Saturday, 25 June 2011

Game drives through Africa

From eastern to southern Africa, I have enjoyed more game drives than is perhaps normal, if not for one lifetime, then most definitely for one half year.  From the very beginning, I was spoilt by the wildlife we saw and the guides who accompanied us.  As time went on, we actually saw less “impressive” game but learnt a lot more about the lives of the animals & birds themselves, the tracks they leave, the precariousness of their habitats, and the very real risks presented by poachers.

There is much debate about what time of year to visit different game reserves.  For example, many people visiting the Serengeti like to time their trip to coincide with migration - this is the time when many animals are moving great distances to find new sources of food and water and so the likelihood of spotting lots of animals is very high.  Additionally, you can be very successful when water is scarce – the animals will need to travel more often to find food and water.  At other times of year when water is plentiful, you may have to travel further, be prepared to be patient and return from some drives with little to jot down in your notebook.  The advantages of these periods of the year are that you will encounter far fewer people and not be racing other jeeps to get to the reported sighting of a lion or leopard.  If that is the case though, you need a nimble driver who can out-manoeuvre the other jeeps into the choicest spot for your photographic ambitions!

For most first timers, the crucial thing is to spot the big five: lion, leopard, rhino, elephant & buffalo.  Despite visiting towards the end of the rainy season when water was plentiful, on my trip we managed 4 out of the 5 in Kenya on our first day but then had to wait until the Serengeti to add the leopard to the list.  We didn’t just see lions on day one, but mating lions!  Being spoilt so early on, I came to have great expectations of all game drives and had to re-adjust at times and remind myself that we were not viewing these animals in a zoo but in the own natural environment and that we were the intruders.  These fascinating creatures may not always fancy coming out to play on your chosen route!  At all points, you need a good guide with eagle eyes who can spot camouflaged animals whilst driving – a fine skill indeed.

The best times for spotting wildlife are first thing in the morning when the animals are getting up (yes, some of them go to bed just like us!) or late afternoon when they are moving to find their spot to settle for the night.  On any game drive you can end up travelling hundreds of kilometres through national parks, often not spotting much at all for long periods of time.  It’s funny though how that disappears to the back of your mind when a herd of elephant comes storming past you on their way down to the water.  Suddenly, it’s one of your favourite drives!  We also did a couple of game walks although due to the smaller distances travelled and the luck of the draw, we didn’t spot a great deal.  We did come across a hippo that seemed to be seriously considering charging us until our guide cocked his AK47…

We were also lucky to view some different scenes at night.  In Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, we ventured off in our jeep in thermals, fleeces, woolly hats and sleeping bags (ooh, it was chilly!) for a night game drive and rather naughtily woke up some baboons.   We were avenging all the things that the baboons had stolen from us (bananas, sandwiches, suntan cream, our guide’s fancy binoculars).  We also saw a variety of animals who only venture out at night.  At Etosha National Park in Namibia, our campsite was next to a waterhole where viewing platforms and spotlights had been set up.  Sitting there in the cold night air, we had the wonderful sight of a solo rhino coming to drink water and when he had left, a lion and lioness majestically strolled down to the water’s edge.  Afterwards they seemed to be behaving quite cagily and we were convinced that they were looking for a kill.  On the contrary, they were looking for a secluded spot.  We may have lost them from sight (uber-binoculars with great night vision would have come in handy), but there was no mistaking those roars!  After reaching a tally of nine, we decided that they must be done and headed back to the tents.  Oh no, our lions roared all through the night.

Camera and binoculars should be a major focus when considering any trip involving game drives.  It is easy to become very frustrated when the animals are far away – especially when it is your first leopard sighting!  I don’t consider it a proper sighting unless I can get a recognisable photo.  Obviously good position and composition are vital for a photo but having a powerful zoom lens is crucial and can help you get some memorable shots.  My Canon DSLR has a 75-250mm lens but I was always wishing that I had more!  Many of today’s small cameras have very powerful zooms but if you want to be able to blow shots up and frame them, then you will be better off with a camera that has manual settings.  My recommendation would be to get some photography lessons before heading out – my shots improved dramatically after Jésus switched me over to manual settings rather than automatic and I learnt how to adjust the settings based on the light available.  However, sometimes it is just nice to sit and watch the wildlife with the binoculars – you can really see their faces and movements and look right into their eyes.  You are there to observe and learn; not just to be trigger happy.

