To Moz and back…

A short (ahem) recap of my trip to Mozambique – pictures might have to wait until I return to the land of broadband.

UPDATE: Pictures are on Flickr –

The Drive
We (Yuval, Shannon, Alba and myself) started off innocently enough driving to Maputo on good South African roads (i.e. tar road with signs, markings and occasionally a few cat’s eyes). We stayed at the lovely Villa Italia in Maputo overlooking the warm Indian Ocean. So far so good. We woke up the next morning and discovered that Vilanculos (our gateway to the Bazaruto Archipelago) was about 700kms from Maputo, not the 300km that we had originally thought. Doh!

The second part of our drive was through some of the poorest excuses for roads I have ever seen, essentially enormous dongas with just enough surrounding tar to make you think they’re driveable. Joy. After a few hours of slogging through this, we realized that we were still about 400kms from Vilanculos and that it was getting dark – very dark. We headed out on a dirt road for Ponte Zaforia (which featured a tent symbol on our aging map) and immediately announced ourselves on arrival as city slickers by getting our car stuck in a huge mound of soft beach sand. Luckily we managed to maroon ourselves in the middle of a tribe of beer-swilling, wors-gobbling, boer-maak-‘n-plan type people who showed us city slickers how our 4×4 could be used for something other than mounting pavements in a Sandton parking emergency.

After a night of heavy rain which our flimsy Pick’n’Pay Hypermarket tents managed to weather fairly successfully, we engaged the trusty 4×4 and picked our way out of the sandy camping grounds. Onwards we pushed to Vilanculos. Again, the roads were moderately awful and the 300 odd kilometers that we had left to cover turned into a good six or seven hours of painful bouncing, shocks squeaking, metal complaining and ipod battery expiring all too quickly. All of this taking place against a gorgeous backdrop of light jungle vegetation, groves of coconut palms as far as the eye can see, estuaries of sunken mangroves teeming with flamingoes and beautiful sandy beaches inhabited by hordes of curious, introspective crabs and littered with fantastic shells. Occasionally the vegetation was punctuated by poverty-stricken villages consisting of a few rehabilitated buildings, reed shacks and young children leaping into the road with bags of roasted cashew nuts.

The Islands
When we finally managed to arrive in Vilanculos we were suitably impressed by the two ATM machines as well as the glorious palm-spotted stretch of coastline. We set sail the next morning for the tiny island of Margaruque – our first contact with the Bazaruto Archipelago. After snorkelling and lounging around on the sandbank in the middle of the bay, we sailed onto Benguera Island where we would be staying in glorified thatched umbrellas on the beach for the next few days.

The island was beautiful and we spent our time eating, snorkelling and swimming in the warm tropical waters which gently lapped up against the beach outside our open doorway. New Year’s Eve was an experiment in antimalarials, Jack Daniels and a strange melange of traditional African drumming and serious beach breakdancing with a bit of Felix da Housecat and the Scissor Sisters tossed in for good measure.

Our return trip was the first sour note in a trip which had gone pretty smoothly until this point. We had stayed an extra day on the island, so we returned with a boatful of British volunteer aid workers from Namibia – a number of whom had cheerfully contracted malaria. Our crew consisted of three extremely chirpy locals (one of them nattily dressed in an Osama Bin Laden t-shirt with the words “Jihad Fisahbilla” lettered on the back) who spoke halting gestural English. Sun shining, we set sail for the mainland in our wooden dhow with it’s single feeble motor spluttering out 15 horses of power. An easy crossing this was not to be. The gloriously calm ocean of our first three days had been replaced by surging, aggressive waves and enormously fat clouds racing rapidly to cover every inch of the sky. Problem.

