Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Ilha da Moçambique, Ibo Island and the north of northern Moçambique . . . “Salamu Sana”

After a few days travelling the width of northern Mozambique we made it to the coast - to Ilha da Mozambique (literally 'Mozambique Island' and known to locals as 'Ilha'). Ilha is the oldest European settlement in East Africa and is a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site . It was the Portuguese capital until it was replaced by what is now Maputo.

Portuguese architecture dominates and the town has a bizarre 'European' feel with narrow alleys and white washed buildings. However, many of the buildings are in a pretty advanced state of decay. Even the large fortress, probably the island's architectural drawcard, is over grown with grass and crumbling in places. Despite the dilapidated buildings, or perhaps because of them, the atmosphere on the island was compelling and we had a good time exploring on bikes that we hired from locals.

Addicted to islands, we went north from Ilha to Ibo Island, which was interesting in its own way. With its wide roads and large buildings surrounded by pillared verandah's, Ibo Island is quite different from Ilha. But, like Ilha, the buildings that haven't been renovated into guest houses are falling apart.

Proud of the tiny amount of Portuguese we had picked up by that time, we greeted people with "Bom Dia" as we looked around Ibo. Most locals responded warmly, but after receiving a stoney silence from a few we thought we might be doing something wrong. When someone kindly stopped to teach us how to greet people in Ibo's version of Swahili, we realised that perhaps some people prefer not to be greeted in the language of the former colonial power. We switched to the greeting "Salamu Sana" and immediately became more popular.

On our way to Ibo we travelled with a Belgian couple - Jones (clearly an alias as he later confirmed . . . it was chosen for ease of travel) and Jozefien. They planned to leave Ibo when we did so we got together and the four of us hired a dhow (local sailing boat used all the way up the east coast of Africa for fishing and transport). The plan was to sail from Ibo to Pangane, a beach back on mainland Mozambique about 70 km away. The first few hours of the journey were idyllic - a nice gentle breeze, calm clear water, swimming, sunshine and dolphins. The last few hours of the nine hour trip were not so great: it started to rain, the wind and waves picked up and my face turned a charming browny-green colour as I bailed water from the bottom of the boat. Phil, always happy to be on a boat, somehow managed to enjoy every minute of the long trip. But we were all exhausted when we arrived at Pangane and decided to stay a couple of nights to rest.

Well, I planned to rest, Phil planned to dive. He asked whether there was diving at Pangane and the enthusiastic response was that - yes - there certainly was diving - but with no gas "we go down to 20m!" Thankfully, Phil has seen the movie, The Big Blue, and decided against experiencing the thrill of the near death experience that diving with no gas offers. Of course, the locals at Pagane don't engage in this dangerous activity for the thrill of it. They hyperventilate and then dive without gas in order to catch lobster that will fetch the best price at the market.

After a few days at Pagane it was time to head further north to the Tanzanian border with our Belgian friends. Not a long distance to cover, but the roads were appalling. It was soon clear that the term "road" was not really used literally as the truck we were on maneuvered around gaping holes, over bumps and through newly formed creeks. On the bright side, the driver had to travel very slowly which meant I had a stress free, albeit bumpy, ride.

We broke the journey to the border by spending a night at Mocimboa . A local guy called Carlos kindly drove us to have a look at a guest house a few kilometres out of the town centre and gave us some practical advice on the possibility of hyena attack . . .

Carlos: No problem for you. The hyena only attack the small children. (Accompanied by a hand gesture indicating that a small child is anyone below waist height.)

Phil: So that's a problem for the small children . . .

Carlos: Yes, but no problem for you.

(Note to self: Do not visit Mocimboa with small children or very short adults.)

After a night at Mocimboa it was time to cover the last 120 km to the Tanzanian border. Although it did not seem possible at the time, the road got worse. It was 4WDs only and the gaping holes of the previous day were but a pleasant memory. Finally, over five hours later, we arrived at the Mozambican side of the border, got our passports stamped, walked through a few hundred metres of ankle deep mud to the Ruvuma River, jumped in a wobbly row boat and found ourselves on Tanzanian soil.

We will be spending about a month in Tanzania and I hope to update you with the first installment of the Tanzanian trip in a week or so. We got a Tanzanian SIM card so if you need to contact us by phone don't use Phil's UK mobile number anymore. You can contact us on +255 787 484 498. Texts are best and even they take a day or two to arrive (if ever) but we can't expect much more from a SIM card that cost less than 1 pound.

