The Weird, the Rare and the Wonder of 70 days in Southern Africa
The purpose of our first Designing Life trip was to realise a simple but intense dream.
We wanted to go on a trip during which we didn’t have to rush anywhere, didn’t have to be anywhere specific at any given time, and most importantly – a trip during which we didn’t have to worry about getting back home at a certain time.
Best of all, we did not have to rush back to loads of piled up work and the stress that is often the result of a ‘keep it short or fall behind’ 10 day break from the rat-race.
With this in mind, we also made sure to make use of our New Wealth currencies….time, mobility and simplicity. Extremely valuable and beneficial when travelling anywhere in Africa.
We had all the time in the world.
70 days to travel 9000 km through the southern African countries of Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Our main interests were the wonders of the natural world each country had to offer. Finding rare animal species, especially birds and antelope, and staying off the beaten track as much as possible. Travelling at our own pace on deserted, dusty wilderness tracks, with nowhere to rush to. Our average speed would be 80 km per hour. We would never exceeded 100 km per hour, purely because we didn’t have to. The currency of time was extremely valuable to us, and became more so as we continued our journey.
It was all about simplicity.
Just Bouter, myself and BushNav (our Nissan Navara 2.5 diesel 4×2). BushNav was equipped with a dome tent, a fridge, 4 ammo boxes filled with the bare necessities, some tinned food, a table and 2 camping chairs. It never took us longer than 15 minutes to set up or breakdown camp anywhere on the trip. We didn’t have to worry about lugging along unnecessary stuff that might break along the way. Less stuff equals less stress – our currency of simplicity. We didn’t have a GPS and relied on good old paper maps.
Mobility was key to us.
We didn’t book a single night in advance, which meant we could come and go as we pleased, and stay as long or short as we wanted to. If we wanted to move on, it took a mere 15 minutes to get ready and get going. Nights around the campfire were spent dreaming up the next exciting destination. We were never pinned down to a specific program or location. Mobility was a currency well worth it and the cherry on the cake of our feeling of ultimate freedom.
Coconut trees – Quiet tropical beaches – Ghostly hotels – Waterfalls and Orioles
For almost three decades, war and political unrest were the norm in Mozambique. Before the civil war it was under Portuguese rule and the country was commonly known as Portuguese East Africa. The brutal civil war ended in 1992 and its borders were re-opened to the world in 1994. The country was left desperately poor and the war left serious scars behind. When I first visited Mozambique in 1995 and again in 1996, we were confronted by potholes the size of moon craters, kids carrying AK47s operating their own roadblocks and bribery was at its peak. The country was littered with old land mines and driving or walking off the main tar roads made for a rather tense experience.
Why would anyone in their right mind go there during that time?
Here’s the thing – Mozambique possesses several natural wonders, especially its coastline, with some of the best beaches in Africa. A coastline dotted with coconut tree plantations, glorious white beaches and lukewarm crystal clear water. Similar to scenery you would find on tropical islands like Mauritius or Bali. Due to the war, the coastline became deserted and unexploited. This lead to the overall numbers of fish flourishing and the coral reefs remained unspoiled and intact.
Enough encouragement for any sports fisherman or diver to want to visit after the war ended. Oh yes, and then there was the cheap local Tipitinto rum and Dos M beer to keep the vibe going!
I returned to Mozambique in 2000 to manage a lodge by the name of Praia do Sol in the tiny coastal town of Bilene for a year. Definitely an experience to remember, but a story for another time.
On 17 September 2012 Bouter and I set off on our first Designing Life trip. Mozambique was the first country on the list. Leaving Nelspruit and entering through the Komatipoort/Rosanna Garcia border post. Gone were the monster potholes. No kids running around with guns bigger than themselves. Most of the land mines had been removed during the late 90s and early 2000s. Bribery was still in the mix but not as rife as it used to be.
We made our way past Maputo, where we turned north and headed up the coast. The beaches were still as beautiful as ever. Coconut tree plantations on both sides of the road with scattered little villages amongst them.
Locals were selling everything under the sun next to the road. From wood, charcoal, honey, cashew nuts, to the occasional live chicken, and of course, coconuts. Fresh fruit and vegetables were readily available. Fresh fish, prawns and crayfish could be obtained with relatively ease from locals at the beach. We quickly changed to a more healthy diet. It was quite a refreshing change from the usual garage pies or the odd Steers burger I used to live off during my life in the city.
