Southeastern Africa (1/2)
This post is part 1 of the "southeastern-africa-2022" series:
Before most trips, I often have preconceptions about which parts are going to be difficult or challenging. Most of the time, I'm right, but not always. On this trip, I was almost entirely wrong. The parts of the trip that I expected to be tough, turned out to be easy, and parts of the trip that I never imagined would be rough, were a complete disaster. To say that this trip did not go according to plan, would be a massive understatement. There was an incident about 5 days into the trip that blew up nearly the entire itinerary after that point, and over shadowed everything else that followed. This trip was not a great trip. It wasn't even a good trip. While I don't regret doing the trip, I learned many hard, painful lessons.
My flight to Doha was assigned gate A11 which was nearly at the end of the terminal in an area with few seats and no windows. We were supposed to board at 15:00 for the 16:00 departure. Instead, the gate agents didn't even arrive until 15:00, and then did one of the most chaotic, disorganized boardings I've ever experienced. they took forever to board the wheelchair people. then they attempted to do by group boarding, but they never announced anything. Randos kept getting in line, then turned away because they were the wrong group. also, they insisted on checking everyone's passports, which wasted even more time. Eventually, they must have realized that they would never finish boarding, and gave up enforcing anything, and simply scanned boarding passes. The flight was not full, and it seemed like most were destined for the sub-continent. We finally pushed back at 16:07, which was a small miracle considering the boarding chaos. The flight was ok overall. QatarAir requires masks, but enforcement was non-existent, and prolly a third of passengers were not wearing them. I slept about 4 hours. Food was not bad, but portion sizes were tiny, and I was hungry the entire flight. We landed in Doha at 17:25.
No problems at Doha, other than the airport was very busy/crowded, and my gate for the flight to JNB was off in the hinterlands (E23), and a bus gate too. I got a lamb burger on the way to my gate, cause I was starving. It was good but not \$16 good. They started boarding the bus almost on time. Stepping outside to reach the bus was like walking into a sauna. I had nearly forgotten how brutal the heat & humidity is along the Persian Gulf. I really like how QatarAir gives everyone 1 hour of free wifi. its nice being able to check email during the middle of a long flight. I managed to sleep for about 2 hours. We landed in JNB on time at the insane hour of 03:40.
It was chilly (7C) and raining when I landed in JNB. A plethora of online forums warned how South Africa required either a negative PCR test or COVID19 vaccination certificate (both must have a verifiable QR code). Yet no one cared about any of that stuff as I waltzed through the arrivals formalities. They demanded a contact tracing form, and were performing thermal scans (as if 2.5 years of pandemic hadn't already proven how ineffective this check was for detecting infection), but that was literally it. I got stamped in with a minimum of interaction, and was set free to wander the country. Of course, since it was barely past 4am, I had literally no where to go. I found an ATM, then found a quiet corner to wait. First, was hopefully the 6am opening of the cell phone shops, to get a SIM card. That went smoothly at 6am. The 4x4 rental agency was supposed to pick me up at 7am. At 6:30, there were the usual cast of people hanging around the arrival hall exit (hotel drivers, tour company drivers, random weird friends/relatives, taxi mafia, etc), but none with my name. I glanced around every few minutes, and at 6:45am saw my guy.
It was pouring rain, and chilly, so the walk to the car kinda sucked. The drive to their office took nearly 30 minutes because they are north of the city, and the airport is south, and also it was raining hard. Once I got there, I finished the paperwork and got the grand tour of the truck. Its not unlike any of the other Hiluxes that I've driven before, but there were subtle differences too. It was nearly 9am by time the all of that was done and I drove away.
Nearly the entire drive east through that chunk of South Africa was in intermittent, cold rain on a great quality 6 lane highway. There were occasional electronic tolls too, but the truck had a transponder for that so I didn't have to pay out of pocket. The scenery was quite different from what I expected. Lots of farm land, with broad, mostly flat valleys. There were occasional rest stops, but not many. Around mid day, I stopped for lunch at a rest stop with a Nandos. It was pretty good, but it took a while for the food to be ready, plus I needed time to eat it. I regretted spending so much time on lunch later in the day.
