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.
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. Continue reading “Kids, Capitals, and Canoes”
The next day ended up a bigger adventure than expected. From the first kilometers outside of Muxungue, the roads took a dramatic turn for the worse, dipping even further into insanity after passing the turnoff for the large coastal port of Beira at the town of Inchope. The roads were more potholes than pavement. Where possible, small dirt tracks off the shoulder of the road were more passable than the road itself, with some potholes big enough to fit the entire motorcycle in them.
Corey and I bumped and swerved through the morning and afternoon, trying our best to find paths to weave around slow cars and huge semi trucks attempting to navigate the seemingly-war torn landscape, often swinging all over the roads in an attempt to do so, and dramatically increasing the latent danger of passage. As if to accent the danger, as we approached the area around the Gorongoza National Park, the military presence stepped up significantly. To make sure we didn’t miss that, we were stopped and forced to delete photos we attempted to take while crossing a bridge over an expansive rocky river valley surrounding the Pungwe river due to “security” concerns.
The Gorongoza area was and continues in many ways to be a hotbed of unrest in Mozambique. Once home to the command center of the Mozambique Resistance Movement, it was subjected to an outsized amount of violence. The park was shuttered for nearly 10 years, and decades of sporadic uprisings continued long after the ceasefire in 1992. Burned out hulks of buses litter the road along Gorongoza, supposedly targeted by the rebels to maximize casualties and rusting in roadside reminders of the area’s history. Undeterred, we carried on, but the road made the goings ludicrously slow, deliberate, and sweaty in the beating sun.
As we reached the end of the park, which lies to the east of the road, we came to a dirt road turnoff that would allow us to both cut down on some of the “paved” road, and also to pass near the jovially-named “Casa Banana.” We took it and continued on a sandy and hilly path through the jungle. Sliding through tire-busting sand, the shade of the closed-in forest canopy and lack of potholes made it a lot more pleasant. At a fork in the road on the edge of the park, a full-on military encampment with barricades came into view. Armed soldiers asked us a few simple questions before waving us on and we descended back down the mountain once again towards the highway.
Somewhere along the way, oncoming traffic forced us off into the brutally sandy edge of the road and Corey took a spill. I was ahead and didn’t notice, making it all the way to the highway before realizing he wasn’t directly behind me anymore. Christ, what an asshole. He managed to right things himself despite the predicament and is thankfully a forgiving sort.
We carried on, setting our sights on Caia, a town perched on the majestic Zambezi river, but the hours of daylight were dwindling down, making the potholes increasingly treacherous. We came across signs for a lodge called M’phingwe Camp prior to Caia and took a km-or-so jaunt off the main road to check it out. We were happy we did.
We came into a mostly-empty rustic set of cabins and structures in the jungle where we were able to get a small hut to ourselves for a reasonable price, plus good food and a bar. We relaxed and chatted with a family of American missionaries who were living out of a giant overland vehicle they’d turned into an RV.
We got a good night sleep and were back on the road by 9am. Northern Mozambique is pretty sparse, and the next decent-sized town, Nampula, was a long way off (over 700km). We rode single-mindedly and piled on the kilometers on the war-torn roads.
It was clear we’d managed to get off the standard tourist path, as the bundles of people milling about would watch us go by with something that often approached fervor. Some groups would stop what they’re doing, jump up and down arms raised in the air and cheer. Corey asked me at one point if it felt like we’d just won the Dakar rally. It did.
The potholes came to an abrupt and unexplained end, and the scenery continued to become more mountainous. The roads afforded us broad sweeping views of a lush green landscape dappled with sharp, gorgeous mountains that looked like someone had randomly taken a whisk to a bowl of whipped cream dyed green, grey, brown, and red, dragging up impossible peaks from seemingly nowhere. As the sun began to set, the sky exploded in technicolor, the clouds sharply contrasted appearing like a fleet of warships waiting in the sky. We stopped to take some photos, and immediately a small village of locals showed up to gawk. When we invited them to take photos with us, they jumped in, high-fiving, fist-bumping, and flashing us the most genuine smiles imaginable. It was fucking beautiful.
As the sun set, the the active road took on a new character. Wraith-like trees haunted the darkness, with mountains like sentinels watching over us on the horizon. Even in the dark, it was apparent that the landscape was beautiful and dramatic. We crossed numerous small rivers, and the jungle seemed to close in around us, even in the dark. Dozens of fires, small and large, met us at the roadside. In the dark, the fires looked dazzling, especially as we passed swaths where one whole side of the road was flames, the other, murky smoke-filled trees dully flashing in the firelight. Dense clouds of smoke billowing over the roadway added to the frightening adventure.
There were thankfully few potholes, but human and animal traffic abound. At one point, a small pig darted from the left, drawing an arc that continued in my path as I hauled on the breaks, narrowly swerving in the last few inches from hitting the squealing creature. At a police checkpoint at night, the cops that approached us muttered “they’re speaking English” in Portuguese before waving us on. We pressed on to Nampula, a city of over 400k people and the third largest in Mozambique.
