Saturday, January 28, 2012

Entering “Real Africa” and the hurricane that ruined all our plans

When South Africans (Chris and Weon included) are traveling outside of their own country to Namibia, Mozambique or any other nation on the continent, they have a habit of saying “I am going to Africa.” Well if that is the case, we have officially dove headfirst into Africa.

When I signed off last time we were still “not in Africa” being that we were in the city of Durban, South Africa and were gathering supplies before heading out. On this last day in SA, we picked up a cable we will hopefully be able to use for vehicle recovery should we get stuck, stocked up on food at Makro, a giant Costo-style warehouse store creating a nearly meter long receipt, and picked up the rest of my scuba gear because a few things had to come in from the warehouse.

I've read that some people take as much as 6 months to prepare for a Cape to Cairo trip. We are now talking about doing a Cape to Cairo and back, and only spent about two weeks on preparation! While I certainly see the value in more prep time, and I realize that there are a few important things we are lacking still, all things considered we have managed to pull it all off pretty well and that some people over think and over prepare.

The road out of Durban was a good, modern highway and we had no problems getting out of town and northward bound. The drive was uneventful, passing through a few small communities, filling up on gas and at one point having to wait for a group of cows to move off the highway. Just as in Asia, one great feature of traveling in the developing world tends to be cheap local food and especially cheap fruit. I forget how much we paid at this large stand and honestly we probably could have gotten it for much less at another less prominent and less touristy stand, but bananas, mangoes and pineapples were still purchased for pocket change at prices unheard of back in America.

Our goal for the day was to reach Coral Divers on Sodwana Bay, which is is very near the SA/Mozambique boarder. This is the spot where just a month or two ago this trip was born. Chris was doing his dive instructors training, Weon his divemasters training, one thing lead to another and what was originally going to be an Africa trip of Chris and I became a trip of the three of us you see today. After many hellos with all the people Chris and Weon worked with, signing up for a dive the next day and a quick dinner, we went out to the bar with everyone and had a very fun night.

The next day we woke up early and headed out to the boats for a morning dive. I was feeling good and excited to finally dive again, since my last dive was nearly a year ago back in Thailand and everything seemed good. We went out to Nine Mile Reef and the boat ride was far different than what I experienced in Asia. In the Philippines, the first reef was so close it was just a 3 minute dingy ride on dead flat water, then on a large trimaran boat for the next dive. In Thailand it was on a three level, 20 meter specialty dive ship. This time it was an inflatable running full throttle through large swell and at times being nearly airborne. Quite a way to wake up after a night at the bar.

I can only be honest and say the dive didn't go particularly well, for a number of reasons. I've never been sea sick before but the ride out didn't make me feel especially well, then as soon as I back-rolled into the water I got totally disoriented. Luckily Chris was keeping an eye on me and helped me out, but the first few minutes were not very enjoyable. I looked down at my gauge and realized how much air I was sucking down in my discomfort, but luckily was able to relax and on the second half of the dive I was relaxed and quite efficient in my breathing. Because of a strong surge (underwater current) not only was the diving a little bit difficult for a newbie like me, but the sand on the floor was filling the water and visibility was quite bad, meaning we didn't see much of anything. I ended up not even worrying about seeing the marine life and spent the dive just getting used to being underwater again and getting used to my new gear. Upon surfacing I actually got a little sick on the boat, and after another bumpy ride back to shore we all grabbed some breakfast and talked about how crappy the dive was. That said, bad conditions happen in every sport and you can't let it ruin the whole thing, but it was a bit of a disappointment and a pretty rough reintroduction to diving for me, haha.

After packing up camp we left Sodwana and rejoined the main road north to the boarder, passing through many little towns and countless scenes of street life like this one.

