Mozambique: Beira & Vilankulo

14th May - 4th June 2002


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Beira is Mozambique's second largest city and is situated almost halfway along the coast between Mozambique Island and the capital, Maputo. Beira is a fairly modern city dating back to the late 19th century when the port was developed, which today is the country's busiest, and the railway line was constructed to Harare in Zimbabwe. Mozambique definitely felt like a country divided in two between the north and the south, the divide being the Zambezi River. Unlike the northern towns, Beira felt fairly well developed. The services were functioning, the most noticeable thing being the street lamps that worked, which also stood at right angles and traffic on the roads without any potholes. On the edge of the downtown area was a Shoprite supermarket and a branch of Hungary Lion, a real sign that I was back out of the wilderness.

It was absolute bliss to again have a complete nights sleep without having to get up in the early hours of the morning to catch a bus. Still I didn't lie in late, after so many early starts getting up at 08.00 felt like I had wasted half the day. I had a great fried breakfast and a real cup of coffee at the bar at Biques before heading off into the city. Biques was about 4km east of the city centre by Makuti beach. The road into the city lead alongside the white sandy beach where a rusting wreck of a commercial trawler lay stranded. There is not an awful lot to see or do in Beira but it is a useful place to spend a day or two resting and using the city's facilities. After stopping at an Internet cafe for a couple of hours at the telecom building I went for a walk around the city. It is a fairly ugly city comprising of many tall, grey, concrete apartment blocks. The architecture is typical of former socialist countries, a legacy of the governments experiment with socialism during the 1970's and 80's and it's political links with the former USSR and East Germany. I found a certain beauty in this bland, grey, monotonous architecture, the way that one building effortlessly blended with another and the uniformity of style. No money was spent on making the buildings pleasing to the eye, they were just practicable and served the purpose for which they were designed.

Despite the town now looking like a former soviet suburb, remnants of the colonial era buildings still remained. Most of these buildings were around the port area and the majority of them were dilapidated. I could still get an impression of what this city must have looked like during the Portuguese administration. The most notable building in the city was the cathedral built in the early 20th century using stones from the fort at San Caetano in Sofala. The ancient town of Sofala lies on the coast about 40km south of Beira. The town was founded around the 9th century and was one of the most important ports and influential centres along the East African coast. The main trade through the port was gold and it had trade links to present day Tanzania, Madagascar, India and Indonesia. The Portuguese built their first fort here in 1505 with stones that were shipped from Portugal. Today nothing remains of Sofala and even the ruins of the fort have been swamped by the sea, so I didn't go and visit.

Beira is also the political headquarters for the countries main opposition party, Renamo. They originally fought against the Frelimo government during the country's seventeen-year civil war; Frelimo was Mozambique's independence movement during the Portuguese administration. In a sense the war in Mozambique was not really a 'civil' war. Renamo was set up by the governments of Rhodesia and South Africa during the 1970's to counter Mozambique's support for the independence movements in these two countries, ZAPU and the ANC. Renamo's only aim was the destabilisation of the Frelimo government by the destruction of the country's social and communications infrastructure and had no ideology of it's own. They destroyed roads, railway lines, bridges and terrorised civilians by murdering anyone with a profession; doctors, teachers, engineers etc. It was the collapse of the USSR and the end of the cold war that sent a tide of change through Africa, including Mozambique. The Frelimo government abandoned its socialist ideology and switched to a market economy and announced multiparty elections. A ceasefire was agreed in Rome during 1990 between the two warring parties and a formal peace agreement was signed in October 1992 followed by a successful UN monitored disarmament and demobilisation campaign. The first democratic elections were held in October 1994 in which Frelimo won 44% of the vote and Renamo became the main opposition party winning 38%. Renamo's transformation from guerrilla organisation to political party was complete.

After spending the best part of the day strolling around the city I jumped on a minibus and returned to Biques. I was going to visit the nearby Makonde woodcarving workshop, a kilometre or so east along the coast by the lighthouse, but I felt exhausted and fell asleep in my caravan. By the time I woke it was dark and too late to visit the workshop, one of my main regrets during my visit to Beira. I consoled myself with the fact that there were workshops in Maputo, where I was heading next and that I would be able to buy some good Makonde carvings there instead. I had dinner at the bar, the woman who owned Biques was very friendly and helped me sorting out my transport to Vilankulo the next day. The busses leave downtown Beira at 05.00 in the morning and the owner phoned and arranged for a taxi to pick me up at 04.00. I set my alarm clock for 03.30 and resigned myself to yet another middle of the night start to my journey.

By the time my alarm clock went off I had just fallen asleep; I should have learnt by now not to sleep during the afternoons. I really hadn't been feeling too well though, I had caught a slight cold, which combined with my travel exhaustion had drained me. I stumbled out into the dark, the only sound the waves crashing onto the beach. I locked up the caravan and as I handed the keys to the night watchman the headlights of a taxi appeared turning into the sandy car park outside the bar. Of course it goes without saying that the taxi driver ripped me off and by 04.30 I was standing in a street downtown shouting expletives at the driver; at least the day could only get better from now on. I climbed onto the bus and as I walked down the aisle a friendly face stood up and said hello. It was the Malawian man who had been on the bus with the Somali brothers and me from Quelimane; he too had spent a couple of nights here resting from his journey from Blantyre. He was now travelling all the way to Maputo, which would take another day and a half. I didn't envy him especially because in a weeks time he would have to make the return journey all the way back to Malawi.

