Southern Africa - Durban to Malawi


We had a long flight back from South America. Contrary to the information we were given by SAA, our flight did not go direct to Johannesburg, but deviated first to Buenes Aires and Cape Town - the long way around. It was Friday afternoon, and we had trouble getting onto any flight to Durban. Eventually we settled on expensive business-class seats in the early evening, and we happily left Jo'burg behind.

Durban Beachfront
After a week's R&R in Durban, we set off to see some of southern Africa. My sister, Carmel, drove with us up the coast to St Lucia, where we walked through the bushland birdwatching (there were some fantastic hornbills!) and took a boat trip out to see the ubiquitous hippos and crocodiles. Back on the Baz Bus, we headed north to Mlilwane, the small park in Swaziland, which we had so enjoyed on our previous visit. Its main attraction is that you can just walk unguided through the area. The trail from the backpackers lodge to the main camp was very muddy, and led mainly through dense bush, with little chance of sighting animals, but there were zebra, antelopes, warthogs, gazelles and other game when we came out onto the open grasslands. We lunched on impala stew, then took another walk back to see if we could find the hippos (nope) before catching the bus back to the lodge.

We hadn't thought very much about where we would go in Africa - just some vague idea about going to Tanzania - but just before we left Durban we had decided to go straight into Mozambique and see if we could get up north of the Zambesi; a chance to try out my Portuguese again. This was more serious travel - rattle-trap buses, African taxis, minibuses, backies and choppas (that's utes to you) - instead of the everything-laid-on ease of the Baz Bus. We crossed into Mozambique from Swaziland and went straight to Maputo, the capital. The effects of seventeen years of war were still evident, and the city was quite run down. There aren't a lot of places to stay because the government, in its wisdom, has a policy of making it difficult to licence backpacker lodges; they intend to promote high-price short-stay tourism at the expense of low-budget long-term travelers. We needed to cash travelers' cheques and get cashed-up for our trip north, but the experience was a bit of an eye-opener. We were charged 8% commission on the cheques, the highest we have ever paid; we found later that some cash transactions, visa cards, for example, could be charged up to 25% commission. Inflation is under control now, but it was rampant in the past - we received over 3 000 000 meticais but then it cost us 20 000 each for a simple sandwich!

Maputo wasn't the most exciting of places, and we wanted to go up the coast. Fatima's, our lodge, had information about other places to stay, so we decided to go to Inhambane in the first instance. The streets had no signs, and the lodge was unmarked and difficult to find. We made the mistake of asking directions from a pair of policemen - just asking them for the street we wanted - and nearly lost our useful little notebook, which they held onto in the hope we would pay them to get it back. No-one seemed to know the names of the streets, but eventually a boy on a bicycle came up, asked us if we were trying to find Pachicas (the lodge), and took us there - just down the main road that we were on. Inhambane had many once-fine Portuguese houses, now in amazing states of decay, with strangler figs curling up through the masonry and a mishmash of patches keeping out the weather. The market just down the road had a variety of foods at what seemed to be very high prices, given the obvious poverty of the country, but we learned from Greg, the traveler managing the lodge, that most food, even the fresh vegetables, came in from South Africa. The war had left a devastating legacy of mined fields and bush, and no agriculture was possible. There were other signs of the war; street children congregated just down the road, homeless and uncared for except for the chap who was setting up an open-air school for them; somewhere they could go and do something rather than just hang around the streets. Surprisingly, there was little begging.

The dhow to Funky Monkey
We wanted to go to Funky Monkey lodge at Linga Linga, out on the peninsula, reached by dhow from Inhambane. It wasn't straight-forward to get there - easier to wait for the twice-weekly pick-up, when the manager came over to shop. The day we were to go it was pouring with rain. Tuna, the Danish girl who was currently in charge of Funky Monkey, turned up with no dhow; there was no wind, and she had come by choppa. A group of us were going back with her, so we set off on a short motor ferry ride across the bay, then crowded into a covered choppa, then another similar cramped journey up the coast to Maxixe ('masheesh'), before we had to negotiate with a reluctant dhow owner to take us out to the peninsula.

