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.

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