The Far Side
On the Mozambican maps, 'Lake Malawi' actually does not exist. Where it should be is an impressive stretch of fresh-water called 'Lago Niassa', a significant slab of which is enclosed within the northwestern boundaries of Mozambique. If one recalls that Portugal once had two colonies in the southern part of Africa - Angola over there on the west coast, and Mozambique over here on the east - with the British in-between, the reason why the lake has different names becomes clearer. At the risk of over-simplifying a convoluted piece of history, the Portuguese wanted their colonies to meet and Malawi (then called British Nyasaland) got in the way. Another curious reminder of this quarrel are the Likoma Islands which are a Malawian enclave deep within Mozambican waters, just 5km off Cobúè, Mozambique's northernmost lakeshore town.
Fifteen years ago I visited Likoma from the Malawian side (there was then a war on in Mozambique) on the Illala II, a passenger ferry which still runs. I gazed across to the mountainous, densely forested shores of Mozambique and resolved that one day I would stand staring out to Likoma from that mysterious land. What I could not anticipate was that I would do the 6000km round-trip from Joburg in just six days, Lago Niassa and its peoples would be far more beautiful and friendly than I had imagined, and that I would do it in a marvelous vehicle Toyota called the Condor, but which I nicknamed 'Kwerri-kwerri' as it crossed so many borders illegally (or so the Zimbabwean C.I.D at Nyamapanda told me).
A comprehensive account of my experiences negotiating sixteen (eight there, eight back) border posts would fill a book, so I will mention but a few:
I arrived at the Zim side of Beitbridge just before the 20:30 closing time to be told by the immigration officer that my SA stamp was dated for the following day and so I would have to wait until 05:00 the following morning before my passport could be legally stamped. He then disappeared but the fellow in the next cubicle applied the stamp with great enthusiasm to my upside-down document. At Nyampanda where I pulled-in bleary-eyed after fifteen hours on the road, an obnoxious C.I.D Officer (so he announced) accosted me after I had cleared customs and immigration and demanded my passport. He declared that he suspected I was driving a stolen vehicle (he ignored the letter I had been given by Toyota) and Interpol would have to be faxed. He explained that this might take the whole day so I suggested that we simply phone Toyota and ask if I was authorized to be in possession of the Condor.
The only phone in Nyamapanda that worked was at the police-station so we both wandered up the hill where the station-commander flicked through my passport, advised me to carry a police clearance certificate in future and to watch out for the pot-holed roads of Mozambique. The route through Tete to Malawi was, apart from a few stretches where re-surfacing was being done, in excellent condition. Exiting Mozambique at Zobúè was achieved without me having to leave the vehicle - the gate guard took my Temporary Import Permit (TIP) and passport to the office and returned in seconds with it stamped. The Malawian (Mwanza) side was literally a construction site and, if it wasn't for the advice of a street-kid/car-guard I might never have negotiated the following conundrum: 1) Customs require you get your 3rd-party insurance before they will issue the TIP but the gate-guard wants the stamp which Immigration won't do until you have satisfied customs, and 2) A road-tax of US$20 is now payable, but only in US currency which I was not carrying.
Aiming to reach the Namwera/Mandimba frontier where I would re-enter Mozambique before the 18:00 closing time, I opted for the short cut via Balaka to Mangochi which bypasses the trucks and narrow roads on the Blantyre route. I made it out of Malawi but not into Mozambique (3km separates the control-points) and had a very welcome sleep in no-man's land before being allowed to continue at 06:00 the following morning on a really good gravel road (120kpa safely in 4x4) to Lichinga. A teacher from Mandimba going home for the weekend I gave a lift to provided an opportunity for me to exercise my Portuguese.
My first visit to this, the capital city of Niassa Province, was by air during the civil war. Then we had arrived in the dark (no electricity) and left in the mist so my impression was of a gloomy, damp smoke-filled cave. This time I drove straight to a place I had been told of called 'Quinta Capric?rnio' which turned out to be a permaculture farm, restaurant, log-cabins and camp-sites, just one kilometer from the centre of town, all in a pine-tree setting not out of place in parts of Mpumalanga. Mozambique is a country of surprises and Kate (a Scottish doctor) and Mariette (a French vet), who not only do excellent food, produce their own tinned foods, goats-milk cheese, yoghurt and biltong, but have a combined tally between them of forty years in Mozambique.
