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.
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.
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.