Sailing To Mozambique

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Markets and Magic in Nkhata Bay
Nkhata Bay, Malawi's largest port, is a busy market town. Arrays of plastic household items in vivid primary colours were displayed in neat rows on the side of the road down to the harbour. A mountain of bagged maize meal lay next to whole boughs of green bananas and heaps of different varieties of potatoes. Cabbages, onions and baskets piled high with red tomatoes were arranged on the shady side of the street. I bought a brightly coloured, second hand cotton shirt (American - my guess was they were donated for charity) for sale on hangars hooked on a fence, others being picked through in a pile on a mat on the ground.

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Two sharp fishermen stood at their stall of perfectly stacked smoked fish, next to a small hill of tiny glinting silver sprat upended onto a mat. I snacked on tasty corn on the cob roasted on charcoal grills, the fire caramelising the sugars adding a slight sweetness to the smokey flavour and chewy nuttiness. A crowd was gathered around a man gesticulating and ranting in Chichewa, who I was told was a sorcerer, about to transform the sticks at his feet into snakes (some wary onlookers pictured right). Unfortunately I didn't get to see the miracle - when he didn’t get the $5 he demanded for a photo, I was ushered off.

Ferry to 'The Other Side'
At the dock, a friendly official reassured me the boat would be on time later in the afternoon, and I bought my ticket. As evening approached, I remembered to get the carnet - my bike’s passport - exit stamped by the customs, and was told there would be an Immigration official boarding at Likoma Island to stamp my passport out of Malawi. Negotiations then ensued with the loadmaster as to how he proposed to load my bike. I insisted upon the onboard winch being used despite his wish to employ the many willing hands to manually lift the bike overhead up onto the deck. Using the name of ‘my friend’ Anton, the manager from Monkey Bay, got the required cooperation. I made sure the ropes were tied on the bike where they wouldn’t do any damage, and it was winched up on board. The bike secured by very handy cargo straps I had with me (free with any bike transported from Germany!), I had my panniers and gear carried headhigh - a couple of dollars wisely spent - through the crowds thronging the gangways, to the top deck, where the
mzungus (white people) were directed, for only a slightly higher fare.

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So this was it. I felt a slight nervous excitement at what the next 48 hours would hold. The bike was loaded, the easy bit. How was the unloading going to go - into a small lifeboat, to be transported to the beach, and then to be lifted off? And how was the track along the lakeside over there? With all the animation around me, I settled into enjoying the thrill of being on the MV Illala - in service on Lake Malawi since before WWII - the more atmospheric for being nightime. Passengers that had been streaming onboard all evening had now reduced to a trickle. The women selling bananas and peanuts from their mats on the quay were packing up to go. With headlights on full beam, two 4x4’s careened up to the wharf, the occupants jumping out lugging suitcases bound with twine to the gangplank. And at 8.30pm, only half an hour over schedule, with three final blasts from the ship’s air horn, we edged away from the dockside and chugged into the darkness.

On the deck below me were cabins, for about $20, and a (very basic) restaurant, and below that again was steerage class. Luggage, trussed up cardboard boxes and sacks of maize were stacked everywhere.
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Families had settled into any available space, including the walkway, making any passage through a lengthy procedure, being careful not to stand on feet and hands. What a colourful, loud and vibrant portrait of Malawians travelling. On the upper deck it was less crowded, particularly after the ticket inspector did his rounds. A bar served the local (extra strong) Guinness and other beers. Having established a spot with my gear, I rolled out my sleeping mat. Being on the the top deck in the summer heat would have had its appeal, but I was to find it a little uncomfortable that night trying to shelter on the deck from the cool wind blustering across the lake surface, despite the pannier barriers I had erected.

Sometime in the fitful doze of the night, at about 1am, we arrived at our first stop, lying off Chisumulu, a small island with a beach and backpacker hostel. Half asleep I watched in the faint illumination from the ship the transfer of boxes, sleeping children and adults to a tender three decks directly below me. Four wuzungu disembarked precariously, bleary eyed, climbing onto another boat bobbing alongside it. The two white men ignored the proferred helping hands. We didn’t move for a few hours, I guessed the captain was catching some sleep.

