7 September 2015 by Justine
Cycling in Northern Mozambique – January 2015
While in Malawi, we met a lot of tourists. No surprise: Malawi is a beautiful country with a lot to offer in terms of paradise beaches and animal watching, and its touristic circuits are pretty well set. We weren’t too sure which route take so we asked people around. Most recommendations, half of them coming from South African touristic guides, suggested to avoid Zimbabwe. They had a pretty generalized speech and the main ideas would be: corruption on the roads, corruption at the borders, desperate locals, organized thieves, free criminality in the mountainous areas… Zimbabwe was described like the worst place of all. ”Have you been in Zimbabwe?” would we ask back, “No, but I heard it’s bad there. I wouldn’t go” (…) More we heard bad stuff about Zimbabwe, and more we would consider it as part of our route. Just like finally leaving for Africa after several months of skeptical people having serious doubts on our traveling plans (without having been there themselves), we wanted to get there and see it with our own eyes. After getting our Mozambican visa in Lilongwe, we left beautiful Malawi in direction of Zimbabwe through Tete in Mozambique.
We spent the New Year’s Eve sheltering from the rain in the outdoor cafeteria of a primary school. It was our last night in Malawi. The director himself eventually came to greet us, and offered us some ground nuts from his garden. We informed him of our tradition at home of asking people their New Year’s resolutions, and he thought it was a very funny tradition. There was five kids playing in the mud bare feet in front of our shelter. They didn’t seem to care of our presence – neither of the cold rain. They carried on, carrying buckets of water from the water pump to their homes, and running at each other under the rain. The next morning, they were back. We were quietly eating porridge when we paid attention to their game… They were catching a three centimeter flying bug that had also taken shelter around the building. For fun? No, for breakfast! And they seemed delighted! The best spot to catch those seemed to where we had set camp, and they were too shy to come closer. Thinking they were hungry, I offered them some oatmeal. They politely took it, and let the tallest boy tasted it while the little ones were watching. They all exploded in laughs, gave back our bowl and continued looking for flies… JP was almost tempted to give it a try, but changed his mind after hearing the noise the bugs made under the kid’s teeth: “I just drank my coffee… Maybe another time” 😛
Dedza border was the busiest post we had crossed so fare on our trip, and the biggest. On the Malawian side, the officers had maybe drank a bit too much Malawian gin the night before. We didn’t realize until the next post that they had officially marked our passport with the wrong year. According to our documents, we exited Malawi on January 1st, 2014, and entered Mozambique on January 1st, 2015. Mozambican authorities didn’t laugh too much. They gave us a look and we gave another back saying “Hey… We have nothing to do it this” – that was at one o’clock in the afternoon so definitely NOT the first ones. We finally spoke: “I suggest you call your Malawian friends ten meters down the road for them to change their stamp. They might just realizing it next June”. They answered “We don’t have their number” while stamping our passport with the most violent gesture. With a smile, we left: “Happy New Year to you too!” One word. TIA – This is Africa.
That day, the first of the year twenty-fifteen, we encountered a lot of emptied bottles of liquor. We stopped in our first Mozambican village to make tea. In five minutes, we had twenty kids around us pretending not to watch us. And then, the strangest thing happened. We heard some drums and screams, and saw a bunch of kids running away on the other side of the road. Our new friends lost their smiles and ran away as well. “What the…” Across the road, came five guys, almost naked, wearing masks, all body painted with ashes, holding spears. They were looking for kids… My heart stopped. JP didn’t seem nervous, and that made me even more uncomfortable. I couldn’t help myself thinking… That could be the kind of atmosphere a raid would create. But then, we saw some mamas awkwardly laughing. Ok, it’s a cultural thing. “Those guys won’t kill us?!” “No, but they will ask you some money to buy candy!”