Ahh, travel in a dhow, so relaxing, so romantic. The sun set, plunging us into darkness, as the rain set in with a vengeance. We huddled together, our backpacks deep in the pool of water collecting in the bottom of the boat, and bailed despondently. The wind was so light as to be nonexistent at times, but even then we had to keep ducking and shuffling over to the side of the dhow as we tacked endlessly back and forth, and the boom swung from side to side. It took three long hours for the hard-working boatman to pole to the far shore. Three long, cold hours. John, one of our fellow travelers, was shivering so violently that we wrapped him in our rain gear and cuddled him for body warmth, while the boat shuddered with his uncontrollable shakes. Amazingly enough, the ocean water was as warm as a tepid bath, and droplets sparkled with phosphorescence in the dark. The boatman tried to stop short and dump us down the beach, but at last Tuna agreed that we were at Linga Linga, and we scrambled ashore in the unceasing rain.

Tom and Ida, the other temporary lodge managers, had held off dinner for us, and set about getting us organized. We were all soaked through, passports, money and documents a sodden mess; sleeping bags a dripping lump of feathers; dry clothes a thing of the past. Linga Linga is a tad primitive. There was electricity from a solar panel, but it powered a single light and a cassette player. There was no accommodation as such; for those of us without a tent, Tom set up a couple of spare tents (we slept in one) and the left over people bedded down on the ground inside an insubstantial boma made from [leaking] palm thatch. Our tent leaked and had two big pools of the water soaking through the reed floor matting, but we made a sort of nest for ourselves and we were all in quite good humour despite the lack of comfort.

We spent five days camping at Linga Linga. The first couple of days were still a bit wet, and the camp was strewn with documents and money hung about to dry. There were major disasters - Fred's air ticket was unreadable pulp, and Roy's three-month-old diary of his travels was only fit to be composted - but our clothes and bedding slowly dried out as the sun and heat took over from the rain. The meals available from the kitchen were truly remarkable, given the conditions under which they were prepared, and the evening meal was always at least three courses. The beer supply was warm (no fridge, and the days were getting very hot) but it was preferable to sura, the local alcohol made by tapping into coconut palms, which was disgusting, and we all gave up on it after a small taste. Linga Linga was all a bit idyllic. During the day we could play bão, lay back and read, snorkel in the warm water, or walk out around the peninsula, and at night we'd take the short walk down to the beach and swim in the brightly phosphorescent water. The cassette player blared all night, slightly amusing for Geoff and I, since all the music was old 60's and early 70's songs - as if today's travelers were trying to invoke the mood of the hippy era. No-one played Bob Dylan ('I'd like to spend some time in Mozambique...'), but they should have; it would have been appropriate.

On our last day we walked out to the end of the peninsula to skin dive at a wreck. It was hot and burning, and the walk was a lot longer than we had counted on. The diving was useless, with the turn of the tide stirring up the bottom, decreasing visibility to zero. I was really ill by the time we got back, and curled up in the tent alternatively shivering and boiling hot, with the start of what seemed to be bronchitis. Still, there was no way to avoid the long trip back to Maxixe by dhow. This time it was boiling hot, during the day, and we sweated it out, then went our different ways at the bus station. Roy and John headed south to Maputo; Chris, James and Fred were going our way, north to Vilanculos, Fred lovingly cradling the tree-trunk pestle he planned to turn into a drum, and Chris leaving with a promise that he would return and take over the management of the lodge.

Sunset at Vilanculos
We knew little about Vilanculos. We were met off the bus by a little boy who offered to guide us around, but really gave us a run around instead, and was less useful than such little boys usually are. Eventually we ran into Margie, one of the handful of expats who live in the town, and she suggested a place to stay. It was a slightly unorthodox place, being the rondavels set up for the district health workers rather than a lodge, but it sounded and looked perfect. Unfortunately no-one was there to say yes or no to our staying, so we waited until dusk then found a slightly more expensive but really great place down the road, and booked in.

