SA 4x4 published the following piece in their June 2014 issue (and an excerpt online). This South African overland adventure magazine was looking for a piece that shed insight into this unexplored wilderness.

This piece was co-authored with Bryce Klee.

Bryce and I arrived in Mozambique in February 2013. Searching for opportunity and adventure, we devoted a year towards exploring the corners of this convoluted, corrupt and ultimately stunning country. Having heard rumours that Mozambique’s northern provinces of Cabo Delgado and Niassa were home to some of the final remaining pieces of the African wilderness, we set our sights on driving the country’s coastline to reach the proverbial Promised Land.

Equipped with a mighty Pajero Jr., an intrepid new puppy, a pop-up tent, Portuguese grammar books, and a healthy dose of skepticism, we set off beyond the comforts of Tofo and Vilankulo. Through our adventures and misadventures, we came to know a country that both inspired and challenged us at seemingly every turn. What follows are our reflections – and, we hope, some helpful tips – on exploring this special part of Africa.

Police Check Point

July 28, 2013

I woke up early this morning, excited about our departure from Mozambique’s well-traveled southern half and anxious about crossing through the Sofala province. For months, the country’s dilapidated former rebel movement, RENAMO, had aggravated the Sofala strip of the EN1. After numerous ambushes, hijackings and a handful of deaths, the government (FRELIMO) established a military escort for vehicles passing through this section. But, sporadic and bleak news reports did not build confidence in its efficacy.    

At the Rio Save Bridge, we joined a military convoy of approximately 100 northbound travelers. Inching forward, as officials snapped at us for mysterious infractions, we piled onto the suspension bridge. Curiously, once our lane was at capacity we paused to allow southbound transport trucks to load onto the bridge as well, causing the cement structure to wiggle unnervingly.  For 20 minutes, I assessed the strength of this recently constructed bridge, devising melodramatic emergency survival plans for the inevitable crack.  Relief swept over us as we began to inch off.

Once over the bridge, the convoy quickly dissipated. Bakkies sped ahead while we trailed behind at the Pajero’s top speed of 80km/hour. We saw a sporadic military presence as we drove the 100 kilometers, and as time wore on my anxiety lessened. The escort uneventfully disintegrated just south of the Inchope intersection at a filling station in Muxungue. North of Muxungue and outside of Sofala RENAMO threats subside and the country is generally safe for travel.

At the time of writing, the escort is still in effect. A convoy departs once in both directions daily (7AM Southbound from Muxungue, 10AM Northbound from Rio Save). While generally safe, ambushes are still recorded – the most recent occurring in February 2014. This convoy escort will continue until FRELIMO/RENAMO tensions are resolved – likely no time before the upcoming presidential elections in October 2014.

Mountains

July 29 – August 5, 2013

Driving towards the Chimanimani Mountains the familiar Mozambican landscape slowly takes on a distinct and refreshing feel. As the altimeter steadily increases, the air becomes cooler, the grass greener, and the trees bigger and more tangled. These mountains had captured my curiosity from afar for days and to enter finally into their presence was deeply satisfying.  

Our destination was Ndzou camp, 125 kilometers south of Chimoio on the 216.  It was the only formal lodge available to tourists within the mountains, and reputed to be lovely. It was easy to navigate the dirt road, except for the heavy traffic of dump trucks that were busily contributing to a new tar road. Shame – but I suppose people cannot be blamed for desiring a more efficient transportation system. We stopped frequently to appreciate the jungle wrapped mountains that stretched out in front of us. Birds, and especially raptors, were prolific.  The highlight was a crowned eagle that posed dramatically atop a dead tree as we sat struck by its beauty. Upon arrival to Ndzou, I was immediately pleased by the camp that was to be our temporary home. We spent the following days in a secluded camping area with stunning views into the valleys below and the mountains beyond. On the nights we did not feel like cooking, we would indulge in a coconut curry with a cold glass of beer from the local restaurant. What more can you ask for?

