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Published: June 11th 2018
The main reason I chose to travel to Mozambique was for the diving. I had heard great things and so didn't want to miss it whilst I was in this part of the world. Also Mozambique is known for it's beaches so I thought it could be a nice place to end my trip!
First, I wanted to visit Mozambique Island as 1. It was recommended in the guidebook and 2. It sounded kind of cool and historical. Next I wanted to visit Vilanculos as it's a good diving spot with nice beaches. My third stop would be Tofo, also known for it's diving and beaches. Finally I would end my trip in Maputo where I would take my flight home.
So first, Mozambique Island! A.k.a Ilha de Mozambique a.k.a Ilha (pronounced Ileeya). It is the old capital of Mozambique and was recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site 1991. As stated in my previous entry from Malawi, I had managed to organise a lift from Malawi straight to Mozambique Island (around 900kms) with a friend of a friend called Meyer and some of his friends. We set off from Blantyre in Malawi in his big pick up
truck with air conditioning which was a welcome luxury! The drive to the border, back through Mulanje and tea plantations, was beautiful. The border crossing was straight forward and we headed initially south east for Mocuba and then north east for Nampula and finally Ilha. We drove through the night as locals had recommended it was better for traffic and for police stops, which are fewer at night.
Police stops, as you may have read in my entry about Tanzania, are a common occurence in Africa generally. We were stopped on a number of occasions on this journey. They wave you down with a red light and ask lots of questions such as where you're from and where you're going. One fairly unpleasant officer made Meyer get out of the truck and search the whole vehicle. When the officer saw a cool box full of drinks he asked for a coca cola. It is known in Mozambique and other countries that the police indirectly bribe for money in the form of asking for food and water. We just gave bottles of coca cola and nothing more. When it was my turn to drive, they stopped me a few times.
When I spoke with them in their language, Portuguese (I had quickly learnt a few words earlier in the journey) rather than English, they seemed to be happier and didn't make me get out of the vehicle. Phew! We finally arrived at the island, having crossed over its 3.5kms access bridge with no problems, early the next morning after driving for around 12 hours.
The island looked spectacular in the morning light.
We checked into the beautiful Ruby's backpackers - a renovated 400 year old house and breathed a sigh of relief! A few of us decided to go for an early morning explore. There weren't many people around at all; it felt a very sleepy town. Perhaps because it was early on a Saturday morning! The island is small, with a width of 500m and length of 3km. We started the walk where our hostel was, in Stone town at the northern part of the island. It's beautiful, with old colonial-era architecture; cobbled streets, plazas and churches. All different colours and shades. The island has a mixture of African, Portuguese, Swahili, Goan and French influences.
However a lot of the buildings don't seem to be being restored; most
of them are dilapidated, with paint peeling and the internal structures falling into themselves. Yet they still look really beautiful. Some say it's a bit like a time warp. I can see why.
We spotted glimpses of the sea in between the buildings as we wandered; the deep blues and greens of the Indian ocean, with dhows drifting along.
Towards the southern part of the island, Makuti town, seemed to be poorer and more dishevelled than Stone town. But it had a bit more life, with lots of people bustling around the place. There was a crowded collection of huts with straw rooves which are apparently populated with around 15,000 Mozambicans. We were lucky enough to stumble upon a fiesta that was happening throughout the weekend, with lots of local Mozambican tribes coming to show off their best dresses and dances in the form of a procession and a show in the square opposite the hospital. Women were wearing what is known as mussiroface cream on their faces; it's gritty and thick but serves as a sunblock and supposed to be good for the skin.
