Words and pictures by Grant Spolander
“Where have you been?”
The question is rhetorical more than anything else, so we keep our mouths shut. “You have no stamps on this form and you’re missing another form that must look like this!” The Mozambican border official holds up an immigration form filled with stamps.
My stomach sinks, I go blank and reboot in tourist mode – raised eyebrows, a stupid smile and a shrug of the shoulders. It works – the official dismisses us with the back of his hand and signals us through the border into Mozambique. I know that the missing document may come back to haunt us, but I don’t care – I’m just glad to be over the border.
Planning a trip to Mozambique’s southern shores was hard work from the start. The idea was to explore the area between Xai Xai and Inhambane in an attempt to find affordable offerings for SA overlanders. Unfortunately, I’ve never previously travelled to this part of the world, but thousands of South Africans have, so I felt like a Christian exploring Mecca so I could tell Muslims where to go.
What’s more, I’d heard endless bad reports about the Komatipoort border post: it’s poorly signposted, there’s no instruction as to where to park, stand or pay, it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between the plain-clothed officials and one of the many so-called “helpers” sporting home-made badges, and depending on what time of year you visit – especially school holidays – you can stand in a queue for the better part of a day. If you’re familiar with this border post it’s probably a breeze, but for first-time visitors it’s a potential nightmare.
Before arriving at Komatipoort I’d armed myself with border tips found on the ‘net, but from the moment we arrived these counted for squat as my thoughts were quickly scrabbled by the hoard of locals offering their service as immigration advisors.
I still don’t know what the protocol is at this border post, and the only advice I can offer newbie Komatipoort visitors is not to give your passport to anyone offering to help you, and if possible, to buy your third-party insurance (a requirement when driving in Moz) before arriving at the border – that way you’ll have one less thing to worry about when you get there.
Leaving Komatipoort on the N4 there’s a gravel road (R251) approximately 40 km from the border on your LHS; this track cuts out the trip through Maputo and its traffic jams, a toll road and several police road blocks along the way. The road’s in poor condition but because it pops out some 110 km north of Maputo on the EN1 (the main highway that follows the region’s coast) it’s a major time saver.
Overland travel between Ponta do Ouro and Vilanculos is by no means a pioneer’s adventure. And from what I’d heard, at the end of each year the entire Gauteng province sets out on a pilgrimage to the palm-lined beaches of Mozambique, and with this following comes the screaming sound of quad bikes, jetskis and power boats.
There are now hundreds of lodges lining this coastline, each trying to outdo the other with their activity-based offerings. And while I don’t have anything against jetskis, scuba diving and deep-sea fishing, I’m not a fan of crowds and overly expensive holidays. This had me doubting whether or not solitude and affordability could still be found on Mozambique’s southern shores.
Fortunately, some time back, a mate of mine – a Gautie – mentioned a holiday he enjoyed at a very secluded beach just north of Xai Xai (pronounced shy shy). The campsite was called Bela Vida and apparently it was untouched. I contacted the owners Eugene and Corrine Maree for directions to their camp; their instructions went something like this: “When you get to the small town of Chissibuca turn right at the large mango tree.” Well I’m a Kaapie and wouldn’t know what a mango tree looked like if one fell on me, so that advice was lost on me. After overshooting the inconspicuous dirt road half a dozen times we eventually found it and headed eastwards.
The road to Bela Vida weaves its way through thick tropical vegetation and throughout the drive we noticed hundreds of small dwellings hidden in the dense bush. Local Mozambicans are quite private folk, often opting to live alone rather than communally. Trade is a big part of their lives – one family will catch fish and barter with another for vegetables.
Food in this part of Mozambique is bountiful, and although there isn’t much variety, there’s plenty of what is available. And best of all, it’s cheap, not Shoprite-Checkers-having-a-special kinda cheap, but in-that-case-I’ll-take-three kinda cheap.
In fact, the availability of food and the reasonable prices got me thinking about the area’s overlanding advantages. South African 4×4 travellers are often accused of touring with way more than they need and although I feel that’s a matter of opinion, some things really should be left at home when travelling to Mozambique’s southern shores.
