Kids, Capitals, and Canoes

Warning: This post is particularly image heavy.

By daylight, the scenery around Nampula was strange and stunning. Giant hunks of granite like misshapen body parts were scattered seemingly randomly around the otherwise unimpressive landscape. The road was in decent shape, and made graceful arcs around the monoliths. The flat landscape made for broad vistas dotted with endless pockets of granite.

We were headed almost due east. As we continued, scraggly trees and dusty vegetation interspersed with the giant rocks gave way to lusher jungle and a handful of lumpy hills the road labored over and around. It was another hot and humid sunny day, with big friendly clouds looming in the sky. We stopped off for lunch in Namialo, and immediately attracted a huge throng of gawkers, who’d occasionally scatter when one of the many micro/full-sized buses passed through to hawk various packaged and local snacks on platters and sticks through the windows.

Always a spectacle

We passed through a few more small towns before the road gracefully descended into pastoral flatlands filled with cultivated land showing rich soil. Eventually, around fields of bananas, the telltale cerulean blue of the ocean peaked through. The road curved and bent along the coast for a spell as the landscape became more and more dotted with civilization before ending in the town of Lumbo and a gate leading to a 3km one-lane bridge to the small Island of Mozambique!

A brief primer: The Island of Mozambique (hereafter: “the Island”) is a small and narrow natural island, approximately 3km long, but only at most 500 meters wide. The Island had been a major Arab trading port for ages before Vasco da Gama plodded through in 1498, and the sultan who controlled it then ended up lending the country its name (Ali Musa Mbiki). The Portuguese came back in the 16th century and took control, building what is considered the oldest European buildings still standing in the southern hemisphere (primarily a church called Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, which is essentially a converted mosque). They also built a huge fort and a settlement they dubbed the capital of Portuguese East Africa. From there, and for hundreds of years, it was a major trading port for slaves, spices, and gold. Much uncomfortable evidence of their old slave trade remains. In 1898 the capital was moved to present-day Maputo (due to waning trade from the opening of the Suez Canal), and by the 1970’s, a larger port to the north grabbed the remaining trade. It’s now a UNESCO world heritage site occupied by about 14,000 folks.

The Island is also absolutely gorgeous, packed with narrow winding alleys, large ancient decaying buildings with collapsed roofs and walls still being inhabited, and even the occasional Art Deco monster from the final chapters of the island’s prominence. Near the main drag and off on a narrow dirt road we found our hostel — the analogue of the Ruby Backpacker’s we’d stayed in in Nampula. It was a beautiful old building that had been largely restored to decent condition, with a large roof deck with newborn puppies stashed in the corner, a small kitchen and courtyard, and our beds stuffed into a small attic only reachable by rickety wooden ladders. A Honda XR250 with a South African license plate stood in the courtyard which the owner informed us belonged to a woman traveling solo. Once checked in, we hit the beach and took a ride around the island. The water was the familiar bathtub embrace of the Indian Ocean.

The small stretch of sandy beach on the island.
Corey goes directly for it, as usual.

On the northern end of the island is the imposing Fortaleza de Sao Sebastao, a Portuguese fort built on the island in 1558. Next to it on an outcropping of rocks is a mosque converted into the Capela de Nossa Senhora Baluarte in 1522, the oldest European building in the Southern Hemisphere. A pair of small thoroughfares loops around the edge of the island, passing narrow ancient streets and alleys and ancient buildings large and small, ranging from total ruin to ostentatiously restored, with the majority falling somewhere in the middle. A small “modern” settlement of tin shacks lies in the south, housing the majority of the residents who don’t live in the old ruined buildings. Large vine-covered trees dot the landscape, frequently growing out of the crumbling coral blocks and foundations of the decaying construction. We took it in from our bikes in awe, drawing plenty of stares from passer-bys.

A park on the north side of the island.

The sunsets on the island were a phenomenal daily event.

We relaxed the evening away at the hostel with beer and some serviceable G&T’s mixed with my good friend Lord Gin.

