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  • Tony Weaver's Mozambique trip report

    Mozambique trip report: June 9th to July 14 th 2010

    We travelled from Cape Town to Nacala and back again, a total distance of 9869km. Our route was via Johannesburg to Phalaborwa, Kruger NP to Giriyondo and Massingire, then via Chokwe and Manjacaze to Chidenguela - Quissico - Pomene - Inhassoro - Gorongosa - Caia - Mocuba - Nampula - Nacala (Fernao Veloso) Ilha da Mozambique - Caia - Vilankulo - Xai Xai (Honey Pot) - Ponta Malongane - RSA.

    Family of four: daughter of 11 and son who turned 15 on the road.
    Vehicle: 1991 Land Rover 110 3.5litre V8 with 298 000km on the clock.
    Vehicle problems: Pin prick hole in radiator hose, fixed with silicon wonder tape.
    Punctures: One, caused by a six inch metal spike. This was the first puncture the Cooper STTs have picked up in three-and-a-half years and 48 000km of travel. That’s why I use them.

    Money: We found ATMs in almost every small town, most of them without queues. Visa was the most widely accepted debit card, with only the Standard Bank at Caia accepting Maestro, Mastercard, Cirrus etc. The ATMs gave us by far the best exchange rate: 4.4 meticais to the Rand, whereas most hotels etc simply rounded it off to M4 to the Rand. We didn’t need to use our cash dollars at all.
    Fuel: Freely available almost everywhere. Important to remember that Gasoleo is diesel and Gasolina sem chumba is unleaded petrol. No LRP available that we could find, but we carried metal additive. Average price of M40 a litre for petrol and M33 for diesel, but this fluctuates and tends to get cheaper the further north you go.
    Food: The markets throughout were very well stocked with fruit and veg, fish and other seafood was freely available at the coast, and the local restaurants are generally excellent for flat chicken, goat stew etc. Freshly baked paő (bread rolls and loaves - pronounced pow) is on sale in every village.

    Corruption/corrupt officials: There has been a massive crackdown on corruption and we were never hassled once. We were only stopped twice, once by a cop who greeted me, shook my hand and said bem viagem (bon voyage), the second time by very efficient cops who checked our documents and waved us on. Every road block we saw the cops were only pulling over obviously unroadworthy locally registered cars. There were very few speed traps, in sharp contrast to previous visits when there were traps in almost every village.

    Language: It is absolutely essential to learn the basics in Portuguese once you head north of Inhassoro, and very useful in the south as well. We studied all the basic greetings, asking directions, prices etc on the way up and it made a huge difference dealing with officials at borders, soldiers at check points etc, especially when it was the kids trying out their Portuguese. In the north (Nacala and Ilha da Mozambique) I was able to get by with KiSwahili as well. Shangaan is widely spoken in the south, so Zulu and Xhosa both work, and throughout the country, many of the older men speak Fanagalo.

    Crime: We never felt even vaguely anxious, but took all the usual travelling precautions. There is obviously opportunistic petty theft in all the tourist destinations, but we never heard of any major incidents while we were there. In Nacala, we were warned that a certain section of road near the market was home to “bandidos”. I asked if they were armed bandidos and there was genuine shock at the question: “No, they are just amateurs,” was the reply. We checked them out and hired the two meanest looking bandidos to guard our vehicle while we shopped in the market. By the time we left Nacala a week later, the bandidos knew my kids’ names, called me Bwana Swahili, and were refusing payment for guarding the car.
    Travelling times quoted here: Note that you shouldn’t budget for average speeds much in excess of 60 to 70km/h in Mozambique, even where the road conditions are excellent. There are many villages along the way where the speed limits are strictly enforced, road conditions can change from superb to dreadful in seconds, and the absolute last thing you want to happen is to be involved in an accident in which a person or animal is injured or killed - then you can kiss your holiday goodbye.

