A bridge too far

Text and photographs: Johann Vosloo

When our group of adventurous Volkswagen Syncro owners got together to decide on an appropriate destination for our next trip, the far northern reaches of Mozambique, and the Niassa National Park in particular, seemed just the ticket. We started planning for the adventure.

Our party would be made up of five vehicles: three VW Syncros, a Toyota Fortuner and a Toyota Land Cruiser. We decided not to take trailers, due to reports of very rough roads, and so would sleep either in or on the vehicles. Normal tents were ruled out by concerns about wild animals and creepy-crawlies.

So in the Syncros we fitted queen-size mattresses, the Land Cruiser was fitted with a Hannibal rooftop tent, and the Fortuner got a raised floor (for luggage), with a very comfortable three-quarter bed on top of it. So we would be comfortable at night, and safe from the elements and undesirable attention.

The next step was fuel: we would be covering long distances in between fuel stations, so each vehicle carried between 160 and 240 litres of fuel, with six jerry cans on the Fortuner. Recovery and emergency equipment was distributed between the vehicles. A mistake that we made was not taking VHF radios – the superior range would have been very useful, in retrospect.

Our menu had been planned beforehand, and many of our meals were pre-cooked and frozen. Although freezer space was a little tricky, we were able to enjoy vegetables and other foods that don’t normally travel well.

This also made things easier after a long day’s driving, and we were able to have wonderful meals ready in about 30 minutes, heating them up in foil containers on a stainless steel plate over an open fire.

Finally, we held a number of planning meetings, focussing on things like our route and packing lists. Cameras and video cameras were probably highest on the priority list, followed closely by travel documents and dollars!

After this we were confident that we were well prepared…

Our trip would be made up of two distinct sections: the coastal section and the inland section that included Niassa, our ultimate destination.

Our group departed from Punda Maria in northern Kruger National Park. After crossing the Limpopo River our route took us northeast along the Zimbabwean border to the town of Chicualacuala, once renowned for its beautiful railway station. But much to our dismay all the decorative Portuguese tiles had been removed from the station during its refurbishment, and crushed like other symbols of Portuguese rule.

The ravages of war can still be seen everywhere, a grim reminder of the cost to free a nation. At the time of independence Mozambique apparently had the fourth best infrastructure in Africa. By 1992, as a result of the drawn-out civil war and the decision to make Mozambique a socialist state, it was rated as the poorest country in the world.

Heading northeast to Chimoio we travelled along the Cahora Bassa power lines. The going was easy, but tangled heaps of metal reminded us that over 600 of these pylons were destroyed in the war. When the war was over the whole line had to be refurbished at massive cost over a six year period, a significant drain on foreign reserves that were badly needed elsewhere.

We passed through the towns of Mavue and Dombe, enjoying the pleasant drive before we encountered true African time at the Buzi ferry, just south of Beira. It may have been a slow process getting across, but it is a cheap (just R20 per vehicle) and memorable experience.

Mozambique might be crisscrossed by rivers, but during the civil war 70% of dams and 20% of the water-distribution system was destroyed, and so potable water is still a precious commodity that often needs to be carried long distances to people’s homes.

When driving in Mozambique you will see numerous pedestrians and bicycles on the roads. These people have a healthy respect for vehicles, mainly because local drivers seem to have very little regards for them, often running them off the road. Nevertheless, keep your eyes open for people straying into your path (and the sometimes dangerous local drivers, too!).

From Buzi to Chimoio the road meanders through montane forests and banana plantations, with beautiful scenery. Chimoio itself was a pleasant surprise, well developed enough to top up our provisions, and with well-maintained and beautiful cathedrals to lift the soul.

Gorongosa remains one of the best-known destinations in central Mozambique, and is slowly recovering from the war, during which it was used as the headquarters for Renamo. The Carr Foundation has injected huge amounts of money and tourism is once again taking off.

From there we proceeded to Caia, where the ferry has been retired and replaced with an US$80 million multi-span bridge over the mighty Zambezi. It was inaugurated just a week before we arrived.

From there, though, the road deteriorated, and north of Mocuba it was particularly bad for over 60km. We must have looked like we were driving under the influence as we weaved across the road, trying our hardest to miss potholes. But after that the road improved drastically and we could make good time again.

