With the exception of the Tete and Niassa provinces – where we would enter it – Mozambique lies within 300 km of its 2500 km coastline. Two thirds the size of South Africa, it lured us not only with its legendary tiger prawns that were supposed to be jumping straight into the pan along the beaches, but also with the unique blend of Latino and African cultures. Besides vernacular Bantu, some Arabic, Makonde and Swahili in the north, the official language of the world’s best sailors’ colony is Portuguese. Romanian is closest to Portuguese. Hence, we were very keen to practice.
We had our first attempt at Portuguese right at the border. Our successful conversation – as sketchy as it was – beefed up our enthusiasm for this 17th country we were visiting in Africa. In less than 30 minutes, chit chat with the lovely chaps on both sides included, we were stamped in Mozambique, no muss, no fuss. We had payed 27 Meticais – not even 1 Euro! – for the 14 days Temp Import Permit. We asked which side of the road were we supposed to drive, and off we went. Brilliant. We already loved the place.
Let’s talk about how much fun is riding on a dirt road suffocated in a cloud of dust. How about a lot? Now, don’t get us wrong. We play the game, too. Saving time and rubber, not breaking every bone in our bodies and arriving at embassies in decent shape are all good. The unpredictability of the African infrastructure though is that temporary escape from the Tar Prison we live in. We might look like a mess when we apply for our next visa and inspire a few odd stares with our frizzy hair and shredded soiled gear, but, yeah, baby, nothing beats the open – literally – road. We knew well of the over-developed southern half of Mozambique, so we had planned a less traveled route: across the Zambezia province, thru Tete. The idea was to ride off road along the mighty Zambezi, then cross a river – if the ferry was operational – somewhere before Caia, after which we would finally get a taste of the Mozambican tarmac. Our plan worked pretty well.
[highlight color=’#393939′ background_color=’#ccff00′]Day two, 2.00 p.m.[/highlight]
[highlight color=’#393939′ background_color=’#ccff00′]Day four, 12.45[/highlight]
Rewinding to day one, we spent the better part of the day riding through a very poor, but quite picturesque rural region, dirt huts, most people on foot. Maybe once every two hours a shiny 4×4 would UFO through. In Tete we got some bad news: petrol was the most expensive so far in Africa, about 15 Rand/l (6,5 Ron) and the roads we wanted to take after the Moatize were now private because of coal mining. Our target for the next day, a bumpy dirt track, was behind the baobab forest.
Dawn at 5.22 p.m., we had a bush camp with a view of Malawi. We fetched supper – potato samosas(1 Metical a pop), avocado, tomatoes, bananas and the famous Mozambican bread rolls.
We almost went full retard on day two. The sunrise kick started us, so by 7.30 a.m. we had an awesome off road swagger. The road has everything you could ask for. Demanding, if not a bit technical, alternating gravel, dirt, deep sand, rocky plateaus, even dry river beds and huge rocks. This must be a bitch in the wet.
While trying to find the best passage thru this temperamental road profile, we almost collided with a scooter taxi coming from the opposite direction. I had to stop in the high dirt bank. Right mirror broken (again!), some scratches on the fairings, new dents in the pannier, and 15 km later I noticed the right light also missing. So for the next 60 kays we cooled it down to about 40 kays per hour. Sunday, we noticed, was a regular weekday around there: women do laundry, harvest crops, fetch water from pumps or boreholes, carry fire wood, sieve maizena; men go about their business, kids play in the dirt or help with household chores. Our lunch time snack of canned tuna, avocado and bread stirred some interest from the villagers, but nobody bothered us. These people are different. Chilled, shy even.
At the odd junction with the rail road I got a ‘boa tarde’ from a cyclist. I was glad I knew how to greet him back.
We had been out of water for hours, when finally spotted a pump. Thanks EU!
After 279 km of powder and sun we were spent. We had hit the Dona Ana Bridge, at its time the longest railway bridge in Africa, spanning for 3,67 km the Lower Zambezi. The bridge cost more than £1,400,000 in 1935 and is even today an example of engineering achievement.
As we were waiting for the train to pass, we spotted pedestrians and cyclists coming from the bridge. Could we cross it as well, instead of searching for a ferry ahead that might be working on not, especially on a Sunday? That required some investigation.
The villagers helped us navigate the maze of paths leading to the bridge, where we discovered we needed to climb a 45 degrees flight of stairs in order to access the pedestrian way. With the panniers off and the strength of me plus other 4 men combined, the bike was up. I generally don’t give money to people, but I figured it was the decent thing to buy them some beer.
Seen from up, white and purple water lilies populated islets on the Zambezi, making the river look like an immense delta. You would never suspect somewhere on this calm flow of water the untamed Victoria. Midway across, there was a couple of concrete slabs missing. The crowd cheered when we lifted the bike across the gap. That’s what the end of the bridge looked like on the other side, next to a small market:
You’re on African off road if it’s covered in man. Most are walking, some cycling, some even napping, completely zoned out on a bag of maize. The African road is a place of awe and companionship. We often get to see man’s most ingenious attempt to carry a shitload of stuff, be greeted by passer-byes and get waived-through by policemen with a boner at the sight of our bike.
In Caia am trecut al doilea pod peste Zambezi.
In Caia we crossed Zambezi for a second time.