I had heard that the safety record of the busses in Mozambique was appalling and that the killing of dozens of passengers in road accidents was a common occurrence, especially in the south around Maputo. It seemed that the major causes of these accidents were drunken drivers and driver fatigue. In addition, the mechanical condition of the busses was very questionable. Often during this journey I had seen busses coming down the road sideways, crabbing, where the front and the rear wheels were out of alignment. Straight roads are not too much of a problem but when going around a corner the back end of the bus would dangerously drift out onto the opposite side of the road. To counter this problem the government had banned busses from travelling through the night. How that ban worked was fairly much open to interpretation with the local police force on whether the bus could pass through a checkpoint. This explained why we sat and waited until 05.00 at which point all three busses parked alongside the road departed.

It was still dark though as we drove out of Beira, there wasn't much traffic about only pedestrians appearing in the headlights of the bus shuffling along the side of the road as if they too were half asleep like myself. As the sun rose we passed by fields where mist hung over the crops like a blanket encircling small villages of thatched mud huts. This journey south was proving to be uneventful, compared to my previous travels in the country; I wasn't complaining though. It was the first full sized bus I had been on since crossing the border from Malawi and it wasn't packed full of people and their possessions, there were even spare seats. In this relative comfort I soon found myself falling asleep. I periodically woke up but found it hard to keep my eyes open for any length of time and dozed for most of the journey. I was aware though of the bumps in the road and woke up as we slowed to cross the Save River. This giant of a river flows down from the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe and was bridged here by an impressive suspension bridge.

After what seemed like a long time we stopped at the junction to Vilankulo. I looked at my watch and was surprised to see that it was only midday; after such an early start it felt more like late afternoon. I rode in the back of a pickup the last 20km to Vilankulo and the coast. I was dropped by the market and before I even climbed out of the pickup a young boy approached me to show me the way to the Baobab Backpackers. We walked from the market along sandy streets lined with palm trees, past reed and thatch huts; it was a quiet town, more like a large village. The Baobab Backpackers was to the south of the market in a peaceful location beside the beach. It had almost everything I needed for the next few days to relax under a shady palm tree and recover from my exhausting journey from the north of the country. The accommodation was in a number of traditionally built reed huts that were dotted about just back from the beach. I took a hut for myself that had it's own small veranda, the only disappointment being that none of the huts were right down on the beach; I was still close enough though to hear the waves gently rolling onto the white sand. The only facility the place didn't have was a restaurant, but the owners had grand plans to build a restaurant, a new bar and a swimming pool; they had already started on the restaurant.

I spent the afternoon sitting on my veranda until about 16.00 when I felt tired and decided to go and lie down and snooze for an hour or so before going into town for something to eat. I lay down on the comfortable bed and immediately fell asleep. I woke briefly at 20.00 and while I was still half asleep I shut my door and fixed the mosquito net above my bed; the whole time I could barely keep my eyes open. The next time I woke up I saw daylight shining through the reed walls of my circular hut. I checked my watch and saw that it was 08.00 the next morning; I had slept almost solidly for sixteen hours. That was the longest I had ever slept in my life and it was only after I woke up that I really realised how fatigued I had become from the endless days of travelling. I still didn't feel fully recovered that morning, I still had a slight cold and the last meal I had eaten was playing havoc with my digestive system. I rested up for another day.

Vilankulo is one of Mozambique's main beach resorts. It's name comes from the former chief of the area, Gamala Vilankulo Mukoke, although during colonial times it was changed to Vilanculos and even today I heard the town referred to by both names. The town stretches along the endless white sandy beaches fringed with palm trees with a harbour in a small bay to the north. Off the coast between 10 and 25km is the Bazaruto Archipelago, which consists of five main islands, Magaruque, Benguera, Santa Carolina, Bazaruto and Bangue. Most of the archipelago is a national park and the islands are a major tourist destination with crystal clear waters, coral reefs, abundant marine life and many opportunities for diving and sailing. The majority of lodges on the islands are top range and out of my budget, although there is a campsite on Benguera Island but I didn't have a tent. The ocean between the coast and the islands is very shallow and at low tide the sea turned into a maze of sandbanks. It was impossible to swim at low tide unless you were prepared for a long walk. While I was staying high tide was late in the afternoon so I managed to have a swim at the end of the day, just as the sun began to disappear behind the palm trees and the shadows stretched out across the beach.

The town didn't feel that developed for the countries major tourist resort. There is still a lot of potential for the tourist industry to grow here and there were quiet a few people, mostly South Africans, looking at buying up land to build tourist lodges. I could also see the potential for the town to turn into a tourist hell with the large influx of visitors taking over the place to the detriment of the local population. Already kids would continuously approach me as I walked through the town asking me what I was looking for and where I was going. After a while it became tedious and I doubt that it will get any better especially as the growth of the tourist industry will highlight even more the disparages between rich and poor.

I spent four days living beside the beach in my little reed and thatched hut, spending my days reading and writing on my veranda and swimming in the ocean once the tide was up at the end of the day. Three other people I had previously met in Livingstone, Zambia about six weeks ago arrived at the backpackers. It was interesting to catch up on our journeys. The last day I spent there was my birthday, I didn't do much, my digestive system was still crook but it made a change to spend my birthday on a white, tropical beach sitting under a palm tree doing nothing. My next destination was Inhambane further down the coast. The people I had met from Livingstone had their own car and were also heading south to the beaches at Tofo and Barra on the same peninsula as Inhambane. Unfortunately they had already picked up some other hitchhikers and had five people in the car, together with their luggage so there was no room for one more. I decided I would hitch a ride from the main highway instead.

Continue reading this journey: Inhambane & Maputo