In this two part series, Andrew Middleton documents his journey from Cape Town to Malawi and back in a brand-new Hilux 2.8 GD-6 auto. This month-long, five-country expedition follows southern Africa’s most prominent inland waterways. In Part 1, the expedition tracks new worlds of watery bliss in Malawi and Mozambique, and exposes Africa’s darker (and often funnier) sides including bribery and fear of attack. Does it all go according to plan? Of course not….
The plan, or at least that’s what I called it, was to follow a rough route from Kosi Bay border where we camped, into Moz, then up to a campsite on the Limpopo River mouth, to coastal Vilanculos and Cahora Bassa Dam before exploring Lake Malawi.
Far easier said than done, the trip would require a vehicle fit for purpose, plenty of patience, and a new understanding of how things work in Africa. Neither my partner Sara nor I had ever travelled this far north, and we figured that from the ups and downs, Africa would educate us the old-fashioned way.
Given the option (and the benefit of hindsight), we’d have preferred to double both the timeframe and budget. As it was, and doing without such luxuries, the 25-day trip would test us both. Long days in the saddle, not enough rest, and high stress levels can fray one’s personality quickly, so it was of utmost importance that we knew where we would be sleeping every night, and that we were comfortable. If only…
Naked fear in Moz
It was on our very first night in Mozambique that we realised planning anything would be more of a challenge than we’d expected. Having crossed the easy Ponta do Ouro border near Kosi Bay, we drove onto the brand-new Chinese-built R201. Like a string of spaghetti laid across a dirty dinner plate, the road snakes its way through areas where infrastructure has never existed. Impromptu villages have popped up all along this ribbon of tar that snakes its way to Maputo, joining Africa’s largest new $700m suspension bridge. Viewing foreign infrastructure on this scale, in a place where locals barely scrape enough food together to exist as subsistence fishermen and farmers, is shocking.
Beyond the Maputo metropolis, the money dries up quickly; and reality bit as our lovely black ribbon was replaced by potholed tarmac peppered with roadside stalls selling anything from cane rats, to bricks made in home-built kilns.
Pushing from Ponta to the Limpopo mouth would be a long drive; but, having faith in our GPS, we headed off down the main road on increasingly narrower tracks. Set to ‘shortest distance’, we quite literally found ourselves in the driveway of an elderly woman’s home, asking for directions to the mouth.
Winding our way through villages in the dunes before dusk at maximum speed wasn’t ideal, but being told at sunset, by stubborn, blankly-staring camp staff that they wouldn’t let us in, was even worse. We had nowhere to go, were utterly lost and desperately tired, and in need of a meal.
Then a narrow, unused bush track through a swamp gave us a glimmer of hope as it tracked east toward the mouth. After the dense undergrowth we’d been pushing through, the last gasp of daylight led us to paradise. When we’d parked right on the beach at the mouth of the Limpopo, in unison we let out a scream of pure joy. And, we had saved some cash by not paying anyone for our visit – bliss!
After a welcome dinner of spag bol, and having readied our rooftop tent for a night’s rest, I noticed a small fire about 50m away that wasn’t ours, with only shadows in attendance. Under the pitch-black canopy of dense trees, our paradise quickly disintegrated as a furious lightning storm rolled in with gale-force winds − but there was still no sign of our neighbour, whose fire still flickered by itself as if watching us.
I’d packed an axe which I stashed right next to my mattress, and hit the sack as our tent shook violently. Every few seconds, bolts of lightning would illuminate the forest, giving us a brief moment to eyeball our surroundings. Despite the weather’s vengeance and my nerves, exhaustion has a way of putting one to sleep, right until my worst fears were realised – someone was breaking into the truck. ‘Beeeb Beeeb’ the alarm went, as I reluctantly stumbled stark naked down the tent’s ladder and into the rain, brandishing the axe. I’ve heard some brutal stories of campers being attacked in Mozambique, and the fear was genuine, but nobody was there. How hilarious it must have been for a fly on the wall (and not just Sara’s phone camera) to watch a pasty Englishman circle his truck in a storm armed with only a small folding axe and some exposed vegetables. The next day, we found fish bones by our neighbour’s extinguished fire and realised how silly we were to fear a ghost making his dinner.
While heading north along the coast for another 500km, Africa’s second problem soon reared its ugly head: a traffic cop with a speed camera every 50km. And they don’t want your friendship. Just a nip over the speed limit, and you’re in for a nasty fine. And the only way to pay is at the nearest police station, possibly hundreds of kilometres away. Because the roads are poorly signposted you’ll often never know when the speed limit drops from 100 to 60km/h for no explicable reason, and the cops know this. They’ll take you for what you’re worth, so keep a small amount of cash in your wallet for the inevitable bribe, or just set your car’s cruise control at 60 and aim to shorten your driving distance. We had to pay three bribes between Limpopo mouth and Vilanculos – a total of 500km, and about R1000 for the lucky coppers who got paid incrementally less as the day progressed and my wallet/patience thinned.
