While planning a trip to Vilanculos and other places in Mozambique via the Kruger National Park, Mike Slater was given two bits of information from online sources. They were aware that the Pafuri border post had been washed away, and there was a danger of attacks by Renamo gangs in the north of Mozambique. This is the second instalment of a three-part series on his journey – including a trouble-free exit through Pafuri. You can find the first part here.
The road from Guija (Canicado) to Chicualacuala, on our route to Vilanculos, is currently being upgraded to tarmac, and while about 20km is already open to traffic, the rest is nowhere near completion. The resultant detours were so dusty that we left a tunnel of dry clay hanging above the road, just about dense enough to surf on!
I’m no fan of air conditioning, preferring to acclimatise to the ambient temperature by driving with the windows down, but from Mapai to Combomune we had the climate control on full blast, windows firmly closed. Not a speck of dust made it into the Pajero.
There used to be a sign at Combomune pointing the way to Banhine, but the bulldozers had destroyed it. We asked for directions to Mungaze, crossed the railway tracks and followed a route that was initially very rough but improved once we were on the sands of the Banhine floodplain.
At Mungaze – a tiny thatch and clay village 58km from Combomune, and not on any map or GPS that I have seen – there is a sign pointing the way to Banhine. There was a wooden pole across the park entrance, but no one was around to open it, so Luke jumped out and let us in.
The track winds through classic sandveld and patches of dense woodland for about 50km before meeting the main route through the park. We turned right, passing a few of the pans that Banhine is named after, and reached Chigubo after dark.
Fish Eagle Camp was built more than ten years ago by a group of researchers, but it has fallen into disrepair and the staff allowed us to camp at their compound. The administrator showed us the site nearby where a new tourist camp is being built. Until this is ready, I would advise travellers using this route to the coast to bush-camp away from Chigubo’s flies and goats.
The heavy summer rains had left some pans fuller than normal, blocking the usual route from Chigubo to Banamana, but the administrator insisted on escorting us in his personal vehicle through the maze of indistinct tracks, to the main “road”. From there it was easy to find our way to the Machaila-Mabote track, which is clearly not used much. We had to drive around fallen trees and through muddy rivers where bridges had been damaged by floodwaters.
A few years ago I would have said that a high clearance 2×4 vehicle, such as a bakkie or SUV, would have managed this route, but on this trip I had to make frequent use of four-wheel drive, and found low-range and the diff-lock essential in at least two places. In the rains you would need a boat!
The road certainly improved the closer we got to Mabote, where there is a fuel station. We managed a steady 80km/h from there to Mapinhane on the main arterial route, the Estrada Nacional (EN1).
Brand new tarmac helped us to reach Vilanculos shortly after midday. We were desperately in need of a shower and a swim, so I drove straight to Casa Babi. It certainly met and even exceeded the plaudits on Tripadvisor, and I was pleased that I’d chosen to stay there for two nights before braving the notorious “gun run” north to Gorongosa.
When I first met Sabrina and Denis, who own and manage Casa Babi, they were running Odyssea Dive (which they still do) and managing Zombi Cucumber backpackers. Sabrina had told me that they had built a small guesthouse on the beach in Vilanculos, and after five years away, I was back in Vilanculos to see the changes for myself.
Luke spent most of the time in the pool and Pancho the dive master gave him an introductory scuba-diving course while I drove 25km (at least an hour) north to a fascinating new place called Marimba Secret Gardens.
Isabelle Mauerhofer, whose husband was down with malaria, showed me around and explained that the plan from the outset was not to start yet another ordinary “lodge” aimed at the already oversubscribed South African market. Gourmet meals are provided at the restaurant, the chalets stand high on stilts, Malaysia-style, and the beach is accessible only on foot – no churning up of the pristine sand allowed here!
The problem is that the track from Vilanculos boasts some of the deepest sand-drifts that I’ve ever driven through. The Pajero certainly handled them much better once I’d selected low-range and reduced tyre pressure to 1bar.