The next day, we set our sights on the sights. Our first stop was the imposing fortress on the north end of the island, and we picked up a cheap guide en route. The ancient structure is an impressive feat of engineering and construction, built out of an insane amount of wood and coral, with a series of sophisticated pools and channels leading around the huge and labyrinth-like structure to preserve rain water in an enormous cistern for protection against prolonged assault on a shallow island in the ocean.

The entrance to Fort São Sebastião.

Defenses (and the ever-present cross) on the top of the fort.

I got into the action, too.
Notice the sophisticated 16th century hydrological engineering.

We wandered the empty rooms, noting the layers of soot in the kitchen, the modernized bathrooms with squat toilets, and the doorsteps worn bare from hundreds of years of the passing of soldiers and civilians. Eventually we found ourselves at the infamous Capela de Nossa Senhora Baluarte. Originally a mosque, the building sits in a small outcrop of coral outside the primary walls of the fortress. It’s small and dark, with an odd amalgam of designs reflecting its complicated history: strange faces routing roof runoff jutted from the primary structure, a pronounced entrance (for a chapel) with rounded entrances extended from the door, and fancy crenellations festooned the roof. Both the chapel and fortress had held up to the years and elements remarkably well. A fresco in the chapel had fared slightly less well, as our guide explained, when a Chinese tourist had become convinced by legend that treasure was hidden behind it, smashing the ancient coral to bits, the pieces still laying loose in their new cavity.

Capela de Nossa Senhora Baluarte, the oldest European building in the Southern Hemisphere.
Inside the chapel.
A joyous gargoyle-like protrusion.

Apparently, the Island of Mozambique receives the occasional cruise ship, at which point it becomes awash with tourists loose with their money. The legacy of this tradition was apparent in much of the commerce on the island, but much of it had a surreal quality being so devoid of visitors. One result of this, though, was a small band of kids outfitted with fried snacks in plastic pails set out into the streets to earn some money. With few marks for their wares, and convivial attitudes, they ended up setting upon us, finding us (not for the first time) outside the fortress, hawking their wares with smiles but without much conviction. They followed us to a bar nearby where, reacting to the kids’ curiosity, Corey brilliantly decided to hand over his camera. I followed suit, and amazingness followed after.

Sometimes things were slightly lost in translation…
… but mostly it was a good time.

The kids followed us as we continued in our day, even waiting outside our hostel when we went back. Though they carried their snacks (and we’d occasionally buy one for a few cents), any pretense of capitalism had fallen into friendship. A local-ish rasta who half-heartedly hawked hand-made crafts and facilitated things was hanging out at the hostel when we returned, wearing an x-rated t-shirt. He tagged along with us as we headed to the pier to book a Dhow to a nearby island (called Goa after that Goa) for the next morning. Then we snagged some beers at the pier bar, and once again put the kids in charge of photography.

The kids got some pretty great shots, including this kid throwing up gang signs.
You’re never too young to look hard.
Rasta man doing what Rasta man does.
If you can’t see the regret on his face yet, trust me it’s coming.

We headed back before sunset, buying some fish from the fisherman unloading onto the beach. Corey had never made ceviche before, so we hit up a few markets around town to get the rest of the ingredients as well as some sides for dinner. Back at the hostel, we finally popped open my dangerous friend Lord Gin along with some tonic. It wasn’t actually half bad by my measure. Corey wasn’t a fan, yet still made an unfortunate bet about halfway through the box about the number of wives King Mswati III of Swaziland has with me. He lost said bet, and the wager was to drink the remainder of the Lord Gin. At least he enjoyed his first homemade ceviche…

That eve, we hit the town with our Rasta friend and his guitar, stopping by some funky local bars, dancing and playing music in the streets, and chatting the night through.

The wall of one of our bar stops.
The best dancing happens in the street.

