Is Pomene an island? Time to find out.

Pomene - Mozambique

 Africa


There is a remote stretch of sand in Mozambique. It begged to be discovered by us. Is it an island? We took a road trip to find out.

[Disclaimer: This road trip was done in 2008. Some of the information will be outdated. Please scroll down for further information that has been added where possible. It is however advisable to do more research if you are wanting to attempt this trip.]

Raised water chalets at Pomene Lodge

Raised water chalets at Pomene Lodge

 

Definition of an island:

A thing regarded as resembling an island, especially in being isolated, detached, or surrounded in some way.

Definition of a sandbar:

A long, narrow sandbank, especially at the mouth of a river.

 
Bus-luggage-roof

Past experience taught us that traveling in Mozambique can take time. The distances are deceptive especially when having to travel on sand roads.

Pomene is approximately 700 kilometres from the Lebombo border (also known as Komatipoort and Ressano Garcia border), where we would enter Mozambique. The last stretch to Pomene would consist of fifty kilometres gravel or red clay that eventually becomes beach sand, like so many other places in Mozambique. We had read in 4x4 forums that you would have to allow two to three hours traveling time once you left the tar road.

Pro tip: Ignore your GPS if it tells you the sand road to Pomene will take a maximum of one hour. It will take you longer, especially if you take the wrong route. Make sure you know where you are going. There are many roads that intertwine and can be confusing. 

 

Camp on top of sand dune Zavora

Camp on top of sand dune Zavora

After 2005 at Paindane trying to tow a trailer up a long, steep sand dune, we decided if we were planning to take more trips to drive off road, it would be a good idea to get a decent 4x4 vehicle. In 2008 we were ready to do the trip. Because Pomene was so remote we decided to spend a few nights at other destinations as well.

January to March is cyclone season, and usually extremely hot, humid and wet. We took note of the weather, but there was no prediction of a cyclone.

Campsite Zavora

Campsite Zavora

 

Our itinerary was as follows:

(Distances are approximate)

Day 1:  Drive from Johannesburg to Komatipoort. Overnight stop. 480 kilometres

Day 2:  From Komatipoort, cross the border at Lebombo (Komatipoort/Ressano Garcia) to the outskirts of Maputo. Drive north to Zavora for a two-night stay. 450 kilometres.

Day 4:  Depart from Zavora and drive north to Pomene. Four-night stay. 220 kilometres.

Day 8:  From Pomene drive south to Tofo. Three nights. 200 kilometres.

Day 11:  Continue south from Tofo to Bilene. Overnight stop. 380 kilometres

Day 12: Depart from Bilene and drive to Johannesburg. 690 kilometers



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Filling up with fuel at Komatipoort

Filling up with fuel at Komatipoort

Zavora

We departed on the Friday afternoon from Johannesburg. Our overnight stop in Komatipoort at a B&B was pleasant. Although we were towing our trailer and tent, we preferred to book accommodation as we would have an early start the following morning and it would save us time.

By now we had been through the Lebombo border numerous times and were getting to know it quite well. There was a long string of vehicles wanting to cross the border and although we had to wait for a while, we managed to get through easily. No battery problems like we had the first time.

 

Queue outside the Lebombo - Komatipoort border

Outside the border at Lebombo - Ressano Garcia on Mozambique side

Driving through the chaotic outskirts of Maputo was entertaining. It was a muddle of puddles, people, trolleys and vehicles. Hubby was driving, so I had great fun looking at the sights. We could see a definite improvement where parts of the EN1 was beautifully tarred. Vodacom or Coca Cola obviously stepped in and sponsored fresh paint to brighten up some buildings. 

 

Paint sponsored by Vodacom and Coca Cola?

In 2005 we spent one night at Zavora and were looking forward to our stay. We left the busy main road and turned onto a red clay road, gouged by rain and vehicles over time.

The clay was wet and the mud thick. After driving on it for a while we heard an alarming grinding noise. We pulled off to the side of the road and apart from large chunks of mud that was trapped in our wheels, we couldn’t see anything wrong.

