Mozambique: Top Three 4x4 Routes.
- Golden Sands, Extraordinary Elephants and Rushing River Crossings. (Ponta do Ouro to Macaneta via Maputo Elephant Reserve).
- The Lion House, a Mighty River, a Very LongBridge and an Almost Endless Beach. (Mutare back to Mutare via Chimoio, GorongosaNational Park, MountGorongosa, the Caia Zambezi Ferry, ZalalaBeach, The Dona Anna Bridge and Tete.)
- An Inland Sea, Island-Mountains and The 'Centre of the World'.(Blantyre back to Blantyre via Lichinga, Lake Malawi's Mozambique shores, the towering granite domes of Nampula, Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique Island), Guruè and Milange).
1. Gold, Extraordinary Elephants and River Crossings.
(Ponta do Ouro to Komatipoort via Maputo Elephant Reserve and Macaneta).
ROUTE DISTANCE: approx. 400km. MINIMUM TIME NEEDED: 5 days. BUDGET (excl fuel): R600 per person per day.
Sit down for a few beers at a pub in the resorts at Ponta do Ouro or Ponta Malongane and ask about the origins of the place-names. Sure, in PortugueseOuromeans gold so that makes it the 'Point of Gold' except that there is, and apparently never has been any of the precious yellow metal in the area. The theories I heard ranged from 'it's the rising sun reflected against the yellow dunes' to 'the gold came from much further north - from Sofala and Monomotapa and was swapped here for guns, textiles and salt'. And then there isMalongane, certainly not a Portuguese word but according to the local Tonga people its meaning is not straightforward. Some say the chief in the area had a reputation for being able to fix anything while others insist it simply means 'place of the children'.
Most visitors let the tyres down to around 1.5 bar at the SA border (0800-1600) before tackling the 9km to 'Ponta' or the 17km to 'Malongane' and both our Toyota's (a 2,8D and a 3000D - both double-cabs) couldn't make it on hard tyres. At particularly sand or steep spots tracks veer away into the bush but join up again once past the obstacle. We stayed at Blues Beach House (also called Casa Azul) in Ponta which is so close to the sea that at high tide you could almost dive in from the veranda. Jon Sawyer (Tom and his Mississippi raft would have approved of Jon) and wife Bonny let us in on a 'secret' route into the Elephant Reserve which turned out to be so seldom-used that even the locals we consulted at the start of this 'track' (more like a game-trail) weren't sure where it went.
Jon's directions appeared straightforward: 'Up the coast 10km past Malongane you'll come to a tarred road where a left turn takes you to Ponta Mamóli, and right to the village of Zitundo. Turn left and after two or three kilometres you'll see a small track leading north into the Reserve'. On the way to this 'tarmac to nowhere' we took a turn up cell-phone hill between Ponta and Malongane and had reception from both MTN and Vodacom. I wanted to see Mamóli as I had heard that it was going to be the Sun City of the Moz coast before independence in 1974, hence the good road, and we found only a few ruined houses and evidence that people may sometimes 'free-camp' (I'm told this illegal) in the area.
Although six pairs of young eyes were trained on the bush along the right-hand side of the road, we drove right up to Zitundo (a couple of concrete buildings and a few dozen thatch huts) and, perplexed about our 'back-route' made a U-turn and went back, with an old man sitting on the bonnet of the Tdi. He pointed out a path used by his goats and trusting the great off-roader in the sky would look after us, we engaged dif-lock, dropped a few gears, and trundled tenderly in with grass slapping against the windscreen. We were heading for Ponta Memben, the eighth 'Ponta', amongst about a dozen which stick out on this smear of coast between Monte Ouro (on the SA border) and Cabo Santa Maria just north of which lies Ilha do Inhaca (Inhaca Island). The chap who had invited us to stay at his temporary camp at Memben (now closed) assumed we would travel via Salamanga and so his map with GPS plots on it showed that route.
We headed up a long wide valley with a growing feeling that the track was about to change from 'indistinct' to 'extinct' and often we had to skirt a swamp and then cut back until we found what we thought was the way again. Our surroundings were a cross between the Okavango and the bushveld and we did see a small herd of waterbuck splash off into the thicket as we ploughed along sending praises to the inventor of low-range and counting our luck stars that our diesel engines were unlikely to cut-out when mud splashed over the bonnet. After about twenty kilometres we arrived at the Reserve's south gate and paid our R40 (Mt80 000) entrance and R40 daily camping fee (could be US$10 by now).
We skirted the western shores of magnificent Lago Piti and about fifty kilometres from Ponta came to the turn-off to Ponta Dobela where a misguided schemer intends to establish a harbour to rival Maputo. Personally I hope that this pitiful project, which will destroy one of Mozambique's most pristine areas, goes the way of Blanchard's (recently deceased Texan oil tycoon), fanciful 'ElephantCoast' project which was tossed out by the Moz government earlier this year. We took a 'wrong' turn down to Ponta Milibangalala where there is a dive-camp run by Sea-Blue Diving which has safari-tents on wooden platforms, before back-tracking to Memben which we found to be a superb spot (now no facilities exist).
