Quirimbas Mainland

Today, I’m writing this blog on a blissfully cloudy day. It has quite literally been months since I’ve seen a substantial cloud in the sky, let alone a drop of rain. We were all hoping the rain might come today, providing a bit of relief to the dry, dusty and often on-fire landscape but, it seems we will have to wait a bit longer. The rains are not expected for another month – perhaps longer, if climate change has anything to say about it.

Anyway. Charlie’s visit. Our first order of business was to find Charlie an elephant. We had heard about an old Portuguese colonial house that was bought by a German count and partially refurbished in an effort to spark local tourism, community development and conservation. This house was on the mainland of the Quirimbas National Park which allegedly boasts quite a diverse population of wildlife which is seldom visited by tourists. This place was a mission to find. The only park map was found on a chalkboard at the half-hearted ranger station. There is no sign posting anywhere, and so our best chance at finding this place was to ping pong ourselves from village to village asking if anyone knew where Mareja Lodge was. Too often, we received a flat no. After circling the park for 2 days – and picking up a bow and arrow for good measure – we finally began to reach people who knew vaguely of where this place was. Of course at this point it was a Sunday – the continent’s party day – and many of those who could provide us directions were wasted, to put it politely.

Against seemingly all odds, we did find the lodge. Jutting out over a cliff that provided spectacular views of not only the National Park but also the Indian Ocean on a clear day, it all felt worth it. Unfortunately, there was no drinking water – only tonic water. Prior to Charlie’s arrival, I promised him we would always travel with more than enough water for all our needs. By the time we reached the lodge, we were completely out and planned to stay for a few days. Charlie quickly perfected a water boiling system that gave us slightly smoked water, and allowed us to survive. The Gin and Tonics also helped.

For the next week, we were out at 4am and 4pm to search for wildlife as they woke up and went to bed. Between those hours the sun was simply too strong to be anywhere other than the shade, unless you were a baboon trapped in an eternal war with Josa. Happily, I took a rest from 50 Shades to plow through And the Mountains Echoed. During the reasonable hours, local rangers would lead us around to tiny sources of water that survive the dry season and fuel likely all the resident wildlife. We saw paw prints of all sizes, hooves ranging from duiker up to elephant, remains of fresh kills and no end of poo near these holes. At night from our Gin and Tonic porch, we could hear lions roar and hyenas howl as bush babies scampered from tree to tree.  In spite of all those signs, we were lucky to see anything more than a tail, an animal in the distance or, sadly, a poached carcass.

And this brings us to poaching… Earlier this year, Mozambique lost their final rhino. This rhino was killed in the South, where anti-poaching units are slightly more active due to the shared border with Kruger in SA. In the North, National Parks feel forgotten. Entering the Quirimbas National Park, there is no formal gate. In a country that collects money for everything, nobody stops to take a park entry fee. In some kind of sad irony, it feels like there are actually more people living inside the park than there are outside. This place could be stunning; the park literally jets out onto an archipelago in the Indian Ocean. It could offer the ultimate bush-beach vacation. But, it is near impossible to actually spy an animal.

On one of our elephant stakeouts, our ranger took us up to a massive elephant carcass – the closest we got to seeing an actual elephant. He excitedly told us that the tusks from this elephant went up to his shoulder, and pointed to where the poachers had sawed them off in February.  You can sell an average sized tusk to Asian exporters for roughly $200, before they ship it off to sell it as a natural Viagra. With the rapid growth of cash economies here, this is big money.

 

Other animals – impala, duikers, and kudu – are sold as bush meat. Within the park, residents are permitted to hunt certain animals for consumption. Allegedly, this is monitored. That being said – last week we were pulled over for not wearing a seatbelt on a tiny dirt road in the park. While the police issued Bryce a ticket, they simultaneously observed the sale of a skinned duiker right beside them. The police were unperturbed. Insult to injury for Bryce.

This all ends with animals becoming nocturnal and avoiding humans as best they can. While fascinating, it’s not much to offer tourists when in South Africa, the wildlife practically jumps your truck. But I suppose, with oil, the incentive for tourism development is shot. In Ethiopia we had met some wonderful Canadians that have spent the last 20-ish years in Lagos. They tiredly spoke of how, with oil, their government has absolutely no incentive to cater to their population or, any industry aside from oil. Nothing will compare to these fast and quick revenues. Depressing. For all the good that a socially and environmentally minded lodge could do in the Quirimbas mainland, it feels like it will be a perpetual uphill battle. In South Africa anti-poaching is a top government priority, with ex-special ops and drones being integrated into innovative initiatives. They still suffer a growing number of rhino deaths each year. Up here, I fear the parks stand a very small chance. The scorpions however, are thriving. Charlie had the pleasure of finding a tiny one under his pillow in the tent. In scorpion land, the smaller the critter the more poison they pack. We all slept a little less soundly after that.