After couple of hours of exploring, the temperature was starting
to soar. Well, for me anyway. It was about 32 degrees. The locals told us this was 'cold' as we were heading into the Mozambican winter. Hmmmm. We decided to look for somewhere to eat breakfast. We found a gorgeous cafe restaurant opposite the Igreja de Misericordia, a beautiful crumbling white church built in the 17th century. Damp and mouldy around the edges (but that seemed to be part of its beauty) with a clear blue sky in the background. It was a great place to watch the world go by. We devoured one of the best breakfasts of my trips so far; really good freshly ground coffee, toasted cashew nuts and crumbled coconut muesli with fresh goats milk yoghurt, freshly squeezed orange juice (with bits!), buttery scrambled eggs, thick slices of gouda cheese with warmed homemade white soft bread rolls; butter and apricot and strawberry jam. It was just too delicious. We chatted lots and just generally marvelled at the beauty of the island and the beauty of the breakfast. By about midday, I was ready for a nap!
In the afternoon, after most of us had all had a nap, we chilled in the hostel garden and
drank rum and coke (it just felt right, being on an island in the Indian ocean and all... ) and ate oreo biscuits and lays crisps (not-so-indian-ocean so guess....). As the sun was beginning to set, which is pretty early in Mozambique (about 5pm) we went for a walk and a beer on the pier, which sits in front of the Palace of Sao Paulo. Later in the evening, a big group of us from the hostel went for dinner at a beautiful restaurant just down the road from our hostel. It had a small chalkboard menu and antiques scattered all around. I had matapa to start. This is a typical Mozambican dish made of ground cassava leaves slow cooked with onion, garlic, coconut milk and cashews. On Mozambique Island, they substitute the cassava leaves for seaweed. It was served with crusty white bread and was delicious.
For mains, I had breaded shrimp and chips with a mango mayo tartare. Yum. For dessert (I was going all out!) I had a raspberry creme cheesecake. Yum yum yummmmmm!! Much of the group had already been travelling in the South of Mozambique so they were telling me all their travel tales, both
good and bad e.g. recommendations of places to stay, as well as bus horror stories. They recommended taking flights wherever possible/affordable. It seemed that bus travel in Mozambique was a nightmare, so I had this to look forward to. Excellent!
The next morning, a few of us decided to go and do a bit of a cultural tour of Stonetown. We started at the Palace and Chapel of Sao Paulo. We had a guided tour which was extremely informative and interesting. The Palace was built in 1610 and was used as the Governor's Residence. It is now a museum. It's exterior is a rich terracotta and inside is furnished with lots of dark woods from India. All the bedrooms had twin single beds as apparently, when people lived here, they slept separately as it was too hot to sleep together. Others furnishings came from Portugal, Arabia and China. The Chapel of Sao Paulo is a part of the palace and can be seen from a viewing platform in the upstairs corridor of the Palace. It was really cool. Next door to the Palace is the Museu de Arte Sacra which houses lots of beautiful religious artistic pieces. It had
previously been used as a hospital. Next, we went to the Fort of Sao Sebastiao. This fort was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century as part of their port and naval base. It took 62 years to build. Now, it seemed to be completely derelict. Yet you could see that it had been such an important structure; it was huge, by far the biggest building on the island. Apparently it's the oldest compete fort still standing in Sub-saharan Africa. In the middle of the Fort stands the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte. This is apparently the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere. We wandered around this area for a while, admiring the amazing views from the fortress. It had a sort of pirates-of-the-carribean feel about it.
In the afternoon, we went for a swim to cool off and then had a lunch overlooking the the sea by the Palace. Sadly, in the afternoon, it was time to leave the island 😞
My next stop would be Vilanculos. I would go as far as Mocuba (around 570kms) in Meyer's car and then take public buses from there. The distance from Mocuba is about 1000kms.
