In Mozambique, ghosts of Portuguese and Swahili settlers wander amongst faded colonial grandeur, unnoticed. The inhabitants of the remote north have quickly returned to the lives that they lived for hundreds of years before the colonists arrived. The only memories of the old times are the Portuguese language, the food and pastel mansions crumbling among the mud huts.
Over several hundred kilometers the road from southern Malawi to the Indian Ocean deteriorated from tarmac into a mud track, furrowed and ruined by rainy season run off. Villages became less frequent until we found ourselves driving through thick tropical forest bare of any kind civilization. This was a welcome change after seeing nothing but hand-ploughed land since the Sahara desert. It did not really strike home how densely and universally inhabited Africa has been until we found a place that wasn’t. Camping in this thick jungle was not easy. We had to pick a path through the thorn bushes, creepers and giant car-trap spider webs. It was worth it though, to sit tight around our campfire, to listen while distant drums beat from a wild Africa that flowed out wide and black beyond the flickering light.
Driving so far away from civilisation was exciting but came with a little apprehension. What would we do if something happened? What if the car died or even worse, a crash? The road was white sand and stones, flat and unused but blighted with potholes that could swallow the car. Driving at midday is the most treacherous. The sun sits high overhead and casts a flat light that renders all the bumps and holes in the road invisible. It was under these conditions that we lost control of the car. At 40mph a sea of potholes materialized from the blinding white road and knocked Tess into a skid. The back of the landie drifted out wide on the carpet of small rocks. Bas pulled it back but we swung out the other side even more violently. For 150 yards we skated across the surface, each exaggerated skid brought us closer to flipping over. The rubber of our tyres squealed under the strain and the luggage flew around possessed. One by one we lost our cool and started to scream in fright. Bas wrested control of the steering and ditched the car over the edge of the road, down a gully into tall grass where we rolled to a halt, every one breathing hard.
We stepped out of the car, a little shaken. Rich crawled underneath to assess the damage. Nothing seemed wrong. We couldn’t believe we had been so lucky, or unlucky depending on your point of view. Tess creaked back up the embankment onto the road and set off again towards the coast. As we drove, my mind was filled with imagined scenarios. People say that above the bandits, the terrorists and the wildlife you are most likely to come a cropper in Africa as a result of the roads. They are right, and what would one do if it happened miles away from the nearest civilisation. Our near miss brought the reality of a serious injury or massive mechanical failure into sharp focus. Would we have enough food? Who would go for help? Someone would have to walk to the nearest village for assistance and it would likely take several days, longer still for the people waiting with the vehicle. It seems there is a reason the road less travelled is not, well, more travelled.
Ibo, a tiny island a few miles off the North Mozambique coast at Pemba, was our destination. At the end of a sandy track, too bright for my cheap sunglasses, were a large baobab tree and a driftwood kiosk selling cokes. We left Tess in the hands of the kiosk man to guard and took off our shoes. Wading through the mud into the shallow mangroves we approached a dhow bound for Ibo. Ibo is an abandoned colonial holiday spot scattered with decaying buildings. White sand and sharp crags of black volcanic rock encircle the island. The atmosphere on Ibo is very much that of island life. Nothing happens too quickly, everyone knows one another and there is no crime.
On our second day in Ibo a small boat took us out to snorkel at a shallow reef. The water was a warm, blue world. The coral was dotted with great wrinkled clams that snapped shut in a fizz of bubbles when I touched them. I have never scuba dived and this underwater landscape was a new experience for me. It was thrilling to dive and mingle with the marine creatures imagining for brief moments that I was allowed to be one of them. I wore myself out chasing bright little fishes through coral corridors. They flitted easily away from my pursuit like sparrows escaping a hawk.
Our boat chugged slowly through the chop as we returned from the reef, our skin drying slowly in the low sun. All of a sudden the Captain shouted to us from the wheel, the engine rattled and cut out. Warm and a little dazed I pulled my fins on and bowled out of the boat. The cold water broke on me with a start and everything was suddenly silent and black. The open sea was cold, dark and deep. Alone for a few seconds before the others plunged in beside me, I was taken by a trace of fear. Perhaps it was the chill, or the deep unknown beneath me but it felt unnatural after the shallow, colourful reef. Quickly a shadow passed below me, easy and swift. It banked left and joined three more shadows. Each beat its tail hard and then whipped off into the blackness. They came again, this time closer, slowing as they passed. There were four dolphins batting though the water, wet pebble eyes considering me as I floated.
I kicked hard to get close. They did not flee, they flanked me slowly as if to encourage me to come with them. Arched streamlined backs, they began to dive. Snatching a breath I dived down with them and almost imperceptibly the nearest glanced back at me, noting that I had followed. The four strong bodies spiraled deeper and deeper. I could not keep up. I returned to the surface, panting.
