A special vehicle like the new Land Rover Defender deserves an exceptional expedition, so correspondent Mike Slater pointed its nose to Mozambique’s extreme westerly route, from Pafuri to the Zambezi
Get into a Defender and you know that it is just itching to take you somewhere over that horizon, far, far away. So this unique route involved crossing five rolling rivers (the Limpopo, Save, Lucite, Pungoe and Zambezi), a search for an ancient dhow anchorage, paddling a dramatic delta and admiring a beautiful new bridge.
I turned the Landy northwards and crossed the Limpopo to the tiny village of Dumela, where enterprising traders with booster antennae above their shops allow you the last chance to use your cellphone cards to let the folks back home know not to expect you for tea.
On hearing that Chicualacuala town had an incongruously ornate railway station and the appearance of a spaghetti -western movie set, I really wanted to see it. And so I took the trail that follows the Mozambique/ Zimbabwe border – quite rough and, as I discovered, also difficult to follow.
There are no fences, beacons or guards and many tracks, so I did a detour into Zimbabwe instead of heading directly north to Chicualacuala. The eerie remnants of what must have been an ambitious irrigation scheme during the colonial era, with regular pump stations and elevated reservoirs along the boundary, became my guide. Within a few hours I parked the now very dusty Defender in front of the station and went inside in a vain bid to find a cooked meal or a cold drink.
In Chicualacuala, fuel is available at the roadside but as most of it is being smuggled into Zimbabwe, it sells for about twice the going price found at Mozambican service stations, the nearest of which is in Chokwe, 340km (five hours’ drive) away.
Formerly Malvernia and also sometimes called Vila Eduardo Mondlane, Chicualacuala is an important railhead town 524km from Maputo. The line, which once carried up to three million tons of goods a year, was built in 1957 by the then Rhodesia Railways to facilitate imports and exports via Lourenco Marques (now Maputo).
Ironically the line was mined and sabotaged by Rhodesian special forces in 1976 during the Zimbabwean liberation struggle, and was finally rebuilt by Zimbabwe about 10 years ago.
It’s impossible to miss the massive pylons and cables that tower over the road, marking the point where I had to turn north onto the power-line servitude. I found a very nice twin-spoor track below the western line that headed over the horizon towards the distant valley of the Rio Save.
I missed the next turn-off because of a violent storm and spent the night in my Oztent. In the morning I found my way to Koen’s hilltop hunting camp at Sacone. It was the only place during a three-day journey where anything close to tourist-related facilities could be found.
I had included a stopover in Mavue to try to solve a mystery that had been bothering me for 20 years. During the 1980s, on a visit to nearby Gona-re-Zhou Nature Reserve in Zimbabwe, I had been told by the head ranger that steel mooring rings left by slave traders were still visible at the junction of the Save (Sabi) and Lunde Rivers, a few kilometres upstream of Mavue.
A guide and I first took the Defender into Mavue to pay our respects to the “chefe do posto”, to ask whether anyone knew of the moorings, and to buy beer and fresh “pao”, or Portuguese bread.
We then headed upriver to the ruins of the original Portuguese military outpost. The path petered out and we continued down to the confluence on foot.
Midday in the Save valley in summer feels like being in a massive hothouse. We stumbled through the tangled undergrowth inspecting every likely-looking rock outcrop, but got back to the Landy dehydrated, dirty and disappointed. If the Arabs had ever been in this area they left no signs to confirm it. In fact, no one in the village had ever heard of the elusive rings.
I had been told that crossing the Save was oft en much more complicated than the Limpopo but, having already done it twice, I slept easily until a massive thunderstorm barged in and spoiled any chances of further rest as I pictured a rising river blocking progress northwards.
Well before dawn I drove down the now very muddy track to the riverside and found that the river was rising fast. It was now or never. As the dawn reddened the sky, I put the Defender into low-range second.
The first few channels held no surprises as I drove onto what I had thought must be the north bank. I was about to heave that proverbial sigh of relief when it became clear that I had actually reached an island about mid-course, and was in danger of being marooned until the next dry season! The next two channels looked deeper than they were.The sight of an old lady leading an equally ancient blind man across the water put things back into some sort of perspective.
A wrong turn at a T-junction again took me into Zimbabwe, and I beat a hasty retreat towards Zambareja (don’t even bother looking for it on a map), driving alongside the river to a permanent police control point where an old truck bumper served as a boom across the road. Although friendly, the police seemed quite surprised that I had been allowed to come in from Zimbabwe. I was ushered to a bench beneath a gnarled fig tree and had to explain my route to the “chefe”. My hand-drawn map and ability to say “sorry” in Portuguese came in very handy. The Pafuri entry stamp in my passport clinched my freedom and the officer, apologising for detaining me, pointed out that they saw tourists only about once a year in these parts.
With my missionary friends not being in town, I was not sure where I would find a bed in Espungabera. Plan B – to pull off the road in the forests and pitch camp – was becoming less and less attractive the darker the sky became and the closer the lightning struck.
