Episode One: Diverging Paths and Languid Lakes (Ponta do Ouro to Quissico).
Accustomed to taking my own aging 4x4 to Moz, I had loaded the Pathfinder with the usual array of tools, recovery equipment, spares, water, food, extra fuel and emergency supplies that I have in the past needed to use (but remained untouched this time), and this took up most of the 515 litres of cargo space behind the 2nd row of seats (the 3rd row folds flat into the bay). Opening the rear door without spilling cargo would have involved some agile contortions, but fortunately Nissan have anticipated this and the Pathfinder has a rear window that opens, making access to baggage much simpler. With camping gear and personal luggage thrown in, it was with a fairly heavily loaded vehicle that we hummed in 6th gear (at 120kph the Pathfinder is remarkably quiet) down the N17 towards Ermelo and after 7 hours arrived at rustic Thobeka backpackers just after KwaNgwanase/Manguzi.
The following morning we re-fueled ourselves and the vehicle at the Steers take-away and at the Total Garage (note that in Mozambique diesel is currently around R7,50 and petrol around R8 per litre), and just half an hour later were standing in Mozambique looking at the soft sand track and contemplating letting air out of the tyres (as everyone else appeared to be doing) having completed the surprisingly streamlined Mozambican formalities (T.I.P, seguros/insurance and passport stamp @ R182) in record time. Note that on the South African side we were not issued with a vehicle form by customs and this did raise some eyebrows when we returned to South Africa via Beitbridge thousands of kilometers and two weeks away.
We covered the 11km maze of diverging and converging dune-sand tracks that snake their way to 'Ponta' with hard tyres (I had pumped them above the recommended 2.4 bar to 2.7 in anticipation of rim-ripping potholes) in 'A' mode on the drive-select dial that transferred power to the wheels that had the greatest traction seamlessly and with not even a hint that low-range might be needed. Even without the three (!) GPS units we had on board (Old model Magellan, Magellan Meridian Colour and a Garmin 276C with T4A/Tracks For Africa maps), it is difficult to get lost as all tracks appear to lead to Ponta do Ouro (our 'Best Resort Town'). In addition the Pathfinder has its own electronic compass that showed our heading on an L.E.D below the rear-view mirror and was a very useful adjunct to the other positioning paraphernalia. As it was the beginning of the South African school holidays, the village of Ponta was already bustling with Gauteng registered 4x4's and the arrival of our Pathfinder attracted quite a lot of envious attention.
Normally a sleepy little seaside village, Ponta do Ouro seasonally becomes something of a South African SUV theme-park and we were grateful to find that the 'O Lar do Ouro' guesthouse where we spent our first night in Mozambique, was near the end of a quiet road a few minutes away from the beach action. From the very clean, comfortable and spacious 'O Lar' with its refreshing pool, and excellent meals, we explored 'Ponta' finding a quite confusing variety of accommodation, food and water-sport service providers, ranging from the sprawling camping site with its resident 'swim with dolphins' and SCUBA camps, to the original Motel from the Portuguese era and Scandals, a great bakery and coffee shop in a colonial mansion. My son Daniel and I surfed the gentle breakers and we watched rugby with the manne at a rooftop restaurant called The Fishmonger before eating delicious seafood pizzas for supper at Restaurante Bulle-Bulle .
On day two with O Lar do Ouro's huge breakfast and a comfortable night's sleep to fortify us, we headed north towards the 'Reserva Especial dos Elefantes do Maputo' or Maputo Elephant Reserve (the first of our 'Best Game Reserves'), stopping in at a new locally-owned camping site called Campismo Linho, at Ponta's Malongane and Mamóli, and at a luxury tented camp called Tartaruga Marítima en-route.
