Veronica and I spent the day hanging out in Pretoria with friends. All were preparing to head off on one adventure or another for the Holidays, a time when South Africa shuts down. We took care of last minute banking, since we would be out of the country for more than two weeks. After that we just chilled before the journey’s start. We took the Gautrain to the “Luxury “Bus Terminal – which must be a reference to the busses because the terminal is no great shakes – adjacent Bozeman Train Station at about 7:30 to catch out Intecape overnight to Maputo, Mozambique at 8:20. Bags securely loaded in the trailer towed behind the double decker bus, we found seats on the lower level, avoiding the swaying of the upper deck. “V” took the window seat, her seat, on the right side of the bus. I took the aisle for more leg room on the overnight trip. Off we went. She slept most of the way, clearing the residue of over exuberant nights at COS Conference. I watched her and the night pass, dozing as I could, plagued by the bus’s faulty air conditioning which emitted a blizzard gale or nothing at all, turning the already close cabin into an airless sweatbox. We passed through Nelspruit in the early hours of the morning, the last stop in South Africa. We arrived at the South Africa – Mozambique border with the rising sun, glad for the opportunity to stretch our legs and get some fresh air.
The transit was uneventful. We had both secured our visas in the month before to avoid any hassle at the border. When we arrived at the bus stop in Maputo, – no terminal, just a spot on the street near the Intecape office – a dozen or so taxi drivers were already there waiting. They all knew Fatima’s, the backpacker at which we had booked beds for the night. We negotiated a good price with one driver but lost him to others while we waited for out bags to emerge from the trailer, the down side of being one of the first aboard the bus. We found another, but could not get the better price and settling for the per person standard fare, we had to share the petite car with another traveller. I didn’t think we would get our bags in but did- mercilessly jammed into the trunk and piled on top of us.
Maputo is an African city, and the fact that it is in one of the poorest countries in the world shows. There few street signs and there is no traffic control to speak of. In places the streets barely exist at all, offering off-roading opportunities through wind rows of trash to the taxi drivers and their rat trap cabs held together with tape and wire. Unlike the mostly dry heat of Limpopo, the harbour city of Maputo is just sweaty, moisture pouring in from the warm Indian Ocean. Hawkers are ubiquitous, and at every turn you are offered the opportunity to purchase “original” art work and crafts claimed to be of the seller’s own hand that somehow look Identical to that sold on the streets and in the craft markets of Pretoria and almost any Southern Africa town. Despite its distress, Maputo has a certain charm and lacks the aura of racial tension that pervades the streets of most places in South Africa. That change was most welcome. Caution is still the watch word, but the feeling of the place is just more relaxed.
Veronica and I settled quickly into our dorm and soon found several South Africa Peace Corps volunteers from the class that followed ours already in residence. We headed into the city together, looking to change money, get copies of passports and get some food. We found the food at the fish market by the harbour. In the heat and having already walked for more than an hour on our other missions, we opted for taxis to get us there, though in theory it was a walkable distance. The fish market is just what the name implies, a place where fin fish, shell fish and squid are sold in open stalls without refrigeration. The fish is very fresh – literally right off the boats. You can buy your fish at a stall and take it to the restaurant to be cooked for a fee or you can trust the eye of the waiter at one of the restaurants to pick the fish for you. Either way, the cost is the cost at the stall plus a cooking fee. We trusted the waiter’s eye and the result was delicious. The good Mozambiquian beer is extra, and welcome.
V and I had only booked one night, this was a transition point not a destination, and we were up at 3 to catch the 4:30 Intercape bus to Vilankulos, some 700k north of Maputo along the coast. As far as Vilankulos, the road is fairly good, though it is mostly two lanes (one in each direction) and a little rough in places but paved the whole way. We heard later that once you get to Beira north of Vilankulos, there is little in the way of paved roads and a 4X4 a must. Though long, the trip is an interesting one, passing through village after village each with its share of aggressive hawkers selling mangos, cashews and good crusty Mozambiquian bread. The crush of the venders is sometimes so strong that it is impossible to buy anything even if you want to. Along the way the trees are hung with bags of cashews for sale, but the bus doesn’t stop so you can buy them. The bus company served a bag breakfast as we rolled along. It makes only a couple of stops, none long enough to get out and look around.