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As dawn broke, we arrived at neighboring Likoma Island - in Mozambique waters though Malawi territory. The rising sun cast at first a yellow glow then brightened on the passengers and cargo unloading and loading onto smaller boats to be ferried to and from the shore. A large pontoon was towed out for the bigger cargo. It was great entertainment watching the activity, the shouted instructions, infants handed from the ship to grasping hands below in the crowded lifeboat. On the other side of the ship I watched a fisherman expertly manouevre his canoe alongside offering his catch for sale (below), with deft strokes keeping it next to the ship’s hull as he negotiated prices with those interested above.

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Lifeboat 350 1
This went on a few hours until, at the approach of midday, another long hoot signalled our eventual departure. I had made sure to find the Immigration officer who had boarded - an absence of necessary stamps in your passport can give some officials an excuse to make a fuss, perhaps an opportunity to exact an ‘on-the-spot fine’. In all my journey through Africa so far, I had avoided paying bribes, and didn’t wish to break that pattern. It was decision time now as to where I was to disembark.

Where to Get Off
The next stop was Cobué, only a half hour away on the nearby Mozambique lakeshore. Seeds of doubt had been sown first by the loadmaster claiming it could be difficult to unload the bike there as the village beach was too exposed, and then the barman, alleging that the “security situation” on the track from Cobué was "unknown". This was the first I’d heard of that concern. Having done as much research as I could, my information was that this area had successfully been cleared of mines - a hazard from the civil war and until relatively recently a danger in most of the countryside - and I hadn’t heard of any risk of bandits, so put that sentiment down to ignorance. The alternative was to continue on board a few hours further south to Metangula (“You will arrive quicker by the ferry”) lying in a sheltered bay, from where I knew there was a partly sealed road to the provincial capital Lichinga. And if I wasn’t confident about the unloading, I knew my worst case scenario was to stay onboard until we arrived alongside the quay in Monkey Bay in a few days time, and take the land border to Mozambique.

The deciding factor was the time of day - whatever about unloading the bike into a lifeboat, I wasn’t going to attempt it in the dark! And, despite the captain’s assurance, there was a slight risk it would be evening before the ship arrived in Metangula. With some apprehension I made my decision. We anchored about a hundred metres offshore of Cobué (below). Oddly for the tiny village around it, a large church was visible on a rise behind the beach. (Also visible on the right is the mango tree in the sand in front of the White Buffalo, mentioned later.)

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Unloading the Bike
After a fee of about $8 had been agreed for unloading the bike from the ferry down to the lifeboat, and then from the boat onto the beach - bodies were needed - we set to it, with an amused audience peering from the railings above. It was an anxious few minutes as my bike dangled, suspended in the air, before being lowered slowly into the tender below, where it was grasped by willing hands to support it. After passing my gear down, I hung from an iron bar stuck out from the ship’s side and dropped into the boat myself. Of course my greatest concern through this whole operation was losing my bike into the depths of Lake Malawi! As we chugged towards the shore, the lifeboat, though fairly stable, was rolling a little from the diagonal direction of the lake’s swell. The closer we got, the more I could feel myself relax.

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There were enough bodies to lift the bike out of the boat, and push it up the soft sand of the beach. With a great shout and grinning from all, it was done! My ‘stevedores’ jumped back into the tender and motored back to the mothership, which then pulled anchor and moved off. I took in the scene around me. A few beach huts, one a restaurant of sorts, and a sand track up to the village. A group of youths stood watching silently, probably wondering what on earth had just been offloaded into their village. Earlier, the ferry captain confirmed what Anton the manager had said, that they hadn’t offloaded a bike like this to Cobué before! I began to carry my stuff over to the bike, and a few leapt forward to help. A man in uniform approached, asking for "documentos". And he actually did try and read my bike registration papers upside down! When he had scrutinised that and my passport, he handed them back smiling. An Immigration officer had returned from the ship, and ushered me up to his office, where he charged me $25 for a visa and stamped me into Mozambique.

‘one the most remote parts of Africa’
It was early afternoon at this stage, and I decided the best thing to do, with 100 kms to the next village and not knowing the condition of the road, was to find some place to sleep here and start off the next morning. The White Buffalo Guest House while very basic - no water and the toilet locked - was on the lakeshore and cost $2. I learned it had been owned by “Mr Ben” an Australian who four years ago gave up and went home, selling it to the Catholic Church for use by the priest overnighting once a week. Apart from that I don’t think it saw many other guests! This village wasn’t on the way to anywhere.

I was apprehensive about what lay ahead of me, and was studying my Bradt guide book again - it describes Cobué as ‘one the most remote parts of Africa’ - for any clues as to what to expect on the road the following day, finding only ‘ it will test your suspension and driving’. I was greatly reassured to see a 4x4 pulled up behind one of the huts, belonging I was told to ‘Patrick’ who managed Nkwichi Lodge. So at least there was access to here!

