The Best (just about) Of Mozambique – In a Nissan Pathfinder.
"You have come to the factory..."
I was recently at a presentation given by a pair of South African Microlight aircraft pilots who described how while they were flying up the west coast of South America they landed to refuel at a small town in Columbia, a country notorious as a producer of illicit drugs. A policeman approached them and, after making a half-hearted search of their baggage, asked whether they wanted to buy cocaine. While they were desperately trying to explain that they had no interest in anything illegal, but were actually on their way to Cape Town via North America, Greenland, Europe and Africa, the officer added with a knowing smile: 'because you have come to the factory'.
Even after thirteen fascinating years of traveling in and writing about Mozambique, after each venture through that coconut curtain I still get back to the stressful, smoky, sunny city of Johannesburg wondering how to do justice to a country that I have watched (and helped, I hope) go from "todos estragada" (everything destroyed) in 1992 to 'muito movamento" (a heck of a lot happening) in 2005. As this June/July 2005 trip had the objective of discovering the (so-called) "Best" of most of what Mozambique currently offers for the visitor, I think that with each new day this 'factory' analogy became increasingly apt as we pointed our Nissan Pathfinder towards the next elusive "source or origin" (i.e. the factory) of whatever 'the best' in the particular category may turn out to be. Hence perhaps: You want the best? 'You have come to the factory!'
Compared to South Africa, Mozambique has never been an easy place to visit or to do business in, but recently the Maputo government took everyone by surprise by finally dropping the visa requirement for South African passport holders. Anyone who has endured the indignity and irritation of the visa queues either at a chaotic consulate or at a hot, stinking border post, will agree that it suddenly became far more pleasant and easy to get into Mozambique. As we headed for the Farazela/Ponta do Ouro border post from Johannesburg via Ermelo, Jozini and Kwa-Ngwanase (Manguzi), I was debating with my companions (Dave Pierson and my 8-year-old son Daniel) as to whether the expected flood of eager South Africans would benefit Mozambique or prove to be a deluge of bad money and even worse manners that would sweep away the friendly smiles and charming Portuguese/African/Arabian mix of culture, food and lifestyle.
My sense that finally Mozambique's 'time has come' must have been shared by someone influential at Nissan South Africa, as despite my description of our route including some serious 'goat paths' and almost every type of terrain remotely navigable in a 4x4 over a distance of nearly 5000km through South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe in just over two hectic weeks, they agreed to let us put a brand-new sleek-green Pathfinder 2.5 dCi 6MT (yes, that means 6-speed manual gearbox!) 4x4 through its paces with no questions asked. While this is not a story about the Pathfinder, and I will try not to bore you too much with its performance, I challenge anyone to retrace our tread-marks with the same time-constraints and wet weather in any other vehicle without becoming severely unstuck (or stuck) as the case may be.
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.
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.
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.
Mozambique's Main Points.
- Visas no longer needed by South Africans, BUT all other nationalities (except for Malawians) need visas which are best obtained at a Consulate before your trip, but are also issued at all borders and airports for around US$30.
- Cell phone Reception (if you don't have International Roaming, buy an M-Cell 'Pronto a Falar' Starter Pack for about R20): We got a signal on M-Cell in and around Ponta do Ouro, Maputo (Catembe), along most of the E.N.1 up to Inhambane, Massinga, Vilankulo, Inchope, Gorongosa Town, Caia, Quelimane, Guro, Manica and in Zimbabwe on International Roaming in and around Mutare, Masvingo and Beit Bridge.
- Medical Rescue Insurance is essential as an Air Evacuation costs hundreds of thousands, there are no top-class hospitals in Mozambique, and your medical aid will not cover you over the border. We used TIC (Travel Insurance Consultants) based in Johannesburg who offer full cover for R12 per person per day. Contact Kim Justus (011) 780 3300, website: www.tic.co.za
- The Law: Wear seatbelts, carry driver's license and passport (if away from tourist lodges), car must have 2 red warning triangles, one tied to front of car if towing. Good manners and courtesy are the best protection against being fined in Mozambique.
- Getting Lost is what may happen to you if you are in a hurry (as we most certainly were), and are not too familiar with the purpose and use of a map (see 'Best Beach). To avoid costly and frustrating wrong turns and wild-goose chases, I was given the Meridian Colour GPS by Magellan, and a well wisher has supplied his personal Garmin MapSource 276C loaded with Tracks4Africa maps.
- Money is Meticais (Mt) and do take along a calculator as R1 gets you Mt3600, while US$1 gets your Mt24 000. Avoid the street changers - better rates and safer at banks and Cambios (Bureaux de Change). Cash Rands are best but Credit Cards (Visa and MasterCard) are accepted at some resorts so enquire before departure, BUT Travellers Cheques are virtually useless. Generally, Mozambique is a more expensive place in which to travel than South Africa.
