Bliss in Bilene


Words by Neil Harrison Pictures by Neil Harrison and various

After scoring an invite to spend a week in Bilene – a Mozambican coastal destination he’d visited once before – our editor thought he had a pretty good idea of what lay in store. As it turned out, he was in for a surprise or three.

I’ve heard it said that you can divide the world into three groups: mountain people, plains people and sea people. Well, I’m a sea person. This doesn’t mean that I spend my free hours on the beach or in a boat – far from it – but whether on holiday or at work, I generally end up positioning myself within easy reach of a coastline, or, at the very least, a tidal estuary.  So it was hardly surprising that when we were offered a spot on a 4×4 MegaWorld club trip to Bilene, my diary miraculously cleared itself for the dates in question. The fact that I’d be driving 4×4 MegaWorld MD Deon Venter’s fully-kitted out FJ Cruiser was the cherry on top of a cake I’d have gladly eaten anyway.
Bliss in Bilene
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Bilene, it’s a small town some 100 kilometres north-east of Maputo as the crow flies. You turn off the EN1 at Macia and drive 30 kilometres coastwards. Bilene hugs the northern shores of Uembje lagoon towards its western end; the lagoon itself is a saltwater body which tracks parallel to the coastline behind a tall headland 
of vegetation-covered dunes. Think Langebaan but without the enormous, deep ocean mouth and you’ve got the general idea.

On a previous visit to Bilene, I’d spent time in the town and done a beach drive to the south. Th ough it wasn’t a long visit, just a couple of days, I pretty much assumed that I had the place fi gured out – lagoon, 2M beer and beach, with a change of sequence for variety. However, on this visit we wouldn’t be staying in Bilene and this is when it all started to get rather interesting. Our destination lay on the lagoon’s southern shores, almost due east across the still waters from the town, at a lodge-to-be. Two of the 4×4 MegaWorld club members, Klaus Fischer and Johnny Aucamp, were busy building a lodge there, and while it was far from fi nished they’d generously agreed to host the 4×4 MegaWorld club for a week. The other side of the lagoon is about an hour’s drive from town; the first section of dirt tracks back and forth through the grassland to the east of Bilene, but then the trail swoops down to the lagoon, and your road becomes the strip of white sand just above the water’s edge.
While one can hardly accuse Bilene of being a bourgeoning metropolis town (especially out of season), once you’re away driving along the lagoon’s edge it’s rapidly apparent that you’ve entered into a territory where clocks tick to an even slower rhythm. The last settlement of any size is the small village of Nhabanga which lies pretty much on the most easterly end of the lagoon. From here onwards you’re driving on the other side of the lagoon, in a south-westerly direction again.

The fringes of land along the water’s edge are punctuated by tiny settlements including campsites, beach bars, small resorts and coastal bush – it’s hardly developed at all. On this side of the lagoon, in contrast to the relatively straight sweeps on the opposite shores, you’ll discover five distinctive bays, each with its own sentry pair of needle-like promontories jabbing out into the lagoon’s deeper water; whether this topography is a result of current, wind, tide or a combination of the three is diffi cult to say, but in my view it imbues these shores with more of a sense of place or identity than those on the town side. I’ve stayed in many lodges over the years but this was the first time I’d visited one midway through its construction. Obviously one can’t pronounce judgement on facilities when they are half complete or not even built at all, but I can tell you this, the 12 chalets dotting the hillside are beautifully positioned. You’re not on top of your neighbour, the views from the windows and sheltered decks are worth the price of admission alone and the dimensions of the rooms are large and accommodating. Nghunghwa Lodge has the makings of a great destination, and things would have to go dreadfully, dreadfully wrong for this venue not to live up to its early promise when it opens in December this year. See the panel elsewhere in this article for more information.

Klaus and Johnny have been careful to integrate their venture with the local communities. Besides the obvious long-term employment opportunities, the two partners are also working to provide a dredging operation to broaden and deepen the lagoon’s mouth in order to attract more marine life and allow the region to more fully enjoy the cleansing effects of the ocean tides. What’s more, they’ve built a borehole for the local village and sponsored the resident football team with kit. Honourable initiatives one and all.