I had heard of Nkwichi Lodge, about 15 kms from here down the coast and only accessible by boat. It was a place I would have loved to have visited, but at $200 a night it was a little beyond my budget. Set I was told in beautiful Manda Wilderness Reserve on the lakeshore, and popular apparently with honeymooners (this was indeed "away from it all") it operates what is described as ‘community based tourism’. Instead of the usual scenario of the local community seeing little benefit from tourist dollars spent in their area besides a few gardening and cleaning jobs, this enterprise is run by a Trust partly owned by local communities, and has built a number of schools, clinics and organised training initiatives. Such is its reknown, in 2006 the President Guebuza visited the Lodge, the first time in history a Mozambique premier had visited the province of Niassa.

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The beach was where the action was, a group of men idling in the shade of ‘barracas’, or palm frond huts. A dhow - the Arab sailing vessel associated with the Swahili coast of East Africa - put out from the shore, its sail a patchwork of nylon sacks sewn together. Some young boys were playing on the sand, pulling little model cars behind - plastic bottles cut to resemble a truck, or car. I was intrigued with their enjoyment from such a simple toy. Crowding around me peering at the pictures in my guidebook, they pointed delightedly at some photos of their lake, a dhow, then recognised a picture of the impressive roofless church I’d seen from the lake when approaching Cobué. The church had been bombed in the civil war and the local diocese didn’t have the funds to reroof it. A room in a large delapidated school building, tidied with chairs neatly in a row, table for an altar was now used for weekly mass.
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Thirsty, I unthinkingly ordered a Coke. It was warm - of course, there was no electricity out here. A middle aged gentleman James Bondo, the proprietor of the stall, spoke English which he had learned in the refugee camp across in Nhkata Bay during the civil war. He was a man of ambition. Pointing to his partly built guest house nearby, in heavily accented English which made it more a matter of intuiting his meaning, he described how slowly slowly whatever money he made from his cafe here, he would buy some more building materials for the guesthouse, a bag of cement or some timber. I got the idea he thought I might be a potential investor, and had to gently disabuse him of that idea.

Back at the White Buffalo, with evening falling, I relaxed on a step and gazed out past two mango trees on the beach at the sun setting on the lake. It really did feel quite remote. I felt a profound sense of... pleasure, and reflected on the day, allowing myself enjoy the feeling of satisfaction having got the bike over here, with no ill effects, after a fascinating ferry journey across Lake Malawi. I was now in the exotic country of Mozambique.

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Cobué Experiences in the Civil War
In the fading light two lads making their way along the shore, spotted me and came over for a chat. As my Portuguese wasn’t up to much, one of them drifted off. The other, Cristiano, had good English, also learned across the lake in Malawi. I asked him the circumstances of him going to Malawi. “The last attack was in May 1986,” recounted Cristiano. “Frelimo forces had the shore - Cobué and Metangula - and Renamo were in the bush. Well, there is a big wedding of Frelimo commander here, and spies for Renamo hear of this. On the day of the wedding the soldiers are celebrating, drinking and are not so careful. Late in the afternoon the Renamo forces attack Cobué and kill many people. That is when my mother escape with me to Malawi.” He was six years of age at the time, which would make him 27 now. I took him for being a teenager. He indicated an obvious scar I'd noticed on the side of his forehead from when his mother dropped him while running from Renamo rebels. Cristiano spoke of how the civil war had affected the country. It was interesting to hear that he wasn’t partisan in his informed and articulate interpretation of events. While sympathetic to the government forces of Frelimo, and terrorised along with the other villagers by Renamo forces, he allowed that many followers of Renamo held valid political views counter to the socialist and collectivist philosophy of Frelimo. “But they didn’t have much support around here.” He said. “Many go to Malawi.”

Upto then, my simplistic understanding was that Renamo were the baddies and Frelimo, the popularly elected socialist government who had successfully tackled issues such as education, health and social reform, the goodies. The Portuguese had left a legacy of 5% literacy rate among black people when they left after the war of independence in 1975. After independence there was a huge increase in secondary school enrolment (despite intimidation by Renamo), immunisations leading to a big decrease in infant mortality, and gender equality - women made up about a third of elected representatives. There seemed to be parallels with the Cuban experiment after their revolution in 1959, and subsequent undermining by the US.