For the time being, it still is a wonderful place. The partially restored colonial house is a tiny museum in and of itself. The staff are lovely. The rangers, I hope, were doing their best. As a ranger showed us a plant that provided drinking water in the dry season, I was reminded of everything else that makes up a safari. Still though – I wanted to find that elephant.

Pemba, and the Oil

The city of Pemba has become our new base between adventures. It has also become the base for the rapidly developing oil industry. This town, described in the 2007 Moz Lonley Planet as a “sleepy beach town”, is now full with men that now look somewhat like my dad. Stores catering to oil and oil associates are cropping up everywhere. Roadsides are littered with English advertisements for “easy, safe and convenient” business parks – high selling adjectives up here. Fairly fabulous furniture, appliance and grocery stores are opening up between the tiny convenience stores and shops seemingly each day. We initially thought we’d rent a quiet house on the beach where we could nest for a while – but, those dreams were squashed upon hearing that oil companies now pay upwards of USD 3000 a month for the envisioned cabin. The town, as any resident remarks, is changing rapidly.

Instead, we’ve set up camp in Pemba Bay at the Dive and Bush Camp. Given that this place is South African owned, the camping facilities are near flawless – quite a step up from the side of the road. All meat – most things, for that matter – are imported from South Africa making for some delicious meals (with bacon and feta!). Inevitably, however, this stunts the emergence of local markets that could cater to tourism and oil. Local industry seems to be capped at providing low level labour and an unending stream of tomatoes. The stage seems to be far from set for a balanced end to this oil discovery. But, more on that later.

Pemba remains for the time being, a stunning town. It is located on a peninsula in the Indian Ocean with the 3rd largest bay in the world to the left, and the calm Indian ocean to the left. The water is, on the worst of days, turquoise. The sea is dotted with dhows and canoes heaving massive tuna out of the sea, while the shore is packed full of women harvesting the tidal pools (to within an inch of their lives). I spent a spectacular birthday here learning how to scuba dive (thank you Bryce) with the world’s most laid back instructor. I feel like a tool for having hesitated this long to try it. On my birthday dive, we lucked out. Not only did two turtles swim past the coral wall but, and as we surfaced, a mama and baby humpback swam by while the baby practiced his jumps.  And, all that was done with Charlie Witzel in a wetsuit right beside me! When we weren’t diving, we were able to take kayaks through the mangroves to hunt for crabs and fish while Josa literally jumps between kayaks as we paddle around. She’s becoming a real sea pup.

Of course, all this feels bittersweet. Our kayaking spot will be turned into a new port next year, and oil tankers will cruise over the dive spots. Baby whales will likely learn to jump elsewhere. One night over drinks, we overheard three perfectly stereotypical Texans discuss where they would build the storage area for the new port on the lodge’s property. Between that and picking up 50 Shades of Grey as the only book available to read here, all that is beautiful and Mozambican feels like it is fading fast. Literally everyone tells us to ditch the idea of tourism and build a “easy, safe, and convenient” hotel that would cater to oil companies. Hardly my vision of living in Africa… But perhaps my vision is too romantic.

Shame.

Anyway. From here, we set off with Charlie to explore the Quirimbas National Park. More on that next.

The Mountains

We made it! I am writing this post from the often-forgotten but now oil rich Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado. Tis the most northern one in the country. We packed in a few heavy driving days to get here – complete with roadside camping – and are now blissfully beaching ourselves to recover.

The trip up from Vilankulos was rather mountainous for us – a welcome change from beaches and plains. It began with a thrilling military escort through the opposition party’s territory, where a series of hijackings and threats have made it a dicey passage. The opposition, Renamo, is currently demanding an overhaul of the electoral system  and, of course, a cut of oil revenues. It’s a curious form of democracy they are practicing…  But, after clearing that strip, trees finally soared above 20 feet, water returned to the soil and the heat became more and more intense. Gone are the days of wearing all my warm clothes to bed. The soil has become delightfully orange, and its contrast against the green forest and picturesque huts reminded me that we really were in Africa.

Anyway. We had a somewhat disastrous trip into the city of Beira that resulted in an early morning eviction by a nasty cleaning lady who hated pups. Thankfully, it led us to a Robinson Crusoe style beach camp just outside town, only accessed by boat, called Rio Savane. We set up in a thatched hut on the beach and Bryce spent days perfecting the art of cooking on coals. Days were spent reading and exploring through muddy mangroves. Evenings we spent inventing new ways of cooking with pasta, tomatoes and onions. Without cell phone signal or electricity, I polished off Snow by Orhan Pamuk (a new favourite book) and Bryce finished Mr. Nice, the biography of Howard Marks (look him up).

