the mountains

We made it! I am writing this post from the often-forgotten but now oil rich Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado. Tis the most northern one in the country. We packed in a few heavy driving days to get here – complete with roadside camping – and are now blissfully beaching ourselves to recover.

The trip up from Vilankulos was rather mountainous for us – a welcome change from beaches and plains. It began with a thrilling military escort through the opposition party’s territory, where a series of hijackings and threats have made it a dicey passage. The opposition, Renamo, is currently demanding an overhaul of the electoral system  and, of course, a cut of oil revenues. It’s a curious form of democracy they are practicing…  But, after clearing that strip, trees finally soared above 20 feet, water returned to the soil and the heat became more and more intense. Gone are the days of wearing all my warm clothes to bed. The soil has become delightfully orange, and its contrast against the green forest and picturesque huts reminded me that we really were in Africa.

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Anyway. We had a somewhat disastrous trip into the city of Beira that resulted in an early morning eviction by a nasty cleaning lady who hated pups. Thankfully, it led us to a Robinson Crusoe style beach camp just outside town, only accessed by boat, called Rio Savane. We set up in a thatched hut on the beach and Bryce spent days perfecting the art of cooking on coals. Days were spent reading and exploring through muddy mangroves. Evenings we spent inventing new ways of cooking with pasta, tomatoes and onions. Without cell phone signal or electricity, I polished off Snow by Orhan Pamuk (a new favourite book) and Bryce finished Mr. Nice, the biography of Howard Marks (look him up).

From Beira, it was to the Zimbabwe border in order to “refresh” our 6-month visa – an infuriating process involving enormous and painful bribes. From there, we scooted up to the Chimanimani Mountains. 3 years ago, a community owned lodge (Ndzou Camp) opened that specialized in trekking elephants living in the forest. Sounded all right.  We followed our guide Jose through the mountains as he pointed at tracks and poo from either hoje  or ontem (today or yesterday). We found loads of mud rubbed onto trees from passing elephants on their way for a morning drink. While the elephants were consistently a few literal steps ahead of us, the tracking on foot made it all the more thrilling. Call me a snob but – the driving safari feels disconnected and perhaps tedious relative to this. Jose also happened to be quite the expert on medicinal plants. The campsite at this lodge was so perfect that we stayed on for a few extra days to hike along footpaths connecting huts and crops through the mountains. Oh and a side note – the entire forest smelled of perfume. Such a pleasant place.

We left the Chimanimani Mountains for Monta Gorongosa, a single mountain towering over Gorongosa National Park. This park is undergoing a tremendous restoration in recent years with the help of an American supporter, in hopes of restoring it to its 1960’s celebrity infested glory. The recent threats from the opposition party have led to slight glitches in this project but, will hopefully not derail it entirely. While the pup kept us from actually getting into the park, the mountain itself was spectacular. We climbed up along streams and massive trees to reach a plateau with a handful of scramble-friendly peaks and great views. Josa skillfully navigated us back down a rather tricky path – she has proven to have a real talent and eagerness for the return trip.

They have a small basic campsite conveniently perched on top of a waterfall with a series of little infinity pools. I gather from the sign in book that few people spend the night at this campsite, let alone three. We spent the next day lazing around in the sun and swimming at the top of the falls. My pictures seem to have hardly done this place justice, as this was by far our best camping location yet. Community members coming by to observe us filled the late afternoons. Tourists are always a curious folk to rural people – to say nothing of tourists who bring a friendly pup with them.

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Anyway. From Gorongosa it was heavy and fairly uneventful driving days. Mozambique in total is roughly 5000km long and, at an average speed of 60km/hour, it takes a while. Every highway, particularly the Nampula – Pemba one, seems to be under construction by different Asian companies. That road work inevitably leaves you stuck behind transport trucks wondering how they’ve disappeared into a cloud of red dust. I cannot wait for the rain.

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bazaruto and zinave

August is a big month. It marks the beginning of my eighth month away – a personal record. August is also the month when two of my favourite people arrive in Africa: Chloe begins a 2-year teaching job in South Africa and Charlie comes for a 3-week visit! It is, as my mom would say, my birthday month. On top of all that, it is finally the month that we go north of the tourist circuit!

Tourists in Mozambique can largely be divided into two groups: those coming from South Africa for a vacation or trip extension, and the super-rich. The first group tends to visit the southern portion of the country, going 500km north of the border to Tofo. The latter goes to fabulously remote places by plane, I imagine. We don’t really talk much. So far, the only tourists we’ve met north of Tofo are vacationing white Zimbabweans (headed to Tofo) and one ambitious backpacker. I’m not sure why – its spectacular. Potholed, but spectacular.

The first stop we made was in Vilankulo. This town apparently rivals Tofo for tourism, but at first glance you wonder why. Rather than a sleepy beach village, you get a fairly busy town-verging-on-city, where everyone shares the last name Vilankulo. We stayed on the beach that was, upon arrival, a tiny prickly strip of sand looking out onto an archipelago, with a fair amount of garbage. Tired and mildly confused, we went to bed. In the morning, a wild transformation happened as the tide went out. Not only did kilometers of beach appear, but the water became turquoise. Dhows floated amongst the channels of remaining water and people walked out to fish in tidal pools. As we sat at a delicious socially-minded café, I wished we’d gotten here sooner.

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The thing to do in Vilankulo is to take a dhow to the archipelago to climb the massive sand dunes and snorkel in the reef. While slightly furious about being duped into an extra 4 hours on the dhow while a pup stayed furiously behind (hard done by – I know), the island was, perhaps as predicted, stunning. The islands literally were massive dunes rising out of the ocean, and giant colourful coral that housed the entire cast of Finding Nemo and all the colourful friends surrounded the archipelago. A quick apology to Bryce who is humiliated each time I liken wildlife to Disney. Alas. Sadly, our dhow dragged a massive anchor right through the coral with seemingly little remorse. Likely a few kinks to iron out in conservation here.  

Anyway. Vilankulo to Zinave National Park. Described ahead of time as “seldom visited, even by Mozambican standards” we outdid ourselves in preparations. Loads of fuel, loads of food, just not quite enough water. The southern entry gate was a series of rocks on the ground that spelled out “Bem Vindo a Zinave” with a man collecting (undercharging as we later found out) the entry fee. Decent. We camped in the bush our first night, strategically placed between the truck and a tree to avoid being trampled in our sleep. Given that this park has received little attention, it wasn’t likely that there would be vast quantities of animals to trample us but, I just feel like you never know. Driving around the park was generally uneventful until we happened upon a very dry Lagoa Zinave – the whole country is dry for that matter. If I was more of a birder, I would have been ecstatic. But, the flamingos, hippos, crocs and buffalo were enough to keep us fascinated – especially the hippo that crashed into the water feet away from us for her early morning dip.

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We ended up stumbling upon a recently built community-owned lodge in the park on the banks of the Save River (also, near dry). The beds and the great porch were a welcome break from an increasing number of tent nights. During the hot hours we plowed through books and as it cooled down, we went for a tour of the relocation center in the park – a massive fenced area where new animal are introduced to the area. The park was recently the recipient of a World Bank loan and it seems quite a bit of work is happening. Curious to see old bath tubs being used as water sources for giraffes but, the park rangers seemed unperturbed.

We left the park after 4 days there. Not a huge number of animal sightings – even in the fenced area – but some truly spectacular baobabs, a massive snake skin, a hippo circling the tent and lovely rangers made up for it. From there, it was an intense drive through the bush back to the beach. It was slow, grassy and rocky. Driving on paved roads will be forever uneventful after all this – and we’re still considerably far south.