As I neared the Eswatini border, the rain started to clear, and the terrain got much more hilly. It was nearly 1pm when I reached the South Africa/ eSwatini border. The parking area was packed. Exiting South Africa was a breeze, and they stamped me out without saying a word. For eSwatini, everyone was directed to a pandemic "test" room. I assumed they wanted to see my vax paperwork but they could not care less. Instead they were writing out the gate tickets that would grant people freedom to drive away instead of turning back. I also had to pay a road tax. Once I reached the gate, the guy insisted on seeing every detail of what was stored in the truck, and questioned why I wasn't camping in eSwatini too. Finally freedom, I drove onward. eSwatini is very hilly, and the road was twisty, yet in good condition. The sky also started to clear.
It was nearly 3pm by the time I reached the eSwatini / Mozambique border. Much of the delay was due to construction, and road congestion in the town of Manzini. This border was super dead. It was me and 1 other family. Initially there was no one working the eSwatini immigration counter but then an older man popped out from some back room. I was stamped out of eSwatini in 5 minutes. I had to drove through no man's land for Mozambique, and it was dead as well. They barely spoke English, and forced me to complete a bunch of forms while attempting a conversation about the US state with the most wealthy residents. They stamped me in without much fuss. The vehicle paper work was next and a huge pain. Lots of copying data around. Despite that, I thought I was done after just 15 minutes. The gate guys also demanded to search the vehicle as well, and were oddly confused about why I brought a camera. But nope, still had to pay a road tax, special insurance in case I am at fault for damages, and get a SIM card for Mozambique. All that extra stuff took nearly 25 extra minutes, and that's when I realized that my day was falling apart, since it was almost 5pm, and daylight was fading rapidly.
I still needed to drive another 2 hours to reach my hotel in Maputo, plus find an ATM to get the local currency (the metical), and go shopping for future day's lunch food, plus dinner camping food. Of course, Mozambique is where my luck finally ran out, and road conditions were horrible (so many potholes), and there were armed police checkpoints. The final kicker was the sun rapidly setting. The remaining drive was excruciating, attempting to avoid pot holes, bad drivers, random people walking on the road, and annoying curious police checkpoints. Of course it was completely dark by the time I reached Maputo just before 7pm. I did manage to find a working ATM, but no supermarkets were open since apparently today was a national holiday.
My hotel is nice enough, I was too tired to look for a good place to eat plus translate the all portugese menu, and ended up getting a burger from a fancy mall food court next door.
I passed out around 9pm and slept like the dead until 4am, when I was wide awake for the day. I had an amazing shower (hot & high water pressure) and got breakfast at 6:30am. I checked out just before 7am. First stop of the day was the gas station across the street. Its a good thing they took cards, as filling up cost over \$80, since the truck has two tanks for extended range.
Google claimed about 7 hours driving time to reach Inhambane. The weather was beautiful, clear skies and 16C to start the morning. Traffic was fairly light and road was in relatively good condition for the first couple hours. Then they had toll booths (50 meticals, about 30 cents), and the roads got kinda crappy. At first it was random potholes, but not as awful as yesterday. Then there was no paved road at all . Where the paved road should have been was instead pristine graded gravel, with large tree branches strewn about to prevent driving on the good section. What I got instead was a crude, bumpy dirt track running parallel for many kilometers. Also, there were occasional sun showers ever so often, just to make that dirt into soupy mud. When the actual road did exist, it was ok, but not great. Around 10am I found a Shoprite supermarket in Xai Xai (yes, that's a town, its portugese). It wasn't the best supermarket, but I found what I needed, and they even took a credit card.
Throughout the day I passed a ton of police checkpoints, but they always waved me through. Until 11am when I crested a hill and saw them up ahead, and as I neared it was clear they wanted me to pull over. It was a fairly rural area, with little traffic. As soon I stopped I knew they were dirty, as they were ridiculously happy. They claimed that they clocked me going 119kph in a 100. I know that I absolutely wasn't going that fast, but I also knew that nothing that I said would change things. They demanded my license, and walked off to write up the ticket. It was 4000 meticals (around \$65), which is ridiculous, and I am sure was also the inflated foreigner price. While I was waiting, they also pulled over a South African car and accused them of going 145kph, which was apparently a 10,000 meticals fine. That driver was furious, got out of the car and proceeded to call them crooks, and was refusing to pay. I really wanted to see how this played out, but I had already wasted 15 minutes on this nonsense, and still had around 4 hours of driving ahead of me.