- Malaria is prevalent throughout Mozambique and, as Malaria is still one of Africa's biggest causes of death, there is no doubt that taking preventative tablets is essential. I took Doxycycline and my son was on Mefloquine. Consult your doctor.
- Roads are constantly being resurfaced but even the best are not nearly as good as those in South Africa so don't expect to average more than 80km/hour. Through the many towns and villages on the E.N.1 the limit is 60km/hour and this is strictly enforced by the Transit Police using laser traps. Hoot whenever your see people or parked buses/bakkies/trucks etc up ahead as engines are left idling and they will not hear you coming. Speeding and driving at night are very bad ideas.
- Petrol (Gasolina) and Diesel (Gasoléo) are easily available for around R8 and R7 respectively but I have only seen unleaded ('sem chumbo' sometimes mistakenly 'sem plumbo') petrol as far north as Maxixe and also in Beira.
- Food can be bought fresh at local markets, and the local pão (small white loaf), is baked fresh every day almost everywhere. Outside of Maputo supermarkets are not well stocked and the prices are high.
- Border Formalities: No visas needed for South Africans, passports must be valid for more than 6 months, you must have original vehicle registration papers and obtain a TIP (Temporary Import Permit Mt 25 000) and Seguros (3rd Party Insurance R120) at the Moz side of the border or risk very heavy fines.
- Weather: It can rain during January to April, is windy from September to November and get quite cool from June to August; otherwise it is quite dry and hot.
Best Ways to Contact the Best:
Best Way to Stay on Track:
Get yourself a GPS and make sure that it is loaded with accurate and usable maps. For Magellan models go to www.pertec.co.za, tel Johannesburg (011) 805 1996, and for the Garmin receivers go to www.avnic.co.za, tel Johannesburg (011) 704 6147. For information about the mission and utility of Tracks4Africa and to download the T4A maps (currently only compatible with Garmin MapSource software), go to www.tracks4africa.co.za
Best Resort Town
PONTA DO OURO - Just 10km from the South African border near Kosi Bay, "Ponta" (as it's affectionately known) offers a wide range of activities ranging from Scuba Diving to swimming with wild dolphins and accommodation ranging from cosy camping to homely hotels.
Rates: R450 per person, DBB (high season).
Best Game Reserves:
MAPUTO ELEPHANT RESERVE AND GORONGOSA NATIONAL PARK: Think of a combination of the Natal North Coast, the Okavango Delta and the Transkei Wild Coast and you've got a hint of the magnificent Maputo Elephant Reserve. In central Mozambique and once considered to be the finest wildlife refuge in East Africa, Gorongosa National Park is at long last being restored to its former status.
Contact: There is good info on the Elephant Reserve at www.overland.co.za and general info on Gorongosa at www.gorongosa.net Catembe Gallery Hotel do day trips to the Elephant Reserve, see 'Best Boutique Hotel' below.
Rates: Mt200 000 per person and vehicle entrance, Mt200 000 per night camping. Furnished Chalets are available at Chitengo in Gorongosa.
Best Boutique Hotel:
Rates: From R350 per person B&B.
Best City Hotel:
HOTEL POLANA: A stately 5-star Maputo landmark for eighty years, the Polana's pool alone would cover an area bigger than the entire floor space of most other hotels - and the views are all the way across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar.
Rates: From R1000 per room B&B. (There are special vacation packages).
Best New Place(s):
(1) MAR E SOL: In the heart of Mozambique's Lagoon Coast near an isolated beach tucked between an azure lake and the wide blue ocean.
Contact: (Best to send an SMS) Mozambique: Leonard 0925 88 227 2753, Helena 0925 88 227 2754
Rates: Presently camping only @ R70 per person.
(2) POMENE VIEW LODGE: With breathtaking views and excellent facilities, this is a breezy refuge away from the summer heat and biting flees of Pomene beach just 2km away.
Rates: From R800 per day for a 5-sleeper self-catering chalet.
Best Beach Backpackers:
BAMBOOZI LODGE: Has the laid-back ambience of the typical backpacker's haven, but with a resident SCUBA outfit, swimming pool, chalets, excellent restaurant and clean facilities, Bamboozi is ideal for all budgets.
Rates: (High Season per person) Backpacker dorm: R95 per night, Huts R75 per night, Chalets R500 per night, Honeymoon Suites R500 per night.
PACHIÇA GUESTHOUSE: In an historic mansion overlooking the quay and dhow anchorage off quaint and fascinating Inhambane town. Pachiça's name refers to the bags of coal carried on the heads of slaves during past centuries. This reflects a desire by the Dennis, the owner and chef, to retain an authentically Mozambican ambience, and to embrace a culture as timeless as the tides that rise and fall in front of the house. Great local dishes too.
Contact: Mozambique: Dennis: 0925882 355 9590, South Africa: 073 313 2456
Rates: R70 per person camping at Barra Lighthouse, Pachiça rates on request.
