron ore, cotton, coffee and, in more recent times, oil. In one of those delicious ironies, royalties from the Gulf Oil Co. franchise largely underwrote between 1965 and 1975 Portugal's war against the forces of independence, which began in 1961, and today, under the protection of Cuban troops, Gulf Oil largely finances a Marxist government's war against Savimbi. It's called realpolitik .

The colonial era ended officially at the end of 1974, when the Portuguese grew weary of guerrilla war and declared Angola free. A transition government was formed in January 1975 out of the three major independence groups -- Agostinho Neto's Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), Holden Roberto's National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) and Savimbi's UNITA. A permanent government was to be chosen in elections beginning in October 1975. Those elections were never held. A civil war broke out among the three factions.

The Soviet Union, a longtime patron of Neto, poured in arms, and thousands of Cuban troops came to support the MPLA. The United States responded with a $32 million military aid program for Savimbi and Roberto channeled through the Central Intelligence Agency, and South Africa intervened with troops to stop the Cubans. But within a few months, the South Africans had withdrawn, MPLA and Cuban troops had shattered the FNLA army, which is now defunct, and Roberto, who now lives in Belgium, had gone into exile. Unita was soundly defeated, too. Early in 1976, Savimbi and the demoralized remnants of his force scattered into the wilderness of southern Angola.

That is where we have now found him. He is in the circular meeting house this morning, seated on a huge chair made of grass. It is a rustic throne. I have a fleeting vision of Paul Robeson as the Emperor Jones.