The official language in Mozambique is Portuguese. Many native languages are also spoken, for example Tsonga (Shangaan). It goes a long way if you can string a few sentences together. Especially when buying your basic goods next to the road in rural areas. Armed with a bit of Portuguese, it still took me close to 20 minutes to buy a small bundle of firewood from a vendor next to the road. The guy was close to 90 in the shade and had no Portuguese or English in his vocab. After pulling out a calculator and using many hand signals, there was still no progress. I took out some money, put it in his hand, loaded the wood and off we went. The old man looked at the money in his hand and stared at us as we drove off. Looking into my rear view mirror while driving away, I saw him still standing there in the same place, staring at us looking gobsmacked! You are probably thinking, like I did – “did I give the old man too little money and rob him, or did he just like the look of BushNav?”
A few days later I bought another bundle of wood next to the road. That’s when it struck me. I gave the old man a sum of money that was worth about 15 bundles of his wood! On that day he probably earned more than he could earn in a month. Hence the staring at me in absolute amazement. We had a good giggle between ourselves and I felt like a wing nut.
We stopped off for one night in Bilene, about 180 km north of Maputo. While we were there we popped in at Praia do Sol where I used to work. I wanted to see if some of my old staff members were still around after 12 years. To my amazement there were 5 of them still working for the lodge! Among them were the brothers, David and Solly, who were in charge of operations. After spending some time with everyone, I asked David and Solly to walk with us to the car on our way out. In the back we had two big black bags full of old clothes. Clothes we wanted to get rid of, after moving house back in SA. So I opened the back, gave them the bags and said it was for them to have. Purely because they meant so much to me when I was working there all those years ago.
My goodness! When they opened up the bags, they looked at each other, looked at me and looked at each other again. Suddenly they erupted with huge excitement, big white teeth flashing from ear to ear and a few tears rolling down their cheeks. They were laughing, crying and doing weird little dance moves in between. Right there and then it hit me! How amazing it was to witness all of that excitement and joy, and all of that just because we gave them two black bags full of old clothes. It was a humbling experience indeed, that made us realize how much we had to be grateful for. There are too many simple things in life we usually take for granted or just moan about.
After the whole old-clothes ceremony, we carried on northwards along the coast till we got to the town of Xai Xai. That is where you cross the Limpopo, which literally runs through the town on its way to the Indian Ocean. On a beach road leading out of town we found a nice little camping spot at a place called Chongoene. We quickly got our camp set up. After two or three cold Tipitintos we decided to go for a short afternoon drive exploring the area. Apparently if you carried on for approximately 8 km with the beach road, there was an old abandoned hotel believed to be haunted. Haunted or not, we wanted to go and see this place! We grabbed two Dos Ms and off we went.
Now imagine yourself driving very slowly along a little two track sand path. The beach with a beautiful view of the ocean on your right and high sand dunes on your left make for a rather impressive scenic drive. Winding along the little track with not a single soul in sight. Not one person. Undisturbed peace and silence, topped with a fresh sea breeze. Nice!
While sucked into all of that, we drove around a rather large sand dune and there it was in front of us: The ‘haunted’ hotel.
Like something out of an old Vietnam war movie. In the middle of freaken nowhere stood this huge abandoned structure. No one really knew the true history of the place and the locals told us different stories. It either belonged to a certain D’Oliveira who also owned the Polana Hotel in Maputo, or to someone in Durban. Abandoned at the start of the war, but never badly vandalized, it has been standing there empty for almost 40 years.
It had an Olympic sized swimming pool, half filled with rainwater, and with the old diving platform still in place. A fairly large hotel, with 110 rooms, as well as what seemed like self catering units. Amazingly enough a lot of stuff were still there: the marble counters, the bar stools at the bar, some of the headboards, pigeon holes for room keys at reception, as well as the whole bloody switchboard! It must have been a grand hotel. With a little imagination you could, if you closed your eyes, see smartly dressed waiters serving elegant guests with cocktails in the dining hall. If you listened carefully, you could hear the music of an era gone by, see the people dancing, laughing and having fun. All of this overlooking a spectacular beach stretching out in both directions.
How we wished we could have been transported 40 years back in time!
About the ‘haunted’ part I don’t know so much. Perhaps if you go wandering around the corridors at night you might figure that part out or stumble across something I’d rather not. Not for us thanks. We will be back at our camp-site, sitting around the fire and checking to see how the Tipitinto was doing.
Coffee made on the fire, first thing in the morning, was a ritual not skipped once on the whole trip. After our little coffee boost we were packed and ready to go at 6:30 am. Our next destination was ‘somewhere’ in the direction of Inhambane. We were happy to just plot a course along the coast northwards and see what happened. No rush to be anywhere. With that in mind, we casually drove up the coast during the morning and got to Inhambane around midday.