Don’t go to Moz with your vehicle packed full of beer; you may not find milk or fruit juice here, but beer can be bought anywhere and everywhere. The local favourite is 2M (pronounced Doyish M), which tastes as good as – if not better than – SA beer, and at around R10 a bottle (550 ml) it ain’t badly priced.
We brought very little food from SA and ate fresh fish almost daily. Don’t buy it from the towns, markets or lodges; buy it fresh on the beach. Just watch for a returning dhow and negotiate with the fishermen. Firewood should also be left at home, as well as bread, fruit and padkos – locally-grown cashew nuts can be purchased for a steal at about R50 for a large bag.
The dirt road to Bela Vida gradually turns into a narrow sandy track that gets thicker and softer the closer you get to the shore. This track eventually makes its way through a reedy wetland area and before you know it you’re free of the bush and out in the open – an estuary lies to your left and beyond that the Indian Ocean stumbles over a shallow reef. I hate the idea of using a cliché to describe a place so uniquely beautiful, but it really is paradise found.
Eugene and Corrine have been living on the beach for three years. Their cottage is made from local wood and reeds and when you enter their humble home you step from beach sand onto beach sand; there are no carpets, tiles or parquet flooring here, just snowy white sand pressing through your toes.
The couple’s household appliances are either gas-operated or powered by a solar panel or wind generator. They farm their own vegetables, catch fish off the beach and trade with the locals; they have no perimeter walls, glass windows or burglar bars – their yard is a stretch of beach so long that the closest neighbour is eight km north and 21 km south along the shoreline.
For visitors, there’s currently one campsite on offer with only two toilets and two showers, which means that you and 11 others can have the area all to yourselves. You won’t find much in the way of entertainment here; this is a place to lie on the beach, swim in the sea, go for a day drive or throw a line in the water. The estuary also offers safe, shallow swimming for the kids.
One of the most popular characters at Bela Vida is Clementine the pig, a much-loved pet of the Maree family. Eugene bought the piglet as an anniversary present for Corrine – it’s now a massive beast that faithfully follows the couple on afternoon strolls and swims with them in the sea. I tried to get a photograph of Clementine, but it turns out I have a fear of pigs. I know that sounds ridiculous, and it’s something I only recently discovered about myself, but every time that hairy porker approached me I had an uncontrollable urge to run.
For me, the real attraction at Bela Vida is Eugene and Corrine; their stories are extraordinary to listen to and when we had dinner with them the conversation was effortless. It was like we’d known them for years and were simply catching up.
When we left Bela Vida we followed a back road route to Quissico – the next small town on the EN1. This track allowed us to bypass a bad stretch of potholes on the highway. Eugene told us about the route but it’s also plotted on the latest version of Tracks4Africa. Back on the EN1 we made our way north to Inhambane, one of the most popular destinations amongst scuba divers and deep-sea fishermen, and also, one of the most lodge-dense regions of Mozambique.
Inhambane is a province of Mozambique, and the province’s capital shares the same name. The city looks large on Google Earth but after a 30-minute drive in and around town you’ll soon realise it’s actually helluva small. It’s also one of the oldest cities in Moz and the architecture is testament to the region’s Arabic and Portuguese influence.
In the early days the city’s harbour was a thriving port of trade but today it serves more as a commuting point to various parts within the Inhambane bay. The city itself is clean and has a very laid-back stillness to it. However, if you make the mistake of stopping your vehicle on any of the main roads you’re bound to be swarmed by locals trying to sell you something. This is never done in an aggressive way – and it’s often quite fun to listen to their entertaining sales pitches – but it can get a little tiring after saying “no thanks” for the 100th time.
The road from Inhambane to the region’s most popular accommodation spots was in a pretty bad state when we were there (mid-May ‘10), but new tar was being laid at the time. Seventeen km after Inhambane the road forks; keeping right will take you to Tofo and left up to Barra, but before you do either it’s tradition to park at this intersection and enjoy a drink (just one if you’re driving) at Bar Babalaza, a very popular tavern amongst visitors.
