Mozambique: Inhambane & Maputo

14th May - 4th June 2002


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I planned to make an early start from the Baobab Backpackers in Vilankulo, but ended up talking for a couple of hours that morning with some other travellers around the bar while drinking a few cups of tea. Eventually I decided to leave, it was one of those places were you could easily stay a long time and I forced myself to pick up my pack and walk back to the market to find a pickup truck going out to the main road. On my way out of Baobab I passed the friends I had met in Livingstone who were packing their car and getting ready for their journey south too. I told them to wave if they saw me standing on the side of the road or sitting on the back of a truck. At the market I didn't have to wait long for a pickup to leave. After a short tour of the town to collect more cargo and passengers we departed, stopping to fill up at the petrol station on the way out of town. The journey was only 20km and it wasn't long before I was standing back at the dusty junction with the main highway.

There were no vehicles in sight travelling along this flat, straight road except the pickup I had just jumped off, disappearing north into the distance. Parked alongside the road by the junction was a large truck carrying sacks of maize and plantains. There were also a dozen or so hitchhikers sitting on the back so I walked up to the cab and asked the driver, using my very basic grasp of Portuguese, if I could climb on for a ride to Inhambane. He nodded and told me to climb on the back. I greeted the other locals and found a comfortable place to sit on the maize sacks. Apart from the cargo and the other passengers, there was also a double bed and the obligatory African farmyard, which included goats, ducks and chickens. The truck didn't travel very fast and it was a relaxing way to travel watching the endless bush pass by. I hadn't been travelling long on the back of this truck when my friends from Livingstone overtook me, waving as they passed.

It turned out not to be the best day for travelling in the open on the back of a truck. The skies were overcast for the first time in weeks and before I left Vilankulo a shower had just clipped the coast dropping a few large drops of rain. The clouds to the south now looked very grey and threatening. It wasn't long until we hit the first shower and I huddled as best I could behind the maize sacks to keep dry; thankfully the shower wasn't too heavy and didn't last long and I was soon back out in warm sunshine drying off. At the next town we stopped at I quickly dug out my jacket from my pack and prepared myself as it looked like we would be hitting another shower soon. It was a wise move and soon after setting off I found myself huddling behind the maize sacks once more as the raindrops hit me like bullets; again though, it was only a short but heavy shower. On the way south we stopped at almost every town to sell sacks of maize beside the road. As soon as we had stopped women surrounded the truck with empty sacks and buckets, which were quickly filled. To me it looked like a chaotic way to do business, as one by one sacks were unloaded to the waiting crowds beside the road.

The trip to Inhambane was taking a long time with all these stops and the slow speed of the truck, especially while going up the hills. Somewhere along this journey we crossed over the Tropic of Capricorn and for the first time on this long trip through Africa I found myself outside the tropics. By the middle of the afternoon we were travelling past an endless forest of palm trees as far as the eye could see. We stopped at a junction where the driver haggled with a crowd of hawkers all selling bags of prawns. While we waited a pickup pulled up on the opposite side of the road and in the back I saw another white man. It turned out to be the guy driving the car from Livingstone. At first I didn't recognise him because he was out of context sitting in the back of a pickup with the locals. Using sign language he managed to communicate to me that he had been involved in an accident further down the road. That was all I could understand, he looked uninjured and I just hoped that everyone else was okay. It wasn't long after leaving this junction, the driver with a couple of bags of prawns in his cab for dinner, that we reached the scene of the accident. His car was beside the road, the offside front smashed in. On the opposite side of the road was the car he had hit, head on. The other car was far more damaged, the front offside was wrecked and also the whole offside of the car had been smashed in. It looked like he had somehow crashed into this oncoming car. I later found out the cause of the accident when I reached Maputo from someone whom I had met in Vilankulo who received an email from one of the girls who was hitching a ride in the car. Apparently there was a minibus travelling very slowly on their side of the road. They were driving too fast and didn't have time to brake when approaching it from behind and had to swerve around the minibus to avoid a collision. They couldn't swerve to the left because there were people walking alongside the road so they swerved around the minibus to the right and hit an oncoming car. They were very unlucky to hit someone considering how few vehicles travel along this road. The driver of the other car received a serious injury to his arm and had to wait over twenty-four hours at a hospital before a doctor could treat him, no one else was hurt.

By late afternoon I arrived in Maxixe, a busy town along the highway; Inhambane was on a peninsular on the other side of a bay. I was dropped by the slipway where there were either small motorboats or slower, cheaper dhows making the short crossing to Inhambane. I took my chances with one of the overloaded motorboats and paid my MET5,000 fare. It was high tide and the water slightly choppy, waves breaking over the bows of this small, wooden boat. I wouldn't have liked to make this trip during bad weather, I had heard too many horror stories of these small ferries sinking in Africa. We made it safely to the pier at Inhambane and I disembarked, happy to be back on dry land and walked the short distance to the Pensão Pachiça on the waterfront. The railway line ran down alongside the main street in town, Avenida de Independencia, and out along the long, concrete pier, a rusting link to the towns former position as a major port.

