South Africa has been a pretty easy place to travel around with lots of similarities to Australia once you get used to the need for a higher level of security. While there are seven national languages, English is widely spoken and almost all signs are in English. There are plenty of supermarkets carrying a good range of food including most of the things we are used to buying. Good cheeses and hams are hard to come by but then there are heaps of good wines at very good prices and meat is also much cheaper than in Australia. Loads of information is available for tourists and travellers and it is very easy to get to wherever you want to go on the ample freeways, highways and good linking roads. So all in all a pretty easy start to our African odyssey.
Mozambique offers a whole lot of different experiences. It stretches almost 3,000 km along the Pacific Ocean and most of the country is low lying (with accompanying problems with malaria) but it rises up to mountain ranges along several western borders. It is crossed by two major rivers, the Limpopo and the Zambezi, and has 200 km of Lake Malawi coastline in the north. There are still problems between various factions in the north of the country and parts of the highway need to be travelled in convoy together with army vehicles but because we wanted to be back in Johannesburg for Christmas and didn’t want to rush too much we chose to cover just a small part of the country in the far south where it is all pretty safe. Hopefully there will be an opportunity to see more of Mozambique on another stage of our travels, especially the far northern coastline. There is a lot of poverty and corruption and it was essential to keep the car and trailer properly locked up and make sure they were in a secure spot before leaving them. We had been warned that the police are keen to dish out fines for real or possibly imagined infringements so we make sure to drive well under limits, smile and be patient and courteous and we have no problems. Portuguese is the national language although lots of African dialects are spoken as well and neither of us managed to remember much more than please and thank you so that meant a lot of smiling and gesturing and hoping there were some English speakers around.
The trip across the country from the top of Kruger National Park in South Africa to the Indian Ocean at Vilanculos was great (see our blog post ‘Across Mozambique’) and a real eye opener with lots of villages and people along the often rough and dusty roads. Vilanculos sounded great in the guides but it doesn’t deliver what we were looking for. Its main drawcard is the offshore islands but they are expensive to visit and very expensive to stay on. After one night on the way across the country and one night in Vilanculos we are ahead of schedule but very weary and keen to find a spot to stop and prop for a week.
Leaving Vilanculos we turn south along the highway toward the capital city of Maputo. This highway is the major route between Maputo in the south, right up along the coast to the border with Tanzania in the north but it has a vastly different feel to major highways in Australia. The road surface is good but there is no need for more than one lane in each direction as vehicle traffic is much, much less. There are a few trucks, a few passenger vehicles and quite a few vehicles ferrying people from one village to the next and they drop off and pick up at frequent spots along the way. These are generally old ‘people movers’ or mini-buses packed way beyond their makers intentions or ‘utes’ with people crammed into the back. It sure would be hot in the back without any shade whatsoever. Because they are so overloaded and the engines have obviously been suffering from too much weight for too many years and also to let the driver keep a lookout out for more potential passengers, these vehicles tend to travel even slower than we do and will suddenly slow down or swerve to the edge of the road. It is just as well the minimal traffic makes overtaking very easy. We often pass speed cameras on the edges of villages and towns but we are vigilant about watching the speedo and have no problems with them. Early on in the journey we are pulled over for vehicle checks a couple of times and the main purpose appears to be to get some small amount of money or some food or cold drinks but we just continue smiling and being patient and courteous and showing we are happy for them to check whatever they like and they quickly lose interest. Later in the trip the checks seem to be more genuine as we see quite a few of the old buses being properly checked for safety and there were also licence and registration checks at various spots.
The majority of movement on the highway is along the edges with people walking quite long distances to reach their destinations. We don’t manage to work out what the school schedule is as we often see crowds of school children leaving their school grounds and walking to the next village. It is often in the middle of the day so it looks like they start early before it gets too hot and classes last just half the day. Instead of large scale agriculture or forestry the villagers produce whatever they can from their small plots or the bush to make some money. A pile of firewood or sacks of charcoal, or timber cut to length for house construction, or a stand with some fruit or vegetables, or some wooden bowls for grinding maize are placed beside the road at the edge of the villagers properties. Even a sack of small rocks can be sold as one method of constructing houses is to use timber bearers, rocks and mud then thatch the roof with long grasses or palm leaves or use some corrugated iron. Sometimes there is a hopeful seller to collect money but often they are unattended and as there are no signs we wonder how payment is arranged. Perhaps someone is watching from a nearby house and will appear as soon as a vehicle stops. Charcoal and some of the timber appears to be put out ready for collection by truck but otherwise there is no middleman, just direct sales from producer to consumer. Each village, no matter how small, has a number of stalls displaying crops grown locally or other goods available for sale and there are always people sitting or standing around. Some places are quite busy and others are very small but in all cases there seem to be far more people trying to sell than potential customers with money to spend. Occasionally we pass through bigger towns with more buildings including service stations, an ATM or two and the perennial Vodacom stalls and shops. There are several other telecom companies here but Vodacom has succeeded in its marketing as every store has queues of people filling in forms outside the shops then filtering inside.