Tofo is one of the most accessible areas within the Inhambane area; the road in is in a bad condition, but it’s still doable in a sedan. This is one of the reasons why Tofo is very popular amongst foreign tourists and therefore an expensive place at which to stay and eat.
Barra, on the other hand, is only accessible in a 4×4. A softroader could get you there but you’ll need respectable ground clearance – at least 200 mm or so – to clear the middelmannetjie.
We stayed at the Barra 4×4 Lighthouse campsite. The facilities here are basic to say the least – you pitch your tent on dirty brown sand and during the holiday season it apparently gets pretty full. However, the campsite is perched on top of a cliff face overlooking the sea, so the view is amazing and the sunsets unforgettable.
Out of season, camping costs R90 pppn. There’s a shebeen nearby and some of the locals enter the campsite to sell you bread and fruit for a good price. Fish can also be bought direct from fishermen on the beach. We stayed here for only two nights, as our time in Moz was running out and we still wanted to explore a nearby, untouched peninsula.
Most travellers visit Ponta da Linga Linga by dhow, catching a ride from the harbour town of Maxixe. I have yet to see a map depicting any roads into this peninsula and even Tracks4Africa haven’t mapped a route. So when we embarked on our journey back to the EN1 and northwards to Morrumbene, we didn’t know if we’d find a way in, or even accommodation for the night. However, we were assured by two locals that there was a road into Ponta da Linga Linga – we just had to look out for a tiny white sign nailed to a tree.
Just after the town of Morrumbene a small gravel road dives into a forest of palm trees. Heading northwards on the EN1 it’ll be on your RHS and if it weren’t for the thin white sign reading “Linga Linga”, you could drive past this track 100 times without seeing it. Once on this road, I tried to remember each time it split, forked and looped, but eventually we gave up and set our GPS on compass mode, heading south-east on whatever path we came across.
About an hour or so later we came across boards directing us to numerous lodges in different directions. I was hugely disappointed, because for the first time on our trip it felt like we were exploring a remote part of the Mozambique coast, but in fact, we were in an area so exclusive that many of the lodge guests flew in by helicopter or sailed in by yacht.
Prior to visiting Ponta da Linga Linga I had done some research on the peninsula and had read about a campsite called Funky Monkeys. Apparently, long before any of the lodges had set up camp a local inhabitant named Lucio was running a crude backpackers right on the shore line.
Foreign tourist from all over the world would catch a dhow to this remote and isolated peninsula where they would take up residence for up to three months or more – some stayed long after their visas had expired. Apparently, at one stage Funky Monkeys had more than 100 residents from Scandinavia, Europe, the Middle East, North America and various parts of Africa. It was a cosmopolitan settlement with local Lucio as the chief. Some folk equated this community to that featured in the movie The Beach.
Today, lodges are being built here at a rapid rate and according to the lodge owners the peninsula should soon have government-supplied electricity. Funky Monkeys still exists, not quite on the same scale as it did in the past, but Lucio still offers a very, very rustic backpackers experience on Ponta da Linga Linga.
His site is now located on the southern half of the peninsula. There’s place to pitch a tent and there are two basic reed cabins for rent. Camping costs just R25 pppn, and if you like, Lucio’s girlfriend will cook you a delicious meal for around R40. I wolfed down a whole chicken with potatoes, stew and rice for just R38.
In the evening we joined Lucio for three hours of fishnet hauling on the beach. We didn’t partake in the hauling ourselves but we watched as his two nephews rowed out in a perforated canoe, releasing the net as they circled the bay. They did this several times at various spots along the shore, pulling in crabs and small fish. In broken English, Lucio finally accepted defeat and said, “fishing no good today”.
Later that same night I sat with Lucio and chatted about the good old days and what he thought of the lodge development. His friendly, jovial face quickly took on a sombre appearance and in the dim light of the paraffin lamp he looked about 10 years older. Despite the language difficulties between us it was clear Lucio wasn’t fond of the new lodges, and despite his insistence that he’ll fight the development to the bitter end – he’s made several complaints to the government already – he looked too old and tired for the fight.
The following evening we spent a night at one of the nearby lodges. There was a bar to sit at, a pool table, dart board and a TV playing the Super 14 rugby. I loved our authentic and memorable experience at Funky Monkeys but felt happy to be watching the rugby and chatting to the lodge owner. At that point I realised how futile Lucio’s efforts were. It’s basic human nature, we all love the great outdoors, but for the vast majority the allure of electricity and warm water is difficult to turn down.
The situation on Ponta da Linga Linga is a reflection of Mozambique’s entire southern coastal region – an area becomes popular, investors take over, prices climb and the African sense of adventure retreats to the next inaccessible place further up the track. There’s no right or wrong here, lodges create jobs, roads are laid, a school gets electricity and the government starts distributing free malaria treatment. How can you argue with that?
So the question remains, can solitude and affordability still be found on Mozambique’s southern shores? Absolutely. All you have to do is leave as much as you can at home and force yourself to buy local. Yes, you’re gonna crave that packet of Nik Naks, lamb chops and maybe your favourite SA / Namibian beer, but it’ll be an experience you’ll never forget, and who knows, maybe one of the locals will reveal the location of the next hidden gem to you.
TOYOTA FORTUNER 3.0 D-4D
Planning a cross-country trip on SA’s highways is dead easy; generally speaking, the distance-to-time ratio is one-to-one, so 500 km will take you about five hours to drive.
Moz is a different story; potholes, livestock, mud and the occasional tropical downpour all drastically slow down your travelling time. What should’ve taken us five hours to drive on the EN1, took us eight.
Roads like these have a habit of destroying vehicles, but luckily we were in a Fortuner so we had nothing to worry about. As far as overlanding vehicles go, there ain’t much to rival the Fortuner in comfort, reliability, performance and value for money.
The vehicle’s 3.0 D-4D motor has for a long time proved itself as an economical oil burner, with respectable power figures and oodles of low-down torque of 120 kW @ 3 400 rpm and 343 Nm @ 1 400 rpm respectively. During our trip we recorded an average fuel use of 10.1l/100 km on a combined cycle (off-road and freeway use).
The Fortuner’s all-round coil-sprung suspension with independent double wishbone upfront and four-link solid axle at the rear gave us the agility needed to dodge the thousands of potholes before us, while providing rigidity and strength for practical load-carrying capacity (705 kg).
But what really sets the Fortuner apart from its competitors is its feature-filled cabin. Storage space for sunglasses, cellphones, passports and drinks can be found throughout the interior. There are also two auxiliary power points up front and another at the rear – essential for the running of a portable fridge / freezer.
The Fortuner also boasts a number of driver aids that won’t be found in many 4x4s of the same value, such as cruise control, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, a rear diff-lock and Vehicle Stability Control.
Off-road, this 7-seater SUV proved agile on the narrow, sandy tracks we encountered, and with its laudable 220 mm of ground clearance, tall middelmannetjies posed no threat. The Fortuner is also one of the few SUVs factory fitted with AT tyres (Bridgestone Dueller 265 / 65 / R17), ultimately saving you a future expense of approximately R12 000.
Personally, I can’t think of a more suitable overlanding SUV in this price range, and based on the fact that the Fortuner has for a long time remained SA’s dominant seller in the mid-sized SUV sector, this tells me I’m not the only one who shares this view.