A topic that came up for discussion more in Southern Africa rather than East Africa was poaching.  Much work has been done to make poaching illegal and the punishments harsh but nevertheless it remains a very serious issue and if things continue as they are then rhinos will soon be extinct.  Rhino horns are a very valuable commodity in the farcical belief that they can make man more potent.  For the poachers, the animal itself is just collateral damage in the search for rhino horn to make their fortune.  Sadly, many of these rhinos live in countries with limited resources (e.g. Zimbabwe) and where many people are desperate.  Rhinos are particularly vulnerable not only due to the market value of their horns but also because mating takes an hour and so population growth amongst a diminishing population does not happen quickly!

Success stories against poaching would be the gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda.  Tracking the gorillas may not be cheap for a foreigner (~$500 in Rwanda for a foreigner, a minimal fee for a local) but the protection programme is now self funding and the gorilla families are expanding.  The threat however remains very real.  Whilst the local community has been educated and become involved via job creation, the site of the gorillas in Rwanda is scarily close to the very unstable Democratic Republic of Congo.  There is a reason we were accompanied by so many AK47s that day.

The one missing thing I had really wanted to see was a kill.  That may sound a little gruesome but I think it is actually quite important to remember that these game parks contain delicate balances of wildlife and that what might look cute and cuddly to me from the safety of my jeep, is actually an important source of food.  If too many animals survive, there is not enough food (be it prey or greenery) and water to go round.  We did see some lions protecting their prey as well as some vultures feasting, and a stripped carcass lying under a tree ready for the hyenas to find that night. 

Nevertheless, I love the protective practices of the different animals.  We were watching some giraffes drinking one day (they bend down in the most hilarious manner) when all of a sudden they all started sprinting away from the waterhole.  An impala had appeared from nowhere sprinting and they had all reacted instantaneously in self defence – it could have been a predator but in reality was just an impala having fun.  As one giraffe drinks, another keeps guard. While drinking, they are very vulnerable to attack.  With elephants, the babies are very vulnerable to attack and so they always travel protected by the group, often within the legs of one of the adults.  I liked the story we heard about the mother of a young elephant who was attacked by a crocodile.  She picked it up with her trunk and threw it far into the river!

So, what was my favourite thing?  Impossible to say…  The lions were majestic but I never bored of seeing elephants, zebras or giraffes.  I love to watch elephants and giraffes eating.  Even when I’d seen hundreds of these animals moving around and chomping away on grass or trees, they could always do something to surprise me and show themselves to us in a new light.  I’ll never forget seeing elephants play fighting as they crossed the road or watching them swim and the teenagers fooling around in the water.  I had seen so many placid zebras and then all of a sudden two were having an argument and one starting chasing the other, racing at incredible speed.  I didn’t see giraffes drink or run until the later part of the trip.  The animals always had some new way to surprise and amuse me.

I’ve been tempted too much now and so I will need to visit more reserves in the future.  It would be nice to focus on one area for a whole week.  You need a fair amount of luck when you only visit certain reserves for one or two days.  You also don’t have time to focus on the geography of the area and actually try to track the animals.

