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Humans, not animals are Mozambique’s greatest asset

There would never be enough time to do justice to a country the size of Mozambique. I’d given this a lot of thought and decided the best plan was to drive south for a few days.

I returned to the airport to hire a 4×4 and made straight for the ferry terminal on the shoreline beneath my hotel. To my delight and astonishment the rusty motorised platform loomed into view exactly in accordance with the timetable that had been relayed to me from a scribbled-on piece of paper in the manager’s office. Sadly it was to loom immediately out of view again having cruised directly past the line of waiting vehicles and passengers.

This being Africa nobody (except me, of course) expressed alarm or disappointment or even the slightest curiosity about the ferry’s diversion and the consequent non-adherence to the sailing schedule.

In the end it was a two and a half hour wait for the five minute crossing of the bay, the refuelling of the trusty vessel having never been factored into the timetabling process. No matter, the views back towards Maputo made it all worthwhile and offered an entirely different perspective of this unusual two-tier city. I easily picked out the Cardoso, high up on the headland away to my right, and now saw clearly that the modest smattering of tower blocks that was the city’s commercial hub – the “baixa” (pronounced bysha ) – was very much down the slope at sea level.

Life across the bay was manifestly different. The town of Catembe was little more than a run down village, a cobbling together of roadside stalls either side of a gravel track that served as its main street. The only street, in fact, which after a couple of hundred metres widened out to form the main “highway” linking Maputo to the south of the country. Its surface resembled a clay tennis court, firm to a point but dry and red and dusty with the constant threat that an over-eager manoeuvre could result in disaster. I started slowly, built up speed and confidence then slowed down again when a bend provoked a mini skid and almost deposited man and vehicle into a roadside ditch. There was no hurry, I told myself, just enjoy the rural scenery, the wide empty spaces and the rolled-out carpet of blue sky.

Villages were few and far between but even remote areas were not without people appearing at the roadside: a man standing alone under a tree, a woman carrying an enormous bag on her head, a couple of children playing in a field. Where had they come from? Where would they go? What did their lives entail? What a peculiar existence.

An hour of crunching gravel was followed – against all expectations – by the delicious, silky smooth sensation of tarmac and almost at that same moment the scrub, barren landscape transformed into rolling green countryside. The window was down now, no longer essential to keep out the clouds of dust, and with top gear engaged and the breeze in my face life was starting to feel rather good. I was making reasonable headway towards Ponta Mamoli, a small bay just before the South African border and the image of myself with a foam moustache from that first beer was hanging in a bubble over my head like a cartoon caption. And so to a question only God can answer. Why, dear bearded one, did you decide that this lovely road should simply come to an end slap bang in the middle of nowhere?

The Toyota must have looked like a fly walking through a bag of flour as it battled through the last forty kilometres of soft, powdery sand. There were moments, scary moments indeed, when the wheels just whirred and screeched in protest and it seemed we were destined to go no further. So what would I do if I got stuck in the sand, miles from anywhere? I gave it some serious thought and realised with no small amount of disappointment that a Plan B of any sort was unlikely to be forthcoming.

Thankfully Plan A got me where I wanted to be with more than ample reward. The coastline was strikingly green and rugged and the only sound I could detect, once the engine had been cut, was the swirling of the ocean and the crashing of waves upon the rocks. The sheer brutality of it lured me down to the water’s edge and I found myself standing alone on a beach that seemed to have no end. Virgin sand, miles and miles of it, not even a footprint, or any debris, or anything at all to indicate that man had ever set foot in this corner of the globe. Strangely it reminded me of Cornwall, yes… a tropical Cornwall without any people. This was why Ponta Mamoli had come so highly recommended.

Mozambique beach
I was offered a cheery welcome by the Mamoli hotel team and led to a wooden cabin set in a dense cluster of trees behind the beach. It was appropriately simple accommodation. Every care had been taken to preserve the environment and it quickly shone through that the South African owners managed their small resort with a sense of pride and professionalism. They assured me of their best attention and hoped I would enjoy my stay. It was never in doubt.

The home cooking was superb, the staff were brilliant and the small bar inevitably added the final touch. Scuba diving and horse-riding were always an option but there are times an alphabet traveller needs to have a rest, take it easy and spend a few days just to walk on the sand and – when the heat gets too much – dunk his head in the surf. You’re probably thinking this job is a doddle, anybody could do it blindfolded, but then you don’t yet know about the Maputo Elephant Reserve do you?

My map and guidebook had already drawn my attention to the immense nature reserve that was allegedly home to a few hundred elephants, to say nothing of hippos, crocs and a plethora of birdlife. Indeed it had been one of my reasons for deciding to head south and the rough plan was to pay a visit there en-route back to Maputo. So what a stroke of luck that I should get to hear of a short-cut to an unmarked park entrance, accessed along a track just a short distance from my cosy little haven. All I needed to do was get to Lake Piti, just half an hour away, follow it round to the right, and Bob would be my uncle.