We found gas and in the next village tomatoes, avocado, bananas and a crumbly cookie of crystallized sugar, honey and ground nuts. People kept surprising us with their laid back attitude, minus the occasional snap. We had a feeling they could become a highlight for our African travels.
By now a habit of serious landscaping for every bush camp had been established. To pitch a tent in the 1,5 m tall grass meant we had to work for 20 minutes, using our boots for shovels and our hands to clean up the spot, while various species of bugs would feast on our sweaty bodies. That’s what the campsite looked like after packing up:
Midmorning we had reached sleepy Quelimane, now only a shadow of its former glory, when it was an important port for the gold, ivory and slaves trade. David Livingstone was appointed the British Honorary Consul to Quelimane in 1858, and later started his crucial exploration from the Zambezi from here. Splendid but crumbling down colonial ghosts lie next to moldy Corbusier-era architecture. Housing complex, residential villas, public buildings, this place would deserve a future.
The internet was painfully slow in the only shop we could find, but while searching for a cyber cafe, we stumbled upon a Mozambican tradition: the pastelaria. If we had arrived in this country for the rumored seafood, we were to stay for the bakery. A moist desiccated coconut cookie and an aerated sponge cake with a hint of dulche de leche introduced us to local pastelarias.
Coconut-palm plantations stretch as far as the eye can see, but go largely unharvested along the 33-kilometre run down to the Zalala beach.
The fishing village was nothing like the palm fringed beaches we have heard about; we were the only non-fishermen, so finding a place to camp generated some commotion in the village. We settled on the lawn of some deserted guest house, whose owner proved to be the chief of police. The office was actually right across the sandy road, so at least we were safe. Within 10 minutes we were off to the beech to find fish and fishermen. Less than 24 hours later we were packing up after one of our most efficient pit stops. We had managed to: buy and grill seafood, make the unpardonable mistake to buy fish that was a bit off (the guardian took it), do all our laundry and shower (with a bucket and cold rainwater of course). We were back roughening it up, baby. Ana had given me a fresh haircut using the frontal Petzl as only light (which in the morning we unanimously decided it’s a good tradition to start).
The venue for our next breakfast, back in Quelimane, turned out to be the best pastelaria in town (owned by friendly Arabs). Very good cup of coffee, but the pastries! The caramel danish, the mille feuilles with a fragrant vanilla filling, the house special almond muffin. As we sank our teeth into the crispy outside layer of the last pastry on the plate and felt the moist coconut concoction inside, oozing with flavor, we were in love. We knew the only way to put an end to that delicious delirium was to pay our bill and just go. Running away from guilty pleasures that was.
The Mozambican bakers also produce some of the best pão português (bread rolls) and an astonishing variety of doughnuts (eaten for breakfast in a maizena congee), cookies and biscotti, prices ranging from 2 to 5 Meticais. Savoury street food is limited to samosas and hard boiled eggs, the rest are a proof of the Mozambican sweet tooth.
The uneventful tar to Nampula soon collapsed in the purest African spirit, swallowed by gravel and dirt, decorated with all the potholes in the whole of South Africa and Namibia combined.
We had no choice that night but to camp in a field of cassava. Chance to test the people of Mozambique for friendly attitude towards squatters. A villager spotted us after a few minutes, and later came back accompanied by 3 other men. They waved shyly and asked permission to approach, then we had a basic chat, just said we are sleeping there for one night, and that was it. Nobody else came, not that night, not in the morning. If these are not the most peaceful Africans we don’t know who is.
Nampula may be Mozambique’s third largest city, but it felt less alive than Quelimane. Slightly run down, a handful of notable buildings, and this interesting mural. If you will be going to Maputo you’ll spot plenty of these. Mural art emerged in Mozambique in the 1970s in the context of the revolutionary struggle and then the transition to a postcolonial society. The renewal of the physical urban environment and, more broadly, of the social, economic and political fabric of the entire country, spawned a national identity, even arguably a national style. The artists used Makonde mapico (mapiko) masquerade or machinamu ancestor figures, slogans and symbols of European domination to investigate the mystical power attributed to colonists and to interrogate the political future of the nation.
We wanted to try the local pastelarias, but what a disappointment. The only one where we could sit down and eat was this communist establishment where the pastries (even pastilla de nata) were boring and the clientele looked like the local mother fuckers’ convention. Totally reminding us of our parents stories from the communist Romania, when the restaurants were empty, menus were pretentious and ample and nobody could afford them. We have see plenty of similar places across this part of Mozambique: ancient restaurants and tourist spots where a chicken dish would fare 400 Meticais, in a country where a big bread roll is 5 and a regular one is 2. So 200 of these babies would just buy you a questionable plate of stew and corn meal. Pretty damn sad.
The ground nut and honey cookies were smashing.
Fresh produce is local, just like in Morocco: pineapple, papaya, tomatoes, salad, cucumber, avocado and pumpkin can be found only in certain areas; oranges are available countrywide, as are bananas. Vendors tend to quote fair prices (except some dude who wanted to seel for LOL price of 700 a 50 Meticais machete). Moving further north we finally hit cashew nut country, wich you buy by the 150 Meticais basinet.
Another chameleon moved from the busy road to the safety of the bush. We love these guys!