If you really want to, you could spend your days swimming in the lagoon or the pool, going on boat trips, or just chilling with a cold 2M close at hand, but if you’re at Bilene in your 4×4, there are some great off -road drives on off er. We tackled the first of these soon after our arrival; a drive through the headland east of the lodge brought us to the dunes overlooking the ocean. There’s easy access to the beach from here but you’ll need permits or permissions; we had some fun tackling the steep dune slopes of the exit route. A number of the club members were inexperienced on this terrain but soon earned their sand epaulettes. Th ough Toyotas (4.0 V6 Hilux and Fortuners) were the most popular weapons of choice, other club members put in solid performances in their Colts, Jeeps, and Geländewagens. Th e most memorable trip for me was a drive to the south-west, to the so-called southern lakes of Lagoa Muandje and, further on, Lagoa Pati.

These are large freshwater lakes separated from the sea by dune belts. Th ey’re indescribably pretty, completely untouched by development or settlement, and we had the pleasure of a lunch stop and a swim at Muandje. The drive there from Bilene is a gentle one, although overgrown in parts (give your vehicle the VPS treatment beforehand!) and pretty much incident-free. Except for the bridge. To call it a bridge is perhaps something of an overstatement. When we arrived at the small river, about six feet deep and as wide as a vehicle, all we could see was a loosely bundled collection of rotting logs, some of which lay just above the surface, with the remainder hidden away below the surface. Some careful testing proved that this bridge was strong enough to handle the weight of the vehicles, but what we didn’t realise was that the logs were so rotten that the bridge would become somewhat less of a bridge with every crossing. Getting the last vehicle across was a distinctly dodgy aff air. But no problem, we’d be returning along a different trail. Well, that was the plan, but while the trail we followed late that afternoon led us through some spectacular countryside, real Rider Haggard terrain, it slowly petered out until we were forced to admit defeat, at sunset, and retrace our steps. So when we arrived at the bridge the second time, the waters that ran over it seemed as dark and treacly as our prospects. With a healthy dose of throttle the lead vehicle lurched across, but it was clear that getting the other vehicles across safely would be a battle of consequence. And so it was that for the next four hours, the convoy of 4x4s was manhandled, winched, and pushed across what remained of the bridge.
That this was accomplished without injury or damage was due to two factors. Firstly, Deon Venter took responsibility for the operation and personally guided each vehicle across. Secondly, no-one lost their cool. It wasn’t the kind of situation that I seek out – the line between challenge and disaster was too fi ne – but it’s an experience that will be long remembered by all who were there that night. At the time of writing, a party had been rallied to return and build a proper log bridge for the benefi t of the locals who rely on that crossing for their daily aff airs. Another day’s drive took us a couple of hours to the east on good sandy roads, to Zongoene Lodge, located at the mouth of the Limpopo. Here, fishermen will fi nd much to occupy themselves, with great catches recorded both near the mouth and at sea (there’s a boat launch ramp nearby). The lodge itself is under new management and there’s much improvement evident. It’s a great place to visit for some fancy chow when you and your family fi nally tire of bacon and eggs and boerewors.

Although there aren’t more than a handful of restaurants on the seaward side of the lagoon, Nghunghwa Lodge has something special to off er, but to reveal more here would spoil their forthcoming launch. Instead, I’ll tell you about another venue called Villa n’Banga, which lies on the eastern end of the lagoon near Nhabanga village. Ensconced beneath enormous trees it’s a venue that looks pleasant enough during daylight hours but at night the coloured lights are switched on and this venue turns into the type of place where you plan to pop in for a quick sundowner and then end up staggering out of an hour or two before sunrise the next day.

Their menu is fairly limited but the none of the area’s specialities are overlooked. Th e bar off ers a variety of cocktails, some of which arrive in a freshly shucked coconut; beware, they go down real easy. Best of all, if you speak to the barmen nicely, they’ll lay down some cool reggae tracks. It ain’t a party until the boere boogie to Bualo Soldier. While restaurants are in short supply on this side of the lagoon, you’re never far away from a bar. Some are more rustic than others – simple wooden structures with a couple of battered seats. Others are more established and off er all the spirits you’re used to seeing back home. Whichever type you choose to visit, you’ll fi nd they have two things in common: cold 2Ms and sticky seats. Once you sit down with the still waters in front of you, you’ll fi nd it very diffi cult to come up with a reason to get up and go somewhere else. Which in a way sums up the Bilene experience for me. I once heard war described as being long periods of boredom punctuated by brief moments of sheer terror. I’d like to think that you could describe life on Bilene’s lagoon in a similar, but more positive way. Long periods of blissful relaxation punctuated by short spells of sheer pleasure. It’s as laid-back or as thrilling as you want it to be. Whichever you choose, Bilene delivers.

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