Last month we left Mike Slater as he went for a moonlit stroll in Chikukwa. In the second and final segment of his story he spends a night in Zim, follows in the footsteps of Livingstone, visits a mysterious mission and crosses back into South Africa virtually unchecked
Text and photographs: Mike Slater
It should have been an uncomplicated couple of hours from Mavita village via the Rotunda/Cashel border post into Zimbabwe and the Bvumba Mountains. We were all looking forward to a swim and a hot shower at the Inn on the Vumba before nightfall, but just as we started to think how well planned this trip has been, Africa decided to show us exactly who was in charge.
This would be the first time that I had used this forgotten little frontier post and while the road certainly looked quite well-used, the surprised look in the eyes of the soldier at the battered and bent boom indicated that tourists probably don’t come this way very often.
The immigration department was a little unusual, consisting as it did of an ancient rubber stamp that could have been used to mark the passage of Livingstone and his merry band, lying on a bent and battered old oak desk under a mangeira (mango tree). This, combined with the absence of alfandegas (customs) should have been sign enough, but I was still surprised when a soldier stepped up and announced “so peados” (pedestrian traffic only).
Not even my never-before-failed ploys such as “I promise to only drive to the Zimbabwe side and come back, just to see what the scenery is like” or “I have some Meticais left that I am sure I will not be needing in Zim” came near to budging the soldier.
A fellow who was carrying a bed to Zimbabwe on his head put down his load where he thought it was the best and, in beautiful English, described a clever (and panoramic, as it turned out) shortcut that we could drive to the Machipanda/Forbes Post crossing.
We followed a winding and overgrown track, intended for border patrols, for an hour (I had enquired about landmines). Then the Bvumba Mountains shouldered us towards the Chicamba Real dam where a graded road and a newly completed bridge over one of the inlets allowed us to meet the main Beira/Mutare road just a few kilometres east of Manica town.
Always cautious when visiting Zimbabwe, I drew Meticais from an ATM, topped-up the Terios (and the boys) in Manica and, expecting the border to take the usual 10 minutes, confidently told Dan and Luke that we would be at Inn on the Vumba in time for a swim.
Borders and chaotic queues of trucks often go together in Africa, but something was clearly up at the post. Not only did the line of parked pantechnicons start about 5km before the border, but it was two deep on both shoulders of the road and the left lane was also a parking lot. I pride myself on knowing exactly how to handle situations such as this, so I flipped on the indicator and headed confidently down the right-hand lane, hoping that no one would be coming the other way. Naturally, around the first corner there was a convoy of the biggest petrol tankers this side of Cairo, heading straight for us. Reversing was not an option as a similar scenario was playing out behind us.
The very drunk face of a soldier appeared at my window. He said “Padrao, Padrao” (I think this is the Portuguese word for boss) and then disappeared suddenly between two of the stationary trucks. We followed him, squeezing in-between two Scanias, over a flattened barbedwire fence, through someone’s machamba (mielie field), round the back of a few shops, and suddenly we were on the right side of two huge locked gates. I gave the soldier a pasella of 100 Metacais and then headed for the Immigration building, passports at the ready.
It was 6:30pm and the Machipanda/Forbes post hours are 6am to 8pm. But in these parts it seems as though the authority of time is diminished. The Mozambican stamp appeared in our passports almost instantly, but there was no one on the Zimbabwean side to see it. The entrance was chained closed and the lights were off. Then suddenly a generator started with a roar and the lights glared on.
Thanks to a road maintenance levy, carbon tax, third-party insurance, an import permit and contributions to Madame Grace´s Dubai shopping bills, amongst other extortionate fees, our wallet was almost R500 lighter by the time we skirted tidy little Mutare and climbed up the Bvumba mountains towards our inn for the night.
The smiling manager and his staff seemed to appear from nowhere the moment we arrived, and it took every ounce of our willpower to resist the enticing smells coming from the kitchen for long enough to make ourselves adequately presentable for the dining room. Supper was memorable, the service and attention of colonial proportions and sleep was deep and peaceful.
