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Mozambique Part One

24th June to 8th July

A Dramatic Change

Our crossing did not take long; thankfully the officials smiled at our halting attempts at Portuguese and replied in English, helping us to complete the bureaucratic demands of customs and immigration quite quickly. By midday we were on our way, travelling along the wide Limpopo valley. Crossing the border brought a sudden and dramatic change. Gone was the western veneer of South Africa, we were back in Africa with a bump; quite literally so, driving along a dreadful piste, partly washed out by the rainy season floods, its surface a mix of river sand and boulders! We were passing ramshackle villages of thatched huts; the villagers sitting zombie like in shade of trees, their children barefoot and some dressed in rags, with goats and chickens roaming free alongside the track. The valley initially was wooded, with stands of fever trees interspersed with baobab and mopane and then they became mixed with the signs of subsistence farming; cattle and fields, less than half a football pitch in size, packed with yellowing irregular rows of hand sown maize and surrounded by a protective fence of thorn tree branches.

Baobab complete with 'candle wax' trunk, enroute Mapai

Limpopo Crossing
Much later than we expected we came to the crossing over the Limpopo, one for that would allow us then to cut across country to the coast. The crossing turned out to be a long line of submerged rough cut, wooden poles over which the Limpopo flowed and, to cross, we were expected to pay a fee to the local entrepreneur who recreated the crossing each year as the flood waters subsided. Fee paid, we edged through the river water ..it must have been all of twelve inches deep!.. climbed up the far bank and entered the ‘town’ of Mapai. It had been a small town once, now it was a largely deserted, decaying collection brick and concrete buildings; gaping holes where windows and doors had once been and roofs were obviously an optional extra. Alongside the wide sandy track that was all that remained of the high street ran a line of concrete pylons; standing erect, arms out stretched and forlorn, the electricity cable once connecting them long since ‘recycled’.

Lightening the load and making the female passenger walk! Limpopo River crossing Mapai

We were aware of the overland rumour (unsubstantiated fact that we often ignored) that bush camping was illegal in Mozambique, in part because of land mines; so it was with great caution and some concern that an hour later we turned off the track and down a little used opening in the scrub savannah. By now it was nearly 6pm and nearly dark; keeping light and noise to the minimum we had good meal of South African food, accompanied by some South African wine, before retiring for a game of spite and malice in our boudoir. By the way, spite and malice is a card game not a euphemism for a row!

A Great Day

The following morning we were on our way bright and early; we still had two days of travel over little used tracks before we would come to the main, and only, north-south arterial road that would then lead towards to the coastal resort of Vilankulos. On a wide, eroded, dusty track we were passing through extensive tree savannah and at first we couldn’t put our finger on it, but then realised that we were back in fence free Africa. Fencing there was, but so very African in nature; limited to the thorn tree branches around a pocket handkerchief field of desiccated maize, under planted with melons and to one side of the isolated groups of huts we drove past.

These attractive hamlets, each no more than the settlement of an extended family and lit by the glow of the early morning sun, were a welcome distraction from negotiating the increasingly worn track surface. Unfortunately they began to peter out as we skirted the northern edge of the Banhine National Park; a national park by name but little else. There was very little to denote the unfenced park. All we saw were two signs; one a bullet holed, rusting affair; the other black lettering painted on a white, nearly rectangular, board. All the parks were stripped bare of their wildlife, for food and profit, during the post independence civil war of the 1980’s between the Marxist government and a South African sponsored group called Renamo that ran a brutal campaign of intimidation; deliberately targeting the intelligentsia, doctors, teachers and so on, and killing an estimated 100,000 people often in appalling circumstances. Little wonder that we found a complete change in the adult Mozambican attitude towards us when they discovered ..and we made a point of telling them!.. that we were English and not South African tourists; the latter actively disliked but tolerated for the money they bring.

Rondavel with wattle walls and washing,enroute Vilankulos

From mid morning onwards we drove through the most blissfully, magical wooded countryside; a narrow sandy track within a cocoon made of the various shades of green of leaves and palms, and all the while illuminated by shafts of sunlight. It ranks with the best that we had encountered in Africa, so too the settlements we came across; freshly swept sand between thatched roofed wooden rondavels, the extended thatch supported by posts as it shaded the wattle and daub walls. At one point we came across a poignant reminder of the colonial era; a ruined house and the concrete floor of a large work shop, some rusting remains of machinery still standing. Poignant? Perhaps not, more likely a rusting indictment of colonial spite; in all probability, like so much of the colonial commercial infrastructure, destroyed by the Portuguese colonisers as they left Mozambique.

Determined to have a more relaxing end to the day than before, we started to look for a suitable site in the early afternoon. Liz noticed a wide, partly overgrown pathway and we had found the perfect site. Concealed deep in the open woodland and well away from the main track, we were able to relax and enjoy the remains of the day and our braai in the evening. As we sat by the dying embers, we had a great feeling of contentment; a perfect day’s journey, a perfect meal and a perfect evening. It was what overlanding was all about, a return to what was so memorable about Africa.