Also, Phil has posted more photos so click on the link to see the last of Namibia.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

From the border to the coast, northern Moçambique . . . “Bom Dia”

In an attempt to focus on northern Mozambique rather than the sad fact that we had to leave Malawi, I started looking at the Mozambique guidebook in a little more detail and discovered that:

Any honest description of northern Mozambique is bound to repel visitors seeking comfort or predictability . . . Northern Mozambique offers the sort of challenging travel that recalls conditions in countries like Zambia, Tanzania and Uganda in the mid-1980s – but exacerbated by linguistic barriers, . . relatively high costs and a public transport system that defies rational comprehension.”

Me: Umm, Phil, have you read this?
Phil: Don’t worry, read this bit . . .

Northern Mozambique is likely to whet the appetite of travellers looking for an adventurous trip though one of southern Africa’s least explored regions.”

Me: Are we "travellers looking for an adventurous trip"?
Phil: Well I am, aren't you?

So began our journey into Mozambique.

The only way to cross the nearest border post was to walk 6 kilometres with our bags or hire someone to give us a lift on the back of their bicycle - bicycle taxis. So, we were peddled in to the town of Mandimba in Mozambique where we picked up a truck to Cuamba, a fairly non-descript dusty town further east. We were forced to stay in Cuamba for a few days to wait for the train to take us towards the coast.

Portuguese is the official language in Mozambique and, unlike Maputo in the south (which we visited briefly on New Year’s Eve), very few people in northern Mozambique speak English. Despite the language barrier we were usually able to get by with Phil’s Spanish, some hand gestures and drawing in the dirt with a stick. Our efforts didn’t always meet with success. One attempt to find a deck of cards using hand gestures and sound effects ended with us being offered a can of insect spray.

The language barrier was particularly tricky when we found ourselves in a dispute with the owner of an (already overpriced) hotel. As we tried to checkout we were told that the rate we had been informed of when we checked in was for residents only and, as tourists, the hotel’s policy was to charge 25% more. Annoyed that we had been assured of one price and charged another we insisted on paying the original price. After some discussion with the very sympathetic local management who we suspect disliked the owner as much as we later came to, we were confronted with the irate Portuguese owner who refused to ‘lower’ the price. It was a stand off.

We resisted the You-Can’t-Do-That -I-Am a-Lawyer approach, assuming it would be as unsuccessful in Mozambique as it is in the rest of the world. Instead we suggested that she call the police and have them settle the issue.

Thankfully, we did not end up in a Mozambican jail. The owner failed to call our bluff and finally caved in. A few hours after our first attempt we managed to checkout and hopped on a train bound for Nampula.

The train ride to Nampula was unique. At every stop the station turned into a mini-market with people from the villages selling anything and everything through the train’s windows. You could do your grocery shopping from the train - bananas, potatoes, garlic, onions, squash, cassava, cucumbers, pumpkins, chillis, lemons, oranges, chickens, eggs, bread, cashew nuts (or 'the king of nuts' as Phil calls them) and soft drinks were only a few of the items that changed hands along the track.

Unfortunately, my enjoyment of the journey was somewhat marred by the horrifying discovery that my last unread novel, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest’, had been lost in transit. I found myself sitting through a 12-hour train ride completely ‘bookless’. Anyone who knows me understands how devastated I was. Phil told me to breathe deeply and try to focus on the entertainment of the train ride itself, but I could not be mollified.

To make matters worse I knew the chances of purchasing a novel written in English were slim to none in Mozambique. However, I got 'lucky' - I am now the owner of three of Danielle Steel’s best sellers, purchased from a hotel shop on the coast of Mozambique. It was Danielle Steel or Mills & Boon. A choice I never thought I would have to make. The horror . . . the horror!

Armed with reading material we made for islands off the coast of Mozambique. More on that in the next entry, which should be within the week.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Cape Maclear to Zomba, Malawi . . . “Mulibwanji”

Back on mainland Malawi, our first stop was Cape Maclear, a small village by the Lake. We checked in to backpackers’ place called Fat Monkeys and explored the village. We were immediately accosted by locals all trying to sell us carvings, 'ganga' or boat rides. We decided to focus on water-related activities and asked about kayaking trips to Domwe and Mumbo islands – both a few kilometres from Cape Maclear. The guy selling the trips at Kayak Africa told us that (according to South Africa’s Getaway magazine) Mumbo Island was voted the 3rd most popular honeymoon destination in southern Africa. This prompted us to ask, in unison, what destinations were awarded 1st and 2nd place. Then, realizing that we weren’t making any friends, we shut up and booked a two day trip to Domwe and the illustrious Mumbo Island.