Inn on the Vumba is not an easy place to leave. To deal with the breakfast buffet takes a good couple of hours, and then there are the gardens, the view and the pool. Although just 30 minutes’ drive away, we only made it to Ann Bruce’s no-frills guesthouse/backpacker’s in Mutare by lunchtime.
While the kids made up for lost time watching DSTV I walked into town to do some shopping and get onto the internet. The Mutare OK’s shelves were well stocked, with prices around 30% higher than in SA, but only US$ or Rands were accepted and small change came in the form of sweets or chocolates. While we were in Zim petrol was available for US$1.50 (R11,50) a litre, but all the service stations we passed had “no diesel” signs out front.
A lack of tourists has forced Ann to take in a few long-term lodgers and this does create the slightly uncomfortable feeling of intruding in someone’s home. Ann also needs to put up nets as the mozzies kept me up until I found a can of Doom and sprayed our room. Despite the shortages of fresh produce Ann managed to offer a memorable breakfast before our early departure back to Mozambique.
Amazingly, at the border almost all of the trucks had moved on and it was just a three-hour drive via Chimoio and Inchope to Parque Nacional de Gorongosa’s Chitengo Lodge and Camp. Under the direction of the Carr Foundation, Gorongosa has become a very well run outf it, and there are massive plans to reintroduce big game and build new lodges. Vasco, the communications man, assured me that facilities for overlanders and other self-catering travellers (there is a good restaurant but it is expensive) are due to be improved in the near future with the addition of a shop and better kitchen. In the meantime the campsite and its abluti on facilities are more than adequate and the two swimming pools are a huge plus when those rift -valley temperatures head into the 40s!
Another new addition to the Gorongosa portfolio is Explore Gorongosa, a private concession offering walking safaris from an isolated luxury tented camp overlooking a stunning bend in a river. The owners, Rob and Jos, specialise in walking safaris that can be customised to suit special interests such as birding or botany.
When we visited, Rob was on top of Monte Gorongosa and Jos explained that they off er two to three-day trips on this magnificent massif for birders seeking the green-headed oriole. After taking a peek inside one of the cool and very comfortable tents we decided that we would easily be able to handle this sort of thing for a month or two.
The main EN1 towards Caia, the Zambezi bridge and Khartoum (eventually) is now full of potholes. We turned off it onto the dirt road to Maringue where we asked for directi ons to Chiramba, where we hoped to find an enigmatic and hugely historic tree staring stoically out over the mighty Zambezi River.
An extract from David Livingstone’s diary: “Shiramba Dembe, on the right bank, is deserted; a few old iron guns show where a rebel stockade once stood; near the river above this stands a magnifi cent Baobab hollowed out into a good-sized hut, with bark inside as well as without.”
Legend tells that Livingstone himself spent some time inside this tree, carving his monogram. Having previously made the pilgrimage to see the lonely grave of Mary Moff at Livingstone at Marromeu, about 400km downstream of Chiramba, I felt strangely compelled to stand where her far more famous, but apparently much less pleasant, husband once stood.
As the little twee-spoor track dipped down into the Zambezi Valley, the bushveld started giving way to denser and taller riverine forest.
As we went we started to see more and more ancient and scarred baobab trees scattered across the landscape, many of which would have been around to witness the triumphs and tragedies of Portuguese and British colonialism.
The lower Zambezi at sunset must be on everyone’s list of “things to do before global warming or swine flu gets us all”. Finding a campsite before dark was higher on our own immediate list and just a couple of kilometres before Chiramba we came to a neatly landscaped turnoff to Mozunaf Safaris, marked with whitewashed stones.