Settlement women, typically spotless communal area, unusually with a solar panel on it. Enroute Vilankulos

To Vilankulos

The next day, 26 June, we went on a dawn nature ramble; the prolific bird life and their calls were a joy. Less so the huge spider’s web Liz walked into, almost ten feet across and, at the centre of which sat an enormous spider, fully the size of a small dinner plate .. the stuff horror movies are made of! Our idyllic woodland journey ended after a couple of hours when we reached the regional capital and site of one of the camps housing mine clearance teams. Here there were vehicles, the first we had seen for nearly two days and of decidedly dubious roadworthiness. Along with us, most joined the badly maintained track of brick red mud and dust, weaving in and out of the Chinese made sit-up-and-beg bicycles that were around every corner as we headed towards the main road.

By lunchtime we were entering Vilankulos, about a third of the way up the Mozambican coast and allegedly the furthest north South Africans get to during the school holidays; the winter one had just begun. Here we planned to spend some time lazing on the beach and checked into the Baobab Backpacker’s Lodge. The lodge, complete with coconut palms, was away from the dingy touristy part of town, but still encircled by groups of street vendors hassling us to buy their rather tacky goods. The boom-ba-boom from the bar’s loudspeakers was drowned out by the mood music of the sound of waves tumbling onto the beach just in front of our hut; we sat and relaxed as the tide went out..and out.. and out .. it went out for what seemed miles and the boom-ba-boom took over from the sea’s mood music. Oh lors!

A Change of Location

It was not a good night, although the bar shut at midnight, it was the weekend and a time when Mozambicans party all night, literally. The torture of the mind numbing beat at full volume coming from the nearby dance-cum-drink hall was just awful. We hardly slept a wink and checked out the next morning, hoping for better things at Inhassoro, a very small resort about an hour’s drive further up the coast. Here we knew there was a beach side campsite in the grounds of a hotel; it was bliss to arrive at the peaceful and near deserted campsite. We claimed a splendid pitch, in the shade of a huge cashew nut tree, with an electricity point and superb view of the Indian Ocean. As we sat down for a picnic lunch ... it started, the thud of music! There was nothing we could do, but grin and bear it, fortunately the weekend revellers moved on as darkness fell and the sound of music became more distant; losing its booming bass and gaining a not too unpleasant Afro-Latin treble! We slept surprisingly well.

A dhow passing in front of the chalet, Baobab Backpackers, Vilankulo

Crayfish and Rowing Boats

Sunday was a lot more peaceful and we spent the next four days at the campsite. Every evening local fishermen would come and tour the camp site, selling huge tiger prawns by the bucket load or crayfish the size of lobsters; some we cooked ourselves, others we took to the hotel’s excellent beach front restaurant for them to cook and so we could ‘dine out’. What a feast of seafood! To obtain fish and crayfish these lunatic adventurers had constructed what seemed to us to be the most unseaworthy rowing boats imaginable. They were minute and a marvel of African ingenuity ..and what Africa is all about .. completely home made from recycled bits of marine plywood and planking nailed together and stuffed with blocks of expanded foam to provide buoyancy. In the early morning we would see the occupant rowing away like mad and heading way out to sea with a total disregard for his own welfare, disappearing for heart lurching minutes in the Indian Ocean swell. Then hours later a black speck towards the horizon would announce the beginning of his return, his plastic crate containing the catch; once on shore he would head first towards the hotel kitchen then the campsite.

After a couple of days the campsite began to fill up with the more adventurous of the South African holiday makers, many having taken three or four days to travel to Inhassoro; what dedication! For them it was an ideal family holiday spot; a safe beach, a nearby restaurant and bar and a good campsite. For us it was becoming ever more cramped and ever more noisy; the really annoying aspect was that most seemed to arrive as two or three car family groups at about midnight or later and, with a total lack of courtesy and consideration, would flash lights, honk horns, shout to one another before spending ages setting up camp, banging and clattering as they did so. Harrumph!

Peter speed typing the Journal! Inhassoro campsite

To Beira

Peter spent much of the daytime closeted at the rear of Boris catching up with the journal and for him it was fortunate that the weather was less than perfect, with periods of light rain and a sometimes a chilly wind. The journal virtually completed, we left Inhassoro on 3 July and spent a torrid three hours travelling the tarred, but seriously pot holed road, to the port of Beira. Our journey was made more demanding by villagers who, in the middle of nowhere, would suddenly appear from the bushes and stand right in the middle of the road, continually edging towards us as we drove towards them, whirling live chickens by their trussed feet or holding out enormous pineapples. It was often a choice of pot hole or vendor; the vendor lost out!

