Mozambique to Tanzania

On the Road Again
Leaving Pemba, the last town of any significance on the coast of Mozambique, the road turns inland again, away from the coast before continuing north through the frontier province of Cabo Delgado. I was now heading into untravelled territory towards Tanzania. As the kilometres passed under my wheels, the northern Mozambique bush became wilder, and the temperature rose a few degrees.
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My enthusiasm for the journey had returned. I understood and accepted that the uncertainty involved in not knowing what obstacles lie ahead can at times be a source of anxiety, and it is an essential part of the excitement and satisfaction gained from this type of travel. I reflected, not for the first time, on my good fortune at being able to continue this journey back up through Africa.

I had intended stopping for a visit at the Mareja Project, a wilderness reserve a few hours from Pemba. It is one of only a couple of eco-tourism undertakings in the country that are geared more towards conservation than commercial gain, exploiting the tourist potential for the benefit of the local community and environment. In Pemba I had met the owner Dominik, an expat philanthropist (and minor aristocrat back in Germany I was told) who had invited me to visit the project, and was looking forward to finding out more about it. When I eventually arrived at the small crossroads of Macomia three hours after leaving Pemba I knew I had missed the track to Mareja leading off into the bush. “At the sign for ‘Quirimbas National Park,’” Dominik explained by phone when, with disappointment I had to inform him I wouldn’t be there.

Coming to an arrangement with a night watchman (below) to sleep on the concrete floor of a new building in Macomia, I wandered over to Bar Chung in search of something to eat.
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A general store and bar with accommodation - full this evening - Bar Chung was run by a tall Chinese gentleman who had arrived here in the seventies and persevered through the difficult times of the civil war. Renamo rebels had a number of times cleaned out his provisions. His special this night, chicken stew on rice, was delicious, and at about a dollar, refreshingly cheap after the expense of Pemba.

Outside were parked a few UN vehicles, the reason for the absence of available beds. The officials were all from Maputo, up here for week long stretches on an anti AIDS campaign, visiting some more remote villages in the bush.

A dirt road leading east from here led to the coast, 50 kms away on sandy tracks, and access to the island of Ibo which I’d wanted to visit. Pangane too, a beautiful beach with a reputation as being a paradise, I’d also have to leave until the next time. Some progress had to be made on my journey up through East Africa.

The rutted red road continued through Cabo Delgado province, the vegetation increasingly lush and tropical, occasionally deteriorating into soft sand which needed my full attention. This hilly wilderness stretched off in every direction, showing no sign of human presence. A troop of samango monkeys paused on the road, squatting on their hunkers, and glanced quickly at each other as if to reassure themselves they weren’t being abandoned by the group before scampering off at my approach, leaping up into nearby branches.

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Occasionally small settlements of traditionally built mud huts, invariably set in a grove of coconut palms, punctuated the journey. I was interested to see how something basic and necessary - secure shelter - was constructed here. A lattice of thin poles tied to posts constituted the frame of the house, that was then infilled with stones and wet red dirt. The roof was makuti, or palm leaves. Materials found locally and help from the neighbors, and just like that, a new house. Nothing too complicated. A hut has a life on average of about seven years.

One of these settlements was Cha, where the first shots of the Mozambique war for independence were fired. A sculptured stone monument at the roadside marked the significance in this otherwise unremarkable village.

About five kms outside the town of Mocimboa de Praiai, I found my way to Chez Natalie, a lodge owned by a Frenchwoman who had settled here, hoping to get some advice on how to get through to the border. Her pretty mulatta daughter informed me in her lovely sing song Portuguese-French accented English (with the slight American questioning inflection, now seemingly universal among TV watching youth) that her mom was in town. It was a relaxing location with timber huts and a view down across mango groves to an inlet of the sea below.

A clatter of strange looking sculptures were on display - the Makonde people, inhabiting a plateau of the same name east of here, had a reputation for a distincive style of wood carving. These pieces were of heavy black wood - grotesque grinning faces, and stylised human forms with limbs linked, often of many tiers, the sculpture a metre or two in height. Browsing through a coffee table book illustrating the Makonde sculpting tradition, I learned these figures, carved from a single piece of pau ferro (ebony), represented the spirit world.

