“And when it’s time for leaving Mozambique

Just 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”

(Bob Dylan)

Three on a bike

Remember that post I wrote not so long go about tips for surviving Africa? Well here is another one. When changing money at a border crossing make sure it is YOU who is the last one to count it. Sounds obvious I know. Commonsense surely? Maybe an explanation will salvage some of my stupidity. It was a swift and slick operation; one done many times before I’m sure.

First let me go back to the Indian Ocean, albeit very briefly because once I crossed the narrow bridge connecting Mozambique Island and the mainland I was looking over my shoulder somewhat sadly at the turquoise shallows and rustling palm trees for the last time. They’ve been a comforting companion on the skyline over the past several months, but in reality the sand and heat have been more of a feature. A cycle-tour of the east African coastline would be much more suitable if you strapped your bicycle to the mast of a dhow and let the trade winds carry you between the coral islands and mangrove shallows.

Well I’ve definitely made use of dhow transport, but salt and sand don’t go well with moving bike parts. The landscape has been mostly flat of late, which after a while becomes more of a mental fatigue to cycle through than the physical tiredness one experiences from mountainous surroundings.

Mangoes, Cashew nuts and enormous granite boulders dominated my attention as I rolled over smooth tarmac on a blissfully quiet road heading away from the ocean. Let me start with the mangoes.

There are probably a number of places in Africa that could quite easily host a mango festival. Imagine a village where metre-high triangular mounds of them lie piled at the roadside like some feature of a children’s play-park. One wants to dive in there and emerge throwing them up in the air. Well there was one particular village a short way from the coast that had me thinking this. These mounds consisted of the small yellow variety that kids spent their time sucking on for half the day – more a worthless windfall variety in the height of the mango season. If they ever made it to a UK supermarket they’d still sell for at least a pound a piece though.

Much more of interest are the large green ones with dew-drop like nipples at the bottom. Their fleshy orange interior doesn’t leave you picking strings out of your teeth for the rest of the day. These mangoes will be found in smaller piles and sold to passing motorists. The trouble is that there are far more mangoes than there are passing motorists. If rural Africa had power I’m sure a few enterprising individuals would buy a blender and sell mango smoothies at the roadside. They would be a hit I’m sure. Just one feature of the international mango festival I had in my mind.

At the same time as the mango festival there could be a cashew nut festival. It seems Cashew nut trees are a defining feature of former Portuguese colonies. Guinea Bissau, that small west-African country I passed through last year, was covered in them and I venture to guess parts of Angola might be too? Cape Verde? Sao Tome and Principle? I believe the origin of the Cashew nut can be traced to Brazil, from where it found its way to Goa and then the shores of Africa. The Portuguese clearly had a thing for them. Well there weren’t so much as metre-high mounds of cashew nuts at the roadside (now that would be really impressive) but village after village of stalls where young boys leaned out into the road waving bowlfuls of them when a vehicle came into view.

Cashew nut sellers

I would have happily filled my panniers with kilos of them. Cashew nuts can travel whereas fresh mangoes can’t. The problem was a lack of cash, so I ended up trading tinned sardines for a bowlful of nuts. Both parties were happy. Tinned sardines are like caviar in rural Africa, but I’ve eaten hundreds of them on this journey and felt it was me who was getting the better deal.

Whilst Mozambique Island and its inhabitants left me with the impression that nothing had really changed from when I was last there 10 years ago, the city of Nampula had clearly expanded. New buildings of the tin-roofed, cheap-concrete and fast-to-construct variety one sees everywhere on the rural/urban fringe of Africa flanked the roadside as I navigated my way to an ATM machine and made my way out soon after.

The road had been gradually climbing and the scenery improving as I headed westwards. Once the mango and cashew trees sadly dwindled in popularity, the occurrence of these granite boulders, more scientifically known as inselbergs, increased in number. And this same road, which from a glance at the map looked like it should be carrying a lot of traffic (one of those red highways that are always less appealing than the yellow and white secondary roads) became even quieter. It was far more scenic and easy-going than many of those coastal stretches had been.

Towards Nampula

Road to Alto Molocue

Road to Gurue

Mountains around Gurue

After greeting people in the local language, which changed from Makua to Lomwe as I left Nampula province for that of Zambezia, I soon reverted to speaking in English. In a Portuguese speaking country this doesn’t get one all that far, but with Anglophone Africa just over the border in Malawi I had little motivation to progress from the survival phrases (Tay comidas? – do you have food, Tay cerveja? – do you have beer? tenyo cansado – I’m tired) that one should muster in every country. In actual fact I haven’t consumed much beer at all in Mozambique. It’s usually not available when one pitches a tent in local villages, as I’ve been doing a lot of in recent weeks.

Roadside attention

In the small town of Alto Molocue I rested from the midday heat by eating ice-cream. This seemed as incongruous a feature of a place that nobody visits as the large cinema that dominates the main road in nearby Gurue. At least the latter attracts a smattering of tourists, scenically located as it is amidst rolling hills of tea plantations and backed by Mt Namuli, Mozambique’s second highest peak at 2419m.