In the morning, Corey was hating life, courtesy of my friend and yours, Lord Gin. He pulled himself out of bed and we hit the streets to catch our dhow to Goa Island, which houses a totally nonsensically large concrete lighthouse from the 1870s. On the way to the beach, we stopped by an ATM so I could get some cash. My card went in, my PIN was entered, and 5 minutes later the screen still stared back at me frozen. No button garnered any change, the four asterisks of my entered PIN taunting me in pixels. I was livid. The ATM was a standalone unit, not attached to a bank. We chatted with a nearby security guard, but he had no help to offer (it was a Saturday, so even other branches of the bank were closed). After a mini-freakout, we gave up and went to the beach where we met our captain.

On our way to the other Goa.

It’s a jaunty 5km haul to the island. The breeze was mild as was the chop, thankfully for Corey. We’d taken our leftover ceviche and crackers, as well as a few beers for the journey. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and we had the island almost entirely to ourselves when we arrived. We weren’t sure what to expect, but the island itself didn’t disappoint at all. It was comprised of a totally rad collection of coral, and covered in short scrubby shrubs and sand. We hiked its length to the ridiculous lighthouse, where we ate our lunch.

Goa’s ludicrously large lighthouse from the 1870’s.
The rooms (and beds) have seen better days…
I was definitely moderately creeped out before going up the stairs…
The view from one of the variety of differently-shaped windows.
Reaching the roof…
Where we enjoyed a couple of the deliciously ubiquitous 2M beers.

The lighthouse was fucking rad, with oversized walls, rotting rooms, mismatched windows, and decaying cots. On top sat a tiny solar powered lamp, a ridiculous contrast to the surrounding structure. From the top, we drank our beers and took in the sights of the flat island paradise. We wandered around the rest of the island, marveling at the blackening coral patterns, and eventually making our way back to the boat where they anchored at a nearby shallow shipwreck where we strapped snorkels and masks to our faces and dove into the waves. The currents were incredibly strong, tossing me back and forth like a rag doll and precluding me from getting that close to the cool wreckage. I was exhausted and panting with a mouth full of seawater by the time I climbed back on board the dhow. Corey hadn’t fared much better. We headed back towards home in more obnoxiously wavy ocean.

Back at home, Corey graciously offered to stick around until the work week restarted along with hope of me getting my card back. In the meantime, we explored and enjoyed the Island of Mozambique to its fullest, walking through its beautiful streets and alleys, cooking cheap and delicious seafood meals, watching sunsets, and making friends. We hung out with our kid friends (Corey even gave some of them a ride around the island), we journeyed at low tide to a small fortress island off the coast, and we cooked up fresh squid from the fish market, and we chatted up the local motorcycle mechanics. The owner of the other motorcycle at the hostel ended up being a badass South African woman who’d been at AfrikaBurn, and who had mutual friends with me. Monday came and went, there was no luck with the card. Tuesday, same deal, with the bank finally telling us via phone to basically abandon hope. I accepted my fate, and with Corey as my bank roll, we finally took off Wednesday morning.

Is… is that kid on the left giving us “the shocker?” I guess that explains the smile…

Sunsets from the island were nice, especially in this panorama with an extra Corey.

Our Rasta friend played us music

We found a nice roof deck to watch the sunset, as well

This motley crew came with us to the fortress island in the ocean.
While walking by, these folks flagged us down to talk shop. By now, everyone in town knew there was a pair of bearded white dudes on big motorbikes.

There was a significant amount of backtracking towards Nampula to be done on our way to our next destination: the port town of Pemba, gateway to what’s considered the most beautiful islands in Mozambique known as Quirimbas. Unfortunately, I was running out of time on my Moz visa, so after a seven and a half hour sandy-and-mostly-inland ride to Pemba, Corey and I had our last night hanging for quite some time.

Saying goodbye is rarely fun.

For me, Pemba was a bit out of the way, as I needed to get to Tanzania within three days. There were two listed border crossings I could target, with one slightly further featuring a new unity bridge. I carried on alone down war torn highway and increasingly remote-feeling villages. Eventually, I reached a T-junction where I had to pick between border crossings. I veered west toward the bridge, but passing through half a dozen villages yielded nowhere easy to stop, and I was out of towns for quite a ways. Instead, I backtracked and headed east to the coast, and to a small tourist town called Mocimboa da Praia, or simply Praia for short.