    Trip Report:

    We tended to spend more time in chalets/guest houses than camping on this trip, as the difference in price between camping and chalets is very slim in Moz. We also ate at plenty of restaurants because the Moz food is so brilliant.
    We drove to Jo’burg via Kimberley with overnight stops in Beaufort West (Wagon Wheels Motel) and Bloemhof (the Why Not - huge steaks in the restaurant), watched the World Cup opening ceremony with Jo’burg family, then to Mopani Camp in the Kruger National Park for my son’s birthday. Headed for the Giriyondo border post linking the Transfrontier Park on the morning of the 13th, an hour’s drive from Mopani.

    The border post was a breeze, 25 minutes for both sides, and no queues. The road to Campissimo Aguia Pesqueira (CAP) is currently in pretty good condition, but it is clear that that will change overnight with rain and heavy use. There are scores of fearsome speed bumps, many of them unmarked, so it is wise to stick strictly to the 40km/h speed limit (although several cars passing us did not - this is a national park, after all). If anyone driving the route after us found an Escape Gear canvas spare wheel cover with a bag of wood, a bag of charcoal and a papaya in it along the road, it’s mine! The wood was a leap of faith too far.

    CAP is a lovely spot perched on the hill overlooking the Massingire Dame - as the name suggests, scores of fish eagles. Cold beers available at reception, and wheel barrow loads of firewood. We hired two of the two sleeper chalets, but the camp sites are lovely - there is one big overlanders’ site for big parties, four two-bed chalets, and 10 individual camp sites, each set in woodlands with lake views.
    It is around 28km from CAP to Massingire, where you can buy your third party insurance outside the park office at the gate. There is a BCI ATM on the right as you cross the dam wall (Visa only). Petrol and diesel both available on the left. The tar road to Chokwe varies between excellent and sporadic potholes to bad potholed sections. In Chokwe, you need to turn left (north) at the Galp fuel station into Rua Eduardo Mondlane to cross the bridge across the Limpopo to Chibuto and Mandlakaze (Manjacas/ze on some maps). We took the bush track from Mandlakaze to Chidenguele - ask the way in Mandlakaze - and it was a brilliant drive through to the EN1 highway and then to Quissico. Note that this stretch (390km) took us nine hours, stopping only to sign out the park, buy third party, draw meticais and fill up in Chokwe.

    Stayed the night at the eccentric Mar e Sol/Funky Coconut camp and backpackers, which is 11km off the EN1 on a sandy 4WD track. The owner, Leonard, cooked us some excellent flat chicken and chips on the fire, and we threw the rooftop tent up for the night. The lone “chalet” option is not for the faint-hearted, but the camp site, wedged in the dune forest between the Quissico lakes and the ocean, is unbeatable. The bar has great sea views.

    We then spent five days and four nights at Pomene Lodge recovering from the marathon trek up from the Cape, after stocking up with excellent fruit and veg in the municipal market in Inharrime. The 263km to Pomene from Quissico took us seven hours, with stops for veggies and fuel. Those of you who were in South Africa will remember the massive cold front that swept through, bringing snow and freezing temperatures to the country. Well, it pushed all the way through to central Mozambique, and it was beanies and fleeces at night and in the early morning, and we abandoned our stunning beachfront campsite for one in the middle of the sand spit point out of the wind.

    For those who don’t know Pomene Lodge, it is one of the nicest spots in southern/central Moz, with big, well spaced camp sites, some with baraccas, good ablutions, a great restaurant, pub, pool and deck on the lagoon side, and a string of upmarket water chalets (on stilts, surrounded by water at high tide) in the lagoon. Campers have the full run of the lodge facilities, and the general managers, Wendy and Neville Ayliffe, run an excellent operation. The camp and lodge are at the end of a nicely wooded narrow sand spit wedged between the lagoon and the ocean, reached after about a 67km drive down the track, the last 20km or so of which are 4WD through some heavy sand.

    We had a great five days there diving at the old hotel site, surfing the beach break (there is an excellent point break as well) fishing off the point where the lagoon meets the sea, watching a few World Cup matches, walking and generally chilling: a great recharge of the batteries after months of hectic work and a long road trip. Their mechanic, Whisper (yes, we asked - “my mother called me that because I was a very quiet baby”) expertly welded one of our roof rack struts that had cracked in half. The only sour note was the group from the Eastern Cape who had driven in in an orange five ton converted MAN fire truck, towing a massive cabin cruiser plus over a ton of fuel. They boasted that it took them eight hours to do the 67km in and that they had to cut their way through with chain saws! This in an area where the Ayliffes and others have been working with the locals to educate them about the need to preserve the mangrove and coastal forests. And there was no way they could launch that monster of a boat except at full high tide. Sies.