We break our journey south for considerably longer than we anticipate with a stay of two and a half weeks at Morrungulo which is just north of the town of Massinga (see our blog ‘Time Out in Paradise’). When we finally leave Morrungulo we feel relaxed, refreshed and ready for more adventures. Our first stop of the day is in the town of Maxixe (pronounced ma-sheesh) which is across a gulf from the historic town of Inhambane which is located at the top of a peninsula. We stop for two reasons. Although there was a supermarket in Massinga they only carry an extremely limited and poor quality range of meat and we were directed to a supermarket here which has better meat. The other reason was to check out the camping here as we are considering leaving the car and trailer here and visiting Inhambane by ferry or dhow. Even though we have been given very clear directions we still end up driving around the town a couple of times before we find the supermarket. It looks nothing like the supermarkets we are used to and the range of supermarket goods and fruit and vegetables are very limited. They do have good meat though and we leave with some very nice steak and some OK chicken and sausage. After watching the very slow loading of the ferry taking people across the gulf and observing that no dhows are able to cross the gulf against the strong wind we decide to drive to Inhambane, a 27 km trip south to the bottom of the gulf then a similar distance north again to reach the town.
Inhambane is one of the oldest settlements along the coast having been used as a trading post and port for at least ten centuries. Early trade was in textiles, then ivory and later slaves but when the slave trade was abolished the town began to decline in importance and size so now it is a sleepy tree-lined place with many old buildings of various heritage and a pretty setting beside the water. There is no camping in or near the town itself and most tourists stay at one of the resorts or settlements along the ocean beaches. The nearest is Tofo which is, for us, more than 30 minutes away and after our fabulous time on the coast at Morrungulo we don’t need another beach fix but would prefer to spend our time in the historic town so we decided to look for lodgings instead of camping.
The first place we visit is just a couple of hundred metres past the ferry terminal on the water front so it is nice and close to walk into the main part of the town. They have nobody else staying at the time and there is secure parking out the back so we end up with a pleasant room at the front overlooking the water. The shared bathroom isn’t a problem even though the drought means water is often delivered via a large bucket rather than through the water pipes and the very friendly small bar and restaurant downstairs is a bonus. All this for the princely sum of 1200 Mt, or just over $20 per night.
The bar is quiet when we arrive with just a couple of locals in for a late lunch and a beer so we take a seat at a table with shade and a view over the gulf across to Maxixe and it is very easy for us to relax with a cold local beer (50 MT or about 85 cents for 500 ml) and some snacks to see us through until the evening. We also have a meal here on another evening so we can try out their Mapata, a stew of cassava leaves and chicken served with rice. Nice but a bit bland is our verdict. The bar is definitely a locals hangout though and at the weekend the afternoon trade is strong with lots of smiling guys enjoying a Saturday afternoon beer or two. We get broad smiles and welcomes as we pass through the bar and most people leave before dinner so we enjoy the atmosphere and have no problems with late night noise.
We end up staying in Inhambane for three nights and as well as wandering around the town enjoying the old buildings we visit the local market and drive out to the coastal resort village of Tofo. The market in Inhambane has a huge range of goods to supply almost everything a local could want as well as a section with curios and souvenirs for the occasional tourists (us). As always the pressure to buy makes it more difficult to look as any show of interest increases the pestering factor tenfold. It’s also very difficult to work out the real value of goods as haggling is expected and neither of us is particularly skilled in that art. I do spot a piece of fabric I would like as a tablecloth and we buy it after some bartering but I still have no idea if we paid a fair price or were completely overcharged. The fruit and vegetables are great, with a wide range and fixed but very reasonable prices so we had far more success in that section of the market and leave with enough to keep us going for quite a while.
Tofo is a complete contrast. In Inhambane we saw very few other tourists yet in this settlement the majority of people we see are fairly well-heeled tourists enjoying the beach resort holiday. We take advantage of the free wifi at one of the resorts while we have a delicious brunch overlooking the white sandy bay. Its ‘postcard pretty’ and a good base for boat trips out to reefs to scuba dive or snorkel. Beautiful and ideal for some but while we agree we could be happy soaking up the atmosphere for a few days we are generally much more content in the bush or at a basic camping ground and we are loving the atmosphere among the locals at our lodging back in town. Locals in Tofo are either working in the resorts or trying to drum up business from the few tourists around at present. Mozambique tourism is certainly suffering from the drought and the reports of violence even though we are not in an area that is affected in any way.