The road became a bustling thoroughfare even at night. We stopped for cash at an ATM before heading to a well-known backpacker’s named Ruby. A complicated maneuver granted our stripped bikes entrance over a high curb and small gate and into the lawn by the modest home that would be our shelter for the eve. After checking in and unloading, we also made a reservation at a sister Ruby Backpackers for the following evening in the former colonial capital of Mozambique Island. Then we headed around the corner to a jumping local bar complete with a loud band for some beer and food.
My old Pirelli rear tire was beginning to look awfully long in the tooth, and Nampula was the last large town we’d be passing through for over 1500km (to Dar es Salaam). My mother had also booked a flight to meet me in Dar in about three weeks, and given our intended path, that didn’t leave a lot of wiggle-room for a tire disaster. As such, it seemed prudent to try and source a replacement before heading out. After a good night sleep, I hit the streets solo to try and find one.
A stop at a local service station started me on a pinball path being handed off from local to local that eventually sent me to a small shop selling cheap Chinese tires sizes that worked for me. I bought a tire (and eventually a tube), went back, and brought my bike over to a stretch of sidewalk where a guy had offered to replace the tire for me. Then I headed back to the hostel for lunch with Corey. After breakfast, I came back to my bike very much a work in progress…
I stuck around until the job was done, went back to the hostel to grab Corey and my things, then it was time to hit the road to the Island of Mozambique!
I woke up early in Zavora to try and get in on the morning dives if they were happening. I’d been told to go to the dive shop at 7am, but it was more than an hour before anyone showed up. I had some breakfast overlooking the ocean while I waited. The ocean looked much calmer than it had the night before.
Eventually, folks started showing up at the dive shop, including the South African tour guide who’d recommended Zavora to me, and a friendly dutch couple who were coming diving. Also joining were three marine biologists (one intern) that made up the local organization Marine Action Research (MAR). After a brief orientation, we loaded our gear into a medium-sized inflatable zodiac and headed to the beach, where we pushed and pulled the craft through the sand the last few meters before it was afloat. The rough weather had largely abated, and we took to the calm seas to follow the GPS to our first dive site.
It’d been the better part of a year since I’d been down underwater, but the skills flowed back effortlessly. Visibility was low (2.5 meters), the water was cold as hell, and currents made graceful navigation impossible for me, but it didn’t matter. Two massive sea turtles slowly glided across my field of vision within the first five minutes. Through the murky water, I caught my first glimpse of an ethereal manta ray gliding by in the distance. A school of massive barracuda swarmed past. A second dive provided vistas of endless craggy coral so packed full of enormous lobsters that they seemed to wave their long thin tentacles seemed to wave out of every visible surface.
I chatted up the other divers, and the lot of us made plans to stop by the lodge next door to my own for pizza later that eve. We got back around noon and after a shower and change of clothes, I wandered down the long sandy road to the nearby village with no real plans or direction. An army of locals wandered past in both directions as I crossed the verdant path.
The town center was a wide spot in the sand sparsely thronged with wooden shacks inviting commerce. Dozens of people hung out in the shade or milled around socializing. As I passed what seemed to be the general store — a small window cut into a wooden shack — I was greeted by an old man drinking a beer. We chatted for a minute before I decided to buy a beer from the window and take a seat next to him. When he finished his beer, I gave him half of mine. When I finished mine, he bought another and gave me half of his. From the shady porch edge that was our vantage, the tiny town buzzed with activity, with many errant gazes catching my own.
I finished up the second half a beer and headed back towards home. A random kid heading the same direction as me traded passes kicking dried up fruit and rocks for about a kilometer, laughing when the lopsided detritus hooked off into the surrounding farmland. After some downtime in my room, I once again set off on foot (to avoid the fool’s game of riding through the piles of sand) to join my fellow divers at the lodge next door for dinner.
We laughed, ate and drank into the night, joined by a rotating crew of friendly family members of the lodge’s owners. I avoided the 20 minute walk home in the dark with a much appreciated ride from the MAR researchers.
I once again fell asleep to wind and waves, and woke up to a beautiful sunrise over the ocean. I packed my things before heading to breakfast clad in my swimsuit, ready for a last couple dives before heading north to the popular tourist destination Tofo Beach. The ocean was substantially choppier as we made our way to our first dive: the Rio Sainas shipwreck. A new diver had joined the crew and was my buddy… but by the time I’d lowered myself down the line to the ship, he was nowhere to be found in the murky water. I signaled the divemaster who seemed thoroughly unperturbed. I explored solo feeling a mixture of confidence and worry. When we resurfaced, we found out the rough ride in had made my buddy seasick, and he lay green against the pontoons as we headed for a reef named “Area 51.”
Area 51 was freezing cold and felt like the entire ocean was being sloshed back and forth in a huge bowl. It was all I could do to avoid being pummeled wholesale against the walls of the reefs. But the struggle was worth every minute of cold, murky, effort, as dozens upon dozens of gigantic ethereal shapes waves and soared by; we were in the middle of a vast school of manta rays, and it turned out I had no idea what a manta ray really is.
