I rode into Chimoio on a hot morning and followed directions to the workshop and offices of the HALO Trust. I’d been put in touch with Olly by a friend who also works for the charitable mine clearing operation. Olly showed me samples of the various mines they deal with and how they detect/detonate them. There are only two minefields remaining in Mozambique so hopefully HALO will finish its objective next year after 20 years of operation in the country. Olly kindly put me up in their staff house for a couple of days of rest.
South of Chimoio lay an 800-mile stretch of road leading to Maputo. For the first couple hundred miles, the bumpy tarmac simply unfurled across indistinguishable and seemingly-endless bush. The only breaks in the monotony were a few blackened areas of sad-looking, charred tree stumps with unattended bags of charcoal on sale in front of them.
Traversing flat land and repetitive scenery, I found time splayed strangely. There was nothing to note the passage of miles except the sun’s movement and increasing tiredness. Three hours could pass in an instant and then ten minutes could last an eternity. I soon stopped looking at my clock and aimed for a blank-minded, trance-like state that I rarely achieve but is satisfying to emerge from and find you’ve cheated time and distance.
I’d heard a month earlier of trouble stirring in the Rio Save area of Mozambique. The former anti-government rebels, Renamo, had lurched back into action and declared an end to the peace treaty that closed the country’s brutal 16-year civil war two decades ago. Renamo forces stormed a police station and armed guerrillas had begun attacking vehicles crossing a 60-mile stretch of road.
The government had now closed the area and vehicles could only pass through once daily in each direction as part of heavily-armed and fast-moving military convoys. I arrived at the northern roadblock in the town of Maxungue early morning and a long queue of trucks and cars was already lined up waiting for the convoy to depart. Strangely, the soldier at the front hardly looked at me and simply waved me through. A little confused, I pedalled on and found myself in an abandoned land. Empty huts, evacuated in a hurry, dotted the roadside; an entirely deserted village with the doors of a new health centre flapping and banging in the wind; shoes and pots and water containers left forlornly on the unswept, dusty ground of clearings.
Everyone had fled into the bush. It was eerie. I saw not a soul for a few hours and soon found out why. A truck sprawled in the middle of the road – well, what remained of it. Tire skid marks told of an abrupt stop, and several bullet casings on the tarmac told of a struggle or at least warning shots into the air. The cargo had been looted and the truck was burned out. The mostly-melted rubber of the former tires still smouldered and the air was acrid.
Feeling foolish, I hurriedly took a few photos and then got back on my bike and rode quickly away. The convoy soon shot past me at a frantic pace. About 100 vehicles, most with soldiers perched on the back clutching automatic rifles. At the front and back were armoured personal carriers. Surprised faces would materialise for an instant in the passing blur of each window. Soon I was left in silence again.
I started to feel uneasy. When I got a puncture I dragged my bike behind a thick bush to repair it. I camped far from the road, surrounded by aggressive looking thorn bushes. My ears were pricked deep into the darkness hours.
Long before daylight, I got back on the road and rushed silently southward. Shortly after dawn I crossed a bridge over the Save River, reaching the other roadblock and safety from an invisible menace. The troops looked shocked to see me and asked incredulously what I was doing. I sat in a café and was joined by two Special Forces soldiers. Lewis, Miquel and I watched another convoy forming, bigger this time, while they told me of their imminent deployment into the bush to hunt for rebels. While anesthetising themselves with cheap gin from sachets, they told me of their inner turmoil as their sympathies lie with the Renamo rebels but their pay comes from the Frelimo government. Two young men drugging themselves on the verge of battle; trying to overcome fear and accept their mercenary status.
The road continued south, unaware of these problems. The road is always unaware. Because it is a road.