I remember very well our first night in Mozambique. We kept on pushing for 25km after our normal 5:30PM stop hour, in order to get to the town of Ulongwé. It was on the night of January 1st. We needed an ATM to get cash and we felt like grabbing a beer to celebrate the New Year. For those 25km, local people told us we were getting there… Maybe it was a language barrier. Considering that Mozambique’s official language is Portuguese, we first taught we could manage with our Spanish… Not that day. So after an attempt of getting in Ulongwé by ignoring the entrance “Bienvenido en Ulongwé” to follow some drunk guy’s recommendations (no comment), the sun was getting low, we were outside of the so-called town, looking for a camping spot. We then saw an open empty building, probably used for the public market. Once again, it seemed like a perfect spot at day light… But in pitch black, with crazy lightening in the background, with cars that seemed to slow down in front of our shelter, dogs barking and people celebrating at the bar a hundred meter further, it seemed… Slightly less perfect. What if Mozambican have crazy guarding dogs and guns?! We know nothing about their culture except that they like to run naked covered in ashes on January 1st! Of course, nothing major happened (except the dramatic entrance of a lost owl in the roof that scared the shit out of us) and we woke up, fresh and rested, ready for another day on the saddle.
Since our day one on African soil, we were roughly between 2000 and 700 meter above sea level. Now in Mozambique, we would hit the famous Zambezi River – and one hundred-something meter of altitude. So for the first two months and a half of our trip (and about 170 nights out of our 200 in Africa), we didn’t suffer from the heat at night. We actually needed our 0o-5oC sleeping bags. Take away the idea you all have (all of you!) that Africa is a hot, flat and dry continent. Africa has an extremely diversified range of climates, vegetation and landscapes. Tropical jungle, rainforest, savannah, paradise beach, conifer forest, 5000m-high mountain ranges with snowy peaks, desert, you name it! (…) We would get hot in the day, especially between one and three o’clock, but we would have all night to recover in the freshness. But now that the altitude was dropping close to the level of the sea, the scenario was changing: we were entering the Africa most of Westerns have in mind.
We got lucky. Tete is supposedly the hottest place to be, but for us, it was the wettest. To get there, we cycled 72 hours in the rain. Not less of a challenge! Getting up in the morning with the noise of the rain on the tarp, packing the tent under the rain, having breakfast under the rain, cycling under the rain, having a mango break under the rain, having lunch under the rain, having peanut butter and jam break under the rain, stopping for pee under the rain, (not stopping to get water under the rain because we wouldn’t drink that much), looking for a camping spot under the rain, setting up camp under the rain, eating diner under the rain, and falling asleep with the sound of the rain on our tarp – nice picture, uh?
Our first night under the rain, we decided to escape from people who had been pretty insistent during the day. So when the sun was going down, just after a village where we bought some food, we took a right when no one was looking, followed a track into an open field and got ourselves a quiet spot under a tree. The next morning, we packed our soaked tent and put back our wet shoes on. While doing our little morning routine of finding each one a nice bush or tree to relieve ourselves – preferably in a minimum ten meter distance (for the noises and the smell), we saw two men passing by. We then realized that we had set our camp by the cemetery and those men were briefly withdrawing themselves on a grave. Probably thinking we were some kind of weird spirits, they ignored us. Five minutes later, we were cooking our morning banana oatmeal when I saw twenty people walking towards us: “JP, I think we have company”. Since I have this bad habit of imagining the worst, I was convinced that they were offended by our presence in that particular spot. They literally surrounded us, not really smiling. Oh, oh… One of them stepped further and introduced himself as the chief of the village. In order not to muddle up ourselves with a killer mix of all Latin languages we know, we decided to stick to English and make sure they understood that we were tourists cycling through. We obviously thanked them for their hospitality and apologized for our intrusion and campsite selection, which they didn’t seem to care too much about. Then, we were just… Looking at each other. After a good five minutes with no exchange, the chief got a feeling that having twenty people looking at us eat wasn’t in our top five and ordered everyone to leave. So they turned around, and left. Just like they came. “Well that was weird”.
As I was packing, I reached to one of my panniers and had a feeling… “What the…” A huge and hairy scorpion the size of a Mars chocolate bar was laying on my bag!!! I yield to JP: “iiiiiiaaaaeeeewwwww!!!!” That one was definitely the biggest we had seen and I know JP loves to check out insects. I would always hear him say, full of excitement: “Hey, look at that guy!!!” even with boring looking ones. We didn’t think for a second of taking a picture of it as my priority was to get rid of it without having it fall inside my pannier. JP was now convincing me to do it myself, as a real countryside girl would do: “There is nothing to be afraid of! I’m pretty sure it’s only the small ones that are dangerous” “Ok then, Mr.Knowledge. Do it yourself!” “It’s on your pannier…” “Tabarnak”. And so I proved, once more, my extreme general agility by grabbing it with a wooden stick and dropping it on my shoe.