Beira was, and remains, a major port for goods to and from Zimbabwe and Zambia; huge petrol tankers and container lorries just added to our enjoyment of the journey! We became genuinely concerned for the welfare and safety of charcoal carrying cyclists whose four foot long sacks of charcoal extended left and right from the rear of the cycle as the wobbling rider and bike, gamely carrying anything up to three of them, tried to avoid potholes, pedestrians and being squashed by passing trucks, and then continue on his way to sell his goods in Beira.

Now, would you put to sea in this! Inhassoro beach


We had a long ‘to do’ list for our 36 hours in bustling, decrepit looking Beira; we found an internet cafe; bought some oil for Boris; stocked up at an outpost of South African commercial supremacy, a supermarket called Shoprite; but failed miserably to clear the remaining items on the list. Our visit to the internet cafe was very productive; not only did we contact the world, but we found somewhere to stay. One of the girls working there, on being approached by Liz for directions to a nearby cheap hotel, in a tone of voice that implied it was a den of iniquity, said that we shouldn’t stay there, but at her parents B&B. The B&B was recommended by the Bradt guide (yes, we do rely heavily on these trusty bibles!) so there we stayed at a reduced rate, with one third off, and right in the heart of the old colonial sector of the city. And guess what.. it had an internet connection as well!

Smiling despite the dangers, charcoal cyclists enroute Beira

After a fascinating drive around the crumbling Portuguese section of the old town and, leaving our Shoprite experience to the end, we left Beira at midday on Saturday, July 4. We put the date in that order as on that day our American friends had something to celebrate: that family squabble ..and we remembered you as we left Beira!

Gorongoza National Park
From Beira we travelled the relatively short distance to one of the flagship Mozambican national parks, the Gorongoza National Park. The park was the jewel in the colonial crown, a worthy rival to the Kruger. However during the civil war Renamo had a base nearby and wiped out the vast majority of the animal population, along with a considerable portion of the area’s human one. Partly through the philanthropy of an American millionaire and with the full support of and not inconsiderable investment by the government, the park has been cleared of mines; the roads and tracks repaired and rebuilt; the Chitengo Safari Lodge and campsite, where all visitors stay, completely revamped including a restaurant with wifi; and a long term game reintroduction programme initiated. We had heard reports from other travellers we had met that, although there is not much game as yet, the park has an amazing variety of beautiful habitats, was nearly free of vehicles and still very unspoilt; ‘Get there before it all changes!’

The park was everything we expected and hoped for, but in a beguiling and much understated way. It became quite clear to us that it really does have the most staggering potential and should, in the future, be able once again to rival the Kruger. The staff were so helpful and personable; the free wifi in the restaurant where ‘no purchase was necessary’, a Godsend; whilst the game drives productive and scenic. Although Peter was in danger of life threatening heart event when the Nikon packed up, permanently, and so made the big lens completely useless!

Restocking this lovely park will take some thought, particularly how to remove from the matriarch’s traumatised collective memory, the park elephants’ survival reaction ..thankfully no longer unnecessary.. of hiding in the deepest possible area of bush on hearing the sound of a vehicle. When Renamo were there it meant death.

Gorongoza NP main gate

The night before we left, we were told by a South African camper that the whole of central Mozambique was out of diesel; oil tankers were unable to enter the port of Beira because of shifting sandbanks and a sequence of unusually low tides. Erkkk!.. we needed full tanks to help get us through Zimbabwe. Then, that evening, another member of the camping brotherhood gave us some reason to hope, by letting us know that he had refuelled in a town some 25 miles away; the only small problem being that the fuel pump display didn’t function!

Colonial era villa, Beira

To The Border

We made the detour to the diesel pump the following morning. Things were looking up; there was still diesel to be had and the attendant now had the use of a hand held calculator to compute the litres sold into money wanted. It was a little bizarre, as he put the starting dispensed litre figure in first and then subtracted the larger new dispensed figure from it. Thus ending with a negative and, in theory, owing us a large sum of money!

Half way to the border we stopped at another of the Shoprite supermarkets. Being closer to Zimbabwe and, during that country’s darkest days, a haven of availability for those able to make the trip, we found a refreshingly wider selection upon which to spend, spend, spend! In the same town we overlooked the camping brotherhood’s advice to steer clear of a town centre which allegedly was full of crooks, car door opening thieves, pickpockets, muggers and conmen, to find the post office. Liz survived the walk to the counter and was able to send your birthday card Louisa and our first of the batch of return journey postcards ... not got one yet? You will!

Forty five minutes later we were leaning over the Mozambican custom officer’s desk and showing him how to complete Boris’ Carnet; five minutes after which, and having bypassing the massive line of trucks waiting to be allowed across, we climbed out of Boris and went into a small one storey, packed and cramped, Zimbabwean border officials’ building.

** End of Mozambique Journal **

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