    Because of the cold front, we decided to postpone a planned three day dhow safari out of Vilankulo to celebrate Liz’s birthday for a month, something that Dave Kimber of Sailaway Dhow Safaris was only too happy to do as the temps were going as low as 12 degC. So we headed up to Inhassoro, the first 60km or so out of Massinga to Nhachengue after leaving Pomene are currently under construction, and the going is very slow, but when we returned this way a month later, 10km had been surfaced in our absence, so they are moving fast. The 270km took us six hours. Inhassoro has two ATMs, fuel etc etc. On the recommendation of Jayefe (thanks!) from this forum, we splashed out on a family chalet at Casa Luna, a lovely spot perched above the beach with great views, just north of the Hotel Seta. Excellent Portuguese dinner and breakfast, and very entertaining conversations with the owner, Senhor Rodrigues, who has a casino in Swaziland, and says the authorities wouldn’t allow him to build a house on the beachfront, “only lodges, so I bought the lodge”. He reckons the only way to deal with the potholes is to drive at 200km/h. I hope he lives long enough to enjoy the lodge.

    The next day it was a stunning drive through some gorgeous mosaic woodland, some sand forest and, after Inchope (BP station with cold beers and basic supplies on the left just north of the crossroads on the Caia road), a mix of tropical gallery forest and mixed woodland to Gorongosa National Park, and the camp site at Chitengo, mostly along excellent roads, with some potholed sections. The 400 or so km took us six hours.

    And here’s the thing: I’ve been telling everyone who will listen, that I have visited most of the major game parks in Africa, and Gorongosa is without doubt right up there in the top five. It has the most beautiful mix of habitats I have seen in a while - you drive in through real tropical jungle, Chitengo camp is a wonderfully wooded place with a great restaurant, the drives through the park take you through fever tree forests, grasslands dotted with ilala palms, wetlands and dambos stretching to the horizon on the lake, the lake itself (although we couldn’t get right to it because it was still too wet), and some stunning riverine forest. Excellent birding, and masses of game to see - nyala, bush buck, water buck, olive baboons all over the place, scores of warthogs, impala, oribi etc etc. We didn’t see any of the charismatics like sable, buffalo, elephant, lion or leopard, but cut fresh spoor of buffalo, lion and elephant. We had an absolutely enchanted day of birding, game viewing and botanising and could easily have spent longer than two nights there, but we decided to push north (Our meal in the Chitengo restaurant, which was a plate of three giant - lobster-sized - langoustines, and three big pepper steaks, with beers, cool drinks etc cost less than R300 and was delicious).

    The next day was fairly hard driving to Mocuba over mostly very good roads, with some potholes, but an excellent surface after Namacurra. The drive through the tropical forests up to the Zambezi is beautiful. Spotted a lodge 32km south of Caia (the Zambezi crossing) called Catapu Mphingwe Lodge, www.dalmann.com which I believe is good, with chalets but no camping. From their website: “M’phingwe can be contacted direct on + 258 82 301 6436 and [email protected] but due to the camp’s remote location sometimes connections can be poor so if you have a problem, bookings can also be made through [email protected] or (258) 23 302 161 (office hours only).”

    The new bridge over the Zambezi at Caia is spectacular. There is a Petromoc on the southern side, with a Standard Autobank (all cards accepted) and a well-stocked shop. On our return journey, we overnighted at Cua Cua Lodge on the north bank (see later in this report). We reached Mocuba just before dark (which is at 5pm in mid-winter) and after hunting about a bit, and SMS-ing a friend who works in the north, found what looks like the only viable lodgings in town, Pensao Cruzeira, on the main street just before the bridge out of town (and also evidently the only viable spot between Caia and Nampula, unless you detour to Quelimane and the Hotel Flamingo or Hotel Chuabo). Shabby and over-priced at M900 per double room (take your own bedding if you’re squeamish) there is secure parking at the back, and we ate a reasonably priced meal of grilled flat chicken. We also caught the last 10 minutes of Bafana Bafana beating France, and bowing out of the World Cup. Mocuba itself is a pleasant town, cool because of the altitude, with some lovely art deco architecture and a massive cathedral. It is also the crossroads to Malawi (Mulanje) so is a busy place.