The delicious French/Mozambique cuisine, marvellous views and cooling sea breezes at Casa Babi were difficult to say good-bye to, not to mention the fascinating hosts and friendly service, but after another great breakfast, we made haste to Vila Franca do Save so as not to miss the 09:00 security convoy heading north.
The town is on the crest of a hill, and as we passed the little Catholic Church on the left, I expected to see a long line of trucks, buses, cars and motorbikes snaking away from the toll booth at the suspension bridge, waiting for the armed police escort to arrive.
OK, so there were a few trucks parked in the lay-by before the bridge, but what soon became apparent was that traffic was moving steadily in both directions. My first conclusion was that we had missed the convoy and would have to wait until 13:00 for the next one. Then it struck me that as there were no villages of any size between Save and Muxungue, the southbound traffic must have been coming from Muxungue – very odd.
I stopped at the boom and asked in Portuguese about the “escolta da coluna” (convoy escort ), and neither the policeman, soldier nor the customs official could say why there was no convoy that day. They waved us through with a “Boa viagem!”
The road to Muxungue was in very good condition and traffic was moving well. Life appeared to be carrying on normally in the villages along the way.
At the Ripembe River “Bailey Bridge”, where traffic is restricted to one lane and almost comes to a standstill for 50m or so, there were soldiers on guard, but they seemed more interested in socialising with the villagers than watching out for bandits.
Muxungue was its usual noisy, bustling and dusty self, and even the BP station there had fuel. There used to be a scam in which attendants told drivers the tanks were dry and then pointed to the informal sellers nearby, who then sold you diesel and petrol at black market rates. I did not notice any of the usual pineapple and cashew nut sellers, so perhaps business has been affected by the continued possibility of attacks.
Apart from the stretch from Pambarra to Vila Save, which is still quite potholed, the condition of the main road is good, all the way to Inchope (fuel here), Gorongosa town and beyond.
Just a few hundred metres north of the Inchope junctions, watch out for a set of speed-humps from hell that would take the axle off a tank if hit at speed. There are still some potholes, but many more have been repaired, and so we made very good time to Nota, where you turn off the main road and head east down a gravel road to Gorongosa National Park.
I stopped by at the Gorongosa Adventures Camp, an excellent community-orientated initiative that takes birders up Mount Gorongosa, before we continued on to Chitengo Lodge.
I had last been in the park more than three years ago, and since the Portuguese Girassol group took over the management of Chitengo, the improvements have been remarkable. The huge thatched reception and socialising area is a haven of comfort and shade after a long day’s drive, and our bungalow was roomy, cool and equipped with all the nice little things that help a weary traveller to unwind and recharge.
Luke really took advantage of the free WiFi, and I was able to catch up on e-mails. We spent the afternoon in the pool and went on a self-drive game drive in the evening. We were rewarded with excellent bird sightings, large herds of waterbuck and sable and Lichtenstein’s hartebeest, and numerous families of warthog. But for me the biggest attraction of Gorongosa is the chance to have thousands of square kilometres of one of the richest biomes in Africa just about all to ourselves.
The following morning, after another game drive, I chatted to Vasco Galante, head of communications and media in Gorongosa. We reminisced about how the park had been rescued by Greg Carr from almost total destruction and endemic poaching.
In 2004, via his Carr Foundation, Greg pledged an initial $10 million to kick start the restoration of Gorongosa to its former glory, and to support its management for 20 years. Having first seen Chitengo in 1994, when it was a pile of rubble still riddled with landmines that had been bombed by the Zimbabwean air force in a bid to root out Renamo rebels, I can safely say that the Gorongosa of today is a modern miracle. We heard none of the recent rumblings about Renamo rebels, despite their base, now overrun by the army, once being just 80km away, on the far side of the mountain.
Breakfast at Chitengo restaurant is on a par with what could be expected at top game lodges in SA. If young Luke had been allowed to, he would still have been climbing into the bacon, pastries, yoghurts and cheeses (not to mention eggs in whatever form you desire), by the time lunch-time came around!