Several more times they passed us; we were awkward in their world. They urged us to play, but our sluggishness disappointed them. After a while they left us to find better sport and we returned to the boat. Everyone was vibrating from the encounter, speechless and yammering at the same time. The interaction was magnetic. A simple, good-natured relationship had developed in only a few minutes between each of us, alone in the dark sea, and a pod of dolphins. The experience was alien and yet wonderful. As we set out for home we saw the pod coursing ahead through the water. The furthest of them leapt out of the surf sending a fan of droplets from its dorsal fin that caught the light.
At dawn the following day we returned to the mainland. The dhow sailed nimbly through the shallow mangroves bringing island women and their wares to the market in Pemba. Huge cloth wrapped baskets and nylon sacks filled the small boat’s hull leaving only the edges for numerous passengers to jostle for seating above the spray. The bright and beautifully patterned clothing of the Mozambican women was striking in the dawn light. The lines on their sun-weathered skin were also worn well.
The road south from was smoothly graded, prepared by the Chinese for the construction of a new highway. Natural gas has been found off the coast so Pemba will soon be the newest raw material exploitation centre in Africa. This will probably lead to a brief explosion in the tourist industry on Ibo and surrounding islands. The property will be bought up and converted to luxury hotels for the gas company employees. In a few years the gas will dry up, the industry will leave and the island people will once again return to their small, quiet lives.
In Ilha do Mocambique the contrast between old colonial majesty and island tradition is also stark. The main square is cobbled black and white like the streets of Lisbon. The tessellated motif imitates the pattern left in the dust after island women have swept the earth in front of their door. The market brims with fruits we had never seen before, breadfruit, flat bananas, sun-dried mangos. At the seafront young men skip up the streets from the fishing boats with the catch of the day, sharks in their arms and rays on their backs. Old ladies hunch over charcoal fires cooking red snapper on skewers. Tongues of flame lick the spiced fishes, drops of lemon spit and crackle.
With a huge tropical fish for our dinner we left Ilha and drove down the coast. A few kilometers after the last village we made a way through the bush to the beach and lit a fire. After a brawl with numerous large purple spines and several punctured fingers our meal was scaled and ready. The fish cooked on the wood fire while we lay watching the southern constellations track the sky. These shapes that had been so foreign to us now seemed like home, more so even than the northern stars since roofs have become a rarity. As we waited for our dinner we mused, even fretted a little about how much the trip has changed us. We have occasionally entertained worries that we would not easily reassume our old lives. After eight months speaking almost exclusively with each other, how will we converse with people whose opinions, habits and characteristics are unfamiliar? How will we kick habits like walking barefoot through the middle of town or showering only twice a week?
Skills we have learned which are indispensable here will quickly become useless back home. The capacity to sleep soundly in a hut that is crawling with spiders as big as your hand will no longer be necessary in Cornwall. The ability to gather wood, build a fire and cook a fish on it will also seem distinctly obsolete when we cast our mind back from the queue in a fish and chip shop. Perhaps the most difficult thing will be to reintegrate with western opinions. There is a marked difference between the acceptable topics of conversation in Africa and at home. In Cornwall a few eyebrows might be raised if we try to argue the benefits of restoring the ivory trade, discuss Mugabe’s commendable achievements before the economic collapse or the futility of charitable work in Africa. On the other hand it will probably be good for us to learn to keep our opinions to ourselves occasionally. The fish was great.
In the morning we lifted our mosquito nets to see the sun creeping into the world over the brow of a shimmering silent sea. The earliest fishermen were scudding along the horizon in their shallow bottomed sailing boats as we paddled about in the water. It was difficult to leave such a lovely scene but like on so many other perfect mornings we packed up and set off to the next destination on our journey. We were heading to Chimoio where Alki would find her bus to Tofu in the south of Mozambique. Alki would leave the trip for a couple of weeks to go on scuba safari, pursuing giant manta rays.
On the road to Chimoio our clutch failed, the first major mechanical failure of the trip and real disappointment so close to the finishing line. At the side of the road, in the midday heat dismantling the master and slave cylinder. We succeeded only in making the problem worse however as we were unable to put it all back together. The only solution was going to be to remove the engine or drop the transfer box. As we did not relish the idea of doing this at the side of the road we decided to attempt to drive without a clutch until the next big town to get it fixed. The next big town was Mutare in Zimbabwe.
After dropping Alki at her bus we departed for Mutare making quite a scene. In order to set off we had to push the car up to first gear speed. Then like a bobsled team we were to run alongside the moving vehicle and leap into our seats. What actually happened was Bas and I both went for the same door, in confusion I trod on Bas’ flipflop tripping him onto the tarmac. I then jumped for the door, hit my head on the frame and bounced back out to join Bas on the tarmac. These antics were viewed by large crowd of market goers and pedestrians who all dutifully cheered and jeered our ridiculous display. There was a similar farce at the Zimbabwe border crossing. The border is on a slight incline so we recruited the help of the surly border soldiers. They reluctantly put down their AKs to throw a their weight behind Tess, who choked and jerked into gear and pulled away leaving them in a cloud of black smoke. Welcome to Zimbabwe.