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The ‘mammoth’ blows up in Mozambique

Destination: Mozambique

We’d done the trip a few times. Usually, along the coastal route from the Eastern Cape, through Natal to Maputo, or inland via Johannesburg, Nelspruit and into Mozambique–a total of a 21-hour drive broken into 7 hours a day. Tofu had become the ideal holiday destination for our family because it allowed us to take along friends of our three teenagers. To this end, we traded our bakkie for a 4×4 eight-seater (a Kombi) which we had lifted so it could clear rough terrain. To me, it looked no less than monstrous, prehistoric: a Mammoth.

And there we were again, at the height of August, with six teenage girls and boys huddled in the Mammoth, and a trailer laden with surfboards in tow. Wedged at our feet and between the seats coolbags and tupperwares of sandwiches and muffins intended to reduce pit stops to a minimum. A boot heaped with bags, and a trailer jammed with essentials for a two-week stay at Tofu: litres of water, canned food, long-life milk, dried goods, soft drinks, and medication–anything that was either unobtainable or sold at a premium in the small coastal village.

We had the trek down pat, we thought. All the wiser, from past mishaps, to certain facts about Mozambique. To have the vehicle in ship-shape because breakdowns and flat tires tend to happen in the middle of nowhere. Never to work out distance on the basis of 120km/hr: a 20 km stretch could take 45 minutes because of road conditions. To reach the borderpost early in the morning and avoid driving through Mozambique at night. And, once through the border, to stick to speed limits at all times because traffic policemen lurk in the most unlikely, deceptively deserted patches and hefty fines are a boost to the local economy.

This time, we are veering off course and trailblazing. After a night at Bloemfontein, we head for the tented camp in Pafuri, just outside the Kruger Park. It is tucked in a wooded area so eerily reminiscent of the forest in The Village I half-expect cloaked creatures to leap at the window. Our accommodations are a cluster of huts on stilts, set in a circle around a bouma or barbecue area. To one side is an enclosure split into a bathroom and a kitchen that reeks of gas. Paraffin lamps dangle on the posts supporting the ladders. A stream warbles in the background. All very charming and Robinson-esque until my eyes set upon a “Beware Crocodiles” sign right by the rickety stairs that lead up to our hut. But the river, we’re told, is dry and there are no humongous reptiles around. Maybe so, but a strong sense of self-preservation and an ignorance in all matters wild drive me to restrict my liquid intake. Clearly, a nighttime sprint to the loo is out of the question.

At the bar, my husband asks the owner for the best route to Mozambique. His advice is to go through the Kruger Park, clear the border, and turn left when we reach the forked road. There we could cross the Limpopo river by car, since it’s only knee-deep and perfectly traversable at this time of the year. His only caveat are the sand islands where we’re sure to get stuck. When asked whether we could alternatively drive South to Xai-Xai then up to Tofhino, he laughs off our hope to cover ground in one day. The thing to do, without question, is to go through the Limpopo. He’d done it many times in his Land Rover. That we happen to be driving a Kombi weighed down by eight passengers and an overloaded trailer is moot.

In the morning, we have misgivings. We consult him yet again on the weight of the Mammoth plus the trailer. To which he replies that both are well-balanced, that there’s no need to let down the tyres and cutting across the Limpopo would be a cinch.

When we reach the borderpost, the officials confirm that the triangular route south to Xai-Xai and up again to Tofhino is too long. However, in order to cross the Limpopo River, we’re to follow the road south along a dirt road, then join the other side of Mozambique at Mapai. From there, we can travel straight across to Tofu as the crow flies.

When we finally get to the crossroad, our instinct is to take a right. But our host had said to take a left. So we do, into a road that’s not gravel, but a maw of sand threatening to ingest us, the Mammoth, and the trailer. Which it does–starting with a front tyre. We unhitch the trailer and push. It takes a few tries before we rescue the Mammoth. My husband won’t drive further. He parks off and walks over to the river with the boys. They’re gone for ages during which my mind replays horrific scenarios of them scrambling back with an irate pachyderm at their heels. They reappear about a quarter of an hour later to say that the river is far too deep. We backtrack and go the other way.

The Mammoth bounces and bucks endlessly along a dirt and bumpy road represented on the map as a negligible vein of 2 inches. We have no choice but to forge ahead because, by this stage, it’s too late to turn back without getting caught in the dark. My feeling is that there must be a crossing in Mapai, the connecting point between the two banks. The Mozambiquans are a resourceful bunch and must have figured out a way, even a rudimentary one, to provide access. A man on the side of road tells us, in Afrikaans thankfully, that Mapai is about 100 kms away. A few kms later another South African, this time in a bakkie, assures us that we can cross at Mapai. There’s no bridge as such but the locals had made their own crossing with reeds and branches. We would have to pay a nominal fee of R70 to go through. How far? Oh, about 60 kms from where we are.

So we carry on along the uneven road through barren land, marginally hopeful that we will reach Tofhino by nightfall, despite the fact that we’re moving at a snail speed of 20-40 kms an hour. One nameless village after another crawl past us, kids running towards the Mammoth crying out “Sweeties, sweeties”. Finally, we get to Mapai, 120 km but a good 3 hours later.

