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 first instalment of a three-part series on his journey – including a trouble-free exit through Pafuri
Text: Mike Slater
Photography: Mike and Luke Slater
A reading of 42°C in the shade is pretty warm, even if you are a Bedouin in the desert near Beersheba. As I pushed the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport into low-range, and ploughed through the thick sand of the dry riverbed, I looked at my watch and it was 09:30 in the morning! Mucumbura (Mozambique) and Mekumbura (Zimbabwe) are two tiny villages separated by the Mucumbura (or is it Mekumbura?) River in a truly desolate corner of north-eastern Zimbabwe (or north-western Mozambique), depending on your point of view. One thing was certain – this place would not be hosting the Winter Olympics in the foreseeable future!
The journey that included this remote patch of sand, dust, baobabs and mirages had started at 03:00 on a chilly spring morning in Johannesburg. Not even Chuck Norris leaves that early, do I hear you exclaim, but to me one of the joys of a road trip is to motor along an empty highway watching the amicable African sun gradually reveal itself through the swaying veld grass. The added advantage was that we arrived at the Phalaborwa Gate to Kruger National Park early enough to take a leisurely drive north to Punda Maria rest camp, where I had managed to grab the last remaining campsite, even though the school holidays started the next day.
Accepted wisdom was that the N4/Belfast route to Kruger was full of potholes and the N1 Polokwane/Tzaneen route was a better option. My brother and his family lived in Haenertsburg (Magoebaskloof) for ten years, so I know the Tzaneen route well, but decided on the Belfast option, mainly because Johannesburg to Polokwane holds no surprises for me.
We stopped at Dullstroom, the trout fishing Mecca, for coffee and yes, there are a few short potholed stretches down the escarpment to Lydenburg. The town is now more correctly referred to as Mashishing which Eric, manager of OnDaGo coffee shop, told me is the sound of the wind blowing in the long grass.
Along some sections the speed limit is 80km/h, and driving slowly to avoid the broken tarmac seemed a good idea.
If you want to break your journey, two places I can highly recommend are Pilgrims Rest and the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve.
The R36 follows the beautiful Ohrigstad River valley past the town of the same name and then climbs steeply up the rugged Abel Erasmus Pass, named after a prominent local farmer at the time, and which follows one of the old Voortrekker routes.
Yes, we did get stuck behind a huge chrome-transporting truck labouring its way up the pass, but with views like that, who’s complaining? (About 400km from Johannesburg, watch out for a treacherous hairpin bend to the left that, for the unwary, will test the road-holding of any vehicle.)
Another good place to stop for a break and some pictures is the JG Strijdom tunnel, named after the former Prime Minister, where there is a huge selection of good quality curios on sale. We have recently fallen into the practice of buying a small carved baboon, and taping it to the front of the vehicle as a sort of good-luck charm. This appears to have worked pretty well so far…
We motored at a sedate pace into the Olifants River Valley, past a town called Mica and turned into Phalaborwa to top up the tank and buy a hand mixer for friends in Vilanculos.
At the Phalaborwa Mall (all the big stores and banks) we bought supplies at Woolworths for a picnic breakfast which we enjoyed at Masorini, the first picnic spot we came across in Kruger.
Departing a day before the government schools closed for the September holidays (thanks Boss!) meant that the gate was deserted and all the way north to Punda Maria, 201km away, we passed just a handful of cars. Note that the minimum allowed travelling time from Phalaborwa Gate to Punda Maria is six hours, so if you’re heading for Punda, don’t enter at Phalaborwa after midday as you will be told to turn around and drive up outside of the park.
For my 12-year-old son, Luke, the main attraction at Punda Maria was the swimming pool, and after cooling down we set up camp. We watched the sun set over a nearby waterhole where, much to the consternation of a family of warthogs, elephants were spraying each other with mud.
