Saturday, April 17, 2010

African adventure, part V, South Africa to Mozambique

and so began the most ridiculous day of the trip, if not the decade...

We knew that it was going to be a long day so we arose at 6, and were packed and in the car by 6.30, ready to leave the Lower Sabie camp in Kruger National Park where we had spent the last three days. It was good friday and the storm from the night before was easing off, but hadn't completely ceased. The roads were wet and we feared that this might mean trouble later on as we headed into Mozambique.

We didn't count on the trouble arising quite as soon as it did. We went South to the Crocodile bridge exit of the park and an hour later, after saying our final farewells to the giraffes, elephants and herds of impala (having failed to see a single rhino in the trip) we draw close to the gate. Between us and the gate however was Crocodile bridge, a bridge unlike any I had seen before, submerged as it was in water in the middle section, the river surging over it for a good few meters. In our non four-wheel drive such a sight filled us with dread. The only other way out of the park would mean a couple of hundred extra kilometers, so we sat, watching the water flood over the bridge and working out our possibilities. M suggested getting out of the car to take a look at how deep the central section was submerged but reminding her that crocodile bridge was so named for good reason put this plan out of the picture.

Thankfully ahead of us were a few other cars, also working out their plans of attack. First a couple of 4x4s braved the water and got through safely, the wheels submerging in the center by a good foot or so of racing waters. After this another estate made it through, tentatively but safely and so, with baited breath we made our way towards the torrent. We have a video of the moments driving through the floodwater, as the possibilities of a single slip raced through our minds but the video is not in my possession at the moment, I'll attempt to upload it as soon as possible. Anyway, thankfully we did make it through without any problems but with slightly heightened blood pressure and pulse-rates.

After a little bureaucratic arguing (lack of certain necessary tickets etc.) we made it out of the park and back onto the public roads of South Africa, making our way towards the boarder control between SA and Mozambique. We had been told to expect chaos and delays of up to a couple of hours, but there were factors that we hadn't taken into account.

It took another hour or so to get to the border control, or at least close to it, with pretty reasonable road conditions and only minor drizzle along the way but as we draw closer a thought dawned on us. This was not just any day but Good Friday, a public holiday in South Africa and a day that many would be traveling for a weekend break into neighbouring Mozambique. The queue that greeted us was truly monumental and we ground to a halt in a completely stationary line more than a kilometer from the border itself. Trucks, families in 4x4s, businessmen, South Africans, Mozambicans and holiday makers from abroad filled the road with an exodus of vehicles of biblical proportions....and nothing was moving save for a line of cars which seemed not to care about the thousands in front of them and would simply drive along the other side of the road only to be turned back at the frontier.

We got out to speak to people and find out what the situation was, a friendly South African woman walking with me to the front of the line to see what was going on. The gun-toting police at the front-line were pretty friendly and helpful given the situation and explained that we simply had to be patient and that we should sit tight for the next few hours.

A couple of photos of the queue, and us, sitting patiently:

After walking to the front of the line and trying to get through the pedestrian section (as advised by our helpful SA lady) and getting turned back by a rather less friendly man with a gun, we spent the next couple of hours in the car getting to the first post.

Eventually we made it in and started the bureucratic process of exporting ourselves and the car into Mozambique. K dealt with the car's paperwork and was sweet-talked by a guy who very kindly helped him fill in the forms for the car, pushed into the line for us and promptly disappeared, telling us that he would see us on the Mozambican side with the correct pieces of paper. Having been scammed enough times in my life it seemed sensible not to go with this option so K filled in the forms himself, stood in the queue and got a new copy of all the relevant documents. We had a little trouble later on on the other side when we claimed to know nothing about the guy waving a duplicate copy of our documents and asking for money. Thankfully this didn't deteriorate into anything worse.

So, SA side dealt with we made our way into no-man's land and towards the Mozambican side of the border control. At this point things took a turn for the crazy. It turns out that Mozambique is the only country in the world to have weapon on its flag, and they have wisely chosen an AK-47. These you see all over the place and although these days the country is relatively peaceful, there is a constant reminder of the violent past that it has been through, devastating the land (there are still areas of the land unsafe to walk on because of the landmines), the infrastructure and the economy along the way. At the border control you are met with a difficult situation, not wanting to put a foot out of line, but simultaneously realising that you simply can't take the kosher route.

The black/white divide is of course enormous and as soon as you arrive as a car load of white people you are approached by dozens of Mozambicans offering to help you out. At first we turned all of these down, making our way to the queue, and wanting to go through all of this in the most official way possible, but it soon became clear that the chaos would make this almost impossible, with a dozen lines all merging and circulating to different desks with a plethora of forms, punctuated by perplexed looking white-folk and helpful looking Mozambicans. After getting thoroughly confused for a while we found a 4x4 full of Afrikaans South Africans who had just successfully had their documents sorted out by one of the badged unofficials. We figured that if they had got through the process in one piece this way then it was probably the best option, and indeed this seemed to be the way that 99% of the SA holiday makers were getting through the controls, only a small fee being paid at the end.

