A journey through the Mozambican bush.
Baobabs on the Track, Mozambique
It’s a warm and humid morning on the shores of the Indian Ocean in Mozambique. We are sitting under some shade trees drinking coffee while we are using the free wifi at the very pleasant, but strangely named, Kilimanjaro Cafe in the small town of Vilanculos. We got into town in the late afternoon yesterday after two long days of driving across Mozambique from South Africa. Sitting in this very pleasant place drinking decent coffee it’s a good time to reflect on our journey into Mozambique. So let’s rewind to the start two days ago …
We leave our camp at Punda Maria in the Kruger National Park in South Africa and from there we drive north to the Pafuri picnic site and have our mid-morning coffee. While we sit at a rough wooden table under some massive fig trees we enjoy watching a large herd of Cape Buffalo browsing and drinking along the banks of the slowly flowing river below us. Throw in a couple of warthog, some kudu and you have the scene. After coffee we organise ourselves for the border crossing into Mozambique … money for visas, passports, third party insurance, truck and trailer registration documents, etc. After putting a required sticker on the back of the trailer we head the short distance east to the Mozambique border. The South African formalities are a breeze. Then we pass through a boom gate and, so it seems, a time warp into a scene from a spaghetti western. We enter a derelict town with wide dusty streets, faded signs in Portuguese and a few remaining intact block buildings with faded white and grey, pock-marked render. A couple of armed soldiers direct us to park outside the customs building and we walk across the street to the immigration office.
The elderly chap in the immigration office is helpful and cheerfully accepts our money, quite a bit more than we had expected, for a thirty day visa after we fill out the requisite forms. While we are doing this we chat to a South African bloke going the other way. He tells us he is running a farm near Mabote, which is on our route, and he gives us some tips on finding the right onward track at a couple of towns and also what to expect across the street when we front up to the customs officers.
We recross the dusty square to the long, rectangular customs building and are directed up a short flight of stairs into the front office with a long wooden counter. Behind the counter is one, somewhat rotund, customs officer in a smart blue and white uniform. He doesn’t say anything, just places some forms on the counter in front of us to complete and sign. It takes us a little while as we have to find and enter the correct identification numbers for the car and trailer as well as our personal details. We are expecting this chap to quiz us and I have 100 Rand in my pocket in case we need to smooth the way, but all he does is to take the completed forms and wave us away.
Back outside we head for the Landcruiser and are quickly intercepted by two young uniformed soldiers. Now it is their turn. They explain that they want to search the whole vehicle for illegal goods. We smile and agree, they can look at whatever they want. But this is not the answer they want and they quickly lose interest.
A third soldier wanders over and he does speak a little better English. He asks us to open the back of the trailer and we show him the kitchen but there is nothing there that interests him. He spots the cool box on the back seat and asks if we have any beer or cold drinks. Unfortunately for him all we have in there are several bottles of water. Eventually he starts to lose interest and asks us if we have purchased our temporary license. We tell him we don’t need one as we have our international driver’s licenses but he insists that we must pay R100.
He leads us back to a large, open-sided concrete shelter which the soldiers are using to stay out of the sun. Sitting on the ground a little further towards the back is an African woman with a child. He takes us up to her, says a few words to her and tells us we must pay her R100. We ask if we can get a receipt and he says, yes, yes. A few more words to the woman and she pulls out a large receipt book replete with carbon paper and she starts to fill it in. We shrug our shoulders, pay the money and accept the receipt. We are free to continue our journey.
From the border post we follow a fairly well-formed dirt track heading south through the ecological buffer zone that runs down the eastern border of the Limpopo National Park. Our farmer friend told us to follow the graded road on this part of the trip down to Mapai. We find enough graded sections to assure us that we are on the right road and we are also using an App on my iPad called Tracks4Africa to navigate.
Graded Road to Mapai, Mozambique
It’s still tricky when the track branches unexpectedly and we end up on a smaller and narrower parallel track which takes us through a wonderful forest of fever trees.