The economy here didn’t fare very well. Based on now redundant Soviet models of nationalising everything - farms, industry, even hairdressers and restaurants it is said - it didn’t work. Things were worsened by a global depression in the 1970’s, the Portuguese pulling out their capital and their skills, and then a few years of flooding and drought.

Brief Background to the Civil War
On top of all this was the civil war. Renamo was a rebel group opposed to Frelimo, and was supported and funded by first the Rhodesian government, then the South Africans in an attempt to destabilise their neighbor. A socialist government that had won a fight for independence against the former colonising power, Portugal, was seen as a threat to them.

I had read recently a - probably simplistic - explanation of the background to the civil war...

...‘Renamo approached its policy of rendering the countryside ungovernable in Pol Pot style. Schools and hospitals were razed; teachers, doctors and educated leaders were executed. Ill disciplined guerillas would make their presence felt in an area by mutilating civilians, cutting off ears, noses, genitalia... Renamo’s savage and random acts left a traumatised rural population. A million Mozambicans died as a result of the war and a further million and a half took refuge in neighboring states.

But who was Renamo? Initially the Mozambique National Resistance Organisation was a military unit of dissident Mozambican soldiers controlled by the Rhodesian army to help in its anti terrorist war and to destabilise Mozambique, where many of Robert Mugabe’s Zanu camps had been established.... After the fall of Ian Smith’s governmnet, Renamo found a new patron in the South African Defence Force (SADF)... From then its units were supplied from land, sea and air by the South African military.

In the early years Renamo appeared to have no real political policies or motives, other than opposition to Frelimo. In time it learnt to exploit differences betweeen Frelimo and traditional leaders, betweeen city and countryside and tap into resistance to socialism, particularly the system of ‘communal villages’.

One of the strangest twists in the plot was the alliance between Renamo and fundamentalist Christian churches in the West, particularly in the anti-communist US Bible belt. Organised by elements in South Africa, missionary front organisations raised huge funds for Renamo warriors who were represented as religious revivalists carying the New Testament into battle for Christ’s cause against an atheist and Marxist foe. Extremist American organisations such as the ‘Believers Church’, Church for the Nations Inc.’ and the ‘End of Time Handmaidens’ sent their money and their blessings to a generation of adolescent serial killers.’ (Justin Fox - ‘Both Hands Waving’)


Despite Renamo having these violent origins, I was to learn later that as a political force, they are making a difference in present day Mozambique, providing a viable opposition in the otherwise one party state. I reckoned there was probably more to it than the romantic image. Frelimo as the dominant political party now had a increasingly negative reputation for indications of totalitarian practices. I was to hear accustaions by former supporters of their priority now as holding onto power, whatever that took. And corruption, as in many countries, was said to endemic. Having been saddened by my experience in Angola, another former Portuguese colony which fought for and gained independence the same time as Mozambique, I was curious to see what differences there were. Angola it seemed to me was still in quite a raw state, the roads, infrastructure, health and education still in tatters although to be fair - it was pointed out to me - there they’d only ceased hostilities in their civil war in 2002. Mozambique had agreed a peace ten years previously, and have got on with rebuilding the country. Civil wars I read, particularly in Africa, are usually fought along tribal or idealogical lines. In Mozambique this was not the case, but rather the product of the destructive foreign policies of two neighboring states. ‘Perhaps thats why the country has so readily embraced peace...’ is one interpretation.

Village Chief
Later, sat on the same step, a man in his early sixties I guessed later, must have seen my cigarette glowing in the darkness and came over. Fernando (pictured below the following morning in the bombed out school) was chief of the village. In very halting English - he had worked in the mines in Johannesburg and the Free State, “from Malawi flying machine to Botswana, then train” - he told me how things were hard in this part of Mozambique. There was no work, although it seemed the basics were available - food, water and materials for shelter. His wife, who looked after the guesthouse, and himself who did the maintenance, were paid a retainer the equivalent of $15 a month.
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As we chatted in the blackness, I was feeling insects, maybe mosquitos on my legs, and my slaps were becoming more frequent. What was it? Eventually becoming too uncomfortable I shone my torch and jumped up as I saw what had been annoying me - I was sitting on an ants nest, and they had gone exploring! Luckily the bites weren’t painful and dropping my shorts (in the darkness) I did a frantic sweep of my nether region with my hand, wiping them away. No harm, much mirth.

