Mozambique is difficult to describe. It does not quite live up to “Idyllic destination with a Tropical Paradise theme” but neither is it simply another “corruption-ridden, dirty African country”, writes Mike Slater. After dozens of trips there over 16 years, Mozambique still moves him Is it still possible to find tranquil beaches, nice people and meaningful experiences in Mozambique, and all this during the SA school holidays?
To answer this question, over Easter I took proud possession of a new Isuzu KB 250 D-TEQ 4×4 double cab, packed in camping gear and my two small boys, and headed off to the territory south of the Save River.
I was not prepared to face the taxis and tolls (now over R120) on the N4, only to have to endure the border post queues and chaos that typify the Lebombo (Komatipoort)/Ressano Garcia crossing during busy periods.
Studying the map, I found an interesting route through Swaziland via the Mhlumeni/Goba Fronteira entry point into Mozambique, and this led me to look for a place to stay overnight near Siteki.
I came up with Mabuda Farm, just 3km from Siteki and, as it is becoming very popular, we were quite fortunate to get a late booking.
Usually the extra border crossings and the tricky Swazi veterinary regulations regarding the importation of almost any organic matter such as meat, dairy produce and vegetables are given as the main reasons for not taking this option. But on my trip it was the roads and trucks on the Mpumalanga highveld that were the real hazards. Lumbering processions of coal trucks slowly grind their way to an Eskom power station along a road that is already cracking up under the strain.
It was thus good to get to Amsterdam, mercifully beyond coal country. This is a picturesque little village hugged by hills. Originally named Roburnia after the Scotti sh poet, it was renamed Amsterdam in 1882 by the Transvaal Volksraad, the members of which apparently did not appreciate Robert Burns’ talents in the rhyme and verse department.
While it was not the most pleasant of journeys, at least I now knew that the KB250 has suspension that handles potholes very well and plenty of power in tricky overtaking situati ons.
An attractive mountain pass took us to the Nerston/Sand-lane border post where we were the only visitors. It took all of 10 minutes to get onto Swazi soil – and this at the beginning of the Easter long weekend!
We hit Manzini right in rush hour but negotiated the busy city centre easily enough to reach the road to Siteki just as the sun was about to sink into a sea of pine trees.
The owner of Mabuda B&B had sent detailed instructi ons on how to fi nd his farm, and we were soon turning into the jacaranda-lined avenue that leads up to Mabuda House, built in the early 1930s by Sam Evans, then chairman of Crown Mines.
We were shown to a spacious, luxurious and excellently equipped self-catering thatched chalet. As a soft rain had started to fall, the prospect of a roof over our heads and warm duvets was most comforting.
Our delicious breakfast arrived early the next morning and we ate on the stoep, enjoying a view down a valley seemingly all the way to the Indian Ocean.
Aft er last-minute shopping at the Siteki Shoprite and queueing for fuel at the new Shell service station, we headed for Moz.
Despite Luke dropping his passport twice and me ignoring Daniel’s advice that the long queue was only for bus passengers, we cleared the border quickly and less than 30 minutes later we were winding through the Lebombos down the mostly excellent road to Boane, Matola (keep MT30 or R10 ready for the toll road) and Maputo.
The beginning of the 12h00 to 14h00 “siesta” is not a good time to arrive in this bursting coastal city designed for just 300 000 people but now accommodating upwards of two million. Even my favoured “back road” route through Maputo looked like an untidy parking lot, and it was only the prospect of being able to relax in the Serena Polana Hotel’s huge pool that dissuaded me from immediately heading out as far north as the road would go.
This “Grand Old Dame” of Africa’s gracious hotels is certainly not a usual stopover for families on a 4×4 trip, but my own relationship with the Polana goes back to 1993. I was in Maputo researching my first guidebook when I met David Ankers, who had been tasked with resurrecting the hotel after it had suffered nearly 20 years of neglect and vandalism.
Once my book was published David gave me an open invitation to stay in the Polana “whenever you are in town” and not even wild horses, or a new general manager, could stop me from taking up his offer.
After the daunting buffet breakfast we took a delightful city tour in a “Laranjinha” or Little Orange Taxi – three-passenger tuk-tuk type scooters driven by some of the nicest and most knowledgeable fellows around.
If you’re heading north from Maputo you have to leave either before 04h00 or after 09h00, or do battle with hundreds of taxis, trucks and buses loading passengers and goods along the only northbound route.
I tucked the Isuzu behind a big van and followed it until the road cleared. After waving to the Transit Police at the checkpoint (they were too late to react as I was behind a bus) we hummed along past Marracuene (beware of speed traps) and turned into the Blue Anchor Inn after Bobole village for a cup of tea with old friends.