Many 12 feet long or bigger, these car-sized animals gracefully and silently slid through the water close enough to touch. Their huge grinning and gaping mouths looked cartoonish below their intelligent eyes, which would look directly into my own, regarding me kindly and curiously as they passed. To be acknowledged by a creature so big nearly stopped my heart. Struggling to stay put, I hardly left the spot I landed in, content to spin round-and-round, in complete shock and awe of the gentle giants flying all around me.
Surface-side, my ignorance was clear. Though happy to see the things, everyone else was thoroughly aware that gigantic rays were a thing, and even told me that these were small ones — 3-4 meters — with big ones reaching up to 7+ meters (24 feet)! I rode the high through the choppy waves back to Zavora, feeling like I’d just discovered some fantastic new alien race, and content to be alone in the feeling.
The magic feeling didn’t last too long as I geared up next to my bike, perched high on a sand dune and with nearly an hour of slow, hot, painful riding ahead to reach the tarmac. I slid down the dune to the sandy road below, fishtailing like an overloaded clown car. In the blazing heat of the mid-day sun, I navigated the long road to the main Mozambican north-south artery.
I rejoined my northward path. Traffic was moderate but omnipresent, along with the accouterments of civilization. Women in homemade multicolored dresses with large loads of branches, water, and charcoal criss-crossed the roadway. A shocking number of children darted to and fro. Desolation seemed a fleeting memory after Namibia and parts of South Africa. I turned off the main road and onto a small paved road that passed through the city of Inhambane en route to Tofo.
Hentie back in Richard’s Bay had put me in touch with his ex-wife and her lodge in Barra, a quieter beach town nextdoor to Tofo, and I headed towards there, following a fork a few kilometers away from both towns. Eventually, I reached a turnoff to the road to the Barra Lighthouse, which had a number of lodges including my original destination. The road was deep loose sand heading off into the hills. I balked; I just wasn’t willing to fight more crazy sand roads that day. I made the off-the-cuff decision to say “fuck it” and looked up a nice looking hostel called Mozambeat in Tofo and turned tail back to the fork in the road.
I rode the 10km to Tofo and was once again presented with a steep sandy approach. Part of me died inside, but the place was dramatically closer, so I sucked it up and abused my clutch up into the dunes. Locals on tiny Chinese bikes flew by skimming the surface of the sand. I plowed deep ruts in the loose stuff sliding through ever meter with sweat and determination. I came upon a funky walled oasis covered in art measurable relief. Here was Mozambeat.
Around a large outdoor area thronged with palm trees were picnic tables and a pool. Around the edges of the compound were about 10 small tin-roofed buildings named after music artists like Kool and the Gang. Stylized paintings adorned the walls. A large two-story structure with few walls, tables, chill-out space, and a bar completed the ensemble. I checked in there to the only dorm building, filled with a dozen bunk beds, in the compound.
The buzz at Mozambeat was around a fashion show (and associated party) to take place that afternoon, except they were also subject to (and surprised by) the same power cut I’d caught in Zavora. Things got interesting when the generator was kicked on, and proceeded to spit out 400 volts of AC power, triggering a small haze of magic smoke from around the property. Such situations are where Africa really shines, as in the short couple hours before the event began, a replacement generator and sound system was sourced and the show went on.
A parade of local and foreign “models” strutting and dancing in the sun commenced to a DJ’s westernized musical tastes. Multicolored robes, dresses, shirts, shorts, hats, etc. went by one by one and two by two. While the festivities commenced, I began to meet my fellow residents, an eclectic and international collection of folks who would eventually end up comprising my crew for the next nine days of fabulous beach life in Tofo, sucked in by an unstoppable natural and social gravity of the place.
Things started off pretty easy. Other than fashion and fried electronics, the first night passed mostly uneventfully. The next day I walked the kilometer from Mozambeat to the town of Tofo, situated along the beach. The town itself was a cute and small collection of low-rise buildings, shabeens, and market stalls. Villagers carried fish and tourist sundries to and fro. Hotels and restaurants dotted the sizable beach. I enjoyed a cheap lunch along with my trusty kindle and watched life pass me by. Mozambeat’s internet had been fried in the great generator power surge, so after lunch I passed through the swirling ranks of touts on the beach to a fancy spot called Casa Barry prominently advertising free WiFi for a beer and to update my podcasts. Amazingly, it worked remarkably well by African standards. In the late afternoon, I trudged back to my hostel and spent the evening chilling out and making friends, a perfect end to a thoroughly relaxing day.
It was another easy morning, after which I packed some water and my laptop and headed to Casa Barry to work on my blog. Greeting me there was the friendly dutch diving couple from Zavora! I hung out and got some work done before more hardcore relaxation back at the hostel. The group in my dorm had reached a sort of stasis, and it had started to feel like I had a real social group. It made it feel like I wasn’t just a traveler passing through, and as certain light drama passed through, it actually made me feel more like I was home instead of homeless.