A few minutes further down the road I found a relatively isolated place to pull off, and I made lunch. Crunchy PB on wheat with a banana. it was fine. Later there were two more road construction zones (with the tree branch nonsense), including one behind a truck that was literally crawling along at around 7kph. At around 13:30 I reached the turnoff road for Inhambane. In addition to the road being in awful condition, it was so over grown on the sides that there was barely enough space for vehicles to pass each other (in either direction). I finally reached town at 14:25, almost 7.5 hours from when I departed Maputo.
The Catedral de Nossa Senhora da Conceição was pretty. I was hoping to go inside, but it was locked. There were also nice views of the waterfront. It was nearly 3pm when I finished, and I had a half hour drive over to Tofo Beach, where I would be camping. The place that I am staying, MozamBeats is a combination (tiny) motel, restaurant, bar & campground. Its down a sandy road, and as far as I can tell, I am the only guest. My campsite came with free wifi, a hot shower, and a picnic bench all for 300 meticals (about \$5). I made cheesy pasta for dinner, and retreated to the tent for the night.
I slept like the dead until around midnight, when I was awakened to the sound of rain. It rained sporadically all night. I was up for the day at 6:30am to find mostly clear skies, and everything outside was still wet. Packing up the tent (and its contents) took about 40 minutes. Not too bad, but it was the first time, so I was sorta figuring it out as I went. Its super windy today.
For the most part the roads were relatively good on my drive to Vilankulo. There was a little light rain a few times, and otherwise it was mostly cloudy but warm (high of 24C). I started seeing baobabs during the drive, and I ended up eating my lunch underneath one during the drive. A bunch of local women emerged from the forest to watch me eat. They said stuff too, but it didn't even sound like portugese so I just smiled a lot. they got bored after a few minutes and wandered off. Also outside the towns, its definitely quite poor, with thatched roofs, and people collecting, hauling or buying firewood, or sometimes huge sacks of charcoal. I passed over the Tropic of Capricorn too (there was a boring sign). I also saw many people selling bags of cashews along the side of the road.
And the damn police were in full force. The first time, he wanted to see my license and registration. He attempted to claim that my license expired until I pointed out the date, but then let me go. The second time they claimed that I was going 76 in a 60kph zone. However, it was definitely an 80kph zone, as the sign up ahead was the beginning of the 100kph zone, and the sign in opposite direction was 80. At first he demanded 1000M, but I told him this was an 80 zone. Then he asked if my car had a camera, and when I said no, he "offered" to reduce the fine to 500M instead. I was tired of this nonsense and agreed, but of course he never wrote the ticket and pocketed the money. I had read stories about the police corruption but was hoping that I would be lucky and not experience it.
Something was screwed up with electronic financial transactions today. Every ATM that I tried this morning was out of service (error message on the screen, not even accepting any cards), and the gas stations kept telling me that their card readers "had a problem". Then when I tried an ATM in the afternoon, they seemed to be working, but then failed with "there are no available services" after entering my PIN. After dinner I tried a gas station, and thankfully my card worked to pay the \$104 fill up.
I slept very well last night. there was more occasional rain during the night, but it seems sorta clear this morning.
At just after 8am a guy showed up to escort me to the boat to go snorkeling on the Bazaruto reef. In reality he pointed at a boat floating in the distance. Apparently there are no docks or piers, and everyone must wade out to the boat. Thankfully, the water was less than 2 feet deep the entire way, but still this was super janky. The boat was super small, and just 3 crew. Barely enough seats for 10 people crammed in together. At first it was just me. Then two women from Spain waded out. Then it seemed like we were departing, but nope. Another group of 6 needed to be picked up from the north end of town. We finally got under way just after 9am, for the 45 minute journey out to Bazaruto Island. The surf was rough. Huge white caps, swells, and very choppy. The island itself is a massive sand dune, a few hundred feet tall. We landed in a shallow cove where the water was less than a foot deep. Surprisingly, the island had a bunch of pristine stink chimney toilets, and a covered wooden deck with seats. Seems like someone spent a ton of money to make tourists happy. I went snorkeling as soon as we arrived, while everyone else wandered around the island. The reef was not that attractive, mostly just tan rocks. There were a lot of colorful fish darting about, mostly yellow & blue. It was difficult to keep up with the fish as the aggressive tide was coming in and pushing me backwards. After an hour I had enough, and went on the island to explore. I climbed the tallest dune for some great views of the entire island (its kinda big), and other islands and the Indian Ocean.