GPS POINTS (WGS 84)
S 25º 35.055 E 32º 39.326
S 24º 52.734 E 34º 25.130
S 23º 47.575 E 35º 32.249
S 23º 43.987 E 35º 24.084
Linga Linga lodge
S 23º 44.283 E 35º 23.966
EN1 Bela Vida turnoff
S 24º 51.022 E 34º 15.178
EN1 Ponta da Linga Linga turnoff
S 23º 38.513 E 35º 20.435
S 23º 50.699 E 35º 30.093
S 23º 51.00 E 35º 30.828
WHERE WE STAYED
Casa Lisa, Maputo
If you’re looking for an overnight stay just outside Maputo this is the spot. There’s ample place to pitch a tent, or you can bunk in one of the many well-equipped chalets. The lodge also boasts a lekker bar area, and if you don’t feel like cooking, the food’s great too. Contact Bruce Buckland on +258 82 304 1990 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Bela Vida, Xai Xai
Perched between the sea and an open-mouth estuary, Bela Vide offers 12 campers a secluded Moz experience they’ll never forget. The owners Eugene and Corrine are incredibly friendly and accommodating. Camping costs R50 pppn which includes a kitchen shelter, toilets and cold-water showers. Contact Eugene or Corrine on +258 82 515 1362 or email@example.com
Funky Monkeys, Morrumbene
One of my favourite experiences on this trip. Your host, Lucio, is a born and bred Mozambican. He’s also one of the most colourful people I have ever met and an excellent host. The facilities are… third world, but it’s definitely worth a night or two. Camping costs R25 pppn or R50 pppn for a reed cabin. Contact Lucio on +258 82 836 2090
Linga Linga lodge, Morrumbene
If you’re looking for something more comfortable on Ponta da Linga Linga this lodge offers a number of fully furnished chalets at a reasonable price. The lodge owner / manager, Phil, is also an experienced deep-sea fisherman offering chartered trips for marlin, tuna and just about every other game fish you can think of. Contact Phil on 083 627 6058
Bara Lighthouse, Inhambane
The best thing about this campsite is that it’s centrally located in the Inhambane region yet rustic enough for that wild, coastal Moz feel. The owner also prohibits the use of quad bikes and just about all electrical appliances that make a noise. Camping charges vary depending on the season but out of school holidays you can expect to pay 90 pppn. Contact Dennis Adams on +258 84 389 5217 or go to www.barralighthouse.com
Unless you’re driving a vehicle that requires 50 ppm diesel, fuel shouldn’t be a problem in this region. There are dozens of small villages on the EN1 and a large number of them have fuel services available. What’s more, fuel in Mozambique is fractionally cheaper than it is in SA – we were paying an average of R7.90 per litre of 500 ppm diesel.
WHERE TO BUY PROVISIONS
You’ll find convenience stores in all the major towns; otherwise, there are loads of local markets and stalls on the side of the EN1, each selling products like nuts, fruit, bread, coconuts and sugar cane. Dairy products are not freely available and if you’re craving something like cheese or a ham sandwich your best bet is at the Chilli’s Deli not far from Tofo (see GPS panel for coordinates)
There are plenty of soft, sandy tracks to navigate so for this reason a compressor and tyre pressure gauge are crucial. Also be sure to pack a tyre repair kit. New legislation in Moz requires that drivers must have two reflective triangles in their vehicle as well as a reflective jacket. If you get pulled over by the police, the chances are they’re gonna ask to see these things so don’t be caught without them. Both these items can be bought at an AA travel store. What’s more, third-party insurance is also a requirement if you intend driving in Mozambique. Be sure to buy this before you get to the border – it can be purchased at Outdoor Warehouse for about R150.
CONVOY OR SOLO
The southern coast of Mozambique is lodge-dense so if you do break down, finding help shouldn’t be a problem. For this reason, it’s pretty safe to go solo.
Mozambique’s roads are some of the worst in southern Africa; potholes are rife so it may be a good idea to forgo fuel economy and lower your tyre pressures a little – this will reduce pothole impact and the chances of a tyre blowout. We ran our tyres on 1.8 bar most of the time.
MAPS & DIRECTIONS
Many of the routes mentioned in this article are available on Tracks4Africa (version 9.10). MapStudio has also recently released a detailed map of Mozambique detailing 4×4 routes, points of interest and GPS coordinates. The map sells for R80 and is available at leading outdoor stores.
In most cases, a competent softroader will see you safely exploring Moz’s southern shores. On one or two occasions we put the Fortuner in low-range, but this was more a precaution than a requirement. More importantly, your vehicle should have at least 200 mm of ground clearance, and if possible, good all-terrain tyres with respectable profiles.
Despite a lot of bad press lately, Mozambique is no more dangerous than the rest of South Africa. Hijackings do occur and petty theft is something to look out for, but on the whole, I personally felt safer here than I did in my own neighbourhood in Cape Town. However, malaria in this region is a very serious threat so consult your doctor for prophylactics.