Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Upon the beach of sunny Mozambique

Crossing the border from South Africa into Mozambique meant returning to Africa™. Long queues at the border, toilets dirty and flooded with water but strangely lacking running water, dozens of people selling food, drinks and of course cell-phone airtime. Across Africa it seems the second most important person in a town, after the police, is the guy selling phone vouchers. In every single small village, regardless of whether anyone has enough food to eat, there are guys in illuminous bibs calling ´voucher! voucher!`. The cell-phone revolution has also spawned ´charge shops` which have rows of phone chargers hooked up to car batteries or generators for those who have no access to electricity. Even if your whole village is without electricity you can still own a cell-phone. No food? No clothes? No worries. No mobile? Disaster. So, the moment we crossed over into Mozambique the entire population of our bus rushed to buy new SIM cards or airtime for their old cards and the rest of the bus journey to Maputo passed by in a crescendo of half-conversations!

Maputo generates predictable comparisons with other Latin cities such as Havana or San Salvador due to its faded colonial beauty, its decaying buildings and decrepit streets emitting a sense of charm and personality that has evaded most African cities. Coming from South Africa another facet that imposed itself on our senses was the exotic aromas, or odours, present, the heady mix of diesel, cooking oil and overripe tropical fruits, smells that took my mind back to Colombo of all places.

But it rained, all the time. Therefore we soon set off north to the coastal village of Vilankulos. The ´Junta` bus station in Maputo was quite a shock, identical to most Ethiopian bus ´stations` it is simply a dusty (or muddy) square on the corner of a busy intersection full of dilapidated buses preparing to head off to all corners of the country. Vendors were crowding around the open windows, selling bread, soft drinks and yet more airtime to the passengers, who risked soaking their seats by hanging out of the window making their purchases. Our bus was crammed with people and luggage, the luggage compartments underneath having already been filled with beer and wine to be delivered to hotels and restaurants along the way. Scrambling over the plastic guttering that lay in the aisle we grabbed two of the last seats that were not being soaked by the rain pouring in not just through the windows but through small holes in the roof as well. Many passengers spent the whole 10 hour journey holding plastic bags or empty Coke bottles to catch the rain. And 10 hours later in Vilankulos it was still raining.

After being cooped up in a hire car for the best part of the last month we were very pleased to be squashed back on a bus with everyone else, travelling on poor roads in crappy buses, disorganised and cramped and how long does it take Africans to disembark from a bus? In fairness however the buses, as in many African countries, have had an extra column of seats put in (a 2-3 seat configuration) and then an extra few rows squeezed in the back for good measure, increasing the capacity to well over a hundred people, plus luggage and at lest 40 kids on laps! Great to be back.

Vilankulos is a fishing village like any other in Africa, a crowded market selling fish, fruit and vegetables and other necessities as well as colourful Tanzanian fabrics and plastic Chinese crap. There were also women selling washing powder by weight from huge buckets and young guys offering services as a guide, dealer or gigolo. The beach itself is not suited for sunbathing as it is very much a working beach full of fishing boats, guys fixing their nets and large groups of people haggling over the price of fish. Vilankulos is however the jumping off point for visiting the Bazaruto archipelago, one of the most famous beach paradises in Mozambique. To visit means either a meeting with the bank manager or a one-day dhow trip to the closest island in the archipelago, Magaruque. Just 20km offshore, when the tide is out, and it goes way out, it seems as if it would almost be possible to walk there. That probably would not be advisable however so the one-day trip offered by Dolphin Dhow is the next best option, including some snorkelling time (although the bad weather during the previous days meant the visibility was very poor), sunbathing on the island and a delicious seafood braii on the beach. It is a tropical paradise – white sandy beaches lined with palm trees, turquoise waters and clear blue skies – but unfortunately we have seen too many beach paradises, and often in places with far better value for money than most of Africa. Still it was a nice day out though.

We were surprised by the warm and friendly welcome we met from most Mozambicans. We had been warned by many people throughout Africa that Mozambicans are “the most unfriendly people in Africa” and that we would be ripped off everywhere and even the vendors selling in bus stations would run off without paying change back. We experienced none of this, well apart from being ripped off for a couple of short bus rides, and even that for less than half a dollar each time. We received only friendly welcomes and sincere greetings. Perhaps this different experience is because for many people Mozambique is the first African country they visit after South Africa and they are not prepared for the Africa™ lifestyle. Our introduction to Africa came in Ghana and our impressions of Ghana were very similar to those that people have developed regarding Mozambique. And in a very similar fashion most people we have met who have also been to Ghana are very shocked at our opinions.

Heading back south we wanted to stop in Morrungulo but in the end headed straight through to Tofo beach, one of the most famous beach resorts in Southern Africa. We were pleasantly surprised to find it very low-key, we expected to be stuck between big resorts but actually most of the options are still small, intimate places in secluded settings. The beach is very wide and clean with accommodation options perched on the dunes above. The water however is exposed and therefore quite rough, more suitable for surfing rather than swimming, and there are barely any palm trees, evidence of the fact that we had once again crossed the Tropic of Capricorn on the road from Vilankulos.

Close to Tofo is the quaint old town of Inhambane. Full of colourful colonial architecture and remnants of the religious fervour of both the Arabic and Portuguese influences it made a perfect break from the rigours of lying on the beach. A busy market, a clutch of very Mediterranean cafes, hot sun and a laid-back atmosphere combine to make wandering around the town both invigorating and enervating at the same time!

Mozambican cuisine is hailed as some of Africa’s best. Consisting of seafood, seafood, seafood and peri-peri chicken it does not take long to work out why. Delicious plates of prawns in garlic, grilled fish, slabs of tuna steak, calamari curry and steamed crabs cooked to perfection whether in a cheap local shack such as Black and White in Tofo (probably the best value meals we have eaten since Tanzania) or in a lavish restaurant like Casa de Comer, also in Tofo and touted as Mozambiques best restaurant their menu of French-Mozambican fusion is quite exquisite - the crab mayonnaise starter, the carpaccio of fish, and the prawn and crab curry being some of the highlights. If this gorging on seafood becomes monotonous then there are plenty of places to sample peri-peri chicken, Mozambiques national dish, stolen and made famous by Nando´s, the South African chain of restaurants. And even when moving from place to place it is impossible to go hungry, vendors selling fresh fruit and freshly picked and roasted cashew nuts by the half-kilo!

Tofo is justly famous for its underwater attractions, one of the most impressive being the chance to snorkel with whale sharks. On our first trip we were unsuccessful, spending two hours being chucked around in a small speedboat searching for something, anything, to look at under water. Our second attempt made up for it however. We had two opportunities to swim with whale sharks. What is most shocking is the first sight of this giant fish (they can grow up to 20m in length) swimming towards you. It is very important to remain calm as any sudden movements, air bubbles or splashing can cause the shark to dive down but these reactions are very hard to suppress, especially when there is a group of large remora eels swimming around just below! Whale sharks feed on plankton so are no danger to humans but the fact that it is A SHARK is enough to put the wind up most people on their first encounter. Some how I was lucky enough to be at the front of the group of snorkellers and managed a full minute or so snorkelling alone with the whale shark before the rest of the group caught up, inevitably soon after that he dived away out of sight. The second encounter was of a smaller, 4m, whale shark and again he dropped out of sight soon after we had entered the water, following what I thought was his shadow down below I looked up to see that the rest of the group were heading off in a different direction. There were two down there! Like the No. 49 bus, waiting for days and then two come along at once!

After more than a week lying on the beach at Tofo (the longest time we have spent anywhere on this trip) it was time to head back to Maputo. The ´shuttle` bus is scheduled to leave Tofo at 4am daily. Normally this would mean everyone getting ready for 3:45am and the bus sauntering along sometime after 6am. However, on this occasion the driver was beeping frantically from 3:40am onwards. An African bus driver in a hurry, surely not?

Walking around Maputo on our return we were surprised to see all shops, travel agents, internet cafes and other services closed. Has there been a national strike? No, Maputo City celebrated the 122nd anniversary of its elevation to city status on 10th November!

Mozambique by Bob Dylan (from Desire, 1976)

I like to spend some time in Mozambique
The sunny sky is aqua blue
And all the couples dancing cheek to cheek.
It's very nice to stay a week or two.
And maybe fall in love just me and you.

There's lots of pretty girls in Mozambique
And plenty time for good romance
And everybody likes to stop and speak
To give the special one you seek a chance
Or maybe say hello with just a glance.

Lying next to her by the ocean
Reaching out and touching her hand,
Whispering your secret emotion
Magic in a magical land.

And when it's time for leaving Mozambique,
To say goodbye to sand and sea,
You turn around to take a final peek
And you see why it's so unique to be
Among the lovely people living free
Upon the beach of sunny Mozambique.


  1. hello, your blog is very nice !!! can you tell me how to put the good side map on my blog ? sincerely, Thomas

  2. The magnificent Quirimbas Archipelago in Cabo Delgado Province, Northern Mozambique, is a captivating chain of 32 coral islands.
    Its filled with scenic beauties, isnt'it?
    Archipelago Mozambique

  3. A definate place to add to travelers list of places to stay is CASA LUNA in Inhassoro 89Km from Vilanculos, I am staying here at prsent with a 4x4 breakdown and boy........what a treat- basically a private beach right on the water with tent style campsites at good prices. Going out to Isla de Magaruque via Dhow tomorrow ($60 US)- your site has put a lot of my fears to rest.

  4. you have never been to visit the famous Kilimanjaro, then upon hearing its name many different things may come to mind! It raises adventure, legendary and amazing images to mind, but to find out what it's really like why not purchase a few Cheap Kilimanjaro Ticket for you and your loved ones and see for yourself! Travel Forum