Episode 3: Away From the Crowds and Into the Heart (Rio Save to Pebane).
We flew back to Vilankulo in style with Pelican Air Services, who also have daily scheduled links between Johannesburg, Kruger Mpumalanga International and Vilankulo, and then settled back in the Pathfinder as its leather seats hugged us and its smooth 2.5 turbo-diesel motor effortlessly hauled us across the Save river bridge (Toll fee of Mt20 000), smoothly as far as Muxungue after which the road all but disappeared until around 30km before Inchope at the junction of he E.N.1 and the Beira – Zimbabwe road. Our schedule had us in Gorongosa National Park by that evening, but it had started to rain heavily and setting up tents in a downpour has limited appeal. We had probably some of the best grilled chicken I have ever tasted at a truck stop opposite the curio sellers on the LHS as you arrive in Inchope, and then headed up to Chimoio (capital of Manica Province) for the welcome warmth of Pink Papaya Backpackers, our 'Best Inland Backpackers'.
Pink Papaya had recently relocated from the house next door, owner Helen Large was on holiday at home in the U.K, and renovations, particularly to the plumbing, were not quite completed and so we skipped the cold shower and indulged in some South African produce at the Complexo Shoprite where the range is amazing but the prices around double of those in S.A! Anticipating a scarcity of fuel between Chimoio (no pumps at Inchope, but roadside sellers) and Pebane, we filled everything we had, and it takes a strong heart to cope with handing over nearly R700 for way less than 100 litres of diesel!
The road from Inchope to the turn-off to Gorongosa National Park (one of our Best Game Reserves) is brand-new tar courtesy of USAID and WBHO, and we were surprised to find that finally Parque Nacional da Gorongosa, considered in the 1970's to be the finest in southern Africa, is undergoing a serious rehabilitation program funded by the Carr Foundation and managed by South Africa Dave Falconer. A one-year memorandum of understanding has been signed and chances are good that US$50 million will be invested in a full rehabilitation of the park, including a massive restocking plan over the next 10 years. Even though the remaining game is somewhat skittish, the Pathfinder was so quiet that we got really close to herds before they noticed our presence and dashed for cover. Again we found that even the Park's indistinct tracks appeared on T4A and so we could explore secure in the knowledge that even if we got lost, our Garmin 276C would not.
The 3,770 km² Park includes the Rift Valley floor watered by nearby 1862-meter Mount Gogogo in the Serra da Gorongosa mountain massif. Open savannahs are dotted with patches of acacia trees, dry forests cling to the sands, pans are seasonally rain-filled and termite hill thickets dot the landscape. The plateaus contain miombo and montane forests and there is a wonderful rain forest at the base of a series of dolomitic ravines. This combination of unique features at one time supported some of the densest wildlife populations in all of Africa and over 500 bird species. Chalets have been refurbished, and there is a simple campsite with basic ablutions. Entrance and camping fees are the same as for the Elephant Reserve and there is a plan to build a new main camp overlooking the Pungúè river nearby.
As day 10 of our voyage dawned we would have liked to see more of the Park but duty called us via an overgrown track (more like a footpath) to the fabled Morrombodze Falls (Best 4x4 Track) situated 800m above the plains of Gorongosa Park in the heart of the Gorongosa Mountain Massif. But first we stopped the at Pousada Azul, a little slightly run-down Inn in Gorongosa Town that does 'damn the calories' sausage, omelette and chips breakfasts, and shopped for Capulanas at the clothing market perched above the road on the way out of town. During two previous unsuccessful attempts to drive to the Falls in my ancient off-roader, huge boulders concealed by almost impenetrable elephant grass had forced me to a grinding (ouch!) halt and to continue on foot.
Perhaps to some off-road purists the Pathfinder may 'look' like a 'Soft-Roader' and therefore not really suited to anything rougher than the driveway to a Dullstroom Trout Farm, but it's 17 inch tyres, 238mm ground-clearance, and sure-footed traction system hauled us over the boulders, across rushing mountain streams and up scary gradients to a grassy ridge where we parked 800m above sea-level and walked the last few hundred metres to the cascading falls. Had the weather been warmer (I have never know Moz this wet and cold in July), the rock pools would have been great for a swim, but we settled for gazing at the views over a few beers that we had left in the icy stream to cool.
As it is difficult to see anything ahead, down is often more hairy than up and I did not quite stop the rear plastic bumper from receiving a few hard scrapes during the climb down from Morrombodze. As we headed swiftly (on new tar) north towards the Zambezi River, I did think that perhaps Nissan could do something to the rear end of future Pathfinder models to improve its departure angle a little. M'phingwe Camp (Best Inland Lodge) 30km before Caia is a side-line of James White who owns the Catapu saw-mill and was started in response to the increasing number of overlanders and birders stopping in and asking to camp as there was nowhere else in the area. The timber cabins with communal ablutions are very comfortable, while the two-bed roomed cottage has its own sitting room. Braai lapa, and bathroom. The restaurant serves well cooked and generously sized meals and breakfasts will challenge even those with large appetites. The surrounding forests are a birder's paradise with 75 species already identified in the immediate surroundings of the Camp.