This difficulty in finding lodges illustrates what is happening in Mozambique. The government discourages backpacker lodges and shuts them down, so they all open unlicenced with no signs - difficult to find. Expatriates have to have local partners, and in all the cases we heard of this caused problems and the partnerships fell through. The expat community really is tiny, and you get to meet everyone, expats and fellow travelers, since they all go to eat at John's restaurant - the best food in town for the best price. Some new enterprises had been set up, noticeably the very expensive resort out on one of the islands. The beach is really lovely, and the skin diving out on the islands of the Bazaruto Archipelago is said to be fantastic. For a number of reasons, we didn't find out. Vilanculos had suffered quite badly because of the war. There were no telecommunications and roads in and out were in bad condition. The local kids begged in groups, but we were told that their parents would have walloped them if they were caught doing it - there were no street kids in the sense that all children there had someone to look after them.

I was quite ill by this time, spending my days in bed. We had met a number of travelers with malaria, and I had some of the symptoms, so eventually talked myself into going to the hospital for a test. My Portuguese, which was being understood a great deal better in Mozambique than it was in Brazil, wasn't up to complex discussions (indeed, nor was I, given the state I was in), so we got Margie to take me through the formalities. The results were a reassuring negative, but I was still sick - just didn't know what it was. Orlando and Diogo, two Brazilian boys we had met in Maputo, came calling to cheer me up, and dosed me up on an anti-bacterial made by bees. I was happy to try anything.

Once we had reached Mozambique our rate of travel had slowed down immediately, and we gave up all hope of getting too far north. We also realized that our ideas of getting to Mozambique Island, north of the Zambesi, were totally unrealistic - there just wasn't the road infrastructure, there was no public transport, and while it could be done it would take weeks that we didn't have. We settled on a much less ambitious plan to cut up north to Tete then go to Malawi and get as far north there as we could before turning back to Zimbabwe - better to see some places slowly than to rush along seeing nothing and getting frustrated.

On our last night in Vilanculos we went to a special buffet dinner at John's place. It was held for the people on an overland truck - they were leaving for Zimbabwe the next day, and John had agreed to a whole bunch of independent travelers coming along to the party, since we all wanted to hitch a lift with the truck and it was easier to ask over a few beers. There were nine of us, but Craig, the driver, who was from Western Australian (Collie), agree to take us all - there was lots of room in the truck and they were happy to have the company. We were due to leave at 5am, but that was a bit optimistic. Before we finally got going we had lots of high drama, when one of the Irish travelers discovered that her passport was missing. The poor girl was in tears, and the courier from the truck was trying to sort out how to smuggle her over the border if necessary, since there are few embassies in Mozambique. However, all turned out well - she had left her filofax containing her passport in her room, and it had been spotted by the hotel staff just after she left - all the time she was running around searching the now empty room, they had it at the desk.

The road north
The road was rough, and there were occasional land mine signs off to the side, reminding us not to go too far off the edge when we stopped for a pee. Geoff and I were only going as far as Chimoio, from where we could catch a bus to Tete, so we and a couple of other girls piled off the truck and waved them goodbye. We stopped at the first drink stall to ask directions to a hotel and the friendly proprietor bundled us into her car and drove us around to the place. Chimoio had largely escaped damage in the war, being on the Beira corridor, kept open between Zimbabwe and the coast. The hotel keeper gave us useless information about buses to Tete, but early next morning we wandered off and found a sort of bus station and eventually, after many false starts, set off to Tete. We wanted to swap our spare metacais for kwatcha, but were very hassled by the money changers at the Tete bus station, and backed off. Only after getting into the bus to the border did I realize that in the melee my pocket had been picked.

The rain set in, and by the time we arrived at the border it was bucketing down. We went through the formalities to get out of Mozambique, then waited to find a bus heading to Blantyre. Eventually one came along, and we all found room in the seats, which were crowded with all manner of parcels and goods being taken back into Malawi by local market keepers. We didn't go far. The Malawi customs demanded that everything, all the packages and the immense bags on the roof of the bus, be dragged out onto the wet road for examination, and we took hours while the local people bargained with the customs officers to let the goods through. Dinner consisted of hot, greasy bags of chips, cooked at the nearby stall, as the sun set and the rain continued. We arrived in Blantyre in the dark, and slogged through the mud to the hostel.


[Next] [Southern Africa index] [Top] [Travel] [Home]