From Inhambane we have over 450 km to travel to reach Maputo. Because we travel so slowly we would normally break the drive and stop for a night along the way but we struggled to find anywhere midway which did not require a significant detour from the highway on sandy tracks or which received better than poor reviews on Trip Advisor so we decide to book a place in Maputo and make an early start to reach there in one day. The trip along the highway is uneventful with towns becoming bigger and population density increasing as we go. It is Sunday so we miss the worst of the traffic but there is still far more than we have become accustomed to. We are going to be staying at a guesthouse in a suburb on the western side of the city and Google Maps offers a choice of travelling straight down the main highway to the city edge then taking a toll freeway a short distance to the suburb we need or leaving the highway earlier and cutting straight down to our destination along minor roads. Naturally we choose the latter but that sure turns out to be a mistake. Google maps obviously has very little real information about the minor roads here as the one we try to follow begins as a muddy track and then deteriorates. We manage to travel a few kilometres along the track at an average speed of 5 kph but then it appears to get even narrower. There are locals all around looking very puzzled to see us towing a trailer past their houses and eventually we stop to find out if we can get through. With our total lack of Portuguese and their lack of English we use sign language to learn that the suburb we are going to can no longer be reached by this road. In fact we cannot go any further south at all and have to back the car and trailer up along the very narrow track to the last side track. With lots of help from one of the locals we make it around safely and return to the tar road. Definitely no more trips down dirt roads around Maputo.
I breath a great sigh of relief when we make it back on to the bitumen and it is easy sailing down the highway and along the freeway. We quickly find the correct exit from the freeway and follow another major road to the suburb we are headed to. We are totally relying on Google maps now as we booked the accommodation on the internet and we haven’t been given any specific travel directions other than the google map location. The side roads have no name posts and when it is time to turn off the main road we aren’t overly happy to see a dirt road but at least this one is reasonably wide and there is no mud, other than in small patches that is. When we arrive at the supposed location there is a school and no signs nearby that we can recognise. After circling the block a couple of times we ask some locals. They haven’t heard of the place but we manage to get some instructions to a place few streets away. This is at least another guest house but unfortunately not the one we are looking for and they haven’t heard of the one we want either. By now we have checked some other booking sites on the internet and one has the property located a couple of blocks away so we figure we should try that next. No signs out the front here either but Paul rings the bell and thankfully we have arrived at the right place at last and we can park out the back.
There was some confusion about our booking but it is eventually resolved and the owners come around and make us very welcome. The place has not been open as a guesthouse for very long and work is still underway to increase the secure parking out the front, hence no sign. (It will have been done by now.) There are also some finishing touches to be completed inside and they hadn’t expected any guests this week while the work was being done but that message got lost somewhere. They kindly put off the noisy parts of the work while we are there but by now I am sure it is a very comfortable spot to stay. As well as double rooms with everything we could want there are suites, a kitchen and lounge, swimming pool, pool table and recreation room. We are very comfortable and extend our stay to three nights and would certainly be happy to recommend the Gardens Guesthouse in Matola for anyone visiting Maputo.
It is only a ten minute drive into the city and we make the trip in a couple of times plus an extra trip for Paul before the sun rises one morning. It’s a busy, grubby, chaotic city but we enjoy our visits. Lots of the old buildings are in one area just above the port so it is easy to wander around them and through a very pleasant botanic garden there. As well as the official older buildings which are well maintained there are derelict ruins and very basic housing blocks which are in stark contrast to brand new skyscrapers. The Art Gallery is quite small but as well as the permanent exhibition it has an interesting temporary exhibition which we enjoy. Most of the permanent display is fairly recent, from the 60s on. We think that local art work probably wasn’t valued or collected by the government until after the Portuguese bailed out in the 70s.
The main food market is a bit sterile but there are numerous street markets which make up for that. The embassies are all clustered together in the newer section of the city and a huge shopping centre has been built near the port and another along the beach front. We visit a very interesting art and craft market late on our second afternoon and we wish we had found it earlier. There are a lot of stalls spread through some pleasant gardens, with a lovely cafe / restaurant in the centre, we even loved the art work on the rubbish bins. We buy a beautiful batik wall hanging there and had we more money on us and more time available we would probably have bought more but we are running our local currency down before leaving the country as it is useless anywhere else.
We splurge on our last evening meal in Mozambique and eat at a Portuguese restaurant called The Taverna. They have a delicious buffet as an option and it looked just too good to pass up so for the first time since we arrived in Africa we had our fill of superb cold meats and cheeses then followed them up with plates of Portuguese specialties. Delicious and neither of us was in any state to even consider dessert.
It is finally time to move on and leave Mozambique. From Maputo it is an easy run along main roads with a gentle climb up to the border post with Swaziland at Namaacha, time for yet another adventure!