Back in 2003, two close friends of mine had moved to Australia to help set up a company for one of their fathers and, due to visa conditions, had to leave the country every few months. Instead of flying back to South Africa, which is a huge schlep, they just popped off to Thailand for a week and went back to Oz. Now, every time they did this, they would send pics of the latest beach, with perfect clear blue water, they had visited just to make us feel jealous (and don’t say anything about SA having great beaches, we all know foreign beaches are always better than your home beach).
So, here we were, the left behinds, looking at these beautiful beaches and looking at our dismal bank balances and thinking how we could also have a tropical beach holiday, but on a much tighter budget. The fact was, Thailand was out of the question. BUT, we can do the next best thing for a whole whack less. Another close friend of mine, Simon (French pronunciation, nickname Moo), and I decided we would do a road trip up to Mozambique for a little 11 day break.
Before my folks had kids and before Mozambique’s civil war (1977-1992/4 the fighting having ended in ’92 but negotiations being completed with elections taking place in ’94), they used to go there on holiday quite often and showed us a few pics my dad had taken back then. It looked idyllic. Beautiful, long, empty beaches, hammocks slung between palm trees and super friendly people. We would plan our trip so that we could stop at a few places that they used to frequent. We planned the trip, budgeted for it and worked it out that the whole trip, including petrol, visas, food and accommodation would cost both of us less than the ticket for one of us to fly to Thailand. Fantastic, let’s do it.
Now, remember, this was back in 2003. There were no iPods, no GPS (for us at least) and Mozambique was still recovering from a very long and bloody civil war (this fact is pertinent to a later part of this story). The reason I mentioned no iPods is that any music we wanted to take would either have to be on tape or an mp3 CD plugged into Moo’s car stereo AUX jack. Also, as a member of the South African AA, I was eligible for free maps for our trip which I got from one of their outlets as well as information on what we would need to take (all car paperwork, 2 hazard triangles, ZA stickers for the car, etc.). We had all of this sorted out including enough music to last us a long time. The day arrived, everything (we thought) packed, we were ready to go. We hit the road early and, knowing that we had to take the N2 freeway North for about 6 hours, didn’t bother to check the maps as we would only need to refer to them later. Also, while we were near the big city, we decided to listen to a bit of radio first. Our first couple of mistakes right there.
About 3 hours north the signal from the radio station we were listing to started to go so it was time to plug in those tunes. Where are the Discman and CDs? 3 Hours back at home in Westville. Great, too late to turn back just for tunes. Lets see what we do have? After a little scratch around we came up with Snap’s “World Power” album on tape. Yes, I am that old. That was it. OK, we thought, let’s pop that bad boy in and go retro (even in 2003 Snap was a little retro). We both liked Snap, how bad could this be (remember, this is an 11 day trip with a LOT of driving).
To get to Mozambique from Durban, you have to drive through Swaziland. Crossing the SA/Swaziland border was an absolute breeze and we were half way to Maputo, our first stop, to spend a night with a friend who happened to be living there at the time. While driving through one of the National Parks that the main freeway bisected, we saw a cautionary road sign that said “Road Failure Ahead”. What the hell is “Road Failure?” we were wondering while driving at the posted 80km per hour speed limit. Then the road kind of disappeared under us and I swear we were airborne for a second. After a very heart pounding few seconds Moo got the bakkie (a bakkie is what Americans call a truck and what Australians call a ute) under control and we carried on at a much safer rate. Swaziland is a strange little country with strange little towns that look like they are caught in a time warp. Everything looks like it was transported from 1970’s South Africa. For us, it was a little weird and we would have liked to explore a bit more but we were on a schedule and the failed road had put us a bit behind so we pressed on. Next up, Swazi/Mozambique border.
When we did our research on this trip, we learned that we would need the car’s registration papers with us in order to get into Mozambique (it is not a necessity to carry them in SA and did not need them for Swaziland). Now, where did we put them? Ahhh, probably sitting with the Discman and CDs 530km away back in Westville. Now I am going to admit that at this moment, we were both a little grumpy as we had been driving since about 3:00 and we were being told we would have to drive back and get them. Durban is a 5:30 hour drive from the Mozambique border so not a prospect we were cherishing. While we were discussing our options a very friendly Mozambican customs official let us know that, as it was very hot that day, he was very “thirsty” and we could buy him some “water” and, as a gesture of gratitude for this “water” he would let us into Mozambique without our papers, but, he warned us that if we were stopped by any police while there, we would probably have to buy them some “water” too as it is very hot at this time of year in Mozambique and officials there sometimes get very “thirsty”. Great. After a R250 bottle of “water” we were on our way again. OK, now that we are in Mozambique, we need to refer to our maps. Let’s look for the maps. Where are the maps you ask? Probably sitting with the Discman, CDs and car paperwork. Ok, another scratch around to see what we do have? We have a very old AA Road Atlas of South Africa (from the mid ‘80s). Great, we are not in South Africa any more. Luckily, it did include the major roads of southern Mozambique, all the way up to Inhambane, which was where we were ultimately heading so we figured we could get away with just having this. Who needs detailed maps anyway?