Finally, it was time to get some diving in. Unlike Zavora, there were a handful of diving outfits in Tofo, but Peri Peri came recommended, and I got a discount through Mozambeat. I got picked up in the morning and after a briefing, I once again headed to sea on an inflatable zodiac. Visibility was better than Zavora had been, and there were loads of eels and unicorn fish. The second dive had strong currents, but I was basically able to just relax on the side of a reef wall and be gently swept past it by the current, feeling like I was in some incredible and soundless underwater IMAX movie.
Our second ascent wasn’t quite like the first. The group of divers had become separated and ended up in two smaller groups. We surfaced to the open ocean, with no boat in sight. Bobbing in the substantive waves with our 3-foot inflatable marker poking up we waited. 10 minutes passed with no sign of our craft.
The mid-day sun beat down. I could feel my skin burning, but had no access to sunscreen. My initial amusement had passed, but I felt no panic, nor did the four others with me. We were certain we’d be found, but as the minutes ticked by, it wasn’t clear how long it would take. Twice, we caught sight of the boat speeding around in the distance. Twice it was heading the wrong direction, searching for our buoy, which wasn’t quite tall enough to poke out above the waves. The shore taunted us, visible yet over a kilometer away. Several times, the wind carried the sound of the twin outboard motors in the distance, but with no discernible direction.
After a full 20 minutes, the boat finally appeared. The captain was visibly agitated by having lost us, and the girlfriend of one of the divers with us, herself new to diving, was in tears, fearing he’d been lost at sea. We hopped back on board, quietly relieved it was over. I covered myself in sunscreen. When we returned, the owner of the dive shop made a point of telling me “this has never happened.” I headed back to Mozambeat and had an easy night in anticipation of another morning of diving, hopefully with slightly less surface-side excitement. I’d get my wish on that last part, but realize I’d been too specific in my desires.
The next morning started off much like the previous. The ocean was substantially more rough, with my stomach complaining slightly as we headed out to sea. The rough water had churned up far more sediment, and visibility was down to around 4 meters, but it was still a pleasant dive with lots of big and interesting fish.
We braved more rough water to our second dive site. As we did our equipment check, I joked about how I had 210 bar, slightly more than the expected amount. We entered the water and I descended into to the ocean floor. Visibility was extremely limited, and the current was extremely strong. I was breathing heavily and feeling stressed trying to stay with the group. Something felt awry, but I wasn’t present enough to be able to identify it. Suddenly, the divemaster appeared in front of me, his eyes wide and shocked. He swam directly up to me holding out his spare octopus. I took it, but hesitated before putting it in my mouth. In those intervening moments, I looked down at my own air pressure meter and discovered over a quarter of my air supply was gone in just our ~3 minute descent. I put the octopus in my mouth, linked hands with the divemaster and we began to ascend again. We hung out at a safety stop for 5 minutes. I was still confused about what was going on, but a check of my air pressure before we did our final ascent showed that I was fully devoid of air supply.
Surface-side, a quick check showed that the o-ring on my tank had shifted underwater and was dumping my air directly into the ocean. To my fellow divers, this was apparent, but I’d been completely oblivious. Despite the episode being out of my hands, I felt somehow responsible for everyone’s aborted dives. Ultimately, the group decided to go ahead and move to another less hectic dive spot for a final dive, with one of the researchers opting out and giving me her tank. The last dive involved swimming underwater through an arch made of fish-lined reef and went blissfully without incident.
Back at the shop, everyone had already heard the story and were talking about the guy who’d been lost at sea and had his air tank dump its contents in two consecutive days. I found the owner to settle my debts, content to give diving a rest for awhile after all the excitement. He once again told me “This has never happened!” It seemed to mean less the second time, even though I didn’t fault him or his outfit.
In the meantime, one of my new dorm friends, a devilishly good-looking South African surfer who, aside from his accent, seemed straight out of the Santa Cruz surfing scene passed along an invite to a braai (bbq) at someone’s house. He insisted it was fine if the rest of us crashed the party, to which we demurred, and followed him a half kilometer from the hostel to a beautiful gated compound with a couple buildings, a nice braai, and a perfect outdoor hangout spot. Our hosts were a Zimbabwean (by way of South Africa) mother/daughter pair with a couple of the daughter’s friends, to which we added a handful of foreign faces. They were super friendly, and we enjoyed an incredible meal, heaps of beer, and a new card game they taught us. I was more reserved than usual, aware that my friends and I had largely showed up unannounced and crashed their party.
We were invited back the next night (and more-or-less every night after), and overwhelmed by their generosity, began to feel like a proper member of their group. I was incredibly amused to learn the girls had found me initially intimidating, going so far as to inform me that they thought I had “resting bitch face.” Who knew? In the coming days, our group (hostel-dwellers and extended Zim/SA family) played bar trivia (we were ahead on questions, but lost on the last part of the competition over weaving a roof tile out of palm… turns out not everyone knows what a Geiger Counter is), and had another fantastic braai in which we bought a whole barracuda from a fisherman at the beach.
