Overlanding across Africa and beyond : 4x4plus2.com

Go to content

Mozambique Part 2

Northern Mozambique 7th to 12th October

As the tar road in the middle of Chiponde turned sharp right, among the huts to its left was a gap through which could be seen a football field sized area of dusty, dried mud and sand beyond which spread an expanse of brittle, sun bleached, almost leafless scrub. On the Chiponde side was a lowered, padlocked, bent and rusty barrier; draped around the posts at either end was a motley collection of likely lads waiting to make money from money and now eyeing their prey with fixed stares. There was no sign, but a barrier and the appearance of money changers meant we were at the border. The simple Malawian bureaucratic necessities over, the barrier was raised and leaving behind the thwarted and now totally disinterested money changers, we followed the sandy track towards Mozambique.

After about 800 metres we were stopped by another barrier; this time it was dent free, painted in Mozambican colours and manned by two seriously well armed soldiers dressed in immaculately pressed jungle fatigues. A series of abrupt hand signals accompanied by piercing thousand metre stares indicated that we should leave Boris where he was.. or else!.. and walk to the nearby customs and immigration building, in the afternoon sun an eye-crunching white and in front of which stood a flag pole and limp flag. About twenty minutes, some dollars and several meticas later we returned to Boris; immediately a camouflaged arm shot in through the opened window, clicking fingers demanding to see our passports. Passports pages rustled out of sight, then snapped shut and, accompanied by a beaming Ray-Ban smile, our passports returned; the barrier was raised, a hand was waved in farewell accompanied by a shouted, ‘Adeus!’ and we had returned to Mozambique.

One Ferry Short of a Crossing

Our route through northern Mozambique into Tanzania was uncertain to say the least. A river, the Rovuma, acted as the border as it ran three hundred and fifty miles from near Lake Malawi in the west, due east to the Indian Ocean. Until recently the only vehicle crossing point had been a ferry which had operated at high tide only (!) across the river’s estuary, taking about 2 hours to negotiate a route around the sandbanks. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly to some, the ferry had recently sunk and had been replaced by enterprising fishermen who, for a consideration, would tie together two or more motorised dhows and ferry a vehicle across. The dangers of such a crossing were added to by the fishermen’s demand for anything up to an extortionate $600 per crossing; it was also not unknown for an overlander who had managed to reduce this price, once on board and the dhows in mid stream, to be threatened with being thrown overboard if the difference was not made up ..the overlanding grapevine recounted the story of one intransigent overlander to whom this had actually happened. As the local police were also getting a cut, complaints were ignored!

Of Rumours and Bridges
So why on earth were we contemplating crossing into Tanzania from Mozambique, we hear you ask! Well .... rumour had it that in the west and within the last year, a weight restricted bridge had been constructed that could be used by vehicles up to 10 tonnes. And now, not one bridge but two!...the most recent overlanding ‘hot tip’ was that THE bridge across the Rovuma, the Chinese funded Unity Bridge that had been some ten years in the building ..don’t ask!.. was actually so near completion, if not already complete, that traffic could use it. Whilst in Malawi we had tried to confirm the existence of these bridges; that in the west did seem to be operational .. but no one knew exactly where it was, or if they thought they might know, how to get to it! The Unity Bridge, if it was open ..even unofficially.. was ideally placed for us as it was much further to the east and so would allow us to cut across from Malawi to the coast before heading inland ...the warm Indian Ocean, beach camping, dhow trips to deserted islands, snorkelling, fresh fish and crab for supper....ooooh!! A man whose company operated tours in southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique, and whom we had met in Lilongwe, was ‘certain’ that the Unity Bridge was open, but gave us the name and number of a north Mozambican travel agency he used and that ‘would know for sure’.

On this basis of all too common overlanding uncertainty, we would fly by the seat of our pants and so our intention was to go ahead with a Mozambique/Tanzania bridge crossing, and hope to confirm the viability of the Unity Bridge with the travel agency once in Mozambique using a local SIM card. We had two cell phones; one used only the UK world-wide-roaming-and-speak-to-anyone-at-great-expense SIM card; the other used the SIM card of the country we were in, where calls and SIM cards were as ‘cheap as chips’! Unfortunately the border village we came to had plenty of air time cards but no SIM cards!

It was mid afternoon, the reasonable sand and gravel track was lined with an unending ribbon of huts and settlements, time was running out if we were to get to a bush campsite; we drove on..and on..and on..it was quite extraordinary, we just couldn’t find a place to bush camp. Evening was approaching and it seemed the best and safest bet would be to carry on to the town of Cuamba, another thirty miles closer to the Indian Ocean, and find a hotel car park.

Night Manoeuvres
The ‘best and safest bet’ turned into a bit of a nightmare; the track surface deteriorated and the track itself became crowded with people, donkeys, carts and ancient, unserviceable and very slow vehicles. Darkness fell as we were still ten hot and humid miles from Cuamba; we were breaking a golden rule for only the second time in eighteen months, we were driving at night in Africa and hated it. We had to slow to a crawl to avoid potholes, unlit vehicles, assorted animals and people with absolutely no road sense or value for life. It got no better in Cuamba. The navigator was having a torrid time making sense of the inaccurate Bradt Guide map; there was no working street lighting and the streets were full of speeding vehicles and motorbikes, most with no lights, weaving in and out of crowds of people taking a stroll in the middle of the road.

