You buy everything on the street in Mozambique

All the car spare parts shops are painted egg yolk yellow. The plastic bags contain cashew nuts. The white liquor is palm wine, the orange bottles contain peri-peri. There is charcoal in the blue and white sacks.

I missed the best shots: A lady carrying an axe on her head, sideways, with the blade over her shoulder (coronal section). Another with an adze balanced front-to-back on her head, with the metal hoe just in front of her face. A GS4 security guard at NED Bank in Maxixe who carried a massive pump action shotgun. A lady frying bacon in a park, with students queueing up to buy sandwiches for their lunch.

Finally, some street art in Inhambane.

Adventure to Ihla de Inhambane

P1090583The double sea kayak just didn’t want to go in a straight line. Robin was the powerhouse in the rear, I was up front, trying to establish a nice gentle rhythm with some steady, regular strokes. The rudder’s wiring had been disconnected, so it should have been Robin’s responsibility to steer. But he was more interested in pulling the paddle through the water as strongly as he could. He favoured his left side, so we were moving to the right, to starboard.

“I hate kayaking,” he said. “This always happens, I go round in circles.” I confined my paddling on the right side, to counter this clockwise motion. The other girls in our party seemed to be doing really well, without anything like effort we were expending. At least the sea in the bay was calm and the visibility was good. I could see the two sandbanks ahead and the channel between them. Beyond the sand, there was a fringe of mangroves around Ihla de Inhambane, where we were going to have lunch.

We beached on the sandbank and changed positions. There was no support for my back and I was getting painful cramping spasms in my left leg. So we switched places again, but this made matters even worse. Finally, the guide gave us his kayak. This actually had a functioning rudder, but it was loaded with all our provisions on board. The heavy dry bag, containing our cameras and electrical gadgets, was fastened to the top of the kayak with elastic ropes, making us unstable. Robin kept trying to take video and photographs with his Go Pro camera on a selfie-stick, making us even more unstable.

The current between the sandbanks was vicious, and predictably, the kayak flipped over. “I’ve lost my Go Pro,” Robin said. “And my sunglasses.” I dragged the kayak onto the sand and rummaged around in my bag for some swimming goggles. I swam out to the spot where we had capsized and dived down to look for Robin’s camera and sunnies. The undertow was so strong that it was dragging me out to sea. The Go Pro was a Gone Pro. But Robin didn’t want to give up. It wasn’t so much the camera, but he didn’t want to lose precious recent video footage and images on its SD card.

During this drama, the girls were collecting sand dollar shells, known here as pansy shells. We should have been having a snack on the sand bar, but our bread was soggy and the biscuits had turned to porridge. The fish enjoyed our mid-morning snack.

Wisely, we chose to make the rest of the journey by dhow. More precisely, it was a cargo badan. The captain tied the kayaks to the stern, set the patched lateen sail and we left for the island. It was low tide by now, so we had to walk 250 metres to a gap in the mangroves to get ashore. Chief Eric greeted us and started preparing lunch. A guide showed us around the island. We visited the Methodist and Catholic churches, but the health centre and school were deserted. It was 1pm on Friday; the nurses and teachers had left for the weekend on the mainland.

Lunch was ready when we returned to the chief’s compound. It was a bit of a crab and carb-fest: chips, rice, pasta and bread. Eric also served scallop soup and a spicy chicken stew. The vegetable was a porridge of kale and crushed groundnuts, called matapha, which was very tasty. As we ate, there was a peal of thunder. We stopped chewing and looked at each other, thinking, “Did everyone else hear that?”

We were surrounded by tall coconut palms, so could only see a small patch of sky. There was no inkling of the dark, malignant cumulus clouds piling up to the north-east. Nevertheless, we decided to pack up and get back on the dhow as soon as we could to return to Barra on the mainland.

As we walked to the water’s edge, it was clear that a major storm was brewing. The clouds on the horizon had turned dark blue. There were forks of lightning stabbing down from the sky. The wind was picking up and dhows were scurrying back to the shore. It started to rain, icy sleet which stung my face and exposed limbs. A Danish couple got on board their dhow to try to escape, but after a few minutes, it gybed when the captain rounded into the wind too far and almost capsized. They returned to the shore and we abandoned our plans to sail, choosing to sit out the storm back at Chief Eric’s compound.

We were soaked to the skin and cold. The chief arranged for a fire in a palm-frond roofed gazebo for us to warm up. We tried to dry our towels and flimsy beachwear, while Mozambique jazzy pop music blared from a boom box with flashing lights. Eric showed us some of his dance moves. One lad managed to dance while sitting in a chair. A crowd of locals gathered around to check us out. We were plied with drinks and snacks of shellfish. I now know how to cook a blue swimmer crab; just throw it on the fire until the shell turns dusky pink.