At the end of my stay, after making a ton of great new friends, Peri Peri Divers had an event at Mozambeat for three folks who’d just completed their divemaster certification. Besides a big party (where pretty much everyone dressed as Batman), there was what apparently is the internationally standard initiation for new divemasters: a Snorkel Test. For a snorkel test, a receptacle (in our case, most of a large plastic bottle) is attached to a snorkel then filled with some foul alcoholic concoction. Because this was Peri Peri Divers (peri-peri is roughly equivalent to “chili” in Mozambique), the concoction involved beer, hard liquor, and hot sauce, along with unnamed other ingredients. This foul brew is then poured in large quantities into the snorkel of our aspiring and be-masked divemasters. Hilarity and bacchanalia ensued (watch the video here), and even my MAR marine biologist friends drove up from Zavora to hang out!
I’d originally planned to leave the morning after the party, but that was definitely not in the cards. I woke up in the dorm to a disaster area, and a collective hangover. I booked in an additional night, with a far more relaxing opportunity for my goodbyes. Also, my Aussie friend Corey had, by now, finished his advanced rangering course, and was once again inbound to meet up. After 9 days of Tofo, and with many of my friends moving on, I knew I had to carry on, so I set my sights on the next nice beach town up the road, and headed to Vilanculos the next morning.
There’s no such thing as an entirely uneventful ride in Mozambique, and this day was no exception. Riding down through the sand started off relatively easy, and the road to Inhambane was mostly uneventful, but the highway eventually terminated in large “men at work” signs with the entire road shut down. The detour took me down a progression of crazier and crazier sand roads past lines of staring locals and tin shacks. There was no signage, and before long I was thoroughly lost, but after nearly 30 minutes of unexpected off-roading, managed to follow cardinal directions to the main road.
Once back on the main road, things were as easy as ever, passing village after village, with hundreds of children and dozens of adults meandering every which way on the shoulders, or staring from shady vantages beneath the few large trees still standing. 330km later, I pulled into my hostel, the Complexo Alemanha, around 4:30pm. At less than $5USD for a night (including a tasty breakfast), it was the cheapest accommodation to date. Corey was a few hundred kilometers behind me, but decided to push through the night to catch up, skipping Tofo entirely. I spent the evening eating strange matapa (cassava leaf) pizza and practicing my Spanish with the only other (Spanish) guests at the hostel. Corey checked in in the evening down the road at a guesthouse ran by a friend of his.
In the morning, I chatted with the hostel owner, a friendly old German who told me I was overpaying for my room because of Booking.com. He told me the price should only be ~$3.75USD a night without their fees, then passed on a nuanced rant about the shitty Chinese-made roads, which he described as having been built to last only long enough to extract the mineral resources they were targeting. Given the state of the roads I’d seen, this seemed quite plausible.
I packed up and headed down the road to where Corey was staying, in a nicer beach-side dorm room thronged with palm trees. It was a joyous reunion. We decided to spend another night in Vilanculos before continuing north, especially given the beating Corey had given himself the day before, and so I moved into his dorm. From there, we hit the beach.
We wandered around town, picked up some threadlocker for Corey, sunscreen for me, a bag of delicious mangoes, and finally managed to purchase a 500ml tetrapak of a fantastic substance that had caught my curiosity from the first time: Lord Gin! This devilish juice box of 43% alcohol proudly proclaims it was made “according to the Old Tradition.” It makes very few other claims, including its origin. Given its cost ($1.50USD per 500ml), I presume it crawled from the drunken pits of hell, driven by a hatred of decency and sobriety so pure (much purer than its 43% alcohol content) that it managed to make it all the way to the idyllic beaches of Mozambique. I do love the box’s design, though…
In the morning, Corey and I decided to continue on from Vilanculos. In an effort to make some time, we went the 20km to the main highway before looking for gas, and finding out there was none for over 100km, had to turn back to fill our tanks. The conditions of the highway immediately deteriorated as we headed north. The potholes went from an occasional nuisance to a way of life, often stretching entirely across the road, and continuing unabated for huge stretches. It was often faster to leave the roadway entirely and take to the dirt shoulder, but even then, giant lumps and bumps sent the bikes and us careening up, down, and around.
Traffic was light-to-moderate, but slow and dangerous. Oncoming vehicles, in particular heavy semi trucks, would swerve across the entire roadway in an attempt to avoid potholes. Knowing we were more nimble, they’d nonchalantly enter our lane of travel at the last minute, driving us from relatively flat land into huge dips, some large enough to swallow one of our bikes whole. Passing vehicles was similarly rife with peril, with the slow vehicles meandering unfettered through the totality of the roadway, usually picking the path we’d otherwise want. The scenery became an increasing tangle of dense jungle interspersed with trees.
We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant, where our order took the standard amount of time: nearly 2 hours from being seated to receiving food. We passed through numerous small towns, stopping for gas and to survey the wares from an army of entrepreneurs who’d chase after passing buses hoisting their wares to window-level or carrying them on their heads. When no bus was around, they’d swarm us with a substantially different concept of personal space than I’m used to, only to scramble off when another bus passed by. Much of Mozambique has more kids than classroom space. To accommodate the sea of children, schools run shifts three times a day. Armies of students flooding in all directions appeared at intervals along the roadside, often taking up large swaths of the roadway.
