The Globe and Mail published the following piece in October, 2014.
Sometimes things don’t go as planned – and those moments often make for the best stories. Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their wild adventures.
By our 11th month overlanding in Mozambique, my boyfriend and I felt like seasoned experts on roadside camping. Because we travelled with a puppy, towns were inconvenient, if not unfriendly, and nights were often spent camping in the most raw, captivating and vibrant landscapes. The country is full of uninhabited archipelagos amidst turquoise waters and white sand beaches. Pitching a tent in the bush was always more enjoyable – until the night that it wasn’t.
In the remote province of Niassa, not far from the Malawian border, one night we found ourselves still surrounded by dense village life with daylight fading. Quickly and reluctantly, we found a relatively uninhabited area and set up camp.
Some time around midnight, I awoke to our typically quiet dog barking frantically. Poking our heads out of the tent, we saw shadows emerging out of the bush. I noticed approximately 30 men gathering around us, some with machetes in hand. My heart sank.
Over the next few minutes – which felt like hours – chaos erupted. Men investigated our things as they yelled back and forth in local dialects. Nobody spoke to us directly. Finally, a single man wearing a long trench coat and Russian-style fur cap stepped forward, brandishing a pistol. Everyone went silent.
Speaking in Portuguese, this leader demanded to see our passports. Instinctively, we asked to see his identification. His reply was to load the pistol. Our instincts shifted dramatically, and we handed everything over.
“I am a police officer,” the leader insisted. Apparently he was conducting a standard procedure – but a number of the men were making vulgar gestures at me, and there was a gun pointed at my boyfriend. My mind went wild with worst-case scenarios and I mentally fought back sheer panic.
This officer quickly reviewed our documents and told us that we must leave the field immediately, taking him in the car with us. Under the light of a cell phone, we chaotically packed up all that we could see.
Once in the car, this man’s tune changed dramatically. Our menacing passenger now launched into a cheery monologue about the organized and friendly nature of Mozambicans, while he gestured to the mob to break the circle. He explained that because of the upcoming (and very contentious) election, the local villages had been fearing a return to violence. Everyone was on edge. Our campsite had startled the locals and, as the officer explained, they had collectively decided to rally all men for a midnight visit. From his perspective, this was an entirely normal and courteous thing to do. It was, he said, for our own safety and benefit.
We arrived at the police station where we explained ourselves to his commander, and we were later directed to a local guesthouse for what remained of the night. Against all odds, not a single bribe was requested.
I have yet to fully make sense of exactly what happened. We camped many more times after this fateful night – albeit with more caution, and at a farther distance from nearby villages.