Where did I go and what were the highlights?
Ø  Sunday 3rd April: Lake Nakuru, Kenya – afternoon game drive. 
o   Pelicans, flamingos, water buffalo, zebra, impala, white rhino family, giraffes, mating lions. Baboons at campsite
Ø  Monday 4th April: Lake Nakuru, Kenya – early morning game drive. 
o   Black rhino, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, impala running & jumping
Ø  Thursday 7th April, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda
o   Chimp tracking
Ø  Friday 8th April: Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda – afternoon boat ride followed by short game drive. 
o   Hippos, birds, crocs, water buffalo.  Solitary elephant
Ø  Saturday 9th April: Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda – early morning game drive. 
o   Lots of elephants
Ø  Monday 11th April: Ruhengeri, Rwanda
o   Gorilla tracking – Sabyinyo family
Ø  Thursday 14th April: Lake Mburo, Uganda - early morning game walk
o   Hippo charging through the swamp – you’d be surprised by the speed
Ø  Tuesday 19th April: Ngorongoro Crater then into Serengeti National Park, Tanzania – all day game drive
o   Buffalo, wildebeest, flamingos, antelopes, zebras, elephants, giraffes, sleeping lions, cheetah (in the distance)
Ø  Wednesday 20th April: Serengeti, Tanzania – early morning game balloon ride followed by game drive.  Afternoon game drive
o   From balloon: large herd of buffalo moving across the plains.  Family of 20 elephants running
o   From jeep: leopard moving around our jeep.  Play fighting elephants, hyenas
Ø  Thursday 21st April: Serengeti, Tanzania – early morning game drive
o   Lion asleep, leopard in a tree
Ø  Saturday 7th May: Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe
o   Rhino bush walk – only tracks, no rhino!
Ø  Sunday 8th May:  Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe - afternoon game drive.  Night time game drive.
o   Elephants, giraffes, baboons, springboks
Ø  Monday 9th May: Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe – early morning game drive
o   Giraffes and zebras, impala
Ø  Friday 13th May: Chobe National Park, Botswana – early morning game drive.  Afternoon game cruise.
o   Large herd of elephant storming down to the water.  Elephants swimming and playing in the river.  Lizard & crocodile.  Ukudu and springboks
Ø  Sunday 15th May: Ovavango Delta, Botswana – afternoon game walk
o   Nothing!
Ø  Monday 16th May: Ovavango Delta, Botswana – morning game walk
o   Waterhog, wildebeest
Ø  Friday 20th May: Etosha National Park, Namibia – afternoon game drive
o   Ukudu, black faced impala
Ø  Saturday 21st May: Etosha National Park, Namibia -  early morning game drive, afternoon game drive, evening by the waterhole
o   Daytime: black rhino, zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, jackals, mongoose, antelopes
o   Nightime: black rhino, lion & lioness

Top twenty photos from East Africa on FB

Top ten photos from Zimbabwe on FB

Top ten Botswana on FB

Top ten Namibia on FB

African border crossings

I have fallen in love with crossing borders by road rather than arriving into airports.  It feels far more like “travel”.  Let’s face it; airports have had their day for providing glamour and romance to the traveller.  To date, I have crossed fourteen African land borders and if I make it into Swaziland and Lesotho via South Africa each time, then that will make it eighteen in total.  Including the three pages for Turkey, Syria and Jordan, only 16 pages of my new 48 page passport have been used but there are 9 full page visas and some 40 unique stamps.  I have very much appreciated the efficiency with which the various border control agents have treated my passport!

The hype about African border crossing has proven to be far worse than the reality.  Before leaving London I had run around to the Kenyan, Ugandan and Tanzanian consulates to make my life simpler.  In reality, the visas could all have been acquired at the borders without any fuss (obviously I can only speak for the borders we used and on the days we travelled!).  Unlike in an airport, there is not necessarily an obvious sign to point you in the right direction.  If you don’t know what you are doing, these land crossing can be intimidating but really this is just an opportunity for someone to help you.  It’s pretty cool to get stamped out of one country and then stroll over the border to get stamped into the new country.

Up in East Africa, the borders seemed a lot busier – both in terms of people crossing and also the amount of vendors (often young boys) wanting to provide you with currency, fruit or fizzy drinks.  At these crossings, the border guards categorically don’t want to see you if you are travelling as part of a group.  Even when visas are required, they just want one person to hand over the passports and all the money.  The East African Community has understandings about movement between Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania and if you enter and return once within a specified time period, they won’t require a new visa fee.  However, Rwanda is not yet quite part of that and I was annoyed that I had to pay for two Ugandan visas when I had only gone into Rwanda for 4 days.  I tried smiling sweetly at the border control guard but he just smiled nicely back and insisted on a new visa ($50).  I gave up gracefully and handed my passport in with the rest of the group.  It wasn’t worth causing a fuss and potential problems for the whole group.

As we reached Southern Africa, the borders became much quieter.  Our introduction to bureaucracy came when we entered Mozambique for the day to travel from Malawi to Zimbabwe.  Extra time had been scheduled into our day for this notoriously slow crossing.  Arriving before 8am we were given our entry forms instantly but told that we would need to wait for the visa forms themselves.  Time ticked on and there was no sign of the forms and none of the officials looked too interested.  Make the foreigners wait.  The last time an Intrepid truck had done this route, they had all been given $30 “transit” visas.  After an hour and a half, the officials decided that they had no forms as the system had changed two days previously!  Transit visas no longer existed (the government didn’t consider that this was bringing in sufficient money for the country – just driving through doesn’t use any services) and so full visas were now required ($75).  They would enter us all into the computer one by one.  We all trotted into a special room/cupboard at the back of the building where we gave our details and they had fun working out how best to position the new camera they had been given for this new system.  As we’d got up at 5am that morning to get to the border early, with no expectation of having photos taken, we all looked pretty rough.  Frankly, I wouldn’t have let me in. 