We passed the “Live” river, where we were charged double the price listed for motorcycles (the price for a car). It cost around 15 cents. Military soldiers there asked us some questions to seem like they were interested in more than money or drinks, which they asked for.
As evening approached, we pulled up to the town of Muxungue, a small crossroad and truck stop. We decided to stop for the night. Our first attempt involved following a sign on the highway down a series of dirt roads to a gated motel with folks tearing apart a large truck in the mud parking lot. Someone went off to fetch someone for us to talk to. A well-dressed man approached speaking decent English. He told us rooms cost an absurdly large sum of money, but confusingly, that they were fully booked for the night. Then he insisted on showing us one of the rooms that wasn’t available, despite that for the price we’d have never dreamed of staying there. He gave us vague directions to another spot on the main road.
With some effort, we found a Muslim restaurant with an attached guesthouse in the back. Corey stayed by the bikes as I checked out the accommodations. They were bleak: a pair of stained twin beds in a dirty room, a bathroom with no door and no running water, just buckets pre-filled for washing and bathing. The price, however, was right up our alley, and for a bit over $5, we checked in for the night, which involved removing our panniers to navigate through a small gate, around some narrow corners and under clothelines with drying sheets and towels to a safe spot by our room.
On the way into town, we’d passed nearly a dozen shabeens, so once settled, we backtracked on foot to find one. The first few we passed were blasting music so loud we couldn’t even get close. We eventually settled on one that was only mildly-ear-splittingly loud. We had a beer before finding another restaurant, in what would be a string of them, selling the same selection of buffet-style dishes ran by Somalis. Afterwards, we went to another shabeen where we ended up locked in long and interesting conversations with locals. One friendly truck driver I was talking to insisted on buying me a beer, and then set off on his motorcycle to pick up his Zimbabwean wife to introduce us. I managed to buy her a drink before he could stop me.
We ended the night later than expected and passed out in surprising quiet, given our location in the thick of the bustling main road, and otherwise modest and insect-ridden surroundings.
I picked the Goba Mozambique/Swaziland border for a few reasons: I’d heard Mozambique wasn’t a painless entry, that the South African border with them was a nightmare of trucks and touts, and that Goba was actually pretty simple. Stamping out of Swaziland was a breeze. It’s common to get a gate slip at southern African borders that needs to be stamped multiple times at all the steps and then handed to a gate guard. After getting all the stamps, we were stopped at the gate while the guard checked all our paperwork, including my passport and Michigan motorcycle title. Corey explained that Mozambique was a common destination for stolen vehicles, so this was an artifact of their due diligence, which made me feel good about the ordeal.
We were released with our bikes (with my VIN number checked, thank goodness for no mistakes on my title!) and headed to Mozambican customs/immigration. The place was pretty relaxed and chill, and there was nearly no traffic, but things still moved pretty slowly. We filled out some long forms, and eventually were ushered one-by-one into the manager’s office, where we paid, had our photos taken, and had our visas installed. The whole ordeal was pretty simple, but moved at Caribbean-speed. When we had our visas, we bought cheap vehicle insurance from one of three huts across from the immigration building (we split up to spread the business, as they’re all the same price), and headed in.
The speed limit was abusively slow — 50-80kmh — but the road was decent (except, as I’d learn, where it’s not) and paved. We twisted and turned up and up through tall grass as the ground became increasingly red and sandy. When we reached the top of a pass, we had our first look at the broad green-and-tan Mozambican landscape splayed out before us as we descended down a series of slow-speed switchbacks, careful of our speed from what we’d heard about the police here being sticklers for speed-limits, and also constantly looking for ways to shake down foreigners (though there’s been a recent push to cut-back on that).
We pulled into a town and stopped to get the local currency Metical (the plural is pronounced Meticash, which sounds oddly futuristic). I head to the ATM first while Corey watches the bikes and I proceed to make a fool of myself. There’s two ATM machines and a handful of folks standing around, with one at one of the machines. As I walk towards the ATM, the person using one of them walks away. I look around. No one moves. There’s a security guard off to the side. I look at him and point at the machine, and he gives me the thumbs up. I walk up to the ATM and get cash. I go back to the bikes and Corey asks me if I’d just cut the line. I’m confused, but when he walks up and asks, they point at the end of the “line” of folks (one of the machines was out of money or not working). I felt like a total ass.
Once we were loaded with our daily dose of Meticash (~62 to the dollar, and you can only withdraw 5000 at a time, less than $100US), we set off and stopped at a local pub down the street. I had the first of lots of seafood and one of the decent local beers 2M (insert an offensive joke about how they can’t afford the third one here). Corey had a Mozambican SIM, and let me hop on WiFi to send a message to Matt, the diplomat from the US State Department I’d met on a mountain outside of Nelspruit to see if his offer still stood (I didn’t really expect it would). It was oppressively hot in the mid-afternoon sun as we continued the short ride into Maputo.
