Mozambique: South to Beira

14th May - 4th June 2002


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I caught my final glimpse of Mozambique Island in the early morning sun as we drove across the long bridge back to the mainland. The island will be one place I shall never forget and as I continued travelling away from the coast my mind began to think about the marathon journey that lay ahead of me. In any other country a trip as far as Beira would not be a major undertaking, but this was northern Mozambique where there was little traffic, infrequent busses and poor roads. I settled down and made myself comfortable as best I could in the back of the pickup truck and prepared myself for some uncomfortable and tiring days ahead of me. I would be pleased if I reached Beira in four days.

The road passed through many small villages where we stopped to drop off or pick up more passengers; there was always room for one more to hang on the back. Everyone travelled in the back of pickups, old men and women, children and young women with babies, the women breast feeding their babies whenever they began to cry and wail. Along the side of the road we passed signs warning of minefields, a legacy of the civil war that ravaged this country during the 1970's and 80's. One minefield had been carefully marked out and the Halo Trust were busy working to clear the mines. The pickup from the island took me as far as Monapo where I transferred onto the back of a truck for the rest of the journey to Nampula. The truck was slow as it bounced over the many potholes in the road. It was slightly more comfortable than the pickup; there was more room in the back and I had enough room to sit on my pack behind the cab, which sheltered me from the wind. By 11.00 I was back in Nampula and was dropped outside the railway station. I don't believe any trains still departed from this station, but it was still used as the towns transport hub. Now it was late morning I had already missed any public transport along the next leg of my journey to Quelimane. In more hope than expectation, I walked along the road to the edge of town to where the busses were supposed to depart south to see what, if anything, was happening.

After walking a couple of kilometres I found a lay-by where busses south departed from; there was one bus waiting beside the dusty road. It was the Quelimane bus but it was not due to depart until 04.00 tomorrow morning, a wait of almost seventeen hours. I had a choice of spending the day in Nampula until the early hours of the morning or trying my luck hitchhiking; I chose the latter and stood beside the highway waiting for some traffic to pass. As usual there were not many vehicles travelling along the road, a lot of the traffic was just local traffic and looked very unreliable; a few trucks went past trailing a dust cloud behind them, my best chance of a lift. Maybe Sunday was not the best day of the week to be hitchhiking. After a couple of hours a pickup pulled up in the bus lay-by looking for people who wanted a lift to Mocuba. There was one other man sitting there waiting for the Quelimane bus, so both of us jumped in the back. It made a pleasant change to be in the back of an empty pickup with plenty of room to stretch out. I made myself at home and lay back in the truck, my head resting on my pack and listened to my Neil Young tape as we cruised along the road under a clear blue sky.

The journey began to get uncomfortable about 100km past Nampula after we crossed a bridge over the Ligonha River and the tarred road came to an end. The pickup was travelling far faster than the truck I had taken north along this same road a few days ago. The pickup was a four-wheel drive with high ground clearance and we literally flew over the bumps and potholes in the road. The speed and the rough road soon began to take it's toll on the vehicle. At first we lost an exhaust mounting and the engine began to rattle nosily; this was easily fixed with some rope and the exhaust pipe was once again tied securely in place. Not soon after that and there was a crashing noise from the back of the pickup as the rear bumper was ripped off while flying over a bump. It tumbled along the road through the dust; we stopped, reversed and the driver cursed as he threw it in the back of the truck. This stretch of road must be littered with car parts, nuts, bolts, springs, exhausts etc. Other travellers with their own vehicles had told me that every week they had to go over their vehicle tightening up bolts, I could understand why now after seeing the pounding this vehicle was getting. During the few days since I had travelled north along this road they had began to repair it at last, some of the rutted sections had been graded and fresh red dirt had been bulldozed into the worst holes.