Crossing the Zambezi on one of the two sleek and very efficient brand-new ferries at Caia, is almost like crossing into a different country. North of the Zambezi, before Nacala at least, there are very few (if any) tourist lodges or camps and so here we knew that we would be relying on local places, a refreshing change from resorts where the owners are South African or Zimbabwean, and everyone seems to live just down the road from your own house. With the Pathfinder safely on the ferry (you pay once on board) and a huge fuel tanker just behind I asked the Captain if he could wait just a minute while I took a photo from the shore. As I composed the shot, the ferry roared off and I had to hastily 'charter' one of the smaller boats to get to the north bank – seems the Captain and the motorboat owner could just be in cahoots, but good luck to them as I now could get the shot as the ferry arrived.
As far as Nicoadala where fuel is available, the tar road was in good condition and we took the short detour to Quelimane (capital of Zambezia province) to have lunch with a friend. Quelimane has a Nissan agent and it was a pity that it was the 1200 – 1400 'siesta' break, as we would have like to drive the Pathfinder in and ask for a service just to see the look on their faces! Lunch (as usual) took longer than expected and so by the time we had driven the tar road to Olinga, and the very muddy road to Namacurra where we turned off to Maganja da Costa, the sun was already low and so we missed much of the scenery for the next 200km down to Pebane – our 'Best 'Undiscovered' Beach'.
The town's generator in Pebane only runs until 20h00 and it was very dark and a bit gloomy when we rolled in, but we found a place that sold cold drinks and a person who could direct us to Ponta Matirre which is around 3km out of town. Where the track meets the beach a local fellow has set up a stockade and thatched 'barraca' or lapa with basic ablutions and we pitched tent there, getting up early to take advantage of the light of the sunrise the following morning. Clouds may have robbed us of the light, and the sea was brown due to all the rain, but the sight of dozens of ocean-going dugouts (locally called Mwati) on the beach the following day, made up for our disappointment a little. The fishermen had come down long before dawn, but the rough seas had prevented them from launching their hand-chopped boats and they explained that they had not been able to fish for the past 3 days. We hoped to be able to see how they would manage the big breakers and eventually our patience was rewarded as two dugouts battled their way through foam and disappeared over the horizon.
Pebane is locally renowned for its seafood and so Dave and I sampled the lobster at Pensão Pebane, a meal that did cost only R10 but again involved a 3-hour wait during which we played table soccer with the locals and walked the interesting streets. We had planned for two nights in Pebane, but our next destination, the ruins of remote Massangano Citadel was over 12 hours drive away and so reluctantly we set off south on our return leg, turned off from the main road at a little town called Zero just north of Caia, skirted Morrumbala mountain and camped at the ferry point near the Pinda hot springs. Morrumbala mountain is worth a day or two but we floated across the Shire river on the hand-winched ferry, crossed the 4km long Dona Anna bridge at Mutarara, and turned north up the Zambezi river asking at every village for the best way to Massangano, which was to have been our 'Best Historical Site'.
Not only had no one ever heard of Massangano before, but also by the time we got to Mungári at the turn-off down a 150km dead-end track leading to this intriguing historical site, we had already made the snap decision that Massangano would have to wait for a future adventure. The obvious choice now was to get to the friendly warmth of Ann Bruce's guest-house/backpackers in Mutare, Zimbabwe before border closing time at 18h00, but with stretches of gravel and potholed tar between us and the Beira – Mutare road populated by wobbly cyclists (usually small boys on oversized bicycles - a major hazard on dust and other roads), drunk pedestrians, wandering cattle and goats, we knew that our chances of making it were slim.
An added problem was that, with the pumps long dry in Zimbabwe, we needed to refuel and change money to pay for the diesel and this would surely take longer than we could wait. I have long been a disciple of the dictum that 'things go wrong if you try to hurry in Africa' and so we gave up on the Mutare option, and stopped for supper at 'O Outro Lado' (The Far Side) restaurant situated in a pine forest about 20km from Manica town and 35km from the Zimbabwe border. Meals already ordered and chilled drinks in front of us, a group of Zimbabwean farmers at another table told us that the border now closes at 20h00 (doh!), but we were too exhausted to move very far and so drove down a track and camped for the very cold night.
Not so long ago the transition from Mozambique across the Bvumba Mountains to Zimbabwe was like going from a pre-industrial economy to an almost first-world environment. Now with Zimbabwe reduced (as a customs official put it when he asked me to buy him a soda) to a 'Nation of beggars' (yes, even Mugabe has his palms out), and with Mozambique experiencing one of the highest economic growth rates in the world, the tables have been turned. Ann Bruce's is still the homely, comfortable and secure haven that it has always been since I first found it in 1992, but Mutare's quiet streets were lined with desperate people queuing for sugar and bread, and cars snaked around many blocks from the fuel stations where the 'No fuel' signs were yellowing in the sun.
And then on the 16th day we drove 1200km from Mutare to Johannesburg, arriving surprisingly well rested. I had to remove 5000km of sand, dust, mud and the odd squashed locust from the Pathfinder and reluctantly hand it back to Nissan. What a great vehicle! From now on I know that whenever I head for the far hills and forgotten trails, I will pine for its power, prowess, safety and comfort.