Our route up to MaputoCity was via Main Camp (where there is also an entrance gate) a few k's before which we crossed a wide, shallow lake on a narrow berm which was broken in the middle. Here one vehicle bogged down badly and had to be towed out - an incident that reinforced how essential it is to walk water and choose the best route before driving it. Crossing the Rio Maputo (Maputo river) just after the town of Salamanga we headed directly due north on an excellent road which was good tar for a few dozen kilometres up to Catembe where we had to wait half an hour for the 1530 ferry across the bay to Maputo. The ferry runs about every hour from 0600 to 2200 and the charge was R75 (Mt150 000) per vehicle and Mt5000 per person. Note that the ferry breaks down periodically and is often full so plan to arrive no later than 1400 to give you time to backtrack by road via Bela Vista and Umbeluzi to Maputo.
The campsite on the 'Marginal' (beach road) in Maputo looked habitable (nice ablutions) and I know Maputo to be a festive city to spend a couple of nights in, but we didn't want to risk all our 'kitunda' and so we had an expensive Laurentino beer at the stunning Hotel Polana which has safe parking, before grinding north on the EN.1 (Estrada Nacional 1) through the chaotic traffic on Maputo's outskirts 48km to Casa Lisa B&B and campsite which is an oasis of tranquility and excellent facilities. En-route we did pass Marracuene where the turn-off to Catembe is, but we figured going back only around 20km the next day wasn't much of an issue.
Marracuene overlooks a wide bend in the Rio Incomati (Komati river) and it obviously was a pretty little Portuguese outpost in its day although now the Telecommunicaç?es (Public Telephone office) and a few bars are the only reason to stop there. A potholed but quite pretty avenue lead down to the road parallel to river where we turned left and then right down a steep gravel road which crossed the rails, passed a little mercado (open-air market - good place to re-stock) and then ended at the ferry ramp a few hundred metres on. The batelhãu (ferry) can carry four or five cars and does the five minute crossing from 0600 to around 0900 whenever full so if it happens to be on the other side of the river when you arrive and traffic is light, you may have to wait at the pleasant restaurant/pub/disco for an hour or so.
In the rainy season (December to May), especially during periods of flooding, the road that leads across the floodplain can become impassable but we found it dry and dusty and so I decided to take a short cut to Incomati River Camp instead of taking the long way around which passes close to Jay's Beach Camp. About 4km from the ferry we turned left onto the grassy plain and followed vehicle tracks due north which crossed a few small muddy channels and then stopped abruptly at a wide, black pool surrounded by swamp. We walked the water and decided to chance it - managing to barge through in 2ndgear low-range - if in a petrol vehicle you must definitely follow the signs to Jays and then to Incomati. Incomati River Camp is one of the few tourist facilities in Mozambique which is not on a beach and I found the quiet river and safari-style camp pleasingly different to many Mozambican beaches where idiots roar up and down (illegally) the sand making it dangerous to lie on your towel after a swim.
Richard and João who own and manage the Camp were fascinating company being experts on almost any aspect of Mozambique you could dream up, especially wildlife and con-men. Many of their best tales relate to guests doing what we did (i.e taking our own route to the Camp) and getting stuck up to the rear-view mirrors in foul-smelling slime, eventually arriving at midnight followed by a cloud of mosquitoes and asking for help. There is a motor boat for hire as well as Canadian-style double canoes which can be used to paddle upstream to get lost amongst the reed islands. The food is excellent, much of it being traditional Mozambique/Portuguese dishes using locally produced ingredients, and this is the place to sit back, eat, drink and write that best-selling novel you know you have in you.
There are many four-by-four tracks to explore in the Macaneta area and as Jay's charges a hefty day-visitors fee, we found our own route to the beach and had lunch one afternoon at the good, but pricey restaurant at Ponta da Macaneta. This area is actually within sight of Maputo (at night you can see the lights), but has an atmosphere which places it far off the beaten track. A couple of lazy days later we headed back to South Africa (the new toll-road between Maputo and the Ressano Garcia/ Lebombo border post, hours are 0600 - 1900, is now open), and the 'big smoke' of Johannesburg just 7 hours away. This is an excellent route for the in-experienced off-roader with a week and around R400 per person per day (including meals and hutted or tented accommodation but excluding fuel) to spare.
Contacts and Bookings.
BluesBeach House (Casa Azul), Ponta do Ouro: Has since closed but a great alternative is:
IncomatiRiver Camp: No longer operating but try Jay’s Lodge just a few km from the old River Camp: Maputo: (09258) 82 3001430.
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