For me 'Quinta' had an atmosphere more alpine than east African, but the constant flow of locals visiting either to chat to Kate and Mariette, or to play on the tennis-court and jungle-gyms, set the spot firmly in Mozambique. After a really tasty meal I headed north for 120km on a tarred road (made to facilitate movements of Portuguese troops prior to 1974) to Metangula on the lake, then drove north along the shore for 5km to 'Praia do Chuinga' (Shuwanga beach) before enjoying a sunset stroll amidst some of Africa's most sublime scenery. At Complexo Chuianga, which is literally on the beach, there are basic reed and thatch chalets with beds and bedding. '
There are also Arab-style squat toilets and a restaurant/bar which provides cold drinks and basic meals - give the chef a couple of hours notice. Great bulbous baobabs stare out over the water as if watching for ghostly slave-dhows sailing from Africa's persecuted past to an uncertain shore bearing a miserable cargo.
I had hoped to drive to Cobúè where there is an exciting new wildlife sanctuary taking shape called Manda Wilderness Reserve which has a lodge, and offers canoe and foot safaris in an area famous for its Cape Hunting Dog. Although only about 97km separates Metangula from Cobúè, I was warned that the conditions were very poor and the drive would take a full day. So instead I back-tracked to Meponda via Lichinga, watched the sun set from it's golden, curving beach and then spent the night at Quinta Capricornio where I met Patrick, the manager of Manda who described a wild place well worth another dozen border-posts or so.
Mavago, bordering on one of the blocks of land reserved for wildlife which surround the huge Reserva do Niassa which borders on Tanzania, was where I took the Condor the next day. This was 6 hours of hard driving in conditions ranging from wide tar and rutted gravel to powdery sand and black cotton-soil mud. The vehicle had no problems in the handling or traction department, but, where the 'middle-mannetjie' stuck out a bit, the front sump-guard scraped a bit too easily for my liking and I think harder front shocks and bigger wheels are modifications Toyota would do well to consider. In Mavago I gave seven people who were headed for Milepa a lift along what really was a glorified footpath, and the Condor managed to negotiate a few very rocky river crossings quite nimbly.
The bush in this area is brachystegia (miombo) woodland which is in stunning condition, but wildlife is very scarce and, apart from prolific bird life, we heard just a couple of hyena at night. By now I was (sensibly anyway) four days drive from home, and with only two to do it in, I had to turn around before Milepa and bash it back to the border to get into Malawi before closing time. In Blantyre I stayed at Doogles Lodge, which used to be a 'Backpackers' but it seems to be turning into a nightclub - a very welcome haven which serves excellent meals, nevertheless. As my double-entry visa (multiple-entries are only issued for business purposes) had by now been used, I went to the consulate to apply for a transit visa which I received at 14:00 and sped off to the border as I was aiming to get through to Harare that night.
The fact that I slept in the Condor at Cuchamano squeezed in amongst a line of trucks, was not due to the vehicle (I managed a crazy 148km in one hour at dusk on a particularly pot-holed stretch), nor due to any obstreperous officials (Mwanza/Zobúè took just 30 minutes), but due to my map which gave the distance from Tete to Cuchamano as 100km, and it was actually148km! In Cuchamano I met a forlorn fellow called Elias who had been turned around by the Zimbabweans on a technicality and who had worked with my sister-in-law at the Delta Park Environmental Centre in Randburg. Africa is a village.
Was it worth it? The border-posts are a real pain in the wallet. What with TIP's, 3rd party insurances, road taxes and idiotic delays, I was down by around R500 before I even got into the stadium. Driving the Condor was a real pleasure, even in strong crosswinds and on 'goat-tracks' it felt solid, safe and capable. At speeds of 120-140kph the 70litre tank (leaded or unleaded petrol) took me 600km although on a couple of occasions with the fuel warning light burning forebodingly I drove for well over 100km without running out of petrol. The CD/Radio kept me company with awesome sound during the long, lonely nights, and the air-conditioning kept the Tsetse Flies at bay in the Niassa Reserve. On balance I would do the trip again, but then I would take along half a dozen friends and a month off from work.
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