Red-clay-road-Zavora-Mozambique
 

We were only five kilometres from Zavora so we continue to our destination. Once there, we could set up camp and then my dearest husband, the bush and beach mechanic, could get to work to see what the issue was. It seemed like every time we travelled he would have to do some repairs, whether it be our vehicle or someone else’s.

This time we decided to camp on one of the sites on top of the dune at Zavora. We were quite well sheltered even though the wind howled constantly, but at least we weren’t in the mosquito pit like the previous time.

 
View from the lighthouse looking north towards Zavora

View from the lighthouse looking north towards Zavora

We began to wonder if our trip to Pomene was a good idea. We would be hammered by the wind on a relatively narrow stretch of sand between the sea and the lagoon. If there was any chance of a cyclone, we might just be swept out to sea!   

Before he relaxed too much, the next morning Paul took the wheel off the car. He removed the mud and behind the brake disc was a metal plate that had bent. This caused the noise. Thank goodness my husband could fix it.  

The weather and tides weren’t playing along this time and the sea was quite rough, so we couldn’t snorkel where we did at the reef previously. We were rather disappointed but used the opportunity to explore the area and went to look at an abandoned lighthouse used to store fishing tackle.  

 

Fishing boats at Zavora. Not sure if I would risk my life in one of those.

On the EN1 towards Massinga. Pedestrians and traffic on the national highway.

After two nights it was time to move on and head for Pomene. On the way we stocked up with supplies at Massinga. This was where we had to search for a bolt for our trailer when it broke. It was an interesting experience. Our turnoff to Pomene was a short distance after the town. We only had another fifty kilometres to go.

Muddy slippery clay

Muddy slippery clay

Sand road to Pomene - is it an island?

Sand road to Pomene - is it an island?

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Pomene   

Is Pomene an island?

The last 50 kilometres was quite long and arduous and took us close to three hours as predicted. We hoped the journey would be worthwhile because it felt like we were going to the middle of nowhere. We were fortunate that the mud and sand was compacted from the rain but we had to be careful when driving through some puddles. They were often far deeper than anticipated.

 
Stalls-selling-goods-Mozambique
Auto mechanic at Pomene

Auto mechanic at Pomene

Pomene-lodge-Mozambique
Pomene-lodge-reception
 

Pomene (or to be more specific, Pomene Lodge where we stayed) was a sandbar that jutted out and protected the estuary from the sea. It was as isolated as a deserted island and many would be tempted to call it one. I am not convinced, although for all intents and purposes it had most of the characteristics of an island. It was just not detached from land.

To be more specific, Pomene is actually an entire peninsula, so not just a sandbar, or an island. They have also declared a section of it a national reserve.

Seriously though, back to the sandbar, all you would need is one cyclone to sweep over the bay and it could become an island – or it could disappear under the sea.  

 
View from Pomene Lodge towards Ponta da Barra Falsa

View from Pomene Lodge towards Ponta da Barra Falsa

Flamingoes wading in the water

Flamingoes wading in the water

View from the old hotel at Ponta da Barra Falsa towards Pomene Lodge

View from the old hotel at Ponta da Barra Falsa towards Pomene Lodge

Pomene Lodge Mozambique

Pomene Lodge Mozambique

Looking towards the mouth of the lagoon

Looking towards the mouth of the lagoon

At Pomene there are a few local communities scattered around. In 2008 there weren’t really many shops. The most you could buy was some pao (bread), limited fruit, some curios and always beer.  There was the odd deserted restaurant. We camped under casuarina trees at Pomene Lodge. It is reminiscent of tropical paradise complete with powdery white sand, a few palm trees, high humidity and a squadron of mosquitoes that could airlift you (or suck you dry). Thankfully we had no cyclones to sweep us out to the sea.

The time we spent there was like being on a tropical island. We explored the area and on our way back we passed a curio shop but didn’t want to buy anything. We greeted the owner with a wave and a smile and drove back to camp.

Later that afternoon two men walked into camp with two bags of handmade goods. They insisted on packing everything onto the sand to show us. We were adamant we didn’t want to buy anything, but in the end we relented. We felt sorry for them having walked so far (from the curio shop that we passed). We actually had an interesting conversation and promised to stop at their shop next time we drove past. We bought a few more items, more out of sympathy, because there weren’t many tourists that time of year.