What I found in Praia confused me. Hotels, resorts, and more sat completely desolate, but sadly still expensive to stay in. I rode around town from spot to spot, finding some spots recently shuttered. After inquiring with a half dozen spots, I eventually sucked it up and paid over $15 to stay in a shitty shipping container on the ocean at a place with remarkably detached staff. In the morning over breakfast, I ended up sitting next to a local preacher who finally explained things to me — Al Shabaab had attacked the local police station a couple weeks before with machetes, killing a number of police officers. It had dried up the local tourist industry and put folks on alert. Well shit…

My pass through town brought me to this crazy mausoleum, so it wasn’t all bad.

While chatting with him, I asked about border crossings, and he insisted that there would be no trouble crossing due north at Kilambo/Namoto, where Google Maps lists a ferry border crossing. He went so far as to call a member of his parish who was a Mozambican border guard there to ask if the ferry was running, which he then relayed to me it was. That settled it in my mind, and despite being a little sketched out by the recent Al Shabaab attacks, I decided to stick to the coast and head north.

This did not turn out to be a great decision.

The road was thick, deep sand from the start, winding through coastal jungle. For the first half, it remained flat, and wound through a couple small villages, two-tracking through yards and grass, and earning me curious looks from the locals. About halfway to the border, I came upon a wooden lean-to occupied by three soldiers, who apparently acted as Mozambican customs and immigration. They found me to be quite the spectacle, and with visible amusement, asked to search my bike, including going through the storage tubes attached to my cases. In those, they found a partially consumed bottle of Jameson Whiskey that, when they put hands on it, one of them tried to hide it behind their back as if I wouldn’t notice. I laughed and demanded they return it, they begrudgingly complied.

Then they asked for my passport and paperwork. My motorcycle paperwork was confusingly stamped for only 2 weeks, instead of the month I’d stayed (I had no idea why, and had never noticed), which gave the soldiers cause to hassle me further. They asked to see the whiskey again to validate that it had a customs stamp (I refused to take it back out). They demanded money, but I was running low on Medicals and was worried about paying for the ferry. I parted with a couple dollars worth to get my requisite passport stamp, and while they clearly wanted more, they complied.

After the lean-to, the road devolved into utter chaos. Sand a foot thick ran in tracks and ruts through the jungle, and up and down huge hills. I wasn’t willing to take photos in the worst parts of it, opting instead to soldier on, but trust me, it was fucking awful, and potentially catastrophic. I dodged a few trucks somehow making their way through, and cautiously picked paths up hills where the packed earth tracks narrowly divided huge bike-swallowing ditches on either side.

Trust me, this was a good stretch.

123km took almost three and a half hours. Eventually, I made it to an elevated dirt platform looking out over the Rovuma River, which serves as the border between Tanzania and Mozambique. Several vehicles including a minibus sat at the top, and several small shops and vendors clustered as well. I asked about the ferry, but got back confusing answers. Eventually, I managed to piece together that it wasn’t running due to low river levels, and when I asked if it was expected to be running again soon, I got only shrugs. Tonight? Shrug. Tomorrow? Shrug. The driver of the minibus told me I should take the canoe…

Welcome to the fabulous Tanzania/Mozambique eastern border crossing! Note that wooden ship in the water on the left… it’s important.

So I asked about the canoe. Initially, I was quoted $50 to paddle my motorbike across the channel. Fat fucking chance. I told them I’d camp there that night and try my hand at the ferry tomorrow. Tomorrow, coincidentally, was the last day of my Mozambican visa. Given the time to backtrack and get to the bridge, I didn’t have many options. Eventually, I tackled haggling with the local “canoe captain” (for lack of a better name). I argued over price for the better part of an hour, with much lost in translation, and eventually settled on $25. The instant I agreed, there was an explosion of commotion…

The canoe was obviously not made to transport a motorcycle, and to make it work, a gang plank would be set down on either side to load and unload it (once I removed the panniers). In transit, the bike would stand width-wise on the boat on one of the canoe’s seats. As I removed the panniers, there was a moment of truth for the hangers-on to be paid some portion of the fare to carry things and help keep the motorcycle vertical in transit (it’s not like you could use or trust the kickstand). Several young men nearly came to blows the moment my first pannier was removed, as three tried to wrench it from my hands before I could even get it closed (you have to open it to remove it) to cement their position as a paid porter. Perhaps luckily, I had no idea what they were saying. The shouting and shoving went on for literal minutes before it was resolved somewhat peacefully.