There is no formal bus stop for Vilankulos. The bus just stops at the side of the main road near the lesser road that leads to the sea. We were lucky enough to see a police officer (of the paramilitary type typical of many places in Africa carrying his automatic weapon) who directed us to a chapa, the Mozambiquian equivalent to the taxis in South Africa. In Moz, chapas can be mini buses or just a mini pickup truck with a cage on the back made of re-bar welded or wired together and covered with a tarp. Benches in the bed of the truck afford seating for ten to twelve people and then at least as many are crammed in standing. Being claustrophobic, I was lucky to get a seat at the end of the bench nearest the open back, though the “conductor” and two or three others rode on the back bumper blocking some of my light and air. Veronica was less fortunate, mashed between me and a drunken man and face to face, really nose to nose, with a baby held by his or her mother who was standing in the bed of the truck. I wish I had my camera but it was too cramped to dig it out. V laughed and didn’t seem to mind the baby, but the drunk got on her nerves. The little pickup raced down the narrow road, swerving and bouncing in a thrilling near death dance. It stopped every 5k or so to drop off or pick up passengers. The conductor states the fare and collects it at each stop. Some people argued. The exciting 25k trip couldn’t end soon enough nor last long enough, another contradiction of a PCV’s life in Africa.
When we got to Vilankulos, we were met by the owner of the backpacker at which we were to stay. Marcel is a Swiss national in his late thirties, I would say, who came to Mozambique to do cultural research but couldn’t leave. He and his wife Isabelle found some land and some financing and developed a very comfortable backpacker with its own beach, bar and restaurant (what more could you ask for). Marimba’s Secret Garden bills itself as a short distance outside of Vilankulos. “Short” is about 25K north along the coast on a sand track negotiable only by a 4×4 and even with low range engaged, sometimes with difficulty. The remote location is part of the charm and the feel of the place, the splendid isolation, it’s wonderful. The closest neighbours are solitary African homesteads where the locals grow mangoes, peanuts and cassava root which, with fish from the ocean, are the staples of their diet. As there is no way to get to town, eating at Marimba’s restaurant and drinking at its bar are a must, though you can avoid some of the cost by packing in some food for the lesser meals. The food is very good and reasonably priced, with dinners consisting of some form of local catch (native villagers fish the waters off the beach and spear crabs in the shallows). We had the splendid luck to be there before the season really started, there were only 4 guests , the two of us, a Swiss tattoo artist and a German Chef who volunteered to cook dinner a couple of times. The bar is well stocked and the company sociable.
Marimba’s has access to an old Dhow, the local fishing boat, and has its own crew to take guests out to the barrier island, Basaruto, about 10 to 12k off the coast. The islands are large dunes cast up by the sea over old reefs. It is hard to find words to adequately describe the beauty, so I will let the pictures speak. The sand itself speaks as you walk on it, the “skritch skrunch” of finely powdered decomposed shell and coral. The trip takes the day and starts with a trip past the islands to a long living reef about 3k farther out. This was Veronica’s first snorkelling experience and it was hard for her to put her face in the water and breathe through a tube. I remembered getting my boys started and convinced the crew to let he wear a life vest and that worked to let her relax and concentrate on the wonders below rather than not drowning. After that, I had a hard time keeping up with her and almost lost contact altogether when I dove to the bottom to retrieve a lost snorkel which turned out to have been lost a few days earlier by another of Marimba’s guests
The tides are substantial in the shallow sea and the ocean uncovers and covers the “land,” really just sand bars, very quickly. Near the end of the day we found ourselves walking on one such sand bar enjoying the sea and the sights but when we turned around found that the land we had just traversed had disappeared into the sea. We high tailed it back toward the island through the still shallow water, but the current was noticeable and increasing in strength with each step. The trip back was entirely under sail, the cool breeze and the warm sun and the rolling of the sea urging sleep. Sunburn is mandatory no matter how you try to avoid the tropical sun. . A sun shade, beer, water, soft drinks and lunch are provided in the price of the trip. It was well worth every Meticais, the local currency.