 

Although we self-catered, as we usually do, occasionally we treated ourselves to dinner at a restaurant as we did at Pomene. I ordered coconut crab curry. In my opinion, it outdid any other crab dish I have ever tasted! The crab was enormous and I spent the rest of the evening devouring it. I must have had sauce right down to my elbows.

Cell phone reception was extremely limited. It didn’t bother us, except for one occasion where we just needed to phone one of our sons at home, to let him know we were still fine. I had to stand on a chair and hold the phone high up above my head to get signal – like I was shown by the rest of the staff at the resort. Eventually I could send a quick message before it disappeared.

 

Ponta da Barra Falsa, Mozambique

Apart from swimming, fishing and buying curios, we explored the Barra Falsa peninsula. Ruins of the old Pomene hotel are perched on top of the rocks, a popular place for fishermen.

It is difficult to find information about the hotel. One legend says that a cargo ship transporting sugar was shipwrecked and that was how Pomene was discovered. A road was built through the tropical vegetation to salvage the cargo. Apparently the hotel was built in 1965 but had to be abandoned due to the civil war in 1974. 

Further information that I found about the hotel:

THE OLD POMENE HOTEL

In 1954 a man with the name Vic Preen and his son Brian decided that Southern Mozambique was getting too busy for them so they decided to explore more further North looking for untouched fishing grounds away from the madding crowds. This lead them to Pomene where they had to cut a path through the dense forest to the West shore of the estuary where they could cross by boat and set up camp on Pomene Point. For many, many years, they were the only people living in this pristine paradise aside from a few local fishermen.

About six years after their arrival a ship called the Berea, carrying a cargo of sugar, was shipwrecked on the South Beach of Pomene Point and Pomene was suddenly discovered when a road was built to try and recover the valuable cargo.

This in turn led to the development of the Old Pomene Hotel, but as luck would have it, this grand old lady which was once known as the holiday home of Samora Machel, was abandoned in 1974 after only six years of operation because of the war and the Portuguese people being forced out of Mozambique.

Walking through these ruined old walls you can almost feel the charm and grandeur of yesterday and imagine just how impressive this hotel would have been in the 1970’s. Even today Pomene is really off the grid, there is no cell phone signal, no Internet and barely electricity as the lodge we stayed in only has generators that run for a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening. Now for someone like me in the hospitality industry, I can just imagine back then what a enormous challenge it would have been to run this hotel at the standard of entertaining heads of state, royalty etc.
After the evacuation the Pomene area largely became a strong hold for Renamo during the 20 year civil war. And from the day of Mozambique’s independence only a hand full of very small lodges has made their way into or back to the Pomene area, leaving you wondering why someone hasn’t scooped up this precious gem and restored it to its former glory.

Word has it that a large hotel consortium has purchased the property and paid all the locals their dues, so who knows maybe next time we visit Pomene we will stay in the “New Grand Old Hotel”.

Lets hope if they do develop this area, they keep it authentic and full of its rich history.
— Codive Blog, The Suitcase Diaries & Shipwreck Lodge


 Further reading: How the Berea ran aground.

We could have spent many more days at Pomene but alas, it was time to move on.

 

There is an easier way to get to Pomene. Of course it would still take a few days but you should be doing it in style with MSC South Africa cruise. You would spend the day at Paradise Beach Lodge Pomene.

 
 

I don’t think Pomene Lodge still exists (see updated information below), as that part of the sandbank could easily have washed away by one of the cyclones that hit the Mozambican coastline. It would be great if someone has been there recently and could tell me. Alternatively, of course, I could always find out for myself, but this time it might be worth going on that cruise. A bit of luxury wouldn’t be a bad idea!

Updated information by other travelers who have been there recently:

Jaco says:

The estuary has changed dramatically over the last year or so. Ownership of Pomene lodge has also changed hands, and is now owned by MSC tours (the passenger liner company), mainly used as a location where they drop of hundreds of tourists in the morning, and take them back to their vessel at night. I doubt that you can still stay over as a casual tourist. The bulk of accommodation is now offered by Casa Ray and Paradise beach lodge on the northern shore, but it is an different route altogether, and driving the original route to 'Pomeme' could cost you a four or five hour detour if you are staying on North shore. There is also other accommodation on the Southern shore near the lodge, but smaller establishments and checking for availability is advised.