After exploring the area around Inhambane for a while we decided to go look for a nice little spot for the night. About 10 km out of town we jumped onto a dirt road. A few signs indicated that there might just be the kind of place we were looking for further down the road. My word and did we find the place we were looking for! The spot was called Coco’s Bay and for good reason too. One hell of a camping site (there were close to 300 camping spots), nestled in amongst a coco tree plantation. Right on the beach, with a sand dune, serving as a wind shelter, running parallel with the camp site. Right behind the dune was one of the most open, vast and uninterrupted beaches I have ever seen in my life.
The best part of the place for us … barely another person to be seen or heard. The only people around were the dude (asleep) manning the entrance gate, and the guy manning the bar, reception and reservation areas.
There we were, a campsite bigger than a rugby field and a never ending beach in both directions. All of that, all to ourselves for R150 per night! With the madness of city life still fresh in our minds, it was just the bomb for us. The sheer freedom of all that space and no human noise, simply overwhelmed us. You actually just wanted to start doing cartwheels around the whole place as well as up and down the beach….naked! We ended up staying 4 nights. In the time we were there we only saw two other vehicles. We made royal use of having the the whole beach to ourselves. Whale season was in full swing. Every day a number of those amazing animals breached the water a mere 100 meters from the beach, right in front of us! When we weren’t on the beach, we were chilling at our camp, reading, staring at the views, day dreaming or preparing something mouth watering from Bouter’s safari cookbook.
Coco’s Bay left a lasting impression on us. Our accidental perfect timing in finding the place during the off-season was the cherry on the cake of a perfect experience.
According to the receptionist / barman / camp captain dude, the place was fully booked for the coming December holidays. I imagined the 300 silent camping spots exploding with overloaded, shiny 4×4 vehicles, off-road trailers, fishing boats and noisy camping contraptions. Snotty, overweight and noisy kids running around the place and the beautiful beach covered with garishly colored umbrellas. No thank you! The mere thought immediately gave me the creeps. Just more reason for us to appreciate what we had for 5 days, all to ourselves.
From Coco’s Bay we headed for Vilanculos about 400 km north, a rather dull 6 hour drive. Music ranging from Koos Kombuis and Bob Marley to some Springbok Radio Top 40 hits kept us going, along with the odd coconut snack washed down with some Oros cordial.
Vilanculos is a small, spread out town and is best known as the main gateway to the beautiful Bazaruto Archipelago. The four main islands of Magaruque, Benguerra, St Carolina and Bazaruto, plus surrounding islets and reefs, are protected as a national park. Azure waters, pure white beaches, palm trees, pristine coral, tropical fish to goggle at and big game fishing. The town of Vilanculos itself was rather disappointing and mucky. There were a few backpacker lodges, and some annoying hustlers following us everywhere, trying to sell us who knows what made out of some shells. The only public beach didn’t look very inviting and the overall feel of the town was dingy. With no accommodation really worth it, we headed back out of town and once again took a little dirt road that had signs pointing towards possible camping spots. Sure as hell, as had happened 5 days before, we stumbled across a place by the name of Blue Water Resort. There we found a camping spot with a view that was second to none! Spectacular sun rises and sun sets and a picturesque horizon you could stare into while longing for people you didn’t even know. Our pictures of the place do better justice to the view than me trying to describe it. To top it all off … yes you guessed it … we were the only people there and once again enjoyed the luxury of having it all to ourselves!
Vilanculos marked the last part of our trip where we could enjoy the coastline and its beaches. From there on it was inland and off into the bush for the start of our bush whacking safari.
There was one specific exercise preplanned and an absolute must-do for us while in Mozambique. Something we had been looking forward to for at least 5 years. And that was to go through the whole drill of climbing Mount Gorongosa and find a rare bird. For any keen birder, a bird worth a nice big, fat tick on your life list of birds – the Green Headed Oriole. The more common Black Headed Oriole is better known to most birding enthusiasts and common throughout southeastern Africa. While the habitat of the rare Green Headed Oriole is confined to the montane forests of Mount Gorongosa in Central Mozambique. Many people would like to think that you could simply rock up, quickly walk up the mountain, spot the bird and move on. Not in a million years! You have to work hard to find and eventually see it. Of that I can assure you.