Lunch was surprisingly good. They grilled fish, calamari & chicken, with rice and a tomato-onion sauce. As we were eating lunch a storm swept through and dumped rain for 10 minutes. After lunch we went to Banguerra Island, which was about 10 minutes away. It was much flatter with bright white sand and a few lagoons. After spending about 20 minutes we got back on the boat and returned to the mainland. By this point (15:30) the tide had come back in, and I had a longer, deeper walk back to dry land.
Dinner was a bit of an adventure. The first place that I planned to go was not open. No clue if that's permanent, as the sign was still there. I also briefly got stuck in deep sand on the way there (as most roads in Vilankulo are sand). My 2nd choice didn't even exist any longer (no sign, no trace of it). My 3rd choice worked out, and I had grilled fish with chips at Leopoldina's. It was decent. If only I knew then, that this was going to be my last "normal" day for a while.
Days 6 and 7
I was up for the day at 5:30 and was on the road by 6:30. The first few hours were relatively easy driving. I did have two stupid police stops. For the first he demanded to see my passport questioned where i was going, then let me go. The second was just before a relatively large suspension bridge. Both 'normal' police and immigration police were there. The first guy didn't know any English. He called over another guy who questioned me, then asked for "help" with supplies. I told him that I needed everything that I had, but he was persistent. I had been keeping an empty plastic water bottle with me as a prop to show how i had nothing extra. Eventually he gave up and passed me to the immigration guy who demanded my passport, and spent minutes staring at random stamps before finally letting me go. The bridge was ridiculous. It was not open for traffic, and some Chinese company was in the process of building a new bridge. However i got to drive across a janky looking temporary (?) pontoon bridge, after paying a toll.
Not long after the bridge I reached the first road change of the day, which was surprisingly unpaved. I was a bit puzzled how an unpaved road would take less time than paved, but foolishly I trusted Google and continued. This was my first (and biggest) mistake of the day. I should have stuck with the paved road, even if it took longer, if i didn't expect or know the conditions of the unpaved road. Initially the road wasn't bad. It was hard packed clay or sand, bumpy in places, but there was a steady trickle of other vehicles. After maybe 40 minutes, I turned onto a different road (also unpaved). This one was in much better condition, very smooth and I wad making good time, and all seemed ok.
About 30 minutes later I reached a fork in the road. On the right the road continued, while on the left the road narrowed, was overgrown with grass, and appeared to enter a dense forest. Of course, Google wanted me to go left. This was my second mistake. I should have thought, this road is clearly not maintained, and looks like it rarely gets and traffic, and turned back. But i was dumb, and proceeded. Ignoring the tall grass down the middle, the quality of the road was not bad for a while. But the further I drove the more that I was convinced this was basically some bush track, and Google was as much of an idiot as I was for thinking this was a viable option. After an hour of not seeing any other humans, I came around a bend and saw a river, and what looked like a cliff where the road should be. I got out and walked ahead to scope out the conditions. It wasn't actually a cliff, but a steep, deep, sandy hill leading down to a shallow, mostly stagnant river. The drive down was fine, because gravity did most of the work. There were a bunch of logs at the narrow point of the river which kept the tires out of the water as I drove across. The first challenge was driving back up the bank on the other side. The road was steep and uneven. The first attempt failed because there wasn't enough traction. I enabled 4x4 but that still wasn't enough. I got out the sand ladders (which were zip tied for some stupid reason, so i also had to grab a bread knife to cut the zip ties), and placed them over the spot where the road was eroded. This time it worked (huzzah), and i made it to the top of the hill. I walked back, retrieved the sand ladders, and continued to drive. I foolishly assumed that was the big challenge for the day. I was such a fool.