It may be just under 500km from Maputo to Tofo near Inhambane town, but I was aware that on the main road (EN 1) north of Xai-Xai there is a 70km stretch of rubbermunching potholes that can add an hour to travelling time. So we reluctantly had to be on our way after just a few minutes.
Past busy Xai-Xai extensive road repairs had already been completed and so we managed 70 km/h up to Chidenguele and 100 km/h from there up to Lindela.
Tofo has become a colourful and chaotic collection of lodges and holiday homes that somehow manage to cling to the shifting dunes as they compete for a glimpse of the deep, blue sea.
Casa Barry, where we stayed, was one of the first lodges built and that probably accounts for the fact that it has the best views of the beach all the way north to the Barra lighthouse. Our chalet was large, airy and well equipped and just a 10-second dash (if you are a small boy) from the beach.
Casa Barry’s restaurant has a comprehensive menu and a great deck overlooking the beach, but I thought Dino’s bar sounded interesting. The loud music put us off and we ended up at Restaurante A Marisquira where the kids enjoyed fish and chips and I had my standard “lulas” (calamari), all of which had just been brought in alive by a fisherman and were bursting with flavour, making the hour’s wait well worthwhile.
I’d made no plans beyond Tofo and, after checking out Tofinho campsite (which I would give a miss), Turtle Cove (a 20-minute walk from the beach but perfect if you’re a surfer or laid-back wanderer) and Jeff’s Palm Resort alongside Guinjata Bay (not for the faint-hearted), we returned to the main road and headed on northwards.
As far as Massinga the road is wide, smooth and very easy on the suspension and spine, but from Massinga all the way to Mapinhane it is fast regressing to the war days when pedestrians walked in the middle and vehicles drove alongside.
I remained impressed by the Isuzu’s quiet ride, and even though we were being tossed around the pockmarked road like a toy in a child’s bath, I challenged the boys to find a rattle or squeak. They gave up and went to sleep.
As night fell I considered our options and, taking into account that Dan and Luke had spent most of the first few days of our trip on the back seat of a double cab, phoned Zombie Cucumber backpackers in Vilankulo. They don’t normally allow kids, but “Senhor Grande”, who runs the place when Steph and John are away, said they were not busy and we would be most welcome.
Zombie’s pool and Vilankulo’s beach sucked enough of the boys’ energy out of them for me to chance another few hundred kilometres up to Nova Mambone where I hoped to meet up with some friends and go on a dugout trip into the delta.
On finding that they were out of town, I reluctantly turned south and we set up camp at Hotel Seta, in a quaint little town called Inhassoro. There was only one other group of campers, proving just how much the Zimbabwe situation, skyrocketing fuel prices and the tumbling value of the rand against the metical had affected tourism to Mozambique.
It’s a long haul from Inhassoro to Johannesburg, especially for the kids, so we decided to do it over three days, with overnight stops at Quinta de St Antonio in Lindela, and at Blue Anchor Inn, about 50km north of Maputo.
The “Quinta” at Lindela is a welcome addition to a very short list of inland places worth patronising between Maputo and Gorongosa. Here Vic and Adelaine will make you feel like long-lost family and the kids will have the run of a wonderful garden filled with exotic birds, trees ideal for climbing, secret corners and a plunge pool.
Over dinner at Quinta de Santo Antonio I met Des and Mary Dandridge, who have a little beach complex, Casa de Mar, nearby. I also met Dirk Rootman, director of Vilankulos Service Centre, who is probably the best person in the area to call if you have vehicle problems, even if you don’t drive a Nissan. Contact details below.
I was a little sceptical as we drove the sandy 30km track to Casa de Mar the following morning, but I can report that the Isuzu handles deep sand on steep slopes very well. It’s a beautiful drive to get there. The solid, spacious and meticulously fitted self-catering “casas” (houses) are scattered among the dunes and each commands amazing views. The beach is exquisite.
I phoned to ask Nigel Hallows at Blue Anchor Inn to keep some supper for us, as we would be arriving late. I don’t recommend driving after dark on Mozambique’s only main road, but after Xai-Xai (going south) the road is now wide, well marked and almost pothole free. The usual hazards such as unlit trucks and tractors, wayward goats and drunken pedestrians were surprisingly scarce this time, and so around eight we sat down to plates of chicken, line fish and the best prawn curry this side of Calcutta.
The rooms at Blue Anchor are all they should be at an Inn worthy of the name, and although it’s less than 50km from Maputo, the surrounding countryside is still very open and peaceful.
Even the Ressano Garcia/Lebombo border provided nothing to report about, and aside from the scenic Schoemanskloof “alternative route” that I tried for a change, the N4 to Johannesburg was, well, just another highway homeward.