My baggage was loaded in the front of the boat. Next, the boat was positioned parallel to the shallow coast, and a plank set down in line with the middle seat. Skeptical and terrified, I took the lead spot in a small army of pushing and pulling locals to navigate the bike onto the boat, flinging my boots and socks into the front and rolling my pant legs up along the way. Terrifyingly, the motorcycle reached its perch without incident. Three locals took up positions at its corners with me in the last, and the captain with a huge wooden stick took up the rear and pushed us off into the calm waters of the Rovuma.

I’m mostly smiling because I don’t yet know what’s coming. Note the paddle behind me pushing us across.

We paddled around 70 meters, most of the way across the visible river, but far from the shore, we stopped and the plank was once again extended. I gawked slackjawed and terrified as we heaved and pushed my ride into the shallow waters, nearly 20 meters from what at this point I considered dry land. We ferried over my panniers and soft luggage, one of the porters lending his sandal to my kickstand to keep the bike vertical in the wet and sticky sand as I loaded. Once assembled, I paid the folks and took in my surroundings. I was on a shallow beach, with no civilization visible in the direction of my travel. My “help” directed my vaguely northward to find the road.

This is what passes as shore at this particular border.
Somehow, I always manage to draw a crowd…

There was a special sort of nightmare awaiting me, and one I think I’m retrospectively happy I was thoroughly ignorant of. When I hopped on the bike and extricated the supporting sandal, I was greeted with one of the most miserable substrates I’ve ever tried to motorcycle through on 4 continents. Thick gritty wet sand clung like glue to my feet, tires, and every other part of me and my bike it came in contact with. My bike tires also sank in around 8 inches, deeper than the edge of the rims, making it nearly impossible to move forward without riding the clutch, and taxing every muscle in my arms, legs, and core to steer the wild contraption vaguely in the desired direction and vertically. Three kilometers. Three fucking kilometers of nonsense followed. Nearly a third of it was technically river, sometimes reaching nearly to my air intake, scaring the shit out of me that I’d manage to stall the bike, almost assuredly then dropping it into the river. I sweated and strained, soaked from tip to toe, sand reaching up to my top case in the back. I would pause to rest somewhere sunk deep into the sand, but every restart was a brutal assault on my clutch trying to maintain a controllable speed, but fast enough to keep moving in the sludge beneath. Random people guided me vaguely towards my destination. I rode for over 3km. It took 43 minutes.

Finally, I sat on one bank of a ~20 meter (60 foot) river looking across to a ~5 meter (15 foot) bluff onto proper Tanzanian soil. A narrow sandy path at an extreme angle separated me on the other side of the water from my destination. I took several deep but frightened breaths and steeled myself before gunning the engine as much as I felt comfortable. My bike hit the water, the handlebars seeming to be in jello as riverwater crashed nearly over the cowling of the headlight. It felt vaguely like being in an accident, but I gave the bike more gas, hitting something like equilibrium halfway through the river. I was probably only going about 20mph when I reached shore and tackled the bluff. Throttle buried, the bike reached the crest, front wheel fully airborne, crashing a foot down and over the ledge as the engine stalled. My boots barely made contact with flat ground, but thankfully two Tanzanian locals were close and ran up, pulling me and the bike over the lip seconds before disaster. I hadn’t been excited to leave Mozambique, and it clearly hadn’t been excited to let me go, but nevertheless, my wet, sandy, and sweaty self had made it. Tanzania here I am!

Fuck you, sand.


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