Chasing Sunrise: Who doesn’t crave a gravel road? (Mozambique)

“They’re not friendly in Mozambique,” “traffic police target foreigners,” “they’ll turn your vehicle over.” “Everyone wants to make you pay”. These were some of the comments made to us before we crossed the border into Mozambique. We were already braced for it being the hardest country: they speak Portuguese not English, its a big country and always features in the Top 10 of poorest countries in the world so we were expecting to have to drive big distances on poor roads, and it has a reputation for bribery and unwarranted fines.

Our first interaction with the woman on the immigration desk seemed to confirm what we’d been warned. She wasn’t smiling or friendly. Just looked down her nose at us as she leafed through our entire passports. Eventually they were thrown back and we were handed a long form to complete. This excited us as it meant we were making progress already. After we completed them we were grateful to be passed over to a guy who was less grim. We got more excited as he began recording our details in a log book, it signaled to us that we were going to get our visas.

The wheels didn’t turn quickly and it was a long process – photos, fingerprints, the printing of the visas, more log books, money, receipts… But only an hour later we were in Mozambique. Now for the vehicle.

The customs guy was reluctant to drag himself away from the tv. When he did he questioned why we have a copy of the owners document and not the original. The first time we’d encountered that. Nerves kicked in as we politely pointed out that it is a certified copy and Emma gradually highlighted the important parts of information on there. Slowly and reluctantly he got out the form and put a piece of carbon paper underneath it. Well versed he then gave us a spiel of what to put in each box – line by line. Emma promptly completed the first one wrong but since we’d got the form we figured it unlikely he’d change his mind now. Within 3 minutes our importation permit was completed, signed and we had our copy. That was it done. We were shocked to discover it was free.

The last thing we needed to get was mandatory Mozambique 3rd party insurance. We were directed to the office outside the gate. The quote was high but with no other provider they refused to budge no matter what we tried. In the context of it being the only cost to get the vehicle in we couldn’t really complain even though we knew we were being charged almost twice the actual cost.

At the nearest town we stopped and used an ATM and got a SIM card. The ATM was slow and not happy with either card but finally delivered after a few attempts. As for this SIM card this was a longer and slower process than we’d encountered before but all practical matters were now ticked off.

It was mid-afternoon and with time to make up we were determined to get a solid few hours driving in. Our plan for Mozambique was to head south and pick up the coast and follow it all the way down to the capital, Maputo, in the South East corner of the country. With time now getting short we intended to get to the coast as fast as possible so we could spend what time we had enjoying the beaches.

We were amazed to be on a tar sealed highway that had few to no pot holes and was a proper width and road markings. It also had very little traffic. We were soo excited! The landscape was also far prettier than we’d expected – it was green and there were beautiful hills/small mountains. Unfortunately we realised later we were too busy enjoying it and didn’t capture any photos.

It lasted a couple of hours and then we turned off and onto the kind of road we’d expected. A dirt, sand road that at times looked like a track it was clearly a road we just barely met another vehicle on it. It was well populated though, we passed through village after village after village.

We waved and people waved back. So much for people not being friendly.

In March this year central Mozambique was hit by Tropical Cyclone Idai. An estimated 1.7 million people in Mozambique were in its direct path (920,000 were also affected in Southern Malawi). Floods of up to 6 metres deep caused huge devastation, with one spokesman for the United Nations World Food Program described aid workers seeing “water and water for miles and miles” such that it resembled an inland ocean. It was labelled one of the worst weather-related disasters ever to hit the Southern Hemisphere and the worst natural disaster to hit southern Africa in at least two decades.

Still reeling from that, 6 weeks later Northern Mozambique was hit by Cyclone Kenneth – the first time in recorded history 2 strong tropical cyclones have hit Mozambique in the same season.

Most of the bridges we passed over were small and it being dry season there was no water to be seen. Then with no signs or warning we hit our first proper bridge, only half of it wasn’t there any more. It was one of those situations where you come over the crest of a small hill and blink your eyes because something doesn’t look quiet right and then you clock a good track going off to the right and realise its a detour. We stopped and signaled to someone on the bridge and they confirm the side track was the way.

In hindsight it would have been a smarter move to have got out and looked first, but we didn’t and we found ourselves going over a steep crest and onto a hand-made narrow bridge made from fist sized logs. Workmen were sat next to it, we don’t know if it was even finished, but no one was panicking. Marie drove onto it slowly and as smoothly as she could. She was acutely aware that the 4WD with its extra fuel tank, 2 extra wheels and a 3rd spare tyre, roof top tent, 2 gas bottles and camping gear would have weighed in at around 2 ton (the same as our van). She held her breath. It moved and creaked but to her relief nothing broke and we rolled off safely. Emma half shut her eyes whilst wildly waving at one of the workmen and cheering out the window when we made it across.

The afternoon started to wear on. We were making slow progress and realised we wouldn’t get as far as the town we’d picked out as a potential place to overnight. We’d passed nowhere that looked like any form of accommodation. By chance we came to a small town. Realising this would be our best chance to find somewhere to sleep we started to ask around. Directions were vague and we got sent up and down a street. We couldn’t see anything. On the fourth time of asking a schoolboy was nearby who could speak a little English. His parents had a place and he’d take us. We drove up the kerb and onto a path. They had a little block of rooms of maybe half a dozen rooms that each had a plumbed in toilet and a rough tiled shower area although oddly no water supply and no plug. A couple of big buckets of water appeared to service both. It was like worker accommodation as most rooms seemed taken by some guys that were building a new property for them.