Fever Tree Forest, Mozambique
Fever trees are a type of thorn tree which grow fairly tall and have the typical spread and flattened top. The trunks, branches and leaves are all a beautiful light green color which contrasts with the reddish dirt and the blue sky. I think they are called fever trees because if you sleep under them you wake with a fever, possibly malaria. They look so inviting but watch out for those thorns though!
The narrow track rejoins the graded road and we are soon driving through a string of small villages. The Limpopo River is away in the middle distance on our left for this part of the trip and we will cross it when we eventually turn east to the town of Mapai. The course of the river is discernable by the taller trees and thicker, green bush but everything is dry and grey to our right. The villages in this area are quite small and only a few kilometres apart. Cooking pots are hanging on raised wooden racks made from bush wood, or on nails in single posts. The huts are mainly round and roughly thatched and some are raised on stilts. The village centres tend to be under the biggest shadiest trees where the villagers sit on stumps or wooden logs. We see almost no signs of anything for sale in these villages and no cars. They are several days walk from any town.
Our progress is slow and steady, we are averaging around 40km per hour but often having to slow to half that speed for rougher patches in the road. We reach an intersection in the early afternoon. To the east is the town of Mapai and to the south west is the Mapai camp site in the Limpopo National Park which we had thought we might stop at for one or two nights. But it is still fairly early and very hot so we decide to continue heading east.
We aren’t sure how long it will take us to reach the coast and our farmer friend had told us that GPS systems aren’t much use out in the bush here. He also told us that when we leave Mapai we need to find a sandy track that follows a line of green, treated timber power poles and to follow those all the way to Machaila and then to Mabote. But we still need to get to Mapai first and it is on the other side of the Limpopo River.
From the intersection we head east. This close to the river, and this close to a town there isn’t really any space between the villages so we are driving casually down the road trying to match the snatches of directions we have been given with the road in front of us. In the main we choose to follow the one that looks most used.
Eventually we come to a stretch of road, well not so much of a road as something that looks like a deep bed of churned up river sand. We are pretty sure this is the way to Mapai so I change to first gear in low range and keeping the revs up we head across the sandy bed. It’s about 150 metres to some solid ground on the other side and we have our fingers crossed that we don’t slow down because, with the weight of the trailer, we are unlikely to be able to get going again. We did drop the tyre pressures when we started which helps a lot and we manage to make it to the other side with thick billows of fine black dust enveloping the trailer and car. Then, as we follow the road, we see a boom across the road and some guys sitting around under a tree. Is this the right way?
We stop and look at our maps, and then figure we might as well ask someone. As we draw closer to the boom we see a rough sign which says something about an Immigration border and quotes a fee of R100 per vehicle (which is about 10 Australian Dollars) or 300Mt in local currency. The whole thing looks distinctly fishy! As we stop at the boom one of the guys comes up to us and says what a terrible bit of road that was. They would have heard and seen us approaching from their seats under the tree. Based on what we hear later I wouldn’t be surprised if the road was left that way so they could make some extra cash extracting vehicles from the sand.
We can’t see any alternative to paying something to these guys but R100 is a bit rich so I pull out my wallet and take all my Rands out which comes to about R50. This is all I have I say. Not enough he says. Eventually, after some remonstrations on our part, we start fishing out some coins so we get enough together to keep him happy. We wait for our ‘official receipt’ and we are free to move along.
Pretty soon we can see some boats lying high and dry on the sand so we figure we are getting closer to the Limpopo River. The track is great, no soft sand to worry about here! We cross a narrow stretch of shallow water with a rocky bottom and that’s it! We have crossed the “great, grey, greasy Limpopo River” and we only have a few more kilometres until we get to Mapai.
Banks of the Limpopo River, Mozambique
When we reach the intersection with the north-south tar road we find a petrol station which we didn’t expect so we take the opportunity to fill our tank even though we are carrying plenty of fuel. The town of Mapai is just a few kilometres north. We also spot a sign pointing the way to the next village of Machaila and lo and behold there is a line of green, timber power poles running alongside the track.
Gravel Road, Mozambique
Our maps show that the road to Machaila is a narrow sandy, two wheel track. From where we are standing the start of the track looks much wider and well-formed, but that may change of course as we get further from town. We decide to keep moving east. We will be heading away from any rivers and we assume that there will be fewer villages so if we can’t make it to Machaila we may be able to spend the night on the side of the road.