Two hours later, the storm had moved south but it was still too dangerous to try to cross the bay. We telephoned Tofo, but they could not launch their zodiac inflatable motorboats. The lodge at Barra had sent all their sailing staff home for the afternoon. We were going to have to spend the night on the island. Marooned.

Chief Eric rubbed his ample belly and said that we were fortunate. He had two wives, and the first wife was away on the mainland seeing relatives. He offered us the use of her house, which we gladly accepted. We were shown to the toilet facilities – there was a special place for number 2s. Number 1s you just did anywhere away from the huts.

The storm veered back north, towards the island. Eric cooked dinner for us, exactly the same food as we had for lunch. We sat around the fire again, listening to pandza and marrabenta until the boombox batteries failed. It would have been wonderful to hear an Inhambane xylophone (mbila) group, but there were none on the island. Someone produced a bottle of Coca Cola and two small bottles of local rum called “Two Punches”. I wondered if this was because of the first hit you got when you drank it, followed by a second blow from the inevitable hangover the next morning. (How do you say “Cuba Libre” in Portuguese?)

One of the locals came and sat next to me, trying to make conversation in Bitonga. He was suffering from a mental illness, explained one of Eric’s family. I wonder why he came to sit next to me? I am not claiming that I exude empathy, but perhaps he could tell that he would not get the cold shoulder treatment. It is great to see how inclusive, tolerant and supportive small communities are in developing countries.

We turned in at about 10pm, some sleeping on mats sharing a blanket, and as the eldest in the crew, I got the marital bed. Most of us managed a few hours sleep until the roosters started crowing at 4am. I was up and about by 4:30. My clothes were still damp when I dressed.

The boatmen got the dhows ready, rigging the sail and hauling up the anchor. We dragged the craft into deeper water and clambered aboard. It was 4:50am, not yet dawn, and the air was completely still. We were becalmed. The boatmen produced two long bamboo poles from the bilge and started punting us away from the island. For a long time, Chief Eric waved us goodbye from the shoreline as we inched away going embarrassingly slowly. By the time we got out into the channel, the bamboo poles could not reach the seabed, so we used kayak paddles for propulsion. After an hour or so, the wind picked up and we made slow headway over to the mainland.

It was high tide, so the pickup truck was parked a mile away from where we made landfall. By now it was 7:30am and the sun was starting to get hot. We drove back to Barra in the back of the bakkie, exhilarated by our adventure.

Just think of what might have happened if we hadn’t spent half an hour searching the seabed for Robin’s Go Pro; we might have left earlier and could have been caught in the middle of the bay in a tremendous storm. We were already aware that eight local ladies had been drowned three days previously, when they were picking cockles from the sand flats as the tide came in. Only three bodies had been recovered by the time we left for Swaziland. Eric was correct; we were fortunate.

Moving in Mozambique

The most common form of transportation in Mozambique is the pickup truck. The idea is to pack in as many paying customers as you can. It doesn’t matter if they are going to market or church. Perhaps it is safer if they are all crammed in like cattle.

To be fair, when they do transport cattle, there is a cage on the bakkie.

If you want a bit more luxury, you can go by coach, but you have to be able to tolerate the garish colour scheme. Or you can just lie on a mattress in the back, holding on tight when the pickup goes around corners. If you want a better view, just climb on top of some massive logs.

Another way to get around is by kombi. It can get packed. The general rule is that there is always room for one or two more. Plus their chickens. And a sack of rice. Oh, and some barracuda. There is no concept of personal space in Mozambique. It is a frotteur’s delight.

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This is the kombi I took to go to Inhambane. Additional passengers have to lie across the back of the seats. I counted 23 people (excluding the driver and conductor) in this Toyota. The floor of the kombi was flexing, especially when we went over rough stretches of road. There was no functioning suspension at all. At one point, I felt we would be “doing a Flintstones”.

The kombi waits at the terminus while it fills with passengers. It goes when it is full. Board the kombi early and you get a better seat, but usually this means sitting cramped in the heat for 20 minutes. The alternative is to let the conductor know you’re a potential customer, and stroll around for a while before getting aboard. But if you leave it too late, you may not get a seat. I was ushered to the back of the kombi with a mother and three children. She kept the infant on her lap, feeding him biscuits, and plonked the two year old on my knees. The child didn’t bat an eyelid, and just started playing with the hair on my forearms. She then went to sleep, clutching a fistful of biscuits so tightly that they crumbled onto my trousers.