City traffic engulfed us as we approached its bounds. There was street-life everywhere, and my first real introduction to the odd vehicle-human dynamic that plays out in Mozambique: the locals just walk into the street, directly at you, violating what I perceive as my vehicular bubble, assuming you won’t alter your course except maybe to get out of their way if there’s any way for you to do so. It’s a bit terrifying. We weaved through busy traffic and ample stoplights, down abroad street with a median choked with cars. Corey was staying with an American via Couchsurfing, and we headed together to his office to collect the keys. Lee, the host, turned out to be from San Jose, CA, and was put up in the Radisson for his job.
Key in hand, we shot down to the high-rent oceanside ‘hood where the Radisson was. Their parking lot was gated, but they let us in without question. Then we grabbed our luggage and walked through the lobby to the elevator. An attendant grabbed a cart and helped us get to Lee’s room, again with no questions about us being there or that we were showing up with things and walking directly into a room without checking in or anything. It seemed clear to both of us that White Privilege is alive and well in Africa. To celebrate, we changed and went directly to the pool, where we were served overpriced beer in actual glass while in the infinity pool overlooking the ocean. Don’t worry, I’m also throwing up in my mouth a little writing that.
The Radisson had the first internet I’d had since getting a message, and Matt had gotten back to me to say I had a place to stay! He gave me the address and told me his guard would expect me. I was actually really excited about the prospect of meeting this guy; I’d never met a diplomat before. He wasn’t getting home until 6, so we had some time to hang out, and eventually Corey’s host Lee came back and chatted for a bit before it was time for me to run to my new US-government owned pad in Maputo!
The ride from the Radisson to Matt’s house took me past the Chinese embassy, and lots of nice houses surrounded by walls and electric fence. Guards could be seen hanging around the neighborhood. I pulled up to a gate around 6:30 and a Mozambican security guard sporting a State Department badge met me there. I told him he should be expecting me, and a minute later I could hear Matt’s voice welcoming me in. The gate trundled open and I rolled my bike inside and into a garage next to a landrover. Matt was super welcoming and friendly. He showed me into his tri-level place and a perfectly adorned room to myself including my own full bathroom.
I brought my soft bags in and we had a glass of wine together before he took me out to a nice dinner at a Brazilian steakhouse. He told me to stay as long as I needed, to use his home as a home base. There was a genuine kindness there that struck me as unique — largely, perhaps due to coming from such a familiar West Coast accent in a foreign land. It was the start of an incredible journey for me, and perhaps, us. Neither of us really knew what we’d signed up for cohabiting. When we met, I’d seen a lone backpacker on a mountain top who seemed kind of like a nerdy hippie. He’d seen the Peace Corp stickers on my top box and presumed a poor kid done with his service attempting to see a bit of the continent. We’d both missed the mark to a degree, but seemingly all for the better.
Matt was kind, intelligent, well-informed, and fascinating in a multitude of ways. I mean, how often does one get to just hang out and chat with a career diplomat from their home country abroad? Hell, any diplomat! He grew up with a foreign service family, including attending high school while living in East Berlin, and had gone on to become a career diplomat, spending more of his time abroad than back home, largely in Africa; he had a set of experiences I’d never ran into from a fellow American.
I stayed with Matt in Maputo for 5 nights. We made dinner together, we went out together, we stayed up late chatting about the world, politics, the human condition, and even sipped whisky in the late hours of the evening while discussing quantum mechanics. Some anecdotes from our time together:
We went out on the town, finding a live music venue where we were the only customers. The band dutifully played for us despite the circumstance, the drummer sporting a Michigan State hoodie
We went to the Museum of Natural History (Museu de Historia Natural), where we wandered through ridiculous taxidermy, disturbing bottled fetuses, snakes, and various insects, and odd and largely unexplained artwork of a Mozambican slave who became the first non-Japenese samurai in Japan.
Matt took me for a ride in his car (where all the plastics are riveted, and all the glass etched in an attempt to prevent theft) through the townships around Maputo. The places were an explosion of activity, spilling over into the streets themselves. Storefronts for shops specializing in a single good (lumber, drain pipe, iron, mufflers, etc.) displayed their wares in the open air, seething masses of people sliding past each other like particles in a liquid.
We walked down a narrow alley-like street lined in pop-up bars (‘shabeens’ in South African parlance) and stores where I kept me hands close to my pockets. There, I caught my first glimpse of Lord Gin, the cheapest gin in Mozambique at <$2 for a Tetra-Pak 500ml box of the stuff.
We visited the tout-infested Fish Market on the coast where we bought a large parrot fish to cook in a curry and later make ceviche out of. It was an intense experience due to the abrasive crowd of folks offering to cook the fish on the beach, a service we weren’t looking for…
Went to a funky little art exposition/studio.
