Bitten by the Moz bug - Mozambique holidays are the best
What is it with this travel bug?
A two-week self-drive trip to Mozambique
By 1992 the Mozambican Civil war had ended. The country though, was crippled and many of the people too, literally and figuratively. The war as all do, had a devastating effect on this beautiful country and its people.
At the end of the 20th century tourism had made delicate baby steps into what was an extremely popular destination before 1975.
However, in 2004 the evidence of war and poverty was still obvious. It would not recover quickly.
During our trip to the Red Sea and Egypt in 2003, we’d made more great friends. They’d planned a trip for a Mozambique holiday in June 2004 and invited us to join them. They were going to Barra Reef, near Inhambane for a week. Because we had only been to the extreme south of Mozambique to Ponta Malongane and Ponta do Ouro, we were extremely keen. Mozambique was very quickly becoming a popular holiday destination again. It has beaches, culture and adventure. What more could one ask for?
Inhambane is approximately 500 km north up the coast. It was another destination we could pounce on. This sounded like an adventure, one we could tackle.
We would drive on the main national road - EN1. We were however advised the last bit would be on sand, but it shouldn’t be an issue. We had a new vehicle that we could test on the sand roads of Mozambique. We figured that it would be worth our while to make it into a two-week holiday. We would spend the second week with the rest of the group, when they could join us.
We had no idea what to expect in Mozambique. If it was anything like we’d experienced in the southern tip, we knew there would be very limited supplies.
Obtaining fuel could be a problem. Unleaded fuel was still in short supply. Hubby spoke to his acquaintances in the fuel industry. They advised the fuel pumps often ran dry and fuel was not delivered promptly. Sometimes it could take a day or two to get there.
Supplies such as milk, tea, coffee and meat were limited. However, we could buy some fruit and vegetables, bread (pao) and fish and seafood would be plentiful.
We were advised to take some drinking water as well that could be replenished near Barra Reef. At the lodge itself, it may not be suitable.
Our accommodation would be in a chalet. It sounded luxurious compared to camping. We decided to take our trailer though, as we would be transporting a fair amount of goods and equipment for four people:
Food – any provisions we required that we didn’t think would be available, such as decent coffee, milk and cereal.
Drinking water, some drinks and juice
Two jerry cans for fuel
Clothes & toiletries.
Trapped at the border – would we even make it into Mozambique?
We left on a Friday afternoon and drove as far as Komatipoort. We stayed at a place just outside the town, close to Elephant bridge that is part of the Kruger National Park. Unfortunately the gates into the Kruger were closed when we arrived because it was dark, but as that was not the purpose of our journey, it didn’t faze us. It would have been nice though to do a quick detour into the park.
Our accommodation for the night, inexpensive, was very similar to a boarding school dormitory, complete with wobbly metal beds that squeaked every time we rolled over. We didn’t sleep well that night. Part of it though could be blamed on the excitement of our first trip deeper into Mozambique. We had planned to be at the border as soon as it opened at 6am. That way we were sure to miss most of the crowds.
The border post is at the top of a hill. We’d risen early, and it didn’t take us long to get to there. At the bottom of the hill we saw a snake of vehicles slithering up to the top of the hill. Actually, it wasn’t slithering, it was staying put. Ahead of us was a combination of cars, trailers, trucks and buses all wanting to enter Mozambique. Every vehicle was bulging and bursting with goods and people. Resident Mozambicans were returning home. They had stocked up on every item they couldn’t buy in their own country – from eggs to furniture, from plastic Jerry cans to bicycles. Between the busses and trucks a few cars were also packed to the brim; South Africans road tripping like us through Mozambique.
We were at the bottom of the hill, but already on the incline. We had no option but to wait for everyone ahead of us to move, so we switched off our engine.
We were well entertained while we waited to move forwards. Groups of people walked from vehicle to vehicle. They wanted to sell us food of dubious origins, or exchange money. We were warned it was illegal and if you really wanted to risk it, it was worth counting the notes to make sure you had the correct amount offered to you. We declined to exchange money there, as we’d already done it at a reputable place.
We inched our way up the hill, turning our engine off each time we couldn’t go further, because it was a long period to leave the engine running. Still on the hill, after a long delay, but about fifty meters from the border with the gate in sight, the vehicles ahead of us moved forwards. Our vehicle however didn’t want to budge. We’d turned the key. Nothing happened. At this stage we had rows of vehicles behind us, blocking us.
No-one wanted to jump start our car, so we decided to roll it downhill and hopefully the engine would kick in. First we had to find rocks to stop the trailer from running downhill too. We unhitched and those vendors wanting to sell us goods quickly rushed to assist us. They pushed the car around, so we could roll downhill. There were cheers as the engine started. We turned around and wormed our way in front of the trailer again, amongst the other vehicles with impatient drivers wanting to get ahead of us and not being sympathetic to our plight. We hitched up and managed to get through the gate.