Less than 30 minutes of driving later, I came around a bend to see a large, brown murky river with a fairly impressive looking steel bridge. I was kinda impressed to find such a nice looking bridge way out in the middle of no where. As i drove across at around 20kph, i noticed a lot (more) tall grass at the far end of the bridge, but foolishly assumed that it was more of the same grass that I had been driving through. Just as I was nearly at the end of the bridge, I saw the reality. Most of the road had been washed away after some storm, and a deep ravine/pit had been over grown by grass and plants. I slammed the brakes hard, but it was too late. The truck skidded off the end of the bridge, and straight into the ditch. The truck came to a stop at a very unnatural 45 degree angle, with the front left tire buried in tall grass and mud, the rear left sitting on the edge of the bridge, and the rear right tire dangling two feet above the edge of the end of the bridge. I got out of the truck, awkwardly, to inspect the situation, and it was bad. I attempted 4x4 Low with sand ladders, but the truck barely moved a foot. I leaned on the horn for a full minute, hoping to attract attention of anyone else in the area, but no one appeared. I waited 2 hours hoping another vehicle would come along, but no one ever did. It started to sink in that the only way that i could get help was to get to somewhere with a cell signal, walking. I looked at the maps that I had of the road on my phone, trying to figure out where the nearest town was, based on density of cross roads. It was a long distance in either direction, but seemed potentially closer if I headed north. I tried calling out and hitting the horn once more, and started to gather a bag full of stuff needed for the long walk (basic food, water, headlamp, power bank for my phone, umbrella, towel, hat). i changed into socks & sneakers since i felt they would protect my feet better. I left a note on the dashboard identifying myself, and the direction i was heading, with a contact number, in the off chance someone got there after i left. I ate a quick lunch, and started walking north.
The road continued to be the same overgrown mess, often with just 1 track visible. I periodically checked my phone map GPS to verify that I was on course. A couple hours in, I heard human voices in the forest and followed a trail in that direction. What I found was a primitive village (mud huts, goats), and two young women pounding grain, and an older woman with a baby tied to her back, tending a fire. I showed them a photo of the truck, and tried using google translate for portugese, but it rapidly became obvious that they only spoke their tribal language. Worse, they definitely had no means of helping me. I continued walking, but never saw any other humans that day. As sunset neared (around 5pm) i started pondering where to bed down for the night. I wanted somewhere with some visibility, so if someone or some animal approached, i would at least see them. Unfortunately i was in a forested area at that point and there weren't great choices. I found a flat, clear spot, laid down the towel as a 'bed sheet', and sat down as it grew darker. I ate a Cliff bar as dinner, drank some water, and laid down around 6pm, in complete darkness. Then the swarms of mosquitoes descended. I hoped they were the type that were only active at dawn & dusk, but no, they harassed me the entire night. Or at least whenever it wasn't raining. it rained a few times for several minutes. there were nocturnal random birds which made bizarre sounds throughout the night. I was awake far more than I slept. Even if i could ignore the mosquitoes, rain & birds, the hard dirt was impossible to ignore, and i could never get comfortable.
Dawn finally came around 5am, i packed up my stuff, and resumed walking. Since it rained an hour earlier, all the plants & ground were wet, which meant that i was soaking wet from the knees down. Eventually i checked my phone to get an update on my progress with an estimated walking time to the nearest real town, Bandua. It was 10 more hours walking away. I decided i absolutely had to get there that day, I would not sleep on the ground again. Even if it meant walking after dark, it would be worth it. The terrain gradually changed from forest/grasses to swamp. And got increasingly muddy and then there were pools of foot deep mucky water that I had to wade through. Obviously it destroyed my feet, socks & sneakers. It was now obvious why i never encountered any other vehicles. No one would want to attempt to drive through this mess. It also made me realize that the village with the women likely rarely went into any town, as its too far and too difficult. Around mid morning I encountered a lone guy up ahead on the trail. I flagged him and attempted to communicate my situation. He at least understood portugese, but since he was clearly walking, he couldn't do much for me other than confirm that the town of Bandua was in the direction that I was walking.