Fortunately, Mozambique has many treats up its sleeve.
Rip-offs and rural life
Nestled right on the beach in the Inhambane Province, Vilanculos serves as a delightful fishing and tourist town with plenty to explore, many places to stay and many things for western travellers to do. Boat trips go out daily, and we found a perfect camping spot called Baobab Backpackers right on the beach. The rural areas surrounding the beach lodges often offer a taste of local cuisine better than you’ll find at the expensive restaurants the lodges run, plus you’ll be supporting locals. Fresh prawns the size of small crayfish are sold on the roadside, as are beautiful tapestries, kikois and fresh peri-peri sauce. Markets also sell beer around every corner − for about a quarter of the price you’ll pay at the lodges.
We took a break from our driving duties to spend half the day exploring, swimming and generally having a good time – I figured that, although Mozambique’s coastal regions are not strictly ‘inland waterways’ (though there are many deep inlets behind the coastal dunes), they were wet, the water was warm, and that was good enough for me. If your budget allows, it’s a good idea to get on a boat to Bazaruto Island − a pure Mediterranean paradise and scuba diving – but we’ll have to come back for that.
After heading up to another nearby tourist town just 54km north of Vilanculos, and having persuaded some local kids that breaking into our bakkie wasn’t a great idea, we again made the tactical error of trusting our GPS. This time, though, we thought we’d been clever by getting a local Sim card and Google maps. As the old phone-line service road became a sandy donkey track between scratchy bushes and increasingly rural settlements, there was a Déjà vu moment of when we’d been lost before – but this was different.
Deep in the sticks, far away from town, the people live with such pride that the sand in their gardens is immaculately raked, and surrounded by a trimmed bush fence to keep their goats or chickens on the property. Along this dirt track (still listed as the fastest route on Google maps) we had to turn around, after stumbling across a neatly-kept school; there were benches made from stumps under a makeshift thatched roof, while other classes were being conducted under a nearby thorn tree. It became a pattern in these parts: students from these rural schools everywhere welcomed us with excited smiles, while a single mother laboured away nearby. One such lady, Nilsa, had hefted two 50kg hessian sacks of peanuts to the roadside, ready for collection. She told us that she and two of her three kids would spend the next day trying to fill the next one, which would be sold to bring in money. During the season, that is what she and the children eat, along with mealies. After her husband died, Nilsa told me, she didn’t want another one, preferring to raise the three children on her own until they can fend for themselves. It’s a tough life.
With extremely heavy hearts we moved on, unable to help. But it left a thought – should one help at all? We’ve all seen how destructive we Westerners can be; and from what I’ve observed, most of the rural folk are far happier than anyone I’ve met in an office, despite the harsh conditions. This was confirmed by another local we got chatting to, who said life subsisting in the sticks is far better than trying to find work in town.
Miles to go…
Back on the main road, we were in for a shock. The short hop from Vilanculos had taken many hours, and the next day we needed to cover over 800km, some of which would be in the dark. Rules dictate that vehicles with the biggest wheels have right of way, and trucks drive on whatever side is smoothest. On either side of the road, huge washaways and drop-offs threaten to swallow your vehicle whole, and there is the constant danger of a major accident happening when you are many hours from a hospital.
Articulated Freightliner trucks chatter past constantly: for the first 100km out of Vilanculos, the roads are almost undriveable, as these giant lorries crush the thin tarmac into the soil beneath. The resulting potholes are mostly over a metre across, and some are at least half-a-metre deep, occurring consecutively.
In hindsight, driving from Inhassoro to Tete in a day was complete madness. It took a toll on both us occupants and the vehicle, as the shocks on the rear suspension began to fade under the load and the constant hammering, and became scorching to the touch. The only thing keeping our overloaded rig from bottoming out was the air springs we’d had fitted when leaving Durban, days before.
On top of that, having driven for over 12 hours to reach Tete, we found the accommodation options narrowed down to a place described in one Google review as ‘pig style dump’, while another named ‘Jesus is Good’ had earned a reputation for having its campers attacked by locals who had boated in via the nearby Zambezi River. Not ideal, but the next few days promised to be bliss.
For the rest of Andrew’s epic adventure northward, get your hands on a copy of the January issue of SA4x4 Magazine. Also, don’t miss out on Part 2 of the tale in the February edition!
Because the supplied vehicle belonged to the Toyota press fleet, and there were constraints of time, we weren’t able to make serious modifications such as fitting aftermarket suspension or additional body armour. But, as was proven time and again, the standard vehicle is brilliant, and its underpinnings far tougher than we could have imagined. Primary thanks have to go out to the set of Cooper ST Maxx tyres we fitted, which are much, much hardier than the highway-spec OE items.
Instead, to make ourselves overland-worthy, we bolted on a canopy, a drawer system, a roof-top tent, a dual-battery power management system, a water tank, a fridge and a few Jerry cans for fuel, to help make life on the road as easy as possible. This was no lightweight set-up, and by no means an exhaustive list of the kit we stuffed into the Hilux; so, what saved the rear springs from throwing in the towel, and the shocks from doing double duty, was a set of adjustable-pressure rubber air springs from the Air Spring Supply Company.
Apart from Toyota, RSI was the primary sponsor for the trip, supplying their yet-to-be-released ‘SmartCanopy EVO’ model canopy with all the bells and whistles one could ever need. On the left-hand side, behind the glass gullwing door, was their improved and updated kitchen unit with a selection of wine glasses and water glasses (not plastic) as well as cutlery, including cutting knives. All this is easily accessible, once the stove unit has been folded out − which takes seconds. By sliding out a cutting board from under the stove, you have a small work surface for cooking.
Bolted to the underside of the canopy roof is a dinner table easily large enough for four, which simply slides out and clips back into place in seconds, securing it over rough terrain. On the left side of the canopy is a gas bottle, access to an 80-litre water tank and storage area for bags, as well as a Victron Energy Phoenix inverter linked to a power board containing a multitude of USB charging ports, 12V sockets and a 240V plug point. To monitor the second battery, we had a Victron Energy Colour Control GX electronic panel to keep us informed about current charge, draw, voltage and much more. If it is necessary when parking for long periods, a solar panel can be plugged in to the inverter; however, because the second battery had upwards of five days’ power in reserve, this was never necessary. Our 40-litre Engel fridge always remained cold, and we were even able to shower thanks to a water pump and an extremely effective gas geyser.
Air Spring Supply Company
When loading your vehicle for extended periods, the ideal would be to customise the suspension and leave it that way. Without that option, air springs give one the ability to increase spring rates temporarily according to load. If anything saved our Hilux over the Mozambican potholes, it was the air springs. In preventing the 3.1 ton Hilux from bottoming out, the springs provided a firm ride, reducing body roll and levelling the rear end so that it didn’t sag. To set the ride height of the Hilux closer to its unloaded height, we pumped the air springs to 2.6 bar, and later dropped that to 2.4 bar for a little more comfort. Depending on how much load you’re carrying, you can inflate them as much as necessary − or take all the air out, if the bakkie is empty.
A comfortable tent is one thing, but sometimes it’s difficult to arrange for comfort inside a compact design that’s not only easy to set up, but robust enough for Africa. After driving for twelve hours, having a tent that pops up in less than a minute is sublime. Thanks to a sunroof and three large windows, ventilation is impressive on the iKamper, and the tent keeps relatively cool even in the baking morning sun. The spacious interior features a 193 x 130cm high-density foam mattress which proved extremely comfortable, and the tent itself survived a massive thunderstorm without letting in a single drop of water.
With a hard aerodynamic shell and a weight of only 52kg, the tent is barely noticeable even at highway speeds and in crosswinds. Despite being abused for almost a month over some of Africa’s worst roads, it never showed signs of wear, proving itself to be an extremely high-quality product.
Cooper ST Maxx tyres
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been stuck on a roadside repairing a flat, putting a multitude of plugs in the sidewall in emergencies, and even bush-camping because I couldn’t get home because of punctures. The ‘all terrains’ that come standard on modern 4×4 bakkies and SUVs are designed to offer low noise and rolling resistance above all-out strength.
Although the Cooper ST Maxx does hum a bit on smooth tarmac and weighs more than the standard OE tyre, when you’re far from home, you need reliability above all else. The Cooper ST Maxx is arguably the most robust AT tyre on the market today, and offers true all-terrain performance with its large grooves and excellent traction in deep mud, sand and gravel.
For extreme puncture-resistance, the Armor Tek3® sidewall technology offers three plies, one at an 8 degree offset so that few roadside spikes or sharp stones are likely to push between the plies. Over the 12 000km of driving on highways, deep potholes, mud, sand and high-speed gravel through the worst conditions Africa could throw at us, our tyre tread-wear was less than 2mm on average, and we didn’t suffer any punctures. With thanks to 1st Alignment Centre, who fitted our Coopers free of charge!
Sat4Rent offers solutions for your communication woes off the beaten track. They have organised an Inmarsat IsatPhone 2 which offers GPS, SMS functions, and an SOS emergency function. Just use the phone as you would a normal cell phone, and it works well: it provided us with much-needed coverage on a few occasions when we were far from reception. Supplied in a rugged box, the phone won’t let you down, is easy to use, and (in my opinion) is vital on any trip where you’ll be going off-grid.
Because of the high purchase price of a sat phone, Sat4Rent offers rental options to suit any budget and need with its selection of packages and pre-paid airtime options.
By Andrew Middleton