Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Truckin' Down Mozambique

When on the road you hear a constant stream of news, gossip and stories about far flung places and some such places keep on popping their head above the proverbial parapet. For me this is in large part a temporal thing. It is not necessarily linked to how inherently "wonderful" a place is, but more that right here, right now it a place to be. Often these are places that have turned or are turning a corner from difficult times.

Over the last few years Mozambique has been a regular in this travel chatter. Not too long ago it emerged from over quarter of a century of civil war as the poorest nation on earth. Just a few years later it is being lauded as that very rare thing – a success story in Africa. This is something I had to see for myself…

OUTWARDS AND ONWARDS

Saying goodbye to the officially nicest immigration people I have ever met (literally high-five's as our passports were stamped by the Malawian dudes) we entered Mozambique with a sense of real excitement. Surprised to find my poor Spanish working far better than expected we found ourselves in a chapas (Portuguese for death-trap mini-bus) heading to the city of Tete. I really did not know what to expect.

The light faded on a baked scenery of jutting hills and simple thatched villages. On the back seat, squeezed in like cows to the slaughterhouse, knees up to the chest, bags on top, we rolled on. The first thing I noticed, outside of encroaching cramp in the legs, was the lack of lights. All the villages we past on the road disappeared into the dusk – electricity was clearly scarce in these parts. Worryingly our chapas was also lacking in meaningful lights. How the guy missed most of the pot-holes goodness knows. I just kissed my St Christopher and all was fine ("Tudo Bom" is the local phrase).

Two recollections from the journey. First a roadside club pumping out latin vibes. Somehow threatening after the reserved people of Zambia and Malawi – the only noise or light for miles around. Second, a reunion with the Zambezi. Now a wide meandering river – the canyon-creating monster long gone.

Then, quite unexpectedly lights everywhere. A town turned into a small city, which in turn became a city more full of life then anything we had seen in the past 3 weeks. We had entered Tete!

TETE

My fore-knowledge of Tete would have fit on a particularly small post-card. On this card one could have read a repeated phrase collected from various people and the guide in the pocket – "Tete is seriously hot". I had not taken this warning too seriously. I mean, after crossing deserts on camels how hot could this place be? The answer was exceedingly.

We entered this sauna already parched. Rubbing ice drenched soft drink bottles across the forehead and the back of the neck for relief. A night in some of the nastiest accommodation I have ever seen did not add to the general feeling of discomfort. A piece of floor in a mud-hut would have been considerably more comfortable then squidged into the folds of a death-trap bed, blankets carefully positioned on each side to cover the 2 inch spikes sticking out of the mattress. Mozzies buzzing, a toilet that would not have looked out of place in rural India (flushing did not remove any of the general brown colouring) and always, the ever pervading heat. Goodness know if it was 40 degrees, 50... The figure does not matter. The reality is that it made us all decidedly irritable.

In fairness to Tete, I should say that besides what I've noted so far, it seemed a pretty decent place. Banks, shops full of goods, cleaned streets with brightly coloured murals - this was a place on the up. A clear sign of this was the lack of rooms in the better accommodation. I took the explanation for this to be the burgeoning trade in the area, though I can not fully disregard as a factor the way we looked and likely smelt after the 3 day journey from northern Malawi. The people we met were friendly, music poured from the bars and, all in all, I took a positive impression of the place.

Despite all this we were keen to move on. Just a day's journey from the Indian Ocean after all (or so we thought). The lack of buses on the immediate time horizon was proving a slight impediment so, following the advice of a local, we headed to the outskirts of town in the hope of hitching a lift in a truck. And so were the beginnings of an eventful journey…

A LONG HITCH

Some kindly persuasion from our taxi driver, a modicum of Spanish come Portuguese on my part and, most importantly, cash, secured our ride. A 24 wheeler lumber truck (don't quote me on the exact number of wheels… a lot). After a couple of hours in the searing midday heat watching some ridiculously strong locals pile up tons of tree onto a trailer (beyond the measure of my meagre physique), we piled into the cabin and with a hoot of the horn set off south. Just 600-700km to go.

Our accompaniment in the very few metres squared cabin was the driver, 3 ladies and another local guy. Add us 3 and you had 8. The guy had taken the one remaining front seat and the three women the majority of the small bed behind. We, being clueless foreigners, were left with respectively (i) the plastic top of a small cupboard (ii) the squeezed area on top of two of our bags in the far corner and (iii) the melting hot floor above the engine (though this was cushioned by one of our consequentially melting rucksacks). We were not complaining next to the three guys who were riding on top the lumber through the strength sapping day.