Both islands are deserted, apart from other guests staying in Kayak Africa’s accommodation – think Gilligan’s Island with luxury tents – and we had a fantastic time. Basically the trip involved kayaking between or around the islands and recovering with our fellow island inhabitants over dinner and drinks. The two days were over very quickly and we kayaked (well, mainly Phil - my arms were a bit tired) back to Cape Maclear.

After Cape Maclear we tore ourselves away from the Lake and went south to Blantyre to stay for a few days on our way to Mount Mulanje - the highest peak in South-Central Africa. We stayed at a place recommended by Troy (an Australian criminal lawyer doing a stint at the 'legal aid' equivalent in Malawi) who we met at Cape Maclear. Troy and his friend Allen (an English criminal lawyer also working in Malawi) took us under their wings, showing us around town and introducing us to Malawian nightlife at a bar called the Blue Elephant. For those of you wondering- yes - Phil did get on the dance floor and showed the locals a few of his moves. After a night out at the Blue Elephant we found ourselves heading to Mount Mulanje to begin a five day hiking trip – with shocking hangovers. Luckily it took us so long to get to the mountain that we were forced to stay overnight at the base of the mountain and start the hike the next day.

Mt Mulanje is a huge, isolated block of mountains of more than 640 sq kms situated in the south east of Malawi. The highest point is Sapitwa at 3002 m. Goal number one was to climb Sapitwa peak. We managed to get to the base of Sapitwa on the first day and planned to ‘summit’ the following morning (Phil is teaching me hiking-speak).

When we woke the next morning after a huge downpour overnight, I thought our plans would have to change. However, it seemed that our guide (Peter) was more optimistic than I was (which was not difficult after I found out that the word ‘sapitwa’ means something like ‘don’t go there’). Apparently unconcerned about the rain, Peter suggested that we try to climb the peak and turn back if it proved too difficult.

The first 30 minutes were fine, after that we were confronted with endless slabs of steep, slippery, smooth rock and nothing to grab onto. Obviously, I thought, this is a job for Spiderman, and relaxed as I waited for the turn-back signal from Peter. But once again I was too pessimistic. With some careful guidance from Peter and Phil I was actually able to negotiate my way upwards. After a few more hours of climbing, and what I viewed as near-death leaps from rock to rock, I came quite close to ‘spitting the dummy’ (which Phil tells me is the technical climbing term for my behaviour).

Peter, no doubt sensing my near tantrum, asked whether we would like to turn back or continue to the top. I could see that the true meaning of this question was: would you like to live or would you prefer to die? However, before I could respond Phil (who knows how may brain works) quickly convinced me that continuing did not mean certain death. And so we continued.

Four hours after setting out we made it to the top of Sapitwa peak and another 4 hours later we were back at the base of the Sapitwa with nothing more than a few scratches, sore hands (from gripping the rocks for dear life) and ripped shorts (from gracefully sliding down rocks on my backside).

As it had been raining for much of the day we were going to stay at the cabin at the base of the Sapitwa, but we arrived at about 3pm to find that it was already full. So we put our rain jackets back on and made for the mountains once more. This time it was a 4 hour walk to the next cabin through about fifteen rivers. At another time, the prospect of being swept away by the raging waters might have concerned me but I was so intent on getting to the cabin that I followed Peter and Phil thoughtlessly wading through – boots, socks and all. We finally arrived at the cabin after dark - completely exhausted.

It took me a while to psychologically recover from that experience so we spent the next few days on the mountain taking it relatively easy. We hiked from cabin to cabin and climbed one other peak which was a piece of cake after Sapitwa.

After five days on Mt Mulanje we went back to Blantyre for a few more nights with Troy and Allen. Then we left for a couple of nights on the Zomba plateau, another amazing mountain with great views of Malawi.

Having spent the entire month of March in Malawi, it really was time to leave so we hopped on a bus and began the long journey to northern Mozambique.

I am not sure when the next entry will be as I don't know how good the internet access is in northern Mozambique but I will post another entry in about a week if I find an internet cafe.

If you haven't checked Phil's Cape Town to Cairo Photos lately, Phil has the photos from Namibia up now, so you can click on the link and have a look - I think they are pretty good.