Hiking into valleys below in search of the elusive forest elephants was the primary activity offered by the camp, and our reason for coming. On several occasions, we descended the trails with a knowledgeable and reasonably priced guide to feel the forest from within and, with luck, catch a glimpse of the musty pachyderms in this unique habitat. While the elephants managed to evade our efforts at every move, just being in their presence, seeing their footprints, and smelling their rubbing posts was rewarding enough. Another guest claimed she saw an elephant butt as it disappeared into the forest, but sadly "not seeing" an elephant is an increasingly common complaint. Human pressures in these areas have greatly reduced their numbers, and conservation efforts remain limited. Same old story, different place.

To further occupy the time Lindsay and I would drive back out the main road and down whatever trails would accommodate our vehicle. It was a pleasure to simply park the truck on a bluff, set up a picnic and meander throughout the hills. The people were not particularly friendly towards strangers, but then again – neither am I, so we were all happiest to give each other a wide birth. The thatched houses perfectly situated atop their hills with vegetable fields and forest mingling and sprawling out beneath them inspire thoughts of a world where people live in harmony with nature. 

Mozambique can be hot and stifling at the best of times, but in the Chimanimani Mountains, one feels a renewed vigour for travel. I was grateful to have seen this distinct environment, and I would highly recommend this detour for those traveling the length of Mozambique

The Coast

August 9 – August 20, 2013

Mareja

As we neared Pemba, described frequently as a sleepy beach town on the fringe of the remote north, I was surprised to drive into a rapidly industrializing natural gas base. Equipped with a casino, three grocery stores and a serious number of ‘efficient business park’ billboards, this was far from the paradise of my imagination. After refueling quickly on cash, food, cheese (!!!) and petrol, we set out again in search of remoteness.

We chose a small and apparently unknown wildlife reserve in Quirimbas National Park (QNP) as our first destination: Mareja. Having goofed on directions, we took a circular route on dirt roads to find the place. Smarter folk would have taken the beautiful tar road option west on the 106 and north on the 243, with only 28km of rough dirt from the turnoff in Biaque. Oops. As we ping ponged our way between suspicious local directions, we managed to receive an all-encompassing tour of the QNP. Unfortunately, this tour revealed a park fringed with villages, leaving little room for adventure, let alone wildlife. Had I not been scouring the roadside for signs of a turn off, I may have missed the small ranger’s office with a chalkboard map of the park. Rangers were certainly were not about to stop the car for inspection. 

Frustrated with our initial exposure to the park, Mareja was a relief. European lodge owners have partially restored a stunning colonial farmhouse into a base for the surrounding conservancy. Though somewhat dilapidated, it offered sweeping views of the region from its hilltop location, with a mercifully cool breeze. Local rangers who haphazardly staff the lodge immediately offered us a walking safari in search of the resident elephants. Thrilled at the prospect of breaking our dry-spell in wildlife viewing that began when we left South Africa, we jumped at the opportunity and headed to the river. Navigating our steps between copious amounts of fresh elephant dung and lion footprints, the odds of a sighting felt good. Since we visited during the peak of the dry season, a miniscule watering hole was all that remained from a river. The guides assured us, with an odd level of confidence, that the elephants would arrive promptly at 4pm (and that they did not like the colour red).

… Unsurprisingly, they missed their appointment.

We spent the next five days on a familiar schedule that revolved around early morning and late afternoon walks, while otherwise seeking refuge on the shaded porch from the sun’s daily rampage. By the fifth day, we had yet to see more than a few warthogs, a kudu and, depressingly, an enormous poached elephant carcass. Our senses were alive with signs of wildlife. We heard lions roar and hyenas laugh at night, and followed fresh footprints and dung during the day. In the evenings, even the smell of elephants was strong. However, we never spotted a single one. I could only assume that the moment a human presence was sensed, wildlife had become accustomed to disappearing into the bush as a means of self-preservation.

Both Bryce and I have been on plenty of safaris where the wildlife practically crawls into the truck. While disappointed not to encounter an elephant on foot, the broader experience at Mareja was arguably more enlightening for me than tours through other parks. Seeing the impact of poaching, witnessing the shift in behaviour, and speaking with lodge staff that had lived isolated lives on the property since Portuguese rule; all gave me fresh insight into the bush. 