Ilha do Mozambique and its natural harbour were used by Arab merchants as a maritime trading base from the 10th to the late 15th century. Then in 1498 Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed on the island, claiming it for Portugal. Four years later he returned with Portuguese settlers, and the island became the territory’s capital. It was the decline in the slave trade and the opening of the Suez Canal that led to the island’s loss of stature, and in 1907 the colonial government was transferred to Lourenco Marques (Maputo). The island has since been declared a Unesco world heritage site.

Due to its diverse cultures and rich history the island has the potential to become a real tourist attraction – it is jam-packed with historical buildings and statues. Unfortunately there is very little evidence of any effort being made to preserve and market this history.

The old Varanda campsite across from the island has been abandoned, so after one night in the bundu we moved to the Campsite at the Bridge.

The three-and-a-half kilometre bridge to the island provided us with lots of entertainment when two local vehicles met head-on in the last section of the bridge. Within minutes there were about thirty very vocal locals screaming and shouting at each other. After about twenty minutes the impasse was peacefully resolved when one group gracefully retreated back to land.

We were very keen to experience first-hand the seafood that Mozambique is famous for, but unfortunately the prawn season was closed. That said, our hosts went out of their way to prepare fantastic fish dishes for us.

Pemba was our next stop and based on word of mouth we chose Pemba Dive and Bush Camp as our base. Situated on the bay-side of the archipelago between massive baobabs the facilities provided for excellent camping. We were treated to spectacular sunsets and interesting activities, like archery and a fireball show on the beach, by Brenda and her staff.

The last stretch of our journey to Niassa was via Montepuez and Maruppa. To Montepuez the road was quite good, but the EN242 to Maruppa was horrific, and our speed was reduced to an average of 20 km/h. Logs in puddles on the road, log bridges and enormous speed bumps. When we finally arrived in Niassa we discovered that the roads had taken their toll on our equipment, and the brackets on one roofrack had all broken.

Bush repairs took about two hours, and lasted the remainder of the trip.

Niassa National Park usually attracts less than 30 visitors a year, mainly because it is so remote and there is very little in the way of tourism amenities. The main conservation area can be found between the Lugenda and Rovuma rivers, and the best camping is to be had on these river banks, although no actual camping facilities exist. After asking around we decided to camp at three places: on the banks of the Lugenda River at the park entrance, on Sunset Hill, and at the confluence of the Rovuma and Chiulezi rivers.

We timed our visit to coincide with the cooler, drier months, but even so we were beset by tsetse flies and mosquitoes. But the worst of all were the small flies that plagued us on Sunset Hill. We resorted to sitting draped in a mosquito net, waving branches and even spraying Doom all around us, but nothing helped. To our relief they disappeared when the sun set.

Sunset Hill is not just a clever name and the difficult drive was well worth the effort. As the sun set the African landscape was presented to us in purple and red splendour, and we would see for miles and miles over this remote wilderness.

The Lugenda River campsite has excellent swimming, but it was our time at the Rovuma/Chiulezi site that made the trip worthwhile. From the minute you enter the dry Chiulezi riverbed it is deep, deep sand. And while the drive down to the edge of the Rovuma might look like a walk in the park, don’t be fooled for a second. Let your tyres down or risk being made a laughing stock!

We would take slow drives down the riverbed, and park in the shade of one of the huge trees on the water’s edge. There wasn’t much wildlife around, but we were blown away by the sense of space created by the wide, sandy beaches on the Rovuma. The curving riverbank presented fantastic photo opportunities, especially at sunrise or sunset.

Fishing on the 650km-long Rovuma remains a main source of food for the local population, and we saw numerous fish traps in the water. At night we could hear elephants bathing and drinking in the river, but we never saw a single one. The only evidence we could find were their tracks and the holes in the riverbed where they dug for water.

There are no fuel or water supplies in the reserve, and in fact the only tourist ?convenience? at all is the community development officer at Maputo camp, who can speak English. While waiting for him at the camp we met Keith Begg of the Niassa Carnivore Project (NCP), who gave us first-hand information on road conditions, sightings in the park and places worth visiting. Keith is currently doing carnivore research in the park with his wife, and they have been living in the park with their two daughters since 2003.