Eventually the road quality started to improve, and became a flat sandy road. Then I started to see people on bikes, then motorbikes. I flagged down one guy on a motobike and tried to ask him to drive me. After some awkward google translate, he refused and drove off. So I continued walking. A few minutes later the same guy droves back to me and changed his mind and agreed to do it. Off we bounced on a bumpy sandy road and he dropped me off about 20 minutes later in the center of Bandua. This was barely a town, but i finally had cellular service. I wandered a bit trying to figure out my next move. A random dude approached speaking good English, and I told him that I wanted to get to Beira. He said he can't do that but could get me to the next town, Guara Guara, and from there another moto driver would take me to Tika, and from there I could take a shared taxi (minivan/deathtrap) to Beira. Off I went to Guara Guara. About 10 minutes later he stopped at this traffic median full of moto drivers and handed me off to the next driver. This drive felt like it took forever. It started raining and I got soaked. After 40 minutes we got to Tika and he pointed me at the minivan, where I climbed in, with 18 other passengers. Other than being crammed in like sardines (maxed out with 23 passengers) the ride was ok. While riding I contacted Bushlore and attempted to start the recovery process. The trip took about 90 minutes and I got off a few blocks from my hotel.
My feet are in horrendous condition. Massive blood blisters, mosquito bites, swelling. I attempted to find an ATM but it was after 5pm and all banks were closed, and ATMs are inside. I went looking for dinner, and after a wild goose chase I ended up at a portugese place across from my hotel. the food was decent.
I slept like the dead until a nearby mosque did the sunrise call to prayer. I spent much or the day bouncing between various Whatsapp groups trying to find a viable solution to extract and recovery the truck. Lots of dead ends.
I also managed to find an ATM that worked, and got out about \$300 worth of cash.
In the early afternoon, I walked to a Nissan dealer, as Bushlore kept encouraging me to find a workshop that would have contacts for recovery. When I arrived there was a guy who spoke decent English and said he had a few potential contacts. After a few calls he said he found a guy who is potentially interested. He claimed that guy would swing by in around 20 minutes. 95 minutes later he arrived. After a ton of discussion in portugese and some translation, he agreed to do the job for about \$1000. I thought that was an insane amount in a country where most people earn that much in an entire month, if they are fortunate. I called Bushlore and ran it past them, and they thought it was reasonable. I gave my approval, and we hashed out the other details. They would pick me up at the hotel at 4am, and make the very long drive out to the truck.
For dinner, i returned to the same portugese restaurant across from the hotel. my feet hurt, and it was a short walk. also the food is decent, they speak english and there is outside seating. i got grilled octopus with potatoes. it was good.
I slept ok until 11pm, then was tossing a ton until got up for the day at 2:45am. I went down to the hotel lobby at 3:50 to find it dark and a guy sleeping on the couch. 4am came and went and the guy didn't show up. 4:10, 4:20, 4:40 and nothing. I tried calling and got vmail. I started to freak out. finally at 4:55 he called and claimed he would arrive in 5 minutes. of course he didn't show up for another 20 minutes. He apologized for being late but didn't provide any excuse. Granted, his English was super basic, but still. The truck looks like it may have been through a war. The bed was replaced by a tow truck hook. It was the driver, his friend, and me squeezed in the cab, with my backpack.
We drove out of Beira in the dark, and barely 15 minutes in, he got pulled over by the police. He jumped out with cash in hand, and returned a minute later.
Much of the rest of the drive was excruciatingly awful. The tow truck kept overheating like in a cartoon, with steam and water boiling over the radiator. they would add more water and then continue driving as if this was perfectly normal. Also the truck would randomly refuse to start without tons of effort. Plus, there was the hellscape that is the road. Mile after mile of nothing but huge potholes and craters large enough to swallow a car. One time they drove through a pothole too fast and there was a scary grinding noise below, and car started to shake violently. They pulled over and started ripping random metal wires and plastic from under the hood and tossing on the road. Amusingly that somehow fixed the problem.
Ten hours after departing we reached the turnoff where the unpaved road started. they drove super fast over the ironically smooth unpaved road. Then they reached the point where it turned into a single track. They did ok until the super sandy water crossing. Their truck had bald tires with no traction and they struggled to make any progress. After watching them try all sorts of stupid ideas, i ran out of patience, as sunset was rapidly approaching. I showed them how letting some air out of the tires improves traction, and sure enough, it worked. then they somehow got stuck in mud for several minutes, prolly also due to bald tires.
