A tractor carries luggage to the small arrivals hall and an employee sitting behind an old wooden desk stamps passports. We and an Asian are the only ones applying for a visa on arrival, having to wait in an office outside the arrivals building, with messy paperwork and lazy employees. The visa sticker costs $50 and occupied an entire page in the passport, while a stamp was fit upon others on an almost-full page, upon my kind request. In the meantime, an airport employee whose breath was smelling alcohol, had offered us a lift to our accommodation free of charge. What’s more natural than trusting an unknown drunk driver as soon as you step foot in an African country! Eventually I thanked him with a beer at the hostel and a couple of dollars tip. Sundays in Africa are probably more holy than ours and you don’t find stores open, neither currency exchange. Fortunately, for some reason the banking system is booming in these poor countries and ATMs are in surplus. Strolling through the streets of the dull city, we hear a celebration with dances in some kind of a restaurant, an ideal welcome for a dinner and an introduction to Mozambique’s wonderful Portuguese-language tunes.
Next day I’m looking forward to leave for a main destination of the trip, but first we need to get a local SIM card and exchange currency. The telephone company employee refers her husband and he in turn introduced a black market money exchanger, French-speaker from Guinea. This is how things work in Africa. We receive the bulky local “bricks”, with the larger note in circulation that of 1000 meticais (€14) and then load our bags on our backs, heading to the train station. Part of the luggage is a sack of stationery for kids, a standard offer of every trip in Africa, which we will eventually carry up to Malawi. We arrive at the train station where there is a scheduled departure every Tuesday and Saturday, heading west. Train trips are enjoyable all over the world, but in Africa the experience is very promising. The goal was to move to Malawi after about a week. But nothing works on schedule in Africa and what seems to us simple, like the issuance of a post-dated ticket, is impossible here.
Leaving the office, we are looking for a bus to our next destination, the one I have been dreaming of for years. The island of Mozambique is only 4 hours drive away, but the travel times in Africa are always unpredictable. On the other hand, the means of transport, are predictably torturous. Typically outdated mini buses, here are called “chapas” and have to be stuffed of people -common in Africa- to depart, getting as much profits as possible. Passengers are literally sitting on each other’s lap, patiently waiting, and the heat combined with limited personal hygiene make the conditions asphyxiating. On this first route we decided to buy an extra seat for more comfort, but that didn’t improve the squeeze, the shake of the countless potholes, or the “heavy scent” of the passengers.
The lush landscapes and fertile soils where agricultural crops and fruit trees, mangoes, bananas and papayas flourish, fill the field of vision, while imposing geological formations appear sporadically. Although everyone assured that chapas regularly go direct to the island, this is not the case. The chapa bypasses the main road and ends route at a village, which means that we have to board a truck. Luckily we get the front seats, while people, animals and food shacks stack up in the back truck. Unluckily, the truck stops every 200 meters to unload passengers and freight, making the route endless. As experience has taught me, time in Africa is of no value and if someone travels under time pressure, will be disappointed. After hours, I finally face the Indian Ocean and the sea breeze freshens my body. Arriving at the bridge that connects the inland with the mainland, the truck ends route. At 3.5 km in length, it is difficult to get across on foot, and moto-taxis demand unfair fees, but surprisingly we find a bargain whole chapa, private for us.
Island of Mozambique
The first images of historic Mozambique Island, which gave its name to the country and today is a UNESCO cultural heritage site, amaze me immensely! Everywhere you look you see a visual feast. Semi-ruined colonial buildings with colorful, frayed paint, are built up to the sandy beaches of Indian ocean’s blue waters. Traditional dhow boats float in a sunset that paints the slum of the central island in golden hues, making the metal sheets of roofs look like precious metal. Thin tall palm trees rise high in a sky of fancy blue and purple shades, with playful cottoned like clouds. Kids… lots of kids rushing into the streets and alleys. Lazy old men sleep on the terraces and women dressed in the colorful garments of African Islamic dress code, sit on ground selling scarce vegetables. Arriving at the guesthouse I can’t hide my excitement, but just in front is one of the most picturesque neighborhoods on the island that immediately invites me to discover it.
