After careening through Swaziland and South Africa in my trusty Toyota Fortuner 4X4 and having an amazing safari experience in Kruger’s Timbavati (read all about it in my article Luxury Safari at Ngala & Beyond) I headed south through the heart of Kruger for the Lebombo border post, my gateway into Mozambique.My main goal for this part of my journey was to dive with the elusive whale shark, the largest living cartilaginous fish on the planet, and Mozambique along with Ecuador is a top whale shark diving destination. However another goal I had was to brave the border crossing and the drive north through the country solo. These trips are challenging, they keep me sharp and focused, they provide a unique view into the country and its people…and, they are not for the faint of heart. Navigating an African third world country on one’s own can be empowering but also potentially tricky. I did an enormous amount of research prior to embarking on this part of my trip and I’d strongly recommend anyone interested in this kind of travel to do the same. That being said…
The border crossing was all I had envisioned it would be and more. the officials plot with all the “independent consultants” so it is challenging to go through the process without ending up with one of these individuals assisting you (and then demanding payment) as they are in cahoots with the guards. Just waiving them away successfully takes a huge amount of energy and patience. Mozambique is a very poor country and these folks can be unrelenting. Understandably so. To give one an idea of what I mean by poor, Mozambique ranks around the 10th in the world coming in at about $400 average annual income. I got some practice before this by crossing into and out of Swaziland, but Mozambique is a bit more confusing and can be rather overwhelming if you do not know what to expect. I highly recommend reading and printing out this article: Komatipoort Border Crossing Survival Guide. It was an amazing help and allowed me to proceed with a calm, cool and collected head.
Down to Maputo, the capitol of Mozambique the roads were OK with two lanes per side and no potholes to speak of. The roads have improved in the past five years. The driving is not crazy on this stretch because they place from 80 to 60 to 40 km signs every 100 yards it seems so you constantly need to be slowing down or you will be nabbed. One quickly learns that the speed limits are ridiculous, yet if not adhered to, you WILL be nabbed.
After I got past Maputo, which takes some doing, the road quickly changed to a one lane deal and began to disintegrate with regard to paving. Also going on is what I call “the eternal migration” which is comprised of never ending thick throngs of people plodding along on both sides of the road with 10 gal. gas cans balanced on their heads (holding gas or more likely potable drinking water), or a big ice cooler upside the noggin, or little preschoolers with newborns strapped to their chest, hands holding onto toddlers’ hands as they trudge down the road, no parent in sight. These are the vast majority of Mozambicans who must dedicate the better part of their lives to the seeking out and procuring of their meager list of stuffs in order to live another day. As you can imagine, with cars moving along in excess of 140 km at times and everyone passing both ways at once this makes for dangerous driving (and living). No snow storm could prepare one for driving though Mozambique. I wondered why there weren’t any beater cars on the road (other than municipal shuttle vans that go about 70 km/hr, tops, see pic) and quickly realized that the only cars in this country are owned by people who have been truly prosperous. Other than crouching in the back of farm vehicles I’d venture to guess that many of Mozambique’s citizens have never been inside a modern vehicle. I know this because…..
The border did take longer than anticipated, to be sure. I started out faithfully at the break of dawn however no device for map and course plotting is quite accurate in that it’s Mozambique we’re talking about. After I’d been on the road for a bit I was pulled over by four police and a military dude with an AK47 including fatigues and an olive green beret to top the whole look off. They had supposedly nabbed me for going 71 in a 60, but I know that by the time I was parallel to the sign I was actually going 58 so they must get you on the radar a few feet prior to where the sign is situated. They of course got all set to have me pay a cash bribe which I was determined not to do. Adopting a cheeky Texan accent I stated that I wouldn’t pay one cent without being issued a proper ticket. They told me that they would have to charge me the full amount then, and I assured them that I was prepared to suffer that hardship. I just kept smiling and repeating myself over and over, and eventually they told me I could go. Mustering the widest smile possible I thanked them and was on my way again. Be prepared to not be in a hurry. Stand your ground with regard to them writing a ticket. Do not be intimidated.
By now it was early in the afternoon and I was getting a little bit worried about making it to my destination before dark, which I really, really try to do. I figured I would just make it, even though I had allocated about three hours of cushion time. What can I say, the border, some traffic and getting pulled over by the cops adds up and eats away at cushion time.
The road got worse and worse, eventually becoming more narrow by the kilometer until it was very close to being too narrow for cars from the two opposing lanes to pass each other. The tarmac has been done over so many times that the rugged drop off on the perimeter from tarmac to pothole dirt side was around 10 inches or so in some places, so if your tires got hung up you could easily lose control of your vehicle. Add to that the migration throng wobbling along, including small children with loads balanced on their heads that weighed more than they did, and I’d say you have a recipe for disaster. This entire time drivers (myself included) are flying past and around each other at break neck speeds. I adapted very quickly – it’s just the way it’s done and in many ways it’s more dangerous not to keep up! I’d bomb past the slow car or truck I was stuck behind just in time to pop back into my lane and see with horror that there was a car coming straight toward me doing the same thing only with bigger balls than I have as they are cutting it really close. Sadly, at times they just don’t make it.White knuckle driving doesn’t even come close, and this went on for nine hours until I finally arrived at the turn off of what I thought would take me to Tofo.