At the Zimbabwean border later that afternoon, we were processed quickly, handing over our $50 bills.  As the Zimbabweans will take any US dollar bill they can, I was unable to get the group to get rid of all my accidentally acquired 1996 $50 bills which has been unusable elsewhere in Africa.  Result.  As was often the case, the Canadians had to pay more than the rest of us J  As we moved down to Botswana and Namibia, border crossing became far more sophisticated.  Many of these borders had been upgraded for the World Cup in 2010 as they needed Interpol information on football hooligans.  The agents were friendly and unfailingly polite.  They were also the most efficient with the pages of my passport.  As in the Middle East, being a Rooney from Liverpool came in useful on many occasions and provided some nice banter.  One day, I even found myself discussing Kenny’s recent permanent appointment.

The most fascinating border in many ways was between South Africa and Mozambique.  No longer with the truck and a group but travelling by overnight coach as just two from Johannesburg to Maputo, we had to navigate this one with only the nudges of the locals to point us in the right direction.  “Follow that queue!”  “I think he is on our coach – follow him!”.  Arriving by coach, we were able to use the short queue to get stamped out of South Africa.  At the other side of the room, we could see the big queue which stretched back for miles – these were people crossing over on foot.  For many Mozambicans, South Africa is their only chance of making a reasonable living.  We later met a young man who worked in SA for 5 ½ months at a time before returning to see his wife and children for a couple of weeks.

A situation on our coach had been fascinating us.  There was a lady sat opposite us with a young baby.  When the controller came to inspect the tickets (strangely quite a while after we had left Jo’burg), she did not have one.  We had suspected this as we had seen her arguing at the ticket desk in the station but she had then appeared on the coach anyway.  She refused to speak to the ticket controller and we wondered whether she would be thrown off when we made a stop.   He kept returning and asking for money (an inflated fare from the one we had paid) but she refused to engage.  I also understood that she also had no papers.

When we arrived at the border, we wondered what would happen to her and whether we would see her again on the other side.  After having our passports stamped out of SA, we were walking across the border when we spotted her.  There were many soldiers with guns randomly spot checking passports.  She was striding ahead and a soldier was running behind her shouting “Senhora”.  She simply ignored him.  Although intrigued, we put our heads down and carried on.  Surely this soldier would not give up and then there was still the Mozambique side with yet more soldiers and more guns.  We joined the next queue convinced that her seat would be empty on the coach for the remainder of the journey.

You can therefore imagine our surprise when we re-boarded the coach shortly afterwards to find her sitting in her seat and grinning widely.  I can only imagine that she was a desperate woman with nerves of steel who was going to do whatever it took that day to get herself and her child safely into Mozambique that day.  The relief on her face was dramatic and she finally removed some of the heavy layers of clothing she had been wearing.  Every so often she would laughingly exclaim, “Mozambique!”  Her clothes were old but clean and her bonny baby was beautiful and obviously well cared for.  I wonder where she had been and what her story was.  She was a very brave and determined woman.

We may use borders for fun travel but for others, they are a source of income or a lifeline to safety.