By early afternoon we had reached the South Africa-Mozambique border near Kosi Bay. Being South Africans, the other two paid nothing and were given a stamp good for one month in Mozambique. Me on the other hand, had to pay a whopping 680 rand for a one-month single entry visa, including having my photo taken and my finger prints scanned. Not only that, but Chris accidentally handed them his expired child’s passport which they stamped without question. When he'd realized the mistake, we turned around to get his real passport stamped and despite talking to the same guard they stamped his real passport again without any questions! Other guards asked a few questions about the vehicle, checked for current registration stickers and asked to see our carnet de passage paperwork, as well as having to take a few things out of the back and show a receipt or two, but it was just a formality and for appearances, not a serious security screening.

As soon as we got past the boarder paved roads ended, buildings ceased, and it was nothing but grass and sand. We were officially “in Africa”. While Chris was busy getting his second visa stamp, Weon and I began chatting to a minibus driver about the roads ahead. One thing he told us, much to our amusement, was that “There are no tarred roads in Mozambique.” This turned out to be totally false, but given what we were looking at ahead of us it seemed possible at the time.

We continued on the unmarked sand roads north, essentially just guessing the right way to go by taking what looked to be the 'main road' of the ribbons of sand weaving through the grass. Eventually we reached civilization and somewhat unsurprisingly were met by kids chasing our truck asking for money.

Our arrival in the town of Ponto du Oro was marked mostly by disappointment. After driving around and asking people for nearly two hours where we could camp, we could only find two places to set up tents and a third that was closed. We ended up paying the exorbitant fee of 100 rand a person set up tents, and after dinner planned to get out early the next morning.

After playing the same 'take the most main looking strip of sand north' game for another hour we met up with the “real” main road. This road turned to be wider and more firmly packed than what we had been on, but it was still just sand and at times had puddles probably a foot deep across it. It was on this road we saw our first 'traffic' which consisted of one or two other trucks every once in a while, and a handful of minibuses packed full of locals skillfully navigating the puddles in the road.

As I was at the wheel, we reached our first road block/checkpoint of the trip. They looked quickly at the vehicle, asked to see my drivers license, and sent us on our way quickly and easily. The farther north we got, the more signs of life we came across, including a Japanese run cement factory. To be honest I was surprised it was not Chinese, because in South Asia I saw that kind of expansion by China everywhere and I am told they are doing making the same aggressive inroads into Africa as well.

We also came across our next check point, and the Mediba Magic began to work. We were waved down by a man in a clean white uniform with a big smile on his face, and he says to us “I'm hungry!” Other guards came up, including one with an AK47 and we all laughed and smiled about the Mandela theme of the vehicle with them. We made a halfhearted attempt to find a mango to give him, but then told him 'sorry' and drove off without giving up anything or feeling uncomfortable in any way.

Farther along we got our first views of Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique and had to catch a ferry to reach it. They packed the ferry as tight as they could, with vehicles inches from each other and then packed the remaining space with walk-on passengers. On the boat we ran into Daniel, a guy from Vermont who had been working on AIDS outreach for the US government in Maputo for the last six years, and chatted with him the whole ride getting as much advice as we could. The first big piece of information we got out of him was that we were heading into a hurricane and that the road we needed was ruined! He also gave us tips on how to find a store we needed, where to get cheap chicken, how to find the road out of town and that if we have to pay a bribe to a cop don't pay more than 100 meticais.

We didn't stick around the city, and drove out quickly towards Macaneta. The road out of Maputo was a red sand/dirt road, and like so many others was flooded in many places, forcing us to drive on a sidewalk at one point (a dirt road with a sidewalk?? well, it was only about 50 feet of sidewalk) and take numerous detours through neighborhoods to get around the deeper sections of water.

We arrived as the small local ferry was filling up so we had about half an hour to wait for the next one. There wasn't much going on here other than a few rundown buildings and a few locals selling cold drinks and tourist crafts to the small handful of tourists around. The boat ride was only a a few minutes and cost 180 meticais I believe.

On the other side, we discussed the fact we were heading to a low laying area on the coast as a hurricane was..... somewhere..... but we pushed on through the muddy road in 4x4 and found a place to camp, with the owners even giving us a big discount down to 50 rand per person, half the usual price. One thing we were quickly finding out was that Mozambique is NOT cheap.