On our third day there we got a ride into Vilankulos. The trip takes about an hour if your ride does not get bogged down in the sand. On this trip we had to wait a while for a local to change a tire. You don’t want to try to drive off the established track. We went to town to visit with to other PCV’s who had driven up from South Africa and were staying in the village at a well-known backpackers there. Vilankulos is a real village and less of a tourist destination than many other spots along the beautiful Mozambique coast. It is more famous as a scuba diving mecca than as a beach locale, though the beach is spectacular. At low tide it is so wide that the walk to the water’s edge can be a good hike, as much as two or three kilometres of pure white sand. At those times, dhows can be seen sitting on their bottoms on dry land. They will be afloat again in a few hours.
For the trip to our next stop we opted to travel by chapa. The Isabelle delivered us to the right vehicle and even negotiated the proper price for us, much to the cab driver’s dismay. This was to be a 6 or 7 hour trip to Tofo, one of the better known beach towns along the coast. We were fortunate to both get seats, though the padding of the seat was wanting and by the end my butt was wanting out. Others were not so lucky. The conductor just kept stuffing people and chickens into the minivan, the goats and our packs had to travel in the trailer towed behind. The chapa was an older Toyota “Siyaya” which in South Africa would have been certified to carry 14 to 15 passengers. This one had about 20 or 21 crammed in, the conductor literally hanging out the open sliding door as it raced along the road. It stopped at several towns and villages along the way at each of which throngs a hawkers converged on the van in a largely vain attempt to sell their fruit, nuts and wares in the few moments the chapa stood still. Additional people were crammed in but the protests of the passengers prevented one young lad from getting into the cramped chapa with a dead antelope.
We jumped off the chapa at Maxixe (pronounced Ma –she-she), the small city just inland from the beach at Tofo which is located on a peninsula. We opted for the ferry to Inhambane, the town on the harbour side of the peninsula, which was 10 Metz – thankfully Isabelle had warned us against the aggressive hawkers selling rides across the harbour who charge 10 to 15 times that for a ride in an unstable and overloaded small boat. We did have to pay an additional 10 Metz each due to the size of our packs and they had to ride on deck while we sat in the cabin. We had been told that the ride from the pier to Tofo should cost us no more than 20 Metz, and V would have it no other way. We could not get the cabbie down to that price, but stumbled upon the local bus that made the trip for 10, or so we thought. When the conductor on the bus came to collect our fare, we learned again that the size of our packs garnered a 10 Metz surcharge. The bus dropped us within 200 metres of our backpacker.
Though Tofo has some very comfortable backpackers and nicer guest houses and small hotels, ours was “basic” and “self-catering” which means no blankets or towels and no restaurant and no bar. It really couldn’t be called clean and the kitchen was hardly functional. Veronica had her tent and opted to “camp” in the small courtyard. The place did have the benefit of location near the center of the village and the craft and liquor stalls and the eating places frequented by the locals that had reasonable prices. It also had several hammocks in shady spots, perfect for periodic regeneration after all too busy days and nights. The beach was at the front door and a walk down the beach brought us to the nicer restaurants and the clubs where the live bands played and the parties were supposed to be happening. As it was still a little before the season, the happening wasn’t really, but it was fun anyway. We discovered the local gin and the local rum which could be had for a song and somehow didn’t leave either of us hung over no matter how hard we tried. It came in half litre plastic bottles that you could drink the rum straight out of, though the gin was a bit harsh for that. We ended up packing quite a bit to Swaziland to serve duty as Christmas cheer.
Tofo has a wealth of craft stalls selling fabrics, bags, shell, bead and stone jewellery, paintings and all manner of sundries. The prices are reasonable for a resort area but you have to negotiate to get them and really work at it. My father would have loved every minute. I found myself restrained by a pack that was already too heavy and a long way to go yet, but I was able to get my Christmas shopping done. The water and beach at Tofo are lovely and there is enough surf to make a day in the water interesting. A lot of scuba diving and snorkelling tours leave off the beach, but we were content to be satisfied with our boat trip at Vilankulos.
After the chapa experiences we had already had, we opted for a small shuttle bus from the Tofo Fatima’s back to Maputo where we had another transit night booked at Fatima’s. The bus seemed to work on the same philosophy as the chapas and was soon packed to its roof with passengers and all the bags and packs were piled in the aisle so late comers had to climb over to reach open seats, very large middle age African women not exempted. The seats were better though, and the bus made one pit stop- just in time for me – and delivered us to the door at Fatima’s. We were up early the next morning to get a taxi to the long distance chapa rank for our trip to Swaziland and our Christmas rendezvous with Kristina, Charlie and Roy.