We got horribly lost looking for the turnoff that should have taken us to the base camp at the foot of the mountain. The area is very remote and I think the majority of people living in the vicinity of the mountain have never even seen a TV. After driving down a few hair raising tracks, we eventually found the road. It wasn’t really a road, more of an obscure little path leading through the odd village, banana field and just plain bush. With only an hour of light left, we plonked along at 30 km per hour. The road seemed never ending and tended to just disappear in places. That’s when you start doubting the villagers who kept telling you that you were on the right track. With our nerves getting frayed, the sun disappearing quickly and scenes from the movie ‘Wrong Turn’ in our heads, the road suddenly came to an end at a boom gate. The whole 25 km drive took us a good 2 hours. To the left there was a little clearing, just big enough for one vehicle, and small area to pitch our tent. We were met by a guy called Cassimo who made us fill in a form….in Portuguese. Cassimo did not speak a word of English, but understood exactly what we had come for. People only go all the way up there for one reason. The Green Headed Oriole. After a combination of hand signals , drawings in the sand and broken Portuguese, we got the price agreed on, as well as the schedule for the following morning. It would be a 5 am start to the 4 km drive up the mountain from the entrance gate, after which we would be walking the remainder of the way. After a quick supper we hit the sack. Dead tired but very excited at the prospect of finding a bird we have wanted to see for five years.
I think we only slept for 3 hours, but who cares. Like two big nerds we were up at 4 am, bouncing with excitement. A small fire was started to get the coffee ritual going. Cassimo lived in some weird looking little tent in another corner of our small clearing. At 4:50 am old Cassimo came crawling out of his tent and looked rather confused with us bouncing around, packed and ready to go. I think I may have misunderstood him the previous night. It was actually getting up at 5 am to leave at 6:30 am. Anyway, we left just after 5 for a ‘short’ 4 km drive to the spot where we would leave the car and start walking. Once again it was definitely not a quick, easy drive! It was a 4km route over giant boulders, down ravines and through thick bush. Half an hour later we managed get to the spot where we had to leave the car.
Upon arrival two more phases had to be completed before we would hopefully see our Green Headed Oriole.
Cassimo first had to go to the local chief who lived on a nearby hill. Mount Gorongosa is a sacred mountain to all the people of Mozambique. One needs to respect that, and get the necessary permission to hike up the mountain. The last phase was the actual 6 km hike up the mountain into the montane rain forest.
With Cassimo done with the ritual of getting permission (and us secretly sighing a big sigh of relief…what if the chief refused?) we set off at a rather quick pace, heading up the mountain. Sadly a big part of the mountain has suffered under severe deforestation. But it warmed our hearts to see that they were running the Mount Gorongosa Restoration project. On our way to the forest we came across what looked like a nursery, where they were growing indigenous forest trees and replanting them on the open areas of the mountain. Not only does this important project create conservation awareness among the rural communities, but it creates sustainable jobs and income. It helps the local communities realise how important it is to look after their environment, since tourists will pay good money to come and enjoy their natural heritage. We made our way through the open parts of the mountain towards a smaller area of greenery at the top of the mountain. The montane forest with the orioles! It took us just over an hour of walking before we entered the dark, gloomy rainforest. The feeling of entering a rainforest is unbelievable. It’s literally like stepping into a new and amazing world. Something out of Avatar, just not blue. The one distinctive feature of a rainforest is that all the noises and sounds echo. The majority of animals that live in a forest are heard and not seen. The same goes for birds. You first hear them and then if you are lucky, you may see them.
Explosive, liquid song, typical of orioles, echoed through that forest from the minute we entered it. The only difference to all other orioles was a distinctive nasal mewing at the end of every song or whistle. After a long period of searching, it literally drives you crazy when you hear them going nuts high up in the trees but you still can’t see them! But as we knew from birding experience over the years, you just have to be patient. We climbed higher till we got to a vantage point from where we could look back down over the forest canopy. There they were … one bird, and then another, and another. We found the hot spot! We were ecstatic to see numerous Green Headed Orioles that morning. Happy as pigs in shit we were!
But our morning’s adventure wasn’t over just yet. After the sacred mountain, our guide, Cassimo, led us back the way we came, and then took us in a different direction towards the Murombodzi Falls. After a decent hike of approximately half an hour we arrived. The falls were stunning, and the best part, we had it all to ourselves! After leading us on the path right to where the water cascaded down the rock face, our guide gave us some privacy so we could enjoy the natural beauty by ourselves. The waterfall filled up several ice cold pools that we could swim in, and we could also ‘shower’ underneath the falling cascades. Refreshing! It was the perfect end to our morning. What an awesome feeling to tick off two things that were on our bucket list: the Green Headed Oriole and swimming underneath a waterfall!
Our next stop was Gorongosa National Park. We spent two nights in the park that is also known as ‘Africa’s Lost Eden’. It was a fascinating place, and we will be dedicating a separate article to it. Our time in Mozambique was drawing to an end, and we were itching to get to Malawi, a country neither one of us have visited. The next part of our Designing Life trip was all about Exotic Wildlife and Lakes, Baobab Forests, a Leprosy Horror Story and the Lord of the Rings. Little did we know what the supposed 5 hour trip to Malawi had in store for us. But that is a story for next week…
Till then, keep on Designing Life!
Edrich and Lelanie