An “Eco-Lodge” Mozunaf is not. Whoever chose the location shares my penchant for a view, but even a kid with Grade 3 Geography knows that if you chop down the trees on a river bank, the river will soon carry away the very ground that you built your chalets on. I expect that subsequent visitors to this bend in the Zambezi may find that what’s left of the “lodge” may be quite a few metres closer to the river than was the builder’s original intention.
Moses, the camp manager, explained that the place serves as a base for hunting elephants and crocodiles. He also related a confusing and disjointed story involving one of the Kruger bulls that had been recently relocated to Gorongosa (at a cost of R50 000 apiece) being shot nearby by a professional hunter.
I read later that the remains of this roaming bull had been traced via its radio collar to a house in Beira. This did make me wonder how could it have strayed so far (350km) without being noticed. Declining the offer of a comfortable looking casa for the night, we pitched tent, shared our supper with Moses, and woke to a glorious Zambezi sunrise.
At dawn we found someone who claimed to know of Livingstone’s baobab and just 3km north of Chiramba, a few metres from the road, he pointed to the very spot where the good doctor had rested for a while.
There was no trace of the once mighty baobab. A large grassy depression indicated that there could have once been a stately tree at this spot and our guide explained that the 1996 cyclone had uprooted the tree and the goats and termites had finished it off.
The road east is quite scenic as it skirts swamps and floodplains on the south bank of the Zambezi, and during floods many stretches would certainly be swamped.
We stopped at Chemba for petrol (again from drums) and pao, and also at Vilade Sena to confirm that the Dona Anna Bridge is certainly no longer usable by cars as it has been converted back to a railway.
We carried on to Caia as I was hoping to be able to negotiate a drive on the magnificent newly completed Afonso Guebuza Bridge over the Zambezi, even though it was not yet officially open. While bridges do make river crossings that much easier and keep the wheels of the economy rolling, I couldn’t help feeling that it was so much more exciting to cross on the battered old ferries that would now become mere scrap metal.
I only realised that it was Sunday when I found the offices in Caia deserted, except for a sleeping security guard with a can of 2M beer in his hand and a few chickens pecking the mud off his boots.
After a great piri-piri chicken at Dona Vovo’s restaurant we made our way to the bridge where the fellow in charge of the barriers was firm in his decision: no one was going to drive over the river until the President had officially opened it. He politely suggested that I wait a week.
We were not even allowed to walk across and so I drove the Terios 30km south to Mphingwe camp where we licked our wounds, had a good meal, showered and got some serious sleep before a very early departure the following day.
The first time I drove from Caia to Inhambane was in 1993, and then the trip took 36 long, bumpy hours on a track that was more of a dried-up riverbed than a road. This time the 1000km trip took just 14 hours and by late evening we had reached Quinta S. Antonio at Lindela and were tackling some of Adelaine’s real home-cooking.
While Dan and Luke recharged their Cartoon Network reserves Vic told me about a place near Morrumbene that apparently looked like something out of medieval Europe. I decided to delay our return south by a day and by the time dawn was painting Inhambane bay an indescribable golden red I was already close to a secluded little Methodist mission called Cambine.
Founded over a century ago, Cambine Mission specialises in agricultural training and its excellent reputation attracted students from all over Mozambique. One of its past pupils is Eduardo Mondlane (1920-1969) who, in exile, became Frelimo’s first President during the colonial liberation struggle.
Apparently most of the missionaries over the years have come from the United States, but some must have come from Bavaria or Switzerland: Nowhere else in Mozambique have I seen walls so skilfully craft ed from cobblestone and clay, supporting vaulted ceilings with black slate roofs.
It’s a wonderful place – the buildings so sternly European in appearance but the people so vibrantly and smilingly African. A man from Rwanda called Dieu Donne, who is a coordinator at Cambine, befriended me and we agreed that this is one of the most peaceful places either of us has experienced in our wide-ranging travels.