Hubby had concluded that our battery must have been a dud, because it was new, so shouldn’t have given us any problems. The struggle uphill had drained the battery.
We contemplated turning around to buy a new battery, but we knew it would be difficult to find a suitable battery at such short notice. We phoned our friends who would drive up the following week. They offered to bring us a spare battery, so we decided to push on and risk the journey deeper into Mozambique. We had a bit of a dilemma though. We couldn’t take the risk of turning the engine off in case it didn’t want to start again.
In typical TIA style (This is Africa), I could get away with taking all our passports to be stamped. In the meantime, hubby kept the engine running. Our vehicle also had to be cleared through customs, luckily without a problem. We all sighed with relief when we crossed the border successfully. Woo hoo! We were in Mozambique! We still had a long journey ahead of us though. We didn’t realise just how long it would take to drive 500 kilometers.
Driving in Mozambique
Mozambique is known for its cops stopping you for no reason and issuing a ‘fine’ that you have to pay on the spot, even though there was no real reason for it. We constantly scanned the areas for any sign of those belligerent cops. We’d also been warned that the roads could be in bad condition as they didn’t have the finance to rebuild the roads.
The road between the border and Maputo was in excellent condition and we weren’t hounded by the police. What was everyone so worried about? Mozambique was great!
Obedient tourists that we were, we kept to the speed limit, especially because we were towing a trailer. Most vehicles seemed to overtake us. This didn’t perturb us, because we were drinking in the sights and scenery. It felt quite strange to know we were in a different country, yet it felt so similar to driving around South Africa. To be honest, we were still disconcerted about our faulty battery.
At Maputo we took a route through the western parts of the suburbs outside the city. We didn’t have time to explore Maputo. Our pleasant prospects of the rest of our journey ground to a halt. Traffic and people created mayhem. About three lanes of vehicles weaved around per single lane on the road. A few potholes popped up and soon we got to areas where tar was a forgotten luxury.
We crawled past buildings that had clearly been bombed during the war. On either side of the road, makeshift kiosks were selling anything from wooden poles or beams, to fake leather furniture. At the next kiosk, rusty remains of vehicles were sold for spare parts. It seemed the entire population of Maputo was doing their Saturday morning shopping – in the west.
It was good to leave Maputo and head for the open road, so we could drive faster. We still had a fair distance to travel.
Traveling on the open road – not your typical highway.
It felt like we’d barely reached 100 kilometers per hour, which was the speed limit on the highway, when we had to slack off again.
At each village (and there were many) we had to slow down to eighty kilometers per hour at first. Through the village, which was often hidden, so you didn’t know there was one, we had to drive at fifty. The signs were decrepit and faded. But the police we were warned about, were present. Fortunately we weren’t pulled over by them.
The road was appalling with enormous pot holes. At times it was safer to drive on the side that was gravel or sand, although you had to take care where you left the patchwork of tar because there was a huge drop in the level.
Invariably when it was impossible for us to drive over the damaged road or on the gravel, a lopsided bus or battered truck would be approaching us head on like a crab, not sticking to its side of the road. As if that wasn’t enough, we’d be approached from behind by another truck or bus, wanting to overtake and squeeze into a tiny gap before the oncoming vehicles passed us. Many a times we had to take evasive action, but they seemed unperturbed and sped along as if the tar was in excellent condition.
Pedestrians were an issue too. So many children from a young age would walk a long distance on this national road to school. Not on the side, because there weren’t pavements for them, but in the road. Vendors were another problem. They bee-lined for the buses as they stopped, so they could sell their products to the passengers on the bus. We had to approach with caution.
We were on high alert, fascinated by the sights but at the same time stressed in case one of the pedestrians ran in front of our vehicle. Ancient buses were crammed with passengers. Tied on top and the sides were luggage, Jerry cans, furniture or anything else you could think of. Just when you though nothing else could fit, you’d see goats teetering on top. Picture driving on an average road at 120 kilometers per hour vs this. Trust me, the going was slow!
Each time we stopped, we never switched off our engine, except when we had to fill up with fuel. Each time the engine started, we were beyond relief.
Approximately a hundred and fifty kilometers north of Maputo was apparently a good place to stop for cashew nuts. Along the way, there were many informal stalls, selling a multitude of goods. Sometimes it was only a rock or log under a tree and a wobbly rustic table to display their goods.
At one such place there was a display of white plastic bags attached to makeshift poles, flapping in the breeze. That was the spot. We haggled over the price and eventually bought a packet of cashew nuts. They were delicious, but I wouldn’t vouch for them passing any health regulations!
On a more delicate matter: going to the loo along the way.
Public toilets that were clean and decent were virtually non-existent, as new petrol stations were limited. The older ones were entirely unsuitable. At times we had to stop on the side of the road, where there were no or few people, and look for a suitable bush to do your, er...m… private business.