My border crossings and comments:
·         Friday 1st April: enter Kenya at Nairobi airport
o   I had acquired my visa in London as I would be landing at 3.45am from Cairo and had read that they could be difficult if you were arriving from a non-European destination and did not have an onward ticket.  In the end it was a complete non-event, I did not need an onward ticket and the visa would have been cheaper purchased at the airport.
·         Tuesday 5th April: Kenya into Uganda (Malaba)
o   We passed through pretty quickly but there was an enormous queue of trucks.  This is the main goods route in East Africa and it is not unusual for trucks to wait two weeks to pass through customs.  There are plenty of “hotels” along the road to keep the truckers entertained.
o   On the Ugandan side, we chatted to some young boys who were mad about football.  Apparently Liverpool are now referred to as “Loserpool” – unfair…
·         Sunday 10th April: Uganda into Rwanda (exit Kamuganguzi, enter Gatuna)
o   Rwandan visa is free for UK citizens
·         Wednesday 13th April: Rwanda back into Uganda (Cyanika)
o   Had to purchase a new Ugandan visa for $50
·         Saturday 16th April: Uganda back into Kenya (Malaba)
o   Helen had bought a football for our friends from our earlier crossing.  However, after asking around, we discovered that they were away that day.  A young boy who amused us with his requests for any magazines on the truck became the proud owner of our football
·         Monday 18th April: Kenya into Tanzania (Namanga)
o   First use of Yellow Fever Certificate
·         Friday 29th April: Tanzania into Malawi (Kaporo)
o   No more visas required as we head into Southern Africa
·         Tuesday 3rd May: Malawi into Mozambique (Zobue)
o   $75 to transit for the day!
·         Tuesday 3rd May: Mozambique into Zimbabwe (Nyamapanda)
o   Easy border control.  Joked about Rooney.  Offloaded all my 1996 $50 notes via the rest of the group
·         Thursday 12th May: Zimbabwe into Botswana (Kazangula)
o   Had to take all our shoes to be washed – protection against foot and mouth
·         Saturday 14th May: Botswana into Namibia (Ngoma)
o   Easy crossing – discussed Kenny Dalglish appointment
·         Sunday 15th May: Namibia into Botswana (Muhembo)
·         Tuesday 17th May: Botswana into Namibia (Muhembo)
·         Monday 30th May: Namibia into South Africa (Nordoewer)
o   South African border guards failed to raise a smile for anyone, not even Jésus
·         Saturday 11th June: South Africa into Mozambique (Lebombo-Ressano Garcia)
o   No Intrepid crew to guide us, locals point us in the right direction, easy peasy
o   Visas acquired in Cape Town otherwise the coach company would not have let us board!
·         Monday 27th June: Mozambique into Swaziland
·         Swaziland into South Africa
·         South Africa into Lesotho
·         Lesotho into South Africa
·         Leave South Africa at Johannesburg airport

Friday, 17 June 2011

Cape Town to Tofo: the unusual way

The truck journey ended on the 31st May and so I enjoyed a welcome break from long days of driving, early starts and the tent up/down routine.  Thanks to a cracking online deal, I suddenly found myself in a lovely comfy big bed with constant hot water and no more middle of the night mental debates about whether or not a trip to the ablutions block was a good idea.

In Europe we have rather become used to the idea that flights can be found cheaply with a little patience and a willingness to travel at unfavourable times of day.  This has not reached South Africa when considering flights into Mozambique.  The “international” taxes on such a flight renders them beyond the budget of the meandering traveller.  Thus a different route needed to be plotted to reach Maputo, the chosen launching pad for further Mozambique travel.

As you may recall, I spent the first week of travels heading from London to Istanbul by train and subsequently enjoyed train journeys through Turkey and Syria.  Reading up, it seemed that the Cape Town to Johannesburg 27 hour train journey on the “Shosholoza Meyl” would be a great way to begin the journey to Mozambique.  The train has sleeper carriages and a dining car.  We would watch the South African countryside go by from the comfort of a two person “coupe”, occasionally popping to the dining car for hearty fare.

Ellie arrived into Cape Town on a plane from London at lunchtime on Friday.  After a lovely long lunch at Fork on Long Street, we headed into town to do a little internet research and look into flights to Maputo. This is when we realised that there was no such thing as a cheap deal and we would need to use the more economical train + luxury coach option.  To do this however, we would need to acquire our visas before we left Cape Town.  The coach companies in Johannesburg will not let international passengers board without a visa already in their passport, lest this cause big delays at border control.  Remembering how it took the Mozambique authorities 2 hours to discover that they didn’t have any visa forms on the day that the truck had travelled from Malawi to Zimbabwe via the Tete Corridor, this seemed reasonable.