I asked one of the wettest and drunkest people I’ve ever met where I could get a bed and he said, Sithole Lodge, Padrao.
Close to where the road comes into Espungabera from Zimbabwe I found the place he had proposed. While a “lodge” it is not, Mr Sithole has built a rustic motel-style set-up with rooms ranging from “last used by a truck driver and one other”, to a surprisingly well-furnished and spacious suite. The latter would have been perfect had a private bathroom been thrown into the package.
As Espungabera gets its power from Zimbabwe, there were no lights but supper was simple yet delicious piri-piri chicken and “cima” (maize-meal).
Some ti me during the night the rain stopped drumming on the tin roof and I woke up, splashed my face at the outside tap, tipped the “guarda” who had washed the Landy while I slumbered, and headed for the hills.
The burbling Buzi River rises near Espungabera and the road initi ally crosses it about fi ve times in a matter of a few kilometres – someone must have got a really good price on the steel and bolt Bailey bridges that span each crossing.
I turned off to Monte Sitatunga to have a look at the famous “aguas quentes” (hot springs), but found the track too overgrown to continue. Although the Lucite River was already at flood levels, the pont was still operational and I made Chimoio in good ti me.
Pink Papaya B&B and Backpackers was pinker and busier than usual. Owner Helen Large thrust a loud pink shirt at me and said that as it was her farewell party that night, everyone had to be in pink.
Chimoio was about as far north as I planned to go on this trip, but great engineering projects in progress have always fascinated me. So I took the main road via Gorongosa town to Caia where, in the pouring rain, I could see that the 3km-long bridge over the Zambezi was both magnificent and progressing well towards its anticipated completion date this year.
A cabin at Mphingwe 32km south of Caia and an excellent meal at the bar set me up for the long slog south to Nova Mambone, where I intended to make good use of the inflatable canoe I’d been lugging around Africa for the past 10 days. And there was still an island in the Save delta with my name on it.
I camped in a little village near Nova Mambone, inflated the canoe and had another pre-dawn day, this ti me paddling a tidal channel through the matted mangroves to a remote beach someone had told me about. I spent two peaceful days there.
South of the Save, the main road is reverting to the state in which I first found it in 1993, and it will shortly be a mass of potholes that force vehicles into the bush. At least the narrow strip of tar that leads down to Inhassoro had been repaired, and I noted that the old Inhassoro Hotel (now Beach Resort) has been renovated, and Hotel Seta (long a favourite of mine) has a huge new restaurant almost on the beach.
At Vilankulo, I drove directly to Zombi Cucumber Backpackers and desecrated their sparkling pool with my swamp mud covered feet.
While select lodges just to the south or north of Vilankulo are some of the most child-friendly in Mozambique, Vilankulo town can’t really be called a family destination. But for the more adventurous folk who travel to get away from their own type, Zombie Cucumber has become something of a cult destination.
Casa Rex has expanded from the small guesthouse that has been around for over 15 years into a small boutique-style hotel that offers rooms and views that I can unreservedly recommend to anyone seeking something special. Nice pool, gardens and excellent restaurant, too.
Vilankulo to Johannesburg can be done by the determined (or demented) driver who leaves at four bells and doesn’t mind arriving home in the dark, but I had an appointment with a charming couple who built Quinta de St Antonio at Lindela. Santo Antonio is certainly a very welcome addition to the growing list of “lodges” that are opening up in Mozambique, and I found it to be surprisingly solidly and tastefully constructed, compared to some of the other temporary-looking structures.
Surrounded by homely touches such as a huge aviary, friendly dogs and a herb garden, owners Vic and Adelaine were so relaxed and friendly that they looked as though they had been living there for decades.
The two-bedroomed “casas” at St Antonio are huge, airy and extremely well equipped. Their store sells fresh meat, dairy products, ice and other essentials, and there is a resident mechanic who can attend to your wheels.
There may now be a wide and wonderful highway (tolled) between Maputo and the Lebombo/Ressano Garcia border, but to get onto it involves negotiating the chaotic and congested outskirts of Maputo. Some 25km south of Macia, I turned off to Xinavane and took the back route to Moamba, where the track joins the N4 back to South Africa.
Just aft er the Xinavane sugar plantations and mills, which have been replanted and restored, I crossed the Incomati River on a remarkable causeway that is shared by trains heading from Maputo all the way up to Chicualacuala.
On the other side of the river is a fascinating little town called Magude, which has a beautiful cathedral and feels as if it closed down in the 1950s and never quite reopened properly again.
In the dry, the Magude to Moamba road is hard, uneven, jarring clay and rock, and while I averaged a very uncomfortable 60 km/h, this is not a route I would choose to do during rain, and certainly not without a good 4×4.
Getting back onto those roads far-too-well-travelled aft er being the only car cowboy in town for so long was quite a jolt to the sensibilities, and it took me a while to adjust to the rush and rage on the N4 back to Johannesburg – a jungle of a different complexion.