Since the war there had been a huge initiative to clear landmines, but many areas still needed to be dealt with. After the terrible floods of 2002, there was great concern that many of the mines had lifted and drifted to unknown areas. Tragically many Mozambicans at that stage, still stood on the mines unintentionally and lost a limb or indeed their life.
Back to our predicament. We were warned to stay on paths and I had no desire to relieve myself next to the side of the road. The rest of my family, however, were desperate. I sat with the engine running in the car, because of our dodgy battery of course (not for a quick getaway), watching my beloved family head off into the tropical growth. I didn’t know if I’d ever see them again.
A Hiroshima nuclear cloud came to mind, Monty Python style, with limbs protruding, then scattered around Mozambique. Fortunately all our passengers returned to the car with no mishaps.
Fuel for thought
Late afternoon and we were nowhere near our destination. We’d been on the road with only very short stops. The pace was slow. One of the last petrol stations we could buy fuel at hadn’t had their fuel delivered. They had no idea when they would get again. We were using unleaded fuel and that was as scarce as hen’s teeth. If we continued directly to Inhambane there was a good chance they wouldn’t have fuel either, because it was off the main national road. If we headed past the turnoff to Inhambane to Maxixe, we were more likely to get fuel … maybe. It was more north and not on our route. It would also take almost two hours longer. We’d filled our two Jerry cans with fuel, but were reserving it for our journey home, in case we couldn’t get enough fuel on the return journey.
We had no option but to go to Maxixe. By that stage we were exhausted. As we pulled up to the petrol station and they told us they had fuel our hearts lifted. We’d made the right choice. With a full tank we retraced our route back to Inhambane. Dusk was approaching at speed and we were still avoiding potholes, which were more difficult to see. The last section was a sand road and we drove into Barra Reef as dark settled. There weren’t many lights but we found our chalet and unpacked, listening to the waves crashing on the beach. It was a huge relief to arrive and were looking forward to catching our first glimpse of Barra Reef in daylight. Exhausted, we had dinner and a much-needed drink at their restaurant. We were delighted that our battery survived. The following day we tried to start the engine. Not a sound, except for a click. We were stranded till our friends arrived. We had no objection, though. We found it was a great place to be marooned.
Life at Barra Reef
Barra Reef was literally beach accommodation - a stone’s throw from the beach. We relaxed and recovered from our journey. We also swam and dived. Strolling along the beach, we watched as dhows sailed towards the sand, and watched as the fishermen threw in nets from the boats, then pulled them in to retrieve a miserable catch.
We didn’t even need to go to town to shop. Each day there would be a string of people walking past our chalet. Each woman had a large bowl on her head. Their English was limited, so with scribbles in the sand, hand gestures and nodding, we purchased what we needed. There was fruit and bread. Others sold prawns, crabs and fish. We found the people of Mozambique in general are always very friendly and helpful. Some of them will go out of their way to assist you.
It was however confusing, converting from Meticais to Rands, because they had three extra zeros added to their currency making the conversion difficult. In later years, the Mozambican government dropped the noughts. We couldn’t get over how far these ladies had to walk in the hope of selling something.
The food were inexpensive, and we feasted on crabs and prawns. Eating at the restaurant every night was above our budget. We did however eat another meal or two there.
Arrival of friends, a new battery & time to explore
By the time our friends arrived, we were well settled into beach life. We were thrilled to see them and of course our new battery. As lovely as it was staying near Barra Reef, it was great to be able to explore. We drove back to Inhambane to visit the market. There we could stock up on a few things that weren’t available from our vendors that visited us daily.
I wish I’d taken photos at the market, but it was a bustling experience buying once again via signs and gestures.
We discovered a few more places that appealed to us. Paindane near Praia de Jangamo was one of them. Both hubby and I said we’d have to return to stay there and explore some more. A large reef juts out at an angle from the beach. It forms a sheltered bay which was good for snorkeling at low tide. Sold!
Much of the area around Inhambane consists of wetland and there are enormous mangrove swamps. Coconut palms were cultivated, and the products were exported in the days before the war. Quaint reed shacks serve as accommodation for the local population. Subsistence farming was often the only way they could exist. It was a tough life, watering their crops with buckets. No irrigation systems for them.
It would have been easy to stay put at Barra, basking in the glory of colourful sunsets and a silvery moon rising, but we had to leave paradise. We were grateful our journey home was far easier although those crab-like buses still tried to shove us off the road.
Instead of using reflective triangles, as you do, when you’ve broken down, branches and leaves are used as warning signs. When you see them, make sure to slow down, if you ever drive in Mozambique.
So what bug bit us?
The Moz travel bug of course! What is it with this travel bug?
It sneaked up on us, overpowered us and injected us with a venom that caused a feverish desire to return. The only prescription that helped was to succumb to that urge. We were warned though, there could always be an extra dose of adventure thrown in. But that’s for later blogs.
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