Against all odds, the day rolled on without total lack of comfort. Before us a patchwork road – when there is a pothole in a pothole in a pothole, and each is filled in turn, the road takes on a strangely fetching turtle-shell effect. Peering out the breather slits in the otherwise cacooned back section of the cabin, you occasionally caught a glimpse of the parched hilly lands giving way to marginally lusher ones. Every so often we topped up on basic sustenance from road-side hawkers in this town or that. Some music, a book, basic chatter with the locals (language barriers a barrier) and the resting of different parts of the posterior as we switched between out precarious positions. Generally good times. Even the incessant high pitched beeping from a broken break control hardly bothered me.

Then a break at sunset. As the light faded we turned the road into a makeshift cricket pitch. Bassett and I practicing what can only in the most generous sense be called spin-bowling. As night fell (and "fall" is a good verb to describe how the African night suddenly descends), the break did not end. After further investigation it seemed we had run out of petrol – yet another break down on African roads.

In short, we were in the arse-end of no where (by the way, as far as I could work out, that was approx an hour or so's drive from the nearest town and many more from our origin) with no food and about a litre's water between all of us. What made the situation all the more frustrating was that I had seen them test the petrol level on departure. They had stuck a stick into the tank, taken a measurement and, after a small amount of deliberation, headed off anyway. We were no where near the next petrol stop. They do this journey all the time and they had to know that we would be cutting it more than fine, but oh well, we'll try it anyway….grrrgh!

Differences in reaction to this situation are interesting. The locals simply found a place to crawl up and hibernate. No sense of annoyance or frustration. I suppose this is just what happens. As for the three of us, for a long time we take it in humour, but as the hours pass, water disappears and dehydration sets in (headaches et al in my case) we become less amused. Despite his generosity in sharing with us, I remember those last drops trickling into the mouth of the driver with envy.

We were only without water for a dozen or so hours (though admittedly from a dehydrated base and in crazy heat), but such privations can really bring things home. One of those moments you remember - in the middle of the night, lying atop the lumber pile with Dave, staring at the most beautiful sky, strewn with the odd shooting-star. Occasional batches of laughter at the situation, the mildest of hallucination. Thoughts were unerringly jaded by thirst. A comment of "God, this would be beautiful if we had some water" followed by strange laughter. Like when you have bad stomach problems, your thoughts are bent, only registering through the siv of your predicament.

When we awoke after a comatose couple of hours, the origination of the long prolonged wait came clear. Not only had they mis-judged the petrol, they were waiting for their boss to drive to them with fuel from more from 5 or 6 hours down the road, when there is fresh petrol just an hour away… The reason was cost. We festered without food or water to save them a couple of bucks – fair enough in this place I suppose….. but still frustrating.

A final comment on privation. If you want to find the heights of appreciation, the depths of privation are optimal preparation. No words can do justice to how that first ice-cold lemon twist tasted just a couple of hours later…. And the next few litres of similar stuff tasted pretty damn good too. A bit late, but we were back on our way and only 300km to go!

SPLASHING INTO THE SEA

As a bit of travel madness set in we eventually crossed the Tropic of Capricorn surrounded by palm trees as far as the eye-could see. As with most places, we passed women with delicately balanced goods on their heads, wobbly bikes, Chapas full beyond the rafters and an absurd amount of children. A couple of the ladies from our cabin dropped off at a small straw-hut settlement in the bhundu with polite smiles. Finally some leg room.

We poured on for most of the next day. Hurtling south on our juggernaut increasingly covered in sweat and grime….and then……the junction to Vilankulo – beach paradise awaited. Through the ever-persuasive force of money (we did not have any and needed to find a cash point before we could pay the guys) the truck took a detour off the main road and all the way into to town. On a good parting and with a final hoot of the horn each we took a pick up to the beach.
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Under gloomy clouds, spots of rain and heavy wind it was finally before us….the mighty Indian Ocean. Without barely a breather we had taken a long road, 1000 odd km from northern Malawi. We were shattered, hungry and smelled pretty bad. But as we stripped off our clothes and dived head first into the churned up sea we were as happy as Larry. Time for some serious down time!
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