I had checked flights as an option also but they were costing around £500 one way so I decided to brave the public bus option. I decided that I would break the journey up over a few days with stops overnight rather than try to do it all in one go. A group of us set off from the island in Meyer's car back towards Nampula and the South of Mozambique. As we were leaving the island, we had some trouble on the bridge. It has a single lane only, with a few bays along the way to pull in to let cars go past (on the way to the Island we didn't have any problems as we had driven in the middle of the night so there were no other cars to worry about). During the day however, it was a different story; there were many, many cars. The local police didn't quite seem to have the hang of/care how the bridge should work. They weren't controlling the numbers of cars they were letting on the bridge at once. So we got stuck behind a group of cars and lorries and there wasn't enough room for all of us
to pull into a bay to let oncoming vehicles past. Cars had to reverse, pull in left, right and centre. Random local drivers were trying to take control of the situation with little effect; the police didn't seem to care. The whole thing was a shambles. The time it took to cross the 3.5km bridge was nearly one hour. Christ! The term TIA came to mind = This is Africa. I don't like to use it often, but I think I was allowed this time. Any way, we finally made it over and got on the road South.
We dropped a few people off at Nampula and I jumped out at Mocuba. It was already 11pm by this point and I wanted to get my head down for the night. I stayed in a nice enough hotel and then got straight back on the road at 7am the next morning. My aim for this day was to get as far as M'phingwe Lodge, an ecolodge in Catapu forest reserve. The lodge was recommended as a stopover and also for bird watching. So, at Mocuba, I jumped on a coach bus which was surprisingly empty and I even got a
Post swim lunch
window seat. And a seatbelt. And the road seemed to be really good. And we seemed to be covering a good distance pretty quickly. This seemed too good to be true. After a couple of hours however, the bus was packed full. Hot and sticky and gross. At one point a police officer got on the bus and appeared to be doing a head count. Then he marched up to me, but not anybody else, and asked to see my passport. I handed it over gladly. Then he asked me for food. An indirect bribe, again. I pretended I didn't understand him and he gave up and got off the bus again. It's not so pleasant to be singled out on the bus like that but I suppose it was to be expected.
At a town called Caia, we crossed the Armando Emilio Guebuza bridge over the Zambezi river. It was vast and beautiful, and reminded me of my Lower Zambezi Safari trip! After the bridge, the road became terrible and so it took an hour to cover the 32kms to M'phingwe Lodge, Catapu. The bus dropped me off at the main road and I wandered down the dirt
track, through the forest, in the direction of the lodge. It was nice to be off the bus and stretch my legs. At one point, I saw a 20kms road sign and was worried that was the distance to the lodge! But then I realised it was just a speed limit sign. PHEW. I heard a rustling in the distance and panicked. But then I saw a warthog hanging out munching on some trees. PHEW AGAIN. After around 20mins, I finally reached the lodge where another warthog greeted me. As did the lovely Clara, the receptionist. She checked me into a beautiful wooden cabin (for just 750 meticas = £9) with bathroom and took my order for lunch! How civilised after a long and sweaty bus ride! The lodge was idyllic. All trees and wildlife and peaceful. I had a hot shower (a frog decided to join in) and sat on the terrace overlooking the reserve. I had the cheeseiest omelette of my life, with chips and beetroot salad. I read my book 'the Midwives daughter' by Patricia Ferguson (a nice, easy read) and a baby blue duiker (a type of small antelope) came to sit next to me for
Catapu Forest Reserve
The next morning my plan was to try to get as far as either Gorongosa (around 300kms) or Inchope (around 400kms). Gorongosa is Mozambique's main national safari park. I wouldn't necessarily stop here to see some more lions etc but because it was a halfway point to Vilanculos. My other option was Inchope, a bit further South, which I'd heard was mainly just a town with a huge bus station and nothing else. I had asked Clara the receptionist the best way to catch a bus from the main road and she had suggested hitching a ride early in the morning with the first vehicle that comes along. I had also heard from Izze and Declan (the guys I met at the peak of Mulanje) and a group from Ilha that hitch hiking was a reliable and safe option for travelling in Mozambique.