Before leaving we got a little bit more information about the storm and road from the hosts and set off to try and find a way. As we were filling up the gas tank, a South African couple, Andre and Annie, asked us where we were headed. It turned out they own a lodge, Casa Delight, in Praia de Barra and that they were headed there when they had to turn back to Maputo due to the washed out road. We spent a good twenty or thirty minutes looking at maps, discussing possible routes around, and exchanging contact information. They told us if we find a way around the washout to let them know so they could get back to their lodge, and said we could get one of their places for 100 rand (discounted from 400 rand) if we drop in for a night.

Hopeful we could find a route around the washout crippling the main north-south road through the country, we pushed on but our optimism was quickly thwarted. A long line of cars, buses and trucks had turned the highway into a parking lot, and because the big semi-trucks could not turn around on a two-lane road, they had been stranded for days. We walked around asking if there was any other way around, only to be told 'no', and then asked when the road might be reopened. Both bus drivers and a guy who appeared to be organizing some part of the rebuilding told us “Maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day...” so it was settled, turn around and find a place to kill time for a few days.

Craving some fruit, we stopped on the side of the road. As soon as you do this, your vehicle generally gets rushed by locals, all pushing their fruit in the windows trying to get you to buy. I guess this is drive through fast food, Africa style.

It turned out as we had been heading towards the washout Chris happened to notice a sign for camping and we set out to find it. The sign ended up being for the Casa Lisa Lodge & Campsite, run by England escapee Bruce. Bruce got tired of the western world decades ago and along with stints in Jamaica and a game reserve in Kenya, built and has been running the Casa Lisa for 11 years. We were the only guests at the moment in part because of the road problems, but it was a nice place to kick back for a few days and we made ourselves comfortable.

Without other travelers to chat with it was up to us to entertain ourselves. I was sitting out with a book at one point, and one of Bruce's dogs pooped a little ways away from me. Within a minute, I heard the now familiar buzz of the flying dung beetle, an insect that reminds me of a twin rotor heavy-lift chopper. They are both noisy, large and and awkward to the point you almost wonder how they fly, but they manage quite well and do very important work. Anyways, this dung beetle landed about a foot away, bumbled it's way to the pile, sized it up and began digging. Now I've never seen these before so I was quite interested. The first thing I noticed was how quickly it was able to dig into the fairly firm ground, these things are amazingly strong. It would dig down, then back out pushing dirt out of the hole, size up the pieces of poop again, and then dig some more. Within 25 minutes it had buried the whole pile of dog poop underground and presumably stayed there a while to lay it's eggs underground, as I saw no more action. It seems funny that I sat and watched a beetle bury dog poop for more than half an hour, but honestly it was interesting, plus it gave me something to do in an otherwise boring day.

Sorry, another creep insect picture. After observing the dung beetle, Chris and I went for a walk down the road just to wander, and to get out of the camp site for a little while. There wasn't really anything to see other than watch two people weaving chairs out of reeds, so I came back and did some reading in the PADI scuba dive book as a refresher. Later in the day I was relaxing in the pool after a workout when I went to put on my shorts. As I picked them up, I noticed this evil looking guy sitting inside of them! I'm told they have a very powerful sting and I certainly believe it. This had also happened with my towel earlier in that day, and as a result I'm trying to make a habit of checking any cloths I put down before putting them on or putting them away.

Another way to pass the time is with a little boxing training! Chris has trained in boxing, muy thai and jujitsu, so we thought it would be a good way to have some fun around the campsite as well as a workout. I've never done any of this before (note my poor form) but it is quite fun and we hope to do a little bit each day.

