Sea, Sand and Sugarcane

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Africa » Mozambique » Southern
August 29th 2009
Published: December 20th 2009
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Night time, sitting on some stone steps overlooking Maputo Bay, listening to and observing the sea as it crashes in and out a few metres below us. Little kids play chicken with the waves, climbing to the lowest step then shrieking as the water lashes their feet before they have a chance to leap away. We have just eaten our fill of local prawns drenched in garlic butter, and have bought a cold beer each from an outdoor beer stall. Gangs of people drink and talk along the water’s edge. Some of the male groups are loud and drunk, but families are strewn among them. This is the Marginal, a long avenue that runs north of the city of Maputo, along a palm fringed shore. It is probably considered dangerous for foreign travellers to hang out like this at night. Dangerous too, for them to ride the overcrowded local bus back to the city and walk the dark streets back to their hotel, but for some reason it doesn't feel wrong, and we don't really care tonight. We are looking out at the Indian Ocean. Up until this moment, the sea that accompanied our African journey was always the Atlantic. But we have crossed to the other side. I think I am beginning to realise how far we have come, and, simultaneously, that we have almost finished.
Our time here will be brief - we will only be touching the tiny southern-most corner of the huge, slender country of Mozambique. We will travel a little way north to Xai-Xai, our 'X', then return to Maputo and plunge south to South Africa, through Swaziland. We have a flight booked from Johannesburg to Cairo in eleven days time. Alphabetically, after Xai-Xai, we hope for a 'Y' in South Africa, then the 'Z' we had always planned; Zagazig, in Egypt. Having crossed the continent both length and widthways, we know that though the alphabet mission ends in Egypt, the overland journey ends as soon as we step on that plane. It's an overwhelming thought. Eleven days seems like no time at all.