Yuval and I, cleverly having chosen to sit by the lifejackets and fins, joked that we could quietly slip on lifejackets, fins and masks and pretend that there was nothing amiss. After an hour of the boat being tossed around the ocean like a hot potato with a whiningly ineffective motor, we passed out lifejackets with straight faces and attempted to focus on the thin strip of mainland which never seemed to get closer and could occasionally be spotted when the boat was carried to the top of a swell. The Brits had started singing bawdy salty dog-type sea shanties and were rapidly degenerating into Christmas carols and hymns. We entertained fantasies of throttling them into silence, or at least into slightly more uptempo numbers. Thankfully, someone heard our plea, the clouds opened and thick heavy raindrops coerced them into nervous quiet.

After three and a half hours of being literally lashed by each wave that approached our flimsy wooden excuse for a vessel and numerous attempts by the Indian Ocean to capsize us, we finally made it to shore, by which I mean waist-high water. We grabbed our sodden bags and before we had managed to move even half of them off the boat, as a parting gift from the aquatic gods, we were greeted by a thunderstorm of such fierce intensity that it was almost impossible to see more than twenty meters in any direction. Now, completely soaked with sea-water, rain water and smelling like rotting clams, we squelched our way shelter where we attempted to salvage what we could from our bags.

We stayed in a wooden house on stilts for the next few days. Vilanculos is a tiny strip of ruined buildings, useless petrol stations, attractive bungalow resorts and many dodgy restaurants. We spent a fair amount of time in the local market, initially fending off pickpockets, then enjoyed many hours of wandering through the shady alleys separating the stalls. The market offered spare car parts, large quantities of second hand clothes (the result of foreign aid), intricately printed cloth (featuring the Pope, chickens, 50 cent, and once, President Joaquim Chissano) and eager tailors with foot-driven sewing machines, withered carrots and rotting bananas, coconuts and pineapples and smellier dried fish than anything I have seen in Asia.

After three days, we attempted to leave Vilanculos only to discover that the petrol stations were all dry. Joy. We eventually managed to score some petrol in the dodgiest refuelling I have ever done, outside a shack in a township, siphoning suspicious looking petrol from 25 litre jerry cans while the entire town looked on. Our tank quarter full, we blew that rice paddy and headed straight for Tofo – a beautiful stretch of beach about 300km down the coast.

Tofo and the way back
We managed to arrive in Tofo without incident and immediately commandeered the Honeymoon Suite at Bamboozi Backpackers – a gorgeous hut perched on top of the sand dunes overlooking the beach. Shannon + Yuval launched into an intensive diving program, while Alba and I explored the village, encountering the largest chicken known to man – Ambrosio. Our last day in Tofo, a day which came to be known as Black Friday began when we discovered that Alba’s camera had been stolen from our bedroom. After a period of seething silence, Alba started muttering murderous things along the lines of “I’m going to grate their faces” and we jumped on a hybrid dinghy/speedboat to go snorkelling with whale sharks. Tofo is a whale shark breeding ground and we found a number of the amorous beasties lurking around trying to impress all and sundry with their beautiful spots, ponderous swimming and large suckerfish (remoras).

The whale sharks were the brightest spot in a looong and stressful day which eventually left us broken down on the outskirts of Xai-Xai while some “bush” mechanics attempted to bypass our petrol filter with the inside of a Bic pen. We managed to get our petrol filter bypassed and limped along to Praia do Xai Xai (the beach resorts) where we luxuriated in airconditioning and the single Portugese satellite channel, before setting off for Maputo the next morning. We managed to scrounge up a brand new GUD filter in Maputo and gingerly headed for the border and our first encounter with Mozambican institutional corruption AKA the polizai.

We’d heard many stories about the legendary corruption of the Moz police force and so we’d prepared a number of authorized copies of our important documents (driver’s licence, passport etc) to be handed to these people in lieu of the real thing so they couldn’t blackmail us by confiscating them. Unfortunately, Alba was so eager to be of service to the nice Mozambican police officer that she handed over my original driver’s licence when he pulled us over doing 68 in a 60 zone. Gah! After a bit of pleading, a few failed attempts at negotiation and bribery and watching a number of other drivers whizz past at 120+ km/hr, I managed to coax him into giving my licence back and we fled for the border.

Now onto Cape Town…