Episode Two: Gentle People, Lodges Many and Varied (Inhambane to Benguerra Island).
Filling up at approx R7 per litre for diesel at Maxixe, the following day we motored just 155km on an almost pothole free road up to Tofo beach via Inhambane town and parked the Pathfinder amongst battered bakkies, imposing overland trucks and colourful camping Kombis under the bending coconut palms of Bamboozi Lodge and Backpackers - our 'Best Beach Backpackers'. Des, the tanned and long-suffering owner of an establishment that has weathered the ravages of several tropical cyclones, as well as the vagaries of Mozambique's business regulations for many years, regaled us with tales of traveling ladies, fugitives from justice and dives with whale-sharks from the balcony of his dune-top bar and restaurant that has gained the reputation as being one of the regions best. Bamboozi has comfortable family chalets, a huge round thatched dormitory favoured by backpackers, campsites, a resident dive-operator with practice pool and puts on legendary wild theme-party evenings.
With only about 20km to cover on day 5, we had time to explore Tofo and Tofinho where literally dozens of beach houses have been built, as well as to walk around Inhambane which, with its well-kept colonial villas, wide clean avenues and uncommercialized municipal market, is perhaps the nicest town in Mozambique. Here I was pleased to find that an old favourite called Pachiça Guesthouse (Best Guesthouse) that had been declining over the years was under new, enthusiastic and competent management and being tastefully renovated. Pachiça's name refers to the bags of coal once carried on the heads of slaves and reflects a desire by the proprietor to retain an authentically Mozambican ambience, and to foster a culture as timeless as the tides that rise and fall in front of the house. A welcome deviation from the proliferation of South-African oriented places - great local dishes too.
Ponta da Barra and the adjacent Barra beach are one of the most picturesque stretches along Mozambique's 2700km long coastline. The 7km long access road to the well-established Barra Lodge (Best Beach Lodge) used to be for 4x4's only but has now been upgraded to allow access by skillfully driven sedan cars. The lodge has evolved from a modest fishing camp into an extensive hotel-style operation with a large range of comfortable chalets, a full choice of beach and water sports, live entertainment at the beachside restaurant and a well stocked poolside buffet and bar. Standards of rooms and service are high and with a well-trained staff and competent management are likely to be maintained.
For many regular visitors to Mozambique, anywhere past Inhambane is regarded to be 'Northern Mozambique' and therefore not for the faint-hearted or soft-chassied. Certainly north of Maxixe, where we had a drink at the 'Stop' restaurant and watched the dhow taxis deliver commuters to the shore, the road deteriorates sharply and jagged verges and sharp-rimmed potholes become a serious hazard to drivers in too much of a hurry to avoid them. I must admit that I hit a few harder than is comfortable but the Pathfinders 255/65R17 tyres and agile suspension took most of the impact and allowed me to get away with a few bad choices of route without my passengers noticing too much.
Morrungulo Lodge (or Nelson's Bay to the Old Hands) was started by ex-Zimbabwean Dave Nelson (who died last year) in the early 1970's and despite the intervening 1976 – 1992 civil war, the Nelson family in the form of Dave's son Andy have managed to hold on to Morrungulo and upgrade it to the 'Best Family Resort' that it is today. Morrungulo does not (yet) have a restaurant and so we went next door to La Rosa (also called Sylvia Shoal) lodge and enjoyed 2M beers and Rosa's seafood dishes prepared in the real Mozambican style. Morrungulo's beachfront chalets are spacious enough to accommodate a large family while the kitchen is equipped to cater to many hungry mouths. Nestled in a coconut grove that flows right onto an unspoilt beach with safe swimming and excellent diving on the famed Sylvia Shoal, Morrungulo is ideal for kids, whether you set up your tents in the shady campsite or occupy one of the thatched chalets.
By this sixth day of our whistle-stop tour, we were starting to feel a bit run-down and even the Pathfinder seemed to share our feelings as the oil warning light started to flicker requiring a very slight top up showing that the sensor is indeed very sensitive. Andy at Morrungulo made sure that we sat down to a full breakfast at his house overlooking the magnificent bay before we headed north and turned off just past Massinga to Pomene. The 55km long track becomes increasingly sandy and close to the derelict old Pomene Hotel we were waved down by a concerned looking fellow from the Free State who wanted to know how far it was to Vilankulo. I at first wanted to play along with what could only be a joke, but when he said he had no map and had just assumed that there would be a road from Pomene up to Vilankulo, I had to break the news to him that he and his party of 5 vehicles towing boats would have to make a very difficult U-turn and backtrack to the main road.
Pomene beach ('Best Beach') is special and the grandeur of the now derelict hotel (Pestana Lda have been sitting on a concession to rebuild it for the past 5 years) showed someone in the past had acknowledged its attractions by investing a sizeable amount of money here. Again our northern-most target of Pebane, 1500km further on to north and across the great Zambezi, did not allow us to overnight but we did discover a brand new place called Pomene View Lodge, owned and run by father and son team Clint and Dave Krause that impressed us so much that we had to add it to the 'Best New Place' category. Pomene View may not be right on the beach, but it has astounding views over the evergreen mangrove estuary and endless Indian Ocean, reasonably priced self-catering chalets, a cliff-edge pool and a breezy, spacious bar/restaurant area.
Just north of Massinga there is a well-equipped roadside tyre repair operation where you can re-pump your tyres should you have deflated them to get to Pomene. From Massinga to Vilankulo the road is so bad (but being re-surfed) that we had drive alongside it for long stretches to avoid the continuous clusters of rim wrecking potholes. We arrived at Zombie Cucumber Backpackers (named after a famous book about Mozambique by Nick Middleton) in Vilankulo after dark and received a warm welcome and a delicious supper from Steph and John who are originally form the UK and have certainly built the 'Best Town Backpackers' (just 100m from the beach too) in Mozambique. It's the kind of place where the beers are always almost frozen, and the guests are laid-back, friendly and full of extraordinary tales about their travels and advice for folk heading the way they have just come from. Steph's cooking attracts residents of nearby up market lodges, and the hot showers and comfy beds in cosy chalets were just what we needed to prepare us for the crossing to luxurious Benguerra Island Lodge the following morning.
While we waited for our boat I checked out the Vilankulo Campsite which resembled an exhibition of all the tents, trailers and other camping paraphernalia that is available out there, and had a fascinating chat with Dave from dhow-safari outfit Sail-Away (apologies to Christopher Cross) who is one of the original new arrivals in Vilankulo after the war, and now runs a slick operation island-hopping in specially fitted dhows. Benguerra's speedboat took just twenty minutes to get us to the crisp, white beach in front of the lodge and as we sipped complimentary cocktails our bags were taken to our tastefully opulent chalets hidden in an indigenous forest – now this is how we deserved to be treated (at last).
Renovations were under way and so the dining and bar area was under temporary canvas and the tables were neatly arranged along the beach. Meals were worth swimming to the island for, and my son Daniel soon made his mind up that if you want luxury (and as much cornflakes as you can eat), in Benguerra Lodge you have found the factory! Apart from Scuba diving and sundowner dhow safaris, guests are also taken on scenic drives to view the croc-invested lakes and climb the huge sand dunes for stunning views. New secluded honeymoon suites with en-suite spa baths are part of the reconstruction, so start saving if you will be in marrying mode soon.