Natalie didn’t show, I was hungry, and I made my way back towards the town, stopping to eat a dish of rubbery octopus in a tasty ‘matapa’ sauce - shredded cassava leaves, ground peanuts and coconut milk. Then deciding I wasn’t going any further today, I booked into a room in a pensao next to the crossroads where the
chapas left for outlying villages. It was clean, had its own shower (bucket) and at $8 was a fair deal.

Mocimboa de Praia
Mocimboa de Praia conjured up an image completely at variance with the reality. Finding my way down through the sandy streets of this sprawling town to the waterfront, there was no beach to be seen. The town is set on the edge of a large sheltered inlet. Scores of sailing dhows were beating their way back across the bay after the day’s fishing, landing their catch at the south end of town - not really a port, more a narrow strip of mucky sand. Makuti roofed huts and lean-tos crowded each other down to the shore.

Coming upon the Customs building I made enquiries about sea traffic around to Tanzania. The friendly officer pointed at a decrepid looking boat with a deck, pulled up on the shore in front of us. That was the only one he knew of trading with Tanzania, he couldn’t say when it was next leaving, and the journey could take upto five days. Hmmm. Sailing in what looked like quite an unseaworthy vessel on the Indian Ocean for that period of time did not appeal.

(I learned later that Nick and Gwen, a couple I had met a few weeks previously in Nampula, emboldened on hearing my plans to head north to Tanzania, had decided to try their luck as well. They too went to Chez Natalie for advice, and managed to find a dhow to take them from Mocimboa around the mouth of the Rovuma river. It turned out by all accounts to be quite an adventure. The sea journey took a few days, involving going aground three times - it was a smuggler's boat and lights were forbidden - running out of food and water, and eventually making landfall on a stretch of uninhabited Tanzanian coastline in the middle of the night with the bike having to be carried by the crew shoulder high through the tide to the shore.)

Transport to the Rovuma
There was a better chance here of finding a 4x4 to get me through the sand at the border than Palma, two hours away and the last village in Mozambique. After a bit of research, I found a pickup truck that was leaving for the border at 1am. The 4x4 Land Cruiser (pictured below) has a fairly good reputation in difficult conditions.
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The padrao, the owner, in his late forties with a chiselled, capable look, agreed a price of $25 to take me and the bike the four hour journey to the Rovuma River, the border with Tanzania. With a quiet authority about him, I felt he was a dependable enough bet to get me through the 30 kms of sand. The driver, In his mid twenties, looked fairly sharp.

Mocimboa, though a large town, had no electricity yet. Evening transformed it into an atmospheric village, yellow lantern and candle light flickering in windows and through open doors. At a roadside stall I shared a table with two guys based an hour away in Diaca where they were working in forestry. The skin colour and features of both indicated a mixed African and European heritage. Luis, the less taciturn, did the talking. His mate, hair braided in corn rows and slouched in his seat, affected disinterest occasionally turning my way when something was said, but didn’t contribute a word the half hour we were there. They drove down here occasionally to eat and drink a beer, bored with the standard diet of chicken further inland. Here there was fish as well. With the ubiquitous jar of ‘piri-piri’ on the table. This sauce is found on every table in the country, and varied from not so hot with lots of lemon and garlic, to radioactive with fiery red chilies.

My dining partners, in their late twenties, were electricians from Maputo but earned better money up here felling the
pau ferro (ebony) for a German company that had logging concessions in the area. Assuming a European company would pay some kind of lip service to sustainability, I was surprised to be told that, no, there was no tree replanting done. Luis’ eyes lit up as he described the riches to be found in the forests where they worked - diamonds and precious stones. Back in Pemba I had met a South African geologist, enjoying the comforts of town after his regular spell of two weeks in the bush, who was being paid big money to locate sources of pink crystal. Northern Mozambique certainly has this image of an undiscovered frontier.

The following day (all going well) would be my last in Mozambique after nearly four weeks. I had been stimulated, intrigued and excited by the country and the types I had met who were drawn here. Together with the white sand beaches, delicious seafood and undeveloped interior, it had made an impression and I suspected I would be back.

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Showtime. To the Rovuma!
Bed early, three hours sleep... then alarm, and showtime! The lights of the approaching vehicle came bumping slowly down the deserted street only ten minutes late. Reversing up to a bank off the road, we loaded the bike onto the back of the pick-up without too much trouble and I strapped it down firmly, wrapping my gear and helmet up in a security chain mesh I had carried the whole way so far without using, and locking it onto my panniers. I was to ride in the cab, and if anyone wanted to steal anything, they’d have to take the whole lot! Throughout the loading stood the impassive presence of the elderly patrao of my guest house in his gown, to the side, quietly uttering the odd word of instruction making sure things went ok.