Inhambane is a friendly, relaxed town with a backwater feel to it. When the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama first came here in 1598 he named the place Terra da Boa Gente, the Land of the Kind People. It didn't feel as though much had changed over the last few hundred years; I found the town to be welcoming, quiet and hassle free. It is one of Mozambique's oldest and most historic towns. Even before the Portuguese arrived the town was an important trading centre and port for the Muslim dhows that sailed along the African east coast. The town remained the main commercial centre in the south of the country and one of the largest towns in the country until Lourenço Marques, present day Maputo, became the capital in 1898. During the 1950's the road was built from the capital to Inhambane and the port fell into disuse. There are many old and historic buildings around the town, including the church of Nossa Senhora de Conceicão, which was currently being restored. The tower of the church is a landmark all around the town and the bay, although it looked like no-one had got around to restoring the clock faces yet, which had all stopped showing different times. The old Mosque on the northern waterfront of the town was built in 1840 and just a couple of blocks along the road from there was the far more modern looking new Mosque.

I spent a day exploring the town and wandering along the streets. Again I could see the evidence of the country's socialist past with street names like Karl Marx Avenue. In the park by the pier in the centre of Avenida de Independencia stood the Frelimo emblem that was erected after independence from Portugal in 1975 and replaced the marble statue of Vasco Da Gama, which is now hidden behind the Xiphefo building further up the avenue. Also staying at the Pensão was another English lad, Andy. He had sailed back from Maxixe on a dhow and had been talking to the captain who had offered to sail him around the peninsular to Barra for MET250,000. This sounded like a good idea to me and the next morning we walked down to the pier to find Captain John. We soon found him but his dhow was already fully loaded for a trip across the bay to Maxixe, so we began negotiating with some of the other dhow captains who were anchored alongside the pier.

It soon became obvious that no one wanted to take us to Barra; the main reason was that the sea was too rough for these dhows once they got out of the fairly calm bay. With this useful information, we changed our plans and instead negotiated to go to Linga Linga, about 15km north of Inhambane at the northern end of the bay. The haggling proved to be very frustrating but eventually we thought we had agreed a price with a captain for MET150,000. Time was against us as the tide was going out during the morning, which we needed to sail with as the wind was blowing from the north. If we left it too late we would end up sailing against both the tide and the wind and probably would end up sailing backwards. We quickly walked into town to pick up some food and water for the trip and returned to the pier to board the dhow. Suddenly it appeared that the captain and his crew had changed their minds while we had been away and now refused to take us. At this point I lost patience with them; the first rule of negotiating is that once you agree a price, both parties stick by it; they had gone back on the agreement and their word, which really annoyed me for wasting so much of our time. After a short argument and once I was happy that they understood how I felt about them, I walked off. Just then another dhow sailed up alongside the pier and dropped anchor. We tried one last time to negotiate a fare to Linga Linga and back. The first price they offered was MET175,000, we agreed and within minutes we were wading out to the dhow and set sail heading north.

By now it had just gone 10:30, we had wasted far too much time standing about negotiating on the pier. Our captain told us that it would take two hours to reach Linga Linga, where we would stop for lunch for an hour and then two hours to sail back to Inhambane. I had a feeling that it might take a bit longer as we were tacking up the bay against the wind and the tide had already gone out quite far and would soon turn. Like the ocean off Vilankulo, this bay was also very shallow and we were soon faced with an obstacle course of sandbanks. I soon began to doubt the ability of both our captain and two-man crew, one of whom was only a young boy. I think it was lucky that we couldn't speak a common language because I'm sure that if I could of understood their conversations I would of only worried more about their ability. After a couple of hours we were nowhere near our destination and were forever running aground on sandbanks. At one stage we all had to get out and push the dhow over a sandbank through the shallow water. It felt strange to be so far out from the coast but yet to be walking through only knee high water. The highlight of our voyage though was when a school of dolphins came swimming alongside the dhow, between us and a long sandbank; they looked so elegant as they effortlessly powered their way through the water. Looking back on this voyage, which by now was turning into an epic, we should of taken control of the boat; the captain and the crew did not have a clue how to sail or tack against the wind. In the end the captain left the young boy in charge of the rudder and we came to a standstill. The tide had now turned and the battle to reach Linga Linga became just about impossible.