Best Beach Lodge:
BARRA LODGE: If you've just ridden a horse along a deserted beach at dawn, spent the humid midday hours in a sparkling pool before taking an afternoon SCUBA dive, then you must be at Barra Lodge.
Rates: (High Season): Casitas: R744 DBB per person sharing, Backpackers bunkhouse R80 per person, 6-bed self-catering chalets R1115 per day.
Best Family Resort:
MORRUNGULO, also known as Nelson's Bay after the family that has owned the resort since the 1960's. Right out of a postcard and with the beach on your doorstep, reefs nearby and a clean and secure environment - perfect for the whole family.
Rates: (High Season) Beachside 8-sleeper Bungalow R1700 per day. 4-sleeper Casita R925 per day. Camping R70 per person.
POMENE BEACH: I've left footprints on them all from Ponta do Ouro to Pangane, but perfect Pomene Beach with it's curving sands overlooked by a brooding ruin, is really difficult to match.
Contact: See Pomene View Lodge under 'Best New Place' above.
Rates: See Pomene View Lodge under 'Best New Place' above.
Best Town Backpackers:
ZOMBIE CUCUMBER: Vilankulo is a real Mozambican town i.e colourful, busy, friendly and fascinating. Close to the bus-station and beach, Zombie Cucumber (named after a great book) is just right for the traveler more interested in culture, adventure and authentic experiences than in the air-conditioned isolation of a lodge or hotel.
Contact: No bookings possible. MozambiqueTel: 09258 82 8049410
Rates: Dormitory R70 per night, 2 bed chalets R150 per night.
Best Camping Site:
VILANCULOS CAMPING: Just metres from the beach – see the ocean from your tent. Secure and well managed and very popular during the South African school holiday periods.
Rates: (High Season) Camping R90 per person, Chalet R200 per person, Rooms R160 per person.
Best Island Hotel:
BENGUERRA ISLAND LODGE: The service, style and comfort of the best but without the impersonal and crowded over-commercialization - all in the middle of the most unbelievably blue waters. No pretentiousness here, just friendly and eager service.
Rates: Chalets: US$376 per person sharing. Honeymoon Suites: US$410 per person (yes, Paddy, sharing!).
Best Airline to the Islands:
PELICAN AIR SERVICES (trading as TTA) has daily pressurized turbo-prop flights from Johannesburg and Kruger Mpumalanga International Airports to Vilankulo International as well as from Vilankulo to Bazaruto and Benguerra Islands. Pelican also has flights from Johannesburg to Pemba (Mozambique).
Fares: (excl airport taxes): Johannesburg – Kruger Mpumalanga – Vilankulo (return) R2900, Kruger Mpumalanga – Vilankulo (return) R980, Vilankulo – Benguerra (return) R300.
Best 4x4 Track:
The 20 km long goat path up to the fairy-tale Morrombodze falls high up on majestic Mount Gorongosa. Not for anyone as less-experienced off-roaders will take this track on at risk of longing fervently for the sanctuary of their local mall pavements once more.
Best Inland Lodge:
M'PHINGÚÈ CAMP: At the remote Catapu sawmill, just 30km south of the mighty Zambezi River and Caia town, M'phingúè (Empingwe) is in the heart of a remote and protected tropical forest teeming with birds and game.
Rates: 2 bed roomed Cottage with 2 single beds in each separated by a veranda, a private bathroom and a separate thatch lapa with braai, US$41 for 4 people.
Rustic Cabins with 2 single beds, communal bathroom, US$20 double.
Best 'Undiscovered' Beach:
PONTA MATIRRE: Quelimane, capital of Zambezi Province is a hang of a long way from anywhere, let alone the small coastal town of Pebane, a further 200km to the north, close to which the very few will discover Ponta Matirre.
Best Cultural/Historic Site:
MASSANGANO CITADEL: Overlooking the shores of the mighty Zambezi in a remote corner of central Mozambique, this is an overgrown fortress from where a rebel Portuguese settler family ruled much of Mozambique for over a century. Note that we made it to within about 150km (4 hours drive) of Massangano but time and exhaustion caught up with us and so if you want to get there, shortest route is through Zimbabwe to Mutare, then turn north at Nova Vanduzi up to the turn-off right to Mungári where you turn left at the fork just after the town down to Mandié where you must ask locally for the track to Massangano which is at the confluence of the Luenha and Zambezi rivers.
Best Stopovers before and after Mozambique:
KWA-NGWANASE (MANGUZI): Thobeka Lodge and Backpackers. Basic but quiet, secure and clean.
Rates: Camping R55 per person, double rooms R80 per person sharing.
MUTARE (ZIMBABWE): Ann Bruce's Guesthouse and Backpackers. A real home from home complete with DSTV, dorms, doubles and en-suite room. Walking distance from Mutare central.
Contact: Ann Bruce: 99 Fourth Street, Mutare. Tel: Zimbabwe 09263 206 569.
Rates: R60 per person (dorm), R90 per person double (sharing), R110 per person double, en-suite (sharing).