From Beira, it was to the Zimbabwe border in order to “refresh” our 6-month visa – an infuriating process involving enormous and painful bribes. From there, we scooted up to the Chimanimani Mountains. 3 years ago, a community owned lodge (Ndzou Camp) opened that specialized in trekking elephants living in the forest. Sounded all right.  We followed our guide Jose through the mountains as he pointed at tracks and poo from either hoje  or ontem (today or yesterday). We found loads of mud rubbed onto trees from passing elephants on their way for a morning drink. While the elephants were consistently a few literal steps ahead of us, the tracking on foot made it all the more thrilling. Call me a snob but – the driving safari feels disconnected and perhaps tedious relative to this. Jose also happened to be quite the expert on medicinal plants. The campsite at this lodge was so perfect that we stayed on for a few extra days to hike along footpaths connecting huts and crops through the mountains. Oh and a side note – the entire forest smelled of perfume. Such a pleasant place.

We left the Chimanimani Mountains for Monta Gorongosa, a single mountain towering over Gorongosa National Park. This park is undergoing a tremendous restoration in recent years with the help of an American supporter, in hopes of restoring it to its 1960’s celebrity infested glory. The recent threats from the opposition party have led to slight glitches in this project but, will hopefully not derail it entirely. While the pup kept us from actually getting into the park, the mountain itself was spectacular. We climbed up along streams and massive trees to reach a plateau with a handful of scramble-friendly peaks and great views. Josa skillfully navigated us back down a rather tricky path – she has proven to have a real talent and eagerness for the return trip.

They have a small basic campsite conveniently perched on top of a waterfall with a series of little infinity pools. I gather from the sign in book that few people spend the night at this campsite, let alone three. We spent the next day lazing around in the sun and swimming at the top of the falls. My pictures seem to have hardly done this place justice, as this was by far our best camping location yet. Community members coming by to observe us filled the late afternoons. Tourists are always a curious folk to rural people – to say nothing of tourists who bring a friendly pup with them.

Anyway. From Gorongosa it was heavy and fairly uneventful driving days. Mozambique in total is roughly 5000km long and, at an average speed of 60km/hour, it takes a while. Every highway, particularly the Nampula – Pemba one, seems to be under construction by different Asian companies. That road work inevitably leaves you stuck behind transport trucks wondering how they’ve disappeared into a cloud of red dust. I cannot wait for the rain.

Bazaruto and Zinave

August is a big month. It marks the beginning of my eighth month away – a personal record. August is also the month when two of my favourite people arrive in Africa: Chloe begins a 2-year teaching job in South Africa and Charlie comes for a 3-week visit! It is, as my mom would say, my birthday month. On top of all that, it is finally the month that we go north of the tourist circuit!

Tourists in Mozambique can largely be divided into two groups: those coming from South Africa for a vacation or trip extension, and the super-rich. The first group tends to visit the southern portion of the country, going 500km north of the border to Tofo. The latter goes to fabulously remote places by plane, I imagine. We don’t really talk much. So far, the only tourists we’ve met north of Tofo are vacationing white Zimbabweans (headed to Tofo) and one ambitious backpacker. I’m not sure why – its spectacular. Potholed, but spectacular.

The first stop we made was in Vilankulo. This town apparently rivals Tofo for tourism, but at first glance you wonder why. Rather than a sleepy beach village, you get a fairly busy town-verging-on-city, where everyone shares the last name Vilankulo. We stayed on the beach that was, upon arrival, a tiny prickly strip of sand looking out onto an archipelago, with a fair amount of garbage. Tired and mildly confused, we went to bed. In the morning, a wild transformation happened as the tide went out. Not only did kilometers of beach appear, but the water became turquoise. Dhows floated amongst the channels of remaining water and people walked out to fish in tidal pools. As we sat at a delicious socially-minded café, I wished we’d gotten here sooner.

The thing to do in Vilankulo is to take a dhow to the archipelago to climb the massive sand dunes and snorkel in the reef. While slightly furious about being duped into an extra 4 hours on the dhow while a pup stayed furiously behind (hard done by – I know), the island was, perhaps as predicted, stunning. The islands literally were massive dunes rising out of the ocean, and giant colourful coral that housed the entire cast of Finding Nemo and all the colourful friends surrounded the archipelago. A quick apology to Bryce who is humiliated each time I liken wildlife to Disney. Alas. Sadly, our dhow dragged a massive anchor right through the coral with seemingly little remorse. Likely a few kinks to iron out in conservation here.  