After some jigging around and lifting up of power cables with a broom we got the 4WD parked up next to it. We paid NZ$20 for a room. After the last experience of staying in the motel in Malawi and knowing how it heated up overnight we explained we’d sleep in the roof tent as it was cooler. It was perfect. Everyone was very welcoming and we felt very safe. The boy’s elderly father was brought out to meet us. Quite probably we were the first foreign tourists they’d had stay.

We slept well but with much driving to do in Mozambique and not being sure what quality of roading we’d have we were up at first light. To our surprise it was damp and we were in fog. It felt like being in a rainforest.

We hit the road. The dampness was nice in making the sand harder and keeping the dust down but visibility was not entirely clear so we took it steady. The coolness was nice. It soon burnt off though and started to warm up. We had some very pretty views in places until it did. There is a low uptake of education so we did not have to deal with the usual hazard of hundreds of schoolchildren walking along the road.

It was 3 hours before we finally joined a sealed highway again. As much fun as they are we really needed to be clocking up some distance if we were going to get any time at Mozambique’s infamous beaches.

The road was frustratingly pot holed and the seal was breaking away at the edges making it narrow and requiring a lot of driving with one wheel on the broken tar and one on the gravel verges. We spent hours picking our way through. Even when you got a good stretch you couldn’t trust how long it was going to last and with pot holes deep enough to lose a baby elephant making a mistake and hitting one hard could cause some serious damage. It was hard driving.

A couple of hours later we faced a choice. A shorter route that would probably be gravel or a longer one that would be sealed. We took the latter and it turned out to be a bad choice. They are replacing the road surface, we had some single file stop/go signs but the vast majority were rough dirt road detours that had been ploughed through the bush next to the road. On the road / off the road / on the road and so it went for about 3 hours. Driving new seal, then broken seal, then dust, then new seal was wearing the brakes and our pateince. We were incredibly over it by the time we made it to the other side and frustrated that a whole day of driving had bagged us less than 450km.

With a little of the day left as we rolled into the town that our map showed had a couple of accommodation options we topped up with fuel. The standard fuel tank on a Hilux holds 80 litres and our 2nd additional tank held 85 litres. Given distances are vast and having had the experience in Zambia where 2 consecutive rural stations were out of diesel we liked to keep full tanks. However the moment we left Namibia we’d had massive issues getting fuel into the 2nd tank. Namibia pumps must be different or have different pressure or something. We’d literally have to painstaking dribble it in as the tank burped out air. We’d become experts at gently shaking it to help speed up the process. 10 litres of fuel could literally take us 15 minutes to get in. We’d adopted a system of filling up small amounts frequently to try and keep it topped up and being really positive and encouraging with fuel attendants as it was incredibly boring for them, to try and get as much in before they gave up. In towns with more than one we’d literally go to 2 or 3 in an attempt to get the tank full. We were literally wasting at least an hour of our day on fuel station forecourts.

We discovered in Mozambique they were more patient than elsewhere. Quieter stations and less tourists meaning we had more novelty value and they wanted to help. It didn’t really speed up the process though, only that we stopped once instead of 2 or 3 times. We did discover that some of the bigger brand stations usually had a coffee machine and that made it much more bearable.

With a good 20 litres of fuel in and 45 minutes later we entered the town and tried to find where the map showed there was a motel. A brand new highway junction with unfinished bridge made it really difficult as we had to go through it twice (and a police checkpoint twice) to get the right turn off as it was right next to the highway. When we got it and asked around to try and find it we discovered that they’d been closed to make way for the new highway. It was a truck heavy town as the junction was with the highway from Mozambique’s second largest city Beira and the Zimbabwe border. We couldn’t find anything else in the town, the next option we could find was a 30km side detour towards the border. With the daylight going we bit the bullet and joined the stream of trucks.

It didn’t make for the most fun driving. Not a lot of patience is exercised even when overtaking, one truck still left a whole stream in front to do the same with. We drove slowly and defensively. We easily found the motel marked on our map, they didn’t have a parking area though an we wanted a secure place for the vehicle so they directed us to another one nearby. They didn’t either, but the guy working there said we could camp in the yard of his family’s home 100m down the road. Emma went and looked at it with him. We asked how much but he refused to take any money saying he was just pleased we were there.

The yard was full of vehicles but we just managed to squeeze in and park next to a flat raised grassy area that was perfect for cooking on. He had about a dozen dogs/puppies but none were interested in us. The toilet was in the back corner, apparently it was for pees only, no poos. He never told us what the arrangements were for poos (we were grateful when we left that we didn’t need to deal with that dilemma). We could go back to the motel and they’d let us use a room when we wanted a shower. A guy from the motel had come with us, Emma understood enough Portuguese to get that the guy was being tasked with our security.

We set up the tent in the dark and then cooked dinner/lunch and eggs for breakfast. The shower arrangement the night before had been a cold bucket bath, so fair to say it had been light touch. We got our washbag, towels, PJ’s and day packs (valuables) and rolled across. We paid to hire a room for a while and it was so worth it – proper hot water with good flow and pressure. As we headed back the guy that had been tasked with our security jumped up from his position on the hotel door and walked us back. He spoke no English but he understood when we gestured him to wait. We gave him some juice and crisps (to sustain him through the night) and he was so happy.

It wasn’t the best night’s sleep. It was comfy enough and the trucks on the road had suprisingly gone quiet around 1am. There was just general town noise and one of the dogs whinged all night. We were pretty awake by the time the morning call to prayer rang out but didn’t move until it was properly light. Again we got up to fog. We also found our security man quietly washing the 4WD for us. It was filthy and we were going to have to do it as every time we lent on it to get gear out or the tent it we were getting dirty. Working round him did slow our pack down but we were only just done before he was. We gave him some money for his trouble. It was just a few dollars but it made him very happy.

He helped us to open the gates and back out. There was no one else around so we thanked him profusely in the hope he would pass our sincere gratitude on.

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