Furthermore, at Mareja you are truly disconnected. With patchy reception, kerosene lamps and virtually no staff, you are in the bush. Mareja became the perfect reflection of all that Mozambique is for me– raw, beautiful, captivating, unpolished and in many ways, struggling. I personally can imagine no place that is more interesting.

Detour: Ibo Island

From Mareja, we masterfully retraced our steps along the dusty QNP roads towards the town of Quissanga and Ibo Island. As we left the Pajero Jr. in a guarded car park – it sounds much more established than it is – we exchanged an off road adventure for dhows sailing throughout the turquoise waters of the Quirimbas Archipelago.

Now well accustomed to Mozambican disorganization, it was a shock to be welcomed to Ibo Island by the island’s oldest resident João Baptista, and his proclamations that IBO stands for “Ilha Ben Organizado”. The man did not exaggerate; within minutes of arrival, our fantastic host Lucie from Baobibo presented us with a plethora of activities. Walks? Ship wreck snorkeling? Dolphin safaris? Scuba diving? Overnight island tours? Three-course dinner reservations? A hamburger?! All set along the picturesque backdrop of turquoise waters fringed with mangroves and dhows, a detour to Ibo is a welcome reprieve from the bumpy patience-testing roads of the mainland.

Pangane

 Just north of QNP, out on the tip of a peninsula, was the small yet bustling Swahili fishing village of Pangane. I had heard mixed reviews about the village’s campsite – half saying it was crowded and full of human waste, while the others described a place just short of paradise. Curious about how such contradictions were possible, we tacked a visit to Hashemi’s campsite onto our list. Reaching the campsite proved the most difficult driving of the entire trip.  Having turned off the nicely tarred 243 onto the dirty 528 to Mucojo, we were then pitched into very deep sand driving for roughly an hour.

Sure enough, Hashemi’s was as much a reflection of Mozambique’s quirks as Mareja – and I write this from a place of deep love with a touch of frustration. Hashemi, the lovely village chief, has cornered off a piece of palm-fringed paradise within an otherwise bustling fishing village. Days are blissfully simple in Pangane. We spent mornings wandering down endless kilometers of beach, with the most spectacular seashells lining the shores. With my pockets stuffed – and Bryce grumbling over my souvenir addiction, – we would return to the campsite where fishermen and divers would anxiously await us with the daily catches of lobster, squid and octopus.

In the afternoon, we would jump in the truck to drive south from the village, dodging palm trees and ditches in search of truly pristine beach. After passing Savanna Beach Oro Lodge, the land is empty. We would often park the car and watch lazily as the dramatic tide transformed a lunar looking landscape into a gentle sea of cobalt and aquamarine. As the sun set, we would search out hard-to-find beers to enjoy around an open fire beneath an uninterrupted starry night sky. We returned to Pangane numerous times after.

Niassa

August 21 – August 25, 2013

Reading about Niassa Reserve gave me the impression of a pure and raw wilderness, as Africa might have been before the 18th century. I wanted to see it for myself. So, it was hard to hide my bewilderment as we followed an electric grid through the park entrance gates and into the heart of "the last true wilderness" – a label given to Niassa by many. The main road through the park is in fact a well-travelled connection between Tanzania and Mozambique. Villages that dot the sides exist within an agricultural zone that makes up a small percentage of the reserve. It is not until you leave this road and climb the nearest granite outcrop that the enormity and remoteness of Niassa truly sets in. Peering from up high there is nothing but bush and inselbergs as far as the eye can see, and suddenly the long painful drive seems worth it.  I have a tendency to romanticize the places that humanity found too harsh to settle, which can create disappointment when I see that development has already encroached on these forbidden lands. When visiting Niassa, it is best to leave expectations behind. This place can speak for itself.

Driving 100km north off the 242 on a rough dirt road to the park gate, then 30km further into the reserve, we found the small turn off to Niassa’s main camp: Mbatamila. After a final 20km on a windy bush road, we approached the camp to be greeted by three elephants, as though they had been expecting our arrival. While parking the truck in the camping area I suddenly became aware that a group of buffalo was moving around the periphery of camp.  I was awestruck, then BAM! I backed into a tree and smashed the rear light – rookie mistake. The buffalo did not take notice, but the camp staff certainly had a good laugh. This was the most wildlife we had seen in all of Mozambique within the span of an hour, so I beg some understanding for my distracted driving.

