“Of the wide range of surface defects available in Africa, corrugations are, for the cyclist, the most uncomfortable though not the most tiring”. (Devla Murphy)

There was no shortage of willing oarsmen waiting at the riverbank. This was the end of the road in Tanzania. Ahead lay the Ruvuma River, and beyond that Mozambique. Like many large African rivers it was difficult to see where the far side was. Islands of reeds, tall grasses and tidal sand bars made what was a massive waterway seem less dramatic. Seen from the air it would have been more impressive.

I wasn’t paddled, but reassuringly punted across. Had the small rowing boat capsized I would at least have been able to stand up with head and shoulders above the surface. The thought always goes through my mind when taking a boat in Africa. What would happen if this thing sinks? I imagine trying to tread water holding onto all 50kg of my bike and luggage. I’d end up going down with it. Fortunately it was a peaceful crossing – at least once the fuss over who was going to take me had been settled.

I paid around $5, which was what I had left in Tanzanian shillings. My punter was more ripped than a cover model of Men’s health magazine, but I still held my ground when he and his teenage mate demanded extra. I know I’d paid them more than enough for 30 minutes of their time, although the Slovenian motorcyclist I’d met near Lindi had paid $50, and I’d read of overlanders in 4x4s paying upwards of $250. Well life is always simpler and cheaper on a bicycle.

I spent my first night in Mozambique camping outside the immigration post -something I’ve done at a number of remote African border crossings (Sierra Leone, Ghana, Kenya). There is usually never a problem, but bored immigration officials usually like to drink, and perhaps see some kind of trade-off that if you’re camping on their turf you won’t mind getting the drinks in. Best to yawn early and disappear inside one’s tent.

Mural in Mocimboa

Now that I’d entered a former Portuguese colony I assumed the Swahili I’d got used to speaking in the previous several months would be of no use. Fortunately not. Being at heart a coastal language, Swahili is probably equally as well understood on the shores of Somalia as it is here in northern Mozambique.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of learning and speaking Swahili is the multitude of words used as a form of greeting, or as a reply to a greeting. Jambo, the first word a tourist might learn in east Africa, is rarely used in Tanzania. It is the informal ‘Mambo Vipi’ (‘how’s it going?’) that one hears commonly on the street. The most popular reply to which is ‘Poa’ (fine)) or any number of other words (nzima, shwari, muzuka, bomba, fresh, safi, kawaida, kabisa – I think that’s most of them?) Young children respectfully greet those older than them with a ‘Shikamou’, to which the reply is Marhaba, and then there is the widespread Islamic ‘Salama Aleikum’ should you wish to please/surprise one of the skull-capped men sitting in the village shade. Well they still apply, to a weaker degree, in northern Mozambique, and so my calling out of ‘Mambo Vipi’ continues to receive replies, albeit less so as I’ve come south.

The roads, for the most part, have been terrible, although that is partly my own choosing. If corrugated roads, as Devla Murphy points out, are the most uncomfortable of surfaces in Africa, sandy roads are definitely the most tiring. Northern Mozambique has plenty of these. Whether cycling on a semi-compact surface or off the bike and pushing it through deep trenches of the stuff, the experience is a draining one. Throw 40 degree+ temperatures and a constant swarm of energetic flies trailing your back and dive bombing your ears into the mix and the experience becomes even less pleasant.

Northern Mozambique

Struggling in the sand

What is it with flies in this part of Africa? They’re worse than anywhere I can remember. Worst of all are the tsetse flies, possibly the most annoying and curse-raging of all Africa’s cornucopia of flying insects. Tsetse flies (horse flies) don’t buzz. They just silently land on you and then bite – sometimes quite painfully. Historically it is the presence of tsetse flies that left many parts of the African bush undeveloped. My black panniers don’t help matters. Apparently tsetse flies prefer dark surfaces. Their presence on the small sandy tracks in the north of Mozambique is a reflection of how undeveloped this part of the country is. I could also say wild, for there was a fair amount of elephant shit to weave around on the tracks, which perhaps explained why some of the brave souls living in huts along the roadside had fortified their small compound with 10ft high poles of wood dug into the ground – the first time I have seen this in Africa. The elephants are probably sensible enough to stay inactive and rest in the shade during the day. I haven’t seen any.

Pre-warning

The first town of any significance one reaches coming south from the Tanzanian border is Mocimboa Da Praia, which boasts a non-functioning ATM machine and an Internet connection costing more than $1 for 15 minutes. There are a number of Portuguese-era buildings lining the orderly grid of roads, and socialist-style monuments to the country’s independence. Reasons to stay appeared short and I had a feeling there wasn’t much in the way of budget accommodation, an irony for a place that looked like it should have been brimming with it. I recall Mozambique being more expensive than the rest of southern and east Africa from when I travelled here 10 years ago. I don’t think things have changed. Western prices with African standards is what I read somewhere.

Independence monument in Mocimboa

I continued south from Mocimboa on the road my map was labelling as the 247. This was a continuation of the same road that had brought me from the Tanzanian border. I knew it was a dirt track, but the fact it bore a number gave me the impression that it was a ‘designated’ road. Perhaps at one stage in the past it was, but what began as a graded track soon gave way to sand and then a narrow track ending in a mangrove swamp. Fantastic. This was not in the plan.

