Jannie Herbst has been travelling to Mozambique for 47 years. Much has changed since 1969 though, and today, corrupt officials rule the roost on the roads. It has reached such pandemic proportions that Jannie says he’s done and dusted with Moz.
I recently considered another trip to Mozambique. I wanted to experience first-hand some of the new resorts in the north that I’ve read so much about and besides, I have many pleasant memories of the country. My first visit there was in 1969 and thoughts immediately turn to LM Radio with Evelyn Martin, David Davies and Clarke McKay. You think of spending lazy days on Polana Beach drinking Laurentina beer and chomping cashew nuts.
You think fantastic pubs and restaurants – and in case you were wondering, the Café Continental is still open today (albeit not the same) – where they gave you a bowl of prawns to wash down with your beer in the same way complimentary nuts or crisps are placed on the bar counters of upmarket watering holes these days. When you think Mozambique, you also think the wonderful Total International Rallies and the international races if you were a track-racing fan. The Lourenço Marques races and the Total were the stuff of which legends were made.
But those days disappeared forever when the armed conflict between Frelimo guerrilla fighters and Portugal came to a peak in 1974. That was followed by the Mozambican civil war with Frelimo going up against Renamo – and the spark was gone. The country slowly recovered and South Africans eventually started drifting back but Mozambique was never the same. Maputo is these days a mixture of the new and the old, but the city’s pristine beaches, bars and cafés will never again ooze the character as in the Lourenço Marques days. It is as though Maputo, after the Portuguese left, constantly missed the bus to a better life for all her citizens. Leisure Wheels has been back to Mozambique many times since 1992 and, by and large, we have enjoyed ourselves.
But there was always a general air of relief when nothing untoward occurred on these trips. We were not always so lucky. Experienced travellers in Mozambique learned to carry a stock of T-shirts and caps and there was no shortage of these items in the Leisure Wheels luggage. It was like having extra hard currency, but there were times when even these failed us. There was one occasion, well documented in a column I wrote at the time, when we executed a U-turn about 20km from Xai Xai. We were shocked to see a policewoman and two young AK-47-bearing soldiers pop out of the bush, and even more surprised when the fine for a U-turn in the middle of nowhere was R700.
Matters started to get interesting when the policewoman insisted the driver hand over his licence, and drive back to Xai Xai to pay the fine. The licence would then be returned and we could go about our business. We were not about to fall for that one and the upshot of these negotiations was that R200 changed hands. However, one of the young soldiers spied our cooler box in the cargo area and he and his colleague supplemented their score of T-shirts and caps with two bottles of good South African wine. One other incident springs to mind and it is one which could have had dire consequences for colleague Danie Botha and myself. Being hijacked in your own country is traumatic enough, but for it to happen beyond our borders puts a whole new slant on matters.
It is an incident we could have done without and the sense of outrage and fear is something that never goes away. We were travelling in a BMW X5 3.0 back to Komatipoort with another successful assignment under our belts when we noticed one of the tyres was losing pressure. We managed to find a tyre repair shop but when the repairs were complete, we had an inkling that something was wrong. My warning to Danie came a split second too late. His door was opened and a man was pointing a .38 special at him. “My friend, I kill you. I shoot you now. Climb to the back.”
I am not sure how experienced these particular hijackers were but the fellow with the gun was now behind the steering wheel, and was battling to get the car to move. To cut a long story short, Danie was ordered to take the wheel. After a few hundred metres he was told to stop and I was ordered to hand over the R2 400 I had on me. The biggest surprise came when we were asked about our passports. We were told we could keep them, but my plea to hold on to my camera bag with around R40 000 of equipment fell on deaf ears. Unbelievably, the hijackers forgot to ask for my cellphone and we got in touch with BMW in South Africa to activate the tracking device on the vehicle. What followed were several hours of waiting, a meeting with a representative of the SA High Commission in Maputo, and seemingly endless police statements.
But, there is a sting in the tail. Three days later, the BMW was recovered with everything intact – camera equipment, luggage, GPS, et al. The only problem is the camera equipment, the luggage and the GPS were never returned to us and probably ended up as police surplus equipment. That leads on to more distressing Moz news. If you have been paying attention to letters written to various newspapers, you will be aware that travel to Mozambique is a favourite topic. Recently there have been a spate of letters warning readers of the perils of travelling anywhere in the region. A common theme among the letters is what is perceived to be intimidation of South African motorists by the Mozambique police and the army. Horror stories abound of petty traffic offences, and the perception is that South African motorists are fair game for the Mozambique police and military.
More worrying are news reports that Mozambique is on the brink of turmoil because of a fresh wave of violence and corruption, and reports that renewed fighting has broken out between Renamo and government forces in the Gorongosa district. A Renamo leader who claims the October 2014 elections were rigged has gone on the warpath, and people are now forced to travel in convoys for safety. More than 100 Malawians were killed during May when they were en route through Gorongosa. The situation appears to be volatile but help is at hand via an organisation called DriveMoz on Facebook. DriveMoz claims to have in excess of 15 000 members and offers advice over a wide range of services with its Zello group and Telegram group akin to a citizen band on your cellphone.
DriveMoz says it is busy trying to bring the problems that tourism is experiencing in Mozambique to the attention of the government. It also believes that a spirit of friendship will produce positive results. One criticism of DriveMoz is it appears to be an organisation with no Mozambique membership to write home about. According to one letter writer, DriveMoz is trying to stamp out fires, but those South Africans who live in Mozambique know better. The writer claims that driving anywhere has become an odious experience. Why are our neighbourly officials so hard on us? On more than one occasion it was South Africa to the rescue when floods ravaged Mozambique, and one would expect a little gratitude but I fear it is going to take more than a concerted public relations exercise if the Mozambican government, the police and military are going to get along with South African motorists.
So, that is that. No more trips to Moz for the Herbst family, which is a pity. A great many South Africans have started holiday lodges and camps along the coastline, and there are many fine places to explore north of Maputo. But getting to these places is the problem and I am fed up with dodging corrupt policemen. Recent reports indicate the police in Lesotho have learnt a thing or two from their Mozambican counterparts. You hear of isolated incidents in Swaziland, but while the cops in Botswana and Namibia are no angels, I have never felt threatened or uncomfortable when stopped by them. And Botswana and Namibia are two countries with many more wonderful places to explore and to which I will return as long as I can.
Text: Jannie Herbst