• The Mambo Vipi test: Into Mozambique November 19th, 2011

    “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.


    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

  • Around the Green Isle: Pemba October 5th, 2011

    Nowadays everything is kept secret from the Europeans, and even those who have spent most of their lives in the country have only now and then discovered hints of the wide, infinitely ramified cult which still flourishes below the surface. (Evelyn Waugh)

    Not many people make it to Pemba, which is half the charm of this mountainous island. Arabic traders in former centuries referred to it as ‘Al khudra’ – the Green Island, and it’s easy to see why. It is as lush as a tropical destination at 4° degrees south of the equator could be.

    Were neighbouring Zanzibar not to exist, surely more foreigners would make their way here. For those that do, diving dominates the scene. Like the safari and the climb up Mt Kilimanjaro, a diving package doesn’t come all that cheap, but then cheap holidays if you’re coming to east Africa for a short time and want to make the most of it, are a rarity. Budget travellers like me make do with the snorkelling.

    Through Ngezi Forest

    I spent most of my time during the week there hanging out at a place far beyond my budget, which I can only but recommend. The dive owner had also travelled extensively through Africa before making Pemba his home. His guests were naturally here for the diving, and most had flown in.

    Blue blue blue

    Paradise on Pemba

    The island didn’t take long to cycle around. The roads are as equally well-paved as those on Zanzibar, but here one gets the pleasure of smelling cloves – pretty much everywhere! Alongside fishing, clove farming dominates the local economy. Roadsides are lined in rattan mats covered with the small pungent spice.

    Cloves drying

    Pemba is reportedly an east Africa hub for voodoo and traditional medicine, but mzungus who only speak a smattering of Swahili are not likely to witness anything. What is noticeable is how much more conservative the island is. Zanzibar’s mostly Muslim population gets diluted with Tanzanians coming from the mainland to work, and of course all the tourists. Pemba on the other had is all skull-caps, beards,  hijabs and the occasional burqa. I was warned not to go to a few villages as they disliked outsiders and I might have stones thrown at me. There was also some speculation that these same villages had allowed Somali Pirates to refuel. It didn’t make the island any less friendly,but I felt a bit more naked cycling in shorts.

    Runaway girls

    What I saw was a densely vegetated, peaceful and charming place. Want to see tradtitional swahili culture – come here. Not many beaches, but there is only so much white sand you can see before they start to lose their appeal. I’m back on Zanzibar (Unguju as they technically call it) for a few days now before returning to the mainland, hopefully by way of a dhow that doesn’t have an engine. It’s all about the slow travel of course.

    Pemba map

    Sailfish on a bicycle

    Girls on Tumbe beach

    Carrying the catch

    Tumbe fisherman

    Young girls in Tumbe

    Dhows off Tumbe beach

  • Waiting for a boat September 10th, 2011

    “There are three things which if one does not know, one cannot live long in the world: what is too much for one, what is too little for one, and what is just right for one.” (Swahili proverb)

    The sky is definitely bluer on the east African coast. Here the wind blows in off an ocean and not out of a desert, which is often the case throughout much of west Africa. Even as far south as Cameroon that Saharan wind – the harmattan, caused the mountains to become lost in a dust-filled haze and the sun to disappear long before it reached the horizon. Well not anymore. That cleansed azure sky should be over me all the way south, assuming I follow the coast into Mozambique and don’t encounter a rainy season. The wind direction might be more of a concern though.

    The small road I mentioned at the end of the last post was well worth the extra kilometres and bumps – all the mountain scenery without a climb basically. In fact I was going downhill much of the time.

    Road to Tanga

    Leaving the Pare mountains

    Sandwiched between the Mkomazi Game Reserve that stretches to the border with Kenya on my left, and the 2000 metre+ Pare and Usambara mountain chain to my right, I was out there alone. One of those roads that sees a bus or two a day servicing the small villages that no-one really visits.

    Behind the Usambaras

    It was a biker’s road, and I guess other mzungus on two wheels with time on their side might have passed this way. But then I don’t mind the dirt tracks. In fact I seek them out, whereas some like to stick to the smooth stuff, even if it means sharing the road with a lot of the 4-wheeled enemy.

    Leaving the Usambaras

    For the first time in a very long time I set up camp alone in the bush – a mine-field of 4-inch thorns waiting to make a mockery of those Schwalbe XR tyres and my new thermarest mattress. I got away unscathed, but I imagine a lot of wild-camping spots in months to come will present the same inhospitality.

    Bike and baobabs

    Maize field at sunset

    I’m sat next to a white beach under swaying palm trees now waiting for a boat. There are many worse places to be waiting I know. The only scheduled boat travelling between Tanga and Pemba (the neighbouring but much less-visited island in the Zanzibar archipelago) leaves on a Tuesday morning.

    Dhow on Kigombe beach

    Although that might have changed now. After I wrote the initial draft of this post I received news that is now making World headlines. Sobering. It’s not the boat I was planning to be on, but even still. I cannot imagine there will be too many ferries operating between the mainland and the islands at the moment. The Tanzanian Government has declared three days of national mourning. Perhaps better to look for a local boat that isn’t going to be over-loaded.

    I assumed that with all the Dhows that ply up and down the Swahili coast it would be easy enough to find or enquire about local transport between the mainland and Pemba. Well perhaps I’ve asked the wrong people or haven’t found the right place. Nothing in Tanzania seems to happen very quickly you see. Tanga, Tanzania’s second busiest port, still seems to be languishing in post-Ramadan stupor, but I think the atmosphere is always pole pole here.

    Dhow at Sunset: Tanga

    Just under 100 years ago the British attempted to seize control of the then German-administered port and colony in the Battle of Tanga, but were apparently chased off by wild bees rather than a much weaker German army. Tanga is left with a mixture of German and British era buildings, but it’s a long time to spend a week in.

    Battle of Tanga

    Bananas at the market

    So I’ve migrated 30km down the coast to Kigombe – a small village where the pace of life is even slower. I’m camping under a palm-thatched shelter, which does a good job at keeping the sun and falling coconuts off my tent. It’s very much pass-the-day–in-a-hammock territory, which I guess many spots in Pemba and Zanzibar offer, although I’m also hoping there is a good network of roads to explore on two wheels, assuming I make it out there. My thoughts at the moment go out to all the poor families here in Tanzania who lost relatives in the recent ferry disaster.

    Kids on the beach

    Girl on out-rigger

    Tongoni beach