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Trucking 1000km across Mozambique

My foreknowledge of Tete would have fit on a particularly small postcard. On this card one could have read a repeated phrase collected from various travellers and the guide in the pocket – “Tete is very hot”. In my experience, many places are hot, so I did not take this warning too seriously. A mistake.

Dave, Bassett and I had travelled over the border from Malawi and, arriving late in the day, entered this sauna already parched. Relief came in the form of rubbing ice drenched soft drink bottles across the forehead and the back of the neck. A night in some of the nastiest accommodation I have had the misfortune to experience did not detract from the general feeling of discomfort. A piece of floor in a mud-hut would have been considerably more comfortable then squidged into the folds of a death-trap bed, blankets carefully positioned on each side to cover the two inch spikes sticking out of the mattress. Mozzies buzzing, a toilet straight out of rural China and the ever pervading heat.

Goodness knows if it was 40, 45, 50 degrees. The figure does not matter. The reality is that it made us all decidedly irritable. In fairness to Tete, besides the heat, it was a fairly decent place. Banks, shops full of goods, cleaned streets with brightly coloured murals. This was a place on the up. Our failure to find vacancies in habitable accommodation may have been accounted for by the hordes of businessmen sucked in by the vicinity’s burgeoning raw material trade, or perhaps it was the way we smelt after the three day straight journey from northern Malawi. The people we met were friendly, music poured from the bars and, all in all, I took away a positive impression of the place.

We were though keen to move on. Just a day’s journey from the Indian Ocean after all, or so we thought. The lack of buses on the immediate time horizon was proving a slight impediment so, following the advice of a local, we headed to the outskirts of town in the hope of hitching a lift in a truck. And so began an eventful journey.

A long hitch

Some kindly persuasion from our taxi driver, a modicum of Spanish cum Portuguese on my part and, most importantly, cash, secured our ride on a 24 wheeler lumber truck. After a couple of hours in the searing midday heat watching some ridiculously strong lads load tons of tree onto a trailer, we piled into the cabin and with a hoot of the horn set off south. Just 600-700km to go! Our accompaniment in the very few metres squared cabin was the driver, three ladies and another local guy. Add us three and you had eight. The guy had taken the one remaining front seat and the three women the majority of the small bed behind. We, being clueless foreigners, were left with respectively (i) the plastic top of a small cupboard, (ii) the squeezed area on top of two of our bags in the far corner and (iii) the melting hot floor above the engine (though this was cushioned by one of our consequentially melting rucksacks). We were not complaining next to the three guys who were riding on top of the lumber through the strength-sapping day.

Against all odds, the day rolled on without total lack of comfort. Before us a patchwork road – when there is a pothole in a pothole in a pothole, and each is filled in turn, the road takes on a strangely fetching turtle-shell effect. Peering out the breather slits in the otherwise cocooned back section of the cabin, I occasionally caught a glimpse of the parched hilly lands giving way to marginally lusher ones. When passing the opportunity arose we topped up on basic sustenance from road-side hawkers in this town or that. Some music, a book, short-lived language barrier hindered chatter with the locals and the resting of different parts of the posterior as we switched between out precarious positions. Generally good times. Even the incessant high pitched beeping from a broken brake control hardly bothered me.

Then a break at sunset. As the light faded we turned the road into a makeshift cricket pitch. Bassett and I practiced what can only in the most generous sense be called spin-bowling. As night fell (and “fall” is a good verb to describe how the African night suddenly descends), the break did not end. After further investigation it seemed we had run out of petrol. Our fourth break down in as many weeks on African roads.

In short, we were in the arse-end of nowhere, miles from the nearest town with no food and about a litre’s worth of water between the lot of us. What made the situation all the more frustrating was that I had seen the driver test the petrol level on departure. He had stuck a stick into the tank, taken a measurement and, after a small amount of deliberation and a shrug of the shoulders, headed off anyway.

Differences in reaction to this situation are interesting. The locals simply found a place to crawl up and hibernate. No sense of annoyance or frustration. I suppose this is just what happens. As for the three of us, for a long time we took it in good humour, but as the hours passed, water disappeared and dehydration set in, we became less amused. Despite his generosity in sharing with us, I remember those last drops trickling into the mouth of the driver with envy. Through the night Dave and I lay atop the lumber pile, staring at the most beautiful sky strewn with the odd shooting-star. Occasional batches of laughter, interjected by mild thirst-induced hallucinations. Nothing more than wobbling stars.

Like with bad stomach problems, a lack of fluid bends your thoughts, only registering through the sieve of your predicament. Then we awoke after a comatose couple of hours and the origin of the long prolonged wait became clear. Not only had they misjudged the petrol, they had been waiting for their boss to drive to them with fuel from five or six hours down the road, when there was fresh petrol just an hour away. Why? Dollars. We festered without food or water for much of a day and a night to save them a couple of bucks.

Fair enough I suppose and eventually, in part at least, I was thankful. If you want to find the heights of appreciation, dipping a toe into a pool of privation is optimal preparation. No words can do justice to how that first ice-cold lemon twist tasted when we eventually reached a settlement a couple more hours down the road. The next few litres of the stuff didn’t taste too bad either! A bit late, but we were back on our way and only 300km to go.

Head first into the Indian Ocean

As a bit of travel madness set in we eventually crossed the Tropic of Capricorn surrounded by palm trees as far as the eye could see. As throughout our travels in Mozambique, we passed women with delicately balanced goods on their heads, wobbly bikes, chapas (Portuguese for “death-trap mini-bus”) full beyond the rafters and an absurd amount of children. A couple of the women from our cabin were dropped off at a small straw-hut settlement with polite smiles. Finally some leg room. We charged on for most of the next day. Hurtling south on our juggernaut increasingly covered in sweat and grime, until, finally, the junction to Vilankulo. Beach paradise awaited. Through the persuasive force of money (we did not have any and needed to find a cash-point before we could pay for our ride) the truck took a detour off the main road and all the way into town.

After a good parting and a final hoot of the truck horn each – I have always wanted to do that – we took a pick-up to the beach. Under gloomy clouds, spots of rain and heavy wind, it was finally before us. The expanse of the Indian Ocean. Without barely a breather, we had taken a long road, 1000 odd km from Lake Malawi. We were shattered, hungry and smelled pretty bad, but as we stripped off our clothes and dived head first into the churned-up sea we were as happy as Larry. Time for some down time.

More by this author on his blog.

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