There is a 'secret' southern track to the western entrance of the Elephant Reserve that we did not find and so had to endure the ruts and dips of the main road up to the main gate where we paid our Mt200 000 per adult (kids under 8 are free) and Mt200 000 per vehicle entrance fee to the friendly female guard who told us that we were the first visitors that day and that there was a herd of elephants on the road to Ponta Milibangalala where there is an official camping site. Still in 'A' traction mode the Pathfinder took us confidently and remarkably smoothly along the deep sandy tracks that wind under forests of Mahogany and Combretum trees, and alongside the rippling blue lakes that make this Reserve one of the truly 'undiscovered' parts of southern Africa, and all this just an hour's drive south of the sprawling 'bairros' of Maputo City. We did need to reduce tyre pressure to 2 bar and engage 'low-range' to get through a particularly deep and loose stretch of sand before finding the elephants browsing peacefully in the reeds and were privileged to be able to watch them for over an hour in complete solitude, an interesting contrast to busy Ponta do Ouro less than 100km to the south.
It took us an hour from the Reserve's main gate to get to Catembe, a village hugging the southern shores of Maputo Bay, and from where, at night, the skyscrapers of Maputo resemble a kind of African Mannhatten. I noted on arrival at the charming Catembe Gallery Hotel (Best Boutique Hotel) that the Pathfinder's computer put our fuel consumption so far at just 9,8 litres per 100km! My own calculation supported this figure and was well below the 15 litres/100 that I had planned for. Despite Monday evenings usually being the quietest time for the Hotel's Legendary (for it's prawns) Marisol Restaurant, the staff rallied around and produced delicious seafood platters before we soothed our weary muscles in the spa baths, appreciated Maputo sparkling across the bay from private balconies, and slept soundly to the gentle lapping of waves against the shoreline.
Koenraad, the owner of the Catembe Gallery Hotel which has been declared a National Heritage Site, arranges regular cultural evenings with performers and bands coming from Maputo and beyond, as well as day tours of the Elephant Reserve in custom-built game-viewing vehicles. While we crossed on the ferry to Maputo, I considered that, with its comfortable family rooms, luxurious penthouse suites, swimming pool, private jetty and excellent food, Catembe Gallery could welcome Presidents and grubby travelers alike.
Our dedication to a very ambitious itinerary was severely tested in Maputo where we had been invited to stay at the gracious and historical 5-Star Hotel Polana (Best City Hotel), but had to settle for a tour of the sprawling grounds and palatial rooms, and a swim in the huge swimming pool. We then opted for the 4x4 track directly north from the 'Marginal' or beach road that passes the Costa do Sol and is an alternative to the crush of taxis and buses on the usual main road north to Xai-Xai and beyond, and proved, in places, to be one of the roughest routes on our entire trip. If we had not been using the T4A map, we could easily have lost our way.
We rejoined the Estrada Nacional 1 (E.N.1) at the village of Marracuene which overlooks a bend in the Incomati River, and found that the reported road works up to Xai-Xai (where I noticed that unleaded petrol was available at BP) had largely been completed. The white-shirted Transit Police that have gained a (largely undeserved I think) bad reputation for demanding bribes from hapless drivers waived us by and seemed to be concentrating on pulling over the rickety and overloaded mini-bus taxis. Years of experience has conditioned me to almost automatically begin hooting wherever I see people near the road or stopped buses, trucks, cars etc ahead to warn pedestrians and drivers, and I am sure that this has allowed me to drive tens of thousands of kilometers throughout Mozambique without serious incident (touch wood).
The category of 'Best New Place' introduced its own set of problems as it was not possible to get unbiased reviews about places not even officially open (owners will naturally be overly generous with their praises) and so I had taken something of a leap of faith when I decided to put Mar E Sol Resort into this slot. Turning off 330km north of Maputo just after the picturesque town of Quissico which overlooks the beautiful coastal lakes that gave it its name, it was already nightfall when we followed a scenic track that crossed a long 'Bailey' steel bridge, skirted the lake and ended at the base of forested dunes where South Africans Leonard and Helena are running a campsite and have begun building roomy chalets. Mare E Sol is presently self-catering but Elsie fed us a great supper and breakfast, and we found the clean ablution block had plenty of hot water.