Mbatamila is ideally situated between two inselbergs with a permanent source of water 200m away. Some elephant and buffalo are more or less residents to the area, and indeed the buffalo seem quite habituated to people. The cheeky buggers came within three meters of us as we sat around the fire – no doubt intent on sharing the security from predators. We often heard lions calling through the night, and we were actually warned not to make the short walk to the ablution area as they sometimes wander through camp in search of the very buffalo crowding our fire.

In short, travellers bold enough to make the journey will find a small Eden in Mbatamila that they will have virtually to themselves. The somewhat standoffish staff described the guests here as "hardened travellers" rather than "tourists". I grinned to myself as a pinch of pride swelled up in me – they are talking about us!

We stayed a week at Mbatamila and there were plenty of natural features to keep us occupied in the immediate surroundings of the camp. We drove for kilometres along challenging unmarked roads that revealed different herds of ungulates around every corner. No guides are required (nor will they be offered) but with the GPS system recording our path we were able to explore as we wished with little fear of getting lost. The inselbergs made for great hiking opportunities and as we climbed the rocky faces, I better understood the basic simian instinct to seek shelter within this habitat. I felt relatively secure knowing that for the most part no threatening creatures could surprise us on this fortress of granite – except, perhaps, the leopards stalking smaller prey on the hillsides. Once again, all our hikes were self-guided so we were able to choose our own adventures, and the independence very much added to the allure of Niassa. On down time we would park the truck near the waterhole with the seats reclined and pretend to read while dozing or pondering the unkempt world around us. Every day truly was a pleasure.

Getting to and from Mbatamila from the nearest petrol station was approximately 300km in total, plus a number of kilometres exploring around camp. It is a lot of driving. With our small fuel tank (30L), two extra canisters were a must, but I suppose in a real emergency the camp could supply fuel (the embarrassment of having to ask would probably be worse than the exorbitant price they would likely charge). However, the journey was well worth the effort as Niassa proved to be the best wildlife viewing area we encountered in all of Mozambique; furthermore, one of the most impressive landscapes I have had the pleasure of experiencing on all of the planet. Niassa may not be the last African frontier, but it is most definitely an enormous place where rules are suggestions and life remains self-guided.

Route Guide

 

Where We Stayed: Favourite Locations

 

Though accommodation is limited in northern Mozambique, what does exist is truly special. What follows are the details for the places mentioned in this article. 

Ndzou Camp, Chimanimani Mountains. (camping/rondavel: R60/R700 bfast. incl – contact Moz Eco Tours for booking information: www.mozecotours.com/andrew@micaia.org). This social venture offers four campsites and six rondavels, catering to different price points.  A somewhat pricey restaurant is open on site, and staff organizes elephant treks daily with a local guide. There is solar electricity, limited running water, and clean flush toilets and showers both in the rondavels and for the campers.

Mareja Lodge, Quirimbas National Park: (camping/double: R100pp/R200– www.mareja.com). With camping facilities and nice double rooms, this restored colonial house is an ideal – though fairly understaffed – base for the reserve. Running water is typically available, with a communal bathroom for all guests. There is no electricity.

Hashemi’s Campsite, Pangane: (camping/thatched huts: R100pp/R200 – contact Hashemi at +256 269 60637 or +256 526 701, though bookings are likely not necessary). With space for numerous tents in between three locally built mud huts, this site is basic but stunning. Staff will bring a constant supply of washing water, firewood and possibly connect you to the main home’s electricity. They will also assist you in finding basic supplies in the village.

Baobibo, Ibo Island: (bungalows: R700, bfast incl. – contact Lucie at baobibo.ibo@gmail.com/www.baobibo.com). Lucie and her lovely team manage this newly established (and especially fantastic) property on Ibo Island. With her private motorized dhow, Baobibo offers a plethora of activities throughout the turquoise waters of the archipelago. The property has a kitchen on sight for those wishing to skip the prix fixe Ibo Island lodge meals, and cook something for themselves.