To cross the bay, you can take an ancient twin-hulled ferry. It must have been manufactured in Greece because the safety instructions were written in Greek. To avoid overcrowding, you get numbered tickets which are sold at the quayside. With such a large superstructure (windage), the ferry can only make slow progress against the wind. If the current is against it, progress is even slower. It was blowing a gale when I crossed to Maxixe. As a safety measure, someone had removed the louvres on the window and bashed out the glass. I had secured a window seat and so got drenched by spray. The engines were going hell for leather and belching out black diesel smoke which blew back into the boat through the windows. Then I realised why it had been so easy to get a window seat.

Strangely enough, there are granny-carts, but they have to keep to the road and it’s advisable to wear a crash helmet. Perhaps it is best to stop worrying, trust your luck and let the driver take the strain. Note the caption on the back of this kombi – “No stress”

Inhambane – Terra de Boa Gente

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Over 500 years ago, the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, sailed through a gap in the sandbanks protecting Inhambane Bay from the breakers of the Indian Ocean. He took on provisions and was so impressed by the friendliness of the locals that he called it “Land of the Good People”. Five hundred years before him, ocean-going dhows from the Persian Gulf had visited the area to trade in ambergris (whale gallstones), cotton and pearls. A Portuguese settlement, complete with Jesuit Mission, was established in the mid 16th century. Indian traders controlled the trade in slaves and ivory. Following the establishment of Lourenco Marques (Maputo) as the capital of Mozambique, Inhambane’s fortunes declined. It is now a charming, sleepy backwater. It has a mixture of old colonial houses and newer Art Deco or “Streamline Moderne” architecture gently corroding and crumbling away.

The church seen behind the row of Tuk-Tuks and on the square is Our Lady of the Conception, built between 1854-1870. I didn’t climb up the rusting metal ladder to the bell tower for a view of the city. The church was renovated with help from the Irish Government a few years ago.

This is the Hoffmann House, formerly a private dwelling, which became a posh hotel called the “Carleton”. It was built with stone from the Isle of Mozambique, wrought iron from Italy and ceramic tiles from France.

The Old Mosque dates back to 1840. I like the crenellated doorway. The other mosque is larger and more recent. Both mosques and church are close to the bay.

P1090413This fine building was constructed by the splendidly-named Father de Santa (no, nothing to do with Christmas). It was a girls’ school and has now been renovated as the Telecoms Office.

There are some other old houses on the shoreline, such as the captain’s house. Many are in a poor state of repair, but some are being renovated. Can you spot the roofer in this photograph?

There is an old Mercado, where you can buy the usual tourist tat, such as a radio embedded inside a coconut, lots of straw baskets, wood carvings and rag rugs. Shopping is certainly a very colourful experience.

The local museum is definitely worth a visit, with dusty books relating to colonial times, sepia photographs and the sort of brik-a-brak you might find at an English car boot sale.

I particularly enjoyed looking at the Art Deco/Streamline Moderne architecture. The main street is broad and pleasant, with pollarded trees. The Railway Club (memories of the Wheeltappers and Shunters’, anyone?) has fallen into disrepair with the closure of the railroad.

While leaning over a wall to take a photograph of a rooster on a parapet, a guard armed with an AK-47 gave me a stern look. I was lucky not to have my camera smashed.

Tofo Beach

When I booked the trip, I decided to pay extra for a single room, rather than sharing a dormitory at Fatima’s Backpacker Hostel. I was disappointed. The single room was dark and dingy, smelling of stale marijuana, with bare concrete brick walls and one energy saving light bulb. Suddenly, the unisex dorm seemed more attractive, but luckily, my room key didn’t work, so I was upgraded to a pleasant, airy room with an ocean view and a double bed. I even had my own verandah with two deckchairs and a hammock.

The bathroom was cramped. There was a saloon-type door, which couldn’t open fully because it hit the basin. And sitting down on the toilet was tricky as you had to tuck your legs under the sink. There were two unlabelled shower taps on the wall, but turning one didn’t work. The shower stream was prostatic, but at least it didn’t wet the toilet paper. The walls were decorated with what my mother would call “boudy”, random bits of crockery, cemented into an abstract mosaic.

The floor of my room was smooth brick. I had two fans and a mosquito net, some wicker furniture and a bedside light. There were some sepia photographs on the wall, showing Portuguese children gambolling in the waves on the beach, the Nautica Club, an old Chinese general trading store and a view of the main street in Inhambane from the cemetery. Compared to the first room, it was luxurious.