I’d arrived on a Thursday, and my errands beyond enjoying Maputo were to check in on a long-stale DRC visa application and get one for Tanzania. Unfortunately, their embassies weren’t conducting visa applications on Friday, so my hands were tied until Monday. Over the weekend, Corey got an invite to attend an advanced rangering course in Kruger back in South Africa and had to head back to South Africa to take the class. It took until Wednesday the 18th before I had a Tanzania visa sorted out (which they got the dates wrong on, but will end up working anyways); I had no more luck than before with my DRC application…
Some notes on Maputo: It’s a big city with a mix of modern and old architecture. Much of the older construction, especially the large-scale residential structures, are a shadow of their former glory. A smattering of old colonial manses in disrepair stick our among those that have been turned into businesses or taken over by rich locals or foreigners. A gleaming new suspension bridge stands half-built in the harbor, part of a large China-backed infrastructure project to Ponta do Ouro in the south. Traffic can be occasionally nightmarish, with motorcycles, tuk tuks, cars, trucks, and buses zooming around every which way through narrow and insufficient streets. Little of the population appears to live near downtown, with the vast majority commuting in from the surrounding townships. A vast moderately-developed coastline makes up one border of the cityscape. A few older high rises sit a couple kilometers from the fewer new ones. In between, a vast complex studded with fortified soldiers houses the President. In the surrounding area lay the land of embassies and guarded homes of diplomats and generals.
When I finally got my Tanzania visa in hand, it was time to bid adieu to my incredible host and head north. As I’d learn to accept, but never really acclimatize to, it was an extremely hot and humid day in Mozambique as I fought the pervasive daytime Maputo traffic on my way out of town. When my path finally took me onto the main north/south highway (the primary artery through the whole of the massively long country), I felt momentarily transported to North Korea; for the first hour or so of my journey, there was basically no traffic on the road at all. The dissonance from what I’d escaped was palpable.
Eventually, the odd quiet of the road was interrupted by people. Endless people. People walking down the road, sitting in the shade under trees, carrying enormous loads of wood or supplies on top of their heads, or herding goats. Small children appeared endlessly along the roadside, frequently in some state of being put to work. When the stick and mud huts weren’t visible, people were. In the few times people weren’t, paths were. The trees were tropical but short. The villages small but pervasive.
The road itself was decent, and traffic was light. I’d pass or be passed by occasional trucks or “chapas” (Toyota minibuses), as well as a handful of bicycles and small Chinese motorcycles. Since my morning had been taken up by consular business with Tanzania and packing my things, I took it easy the first day and turned off the main road just a couple hours from Maputo at Macia, aiming for a small beach town about an hour down a pocked local road: Praia Do Bilene. There was a small campground at one end of the accessible beach where I could stay for a song and a dance, so I checked in and pitched my tent with ample sunlight. A friendly South African tour guide taking a couple around Mozambique (they were staying somewhere fancier) was camped next to me. He’d been guiding tours in southern Africa for ages, and passed on some helpful advice for Mozambique and Tanzania I dutifully wrote down, including recommending the beach/diving town of Zavora up the coast, where he’d be travelling to next.
I had dinner at the restaurant attached to the campground and chatted up the locals before heading to the early rest characteristic of camping. The Mefloquine I had begun taking as an anti-malarial had begun to fuck with my sleep, so I awoke early in the morning with a sense that something awful had happened (I very rarely remember my dreams) and couldn’t get back to sleep. Eventually, I decided against staying another day and really getting to know Praia Do Bilene, and instead broke camp and headed towards Zavora, keen to do some diving.
The backtrack to the main road was mostly uneventful. Heading North again, there was an uptick in traffic, automotive, human, and animal. Suddenly, there was no stretch of road without people walking, biking, or motorcycling somewhere in sight. The vegetation had taken a fully tropical appearance, but it was also apparent that there had been significant tree cutting in the area. Hundreds of huge bags of locally produced charcoal studded the side of the road, allowing no mystery for where the larger trees had gone.
The speed limit alternated between 80 and 50km/hr, seemingly at random. Signage was sporadic at best. There were small villages everywhere, and a number of larger towns, the largest being Xai Xai, which has a popular beach I skipped past. I stopped in the small town of Chidenguele and found a little roadside bar off the main highway to get a cold drink (it was blazingly hot, as per usual) and met a friendly family and the Polish girlfriend of one smartly dressed member. After cooling down, I proceeded the rest of the way to the tiny turnoff from the main highway to head to Zavora.
It was immediately clear from the turn that I was heading for the infamously difficult sand of the Mozambican coast. I immediately began slowly and deliberately picking my way through deep sandy ruts on the one-lane road through the jungle. The ever-present folks on the side of the road would stop and watch me pass as my front tire pitched back and forth whenever its meager purchase failed. The 17km of pure sand took a solid 45 minutes to navigate, my limbs and clutch straining in the heat. I arrived at the foot of a giant sand dune with sweat pouring in rivers from my helmet, and a helpful local pointed up the impossibly deep sand of the dune to the top where one of the very few lodges, and the attached dive shop, were located. Once again, I had to gun the engine and rely on muscle memory to rapidly guide the careening bike to the top. I was thankful to find a spot of gravel at the top where I could put the bike on its stand without the kickstand just disappearing into the soft earth.
Zavora Lodge sat on a sandy dune overlooking the ocean. The wind howled at the bar/restaurant with attached deck. I checked in and got details on the diving, which they weren’t sure was going to be happening the next day due to the weather. Gazing at the roiling ocean below, I could understand the sentiment. I ate a big, well-deserved dinner and slunk off to bed to the sound of waves crashing outside my room.