Just as the sun was setting (a full 12 hours after we left Beira) we finally reached the bridge & truck. Thankfully, the truck was untouched and still sitting in exactly the same position. The two guys sprung into action hooking up a winch and tow chains. But since their English was basically non existent, it was challenging to coordinate. I had to go in reverse and hit the gas at the same time that they had their truck pull. The first few attempts failed, but then it magically worked. the truck lurched back onto the bridge. it was completely dark at this point, but at least the truck was out of the ditch and seemingly drivable.
The return drive back to pavement was not fun. The dirt roads were difficult enough to follow during the day. In the dark I kept making wrong turns. When we reached the water crossing I made it through on the first attempt, with 4x4 enabled. They were completely stuck and demanded that I tow them through the sand. Had I not already successfully climbed the steep sandy hill, I would have agreed. but I was afraid I wouldn't be able to do it again while towing the damn tow truck. As they fought the sand, their engine kept overheating, or their battery would die for minutes at a time. We wasted over an hour with them running into nonstop problems. By 8pm, I hit my limit and gave them two choices. Either stay there and fight with their tow truck & the sand, or leave the tow truck and get a ride back to town from me. They started insisting 10 more minutes. I agreed, but their battery appeared to completely dead and their engine wouldn't start. They asked me to jump their battery. I would have to turn around, drive down the sandy hill to give them a jump, plus somehow back up the sandy hill. i told them no. it was ridiculous. i am paying them \$1000 to recover my vehicle, yet somehow I am responsible to recover theirs for free, while risking getting myself stuck all over again. Even if I jumped their battery, they still had bald tires, and no way to drive up that sandy hill. I told them that I was leaving, and this was their final chance to join me. They caved, grabbed their junk and got in my truck.
The remainder of the drive to civilization was dark and long. I did see a few owls and rabbits in the dark. It was nearly 10pm by the time that i reached pavement. I handed them the agreed upon payment and they had the audacity to demand more money because of the long drive. The previous day, I showed them where the truck was on a map when I initially met them and agreed on the fee. I refused to pay any more and asked them to leave the truck. They were super upset. I didn't care, I was tired and wanted this insanely long day to end. Once I got rid of them, I started driving north to find a place to sleep. There was not much out there. Just after 11pm, I found a lodge, but somehow it had no one there, yet power was on. I decided to just camp in their empty parking lot, and leave at dawn.
I slept well but was up for the day at 5:50am. It was surprisingly foggy for the first few hours. I packed up and was on the road by 6:25am. The theme of the day was potholes. I'd guess that 90% of the driving today was on some of the most horrendous potholes and truck swallowing craters. Despite that, I made fairly good speed. I finished retracing the road back up to Beira by 10am. Everything after that was new, and I was heading into Mozambique's north. Roads were generally worse, and it seemed like people were poorer. Far fewer cars on the road. Lots of people selling pineapples along the road. It was warmer too hitting 27C, and for the first time, zero rain and clear skies all day (after the fog burnt off). The police checkpoints up north were sad. Many of them spoke little to no English, and basically gave up once they realized that I couldn't understand them. Those who did knew English were asking/begging for food or drinks.
I am spending the night in the town of Caia. I chose it at lunchtime today when I wanted to finish driving as far as possible towards Malawi by sunset. The hotel I am in cost 1500M (\$24). Its not bad for one night. I got my own room, with AC and bathroom. No wifi though. I got dinner at this kinda sorta fast food place, where I had a burger, which was surprisingly decent (I regretted this later).
I awoke just after 5am, when some nearby mosque did their dawn call to prayer. I was on the road by 6am, for what should have been about 6 hours of driving to Malawi. It was very foggy, which made driving more difficult. I drove a long toll bridge crossing the Zambezi, but saw none of it, due to the fog.
About an hour later, I came to a road block where the police were sending everyone down a different side road as a detour. Trucks, however were either attempting u-turns, or just parking. This should have been my signal not to take the detour. Instead, I started what would become 12 infuriating hours of driving in a huge circle on the most primitive, scary, bad "roads" that I've ever seen in my life. The "road" where the truck was stuck just days earlier seemed like a modern freeway in comparison to what I experienced this day. The only obvious detour on the map seemed like a short cut to the Malawian border, so I assumed it was a good idea. However, over the course of the day, it became clear that Google had no clue these so-called roads were effectively glorified mountain bike trails through a dense a forest.