First Overland Motorbike on this Route
The next day a fisherman sold me a few litres of petrol - I’d forgotten foolishly to get some before leaving Nkhata Bay - and I set off, a little nervously, not knowing what to expect. The first bridge I encountered just a few kms out of Cobué was the worst - five metre logs laid lengthways, with crumbled stony dirt as mortar between them, invited my front wheel to lodge itself in. Four wheels would have been fine, but not on two. I found a track down to the river. Picking a path across the bed of large stones and boulders I managed to ford it, providing me with some early moments of anxiety. ‘Keep the power on’ I reminded myself, to avoid the bike stalling and falling, or being knocked off balance. So, straight into it, I thought. Only 98 more kms to go.

The first twenty kms was challenging, as the rubble track wound its way through forest away from the coast and inland over a range of hills. The track dipped, turned and rose like a fairground big dipper and needed my full concentration. The trick was to keep the bike moving and not be daunted by the steep gradients and poor surface. I missed the 15 tooth drive sprocket. There were many streams, seemingly at the foot of every incline, and each bridge demanded extreme care, most consisting of metre length logs laid in a check pattern. Others were simply rocky fords. After the first few tentative crossings, I gained confidence in the power of the bike to scramble across. It would be a lot more fun without a full load.

After twenty kms, to my relief, the terrain levelled, and the road surface correspondingly improved. I was now managing to shift the bike into second and even third gear! Though a bit sandy, I was pleasantly surprised. There had been no sign of life so far, but after an hour I passed some mud huts, and waved to a few folks visible. The landscape was uncultivated, bush, with the odd clearing for huts. I imagined there was probably quite a bit of game around here, having read that Niassa province, due to its inaccessibility is still largely a wilderness having had little exposure to the hunting that had decimated the animal population in other parts of the country, most notably Gorongosa National Park. For 100 kms I didn’t see one vehicle, but what I began to see were bicycles. The closer I got to Metangula, the more commonplace they were, until the final twenty or thirty kms I realised I could relax a little, this wasn’t ‘remote’ any longer.

Stopping at a junction, I wandered over to some onlookers to ask for directions. A sign pointed left and inland to Lichinga, the provincial capital I was aiming for, though I hadn’t yet reached Metangula. I must have looked a little too strange to them as I got no response to my query “Metangula?” only bafflement, and a shrinking away as I approached. Walking back the road a bit, I found a man who explained the conundrum - in Portuguese. I understood I could go to Lichinga either way, but to Metangula only that way indicating the right fork. Ah, I guessed, so the left turn is a shortcut. Curious to see more of the lake this side, I decided to continue on anyway to Metangula.

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This final 17 kms was along the lakeshore, and though a very poor and rocky road and slow going, offered lovely views of the lake. It definitely had a wilder and more ‘untouched’ feel than the Malawi side. The women walking on the road balancing loads on their heads wore brighter coloured wraps, or capulanas, than over in Malawi.
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Arriving in the quite decent sized town, I did a tour around. Set on a headland on Lago Niassa, as the lake is known in Mozambique, Metangula has an unsavoury history. In the 18th and 19th century it had been a major transhipment point for slaves on their way from the interior of the continent, via Nkhotakhota Bay on the Malawi side of the lake to be sold in the slave market at Ilha de Mozambique on the coast. From there the destination could be the French sugar plantations in Madagascar and Mauritius, the Arabian Gulf, or even across the Atlantic to Brazil and North America. Despite the presence of a Naval Academy, the town had the air of being a bit of a forgotten outpost.

Making for the market, I ate two delicious fresh fish from a grill, while my bike was being watched by a smiling guard. Everyone seemed so friendly, even the wide boys who sold me four litres of petrol - naturally at an inflated price - from a hut on the side of the road. That was all I could find in town, but was confident it would get me to the next fuel stop in Lichinga.


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A badly rutted road climbed away from the lake into the mountains and I paused looking back on it for the last time. After just twenty kms, to my surprise, it was tarred. What a pleasure to relax and enjoy the experience of effortlessly cruising! I was now travelling at a higher altitude and could feel the change in temperature. The hilly land seemed quite poor, and I passed villages, and indeed large towns, of mud huts with straw roofs. Towards the end of the afternoon it was with some sense of achievement I arrived into the agreeable town of Lichinga. After filling up with petrol, I checked into the Residencial Rival one of the cheaper options, which at nearly $30 and with a distinct smell of urine and damp, was hopefully not an indication of accommodation options ahead.

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