When we made the Pensao Cariaco ..well done Liz!.. it had no running water, the electricity supply was optional and the courtyard, where we had hoped to park and sleep in Boris, was jam packed with 4x4 vehicles of the ruling Frelimo party who were touring the area in the run up to the local and presidential elections. Oh lors! We had no option but to spend the night in a room, but, hey, it wasn’t that bad; the fan worked from time to time, there was a candle for when the power failed and a five gallon drum of water to flush the loo and wash with! In the gloom, Liz made the mistake of washing using the hand basin in our room prior to eating what turned out to be a superb meal of grilled fish in the restaurant; when she pulled the plug out all the water cascaded onto the floor, her trousers, feet and shoes ..there was no waste pipe attached!

Frelimo election campaign vehicle

After a hot, apple pie bed of a night, Peter went walkabout and found a SIM card, but then discovered from the travel agency that, although they weren’t sure, they thought that the Unity Bridge would not be open for another four or five weeks. We had to rethink our planned crossing; we had to take the expert’s advice seriously, to travel to the Indian Ocean and then to a bridge on the off chance that it might be open early was too big a risk. Particularly if the risk involved the possibility of having to drive over eight hundred miles back from Unity Bridge towards Lake Malawi and cross via the ‘western bridge’, where ever it might be.

A Working Breakfast
Surrounded by a sea of red T shirts emblazoned with the Frelimo logo, we discussed the options over a breakfast of fried potato squares, cold chopped cabbage and fried egg ..interesting!.. and agreed that the only sensible option was to use the bridge that was known to be open. Peter had some clues as to where it might be, but the probable route was, ‘big hand, small map’, guesswork. In order to get to the general area where the bridge might be we would have to retrace yesterday’s route back to the border village and then turn north travelling alongside Lake Malawi ...oops! Sorry! Here it was now Lago Niassa; a name not too dissimilar phonetically from Nyasa, the name given it by Livingstone who, on reaching its shore, asked his guide what it was called, ‘Niassa’ came the reply, unknown to Livingstone this simply meant ‘lake’!

Amidst the chaos of departing Frelimo vehicles Boris was reluctant to start, for some reason the alarm sounded and the immobiliser swung into unwanted action. A frustrated fist banging on the steering wheel soon sorted out the problem, who said Peter was not mechanically minded! The rest of the day we travelled through parched hills and valleys to Lichinga, the regional capital of Niassa Province, Mozambique’s remotest, poorest and driest province. Fringed by pine plantations and at an altitude of nearly 4000 feet, Lichinga and its cooling breezes were a welcome relief from the oppressive heat of the plains below. And, in keeping with its status, Lichinga’s main roads were tarred and its junctions peppered with traffic lights; one set actually worked ..even if it was completely ignored by all drivers!

A Rat in the Shower

The campsite proved difficult to find, another poor Bradt town plan drove the navigator to distraction and, despite its wooden chalet style buildings giving it an alpine air, it had obviously gone badly downhill since the reviewer had last visited. Electricity was not optional, it was nonexistent; the restaurant was now a small bar selling warm beer; the water supply was based on a cup and barrel regime; and water disposal again relied upon the Mozambican no waste pipe system .For Liz, finding a rat in what passed as the shower was the last straw! But in these situations there was always the comforting thought that we had experienced worse somewhere else in Africa and survived.

Frelimo supporters,including war veterans,enroute to an election rally

The following morning, 9th October, we left Lichinga for a couple of days R&R on the lakeshore some twenty miles away. En route we again caught up with the Frelimo electioneering team; a sequence of meetings was being held in roadside villages bedecked in Frelimo banners and bunting. At one the meeting was over, the DIY open air stage empty and the crowd drifting away in chattering colourful groups; at the next village, it was in full swing in front of a packed audience; at the next, trucks, taxis and cars were disgorging smartly attired occupants who were joining the growing throng in front of a stage on which sat grey haired Frelimo veterans of the battles for independence and the civil war, proudly resplendent in their smartly pressed if ageing and now oversized military uniforms.

Frelimo supporter

Complexo Cetuka
Descending the Rift Valley escarpment to the narrow band of sundrenched lakeshore below, a white sandy ribbon that only served to emphasise the beauty of the glistening azure blue waters of the lake, we found a comfortable spot on the ‘secure’ beach of the Complexo Cetuka. To call it a resort or secure was perhaps over egging it; it was more a collection of substantial if incomplete thatched huts running along the beach, a popular bar-cum-restaurant at the far end and a now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t ‘security’ fence surrounded the landward side of the Complexo. As with all things African, everything was all in dire need of maintenance.