The first few hours weren't too bad, and it seemed like I was making good progress. While the roads were dirt & gravel, they still looked like real roads, albeit bumpy and muddy in places. Lots of friendly, waving locals everywhere. However as time went by, the road had degraded into a narrow dirt track, with broken bridges over deep grass, deep ruts several feet deep, and pudding like mud pits. At one point I had to drive across a fairly wide, but amusingly shallow river (less than 3 inches). Then around noon, I was about 20 miles from what should have been the end of all of this agony, when I finally exited the dense forest, and came upon a huge, fast moving river, with a washed out concrete bridge. I saw people riding small dugout canoes across the river. A crowd of locals congregated around me, and kept motioning to hire a canoe to cross. Eventually I managed to communicate that I needed to drive across, which triggered a lot of laughs, and one guy gesturing that the water depth was up to his shoulders. Definitely impossible to drive or continue. I had spent nearly 6 hours driving up here and it was clear there was no way forward. Yet I absolutely didn't want to turn back and repeat the scary awful road that I had just barely managed to survive.
I started to panic, as I absolutely did not want to turn back. That 'road' was sheer torture to drive, and retracing 6 hours of effort wouldn't accomplish anything. I studied the maps, and found a 110 mile route that would eventually get me where I wanted to be. But whether I'd make it there before the border closed at 6pm was starting to feel iffy. This other road was less horrible, but so damn long. Around 4pm, I was about 10 miles from where I needed to be when I reached a huge river overlook, without any bridge. I spoke to a guy with very rough English who seemed to say that the bridge was washed out by a storm years ago. The only alternative was driving back in the wrong direction yet again. But there seemed to be a shortcut route, which I showed to the guy, and he agreed was ok. I should have known better at this point but I did not, because I clearly do not learn from mistakes.
I drove, racing against the sunset. For a while, the road was decent, as the sun set, everything got a lovely pink glow. Then I turned down a steep, narrow, uneven, rutted trail with a massive 3ft deep rut. I saw lots of people walking up this road. Trying to drive the road was like some off road skills competition. Don't fall into the rut, don't descend too fast, drive on an angle, avoid sliding on mud. Then a bunch of guys started screaming "no ponte" and it hit me. There is no bridge crossing the river at the bottom of this hill. this meant, all of the insanity needed to get that far had to be repeated literally in reverse, in the dark. Somehow, I did it, and then it sunk in that I had to yet again retrace the last 90 minutes of driving. I basically mentally broke down at this point. I had been fighting awful roads for the past 12 hours and had nothing to show for it. I drove back for a while, but eventually stopped in a small village with people sitting around a fire. They approached, and surprisingly one of them spoke nearly perfect English. Turns out that I had parked in front of the village school house, and this guy was the teacher. I asked if it was ok for me to spend the night there, and he agreed. He even offered to make me dinner, but I politely declined. I wasn't going to take food from people living in mud huts. I setup my tent, and proceeded to cook my own dinner. I had a very curious audience of 6 or 7 people the entire time. I offered them my leftover cheesy pasta, which they seemed to enjoy while also being very confused. Once I cleaned up and retreated to the tent, everyone wandered off into the night, and it was quiet. I saw so many stars, and even the Milky Way. As bad and traumatizing as getting the truck stuck and walking to civilization had been just a few days earlier, this day felt so much worse. I literally could have never gotten out of bed that morning, and I'd likely have been in a better overall state than I was that night.
I had repeatedly grossly underestimated how horrendously bad the roads in Mozambique were. The "paved" roads, with all their potholes, craters and corrupt police checkpoints had become a welcome respite from the unreliable, dangerous, treacherous dirt tracks that criss-crossed the rest of the country. Now all of my attempts to get out of the country were ending in dead ends. Broken bridges, missing bridges, mud, deep sand, water crossings, impossibly steep hills, swamps. I was now nearly 48 hours behind schedule (and that was after giving up the last 4 days of my original Mozambique itinerary when the truck was stuck). Malawi was rapidly slipping away, and if I didn't get into the country soon, there wouldn't be any point in going at all.
All of the trip photos are posted HERE.
This post is part 1 of the "southeastern-africa-2022" series: