African shoestrings – Mozambique Day One Hundred and One Bordertown

With a GDP of only US$104 per person Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world. The Portuguese up and left in the mid 1970’s after decades of plundering the country and a fifteen year war of independence. They took with them valuable skills and capital reserves leaving behind nothing but chaos.

A Marxist state eventuated and before long the cherished ideas of socialism had the country’s economy in tatters. A civil war that left 900,000 people dead, 1.3 million refugees and a countryside strewn with over 1 million unexploded land mines followed. Finally, in 1990 peace reigned and with the aid of the United Nations a democracy of sorts emerged. The economy is still dependent on foreign aid and its infrastructure is only now being rebuilt. Soon after our visit a devastating flood decimated the country setting back its efforts to rebuild.

The Tete corridor is an area of Mozambique that juts out between Zimbabwe and Malawi. A lot of the guerrilla warfare during the civil war was staged here leaving behind a legacy of land mines and poverty. This is the area we needed to cross on this bus to get to Malawi.

After several stops for police checks and simply to avoid the huge crater called potholes in the road we got to within 100 kilometres of the Malawi border and it was getting late!

The Mozambique border post at Zobue apparently closes at 6 pm and there was some real concern that we might not make it.

As we got closer there was an awful sound of clonking and scraping as the driver changed gears. Finally, as the bus began to climb a steep hill, it stalled and came to a standstill. It was almost dark as the driver restarted the engine and then attempted with no luck to select first gear. Some of us got off to lighten the load but that made no difference. As we got back on the driver rolled the bus back down the hill so that he could make a run back up in second gear. I shook my head in disbelief. We’re rolling backwards down a hill in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, in the infamous Tete corridor of Mozambique. If he goes off the road there’s a chance that a landmine could be waiting for us and then its ‘good night Irene’. In fact, we did meet a truck going up as we were going down but it overtook us without any mishap. Eventually we got going and the bus limped into Zobue sometime later. Of course the border was by now closed, although only just, and despite some animated conversation outside one of the border official’s house, it stayed that way.

Then the fun began. Most of the travelers on the bus were apparently from Malawi, going home after doing a bit of shopping in Harare or having a break from working in Zimbabwe. They did not take kindly to this situation and I had to interfere to stop the bus driver from being lynched. They accused him of being in league with the town traders who they believed would profit from our enforced overnight stay. I can’t say I was convinced. The town wasn’t exactly busting with tempting designer label goodies or food stores. The hotel was full, which was just as well as it looked and smelt like the pits. The only place that appeared to be initially open was a small tin shack of a store that sold cold beer and by that time we sure needed a drink. Within a few minutes more tin shacks opened and vendors came to us with fruit, potato chips, drinks and various currencies.

Initially the place was quite scary. Apart from the street sellers, there were street kids and other suspicious individuals hovered around, including a man with a rifle who was obviously guarding something but we were never able find out what. With Portuguese sounding to us just like Spanish, the whole town reminded us of one of those dusty, rundown Mexican or South American towns portrayed in the movies. All we needed was Clint Eastwood to ride in on a mule wearing a Mexican poncho and wide brimmed hat, cigar in mouth and the comparison would be complete.

We spent the next six hours on the steps, watching our bags on the top of the bus, of what we think was the town hall within full view of the bus. It was one of the most bazaar experiences of my life sitting there guarding our bags from a distance, drinking beer, listening to Led Zeppelin (Jenny had a tape player) and playing cards whilst the man with the rifle wandered around looking for something to guard.

Andy and Jenny told us of their search for land on the North Mozambique coast (when they eventually get there) for a tourist camp. Due to the bad roads and infrastructure, the only way to that part of Mozambique was via Malawi and they were set to meet up with other members of this venture in Blantyre, the only other major town in Malawi.

Eventually sleep got the better of us and we returned to the bus to risk sleep and luggage stealing. Sleep was rather fretful, with snoring from half the passengers that were asleep and constant chatter from the other half that were not, adding to our rather cramped conditions.

At first light I ran up to an overland truck that had also got there too late to cross the border, to see if we could get a lift. It was driven by a young woman from New Zealand, a relative neighbour, and the travelers were all women, a single guy’s paradise I thought. They were going as far as Dar es Salaam. This was our eventual destination and they would take us both for US$40 each. We were in business or so I thought. Our problem was getting our bags and the bus driver refused to offload them until we had crossed the border into Malawi. The bus somehow limped the kilometre between border posts and they then began to offload the baggage for the Malawi customs officials. The overlander was already there and I appealed to the driver to wait. She said they would and then promptly drove off never to be seen again!


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Buffalo near the Zambezi River watching canoes in Zimbabwe

Buffalo near the Zambezi River watching canoes in Zimbabwe



African shoestrings – Zimbabwe Day Ninety-Nine Zambezi River

Later that morning with us bringing up the rear as usual we were paddling alongside an island to avoid a pod of hippos.
Suddenly a flurry of activity brings four hippos scurrying out of the bush and into the water just metres in front of Peter and Greg. They disappeared into deep water and four pairs of eyes popped up about twenty metres from us and watched as we tentatively crept past getting as close as we could to the bank.

After such an exhausting morning (we had covered 20 kilometres as well) we were thankful for a stop for lunch and a couple of hours siesta followed by a swim in the shallows later in the afternoon under the watchful gaze of a few hippos.

Still by the time we had got to our overnight stop at a deserted beach we were all pretty much exhausted and aching. The excellent food and some elephants strolling down to the water’s edge for a drink a mere 150 metres away soon resuscitated us.
We were now in Mana Pools National Park and the hunting camps and other signs of humanity gave way to thorny bushveld and groves of Acacia and other trees. It was a full moon and as it rose it lit our campsite with a soft glow and turned a nearby perfectly formed thorny Acacia tree into a silhouette.

The distant roar of a lion, the call of hyena and the munching of the hippos nearby seemed to be with us all during the evening and overnight. Despite our soreness, exhaustion and apprehension this was as good as it gets!

Peter and Greg allayed our fears somewhat about hippos. Apparently like most wild animals they only attack only when they feel threatened. The stories of canoes being turned over are greatly exaggerated and usually caused by accident. In deep water a hippo may be right underneath the canoe and its occupants totally unaware, so if it decides to pop up and you’re in the way, bad luck!

These guys seem to know their stuff. Peter was from the Shona, the most populous people in Zimbabwe and Greg was a young white guy from a farming family. When talking amongst themselves they spoke Shona. It seems that even though English is the official language Shona is more commonly spoken. They also told us of our biggest danger. “We (meaning Peter and I) will stand guard overnight to watch for Zambians paddling across from the other side. They ‘ave been known to raid a campsite and steal belongings from the tents and canoes whilst everyone slept.” Greg said.

Great I thought, we have to watch out for crocs and hippos by day and thieving Zambians by night.

Our final full day at 24 kilometres was a lot shorter and allowed us to leisurely enjoy the sun rising over the Zambezi.
This was our best day!
The river was mostly a series of tranquil channels and the wildlife was everywhere. Lots of hippos to be seen but none that were close enough to trouble us; a herd of elephants on the Zambian side; more elephants near our lunch spot; waterbuck, buffalo and impala also darted in around the national park edge, whilst little bee eaters probed small openings they had created as entrances to their nests inside the cliff face of the riverbank. But the piece ‘d’ resistance was yet to come. Swimming in a shallow channel we dried off and under Peters leadership we approached, by foot through the water, a large pod of hippos. We got within four metres of them as they watched us whilst closely bobbing up and down, ears flapping and noses snorting. They were watching us as warily as we were they. I snapped away around ten shots only to realise that I had the camera still set for a much dimmer light. By the time I reset, the hippos were almost completely submerged and moving away. Curses!

Ten metres beyond them an elephant descended the bank and paddled across the deeper channel up ahead to join his mates strutting on a small island. Later that afternoon we stopped our paddling and drifted as we watched more elephants frolic in the water just in front of us. Peter was pretty keen on ensuring that we didn’t get too close but some other canoeists were foolishly a lot closer and came very close to having their canoes turned into firewood.

Five kilometres on and it was time to set up camp for the last night on another sand island. First we had to navigate our way through a narrow channel with, you’ve guessed it, another pod of hippos in the way. No drama. Peter and Greg slapped their paddles against their canoes and off they went to safer waters.

On dry land we were all busting and Sue managed to grab the spade before anyone else and headed off to an inconspicuous place. She was had been so absorbed with finding a hidden spot that it wasn’t until relief had come that she realised that there was a hippo lying on the bank asleep a mere five metres away. Any alien who had no prior knowledge of humanity would have gone away thinking what strange toilet rituals we have once he saw this mad women running towards us waving a spade with one hand and holding up her shorts with other!


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Elephants in the Zambezi River walking across the river in Zimbabwe

Elephants in the Zambezi River walking across the river in Zimbabwe