We handed over our documents to the guy who seemed friendly and completely unofficial and saw him disappear into the distance. I walked around for a bit, bumped into the woman who had helped us out on the SA side and asked her if what we were doing was sensible. Yes, she replied, as long as you don't lose sight of your passports! My heart sank, realising what it would mean to lose our passports, sat in the middle of no-man's land without an embassy in sight and a million other people dashing around. The ease with which someone could have taken our passports was frightening and so we ran to find the guy who had our identities in his hands. Thankfully it didn't take too long to find him and he was busy filling in the forms for us. From this point on, we stayed with him, making chit-chat and keeping an eye on our passports at every second.

After an hour of filling in forms and waiting for him in various queues we were ready to go, paid him his fee, took a deep breath and headed towards the point where we would have to give the forms at the very border itself. Thankfully this passed completely without incident, as the woman took the forms without looking at them and placed them on top of the large pile of other forms which had collected through the morning.

By this point 6 hours had passed since we left the camp and we were only at the border - we had expected to be at this point within a couple of hours at the most.

As we drove into Mozambique the contrast with what we had previously seen was startling, with huts dotting the hillside along the road, people all over the streets, selling foods cooked in pots precariously placed on mosquito infested puddles and police all along the roadside stopping anyone they thought might not have the right documents, or at least who might have enough cash to improve their lunch options. We had been warned that the police would stop you for the slightest possible speeding violation or traffic infringement, but through some miracle we weren't stopped at a single control point.

We also noticed quickly the number of trucks and cars stopped by the side of the road with punctured tyres, and as we sped along in our polo estate the possibility of the same happening to us didn't do much to still our anxieties.

Having traveled a reasonable amount, I've never really experienced shock at arriving in a new country, always prepared for stark differences, but the immediate chaos and contrasts on going from SA to Mozambique was really quite astounding. I simply hadn't expected such a distinction, though knowing the history of the two countries, I probably should have.

We made our way towards Maputo, where our GPS was guiding us on the way up through to Inhambane, further North on the coast. The roads, though busy were not slow and we stopped by the side of the road to get something to eat, having eaten almost nothing since the night before. We stopped into a gas station and picked up some fairly tasteless meat sandwiches, but at this point we were fussy.

We passed around the outskirts of Maputo and it quickly became clear that we had not escaped the worst of the Good Friday traffic as those in the capital having a half day left for work and headed out of the city. we ground to a halt in the chaos of the ring-round going around the city and edged forwards for the next 3 hours, attempting to avoid hitting anyone or being hit by one of the kamikaze local mini-buses packed like sardines and tilting dangerously to one side or the other. These mini-buses would cause us no end of stress for the remaining journey.

Getting out of Maputo at around 3 we started on our way to Xai-Xai, the next major stop along the way. The road between the two was pot-holed and full of people and the crunches which we had to endure every time there was no way to get around a collection of holes in the tarmac jarred our spines at every encounter.

We were due to meet our friend Ben up in Inhambane and with the GPS had no worries about getting there, but we had no address, and the lack of mobile signal left us rather worried. Buying a local sim-card didn't seem to help either as it refused to work in any of our phones.

We took the route to Xai-Xai in the fastest time possible given the conditions and arrived there around 7 in the evening, exhausted from being on the lookout for pot-holes literally every second of the way. We stopped into another gas-station and filled up on terrible sliced cheese and even worse croissant (this wasn't our will to disregard the local fare, but simply the only obvious option available at the time). Eventually we found a small shop in a hut which had a phone an I used by best Portuñol (Spanish with a mock Portuguese accent and a few noted phenomic transformations thrown in when appropriate) to ask to call out. We got through to Ben, hoping that he would tell us that we should stay in Xai-Xai for the night and make our way to Inhambane the next day, but he said that it was worth pushing on - the tiring option but probably the best.

We got back in the car and drove for the next two hours on something akin to a pot-holed beach, attempting to avoid falling into ditches, crashing into other cars (something that others didn't quite manage as there were a couple of horrific accidents along the way), or getting stuck in the sand. During the day, passing the slower trucks had been ok as one could normally see how far away the oncoming cars were. The darkness brought with it new dangers as it was impossible to gauge the distance and the sand and dust thrown up by the trucks made this doubly difficult. After this we had another few hours but at least the worst of the major road had been dealt with.

We played games and sang songs to keep ourselves awake and alert and somehow made our way safely up North. As the time drew on it became increasingly difficult to stay awake but the promise of a bed and a bite to eat at the end was enough to keep the sparse quantities of energy recycling. Finally a little after midnight we made our way into Inhambane, having avoided all the drunken partygoers who had lined the streets at the local drinking shacks along the way. At this point the GPS was as tired as we were and started to get confused with where to go and our final destination was not on the system at all. We managed once more to get through to Ben who gave us directions to get to the beach hut and we headed out of Inhambane and onto the dirt tracks. An hour later we knew we were in the right area but phoning and finding that we had taken a wrong turn drained our last ounces of energy. Ben, Ryan and Ode drove to us and guided our final kilometers to the beach hut where, after 19 hours on the road, with a total of a half hour break we were finally able to collapse in what appeared to be a little piece of paradise.

19 hours on the road where every second you are watching out for animals, drunkards, potholes and oncoming maniacs is outrageously tiring and it took a good couple of days of doing nothing to recover from this. The fact that K had driven the whole thing without anything but vocal help and encouragement makes the man a true hero. K, we salute you!!!

After the chaos of the drive up,  we'll have a few photos from a far more relaxed few days!

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