What a majestic place is unfolding before my eyes! Just in front, the big mosque stretches along the road. Outside the green painted walls with arabesque tiles, the elders are resting and discussing. There, next to the sandy beach, men repairing nets while women and children cleaning fish and sea urchins. A little further on, a wrecked ship rusts on the beach, with its heavy chains firmly bound to the shore. The reddish colors of the oxidation, along with the blue remnants of the paint, perfectly match the sunset background. Young children burst into excitement and engage in acrobatic competitions in front of the camera, climbing the ship’s chain, jumping from boats, rolling in the sand.
Shortly before dusk, we are mesmerized by the streets of the sheet metal slum named Macuti, where the poor but smiling local life unfolds. The Portuguese have extracted stones to build the capital Stonetown and the fort, so Macuti is in a lower level than the rest of the island, with the mosaic of metal roofs spreading across the field, giving the scene an idyllic appeal. There in the slum, with the chicken roaming around the alleys of red soil, with the hanging laundry, the children running happily and the girls braiding each other’s hair, where the ladies are chatting on their doorsteps and all of them look at the rare visitor with curiosity… you feel a strange bliss surrounding this state of poverty. A little further from Macuti, a different settlement begins, with alleys defined by colored masonry walls, mansions with heavy doors and shields denoting centuries past. Public buildings that constitute architectural relics such as the hospital and the governor house, white churches and several ruined buildings make up a captivating environment. Stonetown is a very elegant settlement, not common on the African continent, with some similarities to its synonym city, further north in Tanzania and the island of Zanzibar. But here everything is to a smaller size and the place is quite forgotten by tourism, at least at this season.
A crowd wearing red t-shirts is seen a little further, a political rally has ended, without bothering the tranquility. People friendly and smiling, ask to be photographed, as will be the case in most of the places we visited. Just 500 meters is the distance from one side of the island to the other, where a long beach offers moments of fun to the enthusiastic children playing in the shallow waters.
The nights on the island are majestic as well. The southern Cross constellation hides somewhere behind the foliage of the palm trees swinging in hot wind. A terrace overlooking the vast Indian Ocean wants to keep me there all night, maybe forever. Nutrition needs put romance aside and the few places to eat close early. At one of the local taverns big fish were spotted some time ago, but strangely they were no longer available, so we will compromise with lobster for a low cost. Nightlife is almost non-existent on the quiet island and the picturesque bar on the beach was empty. The barman counts the drops so rum does not overflow the measure, but for us even double is not enough.
I rarely mention lodging, but “Patio dos quintalinhos – Casa di Gabriele” is one of the cutest, value for money hostels I can remember. In the first lounge with wooden flooring and tasteful décor, a swing-boat hanging with ropes dominates the sofa. Then you come across a patio area full of banana trees and walls in ocher shades. Surrounding are the rooms with comfortable cozy beds and bathrooms with materials such as cement, wood and painted tiles. A small pool is half-hidden in the garden. The whole building reminds of the colonial past of the island.
A staircase leads to the roof where an exceptionally rich breakfast is served, with handmade jams, fresh mangoes, bananas and… a small lizard who wanted a share. This terrace offers amazing views of various corners of the island and most notably the best prospect for photographing the Big Mosque. All this combined with the price of 2000 meticais (€ 29) made the stay particularly memorable.
A hot sun rises and makes the skin reddish from the sudden season change. At the British-owned Ilha Blue cafe and tourist shop, you can rent bicycles to explore the island a little more relaxed. The British guy had lived in Australia as well, and along our trip, every white man in Africa who wouldn’t accept any discounts, will be called “Aussie”. The Aussie has therefore advised us not to continue our trip to the north because armed unrest has arisen. I ignored him.
After cycling around every Stonetown alley, church and ruin, the warmth and turquoise waters of the beach caused an irresistible wish to swim. Someone informs us for a forgotten bag on the bike, which contained a cellphone. The beach is set in a beautiful spot with the castle in the background spanning the entire northern cape. The seabed was not interesting and with several broken bottles, but the warm waters of the tropics make you never want to get out of the water. Later, while approaching the castle with bicycles some people were shouting us to get a ticket. By the time they reach us we had already entered the interior which was not of much interest.
A fisherman carries some large catch, but he also refused to sell us one. From what we understood from his explanation, the fish are destined for a few luxury hotels. Other youngsters are trying to sell boat tours to the surrounding islets or mainland beaches, but I am stressed to arrange transportation to our next destination, the “mythical” Quirimbas archipelago.
From the first years of my travel passion, exploring the new at that time google map, I discovered this remote exotic island group named Quirimbas, most of them uninhabited. At last my dream was about to come true. But progress has not greatly affected this part of Africa and access to paradise is still quite complex. If one does not spend the enormous amount of money to book a small plane and stay in one of the private islands resorts, then a small Odyssey awaits him. Despite the seemingly short distance, there is no direct transport connection. From the island of Mozambique you have to take a chapa to the Namialo junction, waiting for the next one to Pemba, which was not described as an attractive city. After an unavoidable overnight in Pemba, another chapa departs at 4am and after 5 hours in the dry season or a 10 hour detour on the rainy season, arrives at the coast of Quisanga. There, in the middle of nowhere, when the tide permits, a boat will probably arrive after a few hours on the island of Ibo. In an effort to save valuable time and hassle, we are looking for a private transport. As usual, people are eagerly referring to each other, and after making a round of the island and a small council is met, and we finally make a deal with a driver. Despite the negotiation, the cost was still high but we decided to invest it in this part of the trip, making savings later.
After the issue of transportation is settled, we enjoy the island’s beauties, the smiling people of Makuti, the sunsets that create an artistic painting made of houses, boats, and oceanic skies. It is Christmas Eve and the few restaurants are closed. Opposite a white church, the Ancora d’Ouro restaurant has a special menu for the holiday. It is a beautiful, high-ceilinged, colonial building that despite its glamor and gourmet cuisine, has similar prices to the local tavern. We are present in the Christmas session of the church next door, and especially here in the tropics it provokes great spirituality. But the soul is also pleased with wine, or rum in that case, on the terrace of the most cozy bar. Lying on the pillows, counting the stars, accompanied by wonderful afro-portuguese tunes, I never want to leave here.
The time to say goodbye to the dreamy island has arrived and another island is waiting for us. The chapa “privado”, picks us up. So far, Africa has been welcoming. But that will change, because… Africa without difficulties and unexpectancies is not the real thing. Except from the driver, another guy who speaks English and with whom we made the agreement came with us. At the Namialo junction, not according to the deal, we move to a sedan and the chapa with the two guys departs. Our new drivers start saying they won’t take us to Ibo but they will drop us off at a distant place called Macomia. They said that there were “boom boom” conditions in the north, something that I already know but I don’t care, especially given the amount of money paid. I phone the guy who made the deal, telling him to come back. After an hour of waiting they arrive, but the day is already gone and no solution has been found despite the negotiations. I understand from the sayings that they don’t have a tourist license to be able to join the mandatory military convoy. We get the money back but we have to get out of here somehow and it’s probably too late to find a bus to Pemba, the only realistic plan hereafter. Eventually, a passing driver going in that direction takes us in his car. After a few hours we arrive at the really dull city, the capital of the northern province of Cabo Delgado and we book a room at the only cheap but miserable hotel. In the meantime we also book Airbnb on the island of Ibo and by contacting the gentle and extremely helpful Spanish owner of Baobibo, we learn valuable information about the transport possibilities. What is not mentioned in any travel guide or other online information, is that there are occasional routes of a small ferry covering the distance in just 4 hours, with a ticket of just 700 metikais. A shine of joy overwhelms me with the prospect of this easy and fast transport, instead of the long road trip and the waiting of tide to cross to the island.
We walk under the debilitating heat in the city with the wide roads but minimal human activity, looking to spot the harbour from where the boat departs next day. But what I imagined, namely a pier with boats and even some restaurants, doesn’t exist. The harbor is an almost deserted carnage and the boat indicated is an unrelated small cargo ship. In the supposed harbor where the surrounding doesn’t feel quite safe, there is only one empty brewery where we make a stop before returning back to the only restaurant we’d seen open. Finally the Spanish lady arranges for us a taxi early in the morning to get us to the real ship. We are driven to the edge of town, in the slum called Paquitequete. I would never imagine that here was the port of a boat. Indeed, a small aluminum catamaran was parked not on any pier but on the sand. The scenery is magnificent with the fishermen pulling the nets together in the shallow, palm trees on the beach under the cloudy morning sky. The joy comes once again to be replaced by frustration! We are informed that the captain would not go to Ibo today due to bad weather, which was unfortunately confirmed by the Spanish woman on the phone. But she assured us that the next day the itinerary would take place.
We ask the driver to take us to Wimpe Beach, 15 kilometers outside Pemba where there was a sole budget accommodation. Along the way, it starts raining, the map is wrong about the place and it’s difficult to locate it. It is far from the main road and even the capable pick-up truck is unable to get past some point, where we must continue on foot. We spend the rest of the day at a seaside restaurant on the empty Wimpe beach, with the rain continuing non stop, making me stressed about the next day. We return after dark, with difficulty in the muddy alleys of the village, with water knee height.
All night was a disaster! A hurricane swept everything out, lightnings litting the sky and thunders rattling the area, while in the morning damages were evident everywhere and there was power cut across all Pemba region. Unfortunately the Quirimbas Islands will remain a dream. It is is unknown if the weather gets better anytime soon, the roads are probably inaccessible and Ibo has also suffered damage, canceling recreational opportunities and of definitely the free camping I hoped to do on one of the uninhabited islands. A year earlier, another hurricane caused 600 casualties in the wider area, and in the following days we’ll see this year’s disasters on local TV, with broken bridges and trucks hanging in the gap. The time we had scheduled for Quirimbas is gone and we decide not to waste any more waiting for sunshines, as the rainy season begins. Weather forecasts did not meet the prevailing conditions, and moving south was just as risky. We decide to return to Nampula sooner, rather than the Tuesday’s train to catch Saturday’s, heading to Cuamba and then to the Malawian border. The two big cities are connected by big bus instead of chapa, but it is not guaranteed that you’ll have a seat and you won’t be standing in the corridor for 6 hours. In the meantime I call the young man who had exchanged money for us in Nampula, to secure us train tickets. The man offered to go and pay, but he did not catch up.
We arrive in Nampula in the evening hoping to find a ticket on the spot before leaving at 4am. Loaded with backpacks, the bag of stationeries and bags with market supplies, we’re searching in vain for a nearby, cheap accommodation. At that moment a “guardian angel” appears. A well-dressed gentleman in a luxury SUV makes us hand-signs to get in because we are in danger of being robbed. I decide to go in without second thought. Although he doesn’t speak English at all, he makes clear that he is a secret police officer, showing me his gun that cause me a surprise exclamation. Finds us a budget hotel and makes endless rides around the city, showing off his white-skin acquaintances to friends. He shows-off his house and two of his four wives which we transfer to their night outing. Most important of all, he orders four guards to come at 3am and accompany us to the train station! After dining with him in a nice, live band restaurant, we end with not much time for sleep but full of unexpected experiences. The police guards actually escort us to the station and wait until we get on board. We found tickets easily.
The train is old but the “classe executiva” was quite tolerable and even the 2nd class, despite the narrow, hard wooden seats, had no standing passengers. The ride was as enjoyable as any train ride, but in Africa this experience is rarer. At each station, a crowd of desperate people try to reach the windows and sell the goods they carry in baskets over their heads. The landscape is lush all the way and the geological formations are impressive. Cloudy and rainy weather follows us.
We arrive at Cuamba which is nothing more than I expect. A dusty frontier town that surprisingly has many banks. There is a decent hotel at a high price, but with enough searching we end up in the area’s most comfortable guesthouse, the Residencial Zezinha where we are the only occupants and enjoy rich, homemade breakfast with local flavors like cassawa, chicken bellies and livers. The few restaurants in the area have a good menu and the days in this remote town are quite enjoyable. The railway divides the city into two, with the north side relatively richer with built houses and the south area more slummy kind, with an open market as well as the departure point for the chapas. The rainy weather is chasing us here too, fortunately not all day long, but we will spend plenty of time under shopping sheds or drinking beers at local restaurants.
The day of departure from Mozambique will be harsh and adventurous, and will experience mental and physical endurance.
The day started going wrong at the local bank where we wanted to exchange the surplus currency. But the bank only serves its customers, and despite one’s offer, the bureaucratic process is so time-consuming that it breaks my schedule and patience. At some point I lose my temper, I walk like a raging bull into the bank offices, throwing luggage on the floor and start shouting without caring for the security guys. Fortunately at that time our transaction was executed and we had no further trouble. As I say over and over, nothing works in Africa and if you’re in a hurry you are looser. This is how the sequel plays out. After a long walk loaded with luggage, we reach the chapa, but the first one is already full and we don’t want to sit on a local’s lap. The next one is slowly filling up to leave. At some point it departs but after a few meters returns because some passenger regrets and gets off. The anger continues when we are asked for money for the luggage on rooftop, but we stubbornly refuse for a long time. It’s raining outside, we feel like in “sauna”, trapped in the idle vehicle, a little kid is peeing out of the window. It is admittedly an unforgettable experience. I could pay the small amount for the empty seat and get going, but I was outraged by the racist exploitation.
After three whole hours we depart, but the sequel is not easy at all. As we already know, the chapa does not reach Entre Lagos,the border with the neighboring country, but leaves us at a crossroads where we have to find motorcycle ride. Fortunately, the rain has calmed and we immediately find two bikes at a bargain price of 300 metikais each (€ 4.5). In the end, it was a fair price considering the effort for drivers and riders. There is virtually no road to the Entre Lagos border, but a trail full of mud and puddles, where motorbikes “skate” for 1.5 hours, loaded with passengers and luggage, covering the 25 excruciating and dangerous kilometers.
If one thinks that crossing into the Malawian territory the adventures are over and we reach the promised land… is mistaken. If the 1.5 hour stunts in the mud were a test, another 45 kilometers of desperation awaits us… almost 3 hours of exhilarating road with countless potholes, but this time under rain and on scooter that strikes my bones. When we reach the paved road, it’s dark already, the locals are laughing at us. Luckily a minibus is coming soon, here they’re not named chapas anymore. What an experience! We sit in the front seats. The vehicle has a problem with the lights and sometimes we go blind, on a road full of pedestrians, bicycles, animals. The driver moves an electrical fuse and the lights come on for a while, then the same again. We finally reach Liwonde. We ask the driver to take us to a hotel we are aware of. He denies. We insist, He refuses. We are offered another minibus that leaves immediately to Blantyre. It’s already late but it’s a good opportunity to save time. It’s raining outside. We arrive at the city by 10:30 pm and there is no living soul around, looks like a ghost town. We ask the driver to take us to any hotel. He denies. We tell him to leave us at a central point. We are alone in an empty city under rain, it is not safe, there is no hotel around. And then, two more “guardian angels” appear. To be continued on the Malawi page…
Here is some information about the hardly accessible border that might help other travelers. At the Entre Lagos – Nayuchi border station, strangely enough, there are some basic infrastructures due to the rail which mainly transports coal. There is a Cuamba – Entre Lagos passenger train, not continuing through Malawi, only every Wednesday. At the immigration post in Mozambique I saw visa issuing equipment. Entering Malawi is easy with the e-visa we had pre-issued, but we had to get the actual visa sticker in one of the two big cities, Lilongwe or Blantyre, within the following days. The two border officers were kind and… finally English -the official language of Malawi- is spoken, making communication easy. A “Fanta” tip request was well understood by myself. I usually don’t give money to officers but I happily gave $1 each, because I liked their vibe. At the border there was also some money exchanger offering a good rate, so the previous bank trouble was useless.