I had almost resigned to the fact that we would never reach our destination as we slowly sailed sideways just a few tantalising kilometres from the shore, where we could even now count the palm trees and see people lazing on the beach. We struggled on against a strong incoming tide, the sun getting lower and lower in the sky. At last, after over five and a half hours, we reached the beach, I couldn't believe we had actually made it. As we approached I dived overboard and swam to the beach, getting caught in the strong current that washed me down along the beach towards a rusting wreck of a ship beached in the sand. I was determined to have a swim today, it could be my last chance to swim in the Indian Ocean on this trip. As I sat on a coconut on the sandy beach drying off, the setting sun cast an orange glow across the bay; so much for having lunch here let alone stopping for an hour.

Meanwhile Andy wandered down the beach and found a local man who could speak English. The two of them came back and the local man acted as an interpreter between us and the crew of the dhow. Now it turned out that they didn't want to sail back to Inhambane tonight and suggested that we spend the night at Linga Linga while they sailed to a nearby village to stay with friends. This discussion went on for a while and I pointed out to them that we had agreed on a return trip. I could easily see us spending the night here and then becoming stuck at Linga Linga as it didn't look like a busy place and I doubted whether the crew of this dhow would ever return. Andy was in two minds about either staying the night or sailing back through the dark to Inhambane. I really wanted to get back because tomorrow I had planned to travel to Maputo, so I would be there for Friday and the start of the World Cup. I really didn't think the return voyage would be as difficult as the trip we had just completed. The tide was flowing into the bay, the sandbanks had been submerged by the incoming tide and the wind, even though it had dropped since the sun had set, was still blowing gently from the north. My only concern was sailing through the dark on this small, unlit, wooden boat, but there was very little shipping in the bay and most of the dhows had moored up for the night.

We eventually agreed to return and set off into the dark back towards Inhambane, the lights of the town flickering in the distance. At first we made slow progress from the island, the wind hardly touching the sail, I began to think that we had made the wrong decision. I feared that we were in for another five-hour epic voyage across the bay. Luckily we were just sheltered by the island from the wind and soon the sail began to bellow for the first time all day and we could feel the boat surge through the water. Suddenly the whole mood on the boat changed as it felt for the first time as though we were getting somewhere. The crew who had been sitting in silence since we left Linga Linga began to chat again and Andy and myself relaxed feeling confident that we had made the correct decision. We lay down on the dhow and watched the stars in the sky and the lights on the shore slowly slip by. Gradually the lights of Inhambane became brighter and brighter until suddenly the town was hit by a power cut and it literally disappeared into the blackness in front of us. Everyone on board the boat began laughing, it was as though someone didn't want us to find our way back and just flicked off a switch. After a while the lights came back on and we found ourselves very near to the shore. The captain sailed the boat straight to the shore and beached it on a small stretch of sand on the northern shores of Inhambane; the return trip had taken just over two hours. Everyone was happy to be back and we paid the captain and also gave him a generous tip because I really felt he hadn't realised what he had let himself in for when he agreed to take us on this voyage. The day ended perfectly when we walked into town and found a highly recommended restaurant open, as the previous night it had been closed. We were starving, after all we never did have time for lunch on Linga Linga. The voyage across the bay will be one I won't forget for a very long time.

I left Inhambane the next morning to travel to Maputo. After paying my bill at the Pensão Pachiça I just hoped that the MET150,000 left in my pocket was enough to get me to the city. I had tried to change some US dollars at the banks in town the day after I arrived but none of them would do any foreign transactions. I really can't understand these banks attitudes because all they end up doing is harming the local economy. After all, if I can't change money I have no money to spend in the local hotels, restaurants and shops and have no alternative but to leave the town. That was the position I found myself in today. I took the ferry from the pier back across the bay to Maxixe and tried to change some money at a bank there; again with no success. I decided to try and hitchhike to Maputo and save my money for a taxi fare when I arrived in the city. I gave myself until 11.00, if I didn't get a ride by then I would flag down the next passing bus to Maputo and worry about how I would pay a taxi fare when I reached the city.

Just after 11.00 I climbed on board a TSL bus to Maputo, the fare was MET90,000, which just left me MET60,000 in my pocket. After standing in the hot sun for a few hours beside the dusty highway I felt tired and once again spent a lot of the journey fast asleep. Whenever I did open my eyes the scenery looked the same, palm trees as far as the eye could see. By the middle of the afternoon we had reached the town of Xai-Xai. During the devastating floods in February 2000 this was one of the worst effected towns. The Limpopo River flows past the southern edge of the town on it's last leg to the Indian Ocean after flowing from the north of South Africa forming the border with Botswana and Zimbabwe. Today it looked very calm and innocent; it was hard to imagine that this river had brought so much destruction to this area. The road crossed a huge flood plain south of the river. All along the causeway new bridges were being built so as to stop the causeway becoming a dam in any future floods.