Without a detailed map of Maputo, it took us a while to find our way to our friend’s place but got there eventually, unloaded the bakkie and had a much needed shower (their building had water and power at that time so we were lucky, they had just gone three days without either). We popped out to the fish market with them and got some lovely fresh fish to cook for dinner and they had planned on taking us out to a club later to sample a little of the local nightlife. Dinner was fantastic and the company was awesome. What time are we hitting the club? 8? 9? No, this is Maputo. Clubs very rarely even open before 11. Now, I am not really a club person and normally, if I am not out of the house by 9 that’s it, I am not going, but we were having a great time and were on holiday and wanted to experience the country properly. 10:30 we leave the house and go to a local bar as a warm up because the club we are going to doesn’t open till midnight. Neither Moo nor I are big drinkers but we had a couple at the bar and finally went off to the club, which was completely empty until about one in the morning when all of a sudden, it was packed. The club (sorry, can’t remember the name) was an old converted hotel with the dance floor in the lobby and balconies looking down from the second floor. The DJ was in a booth somewhere (difficult to find in the crowd once they had arrived) and they had some guys accompanying the music on Congo and bongo drums positioned half way up the stairs to the second floor. Although I did not drink much that night, I still can’t remember much about the place as we were both pretty tired from being up since 3:00 and driving all day but I think we got home as dawn was breaking. Just enough time to get a little sleep before we hit the road North, heading for the campground at Xai-Xai (pronounced Shy-Shy).
Wake up, pack the bakkie and hit the road by 10 as we had a good few hours drive ahead and did not want to be pitching a tent in the dark. Luckily, once again, there really is just one main highway heading up the coast from Maputo so, once we had navigated our way out of the city on to the correct road heading North, we didn’t really need any maps and as Xai-Xai is a main town, it was well signposted. We had to stop for fuel at a petrol station at the intersection of the main highway and the road to Praia do Xai-Xai (Xai-Xai Beach) and, while there, stocked up on the local specialty, fire roasted cashew nuts. Absolutely amazing (although, on another trip to Mozambique years later, I found that the peanuts are just as good, if not better). At the petrol station there were kids everywhere trying to sell you cashews or peanuts or just about anything they can and, in the corner was a wiry old man in a zebra print Stetson holding a sjambok (a sjambok is a long whip the Southern African locals use when herding cattle). He was there to keep an eye on all the street vendors and as soon as he could see that the tourists (us) had bought what we wanted and did not want to be bothered, he rushed out and laid into anyone who even came near us. Now, this sounds a bit cruel as most of the vendors are little kids but to them it was all a bit of a game, seeing who could try to sell more stuff to the tourist before getting a smack and him seeing if he could still catch the little buggers, what with him being 70 years old in the shade. Petrol tank full, bag of cashews in hand, it was time to hit the campground and beach.
Paria do Xai-Xai is a great little seaside holiday place with a completely dilapidated, burnt out hotel right on the beach (remember, Mozambique had had a civil war from 1977 through to 1992 when fighting ended. This was just 11 years before we were there and, without massive foreign investment, not much had changed since then). The campground was great though, with newly built ablution blocks and a little restaurant on the property. Once we had found a nice place to pitch our tent, we were approached by a little guy about 10 or 12 who offered to do anything we needed around the camp, including cooking and running any errands. We asked if he went to school and he said he did but could skip it for us. We agreed that he had to go to school but could come and work after that. We gave him some cash to buy some pão (wonderful Portuguese rolls) on his way after school and we all set about pitching camp. We planned to do a bit of snorkelling the next day on the local reef but unfortunately it had been raining and the water was pretty dirty, what with the mouth of the Limpopo River being just a few kilometers down the coast. The reef right on the beach has a huge gap in it that was made by South African mine managers who used to come here before the war started in 1977 and wanted a safe place to launch their boats to do some fishing. Now, if you want a safe place to launch your boat and there is a huge reef in front of you and, you have access to explosives and the expertise to use them, of course the logical thing to do is smuggle some into the country and blast a bloody great hole in it. Anyway, as I said, the water was really dirty and instead of spending two full days there we decided to hit the road a day early to go further north to a place called Ponta Zavora.
Now, on the map we had, we could see the distance between Xai-Xai and Inhambane, and we could see Ponta Zavora on the coast, but there was no road linking the freeway and Zavora. The freeway runs sort of parallel to the coast but does end up a bit inland at times to avoid the many lakes that dot the coast of this area. We could see that Zavora was about half way between the two and figured we would be lucky and it would be signposted. We hit the road ready for some clean water to snorkel in as my folks had described the reef running out from the beach at a bit of an angle and opening up at the end about 150m into the sea into a big, round, protected area about 3m deep at its deepest and about 20x30m in an oval. This sounded great and as there were no major rivers near there, the water would be clean. We drove for quite a while and were just trying to figure out if we had missed a turn or if, since 1977, Zavora had just disappeared off the map, when we started seeing wooden posts on the side of the road at about 50m intervals with little red signs nailed to them. On closer inspection, the little red signs were actually warning signs letting us know that this was a mined area and it was probably not a good idea to leave the road. The people who put the signs up didn’t seem to have had enough and all the signs were actually broken in half and only half a sign was put on each post. We decided, as we had not seen the turn yet, we must have missed it and we would push on through to Inhambane. Just as we had decided that, we saw a guy kneeling down on the ground in body armour and a helmet with a blast visor and a little spade in his hand. He was digging up mines. We slowed down to check him out and lo and behold, on the opposite side of the road was a turnoff with a very faded Marlin sign stating this was the turnoff to Ponta Zavora. Now what? There were no mine signs on this side of the road and the dirt road to Zavora was dug about a meter below the surrounding land so maybe it was safe. We decided, as the road looked relatively new and newly used, it must be safe, just don’t leave it, so we turned and headed on down. We eventually arrived at this strange place that had a campground and restaurant/bar overlooking a beautiful, long, white sand beach. When we stuck our heads in at the bar the first thing the owner asked was “Are you lost?”. “No” we said, “we actually meant to come here”. Turned out he had been living here for a few years and was technically the lighthouse keeper, although the government had no money for maintenance so it was strictly a radio beacon lighthouse, the bulb for the light having long since blown and no replacement would be sent in the foreseeable future. We asked where we could pitch camp and the answer was pretty much anywhere, but he recommended we camp on the top of the dune, next to an old holiday house (there were many old holiday houses along the top of the dune, Zavora being a place where the rich from Lorenzo Marques – now renamed Maputo – would holiday). Some of the places were just shells, some were in the process of being fixed up as holiday rentals. There was a swamp on the other side of the dune and the onshore breeze off the sea would keep the majority of the malaria carrying mosquitoes away which sounded great as, when we were in Xai-Xai, we had mistakenly left a small gap in the zip of our tent and were woken up in the middle of the night being eaten alive. The inside of my tent still looks like someone was attacked by a bear in there as we went on a mozzy killing rampage and all the blood they had taken from us is now spread all over the inside of it.
Ponta Zavora is a magical place and the snorkelling is just as perfect as my folks had described. We spent four fantastic days there exploring the old lighthouse (couldn’t get inside unfortunately), swimming and snorkelling till we couldn’t any more. Fresh pao was brought every day by an old guy on a bicycle and fish bought from the locals was perfect, so fresh directly from the sea. After Zavora, it was time to head north again to Inhambane.
The rest of the drive north was uneventful and we found a great place in Inhambane to camp at Praia do Tofo, right in the lee of the dunes where they had built a restaurant overlooking the beach and sea that served the best coconut crab curry I have ever had. One of the little snorkelling trips we did was to some very shallow rock pools and while pulling ourselves over very shallow spots, we noticed a small lion fish sitting on the side of a rock. Now, while not deadly, the spines of a lion fish can give a very painful sting and on closer inspection of the surrounding rocks, we started noticing them everywhere. They are so well camouflaged that you only really notice them by mistake unless you are specifically looking for them. It seemed we had stumbled into the proverbial lion’s den.
When we had pulled in to the campground at Inhambane, we drove in until we could not drive any more as we had become stuck in the soft beach sand. Luckily, we were not blocking any areas and we were allowed to just leave our car where it was till we left. When we did want to leave, it took a few people to help us push the car out and we were on the road again. We left earlyish in the morning as we had to get back to Maputo in one go (we had broken it into three stages on the way up). We spent another lovely night with friends in Maputo and back on to the road back through Swaziland to Durban the next day. On two of the occasions that we stopped on the drive back, the car would not start. It was not a battery problem but the starter motor would not turn over so we had to push start the car through the Swazi/SA boarder, much to the amusement of the officials. I said it sounded like the starter motor had somehow got sand in it. Moo said it was impossible as it is a sealed unit. Anyway, on getting home he and his dad took the starter off and what did they find in there? Shit tons of sand.
A fantastic trip to Mozambique with Snap’s “I got the power” blasting over and over and over and over………….. Brilliant trip and this little trip down memory lane has made me really want to do another road trip. Soon. Check out the pics below.
All shot on Ilford B&W film.