Discovering that one needs a Mozambique visa at 4.30pm on a Friday evening is less than ideal.  Especially when you are picking up a hire car at 8am on Monday morning and are not planning on being in Cape Town again until an hour before the train leaves on Thursday morning.  All seemed well when we dashed up to the Mozambique Consulate on the 10th floor of a random office building and found a nice young man at reception.  He said that providing we deposited 750 ZAR (~£70) each with the local FNB bank, we could submit our passports at 8am on Monday morning and they would try to have them ready by lunchtime.  Forms in hand, we went on our way. A slight change to the Monday plans would ensure that we would have Mozambique visas and could continue with our important wine tasting itinerary in Stellenbosch.

After a delicious meal at Savoy Cabbage on Friday evening (thanks Lori, Claire & Michael!), we were up bright and early on Saturday morning with plenty of time to pop to FNB, deposit the cash, pass by the train station to buy our tickets for Johannesburg (that office also closed early on a Friday) and then get to the ferry terminal for our 9.45am trip to Robben Island.  Alas, the entire banking system had gone down and no deposits could be made.  A little sweet talking later, the bank manager, Sedick, had agreed that I could go to the bank before the standard 9am opening  time on Monday morning, call him on his mobile and he would let me in to make the deposit.

The young man at the consulate at 8am did not believe that the bank manager would let me in early and neither did the bank security guard.  However, true to his word, Sedick sorted out my deposit for me on Monday morning at 8.20am.  The young man at the consulate looked duly impressed when, having had all my forms checked at 8am, I popped back at 8.25am with deposit slip in hand.  TIA man, TIA – in a good way  J.  Later on we detoured back to Cape Town from the Cape of Good Hope to collect our newly adorned passports, before heading over to Stellenbosch.  We even managed to fit in afternoon tea at the Mount Nelson.

The Shosholoza Meyl looks nicer online than in reality.  Unlike the Eastern European sleeper trains I had taken, on this train you had to take you own bedding and no-one comes along to make your bed in the evening.  The train felt tired and in need of a good scrub.  However coffee is brought round to your cabin as well as meal orders taken and delivered.  As the cabin at times felt like a cell, we always went and took our meals in the dining car, inevitably waking the dining car staff from their slumber. 

The train left at 10am and was pootling along nicely until early afternoon when we seemed to have stopped for a reasonable length of time.  A fire at a small power station had caused the electricity on the line to go out and so we had to sit and wait for it to be sorted out.  No big deal.  We had 10 hours in Jo’burg the following day between train and coach so what did two hours matter?  We laid the little cabin table with a sarong and got out a bottle of wine and some nice cheese & crackers and made the best of the situation.  We also planned what we could do with our time in Jo’burg the following day once our luggage was locked up in storage.

The train had originally been meant to arrive into Jo’burg shortly after midday but at 3pm we were debating whether or not we would even make our 10pm coach.  A goods train had broken down ahead of us on the single track line.  With no further interruptions, we still had three hours of train travel to complete and there was no information as to when the goods train might be rescued.  Time ticked slowly by and the train manager had little info to provide to us.  In the end the train moved again around 5pm and miraculously we arrived into Johannesburg Park Station just before 8.30pm – eight hours late.

Just time to collect our tickets, grab a bite to eat at Nandos and then board the Intercape overnight coach to Maputo.  A queue was joined, passports checked and luggage tagged and loaded into a trailer behind the coach.  After a little bit of jostling, the conductor found us two seats together downstairs.  The roads are pretty smooth in both SA and the southern part of Mozambique and we arrived at the border crossing around 6am.  First, we had to join the queue to exit South Africa and then walk over the border to attend to the Mozambique formalities.  The coach gets a check once everyone if off, but fortunately there didn’t appear to be any customs and so the main luggage could remain in place.  Keen to get everyone through quickly, the coach conductor ensured that we joined the shortest line to exit SA.  The main queue for people exiting SA on foot stretched back for some miles.  Some of the people on our coach didn’t seem to have any travel documents and still got through but that is a story for another day…

All was sorted in under an hour and the coach was on its way, arriving into Maputo on schedule around 8.30am.  Our hotel of choice had no rooms but the owner, Celia, kindly offered us coffee and helped to find us another room elsewhere.  She also said she could help with transport up to the beach at Tofo (~420km north of Maputo) and gave us a couple of names and numbers.  We were ready to leave Maputo after a few days and so I called and arranged for Masingo to pick us at 6am on the Tuesday morning at our hotel.  The trip would take 7 hours and cost 600 MZN per person (~£13).  Hurrah – by the following afternoon we would be swimming in the Indian Ocean.