It was dark when we arrived in Maputo, stopping in the suburbs to drop off passengers and our cargo of two-dozen goats that had been tied to the roof. I was finally dropped off at the TSL bus depot to the north of the downtown area. One of the staff at the depot negotiated with a taxi driver on my behalf to take me to the Base Backpackers on Patrice Lumumba Street. I didn't have enough money for the fare of MET150,000, which I was sure was too high but I was not in a good position to argue, especially as I didn't have the money anyway. The taxi driver agreed to take me on the assumption that someone at the Base would be able to change dollars for me. I kept my fingers crossed and rode into the city. After a while we found the right house on Patrice Lumumba and I was greeted by Mandela at the reception. I quickly explained my money situation while the taxi driver stood in the background of the reception. Mandela immediately went off and came back with MET150,000 to pay the driver; at last everyone was happy and I could relax.

I hadn't eaten all day and by now I was very hungry. Mandela gave me another MET150,000 and told me where there was a good restaurant just around the corner on Avenida 24 de Julho. I was soon sitting down and indulging myself with a giant size pizza; it felt good to be in this city after a tough journey down from Malawi over the last couple of weeks or so. The Base Backpackers was a fantastic place to stay. At the time it was not listed in any guidebooks so everyone who was staying here had heard about it from word of mouth. It was kept spotlessly clean, the dorms were a good size and not overcrowded and the kitchen well equipped with cold drinks for sale from the fridge. Lou, who owned the place with his wife Fran, had left Mandela, who was from Mbabane in Swaziland, in charge for a few days. He welcomed the chance to come to Maputo for a while to escape the cold of winter in Swaziland.

I had heard a lot of good reports from people who had visited this city and had been looking forward to my stay here for a long time. I had only been in the city for one night and I already had fallen in love with the place. There was an energy to the city that I hadn't felt in many other African cities I had visited, it almost felt as though the city was alive, beating. Unlike other cities I had visited on this trip where my general description would go something like, this city would never win any prizes for cultural heritage (Lusaka and Lilongwe spring to mind), Maputo was the opposite. The city was full of museums; there was the National Art Museum displaying contemporary Mozambique art, the Chissano Museum containing sculptors by the artist of the same name, the Museum of the Revolution documenting the country's struggle for independence as well as the Money, Natural History and Geology museums.

The whole layout of the city was very pleasant with wide avenues lined with jacaranda and flame trees. The city sits on a small hill with a cliff facing south to Maputo Bay and the Indian Ocean to the east. The main commercial areas are along the main thoroughfare, Avenida 24 de Julho and around the port area. There is a lot of interesting architecture around the city including two buildings designed by Gustav Eiffel (he also designed a tower in Paris). He designed the dome on the extraordinary train station, built in 1910, which has to be one of the worlds great train stations, the most impressive I have yet seen. He also built the experimental Iron House with its metal clad exterior as the governor's residence in the late 19th century. This is next to the colonial style Centro Cultural Franco-Mocambicano with its veranda's, balconies and intricate ironwork. Just to the north of the Iron House is the large square, Praca da Independencia, which is dominated to the east by the modern, white cathedral and to the north by the neo-classical City Hall. The oldest part of the city is around the port where there is a mid 19th century fort built by the Portuguese; today the fort looks very much out of place surrounded by modern concrete buildings. The area between the fort and the train station to the west is full of interesting colonial era architecture, although some of the buildings were very dilapidated and a few were nothing more than empty ruins.

The World Cup kicked off on the 31st of May and at the Base, Mandela acquired a television and set it up in the dining area next to the kitchen. The opening match was between the world champions, France and newcomers, Senegal. Senegal won the match one, nil much to the delight of everyone in Maputo. The football began to dictate my days, I would watch the matches during the morning and walk off around the city in the afternoons. Disaster nearly struck on the day of England's first match against Sweden. The kick off was at 11.30 but at 08.00 that morning the whole city was hit by a power outage. By 11.00 power still hadn't been restored, so I rushed into the city to find a bar with both a satellite television and a generator. There was only one bar, down on Avenida Julius Nyerere, that was still in business with a truck parked outside with a generator on the back; the bar packed with people from all corners of the world.

I could have easily stayed a long time in the city but in the end spent four very enjoyable days there. It would be a great city to start or finish a journey through this continent; if you had just arrived it would ease you into African life or if you were leaving you could relax and enjoy the many amenities the city has and prepare yourself for life back home. It was Tuesday when I left Maputo and Mozambique. Lou, the owner of The Base was driving to Swaziland with Fran for a day trip and offered me a ride to Manzini. We left around 07.30 in the morning and within an hour or so we were at the border town of Namaacha, my adventure through Mozambique over.

I continued travelling across the border to Swaziland.

Continue reading this journey: Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary