Mozambique: Travelling through the north

14th May - 4th June 2002


I decided to make an early start from Blantyre on Tuesday morning to reach the Mozambique frontier at Muloza. My next destination was Mozambique Island in the north of Mozambique, which I estimated would take just over a day to reach. At least setting off at 05.00 in the morning I thought it would be at least possible to reach Nampula, Mozambique's third largest town, 180km from Mozambique Island. I walked the short distance to the bus park next door to Doogles, from where I had been told minibuses departed for the border. This information was not very accurate and there were no minibuses at this time in the morning. I was told a bus would leave at some undetermined time later in the morning, which didn't help me much in my plans. I was advised to try my luck at the bus park in nearby Limbe; this made sense to me as the road to the border left from this town, about 15km from Blantyre. I took a rather dodgy taxi to Limbe with a two man crew, one driving the other sitting in the passenger seat holding the fuel line in a can of petrol between his feet.

It was still dark when I arrived at the Limbe bus park. A couple of large fires were burning near the entrance, billowing smoke across the park, while some local men wearing big jackets huddled around to keep warm. I found a minibus for Muloza and climbed aboard and waited; I was the first passenger. Soon the sun rose and by then there were only three passengers including myself; my plans for an early start to the border were quickly becoming undone. It had gone 07.00 and still the minibus was nowhere near full capacity and ready to depart. A large bus arrived and pulled up alongside, which was heading to Muloza; we all quickly swapped over vehicles and by 07.30 I was at last on my way to the border, my early start completely wasted. We drove along the same road I had taken the previous week to reach Mt Mulanje, passing by the endless tea plantations in the Shire Highlands, passing the Mulanje Massif and eventually reaching the Malawian border town of Muloza.

A large rusting, white gate marked the end of the road in Malawi where the bus turned around and stopped. As soon as I got off the bus I was surrounded by hopeful bicycle taxi riders touting for business to take me across the border and the 3km to the Mozambique border town of Milange. I planned to employ the services of a bicycle taxi but did my best to ignore them all as I walked to the Malawian immigration post just past the gate across the road. After I had completed my Malawian exit card, which even included a section on how much money I had spent in the country, I walked back out into the sunshine and off along the road past eucalyptus trees into Mozambique. Most of the bicycle taxis had disappeared while I had been doing my paperwork and I wandered free of any hassle along the road. There was no motor vehicle traffic crossing the border, the gate remained firmly closed. Instead it was extremely busy with hundreds of bicycles, all carrying sacks of maize from the direction of Mozambique. As I walked a bicycle taxi pulled up alongside me and as we continued walking we negotiated and finally agreed on a fare to Milange; I hopped on the back with my luggage.

The Mozambique immigration post was not far along the road and was the easiest border I had crossed on this trip, There was no need to fill out any immigration cards or answer any pointless questions. Maybe not being able to speak any Portuguese, the national language of Mozambique, helped. We soon arrived in Milange and were cycling up along the main street, a four-lane road with the streetlights running along an island in the middle. Despite this large boulevard there was hardly a vehicle in sight, the most noticeable difference from Malawi. About halfway along the street a small collection of vehicles, trucks and pickups were parked; one of the pickups was packed full of people and cargo, this would be my transport for the 200km to Mocuba.

It was 10.45 as I climbed into the back of the pickup (in Mozambique called a chapa) and tried to make myself comfortable sitting on my backpack. My timing crossing the border was excellent, no sooner had I arrived in Milange and I was off again down the road. I had no idea how frequently transport left this town for Mocuba, one source I read said that a truck just goes once every other day. I thought that my plans of at least reaching Nampula were now back on track, as I didn't have to wait the hours I was expecting to leave this small backwater town. The pickup drove slowly around town picking up yet more passengers and cargo; the driver was becoming concerned at the amount of weight sitting on his rear axle. Eventually we set off down the long road to Mocuba. I had heard that this road was in poor condition, but it was not really that bad considering and we seemed to be making steady progress. A little way out of Milange we stopped yet again to pick up more cargo, some giant sacks almost the size of mattresses. It took a while to reorganise the rest of the load and to get all the passengers back in, now all carefully perched on top of the cargo. I was right at the back and it was a constant battle not to fall off as people and cargo had a tendency to slip forever to the rear. There were two bicycles strapped to the back of the pickup, which really saved me from falling out over the many bumps. At one stage I noticed I was sitting past the rear of the pickup, only the bicycles and some sacks between me and the road. Twice along the way the bicycles finally gave in to the relentless pressure forced on them and slipped onto the road, handlebars suddenly dragging through the dust and gravel and the passengers banging on the roof of the cab to stop the driver.

After about 100km we dropped off around half of the passengers, much to my relief. Now I had a 'seat' just behind the cab but with all the cargo I was sitting on I was at the same height as the roof; I just hoped we wouldn't have to make any emergency stops, otherwise I would have gone flying over the top of the cab. The road seemed to go on forever passing through the bush and small villages of thatched mud huts surrounded by fields of maize. This side of the frontier appeared very different to Malawi and the endless carpet of tea bushes. Still we bounced along the road gradually getting caked in dust as the pickup threw up billows of brown dust in its wake. After travelling through so many English speaking African nations I found it odd to be suddenly sitting here not being able to communicate or understand what anyone was saying as they chatted away in Portuguese.

At 16.15 we arrived in Mocuba, crossing over the airstrip covered in brown, dry grass and into the centre of the town. The pickup dropped everyone off at the market and then they gave me a lift to the Pensão Cruzeiro, probably the smartest hotel in town, but the only one recommended in my guidebook as a reasonable place to stay. It was now too late in the day to reach Nampula, so I was left with no other option but to spend the night here. I was slightly disappointed, I had hoped to get a lot further today. The Pensão Cruzeiro was a welcome place to stop and clean myself up; my day spent in Blantyre doing my laundry now seemed a waste of time as all my clothes were ingrained with brown dust.

Again Mocuba seemed a bit like a ghost town, as there were hardly any vehicles on the road. The market by the bus park was a busy, colourful place with hundreds of people on either foot or bicycle. The main streets were wide boulevards, badly potholed with the street lighting running down the centre, which was all broken. An air of neglect hung over the town. It no longer looked war ravaged from seventeen years of civil war but it definitely looked like no one had done any maintenance over the past twenty-five years. Windows were broken in many of the buildings, paint peeling and the bare concrete walls heavily stained by water, leaving ugly streaks of black down the facades. I ate that evening at the restaurant below the hotel and was again shocked at how expensive everything was in this town. I hoped that the rest of the country would be cheaper otherwise my budget would be in serious problems. I had an early night. It had been a long and tiring day since I had woken up in Blantyre at 04.30 that morning.

I once again planned an early start at 06.00 and was fairly confident that today I would reach Mozambique Island. I was thwarted in my attempt at the first hurdle; the front door of the hotel was firmly locked. I looked around for a night watchman. I found his bed hidden in a cupboard under the stairs but no night watchman to be seen. I was becoming frustrated and went back upstairs to look around; the hotel was deserted. I walked out onto the rear balcony and saw below me in a courtyard the waiter from the restaurant next door. I shouted down at him and he soon understood that I wanted someone to come and unlock the front door. After settling my bill, totalling MET450,000, the most I had paid so far for a hotel in nearly four months of travelling, I walked down the main street to where I had been told the buses depart for Nampula. I reached the bridge across the river at the edge of town and there were no busses or vehicles to be seen. It is then that a young Zimbabwean lad came and helped me, the first person I had met since crossing the border who could speak English. He told me that no busses leave from the end of main street, again my guidebook had incorrect information, and he led me back to the bus park by the market. It was great at last to be speaking to someone again, yesterday I had spent a very quiet day staring at the road from the back of a pickup listening to Portguese.

There was a medium sized bus, slightly larger than a minibus waiting in the bus park with a sign in the front window stating it's destination, Nampula. It had just gone 06.30 and once again things were looking hopeful, all we needed were some more passengers to fill up the bus. Unfortunately this didn't happen fast and time began to wear on. There was another young lad on the bus named James who could speak English. He was a Mozambican and had been studying English for some years and relished the chance at some practice. He saw his best opportunity for the future to learn as many languages as possible and was on his way home to Nampula, before returning to study in the capital Maputo later the next week. I was happy to be able to communicate with someone, which whiled away the hours as it seemed to take an age for the bus to fill with passengers. James' young cousin was the bus driver and he arrived at about 09.00 and James introduced me, also informing me that his cousin was a very fast driver. This kind of information, that tends to impress the locals, just filled me with fear; I wished for luck on our journey.