On the third day, we saw our first modern filling station. As a cyclist (especially in Africa), I would easily dream of shopping in one of those… Big selection of cold drinks, sweet and/or greasy and/salty snacks, clean (…) toilets and ice cream – everything I could hope for. Just like coming from the past in a time machine, we slowly entered the little air conditioned cubicle (first time for an AC experience as well!). Under the traumatized look of the cashier, we got very excited: “Woowww!!!! There is air conditioning in here?!?!” “Wwwoooowww!!!! Look! They sale Ceres juice boxes!!!!” “WWWOWOOOWWW!!! It’s even COLD!!!!” “Wwwwooowww……” “2,50$ !?!? It’s soooo expensive!!! But let’s buy it” (at that point, the one o’clock sun came out and the humidity level brought the thermometer in its forties – I was suffering quite a bit, and my mind was slightly altered. The last 15km to Tete were painful.
Tete… What a weird city! We hardly could negotiate a 10$/night (EACH!) for sleeping outside in the yard of a lodge (a double room was 50$/night). I took advantage of the sun the first morning to clean e-ve-ry thing. It had been almost three months already since our departure and our tent was filled with splashes of our own blood – and mosquito cadavers 😛
But there was one good thing about Tete… Bakeries. We spent most of our time there eating all sorts of pastries, just like we had did in Butare, Rwanda, fifty days earlier. Rwanda… It seemed so fare! Fifty days? That’s the quarter of our journey! (…) Just as our gear and clothes were done drying on the line, it started raining – and didn’t stop. Fortunately, we had put the tent under an extension of the roof. From our dear chairs and tent, we could observe the level and size of the surrounding water puddles dramatically rise, and our roommate the Turtle, be as happy as a frog. At that point, I was having a hard time not imagining our next 120km of backcountry in Zimbabwean dirt road in other condition than extreme mud. My hands were getting sweaty.
We got lucky at that lodge and enjoyed the free Wifi connection from our tent. We could Skype our parents, who noticed a drastic change since our last video-talk in Lilongwe the week before. The truth was that we had entered Mozambique with 15$ worth of local money in our pockets, and only found an ATM in Tete, five days later, which we reached with still half of that money. We did leave Malawi with a lot of food, but with the non-stop rain, we really did neglect ourselves. Our fuel – methylated alcohol for our Trangia Swedish stove – was running low as well and cooking over the fire when everything is soaked wet is quite a challenge, even for two experimented ex-scouts (having both been in the scouts is one of the ten common points that JP and I have, along with being scared of whales, having fake ears, smelling bad from the feet and loving tofu spreading… Isn’t that great!!!).
We had met a solo German cyclist in Lilongwe, few days before. He just came back from Zimbabwe on the same route through Tete. He was cycling without shoes, covered with a huge plastic poncho for the rain, long enough to cover his 6’8’’ body, and an Asian pointy hay hat. He looked tired and energy-less. Solo tourers have the right to be a bit weird, so we gently questioned him: “How did you like Zimbabwe?” “Zimbabwe was ok. People didn’t pay attention to me. Always kept on walking. It is a relief from Mozambique, but in another way, they didn’t want to help me” “Did you ask for hospitality?” “No, I sleep in the bush” “Was it hard to find food?” “Ya. I cook on the fire and everything was so wet from the rain… I think I lost ten kilos” “…”. Our only consolation was that we weren’t taking the same route, as he came from Harare, and we were taking a backcountry dirt road and avoiding the capital. Oh! And that we didn’t rely on dry wood to feed ourselves – but we did cook on the fire few times, just to get the feeling, and to test our Vargo titanium woodstove. Even though we are both ex scouts (…), I found it extremely demanding, especially after a day of cycling, to blow on some weak flames, get smoke in the eyes, find dry stalk, keep on feeding the fire and wait so much more just to boil water. You surely appreciate more your meal, though, and its fancy smoky taste.
But then… We got to the Zimbabwean borders in Nyamapanda, we camped outside a lodge, it didn’t rain that night, we ate an outstanding fried fish for three dollars each, life was good, and we were about to start two amazing weeks in Zimbabwe the next day.