It soon becomes apparent that our maps are out of date. The sandy track is being upgraded to a gravel road. It is tricky driving though as the road has not been properly leveled and we have to concentrate. Many of the culverts are still being constructed. Again our speed is no more than 40km per hour and typically slower. Very occasionally we might have a short run at 50km per hour.
It doesn’t take long before we realise that this country is very, very dry and is experiencing the full impact of the long drought that has affected so much of southern Africa. The villages are a bit further apart and there aren’t as many large shady trees. As we travel parallel with the power line we realise that this is probably one of the few bits of modern technology that connects the villages in this part of the country. We start to see firewood and large bags of charcoal for sale on the side of the road, but we don’t see any crops at all. One of the most common activities in the villages is the drawing and fetching of water from nearby wells. The women carry the plastic containers of water on their heads with no discernable strain even though they must weigh around 20kg.
Water carrier, Mozambican Village
Our progress is steady and we can see that we will probably reach Machaila after dark so we start looking for a place on the side of the road, or a village where we might ask permission to camp. From one of our maps we know that there is probably a camp site near Machaila that one of the villages has set up and we hope that it is still there. For some reason we don’t see anywhere that attracts us and we reach Machaila just after dark.
It is Saturday night and there seem to be quite a few people around and about. Some of the lighted buildings look like bars and eating houses. We are tired and the air is still very warm so we don’t feel inclined to tackle a town full of people in party mode. Heading south east we turn onto the track to the next town, Mabote. This is definitely a two wheel, sandy track and the camp site is supposedly located just a few kilometres along it.
In the dark we do the best we can to try and spot the camp site. When we are sure we are close I get out of the car. There are two side tracks that are possibilities. I spot a young girl walking towards me from one of the tracks and I ask her about the camping. Luckily the Portuguese word for camping is similar and she seems to understand me. She points back down the track she has just emerged from and I ask her to show me. We walk a short distance and she points further into the bush where I can see a small building, roughly constructed from local timbers. There is a cleared space near the building that looks perfect. We have found the camp site!
As we walk back to the road I hear sounds of other people through the bush. The other side track must lead to a village that is very close by. Then a voice from that direction calls out and the young girl answers. Somebody else has heard us and wants to know what is going on. There is a brief conversation called out in the dark through the bush, just as though we were merely in the next room.
Camp Site, Machaila, Mozambique
Back at the car I describe the place to Julie and we head down the track to the building and then get out to decide where to park the trailer so we can leave most easily in the morning. The young girl reappears and says no, we must go further down the track and deeper into the bush. So we go a little further and find a larger space with a bush shower and long drop toilet. This is even better!
Camp Site, Machaila, Mozambique
Camp Site, Machaila, Mozambique
Camp Site, Machaila, Mozambique
Long Drop, Camp Site, Machaila, Mozambique
As the space is dotted with trees we have to unhook the trailer and turn it around ourselves then hook it up again. We are tired so we set up the roof top tent on the car instead of opening up the trailer. Much easier even though we haven’t done it many times before, and not for a while. After a quick dinner we are lying in bed looking at the stars and there is a slight breeze which is very welcome. The air is still very warm and dry.
After a while we start to hear singing. It sounds like a group of kids being led by a few adults. The rhythm and tones are distinctly African and we have smiles on our faces as we fall asleep.
We are up just after sunrise the next morning and sitting enjoying our coffee in the cooler air when the young girl returns and presents us with a visitors book to fill in. We can see the rate from the previous entries and after we pay she gives us a receipt. Very organised and we have been left to ourselves although it would have been great to hear some more singing. Fairly soon afterwards we pack up and head out, turning east towards Mabote which we expect will be a bigger town.