By late afternoon we had reached Alto Molócuè, halfway; at least we had negotiated the worst part of the road. The other man hitching with me decided to stay here for the night. In the centre of town we soon found a replacement passenger, a women who was also trying to reach Quelimane. We continued driving south as night fell, it became chilly once the sun had disappeared below the horizon and I lay down in the back sheltering behind the cab. I gazed at the stars as we drove into the night. At one point the pickup swerved violently and skidded; I was thrown about in the back as the driver tried to avoid a dog in the road. Unfortunately we were going too fast and the dog too slow; there was a yelp and a thud as we hit it. We didn't stop and I could hear the dog howling as it lay beside the road dying. At 20.00 we arrived in Mocuba and the driver dropped us off at the bus park. The other women and myself made enquiries at the bus park and found that the first bus to Quelimane was due to depart at 04.00; we crossed the road to a cheap hotel and checked in. I was again exhausted and sat down for a cheap meal of rice and stew before crashing out for the night in a tiny box room on the first floor. It was a very basic place and didn't have running water or any bathroom facilities that you would recognise, although it did have electricity, which was a surprise.

I slept until 03.30 when my alarm went off; time to hit the road again. My room was filthy and I had slept fully clothed, so it didn't take long to gather my things together and cross the road in the dark to the bus park. I climbed aboard the minibus, it's stereo system blaring noisely, waking up the neighbourhood. The minibus was crammed full and we set off through a deserted Mocuba while most normal people were still fast asleep. There were a couple of windows missing in the bus, the cold night air blew through the bus and everyone huddled under jackets and blankets to try and stay warm. The road was dirt most of the way to Nicoadala, where a road branches off 20km to Quelimane on the coast. The sun had just risen as we passed the junction that was signposted to Beira; a thought crossed my mind to get out here and to try hitching to the Zambezi River. It was still very early and I guessed I would have better luck picking up transport to the Zambezi from the Quelimane bus park, so I stayed on the minibus for the last 20km.

When we reached the bus park, at just past 07.30, I found that the next bus for Beira was not due to leave until 16.00 later that afternoon. The timing just didn't make sense to me as the ferries across the river only run during the day. I wished now that I had jumped off the bus at Nicoadala and tried hitching instead. I was too tired to double back now and resigned myself to taking the late afternoon bus and probably spending the night sleeping on the banks of the Zambezi. I found a quiet spot in the bus park and curled up on a bench and slept for five hours until lunchtime; I was surprised that no one disturbed me as I slept. At lunchtime I woke up feeling slightly more refreshed after this mornings early start. I walked into town to grab a bite to eat; there didn't seem much of interest in the town despite the town's long history. Before the Portuguese arrived the town was a major Arab trading centre and the main port to the interior. Nothing of this Arab settlement remains today and the only major building from the Portuguese era is an abandoned cathedral by the waterfront of the Bons Sinais River. Today the town is the capital of the Zambézia province and seems to have little to offer the visitor. The buildings are mostly modern, ugly and grey and the whole town looked very similar to others in the north of the country. I walked back to the bus park where I only had a couple more hours to wait.

After waiting so long it was just typical that we left an hour late at 17.00. At first I was surprised that the bus wasn't crammed full, there was even room to stretch my legs out in the aisle. This comfort didn't last long as we drove out of Quelimane and stopped along the main road where a crowd of passengers were waiting; within seconds the bus was packed and I couldn't move. The bus had the loudest stereo system on board I had yet encountered on this trip. It was absolutely deafening and what made it even worse was that they were playing the same tape over and over again. The music pierced through my eardrums. I'm not one to complain about loud music but this was becoming painful. In the end I resorted to putting earplugs in my ears but they proved almost useless as the whole bus vibrated to the beat of the music; there was no let up in the music. I had to struggle to find a bit of leg room to stretch out my legs as my knees began to ache as I sat cramped in my seat. It was 170km to the Zambezi River and took just over three hours along thankfully a good paved road.