But we weren’t ready to hit the road just yet. The next hour was spent bumping and lurching through the dark and empty streets of Mocimboa picking up fares. The driver would pull up outside a hut, or fence and give a brief toot on the horn, followed a few minutes later by a bleary eyed person stumbling out with a small bag, sometimes accompanied by a family member to see them off. When it seemed every bit of space was taken we left town at 2am, only to pull up again a few times to pick up another fare, or drop off a delivery to a few tiny lean-to shops on the way. I had made it clear that no matter how enticing, no-one was to sit on the seat of my bike! It was well tied down, but I didn’t want any extra pressure put on the suspension.

Sitting in the cab next to the driver, all that could be seen was what was illuminated by the headlights. Outside of this - constantly moving - circle of light was darkness, bush, it could be anything. In this dream like experience at 2am in the morning, our stops presented little scenarios of human activity played out for us in our enclosed world, circumscribed by the pool of headlight. In a former existence as a long distance truck driver I was accustomed to
the night worker, pulling into floodlit loading bays at all hours of the night or early morning, men beavering away on forklifts, supervisors with clipboards, and drivers standing around chatting with small plastic cups of coffee from the vending machine in their hands. This was different. This was also vital activity but not a routine or habit determined by the rising or setting of the sun. This journey to the Rovuma River had to be started at this hour to get to the border in time to collect passengers for the return. If you want a lift, this is the time of day it goes. If you want a crate of Coke or bag of vegetables delivered, you sleep inside the door of your lean-to ready to receive it at 3am (or it gets left on the step unchecked). If you’re a driver, these are your working hours.

It struck me that if you don’t have steady work (or are not tied to regular chores based around animal husbandry), routine - that insurance against uncertainty and change - is a comfort not indulged in by all. And so getting up in the middle of the night to help your sister catch the pick-up, or to hand over a parcel to the driver for delivery down the line, isn’t so extraordinary, or so much of an inconvenience.

The whole trip seemed a four hour blur of bush lit by headlights, with occasional stops to pick up or drop off people or goods. In the dark we drove at what seemed like reckless speed on the seriously rutted road, though in fact the speedometer remained at around 60kph, rising to 80 on straighter stretches. The driver Tito had been doing this return trip a few years, every day, sometimes twice a day he said, and seemed to know every bend and turn, slowing before an unseen hazard, or speeding up with only 30 metres of visibility knowing the stretch of road ahead was good. The faintest glow of red in the distance could mean only one thing - a challenge! And when the vehicle ahead was ultimately caught, as it always was, invariably it would stick to the more stable centre of the road despite Tito ‘s flashing. Knowing the road, he’d judge his moment perfectly, accelerating past when he knew there was space ahead despite the darkness.

From Palma - Sand!
After a stop in Palma, the last village in Mozambique, we exited by a small track that quickly turned into a sandy path barely wide enough for the vehicle. It was now I began appreciating I’d taken the right course of action. The wheel tracks were a few feet in depth and would have been difficult to negotiate with the panniers on the bike. To maintain a momentum in the sand the Land Cruiser had to keep the speed up as the track wound its way through the bush. We passed a man pushing his bicycle, pulled off to the side at the sound of our approach. Going slowly or worse being stuck with the motorbike would have invited almost certain collision with one of these 4x4’s hairing along behind.

The surrounding tropical forest was beginning to emerge in the approaching dawn. Tito pointed out fresh elephant dung on the track a few times. Other evidence of their presence were trees recently knocked over. Yes, he said, there were lions here too. At one open stretch of soft sand about 50 metres wide, Tito paused as his assistant leapt out of the back and engaged the diff lock on the wheels (to prevent wheel spin), before revving the engine and powering through the deep sand. An abandoned vehicle lay to one side. I was enjoying this roller coaster ride supremely, delighted I hadn’t had to battle through it myself. (I heard subsequently of a group of South African offroaders - lightly loaded - who’d taken twenty four hours to do what took us two hours!)