The evening meal was fish and chips. The fish was small, bony and deep-fried. There was very little flesh on it. The chips were pale and flaccid. The salad looked nice but concealed a dead fly. At least, it looked dead. I turned in early as the rest of the party wanted to party. My room wasn’t far enough away from the sound system, and the bass kept pounding away until midnight.

I woke up at 5:30am with the sun streaming through the window. Dawn was just before 5am. I walked along the beach, past the headland and took in the panorama. It was picturesque, deserted, undeveloped and lovely. There was hardly any plastic detritus; the sand was so clean it squeaked as I walked over it.

The weather forecast was poor for the end of the week, so Liquid Dive Adventures advised us to take our Ocean Safari today. We, sorted out mask, snorkel and fins, then listened to the briefing. The ancient tractor hauled the zodiac inflatable boat down to the sea. I was amused by the botched wooden housing around the tractor’s engine, presumably to protect it from seawater. The team launched the boat, turned it to face the open sea and we walked it into deep water. Scrambling aboard was more difficult than it looked. We hooked our feet under the loops on the floor of the zodiac, grabbed the lanyards at the side of the boat, and the captain manoeuvred us through the breakers. As the sea became calmer, he gunned the engine and we shot off across the waves. It was more terrifying than Alton Towers.

We were searching for whale sharks, manta rays, humpback whales and dolphins. The dolphins found us first and started playing around the boat. This is unusual behaviour for Tofo dolphins; they usually tease humans by swimming away as soon as we enter the water. We all jumped in and were surrounded by 15-20 adults. They were curious and snaked past us less than two metres away. If you stayed quiet and held your breath, you could hear them clicking and squeaking.

Occasionally, a dolphin would dive down deep into the dark blue, out of sight for a few seconds and then come screaming back to the surface, trailing a cloud of exhaust – dolphin shit. It was truly magical. Even when you had to swim through the cloud. Some of our minders had Go-Pro waterproof cameras and they recorded all the action.

We moved on to look for whale sharks, feeling that our luck was in. We saw a single humpback whale on the horizon, but it was the end of the season for them. Most had already departed for the Antarctic Ocean. Our captain scanned the surface of the sea looking for subtle nuances of shadow and light which might indicate a whale shark, but despite combing their usual feeding grounds, we saw nothing. There had been no sightings since the end of September, so we were out of luck.

In tourist literature, Tofo has been described as the “Mecca of Whale Sharks”. But as it gets more popular, the whale sharks move away to quieter areas. The holiday period of December 2014 was so busy with boats and jet skis that no whale sharks at all were seen in January 2015.

After about three hours, we returned to Tofo. The captain eased past the outer breakers and idled the twin Mercury engines, waiting for a suitable wave to ride to beach the boat. He told us to hang on and then opened the throttle. We hit the beach so fast that the boat left the sea. It was exhilarating.

The next morning, I was up at dawn and walked along the beach to Barra for three hours. I met a few spear fishermen on the beach, a crab and several skitty sandpipers. It was beautiful and serene.

I couldn’t help but be disappointed by not seeing a whale shark. This was the sole purpose of my trip, so I arranged for another Ocean Safari three days later. No luck then, either. There was no point in moping about miserably; the trick to happiness is to celebrate the good things, to concentrate on the positives. The cloud’s silver lining was the pod of dolphins.

Mercado do Peixe, Maputo

The Maputo Fish Market is supposed to be a tourist trap, but visiting it early on a Saturday morning, there was not a tourist to be seen. The attraction is to choose your fresh seafood from one of the stalls, have it prepared and then cooked at a restaurant on the northern side of the market. It sounds idyllic, but it omits to mention the pack of feral children wanting to sell you peanuts, look after your car and begging you to come to their restaurant, which is always the best.

Even when you get ripped off, it is still great value for excellent food. Some tips: stingey people suggest bringing your own scales to weigh the fish. Bargain ferociously and wisely. Once you have chosen the best restaurant, it is virtually impossible to ensure that you eat exactly what you bought, unless you stand over the cook in a sweaty, basic kitchen.

I had none of this excitement as I was with a couple of locals. We bought some clams to steam with white wine and garlic at the beach house, ameijoas con alho. They were delicious.

The fish looked extremely fresh, with bright eyes and iridescent scales. The prawns were huge and the crabs still twitching, but red snappers were the most impressive. Just as I moved in for a close up photograph of the clams, one of them squirted a jet of rejected seawater at my lens. Getting its own back, I suppose.