Nope. At sunset I arrived at the old Portuguese town and battlements of Inhambane and became lost. I should add that I had no cell phone or GPS at all in Mozambique, so old fashioned paper maps and fingers crossed that I would not break down or get a flat tire was how I was rolling. Long story but the end result was that I had no link via cell to the rest of the world. And now it would seem that I was close, but all the same, lost. At this point I must admit that I started to feel that I was in a situation that allowed no room for additional error, I was either going to pull a small miracle out of my butt or be slogging through some medium depth sheit. Just when I was starting to berate myself out loud in my car I spotted an old toothless foreigner sipping an espresso in a beaten up third world cafe. I jammed my car into park, grabbed my bag with all my money, passport, etc., strapped it on and ran over to the man. He was Dutch I think and spoke English pretty well which was a relief because I speak no Dutch and absolutely no Portuguese. He’d been living on and off in Mozambique for years and had a weird sort of Hemingway vibe going on. Anyway, he told me that I still had about a half hour to go following the coastline, to take a right up a hill, to not proceed into the “town” of Tofo (which I later realized doesn’t even really exist) because there were people who would “insist on helping me that may not be honest”.
OK….So off I go again. Half dirt, half sand, pot hole paving long destroyed and as always, the never ending pilgrimage of locals sometimes accompanied by beasts of burden lugging their supplies along the side of the road, or sometimes just themselves. My rental car headlights turned out to be very poorly positioned, to add to the misery. Finally I get to the turn off I think is the one the toothless man told me about and I start up the gradual hill toward the ocean. It is SUPER dark (I later found out I arrived in the middle of a massive power outage and only generators were producing electricity). Every now and then I roll down my window and ask where Baia Sonambula, my lodge, is located but to no avail. Finally I spot a young man and woman who look like they might speak English, and lucky me, I was right. They told me to follow the one tarmac road up to the big white hotel on the beach, and someone there would be able to help me. What they did not realize was that the road mentioned turned into a one-way road, forcing me onto a ramshackle, seriously huge potholed sand/dirt road with no lighting, and completely devoid of people. As I’m backing up a car with three men comes up behind me and I hear “Sista, where you going?” The driver tells me to follow him and proceeds to make a right and go down an even more isolated looking street. Not going to happen. I put the car into reverse, back out, and begin wandering again. I’m so tired!
I see another couple and ask for help and they guide me to the white hotel. There is a guy at the front desk apparently, so I ask where my mystery hotel is. Surely, an improvement! Parking my car I unload myself and trudge into the hotel. I probably looked and acted a little scary from the viewpoint of the front desk guy. I declare that I was not getting back into my car until he helps my find someone to lead me to this elusive Baia Sonambula Lodge, and that I am happy to pay him for his trouble, and that he can find me at the BAR, all which he agrees to.
A double shot of tequila never tasted so good. I had placed my fate for the evening in the hands of the capable (I hope) front desk man. Radical acceptance set in along with the tequila, bringing some relief to my poor, tattered nerves.
Eventually he retrieves me and introduces a funny little man to me who does not speak a word of English, yet I am assured that he knows EXACTLY where my Baia Sonambula is located. I weigh the options and figure that since this guy is beholden to the desk manager of the fine establishment I’m drinking in then I’m relatively safe. I lead him out to my car, get him into the passenger seat, climb in myself and start moving. Ding ding ding goes the bell for seatbelt not on. So I say “seat belt” a couple of times and he’s looking at me, completely bewildered….he’s just grasping the belt in mid-air and I realize that he does not know what to do with it, he’s clueless. I reach over and belt him in like a child. Not a good start. Down a bunch of sandy alleys we go. The sand is extremely fine and and when blown deep is much more treacherous then deep snow. The funny little man keeps pointing left and then changing his mind and pointing right and I’m beginning to realize that he’s not at all sure where he’s going….and then I get stuck. He tries to get out and push the car – not gonna work! He just has no idea. When it dawns on him that he’s not going to be able to rectify the unfortunate situation he runs off into the night, never to be seen again.
In the meantime, two men emerge out of the darkness and I notice one of them has a billy club and is dressed with a bit of a flare of authority. I begin to regain some hope. After trying to push me out (again) and me saying nope not going to work (again) a call is made and minutes later a young, chic language fluent man shows up in a 4X4 with a tow rope! He is, brilliantly, the owner of Baia Sonambula, my elusive hotel. He agrees that I am not wimpy stuck, I am indeed properly stuck. He gives me a tow out of my little mess and leads me to the hotel. I realize the three men who had offered to lead me (“Sista, where you going?”) earlier in the evening actually knew where the place was…but better safe than sorry.
Through the gates of Baia Sonambula (www.baiasonambula.com) I finally found my little slice of heaven in Mozambique that was to be my home base for the next couple of nights while I looked for whale sharks, which yes, I was lucky enough to find along with a humpback whale and her calf, a hammerhead, and over 50 very talkative dolphins.
It may sound nuts, but looking back on it I wouldn’t change a thing about my experience. Sometimes memories of “when things run amuck” turn out to be some of the coolest – as long as you emerge in one piece!
Sadly, I wasn’t successful in procuring a photo of me diving with the whale sharks, but to give you an idea of what it’s like to hang out with a fish the size of a school bus, check it out. And would I go back to Mozambique? Yes! The country has some of the most gorgeous coastline and diving in the world, and the people are lovely – except at the border!