After three nights at Casa Lisa the road had been temporarily fixed and reopened one lane at a time, so we were able to resume our northward course. This is the same spot that has washed out in the past, the last time being repaired by the Chinese. I talked with someone the other day who saw the construction process and said it didn't look like it was properly built the last time, so he was not surprised to see it failed again. On the same topic, I noticed a crane at the site of the washout that said “Cooperation – Japan and Mozambique 1996” on a large sticker. Interesting to see what countries have their fingers in Africa, and given what history has taught us I can't help but question the motives of all of them...

It's ok to drink and drive, as long as it's coconut water.

We knew the storm was in the area, but we wanted to head north anyways and see what was going on for ourselves. The next stop was Tofo beach which is known for its whale sharks and manta rays, two creatures I was really excited to see. We got into the area and thanks to the hurricane and the off-season in general the place was a total ghost town. Not only that, but the whole place looked very run down, like they are trying to get as much tourist money out of the place before it all falls to pieces and disappears. Buildings had 'for sale' signs, the trailers for the dive boats all had flat tires, and everything seemed to be pealing, cracked or rusted. I thought this was supposed to be a tourist hot spot? Despite all this, people seemed to have no interest in giving us any discounts, even the price of bananas was outrageous and not up for discussion.

Due to the inability to dive and the bad vibes of the place we drove out to Praia de Barra where Andre and Annie, who we had met earlier, had offered us a discount at their lodge. Thanks to the hurricane and the off-season this place was also an absolute ghost town, but the lodges were much nicer and we had a good price on a room. We had been told that would be the worst night of the storm, so we were happy to be inside in what was a pretty nice place.

We packed up and headed back to the town of Inhambane where we found a little local internet cafe that allowed us to get some information on the storm. The good news was that the hurricane was heading off shore and as a result each day would get progressively better, but our plans to dive with the whale sharks and mantas was already in the dump. Not only that, but the storm claimed 25 lives and displaced 5,000 in southern Malawi due to flooding, and that is supposed to be our next destination in a little while....

We returned to the EN1, the north-south highway of Mozambique we had been on for much of our journey and set off for Vilankulos. By going farther north we would be going the opposite direction of the storm, and the area also has good diving. On the road we filled up the tank and were pretty surprised when it finally hit us how expensive gas is here in Mozambique. We paid 50.84 meticais a liter, which works out to $7.11 a gallon! In any developing world you frequently see overloaded trucks full of people, and given these fuel prices it makes more sense than ever.

The sharp eyed among you might have also noticed an albino person in the back of the truck. This is something that has really surprised me, the number I've seen. Now maybe they are just that more noticeable in Africa where the people have dark skin, but this day I literally saw FIVE albinos before lunch as we drove. I've read in some rural villages that albinos are often shunned or even killed, and that all-albino communities have been created to have a safe place for them to live. It appears they are part of the 'normal' community here, but I still imagine they have a more difficult life.

As we were driving through Vilankulos and looking for a place to stay, this guy came up to us trying to sell us some things (marijuana I think) and I noticed he has a Seattle Mariners baseball team hat on! We checked on Odyssey Dive which seems to be the only operation in town, but prices seemed outrageous, 2,300 meticais for one dive. Word is they give locals the dives for half off.... We said thanks and went on our way, once again thoroughly disappointed by how expensive Mozambique has turned out to be. We checked out two backpacker lodges/camp sites on the beach, but ended up picking Baobab's because it has a few other people, where as the other was nice looking and brand new, but pretty much empty. We'd spent the last week being about the only travelers and wanted to socialize a bit.

This didn't exactly go as planned, because somehow by the evening it seemed everyone disappeared. We walked through the couple of blocks of stores in town, bought some Tipo Tinto, the cheap local rum and returned to our campsite for some drinks and bed.

So what's next? We will spent another night or two here in Vilankulos because it's a nice spot to relax even if it costs to much to dive, then we will probably make our way to Malawi. It turns out Chris has a friend near Lake Malawi that we might be able to stay with, and if that turns out to be true it will be fantastic. As a whole Mozambique has been a let down. Prices are way too high, and the weather has been against us much of the time. Oh well, hopefully on to greener pastures!