With this trip being more of a recce than recreation (Thursday, so it it must be Tandikwe – a private safari lodge – and the bush skills orientated Njiri Eco Camp). Both are located in the heart of Coutada Nove (Hunting Concession 9), further north from Macossa. Our directions to Tandikwe involved crossing
the Nhandungue River, turning onto an indistinct track that goes through Macossa and then watching out for a kudu skull on a pole at the roadside marking the turn-off to the concession.
We refueled at the Petromoc at the turn- off to Vanduzi, just past Gorongosa town. We then skirted the majestic Gorongosa massif and bounced back into the bush down a track that could have led us to the long-lost mines of King Solomon guarded by Alan Quatermain, but instead it took us to Macossa. This is quite a disappointing little village with the usual row of roadside barracas (stalls).
With a film crew covering the game-swop between Tandikwe and the Gorongosa park staying at Njiri Eco Camp, and hunting clients from the US and other guests occupying Tandikwe’s luxurious thatched chalets, we were allocated the “bachelor chalet”. It was comfortable and had an en-suite bathroom, so it was more than adequate for our needs.
We enjoyed afternoon tea in the huge, cool thatched dining and lounge boma overlooking a forested valley backed by a row of granite inselbergs. I chatted to Shayle Duckworth, whose husband, Neil, is a professional hunter here in Mozambique and at Mokore Safaris in the Save Valley Conservancy, Zimbabwe.
I’m certainly no hunter, but once the burly Americans had returned from a warthog hunt on the back of a Land Cruiser, they were able to convince me that without trophy hunting, many areas of Africa, including this 220 000ha of virgin brachystegia woodland, would have nothing larger than a locust left to admire.
We got word on the two-way radio that a pride of lions had been spotted on a hill nearby, so we drove out to take a look. The sight of a lioness with her two male cubs, lying on a granite outcrop and staring down at us, was something to treasure for a long time.
Meals at Tandikwe are real farm-style cooking. The eland fillets were a special treat, but Shayle did admit that the delicious cheesecake came out of a tin.
The nearest proper shop for supplies is in Chimoio, three hours away, so as much of the food as possible is prepared in the open-air kitchen presided over by a jovial cook from Zimbabwe.
After a wholesome breakfast at dawn we were back on the lonely gravel road. A group of elephants briefly held us up by pushing trees into the road, but all too soon I had to take off my figurative bush hat and replace it with a hard hat when we hit the tarmac at Comacha.
The Tete-Chimoio-Beira main road has become a procession of heavy ore haulers driven by drivers who must have learned their trade in the empty Australian outback, or perhaps the endless Steppes of Siberia, so be prepared for some fancy evasive manoeuvres – exactly what the Pajero Sport was designed for!
Is Mozambique safe?
Renamo, the political party that fought a 16-year bush war against Frelimo, which has governed Mozambique since 1994, recently announced that the peace agreement was over, and that it would return to the old terror tactics.
From April 2013, to the time of writing (November 2013), there had already been about a dozen attacks against civilian and military vehicles on the 100km stretch of the E.N.1 main road between the Save River (Vila Franca do Save), and Muxungue, an important junction town at the turn-off to Chitobe (Machaze) and Espungabera. Escorted convoys now run on this road, but even these have been attacked, so some travellers from the central parts of Mozambique (Sofala and Manica provinces) have been using a long detour via Zimbabwe and entering Mozambique far south of the Save River at the Sango / Chicualacuala border post.
For South Africans visiting Mozambique, it is important to note that, so far (and I cannot predict the future), there have been no Renamo-related incidents south of the Save River, so tourist destinations all the way from Ponta do Ouro in the south, to Inhassoro, nearly 100km further north, have not been affected. The situation in Mozambique remains uncertain and it is difficult to predict whether the Mozambique government will be able to neutralize the remnants of Renamo’s “army”, or the attacks will spread to traditionally “non-Renamo” areas.
Keep a close watch on the website www.mozguide.com as well as the mozguide. com facebook page for daily updates and reports from the field.