The 1,300-mile journey from Salisbury to Luanda, two years in the making, began with a 2,000-mile detour to Mogadishu, Somalia, followed by a 3,000-mile hop across the middle of Africa from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic.

Such have been the difficulties for an American correspondent trying to gain entry to the People's Republic of Angola.

Angola's inaccessibility has contributed significantly to misunderstandings about this oil-rich country, which is a key to peace in volatile Southern Africa.

Only a handful of American reporters have gained entry to Angola, usually just for a few days, since it gained independence almost six years ago.

Guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi has made it easier for American journalists to visit his forces in the south than the Luanda government, and has periodically issued invitations to writers thought to be sympathetic to his cause and arranged trips to his stronghold through a neighboring country--although the trips have been physically punishing and dangerous. Obviously, Savimbi provides a different perspective.

My previous efforts since 1979 to gain entry were made in New York, Brussels, Nairobi, Lusaka and Salisbury. They resulted in silence, broken appointments or unfulfilled promises.

Rep. Howard Wolpe (D-Mich.), chairman of the House African affairs subcommittee, argued for my entry with his visiting delegation, which I had flown to meet in Somalia last month. At the last minute, President Eduardo dos Santos personally granted permission for me to stay after Wolpe's delegation left.

As I waved goodbye to the delegation, I remembered the remark of a European colleague who spent a frustrating month reporting in Angola recently.

"Don't worry about getting the visa," he said. "The real problems in Angola begin once you are admitted."

Angola suddeny admitted a horde of European correspondents earlier this month as it sought to gain world support over South Africa's invasion. It was practically impossible, however, to see any officials.

The only American reporter in the country, I was forced to leave shortly before dos Santos gave a press conference. The Angolans told me the war situation made it impossible for me to do further reporting. I was not expelled, but was simply told that my time was up and I had to leave.

"We have nothing to hide," Vice Foreign Minister Vennacio do Moura said. Perhaps, but the combination of fearful lower level officials, bureaucratic incompetence and severe strictures on movement leaves a reporter wondering what they have to show.

Sometimes this official rigidity does the country a disservice. On a visit to the southern front, I was not allowed to talk to refugees or casualties in hospitals. No amount of argument that information about civilian casualties would be useful to the government could sway the party official accompanying me. His instructions were to show me destroyed buildings, not destroyed people.

The government placed high priority on my trip to the war front. But the word apparently did not get through to Joao Castro, the Department of Information and Propaganda man in Lubango, the jumping-off point for visits to the front.

It took three days, during which I was prevented from doing any reporting, for him to arrange my trip. The problem had nothing to do with security. Castro simply forgot to notify the military of my location and I was prohibited from dealing directly with the Army.

Castro, who calls himself a poet and intellectual, seemed more interested in demonstrating his prowess at checkers. He played a mean game, although he used some strange rules.

My limited experience was that the Cubans will talk a little bit to a reporter; the Soviets not at all.

Once, I approached a Cuban soldier and his wife in the lobby of the once-splendid Tropico Hotel.

"I don't know anything and I'm ordered not to talk," he said. He and his wife, who was wearing pink hair curlers under a black scarf, then stormed into the elevator, which made one of its rare appearances in the hotel lobby.

My only other encounter with Cubans outside their embassy was even less amiable. Five Cuban soldiers near the warfront at Tchibemba refused to let me and my Angolan military escort enter an area to see destruction of civilian targets caused by South African air raids. Later the local commander took me into the area. The Cubans had left.

Some of the problem is probably linked to an Angolan paranoia about the West. Their liberation struggle, they remember, was fought against Portugal, which used arms from its NATO allies to try to put down the independence drive.

The country's inept bureaucracy, inherited from the Portuguese and now made even more unworkable by an overlay of Marxist rigidity, is also to blame.

All interviews must be arranged by the Department of Information and Propaganda. In 23 days, it secured one interview for me.

The system obviously does not support freedom of the press, Western style. There are "honest and dishonest" reporters, Wolpe was told when he argued for my entry. Read that as critical and uncritical.