Tuesday morning didn’t start off too well when we woke at 5.15am to discover that the power in Maputo had gone out and this was impacting the electricity and our bathroom water supply.  How we laughed… no big deal, we have a torch and we’ll be in the Indian Ocean at lunchtime.  Things were starting to look far less funny at 6.30am when there was no sign of Masingo and his mobile phone was turned off.  No-one at our hotel seemed to have heard of the concept of a private chapa which picked up tourists.  Chapas are public transport and the long distance ones can be caught at the Junta outside town.  In the meantime our hotel breakfast had opened and so we grabbed a coffee and fumed.

The reason most chapas leave between 5-7am is because, as with most capital cities, traffic becomes very heavy during rush hour.  This is also when most people wish to travel in order to get to their destination sooner rather than later in the day.  Chapas fill up very quickly during these hours.  A chapa is a small minibus which can carry around twenty passengers.  Most passengers carry a fair amount of luggage and this gets pushed into any available space under and above the seats.  A chapa only leaves when it is full of passengers. 

After unsuccessfully trying to get help from our original private chapa contact, Celia, we realised that if we wanted to get to Tofo that day, a public chapa it would need to be and so a taxi to the Junta was required.  The taxi driver we found to take us out to the Junta (a few kms outside town) fortunately had pretty good English. He was confident that we could still make it to Tofo that day and on arrival, we requested his help to find the transport we needed.

After toying with the idea of a private taxi to Tofo we realised that this was silly money and that we would need to take the seats available on the public chapa.  Our taxi driver did all the talking and the chapa “manager” seemed very excited to welcome us. He even moved another passenger so that we could sit together.  Our padlocked luggage required its own seat and it was duly stowed into the very back seat where it would be nice and safe.  Whilst someone had managed to place a single mattress into the overhead rails, no live animals were present and there was no luggage on top of the vehicle.

When you board a chapa, it looks as though it has two seats on one side and one on the other, with an aisle in the middle.  Alas, there is an extra seat to be folded down into the aisle ensuring that no-one has any wiggle room and all space is used.  Our chapa was full an hour later and so we set off at 10am, music pumping, with no real sense of how long this journey would ultimately end up taking.  The chapa itself was only going to Inhambane but we had clearly paid our fares to Tofo, another 22km down the road.  Late afternoon, passengers finally started to disembark as they reached their destinations.  We had hoped that this would free up some space and a little air on the chapa but alas, the seats were refilled as quickly as they were vacated.  Passengers wait along the side of the road for the next chapa.

Our fellow passengers were an assorted crew of probably reasonably well off locals.  It is important to remember that Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world.  The two young lads in front of us were travelling up for an in-law’s funeral and returning the following day.  They proceeded to get quite drunk in a loud but friendly way.  They had been raised partly in South Africa and Ernest had some very strong feelings on the international investment required to assist Mozambique.  He provided occasional commentary on where we were and how much further there was to go.  The man to Ellie’s left worked in South Africa laying pavements and was going home for the first time in five months to see his wife and two young children.  We were largely ignored by the other passengers and never felt that we were seen as easy targets as a couple of rich white tourists.  Some of the later passengers seemed to find us quite amusing and were very smiley.

It became clear that our journey would be taking longer than 7 hours and that we would arriving after dark.  It is always disconcerting to arrive somewhere new after dark.  When we reached the final stop in Inhambane, we stayed on board whilst the chapa driver & young boy conductor went off to sort out our ongoing transport to Tofo.  We were thrilled to discover that we would be taken straight there in a taxi!  After ensuring that not another metical of payment would be required, we set off along the dark windy road.  Finally at 6.30pm we reached the Aquatico Lodge where Sharon was waiting to let us into our beachside casita.  The day had ended up being far more stressful than necessary and costing twice as much but we were finally metres away from the Indian Ocean, even if it was too late to have a dip.

Some of the phrases we have heard since:
Why didn’t you fly?  We’re driving…  I avoided Maputo and flew straight to Inhambane… Didn’t you know that Fatimas Nest runs a shuttle?

Whilst we wouldn’t wish to replicate the journey again, it does classify as an adventure and it did in total cost less than a sixth of the price of a flight.  Ellie plans to dine out on the story for years to come.  Listen out for it in a pub near you.