I got up in the dark and set off as soon as dawn broke, ready to catch Africa’s wildlife with its pants down. What a buzz of excitement, surely there’s nothing that gets the blood pumping like a big toothy croc before breakfast. I followed the directions exactly as given but when the track split two ways, as it did several times, my only ally was educated guesswork and a vague sense of direction. An hour slipped by. All was lake-less, hopeless and very much Uncle Bob-less.

Just as misery and frustration were threatening a dual appearance I spotted that ubiquitous Solo African Bloke In Field, presumably on his way to or from somewhere. He pointed me towards the lake and sure enough, after another twenty minutes of lurching and rocking, I found myself on the bank tucking into a hard-earned breakfast. I’d silently attacked the 4-metre crocodile from behind, karate chopped it across the back of the neck then choked it on its own tail before scooping out its warm innards with my Swiss Army knife. I also had some bread, cheese and fruit courtesy of the hotel.

OK so I didn’t really see a croc, except on the warning sign that offered a subtle picture of one with its teeth bedded into the side of a child’s head. Of hippos, statistically the most prolific man-killer, there was no mention yet I did manage to spot a family of them through my bincs where their backs were raised above the surface of the water. More surprisingly I was also able to pick out a park ranger just beyond the lake, and found him standing in front of a wire somewhat curiously rigged up between two posts. In return for my hearty “Bom Dia!” he explained that this was an official park border, that his job was to collect the entrance fee, but that today it wouldn’t be possible on account of his not having a receipt book. Thankfully he seemed content with the suggestion of my settling up at another gate on departure and having offered his apologies for the park maps also running out, he
unhooked the wire and allowed me to pass.

A map would have been very handy, or perhaps the odd sign to indicate where the many sandy tracks might eventually lead. The countryside was blissful, particularly above the dunes looking back along that wild coastline, but it could only be enjoyed in short bursts given that steering demanded so much concentration. The first hour was a novelty but the second started to be tiring and by the third hour I was seriously fed up. Where exactly was I, what was I doing here and…. most importantly of all, how the bloody hell was I going to get out?

The only sign of life came in the form of a few monkeys, the occasional antelope and then my best catch of all: two ladies carrying heavy bags upon their heads. They were typical African females with large breasts and protruding bottoms but with thin legs and wrinkled faces that made them look twenty years older than they probably were. They spoke no Portuguese – less educated women tend to learn only their tribal languages – but made it clear they too wanted to get to the main entrance and would show me the way. Smiles all round and no wonder, it took another hour and a half to drive and would have been a two-day walk.

The tiny grocery shop by the main entrance of a seldom-visited park had to be struggling for trade and the lady standing within those four bleak walls was entitled to look unhappy. Her fridge was empty except for a few bottles of Coke and the dusty shelves displayed little more than a few bags of rice and tins of sardines. We both enjoyed the opportunity to have somebody to talk to and the cold fizzy drinks she snapped open gave a welcome lift to mind and body. On reflection, how much did I really care about seeing an elephant anyway? The old lady was much more interesting than was her place of work. She told me the story of how in the 1980s she and her five children had been forced to escape to Maputo on account of the war that had gripped the country almost as soon as independence from the Portuguese had been won.

It was a war that I’d read about but struggled to properly understand. After eleven years of battling against the colonial masters the freedom fighters (Frelimo) had become the new government and turned east to Russia and East Germany for support and guidance. But there were many countries to the west who had no wish to see communism come to Africa and an opposition group rose up under the name of Renamo. Civil war ensued, the country’s fragile infrastructure was smashed to pieces and Frelimo’s leaders kept on dying in mysterious circumstances.

Mozambique, already a mess, became a bigger one. The first seventeen years of independence were dominated by war and the communist ideal proved (as usual) to be less than ideal after all. A few years of Marxist nonsense drove the country into bankruptcy and from 1975 to 1992 there was nothing but chaos and destruction. And then the world changed. The Soviet Union fell apart and South Africa suddenly had bigger fish to fry: rewriting its own history was far more important than fighting a war for its impoverished neighbour. Mozambique was left alone, desperate and destitute, but at least, at last, peace could finally break out.

Extract taken from Ten Letter Countries.
9781780880754, £10.00, published 10th April 2012

The Ten-Letter Countries is an insight into the history, geography and politics of twelve fascinating countries through the eyes of The Alphabet Traveller. Each country David visited had 10 letters to its name. It follows on from his earlier adventure, The Four Letter Countries

Both books can be ordered from or

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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