Sun setting over Lake Niassa

There followed two marvellously relaxing days of doing nothing! Swimming, snorkelling, sunbathing and strolling along the beach by day; then, watching the reddening sun sink over the lake towards a distant Malawi, we ate an evening meal of grilled freshly caught fish; above us the blue sky seared by streaks of red became black as the first bright stars of the night made their entrance. A mastery of the night sky that was ephemeral and soon replaced by the almost blinding white disc of the full moon floating to the far horizon above its silver, shimmering pre-ordained path on the lake below. Aahhh, a little piece of paradise!!

A pair of cheeky monkeys,Lake Niassa

Even some engaging but annoyingly ever present and cheeky kids, the theft of Peter’s sandals ..he shouldn’t have left them out overnight!.. and a reoccurrence of Boris’s starting problem could not dim our enjoyment. We returned to Lichinga late on the 11th March, Liz insisted we stayed anywhere but at the ‘rat place’, so we made the best of a very uncomfortable bed in a hotel’s rondavel on the outskirts of town.

Ireland to the Rescue
At 7.30 the following morning Boris was being seen to at the Toyota garage, and then ‘problem free’ we drove around Lichinga replenishing our stocks of food and fuel, before heading 250 miles north towards the border and a bridge somewhere in the middle of about a thousand square miles of Mozambican bush; a bridge that had no known name, no known location, and for which we had no directions! Well, this situation was no longer quite true; whilst we were shopping Peter had noticed an Irish plaque at the entrance to an office block and recalled that the Irish government allegedly had been involved in funding some of the infrastructure improvement associated with building the bridge.

Following the security man’s directions we found the office from which the Irish government had managed its aid allocation; much to our surprise and delight the office door opened to reveal ..very little! The operation was obviously winding down and the office in the final stages of preparation for closure, but as we were wondering what to do next, a Mozambican appeared from the depths of the office and in broken English asked, in that sort of ‘what-the-hell-do-you-think-you-are-doing’ way, if he could help. Peter explained our border and bridge problem. The man’s frown disappeared and he smiled sympathetically and, whilst making clear he was not the authority on the route to the bridge, he confirmed that customs and immigration officers were now in residence at the bridge, told us the names of what he was pretty sure were the three main settlements on the ‘Irish Road’ ..itself no more than an improvement to existing tracks, gave us the directions to get from Lichinga to the start of the ‘Irish Road’ and concluded by warning us that where we were going was remote country; some of its inhabitants bad people; oh, and there were supposed to be man eating lions in the border area. Cripes!

Nonetheless and despite the warnings, what good fortune ...yes, it was that serendipity thing again!!Our euphoria evaporated a little when we returned to Boris and studied our maps; the three settlements he had named as being on the one hundred and seventy mile ‘Irish Road’ were there, if spelt differently, but not all on one map and the final settlement’s location, close to the border and bridge, varied by about forty miles from map to map and to top it all, a track linking the settlements was not shown on either map! Our navigator was going to have her work cut out to get us there! Pressure, what pressure!!

A Navigator’s Epiphany

Roadside village, enroute Tanzanian border

Finding the turning from a potholed tarred road running north from Lichinga onto the sandy piste that was the ‘Irish Road’ proved little problem. Thereafter we passed through the near deserted and beautiful rolling, wooded countryside of the Planalto de Lichinga. But with no signs on an, at times, indifferent washed out track, not to mention the odd fallen tree blocking it and with plenty of turnings off to our left and right, Liz was very much on her mettle. By dint of the astute use of the mapping we had, our GPS and inspired guesswork, she kept us heading in the right direction and by early afternoon we were relieved to have passed through the first two of the three settlements given to us.

The final settlement, Lupilichi, was the problem one; where was it, was it really close to the bridge and which track would lead us to it? Then Liz had one of her epiphany moments; out of the blue we came across a roadside sign directing us to ‘Matchedje il Congresso’. Although no one had ever mentioned the name to us, Liz was sure it was where the bridge was and as we travelled on the signs kept reappearing and she became ever more convinced.

Piste to the Tanzanian border

Liz was right! We may have passed through Lupilichi, but we never saw it or a sign for it. However by about five in the afternoon we entered Matchedje il Congresso and discovered two things about the place; firstly, it contained the site of a national monument to Frelimo’s fight for freedom, hence the signs; and, secondly, we were assured, the main track through the settlement led to the border crossing at the bridge that shared the same name and was no more than a kilometre distant! We, or rather Liz, had made it!

Crossing the Rovuma River

The tented formalities on the Mozambican side did not take long and as dusk began to shade the light we made our way towards a bridge built in the middle of nowhere and devoid of traffic. Hardly used except by those on foot, this less than perfect metal and concrete construction spanned a fast flowing River Rovuma that writhed some fifty feet below its arches. On the far side stood the impressive brick buildings of the Tanzania authorities. We edged forward and began to cross the border.

>> Go to Tanzania Journal

Home Page | Journal | Guestbook | Photo Gallery | Preparation & Plaudits | Overlanders Digest | Contact Us | Site Map

Back to content | Back to main menu