That night, in rained for the first time since we left the DRC, and in the morning Maputo was cloaked in a damp mist. The ride between Maputo and Xai-Xai was a journey of less than 200km, but in Nelspruit a local warned us that it takes an age; 'You drive and you drive.... and then you drive more...' Hours went by, filled with green grass, marshes, cattle in the road and endless stops in small towns. When we reached Xai-Xai town, it was almost sunset. It took a long time to flag down a ride to the beach, where we took a bungalow at the local camping ground and settled down in the bar to eat.
Seafood is king in Mozambique. Rock cod, red fish, prawns. At Maputo's giant motor park we'd bought fried samosas from a sweet little girl, and found the main ingredient of those, too, was fish. (While it wouldn't happen on the streets of Punjab, it still kind of worked.) Xai-Xai menus included such strange offerings as a 'Half Dose of Oysters' and plates of 'Squid Small Wings.' You only had to glance at the glorious colour of the sea in this place and your stomach grumbled for fresh seafood.
We'd expected Xai-Xai to be fairly touristy, and to have a sprinkling of resorts. Although its recent history has been rough, the current stability of the country and its proximity - in this region, especially - to South Africa made us think it would get some of the tourist traffic that other countries in the region enjoyed. Perhaps we had arrived in the low-season, but the white beaches of Xai-Xai were practically deserted. We attracted beggars and groups of kids selling paintings and souvenirs. A fisherman dredged a net through the shallows for hours and pulled it up empty each time. The palm trees and blues sea were stunning, yet it was an odd little place, atmosphere pending. We walked, talked, got our feet wet and sandy, drank Laurentina beer and procured a box of matches as a trinket. In the evening two young locals flew a kite on the beach, and the same breeze that it rode on made the rows of palm trees sway. The empty serenity of Xai-Xai seemed to further magnify the finality of these last few days before the flight. On the day we returned to Maputo, we gave in to the general feeling of serious reflection, paid for a nice hotel room, and spent a long afternoon lounging - writing, thinking, and ignoring the outside world.
To get out of Mozambique and into South Africa, without going back on ourselves, we had to travel through the small country of Swaziland. The bus we had boarded was going as far as Manzini. From there we could catch another ride out of the country to S.A. I wasn't happy with this plan, however. We had travelled to and through many countries - some we had experienced only very briefly, like Mozambique, and Zambia, others we had spent serious time in, like Ghana, Mali, Mauritania, and The Gambia. But there was no place where we hadn't spent at least one night and I didn’t want Swaziland to be the first.
'This town, 'Big Bend', sounds nice,' I told Seth, pointing at the map, 'It's on a river, and we can get from there to the South African border quite easily.'
He wasn't sure but I convinced him. The Manzini bus dropped us at a junction in the middle of nowhere, the driver nodding at the road and indicating it led south, to Big Bend. A little girl tried to sell us bananas. We stood bewildered by the road. There was a tiny town, in the shadow of a crumbly, dry range of hills. And then there was us. I thought to myself, quite clearly, 'Sh*t. What have I done?'
Seth seemed to have perked up.
'We just have to hitchhike,' he shrugged, 'Come to think about it, this is exactly what I did last time I was in Swaziland. It was probably along this very same road...'
We were picked up in less than five minutes by a father son duo, Louie and Louie, two South Africans in a pick-up truck, all smiles. We sat in the back, grinning from ear to ear, the wind pushing our cheeks back g-force style as we sped south to Big Bend. Louie and Louie were on their way to Richard's Bay, South Africa. They told us this as we thanked them and shook hands on the outskirts of Big Bend. I could see Seth itching to ask them if we could ride on with them, but I still felt it would be impolite to Swaziland not to sleep over. As the truck vanished into the distance. Seth gave a little sigh. It was a long, hot walk to the Bend Inn Hotel. We made friends with a teenage girl and her quiet brother, and they walked us there. 'Why are you visiting Big Bend?' she asked us, sweetly, 'Nothing ever happens here!' I eyed Seth, hoping I wasn't in trouble, while trying to think of an answer that didn't sound ridiculous. At the hotel, one of the cleaning staff was pounding a rat to death with a bottle outside one of the rooms. It didn't seem like a good start.
'Let's take a walk,' Seth suggested after we'd checked in. It was late afternoon. We climbed a scrubby hill covered in cactii-like plants, to get a view of the river. The town's huge sugarcane factory drew the eye; a scene straight out of 'Eraserhead.' Despite this, Big Bend still felt like a cute place, though feathery black flecks of soot were falling from the sky like some bizarre form of anti-rain, smudging our skin and clothes. We followed a path across a bridge, and joined a small road. A tiny township of shack like houses was humming with activity, and a couple of random fires by the roadside accounted for the black-ash rain - burning tyres and other debris alight in the fields, a strange spectacle that gave me an acute flashback to the streets of San Salvador in 2003. The sun was setting behind the picturesque walls of sugarcane we were now walking alongside. It smelled just like India.
'We should turn back now, ' I pointed out. We'd been walking for a while and it would be dark soon.
'Nah', said Seth, 'if we keep going, we'll join the main road, and it takes us back to town.'
It was dark when we hit the main road. There were hardly any lights along the road, the traffic flew by at great speed, and the small concrete bus shelter was a hangout for a bunch of teenage boys. They seemed nice, but I wasn't comfortable just hanging around in the dark like that for who knows how long? 'Let's walk it,' I said, 'It's not that far.'
'Give it another five minutes,' said Seth.
We waited. No minibus came.
What with our wandering around Luanda and Maputo by night, sleeping at truck stops in the Congo, and now just strolling randomly along highways in Swaziland, I thought we might be getting a little complacent with our general safety measures. At the same time, there was a good feeling, striding fast along that road, along walls of sugarcane glowing under a royal blue night sky, thinking about the warm dinner and cold beer that lay ahead if we could just make it to town. We strode single file and fast like this for about three quarters of an hour. When we finally reached the outskirts of tiny Big Bend, and flagged down a little minibus to the marketplace, Seth apologised to me. He didn't need to. I had a bit of a rush in my veins. It was like Swaziland was paying us back for stopping over, giving us a little dose of adrenaline. We drank a can of coke each in the marketplace. Slightly menacing looking youths hung around the square with nothing to do. Further down the road, we stopped for a Castle at the bottle shop. Someone was playing bad early 90s rave on their stereo. The hum of foreign sounding conversation buzzed as we sat on a bench, drinking what really has to be the nicest beer in Africa, laughing about our nervous highway stomp. Come morning, we would head south to the border with South Africa. What we did not know was that public transport did not exist on the opposite side of the border, and on entering South Africa, we would be instantly stranded. Ignorant of this, we ate and slept well, daydreaming of a smooth journey.


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