Anyway. Vilankulo to Zinave National Park. Described ahead of time as “seldom visited, even by Mozambican standards” we outdid ourselves in preparations. Loads of fuel, loads of food, just not quite enough water. The southern entry gate was a series of rocks on the ground that spelled out “Bem Vindo a Zinave” with a man collecting (undercharging as we later found out) the entry fee. Decent. We camped in the bush our first night, strategically placed between the truck and a tree to avoid being trampled in our sleep. Given that this park has received little attention, it wasn’t likely that there would be vast quantities of animals to trample us but, I just feel like you never know. Driving around the park was generally uneventful until we happened upon a very dry Lagoa Zinave – the whole country is dry for that matter. If I was more of a birder, I would have been ecstatic. But, the flamingos, hippos, crocs and buffalo were enough to keep us fascinated – especially the hippo that crashed into the water feet away from us for her early morning dip.

We ended up stumbling upon a recently built community-owned lodge in the park on the banks of the Save River (also, near dry). The beds and the great porch were a welcome break from an increasing number of tent nights. During the hot hours we plowed through books and as it cooled down, we went for a tour of the relocation center in the park – a massive fenced area where new animal are introduced to the area. The park was recently the recipient of a World Bank loan and it seems quite a bit of work is happening. Curious to see old bath tubs being used as water sources for giraffes but, the park rangers seemed unperturbed.

We left the park after 4 days there. Not a huge number of animal sightings – even in the fenced area – but some truly spectacular baobabs, a massive snake skin, a hippo circling the tent and lovely rangers made up for it. From there, it was an intense drive through the bush back to the beach. It was slow, grassy and rocky. Driving on paved roads will be forever uneventful after all this – and we’re still considerably far south.

Bom Dia Mocambique!

After writing my last post, paranoia set in. I’ve jinxed it. The 6-month visa won’t come through. Josa won’t make the border (and I’ll be jailed). Renamo, the increasingly vocal opposition party in Mozambique, will make road travel too dangerous. Call me a worrier.

But, here we are. We’ve retraced familiar steps through South Africa and Mozambique, and are on the verge of driving north of Tofo – the sleepy beach town we spent March in. All looks – dare I say it – rosy.

Our final hoorah in St Lucia was a visit with the recently arrived humpback whales. Having heard incredible stories from others, we dawned a life jacket and massive rain coat and hurtled over a very rough ocean. I spent much of the trip out with my eyes closed stewing about my distrust for the ocean and boat driver. But then Bryce spotted one. Then 11 others. For the next hour, whales literally flew out of the water everywhere you looked. I understand it was a great show in masculinity for the lady humpbacks before breeding near Madagascar. I was impressed.

With that, it was a final trip down to Durban to get the visa and take in a final dose of city life. We swung by the movie theater to watch Superman in 3D which was, after months of bootlegged street movies, overwhelming.  We found a South African Menchies (no cookie dough toppings…), stocked up on a delicious Indian meal, and FINALLY saw the last episodes of Game of Thrones. Visas (and gourmet muffins) in hand, we were off.

The first stop in Mozambique was Ponto do Ouro. While this beach town is essentially an informal extension of South Africa, it does provide a stark welcome back to Moz. Upon crossing the border, all tar roads disappear and you are launched into deep sand roads with no signs. We spent a few days in town listening to the experiences of South Africans doing business in Mozambique. With nearly all businesses foreign owned in Ponto, it seems as though they receive particular scrutiny from government officials. People’s love for the land seems to overpower their frustration with running a business.

Leaving Ponto, we took a quick detour to the Maputo Special Reserve. It is one of the oldest National Parks in Mozambique, and includes huge lakes, bush, forest and a spectacular coastline. It allegedly holds a substantial elephant population; however, hunting in recent years has made them rather illusive. We spent much of our time navigating even deeper sand roads through the park with the help of our new GPS, Gary. The park has pretty limited infrastructure – no maps, no signs – so you really do fend for yourself. We managed to find the campsite though, and it all became worthwhile. Gorgeous empty coast shared with a handful of other visitors on one side, and rolling plains on the other. Barring the garbage and the limited upkeep, it is one of the better camping locations.

 

We stayed for a night before continuing the drive to Maputo – again, on more sand roads. 200km of driving ended up being two decently full days in the car. This southern section is set to receive a paved road from the Chinese which really will revolutionize it – perhaps for the worse. Anyway. We finally hit Maputo.

We stayed in Maputo for a few days to get ourselves sorted. It was incredibly refreshing to be back. Between the Mozambicans, the Portuguese, the Chinese, the aid workers, the investors and the tourists all having breakfast at sidewalk cafes together, you’re able to feel a bit less like an outsider. And, have I mentioned how very stylish everyone is in this city? The people-watching really is something. However, a few days back was a harsh realization that  my limited Portuguese had deteriorated, and so I quickly picked up a language book and have been busily conjugating verbs ever since.

And that brings us to Tofo! We’ve spent a few days here sussing out opportunities and taking yoga classes while Josa madly plays with a puppy.