Gurue town

The young Austrian manager of the town’s only Guest House here didn’t agree with me when I suggested that $12 to pitch my tent in what was effectively the car-park out the back was somewhat expensive. In the end he gave me a room for the same price and later muttered something about it being too dangerous to camp as there were bandits in the town and they were out killing at night. When I asked what all this was about and tried to ascertain the moties of these ‘bandits’ whom no-one else had made mention of, he merely pinched my skin and said ‘you are white, they kill for nothing’. I never got a more coherent answer and concluded that either I was missing something or that this chap had not been long in Africa.

My rest day in Gurue was well timed. It rained for the entire day, during which I never saw that Austrian, and I naturally expected when I departed the following morning that it would be a wet and muddy road to the Malawian border. Instead the skies were a beautifully washed out shade of blue and the mountain slopes as lusciously green as nature could allow; certainly the most scenic landscape that Mozambique had offered.

Landscape near Gurue

And this brings me up to the border and that money-changing incident I began writing about at the beginning of this blog.

It was all very simple. I had casually asked around in shops and market stalls in the border town of Milange to know what the Mozambican metacais was worth against the Malawian Kwatcha. Rates varied wildly, with 1 Metacais equalling anything between 5-9 Kwatcha. So when one of the many moneychangers close to the market gave me the best rate I decided it was time to change. I had 2400 metacais remaining (£55). A quick calculation with the calculator meant I should be receiving 21800 Kwatcha.

By this time another man appeared holding a wad of what are possibly Africa’s largest bank notes – in size that is. I produced my crisp Metacais and was handed a thick bundle of 500 Kwatcha notes. I stood counting them out one by one. There was only 20500 Kwatcha. I counted it again and arrived at the same figure. The moneychanger looked perplexed. “Let me count it” he demanded with the manner of someone who could possibly not have been correct the first time. The bundle passed back and I watched him count it slowly again. Yes, there was only 20500 and therefore 1300 Kwatcha missing.

Another moneychanger was now called over from nearby and arrived with his own wad of Kwatcha. An extra 1000 Kwatcha was added to the main bundle, which I had kept a watch of. “And the 300 please”, I said not wanting to be outdone. Three 100 Kwatcha notes were added to the bundle to complete the 21800 total.I then took the thick wad and quickly buried it deep in my trouser pocket, walking away feeling smug that I’d got a good deal and not been cheated.

A short distance around the corner I found a quiet bar with some plastic tables and chairs outside. It was time to enjoy the last few Mozambican beers as I watched the evening street life and the sun setting just over the border in Malawi. I would cross the next morning.

The beer was ice cold and I ordered a second, but this was not before I pulled that wad out of my pocket and had a closer look at these large new African bank notes. I started counting again with the notes just under the table above my lap: 500, 1000, 1500, 2000…

It was when I got to around 4000 that I noticed this wad was too thin. I counted the rest of the notes quickly, finishing with the three 100 bills added at the end. I looked up then drained the rest of my beer. My first instinct was to run back to the market and look for the moneychangers, but they would have been long gone within minutes of me walking away. And so I signalled to the barman to bring me another beer.

It brought a smile to my face at first. Here I was feeling that 2 years on the African continent had brought me an accumulated level of street wisdom, and now I’d just fallen victim to possibly one of the oldest tricks in the book. Whilst I was thinking I’d got the upper hand by showing the amount was wrong, this was merely part of the ploy to cheat me out of even more!

I drank the second beer slowly and tried to piece together what had actually taken place. How was this wad now short by more than a third of the notes? I had watched this guy count it out after I had counted it. And then I’d watched him whist his friend handed him the missing remainder. Had I turned my head for a spilt second at some point? Had there been a two-way exchange of notes when the final 300 was passed over?

Nothing was completely clear. This had been a smooth operation. Part of me wanted to go back and actually congratulate the guys. “Well done chaps. You pulled a fine one off there. Now give me the rest of the money”. But ultimately I was angrier with myself. I just needed to count it one final time. Had there been any foul-play or suspicion in my mind I would have done. The time between watching the money counted out in front of me and the remainder being added before receiving the bundle was so very short that I took it and walked away. The difference in thickness from what was already a very thick bundle of notes I had never handled before was not sufficient for me to sense something wasn’t right.

I finished the second beer and tried to find excuses to vent my anger. It wasn’t a huge amount of money. The visa for Malawi was free and now I was just paying an unofficial entry fee. It was like dropping a £20 note on the street. I’d get over it soon enough. And besides, what I now had was closer to what I would have received had I changed the money in a bank. I could keep finding excuses all night. But the fact remained that it should have been ME who was the final one to count the money. I imagined the moneychangers giving each other high-fives as they spilt the winnings. I returned to my overpriced Guest House, drank another beer and looked at the map of Malawi.