The heat of the day was building during the morning as we sat around on the bus waiting under the bright sun, with only the occasional cloud to give a shady respite. It was 11.30 when eventually the bus was push started and we set off on our journey to Nampula. After filling up with fuel along the main street we crossed over the bridge and left Mocuba; I began to doubt whether I would again reach Mozambique Island today as we had left Mocuba so late in the day. The road was fairly good north out of town, it was tarred with only a few badly potholed sections; I think the general good state of the road was largely due to the lack of traffic on the roads in the north of the country. James' cousin drove at a fairly leisurely pace, much to my relief; the engine was straining hard with the amount of passengers and cargo loaded on board. The bus was crammed full and no one could really move, it was a mission just to try and open the doors when we stopped. A steady stream of smoke blew out of the engine, situated next to the driver in the centre of the bus, as the engine burnt oil. Whenever we reached a hill this steady stream of blue smoke turned into a choking black cloud which filled the bus; most people kept their windows open for ventilation.

It appeared that some foreign government, I think the Japanese, had been funding the replacement of this northern road, which had not yet been completed. At most of the rivers we suddenly veered off on a diversion along the old dirt road and crossed the river on the old bridge. Alongside would be the new bridge, standing alone like an island, the embankment to take the road to the bridge yet to be built. It looked like these bridges were already a few years old, the concrete was stained black where water had been running down the sides. The further north we travelled the more often we found sections of the new tarred road missing and the bus would carefully weave its way around the potholes at a snails pace. At 16.00 we neared a fairly large town, I hoped that this would be Nampula; the bus stopped in the centre of the town next to a petrol station. It was not Nampula. James told me that this was as far as the bus would be going today, but the bus operator would pay a truck driver to take me the rest of the way to Nampula. I asked James where we were and he told me Alto Molócuè, which I found on my map and then began laughing; I was only halfway.

The truck, which was fairly small but heavily laden, left at 16.30 from the petrol station. I had a seat in the cab along with one other passenger from the bus, the rest of the passengers sat on top of the cargo in the back. It was not long until we were back on the road continuing north out of Alto Molócuè, the sun setting quickly and the countryside becoming enveloped by darkness. The road was in a terrible condition, no longer tarred and very rough with deep potholes and ruts. It didn't look like it had been repaired since the end of the rainy season and at times we literally had to crawl along the road, the locals on bicycles overtaking us and disappearing back into the dark ahead of us. We passed by villages alongside the road, I could just make out the shape of mud huts at the edge of the truck's headlights and see the red glow of cooking fires. Many times I bashed my head against the roof of the cab when we hit an unexpected bump in the road. The base of my spine was taking a hammering as well and I was just glad I was not sitting on the back of the truck as that must have been almost unbearable. About 100km short of Nampula we crossed a fairly large bridge and we were once again back on a smooth tarred road. By now it was late and I was very tired and dozed off, no longer having to worry about being bashed around the cab by the potholed road.

At 00.30 we arrived in Nampula and the truck driver dropped me off outside a hotel. It was an expensive place wanting MET500,000 for a night; I decided to look elsewhere. I really didn't want to pay a lot of money just to spend a few hours sleeping until day break when I planned to hit the road again for Mozambique Island at first light. The streets were almost deserted at this time of night; night-watchmen sat outside businesses, some asleep, as I walked through the city looking for a quiet spot where I could sit down for a few hours and wait until daybreak. Every street I walked down there was a policeman and they all stopped me, some asking to check my passport and asking me questions in Portuguese that I was unable to understand let alone answer. Eventually one policeman escorted me to a cheap hotel, the grotty looking Pensão Nampula, which turned out to be full. The night watchman indicated that he could find me a room if I paid him now. I was immediately suspicious and decided I was not going to part with any money until the morning. It was obvious that the money he wanted was a backhander and I didn't want to wake up, find the night watchman gone and the hotel manager demanding payment from me again. After what seemed like an age the night watchman finally agreed to payment in the morning and showed me to a gloomy, basic room. I didn't even bother to take my boots off and fell asleep almost immediately on the grotty, dirty bed.

At 05.40 there was a loud banging on my door. I tried to ignore it but five minutes later came the knocking again. It was the night watchman telling me it was time to go. I paid him as agreed last night and I departed happily and walked up to the train station from where I should find some form of transport for the final leg of my journey to Mozambique Island. A large bus was waiting and I jumped on board and like some minor miracle it departed almost immediately. It went as far as Monapo, where I changed vehicles and climbed into the back of a pickup truck. After two and a half days travelling I finally caught sight of my destination, Mozambique Island lying a few kilometres off the coast. I was once more back by the ocean, the smell of sea reminding me of home, the shores lined with palm trees swaying gently in the warm tropical breeze.

Continue reading this journey: Mozambique Island