Pat says:

Pomene North is a great visit and place to stay. Www.mozambiquescape.com shows some photos. However paddling to the southern mangrove creeks has been foiled by huge sand deposits in the middle of the Estuary.

Quick links:

Concrete-bridge-Mozambique
Mud-trailer
Stands to reason they make clay pots with so much clay around

Stands to reason they make clay pots with so much clay around

Program to train rats to detect landmines

Program to train rats to detect landmines

Tofo

We are good at finding short cuts but they are usually untarred and often consist of red clay. Generally they are in quite good condition, until it rains. We took such a short cut from Maxixe to Inhambane on our way to Tofo and of course it was raining. Did I mention it was the rainy season? The clay stuck to our car and trailer like glue. I’m sure it was like dragging an anchor behind us.

We hadn’t booked accommodation at Tofo, so explored the area until we found a suitable campsite that appealed to us. We set up camp at Bamboozi Beach lodge which was an ideal spot for us and also great for backpackers.




Pro tip: Many of the resorts change hands or even close down, so what might be there this year, may well have disappeared by next year. It is advisable to do your homework and find up to date information. If there isn’t a recent date for a review, chances are good that the place may have disappeared. Don’t let that deter you; there are new resorts, lodges and camping areas that are popping up continuously.




Because there were only four of us at Pomene – that’s right, the place was empty, apart from a honeymoon couple who wasn’t interested in diving - we never dived as it wasn’t worth launching a boat with a skipper, a divemaster and two divers, which was a pity, as I’m sure the dive sites would have been pristine. We managed to dive at Tofo because there were enough other divers. I dived once but forfeited the second dive as I suffer from seasickness. I was glad I managed the first though, as there was plenty to see. Paul however dived twice.  




Tofinho-monument-near-Tofo

Tofinho is a few kilometres south of Tofo beach. It bears witness to a gruesome part of Mozambique’s history where a monument was erected to remind people of a horrific act by the FRELIMO. It is a sad story, but if you dare to read more about it, click here.

Mozambique has many such horrifying stories that would bring any strong character to tears. A sad history that I hope will never be repeated.

 

The two nights flew past and we enjoyed staying at this quirky campsite.

 

Bilene

Bilene was only an overnight stop before we went back to South Africa. While we were erecting our tent, two Mozambicans tried to persuade us to buy some more curios. By now we’d seen the same hand made good just about everywhere in Mozambique. We were joking the pictures were paint by number creations, because they all looked the same. This was also a popular tourist area, so much of their handywork would be sold unlike further north.

It got to a point that they were becoming a nuisance and one guy was pleading that he wanted money to buy maize meal to make porridge. Eventually we said we REALLY didn’t need anything, because we had bought enough throughout our journey. One does sympathise with them though and I said I had some cooked meat from the previous evening’s dinner that I would be prepared to give to them.

I was horrified by the anger and attitude of the guy who was insisted that we had to buy something. He turned down the parcel of meat I gave him. He was only interested in money. His friend however, stepped forwards and took the package gladly and thanked us. He sat near us, opened it and ate everything. At the same time he groaned with emphasized delight while his friend watched in horror.

Upon questioning him why he ate the food when his friend didn’t want it, he said that at least his stomach would be full and he could give his portion of dinner to the rest of his family. Two very different characters and so different to the people further north that are so grateful for anything you give them. I hate to be exploited for our generosity and don’t like to dole out money without thinking of the consequences, but with an incident like that one certainly has mixed emotions.

Mozambique was definitely a firm favourite destination for us and we’d only seen the southernmost part of it, as the coastline spreads quite far north. We had fun, we had adventure (although not as much as our two previous trips) and we’d be happy to do it again. 

 

 

If you are keen to drive through Mozambique but feel a tad apprehensive take a look at DRIVEMOZ. They have a wealth of information, and are very helpful.