Mozambique Border
Eventually, after an endurance drive through the night including 30 kms of the most difficult track I'd seen in Africa, we reached the border post. A guard sleepily wandered out, fastening his trousers, and motioned where the pick-up was to park. Over the next half an hour, we were joined by more vehicles, including a Land Cruiser carrying four Italians on safari - not looking too happy after their rough ride. They were processed through first and sped off to catch the 6am tidal ferry across the Rovuma river.

The travel documents of the other passengers and my passport had been handed in to the Immigration officer. I was hoping to avoid the attentions of Customs, as on entering Mozambique at the remote coast on Lago Niassa, the bike’s custom’s document - the carnet - had not been stamped into the country and I wanted to avoid potential difficulties exiting as a result. The Customs officer, Rafael as he introduced himself, approached me and asked me for the carnet. I watched anxiously as he studied the document, then without batting an eyelid, he stamped the exit part and returned it to me wishing me a safe journey, and hoping I would return. We exchanged email addresses and that was that. No sweat. Two hours after arriving, all the baggage inspected and emigration formalities completed, we continued the fifteen minutes to the river bank.

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Crossing the Rovuma River
Naturally we’d missed the ferry. The next wasn’t until high tide in the evening. As I didn’t fancy arriving at the other river bank in darkness, I agreed a fee with a local boatman to take me and the bike across. He knew he had me over a barrel, demanding an extortionate $50, despite my affecting indifference as to whether I wait until the evening, or take his boat (pictured left, at the international border betweeen the two countries). After a standoff over $3(!) he called my bluff suddenly breaking off negotiations in a play of ‘Ah, forget it’, going to start up his little outboard motor. Eating humble pie I agreed the $15.

As the tide was low, the river bank was consequently high, which meant we had to lower the bike down.
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Rather than negotiate with different individuals to help, I had engaged the services of one character with some authority to organise the ‘stevedores’. My bike loaded, like the pick up truck earlier that morning, the boat was then crammed with what I had thought were disinterested onlookers on the bank but who were in fact waiting passengers, their luggage and another (smaller) motorbike!

It was actually a longer crossing than I had supposed as we had to motor downriver a few hundred metres to bypass an island, before coming back up, then repeating the manoevre again to avoid emerging sandbanks.
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The capitao (pictured right) - he didn’t speak Portuguese, or English, only Swahili - seemed to know the river well, periodically poking a wooden staff he held over the side to guage the depth, giving instructions to his assistant at the tiller. Hugging one sandbank we ran aground and he leapt over the side to push the boat off the sand. An uneasy murmur went around the boat, “Mboko”. Hmm, that would be Swahili for... oh, hippo. We were skirting the sandbank so close because twenty metres ahead - a group of eight hippos were wallowing in the deeper channel.

Snapping some photos, I was unsure whether to be nervous or awed, and had an unreal feeling of being in a film. I had no idea if we were in danger, just thinking anxiously of my bike precariously balanced, and all my gear. Hippos are the cause of more deaths in Africa than any other animal, and are one of the most territorial of river creatures - and we were aground twenty metres from a family of eight. One of them opened his massive jaw wide, giving everyone a nervous thrill!

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A few of us pushed the boat along the sandbank, slowly managing to put some distance between us and the hippos. The engine was then lowered, spluttered into life again and we reached the other bank, where with a few willing hands the bike was lifted off. Attaching all my luggage and examining the bike, I noticed only one problem from the journey. After firmly strapping it onto the back of the pick-up I foolishly had forgotten to lift up the side stand, which had bent slightly from the pressure. This meant the bike leaned over now at an even more alarming angle on the side stand. Until I could get a piece of angle iron welded onto the ‘foot’ later on down the road, when stopping I’d have to look for a sideways slope before dismounting! That evening I found a thick square of timber to place under the stand, and tied a piece of twine around it to haul it up when ready to go.

Five kms from the river along a walking track was the border post. The other bike from the boat was being pushed, and I stopped to offer some petrol. But the problem was something else and they needed a tow. A first for me. My poor radiator fan was working pretty hard.

The Immigration officer greeted me in English with a smile, “Welcome to Tanzania”, and said he hoped I had a visa as they weren’t issued at this border. I passed him my passport saying smugly that I think he'd find its not necessary for an Irish passport. He looked bemused as he checked his documents to verify this, and I added lightly that it was because Ireland is so well liked. “If it's such a nice country,” he responded, “Why will they not let me in without a visa?” To which I had no answer.