February 03, 1997 12:00 PM

SHE RODE IN A RANGE ROVER, NOT a limousine. She wore blue jeans and khakis and didn’t even pack an evening dress. Yet as a dressed-down Princess Diana toured Angola the week of Jan. 13 in support of a Red Cross campaign to ban land mines, she may have enjoyed her finest public moment in years.

Determined to be taken seriously as an ambassador for humanitarian causes, Di took an 11-hour flight to Angola, an African nation wracked by 20 years of civil war and littered with millions of mines. (One in 334 inhabitants is an amputee, the world’s highest ratio.) “No one expected Di to tackle this, to ditch the designer gowns and turn up in West Africa in jeans,” said British Press Association reporter Peter Archer, who was at Di’s side for the four-day trip. “But she went down very well.”

Though not without detonating a political explosion at home. Even as a flak-jacketed Di walked through a narrow clearing in an Angolan minefield, her call for “an end to the use of these weapons” reportedly led junior defense minister Lord Howe to dub her a “loose cannon” who is “ill-advised” about foreign policy. (Howe has since denied the quotes.) But Prime Minister John Major sprang to her defense, and Di responded, “All I’m trying to do is help.”

She did just that in Luanda, Angola’s capital, where her hospital tour brought hope to land-mine victims. England’s hard-nosed tabloids praised Di’s humanitarianism, and even Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth were said to be pleased. “Diana had been searching for a new direction,” says Archer. “And I think she has found it.”

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