    About 10km after leaving Mocuba, the road degenerates into the worst road we had in Mozambique: about 60km of muddy, massively potholed and rutted dirt and broken tar, with heavy trucks weaving all over the place - luckily the road is so bad, they can’t go very fast. It took us two hours to get through the stretch, which miraculously ends as you enter the small town of Nampevo, which is also the junction to go west to Gurue, which we were told is an absolutely gorgeous area. After that, the road is brilliant highway all the way to Nacala, with just a few short sections of roadworks, minimal potholes, and mostly brand new black top.
    The scenery once north of Gorongosa is stunning, totally different to the south. Plenty of granite and dolomite inselbergs, imposing mountain ranges (some right down to the coast), baobabs, and wonderful cloud formations - we had several tropical storms, despite it being mid-winter and the dry season. Every now and then a completely bizarre, over the top art deco or Gothic cathedral would pop up in the middle of nowhere - all very Werner Herzog. Nampula, the provincial capital, is a busy, bustling town with well-stocked shops, ATMs aplenty, fuel etc. We filled up, and then pushed on through to the coast, and arrived in the chaos of Nacala’s rush hour traffic (well, there were at least 30 other cars on the road) as it was getting dark, and followed the directions to ... Paradise (with a capital P).
    We had intended going up to Pemba, and then across to the Niassa Game Reserve, but Libélula www.divelibelula.com is such a stunning spot, that we decided to spend a week there, and really get into the tropical groove. Previously known as Bay Diving, it has been under the new ownership of Dutch-South African Picolien (PJ) Eilander and her fiancé, Briton Ian Kingsley, who is also the dive master, for a year now. Perched on a coral cliff exactly 100 steps above the beach on Nacala Bay, near the fishing village of Fernao Veloso, it ranks as one of the nicest spots we have stayed anywhere in Africa. There’s a small camp site (five or six parties max), but only one or two sites can take rooftop tents, as the ground is very uneven and on a slope, and access is tricky - they are busy re-landscaping it. The rest of the accommodation is in A-frame thatched chalets, dorm rooms, and a big stone cottage under thatch. A party of four families who had come through Malawi had booked into the camp site, so Picolien gave us the stone cottage, and we put two matresses on the floor for the kids, and set up our kitchen in the house, and used the camp site next door to us, under a huge cashew tree, as our lounge (very good value at $65 a night). Picolien turns out great meals at very reasonable prices. The menu is simple - fresh linefish (tuna, barracuda etc), T-bones, hamburgers, pastas, omelettes etc, with herbs and salad from their own garden, and a surprisingly good wine list for a place that’s over 4000km from the Cape.

    We spent the next week really kicking back and doing the holiday thang: the beach below the lodge is a stunner - a little crescent bay with headlands on both sides, and the dive centre A-frame, on the beach, has a useful verandah for cameras etc. Ian and PJ work with the locals to preserve the marine life around them, and have managed to have a 350m long no-take marine reserve declared in front of Libélula, and have a full time guard, Camillo, who keeps a tab on poaching, and also watches all your gear. As a result, there are numerous very well-preserved coral pinnacles, and the snorkelling is spectacular. We dived every day, staying in the water for up to two hours at a time (we took our short-sleeved wet suits along, which was a good move, as there are jelly fish about). For the rest, it was long walks on the beautiful beaches, chatting to the fishermen (many of whom speak KiSwahili, which I can manage quite well), enjoying shopping in the market at Nacala, sitting on the deck above the freshwater pool sipping ice cold Dois Ms and Laurentinas (magnificent views across the bay to a very remote peninsula and some granite outcrops, the occasional big ship gliding through, dhows and dugouts drifting by), a great, relaxing stay.