The crossing

At the estuary, the locals had in fact created a makeshift crossing, which the Mammoth negotiates beautifully. We are beside ourselves with joy and snap up pictures to commemorate the feat.

We’re in the north of Mozambique and journey south along an excruciatingly long and undulating stretch of red sand to join the main EN1 tarred road at Xai Xai. It’s the best way to go, since by then we’ve both given up on taking any chances. The sooner we are back in civilisation, the better. We roll along for hours as the sun dips out of view. None of the villages feature on the map and we start doubting whether we’re on the right track. Though we exchange our qualms in whispers, occasional remarks and questions from the back indicate that the kids are not fooled. They’re convinced we’re lost and we’re no longer sure that we aren’t.

Four hours later, we arrive at Beline, a few kms south of Xai Xai, but fortunately on the EN1. It’s already 6 pm and pitch dark. We fill up with fuel, grab the few prego rolls left at the petrol station and estimate that we’d reach Tofhino by 9.30 at the latest. The road is smooth and tarred. We’re finally sailing through and chattering away.

Until we begin to hit potholes wide as plunge pools.

They are everywhere and it’s near impossible to avoid them. Though the Chinese are revamping the roads, they hadn’t gotten round to that stretch yet. We’re driving at about 40 kms per hour and taking forever. Finally, we reach the good road.

A steady knock starts up in the car. I turn to my husband. ‘I think it’s the tyre,’ he murmurs. No sooner has he spoken than the smell of metal on metal seeps through the Mammoth. He opens the window and looks over. Bang! He’s struggling with the gears and I think the brakes have failed. ‘The CV joint is gone’, he says, ‘find me a patch of sand to pull over’. As we spot one and he heads for it he says, very calmly: ‘When I stop, I want you all to jump out of the car as fast as you can.’ He doesn’t have to say it twice. The one thing I do instinctively is grab the file containing our car documentation and passports from between the seats. Whatever happens, I want to make sure we can go back home.

My husband throws himself under the Mammoth and sees flames. In no time, we’re scooping sand with our hands, containers, anything we can find, and hurling it at the Mammoth’s belly in an effort to douse the fire. We can’t find the fire extinguisher which must have been taken out to make space. We shift into a frenzied calm. On his instructions, we fling our belongings out of the Mammoth and unhitch the trailer. ‘It’s going to blow,’ he says, and we all scuttle away, bags, shoes and clothing now strewn on the side of the road.

A lorry pulls over and puts on the hazard warning lights. A Mozambiquan stops in his Pajero, and offers his help in perfect English. He’s a pastor driving back from Maputo and aptly, a God send. He offers to take us to Tofu along with the trailer. The Mammoth is now aflame, a crowd has gathered and a nearly empty bus has pulled over.

We all watch stupefied as the Mammoth sizzles and splatters–windows, tyres, and a full tank blowing up in mortar-like blasts. I ask the lorry driver in Spanish whether we could call the fire department. I’m terrified the tree by the Mammoth will catch alight and extend to the veld with its huts and inhabitants. He looks at me blankly and I get the message. For some curious reason, the fire ravages one side of the tree and dies out.

My husband instructs me to take the girls and go with the pastor. I head off to the pile of our belongings and start hauling luggage into the Pajero. One of us stays with the stuff while we load up for a crowd is enviously eying the pile: men in western get-up, jeans and t-shirts, women in traditional dress, turbaned, wraps hugging their slim bodies. The women caw while pointing at tupperware, sleeping bags, and suitcases. Naturally, they want them. One woman leaps out of the parked bus and charges towards me with a baby strapped to her back. She wants an ice cream container that has biscuits in it. I give it to her. She races back to the bus only to re-emerge and help herself to another empty one.

The onlookers do not descend on us like vultures. They stand aside, unmoved. As far as catastrophes go, ours does not stir any emotions. Certainly not in a crowd that has endured a vicious war and wages a daily battle against malaria, poverty and malnutrition. Throughout this ‘out of the body’ experience, not once do we feel threatened or scared.

The Mammoth burns to a crisp and before the metal has cooled down, men are yanking off scraps with their bare hands. The vehicle is now a metallic carcass, the steering wheel shriveled up and black like a diseased liver. My skin prickles at the thought that a while earlier we’d been sitting snug in plumped cushioned seats which are now no more than metal frames cutting through emptiness.

The following morning, my husband and I, exhausted, review our experience over endless cups of coffee. All children are accounted for, all essential belongings located and we’re grateful.

The young local manager of the property does not pitch. I phone him but I can’t understand what he’s saying except that he’d be there in 10 minutes. When he arrives he tells me that his baby had died of malaria on Saturday.

It’s Monday.

I tell him to go home.

Puts things in perspective doesn’t it?


If you too are after different scenery on the drive, keep in mind that “the road not taken” hasn’t been for a good reason. Just FLY.

If you’re using public transport, be aware that buses and taxis are not allowed to circulate after midnight. The bus in which my husband and the boys were travelling was pulled over by a traffic policeman. They slept on board until 4 am.

When the Mozambiquan children yell for “sweeties”, it doesn’t have to be sweets as such. Crayons, pens, books, even clothes will put a smile on their faces.

Like what you read? Dana has also written a book; Beirut in Shades of Grey. Find out more here.

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