After the mangroves

“You will have to cross two rivers” had said a perplexed teenager in the nearby village of Marare as I sipped sweet tea and dunked it with bread (chapattis alas are no more, but hurrah for the return of good bread!). His mate was beside himself in hysterics when I showed my surprise that there was no bridge or ferry.

The wheel arches of my bike were jammed with soft sticky mangrove mud when I made it to the first river. To begin with it seemed a good idea to wash the mud off, but the water was brackish and I’ve had enough salt getting into the bike as it is in the past few months. As I had been warned there was no bridge, no boat and not a soul around to call for help. Going back would have been a serious detour, so I lay the bike on the sandy riverbank and waded across. If salt water crocodiles exist in Mozambique this looked like a great place for them to hang out.

River criosing

My first attempt at wading across the river was unsuccessful. I stepped into a deep channel and the water rose above my shoulders. I walked/swam out and pushed the bike upriver to where I could see an emerging sand bank. With the tide on the way out time was in my favour. This time round I made it across(60 metres to the sand bank and a further 15 metres to the far bank) with the river below waist-height most of the way. I transported the bags and bike in 4 journeys, careful not to lose my footing on the muddy riverbed. At high tide this would have been harder, and in the rainy season with a much stronger current I’d have probably detoured and gone back to Mocimboa, where a paved road runs inland and south.

After reassembling the bike and cycling through harvested fields of rice I had to repeat the process again – more mangroves, mud and another river. As far as I could tell there was never a bridge across either of the rivers. Which foolish cartographer/planner had given this road a number? It would be inaccessible to any motorised transport.

I spent the following 2 nights sleeping beneath palm trees on a stunning stretch of coastline. My host Ismail told me the village name was Nfunzi. The plan had been to reach Pangane, some 6km further on, where I remembered reading something about a campsite in a Lonely Planet guidebook. I never made it owing to all that sand again. When I saw the sea up close I stopped. A nearby woman laughed at me struggling. I asked in Swahili if I could sleep where I was and she led me to Ismail’s home.

Like everywhere else in Africa I arrived unannounced. Ismail and his family spoke Kimwani, which is closely related to Swahili. On one side of their palm-thatched shack lay rice fields and on the other the turquoise shallows of the Indian Ocean. Carbohydrates from one source and protein from another. Life couldn’t have been simpler.

Young fisherman

Girl in Nfunzi village

Beach at Nfunzi

My surroundings were unexpectedly replaced with a dose of luxury when I continued south on yet another sandy track. “We’ve just come from Guludu Beach Lodge. You should go and say hi. There are some English people working there”. The news came through the window of a 4×4 transporting 4 white faces. They’d passed me several days earlier on a similarly terrible stretch of road and probably thought it time to stop and greet the crazy cyclist.

I duly headed towards Guludu Beach Lodge and met another white face driving towards me in a land rover. “Just going to collect some sand. I’m Harry by the way”. I thought this was a joke on my behalf. Why anyone in this part of Mozambique would need to go anywhere to collect sand I’m not sure. “Isn’t it everywhere”? I suggested. “There’s a particularly sandy stretch up ahead. Go and meet my girlfriend and I’ll be back shortly”.

Down at the beach I met 4 other young foreigners working at Guludu Beach Lodge – a simple, eco-friendly, beautiful and way-out-of-my-budget resort. There are lots of places like this in Africa, but Mozambique seems to specialise in luxury resorts – the type that appear in the Sunday Times travel section where you can experience the beauty of Africa and the Indian Ocean for the bargain price of something like £2500 for 10 days, excluding flights. It is another World from life on the road.

The plan had just been to say hi and possibly get some information about the road ahead, but a very generous discount on a room had me content to pretend that I too could have booked my holiday through the Sunday Times. I’m not sure when the last time was that I slept on a bed with a proper mattress.

Guludu Beach Lodge

Harry and his girlfriend Caitlin had found jobs at Guludu through a website called escapethecity.com, and their surroundings were definitely a change of scenery from sitting at an office desk from 9-5.

I would have stayed a second night had the local employees not told me that if I wanted to reach Quissanga and the road south to Pemba then I would have to take a boat leaving very early in the morning. There definitely was no road ahead, despite my map depicting one.

And so the Guludu team waved me off the next afternoon before I rejoined the sand track for another 15km, bringing me to the village of Darumba/Mipange. Here the road really did end. I pitched the tent in a school teacher’s compound and set my alarm for 3.45am the next morning on learning that a boat would sail to Quissanga starting after 4am. Sure enough it did, with surprisingly few passengers – a peaceful journey between the mainland and the Quirimba islands.

Dhow between the Quirimba islands

Dhow to Quissanga

Road to Pemba

The following day I rolled into Pemba, where I sit now in a campsite/lodge I first came to 10 years ago. It’s a lot busier than I remember it to be. Down the road there is some American-financed mission with hundreds of young missionary volunteers. A group of them were having a discussion last night about whether there is a sushi restaurant in Mozambique. Apparently Maputo has one. I haven’t spoken to any of them. It would be interesting to hear what their impressions are of Mozambique and Africa. My tent resides under a cashew tree away from the bar and my stove for the first time in many months is getting frequent use again. In Tanzania or Kenya I could just pop out onto the street to find cheap eats. Not here it seems.

For the first time in weeks my bike is now free of sand and salt. It’s tempting to finally use the paved road to take me further south, but I seem to be drawn to small roads that end at bridgeless rivers. There is another one between here and Nacala.

Young Mozambican girl