So the next morning, at 6am, I waved goodbye to the warthogs and headed back along to the dirt track through the forest to the main road. There were already 3 people sat by the road sign waiting for transport, so at least I wasn't the only one. One friendly guy started talking
Hitching a ride with a lorry
Crossing a stream in Gorongosa National Park
to me in Portuguese, so the conversation was limited on my part. After only about 10 minutes, a lorry came along and the friendly man helped me to flag it down. There were lots of people in the truck of the lorry already. There was some brief chat between Mr friendly man and the lorry driver and I understood that the lorry driver wanted 5000 meticas = £50 so I downright refused, saying 'caro!!' (=expensive!) So the lorry driver drove away and I carried on waiting and chatted with Mr friendly man. It turns out I had completely misunderstood the price the lorry was asking for - he had in fact wanted 1000 meticas = £10 which was a fair enough price. WHOOPS. Oh well. I just sat and waited for the next vehicle. I decided to start eating my lunch already (a cheese roll that Clara had made for me) when I heard another engine in the distance! Mr friendly man motioned for me to start getting ready again so I chucked my cheese sandwich back in my bag and grabbed my stuff ready. This time, the truck part of the lorry seemed to be full of scrap metal. Which meant that hopefully, if I got a lift, I'd get to sit in the cab part. Any way Mr friendly man chatted to the lorry driver for me again. The driver proposed a price of 500 meticas = £5 (I made sure I understood it correctly this time) so I agreed and the lorry driver no.2 helped me with my bag and I climbed into the cab of the lorry. I waved goodbye to Mr friendly man and off I went hitch hiking in a lorry! I have never hitch hiked in a lorry before so I was unsure of the etiquette. They kept motioning to me about my feet and then I realised that I had to take my shoes off. There was already another passenger on there and he was sat on a double mattress bed at the back of the cab. They motioned for me to sit next to him so I did and sat fairly still for the next 30 mins or so. The road, like yesterday, continued to be terrible. Massive potholes everywhere. Mostly off-road driving as it was the better option. The lorry had a massive load on the back too, so it could only go so fast. It was going to be a long journey.... After about 40mins we picked up some more people - about half a village of people with most of their babies and livestock. At this point, driver no.2 motioned for me (I keep saying motioned because I basically couldn't understand a word they were saying so I had to rely on body language) to sit in his seat at the front and he went to sit in the back on the mattress with half of the village. I'm not quite sure why he asked me to move but I wasn't going to argue - I had a more comfortable seat with a seatbelt AND a better view of the road. Well, the potholes.
At the next town, the village people got out, some new people got in and we had a quick stop for snacks and water. There was a police stop on the way out of the town and the police man asked me 'todo bom? problema com a condução?' Which I understood to mean 'everything ok ? Any problems with this man's driving ?' So I responded 'yes!' and 'no!' Which he seemed to be happy with. And we continued on our journey. As always there were endless numbers of people selling all sorts on the roadside e.g. chickens, geese, pigs, maize, bottles of strange-looking-stuff. The landscape was similar to Luangwa in Zambia - lush and green but flat. As we reached Mt Gorongosa, the driver stated he was taking a 'shortcut'. Hmmm. We seemed to take a turn for an actual dirt road right off the beaten track and drive through the national park. It really was spectacular scenery. I think our average speed at this point was about 10-20kms per hour, with lots of slowing down to cross streams and rivers etc. Unfortunately, sometime in the afternoon, we reached a point where the lorry got stuck trying to get up a hill. So we all had to get out. Another lorry was also stuck on the hill. The guys opened the bonnet of the lorry and started opening tubes and sucking diesel out and taking random bits of scrap metal off the truck and I generally didn't really know what was going on. So I took the opportunity pee in the bush whilst nobody was looking. Other vehicles started pulling up; some drove straight past and continued on their safaris. Others tried to help. A chapa (minibus) turned up and managed to get around the abandoned lorries on the hill. The lorry driver motioned for me to get in the chapa whilst stating 'lorry is fucked up'. Message received. I paid him half the agreed price since he'd taken me halfway and jumped on the chapa. Lucky for me! It wasn't too packed so I had enough space to stretch my legs. It was a group of local guys, with a cute tiny old man in the front who had no teeth. A few of them spoke good English too. An hour into the journey the chapa stopped by a free flowing river to freshen up and fill bottles with water and to buy sugar cane to snack on. I'd first seen people eating sugar cane in Blantyre - massive sticks of the stuff - almost like they're just eating a tree branch. They shared their sugar cane with me and I was reluctant at first. But they showed me how to eat it. First, you use your incisors to strip the outside bit of the cane which is the toughest and least edible part. This exposes the softer, fleshier centre. You then bite into this which releases sugary sweet water as you chew. It's beautifully refreshing and hydrating! You then keep chewing until it no longer releases the sugary goodness and just a bundle of cellulose is left in your mouth. You then spit it out. After a while, your jaw begins to hurt! We jumped back in the chapa and continued on our way. Eventually the 'shortcut' road took us back onto the main road and we were now only a couple of hours from Inchope. The road continued to be atrocious with huge potholes. At one point we hit such a massive one that we all went flying, including my backpack. Even the tiny old man at the front nearly went flying through the windscreen. It didn't seem to bother him at all. I chucked to myself. Eventually we arrived at Inchope just before dark and they dropped me off at a motel sort of place. They all seemed to find it funny that I was stopping overnight when I was planning to get to Vilanculos. They would be continuing their journey to Maputo, past Vilanculos, right into the night with no break. They had also been on the road since 3pm the previous day. They offered to take me to Vilanculos. I said no thank you. I always try to, wherever possible, avoid travelling at night. Plus, I needed a shower and a bed. Which I got. And I slept for 11 hours. Funny how travelling makes you so tired.
The next morning I was up and out of the hotel motel by 6.30am. I grabbed an egg roll at a local bakery and waited at the bus station. A few buses passed but were already full. I mean really full. I waited about an hour before finally a bus with a minor amount of space turned up. I spent so long trying to persuade the bus conductor to put my backpack in the luggage compartment instead of next to a seat that by the time I got in the bus, people were already either standing or sitting in the aisle. There seemed to be a lot of chatter/shouting/protesting from both bus conductor and passengers before everybody finally piped down and settled into their places. Some people sat on their bags; others sat on large buckets. The bus conductor somehow whipped out a cushion for me to sit on; I was sat at the front of the aisle next to the driver with a great view looking out front. And off we set, South for Vilanculos ! The road here was stupendous compared to yesterday; newly tarmacked and hardly any traffic. The driver was able to keep a speed of about 120kms/hr. We were making good progress! The landscape was the same - flat, lush and green. When we reached a village a couple of hours in I bought a pineapple, banana and a boiled egg and made some friends with the local kids. We set off again quickly and the road got bad again with massive potholes. The same story as before. Somehow the bumpiness seems to send me off to sleep but the bus conductor told me off, saying 'nao dormir!' = no sleeping! Close to Vilanculos was another police check and there was a group of officers who were pretending to be all intimidating and mean. Eugh it gets so tiresome. I just did the usual - said a few polite words and then pretended that I didn't understand their requests for bribes. They were particularly mean to a group of poorer looking locals who didn't seem to have their 'documents'. So the officers took them into their office whilst we waited. It was around an hour before they were all allowed back on the bus at we were able to get on the road again.
The bus dropped me off at the junction for Vilanculos where I picked up a chapa to take me to the town itself. The chapas here are very rusty indeed - doors falling off and seats off their hinges. I finally reached Vilanculos town about 3pm.
This whole journey from Ilha to Vilanculos, though it took 3-4 days, was so fun and interesting and a great way to see the ways and lives of the local people; hitching in a 4x4, taking local buses, meeting the local warthogs, hitch hiking with lorry drivers, seeing the locals selling their produce on the roadside, meeting people on chapas, taking shortcuts through beautiful landscape and munching on sugar cane. I was glad to have finally arrived though, and looked forward to spending a few days in one place.
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