I really like the way that Punda has been spared the fate of being turned into a quasi “bush theme park” with fancy chalets, shops and restaurants. To me, the resultant crowds and clamour detract from the feeling of being in “real Africa” – if such a place still exists.
The following morning we were at the camp gate when it was opened and investigated the Mahonie Loop before again turning north towards the Pafuri “port of entry”. At a spot called Baobab Hill, watch out for the plaque on the left of the road explaining that this was the first “Outspan” in SA for migrant mine workers recruited by Wenela in Mozambique.
Perhaps because the road had been closed for nearly nine months because of flooding, we found that the last 17km to the border had been taken over by two or three boisterous herds of elephant that were not ready to give up their territory without a lot of ear-flapping, trumpeting and two or three mock charges. It really felt as though we had entered a space where all human influence had been suspended for a long time and the animals were making the best of the break.
The officials arrived promptly at 08:00, and just five minutes later, Luke hopped out of the Pajero Sport and opened the gate that bars the way to Mozambique and the dusty and almost deserted village of Pafuri.
On the Mozambican side, the immigration and customs people (in houses opposite each other) carried out their duties in an efficient and friendly manner. A soldier took a brief look in the back of the Pajero and I got told that “next time” I should ask before taking photographs.
While enjoying a cold drink at the local shop/bar/nightclub/garage, we chatted with the English-speaking owner about the crossing of the Limpopo River, and it turned out that he also owned a tractor, so I got his cell number (there’s a Mozambique Vodacom signal in this area), just in case. With not even one other vehicle in sight, I couldn’t help feeling a little smug about having 600km of bush tracks via the Banhine National Park to Vilanculos pretty much to ourselves.
The floods had played havoc with the access tracks to the Limpopo crossing point, but I simply followed what looked like the most used route and 30 minutes later we emerged from the fever tree forest onto the sandy riverbed. I stopped to deflate the tyres to 1.5 bar – a pressure that proved ideal for the varying road conditions of good gravel, soft sand and some mud all the way to Mapinhane, where I used my compressor to pump the tyres back to the recommended pressure.
Luke walked ahead to test the depth of the river, and to take photographs, and the Pajero handled the knee-deep Limpopo crossing, which was still about 200m wide, very easily.
I had decided to use the little known track on the north bank (or east, depending on how pedantic you are) so we stopped in the village of Dumela to ask for directions. We found a group of young men playing “txova” – a local game which has a passing similarity to backgammon – but no-one knew the way to the track that would supposedly take us along the river to Mapai Rio.
We continued along the Zimbabwe border on the well-used road to Chicualacuala, and soon I turned right onto what looked like a path heading in the direction we wanted. Fortunately an old man on a bicycle confirmed that this was the way to the ‘linhas’ (Cahora Bassa power lines) that cross the Limpopo about 30km from Pafuri. This route is more overgrown and quite a lot slower than the usual one, which has been recently graded and crosses the river at Mapai. This alternative track passes through tall riverine trees and picturesque Shangaan villages, and has the added adventure of a challenging drive through the Nwenetsi River, which fortunately was completely dry.
A few kilometres before we arrived at the Mapai road, we drove through the ruins of a mission station where there was once a boarding school, power station, clinic and art-deco style chapel, all on the side of a hill with a huge concrete cross on the top, with views across the Limpopo Valley all the way south to the Shingwedzi River. (For an insight into what it was like to have lived here during the Portuguese days, look up “Missao Mapai Limpopo” on Google.)
We ate lunch at the mission and then drove on the hard gravel road to Mapai “Estacao” (railway station), where we topped up with diesel at the service station, which also sells cold beer and sodas. Luke found a bottle of All Gold tomato sauce, which I had forgotten to pack and which was essential for the boerewors rolls planned for supper at Banhine camp later that evening.
This little petrol station is a kilometre or two out of Mapai, towards the east. In Mapai itself there is a useful selection of roadside stalls selling everything from tinned food, pao (locally baked bread rolls), to vehicle spares, cellphone chargers and clothes.