Mbatamila Campsite, Niassa Reserve: (camping: R100pp – no contact possible, directions to site obtained at Niassa Park gates). This beautiful campsite is essentially part of the Senior Staff camp for Niassa Reserve. Guests must be entirely self-sufficient, and are allowed to share the shared staff bathroom and shower during the stay, though not the kitchen.

Where We Stayed: Handy  Stopover Locations

Between Mozambique’s well-kept secrets are long stretches of potholed tar roads. Long days under the hot sun covering hundreds of kilometers become trying. For reprieve, we sought out pleasant stopover lodges that kept us on the outskirts of the crowded cities – just close enough to refuel and restock. 

·         Hotel Mil Park, Chimoio: (camping: R100pp) – camping is permitted on this mega compound which is outfitted with a swimming pool, mini-put course, hot tub and buffet-based restaurant.

·         Complexo Montes Nairucu, Nampula: (camping: R100pp) This well-established campsite sits on the shores of a small lake, nestled between inselbergs. As part of a bigger lodge with a popular weekend restaurant, this is a particularly pleasant alternative to downtown Nampula.

·         Pemba Bush and Dive, Pemba: (camping/dorm/hut: R100pp/R200pp/R1000 - www.pembadivecamp.com). A bit of an institution in Pemba, this pleasant camp is located on the shores of Pemba bay and has truly excellent camping facilities, complete with a thatched shelter, lock box, chairs, running water and electricity – and great information on local activities.

Fuel

Fuel is available in all major cities (Pemba, Chimoio, Nampula and Montepuez) and sporadically in between these cities. We would strongly advise traveling with additional fuel even between major locations since fuel shortages at filling stations do occur.  We packed two 10L Jerry cans, which increased our total fuel capacity to approx. 50L and gave us a comfortable range of about 500km. 

Where to Buy Provisions

Technical Gear and Mechanics

All gear should be organized and purchased in South Africa prior to departure since there is limited availability in Mozambique. Mechanics with limited supplies can be found in Nampula and Pemba, however most parts will need to be improvised or ordered from South Africa.

Food, Water and Cash

All supplies should be purchased in major cities (Pemba, Chimoio, Nampula, Montepuez) where grocery stores and ATMs (Barclays/Standard Bank) are available. Be sure to carry ample cash since that is the only method of payment, and ATMs are both scarce and often low on cash.

Outside of the major cities, towns and villages sell seasonal produce and basic staples (pasta, rice, water). Most villages have water pumps where you can refill jerry cans. We would strongly recommend carrying water purification tablets since drinking water is sporadically available.

Essential Gear

This route is far more enjoyable if you are entirely self-sufficient. Come to Mozambique prepared with any emergency supplies, since they are difficult to come by. These include water purification tablets and a malaria testing kit (or prophylaxis) and treatment.

 

Convoy or Solo

 

Can be traveled convoy or solo – no guide necessary, just a good map and some basic Portuguese to ask directions.

Road Conditions

Paved roads vary from perfect conditions to pothole-ridden disasters that make you pray for your suspension system. Cars wildly weaving from side to side are a good sign to slow down as they are probably dodging monster potholes.

 

The rest is a ‘choose your own challenge’. In the dry season, we never had a problem to explore as we wished. The rainy season changes the game completely. Be sure to ask a local before taking your 4x4 down a road that will not give it back.

 

It probably does not need to be said, but do not take your 4x4 on the beach. It bad for the environment, annoying to everyone else, and you don't want to be that ruck that gets swallowed by the incoming tide as you sink down to the axle in wet sand. 

Tyres

Careful driving is of paramount importance in Mozambique, given the variety in terrain. It is very important to be prepared to repair, deflate and inflate tyres on the road to avoid dealing with mechanics. An air pump that works off the truck battery is highly suggested.

Risk

There are numerous cases of Malaria, Tick Bite Fever and Sleeping Sickness within northern Mozambique and visitors should take appropriate precautions. The risk of Malaria increases dramatically during the rainy season (November – March). Though wildlife density is low and skittish, this is still Big Five County and visitors should act accordingly. The political and security situation in Mozambique should also be consulted prior to departure – though generally safe for travel, the country has seen increased levels of violence in the Sofala province within the last year.