    Then an easy two hour drive to Ilha de Mozambique, the ancient capital and slave trading centre. We had arranged to stay at Patio dos Quintalinhos (aka Casa do Gabriele), an old villa beautifully restored by Italian architect, Gabriele Melazzi. He has lived on the island for 10 years and has restored many of the old ruined villas and houses, working closely with Unesco (Ilha is a World Heritage site). Our room (en suite double bed downstairs plus two beds in the loft upstairs was $60 including a light breakfast. There is a campsite (Casuarina camping) on the mainland to the north of the causeway, but we wanted to be in the heart of the old town, and the beach in front of the camp is used as a toilet by the locals.

    Ilha is absolutely enchanting: it’s like I imagine Zanzibar was before it was “discovered”. We were just about the only tourists on the island, and it was wonderful just strolling the narrow streets, day and night, chatting to the locals, absorbing the culture. The museum is surprisingly good - a recreation of the colonial governor’s home, with original furniture - and the maritime section has an impressive collection of Ming Dynasty porcelain salvaged from ship wrecks. There are some excellent restaurants on the island, and we had goat stew and prawn curry at Reliquias on the beach front, grilled prawns and flat chicken at Ancora d’Oura on the plaza, more prawns at Escondidinho (one of our best meals in Mozambique), and late night samoosas, chips and espetada with cold beer on the roof terrace at Bar Flora. We fell in love with the island, and will definitely be back.

    After two nights on Ilha, we did a long drive south to the Zambezi, overnighting at Cua Cua Lodge (camp site and chalets, plus good restaurant) set in beautiful woodland on a koppie overlooking the Zambezi (their number is +258 82 3120 528, but we were the only guests in the chalets, and there was one other party in the camp site).

    The next day it was through to Vilankulo, staying at Palmeiras backpackers while getting ready for our three day dhow charter. After a good dinner at Smugglers, we went to bed with rain pouring - and it was still pouring the next morning, and with the weather forecast only predicting an end to the rain after midday, we and the two other parties agreed with Dave Kimber of Sailaway Dhow Safaris ([email protected]) to postpone by a day. Spent the next day preparing gear and shopping in the market, and had an excellent prawn, calamari, creme caramel and espresso lunch at Samara, on the beach past Casa Rex - a great spot.
    The dhow safari was brilliant: our crew, guide Rogério Antonio, chef Alfredo Zagueu, and skipper Manuel Kambanhane, were absolutely professional, with Alfredo cooking great dishes in a sand box on board the dhow while we were sailing. He also kept a supply of tea and coffee and popcorn going for consumption after every dive. The canvas tented base camp is on the mainland at Chigamane, 10km north of Vilankulo, but feels very remote. On our first day, we sailed to Bazaruto for a lunch of giant crabs on the beach, then off to Two Mile Reef for some spectacular coral reef snorkelling. Day two, we explored Pansy Island, a sand spit off Benguerra Island, then did another great drift dive off the razor sharp reef that fringes Benguerra. The third day was the most exciting of all, as we had the privilege of spotting four dugongs, a very rare sighting (we had dolphins tracking us almost every day). We sailed to Magaruque Island, where we again had technicolour diving, before returning to Vilankulo. I can really recommend the dhow charter option - it came in at under R900 a day, full board, and half price for under 12s. The crew catch fresh squid, barracuda etc, and we had excellent seafood meals for lunch and supper. Snorkelling gear is supplied free of charge if you need it.
    And, that, was pretty much that - we did a long haul down to just past Xai Xai, staying the night at Honey Pot, then two nights at Ponta Malongane for old times sake (I’m not sure we will return, it felt very trodden compared to the north), and then back home through the Free State and Karoo. After nearly six weeks in tropical heaven, it was pretty bizarre to get snowed on going through Golden Gate, and then have to detour to Hanover from Middelburg because the Lootsberg Pass to Graaf Reinet was closed because of snow and ice.

    The family all agreed this was one of our best trips ever.

    Tony
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