10-4, pato de borracha

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August 12th 2009
Published: October 22nd 2009
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There's little useful info on the web about crossing into Mozambique from Blantyre and I've met no-one who's done it recently - in fact, the only thing I've been able to glean is that the transport in northern Mozambique is shocking, though one poster had cheered me up by noting it was better than in Ethiopia. The closest border crossing to Blantyre is about 30km past Mt Mulanje - I would have gone there from Mulanje if I hadn't been so sore, short of cash, and suffering from diarrhoea after my hike there. Now (almost) healthy and with some money, it's time to try again.

The conductor of the minibus is of the worst kind, a sadomasochist who can never have too many people in his vehicle. There's a Swahili saying that you never finish eating an elephant, and his version of it is that his minibus is never full. He gets his comeuppance when we are stopped by the police and he is fined MK3,000 - probably half the fares that he has collected for the trip. However he subsequently seems to be trying to cram even more people in, to make up the shortfall.

My neighbour for much of the journey is a Malawian English teacher. He has travelled to most countries in the region and says that Malawians, Mozambicans, and Zimbabweans are all extremely friendly. He had been hoping to open an English school in Mozambique earlier this year but his wife had died, leaving him with three kids to look after. Undeterred, he will try again in January.

The road to the border passes by numerous tea plantations, the lush green of the fields a sea in which bob workers with tea baskets on their backs. It's a sight familiar from Darjeeling, but I don't know if there's much Malawian tea on the UK market.

The border crossing is easy and I'm soon in Mozambique, a country for which I've been preparing by learning a few words of Portuguese to slot into my Spanish sentence structures. The border town on the Mozambican side, Milanje, is an unknown distance away - the WLP says several km, a fellow minibus passenger says 1.5km, and the waiting hordes of bike taxis say 7km. I find a bike taxi willing to take me in return for some of my remaining small kwacha so I jump on.

It's probably 2.5km to Milanje and it's slow going, a combination of the small cyclist, a 1-speed bike, a slight incline, a 80kg English guy, and his 20kg of bags. It's also not exactly comfortable and I'm relieved when I'm dropped at Milanje's minibus station. There's precisely one minibus waiting there. Fortunately it's going to Mocuba. Unfortunately it's not leaving until 4AM the next day. An English-speaking local tells me my best chance of getting to Mocuba today is to hitch, and with any luck somebody will be coming through the border and can give me a lift. I've never hitched before, and trying to do it in a town - even one as sleepy as Milanje - requires a bit of thought as of course most of the traffic is local. However, like any border town, there are assorted touts and scammers roaming the streets looking for custom. One tout finds me, and soon the word is out that there's a foreigner looking for a lift to Mocuba.

The first offer that comes his way, via a friend, is that some businessman in a Toyota Hilux is heading to Mocuba. He will pick me up after his lunch. This sounds fine by me but my tout is more interested in getting some commission ASAP so he doesn't leave it at that. He next flags down an 18-wheeler but the driver, a friendly Malawian, says he won't be leaving until tomorrow. Next comes a small truck, the cabin already pretty full, but the driver wants five times the price of the minibus and doesn't seem swayed by my comment that it will be cheaper for me to spend the night in a hotel then take the minibus rather than go with him.

An hour goes by. I've seen no other foreigners but I do attract the attention of the local crazy guy, who has been throwing stones at people and vehicles whilst staggering along the main street. His feelings towards me are simply those of curiosity, and he seems satisfied by my "Bom dia". Several other people approach to ask for money.

The small truck returns. The driver has dropped his asking price to a sensible level and I'm about to jump in when there's a loud hiss of air-brakes and I look up to see the 18-wheeler. The driver says he's had a change of plan and will be heading to Mocuba now. The tout had told him the price I'd be willing to pay, including a commission, which of course had never been discussed with me (shades of Moyale ...), but it's not excessive and I agree to it. There's a short kerfuffle with the tout trying to extract yet more commission and then we're off.

I'm not sure how I'd envisaged my first travel in Mozambique but it certainly wasn't in the comfortable cabin of a prime mover. My seat has suspension and the rough, rutted, potholed track to Mocuba is nothing to this beast of a vehicle. We barrel through the countryside at a steady 50km/h, kings of the road, scattering all before us. It's comical to see the terrified faces of young children, clearly unused to encountering such large lorries, as they scramble into the roadside bushes, fearing for their lives. At the last second, as they gape at the leviathan thundering by, there's also an element of "Hang on - isn't that a white guy up front?" However the death toll for the journey ends up being just one, a young chick that arrived at a spot on the road at the same time as one of the tyres.

I'm not the only hitcher in the cabin - there's a Malawian guy, R, who is returning to his home in Mocuba. He's trying to start a small business in solar-powered equipment and is carrying some samples with him. He sits on the bed at the rear of the cabin with the driver's wife and smiling child.

The driver himself is L, with a Sid James laugh and the look of an African Supermario. He says that by the time he was 13 he could strip down and reassemble an engine, and his working life has involved driving one kind of truck or another. His current job takes him all over southern Africa, generally transporting tobacco, sugar or salt, and he knows 7 or 8 different languages. I've enjoyed my time in Malawi, in particular the warmth and kindness of its people, and the few hours I will spend with these Malawians as we rattle towards Mocuba are a perfect send-off.

Not that the conversation isn't controversial. Having been told by the English teacher on the minibus to the border just how nice Mozambicans are, I'm surprised to hear them blasted by both L and R. Bad, evil, and lazy are three adjectives that come up repeatedly. The road to Mocuba is brought up as an example - as one of the few trade routes between the two countries, it should have been tarmaced long ago but hasn't been. The local people apparently dig holes in the existing track in the hope that vehicles will break down and the locals can then earn money by helping them out. The police stop foreign drivers for imaginary infringements and any accidents are automatically the foreigner's fault (because if the foreigner had stayed in their own country, the accident would never have happened ...). This last comment about corruption amongst the Mozambique police is actually one I've heard (and read) about from several people. I'm intrigued as to what my own verdict will be when I actually get to meet some Mozambicans.

The other main topic of conversation is Malawi's continuing expansion, based on the recognition of historical boundaries. L says that Zambia recently returned some land to Malawi, next year Mozambique will return a big chunk (including the area we're driving through), moving the border tens of kilometres further east, and there's also an outstanding claim on Tanzania. Having read that Malawi's economy is the fastest-growing in Sub-Saharan Africa, it seems as though its political clout is hefty too. However I can't find any reference to this on the Internet and wonder if he made it all up.

I'm not sure how I'd go about buying a live chicken in the UK (though I guess the smart money would be on visiting a farm), but in Mozambique it's easy - simply drive through the countryside in an articulated lorry and people will hear you coming and rush to the roadside to hold up their indignant fowl for your perusal. We stop a couple of times. L seems to be getting a foreigner price - he says a chicken should cost about $3 but the vendors all want $4 - so no new inhabitants are added to the cabin. Like with so many foodstuffs in Africa, I'm constantly amazed at how "unprocessed" things are when you buy them versus the situation back home. You never see a chicken up close in the West - your first sighting of it is a chunk of breast meat shrink-wrapped onto a polystyrene tray.

Night falls and still we're pounding eastwards. There's no time change from Malawi to Mozambique, meaning the sunsets will only get earlier as I head to the coast. There is no street illumination out here in the boonies, and the truck's headlights pick out workers returning home in the dark.

Mocuba makes its presence known as a cluster of lights in the distance. Having eaten and drunk little during the day, I'm ravenous and parched but I also know I need to find accommodation first - always a depressing thought at night in a new town. But L says there are rooms at the place where he will be parking - a bar-cum-lodge-cum-garage owned by a Malawian guy now an artillery captain in the Mozambique army. My $4 room is basic and is shared with possibly the widest cockroach I've ever seen, not to mention a squadron of mossies, but it's right there without me having to look for it. I doubt any mzungus have ever stayed at this place, and am more surprised than exasperated when one of the drinkers in the bar asks me very politely in good English if I will give him some money.