Despite the decades of war and neglect, this extensive wilderness has survived largely intact, with the exception of the black rhino, which has disappeared from the park. But it is rumoured to hold 12 000 elephant and 9000 sable antelope. The reserve is also reputed to support the largest concentration of wildlife in Mozambique including viable populations of lion, wild dog, leopard and spotted hyena, although we didn’t see any.

We did however spot some Boehm’s zebra, Niassa wildebeest and hartebeest near the Maputo camp.

Rock art in the area shows that Niassa has supported a human population for thousands of years and today more than 30 000 people live in the parks boundaries, mostly south of the Lugenda River. This population poses its own challenges to conservation, and snares removed by rangers bear testimony to this. Up to 60% of the park has in the past also been devastated by fire.

There are two mountain peaks in the park: Serra Mecula at 1440m and Monte Jau at 1340m. They watch in silence over this magnificent tract of land that may well be the last of the really wild spots in southern Africa.

Next on our itinerary were the seaside destinations of Inhassoro, Vilankulo, Pomene and Morrungulo, giving us a nice blend of beautiful beaches and a slice of history.

In Inhassoro we relaxed and reorganised our vehicles and plans. Situated on the mainland just across from Bazaruto Island, Inhassoro is known as having some of the best fishing in Africa, with an abundance of marlin, sailfish, giant kingfish and dorado.

Local artists at Hotel Seta offered a wide choice of paintings, carvings and wind chimes, all at very reasonable prices. There were also great beaches and a nice campsite with electricity and hot showers. What more could you ask for?

Entering Morrungulo we drove past Sa bao’s padeira (bakery), where a sign advertises ?bread? in 26 languages. This bakery is a local landmark that has been in operation since 1995 and is currently run by the second-generation bakers. The bread baked and sold here is well worth a stop.

While camped at Sylvia’s Shoal we had the opportunity to see a humpback whale breaching, which is apparently a fairly common occurrence in the area. Baixos da Sylvia also offers great diving opportunities, with interesting and beautiful marine life such as four species of firefish and the rare bar-tailed flatfish. And, as in any paradise, the azure ocean provides the perfect backdrop for the palm trees and the endless pristine beaches.

One of the greatest advantages of this campsite is that it can be reached fairly easily with a normal caravan or car, although the single-lane tar road is a bit of a challenge with the big trucks using it.

On our way home we encountered deep concrete ditches in the road between Banhine and Mapai, and as they were often unmarked we were forced into some hard braking. It was also here that we suffered our most serious mechanical problem, when Lothar’s Syncro lost a fan belt. His attention was diverted by the white dust and concrete ditches and by the time he noticed the overheating it was too late and the cylinderhead was damaged. With the aid of an A-frame we managed to tow the limping kombi all the way back to Johannesburg, through the river at Mapai and via Punda Maria.

Incidentally, we saw more game on that short drive from Pafuri to Punda Maria, in the Kruger, than we did on our whole trip in Mozambique.

On our journey we were charmed by the warmth of the people and pleasantly surprised by the positive approach of the police. We never felt threatened in any way, with the possible exception of at the illegal toll crossing at Mapai where we were charged 200 Mt per vehicle.

We thoroughly enjoyed our adventure, but came to the conclusion that Niassa National Park is probably a bridge too far, given the experience you have in comparison to the huge distances you have to cover to get there.

Other things we learnt:

Bicycles are everywhere!
Fresh vegetables are available in all towns and bigger villages.
There is NOTHING like an African sunset!
Convert to VHF radios as soon as you can.
We were expecting fuel prices to be as high as R20/litre, but there were plenty of new fuel stations around and the fuel was much the same price as we pay in South Africa. In one case it was actually cheaper!

Where to stay:

Morrungulo: Sylvia Shoal: Merle; www.mozambique1.com; [email protected]; 083 270-7582
Inhassoro: Hotel Seta: Ana: +258 82 302-099; www.inhassoro.org; +258 84 885-6788 or +258 82 920-6852
Ilha do Mozambique: Campsite at the Bridge (Causerina Campsite): Ivo and Elena: 082 446-9900
Pemba: Pemba Dive and Bush Camp: www.pembadivecamp.com; +258 82 661-1530/ +258 82 669-7050
Gorongosa: Sakkies Camp: Sakkie: [email protected]; +258 82 994-4048