It was a relief to get off the bus and at last the stereo was turned off, much to the relief of most of the passengers, although my ears were still ringing. I found myself standing on a dusty, dirt road beside the Zambezi River lined with makeshift shops, bars and restaurants. Most of the buildings were just mud huts with corrugated or thatched roofs. There was no electricity, only a few places had generators and most light came from kerosene lamps. This temporary settlement that resembled more of a refugee camp, was a hive of activity as people wandered about in the gloom. Small fires burned where people were cooking giving the whole place an eerie feel, it almost looked like the end of civilisation. Rubbish lay everywhere, plastic bottles, cans and remains of sugar cane stalks and the whole area smelt like a farmyard as goats and chickens wandered about freely. Trucks, busses and cars were parked alongside the road, everyone waiting for the ferry in the morning. People slept in their cars, some in tents others under their vehicles and some just anywhere there was space to stretch out. I walked into one of the makeshift bars that had a generator going to have a drink and a bite to eat. Inside I found a Swiss woman I had previously met on Mozambique Island, having a beer. She told me that the bar had a shack out the back with a few rooms to rent for MET50,000 a night. I took a room in this mud shack that came with a bed and a mosquito net and then sat down in the bar for a much-deserved beer.

The food didn't look very appetising, fish and rice; the fish looked very sad and I guessed that it had been cooked a long time ago as it sat on a plate on the bar covered with flies. The rice was cold and stodgy; I ate some bread rolls I had in my pack instead. By 22.00 there was not a lot to do here so I went to my room for the night. The people at the bar told me that the ferries start crossing at 04.00 in the morning, I doubted this but didn't want to be left behind as most of the other passengers spent the night either sleeping on or under the bus.

It was still dark when my alarm went off and I packed my bag and walked out to the bus. I was right, no one was going anywhere at this time in the morning and all around the bus the road was littered with sleeping bodies. I found a space on a reed mat and lay down gazing at the thousands of bright stars in the night sky. Gradually the distant horizon began to brighten heralding the start of another day and one by one the stars disappeared until only a dozen or so were left hanging on in the sky. The huge orange globe of the sun rose above the horizon casting the first warm rays of sun over us as one by one people woke up and wandered about in the dawn light still looking half asleep. Smoke lingered in the morning air as fires were lit to cook breakfast on. The business owners busied themselves in a fruitless task of sweeping the mud in front of their shacks, they only managed to brush the rubbish from one place to another. I walked down to the giant river where mist hung above the water and waited for the ferry to appear. Time slipped by and the only boats out on the river were dug out canoes and a few small motorboats, all of them fighting with the strong current as they made their way slowly across the river.

Soon a rumour began to spread that the vehicle ferry was not running today. There were four other people on the bus who only spoke English and did not have a basic grasp of Portuguese; there was one man from Malawi and three brothers from Somalia and they were all heading to Maputo to visit relatives. The five of us found ourselves hanging around together trying to work out what was going on in between discussing the up coming football world cup and who we thought would win; the South American teams seemed to be favourite. By about 07.30 the consensus was that the vehicle ferry was not running and that rather than take the bus across the river we would simply swap busses with the one that came up from Beira, which now stood on the opposite side river bank. It was not long after that a small motorboat appeared through the mist carrying all the passengers and their luggage from the bus headed for Quelimane.

It was a chaotic scene as the passengers disembarked down a slippery plank and men stood in the water and mud passing the luggage ashore in a chain gang. We all waited patiently on the muddy bank until the last sack was unloaded; now it was our turn to try and walk up this wet and muddy plank. I really thought I would slip into the river as I tried to board the boat. With my pack on my back, every other step I took up the plank I slipped back down. I reached halfway and desperately grabbed for the railings on the boat and hauled myself up. Much to my relief I had made it aboard and I placed my pack on the roof and took a seat at the back next to the wheel. This turned out not to be the best place to sit as the exhaust pipe from this ancient boat was right beside me and periodically spluttered and covered me in black soot. As we sailed across I could see on both banks the concrete embankment for the road from a long forgotten plan to bridge this huge river. They just stood there now as silent reminders of some previous governments grand plan.