One other guest is the operations manager for L's firm. He is in Mocuba to free one of his drivers from jail - the guy had been put in the slammer in a case of mistaken identity, though the general consensus is that the guilty party was Mozambican so justice was served by putting a Malawian in jail. A bribe will secure the man's release.

The conversation turns to my trip. I try to be delicate about the extent of my travels (plus, as a personal odyssey, it's not something I'm massively keen on discussing anyway), but it's hard to avoid questions like "How much does it cost to fly from England to Africa?" Most Malawians couldn't afford the cost of a phone call to England, let alone a flight. Not for the first time, I find myself talking with people who are more intelligent, hard-working, and motivated than I am, yet a mere accident of birth sees me swanning around the world with accumulated savings that pay for pretty much anything I want anywhere I want it, whereas they will never have anything close to that financial freedom.

After dinner, I snuggle up with the cockroach and the mossies for the night.

Dull but possibly useful info
i. It costs MK50 to go by minibus from Blantyre to Limbe (its "sister" city) - Limbe is where most (if not all) of the transport to the Mozambique border leaves from.
ii. From Limbe, I took a minibus to the border town of Muloza (note that many of the minibuses have simply "Border" on their destination board so confirm you have the right border - there are four border crossings potentially doable from Limbe). This cost MK600. It took 1hr 20 mins to reach Mulanje Town, where we sat around for about 50 mins, then another 30 mins to Muloza. It may be faster to simply buy a ticket to Mulanje Town then buy a separate one to Muloza on whichever minibus looks closest to filling up.
iii. The Malawi immigration office is close to where the minibus stops. The formalities simply extend to filling in an exit form (which bizarrely requests you to state how much money you've spent in Malawi). I wasn't approached by a single moneychanger.
iv. It's a walk of a few hundred metres to Mozambique immigration at Milanje. There, you fill in an entry form and pay a MK500 entry tax (not sure if $ or meticais are also acceptable).
v. It's about 2.5km to Milanje town itself, on a predominantly flat road. When getting off the minibus at Muloza, you'll have been accosted by a large group of bicycle taxis, one of whom will have had the persistence to stick with you while you dealt with immigration on both sides. Now's when he'll hope to earn his money. I paid MK200 for one to Milanje town, which was down from his initial quote of MK500 but was probably still too much. I think he underestimated the weight of both me and my backpack. It takes about 15 minutes for the journey and it's not very comfortable, but neither would've been walking 2.5km with luggage in the heat. Hitching would also have been possible (see point viii).
vi. On the way to Milanje town you'll pass various FX shacks by the side of the road. For my MK10,000, I was initially offered M1,400 but got it up to M1,550. This still isn't a great rate.
vii. The only public transport to Mocuba is a minibus each morning at 4AM costing M200. If you go for that option, buy your ticket before the evening of the day before. I was told there are pensaos near the minibus "station" for M4-500 per night.
viii. The better option is to hitch, which should cost about the same as the minibus. Since the likeliest people heading to Mocuba are those coming from the border, it would probably be best to look for likely vehicles at immigration. If you leave it to when you're in town, you (if you're an obvious foreigner) will be found by one of the touts that haunt the place. I ended up paying M250 for my lift, plus M50 to the tout, as that was what the driver had agreed with the tout, however I guess this isn't really a line of business to be encouraged so best to try to find your own lift. Note that the road to Mocuba is in poor condition so, if you have the choice, pick a large, rugged vehicle. It will take 4-5 hours.
ix. There is at least one bank with an ATM in Milanje town but I don't know what cards it accepts.
x. In Mocuba, I stayed at the nameless lodge that's part of the business empire containing Eduardo's Auto Repair and Bar Dona Luisa, where many of the long-distance trucks stop. Edward is very friendly and speaks at least English and Portuguese, and his wife speaks at least German, some French and Portuguese. I had an excellent portion of rice and beans for M50. A room is M100 but the facilities are basic - tons of mossies (and other insects) but no net, and no running water. I wouldn't recommend it unless you're really strapped for cash. It's a motorbike taxi ride from the bus station.


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