A vetkoek and mince breakfast at Quinta S. Antonio had us smiling on our way south to a new development near Quissico called Kay de Cope. I called Roger, the builder, for directions, and the number of local landmarks such as “the big tree on the left ” and “the cluster of barracas on the right” included in his description of the route indicated just how long he has been in Moz. Before my phone’s signal died he also mumbled something about the river coming up very fast and I knew that before the day was done the wading abiliti es of the Terios would once again be tested.
Quissico town overlooks a network of languid lagoons that are cut off from the sea by a string of high, forested dunes, and it was buzzing with acti vity. A few kilometres south we turned off the main road into a coconut plantation and followed the most used track, which took the longest possible route down to the lakes.
This is a very scenic drive, but while we could see where we needed to go there was a wide stretch of brilliant blue water in our way. We were sure that we must have made a wrong turn somewhere and Roger was not answering his phone.
The track curved sharply and dropped down to the water’s edge where we found an attempt at a bridge, and a channel running swiftly between two of the lakes. We walked the water finding it just shallow enough for the Terios to manage, then we had to splash and slide through a swamp of strong-smelling black mud to get to the sanctuary of the dunes.
Thirty minutes later we arrived at Kay de Cope, in daylight for once, and stopped in front of what looked like a pirate ship under construction. If Captain Jack Sparrow had stepped from behind a barrel of rum it would hardly have surprised us. Instead it was Roger who shouted down from a rickety fake crow’s nest that we should make ourselves comfortable in chalet number two while he finished scanning the horizon for royal navy frigates, or something.
With endless views over both lake and ocean it would be difficult to find a better spot anywhere in Mozambique. But a large wooden house perched on the best viewpoint was being held erect by cables, indicating that realising the potential of the location hadn’t been as easy.
Roger arrived, showed us around the well-equipped chalet, apologised for the fact that the very high-tech gas geysers were not suited to Moz conditions, and explained that the previous contractor was to blame for the construction problems. He then drove into town to buy supplies and we walked down to the deserted beach where the wind was wild enough to stop any thoughts of swimming.
A man was netting the lake and we bought a fish from him, which we braaied and ate with my famous coconut, onion, garlic and potato concoction before sett ling down in our comfortable beds for the night.
As I listened to the wind tugging at the thatch roof I wondered whether the peace and solitude of this place would survive the ambitious plans to transplant the “coastal estate” model, complete with nature reserve, onto Mozambique’s shifting sands, under the gaze of its even shiftier officials.
With rain pelting the lake into a blur we re-crossed the wetlands – man this Terios is good in mud! North of Xai-Xai the Chinese are busy redoing the main road and making a very good job of it too. Avoiding the chaoti c outskirts of Maputo I took the Xinavane – Ressano back route, choosing the north bank of the Incomati River option as it is in better condition than the south bank route.
At Ressano Garcia there was a stream of people carrying huge packages on their heads heading into South Africa but we were the only ones, it seemed, that needed to have our passports stamped. Again there was no one checking anything at the gate, on either side of the border, should the Home Affairs Department be listening…
Inn On the Vumba: Bvumba Mountains, Zimbabwe; www.innsofzimbabwe.co.zw/inns/vumba; +263 20 60-722/67-449/62-434; 011 215-127; Fax: +263 20 60-722; [email protected]
Mutare Guesthouse/backpackers: 99 Fourth St, Mutare; +263 20 63-569
Gorongosa: Chitengo Lodge and Campsite; www.gorongosa.net
Mozunaf Safaris: Just south of Chiramba overlooking the Zambezi River; No contact details.
M’phingwe Camp: At the Catapu sawmill 32km south of Caia on the EN1; www.dalmann.com/index.php?level=dalmann_top1_content&pageid=8; + 258 82 301-6436 or +258 23 302-161 (office hours only); [email protected] or [email protected]
Quinta S. Antonio: In Lindela town on the E.N.1 at the turn-off to Inhambane town; Tel/Fax: +258 293 56-030; Vic: +258 82 489-2420; Adelaine: +258 84 759-9877; [email protected]