Sandy Track near Machaila, Mozambique
Now this is the kind of bush track we have been expecting. We are still following the power lines and treated timber poles but the track is sandy and has just two wheel ruts so if we meet a car coming the other way one or both of us are going to be heading into the bush. I don’t think we saw another vehicle the whole time though. And no villages or very few until we reach the shores of a lake which we don’t see because of the thick growth of dry reeds. There is obviously very little water but the dry reeds are thick and the road turns north to a causeway which crosses a narrow neck in the top of the lake. As we turn north the road ‘improves’. This section seems to have been upgraded some time ago. We preferred the sandy track though. It was actually smoother and we could keep a constant speed, albeit a little slower.
Not long after we cross the causeway we reach Mabote, a dusty town with block buildings lining a main street. We drive around the block and turn up the main street towards the buildings. There are a few side roads but almost all activity seems to happening here. It’s around lunch time so I suggest buying something and I park outside a place with a promising sign ‘Snack Bar’. It’s all promise though as all they have is a single fridge with a couple of dozen Coca Colas. When I explain that I am looking for some food a young chap takes me down the road to a place that has a few more people and is serving food and beers. After I figure out that ‘frangos’ means chicken I choose something from the menu, but I have no idea how it will be cooked. When I add that I want it to take away I have to pay a bit more to cover the cost of the polystyrene container. It takes some time, but eventually I am back at the car and we head out. The chicken comes with rice and some salad. Not great but it keeps us going.
We pass through several villages where they seem to have concentrated on producing charcoal and we see many spots with dozens of large bags of charcoal for sale. I’m guessing that there will be trucks that pick them up to take to the bigger population centres on the coast where there is less wood around.
Drought Conditions, Mozambique
The gravel road is now quite wide and a bit smoother and a couple of hours later we reach the main north south highway through Mozambique, the EN1. We turn north and head for Vilanculos where we are pretty sure we should find a much bigger town and a place to stay by the sea.
It’s not long until we turn east again and it’s only about 15 more kilometres to the town. There are many more people now and the traditional villages have almost given way to block buildings and also small houses made from corrugated iron. Wow! They must be hot inside during summer. There’s much more for sale alongside the road now including fruit and vegetables. With the numerous mobile phone towers along the highway there are also plenty of buildings painted with the red and white of Vodacom, a major telephone company in Africa.
The first thing we do when we get to town is to find an ATM so we can get some local currency. At the second bank we have success so we start exploring the town looking out for the local camp grounds which we have read about. It’s Sunday afternoon and the town is quite busy, especially along the beach front. The road is dusty and narrow, and with so many people and vehicles we find it quite tricky to negotiate. This is not our thing so we head south of town looking for a place which, on paper, looks much more inviting. We drive through a lovely little suburb near the airport with a mix of traditional huts and concrete block buildings. The sandy yards are all neatly swept and lined with heavily trimmed bushes and trees. It has a nice feel to it.
South of the airport we get to the place we are looking for. It has a good looking beach, a huge swimming pool and a camping area, but the pool is empty and the place is closed. They have run out of water!
It’s getting late and there’s nothing for it but to head back to a place we saw earlier beside a lagoon just west of town. It’s not near the beach and it’s not somewhere we will be staying at for more than one night. We get there to find that the camp ground is closed and the only person there is a guard. He is very friendly and shows us a couple of chalets, one of which overlooks the lagoon. It also has an air conditioner, a mosquito net above the bed and, most importantly, a hot shower! We ask how much and are somewhat perplexed when he quotes a price in the millions! We have only just been to the ATM but we didn’t get that much. It is only after we ask him to write the amount in the sand that we understand he means ‘thousands’. Some quick calculations and we work out that it is about $50. A bit more than camping but very inviting after a long hot day so of course we take it.
We get set up for a light supper, have a very welcome shower and sit outside on the small verandah with a cold beer and a glass of wine while the air cools. The lagoon looks like it’s about half full and there’s a chalet built on poles which will be ‘over water’ when the rains arrive. There are plenty of mozzies around and we eventually head inside for the night.
The next day we head back into Vilanculos to get some supplies before we head south. After shopping we spot the Kilimanjaro Cafe with free WiFi. Looks good and we need to do some research on our next ‘port of call’. It’s also a chance to get online and catch up with family and friends.
Next stop is definitely a place by the beach!!