We crossed the main channel of the river and sailed up a small branch against the strong current. The banks were covered in reeds and in the distance we could hear the steady thud of a large diesel engine. Around a corner came the ferry that was not supposed to be running. It didn't look like the safest ferry in the world; it appeared to be a number of pontoons lashed together with two large, yellow diesel engines bolted to the back. On board were some large trucks and a few cars and the deck of the pontoons were barely above the level of the water. If my car was on board I would of definitely have made sure my insurance policy covered me for accidental sinking. We sailed past and on to the slipway on the opposite side. It was a similar scene here along the banks, as dozens of cars and trucks waited patiently for their turn to cross; I didn't envy them and was now glad we had taken this small motorboat.

The other bus was waiting by the ramshackle slipway where people were busy washing pots and pans and doing laundry. To my relief this bus didn't have a mega decibel stereo system. Once everyone and everything was either in or on the bus we set off, the time just past 08.00. The queue of traffic waiting to cross on this side was huge, mostly they were large trucks; I would estimate that the waiting time would be measured in days rather than hours. The dirt road immediately from the river and past the town of Caia was in fairly good condition and currently being repaired with aid from the US government. This was the first aid project I'd seen funded by the US government on this trip, either the European Union or the Japanese government funded every other major project. The road followed alongside a disused railway line that ran from Beira and across the border into Malawi, the bridges had been destroyed during the war and the rails left hanging helplessly into the rivers.

It wasn't long until we turned off this fairly smooth, wide road and onto a small, sandy, bumpy track. The road was in a terrible condition, mainly due to the soft, sandy soil. Eventually, as the road passed through a fairly thick forest, it narrowed to just a single track and looked more like a forest hiking trail than a road. The bumps in the road were huge and the poor passengers sitting at the back of the bus were forever hitting their heads on the roof; in the end some of them decided to stand instead. This road was the worst I have ever travelled along. I was glad that this was the dry season as during the rains this road would be impassable. In places where the vehicles had struggled through the mud and sand, the road was almost a metre lower than the surrounding land. The whole way to Beira the road closely followed the railway line. All along the railway line lay the remains of trains, most of them derailed and the rusty hulks lying amongst the trees slowly decaying. The few stations we passed lay abandoned, overrun with vegetation, a train going nowhere, the rails slipping down the embankment. We also passed deserted villages, just the shells of houses remained, the occupants long since gone.

As we slowly drove along this rough track we began to develop some kind of mechanical problem. Whenever we slowed down to negotiate a series of bumps the engine stalled; this began to start happening far too frequently for comfort and soon every time we slowed the engine would die in a spluttering cough. We met another bus from this company coming the other way along the road, to be precise it was a truck but the cargo was people. They had a spare fuel filter on board which was fitted onto our bus. While we were stopped in the middle of nowhere passengers from the bus wandered off the road into the trees to go to the toilet. I stayed on the road, ever wary of the risk of landmines, especially as the road was next to the railway line which had been completely destroyed during the civil war. Soon we were once again on our way but it didn't take long for the same problem to reoccur and before long we were again stuck beside the road. Eventually the driver managed to fix the problem; there was a blockage in the fuel line, and we continued on our way without any further problems.

It was a relief when finally we reached Dondo and the paved road that took us the 30km to Beira on the coast. I was just thankful that we didn't end up stuck in the middle of nowhere for most of the day. It was 15.00 when I arrived in the centre of Beira. From there I took a minibus out of town along the coast to a bar, restaurant and campground called Biques; they also had caravans to rent on the beach for MET250,000 a night. After three days, which felt more like a week, I had arrived back in civilisation, feeling totally exhausted after all the hard journeys and early starts over the last week or more. I planned to spend a day in Beira resting before continuing my journey south to the beach at Vilankulo, where I planned to spend four days doing nothing. I went to the bar at Biques with a huge smile on my face and ordered a cold beer, a burger and chips and watched the news from the BBC on the satellite television. Civilisation tasted good.

Continue reading this journey: Beira & Vilankulo