Quelimane is a seafaring city about half way up the 2,500km length of the Mozambique coast. The capital of the Zambezia region it is an infrastructure hub and has a busy feel about it from first light to late in the evening. Just over 300km northeast is the small border town of Milange which is the last stop before crossing the border into Malawi. I took this trip a few years ago and to say it was memorable would be an understatement.
The journey stands out for a few reasons. Firstly, for the modes of transport I ended up using and secondly because this was my first experience of harder African travel. I had taken Chapas or private minibuses along the coast from the nation’s capital Maputo. While often overcrowded and very cramped I was ever only on for a few a few hours before disembarking and getting the blood flowing in my legs again. The trip as far as the birder with Malawi was a little less travelled by these public buses and I had heard that the roads were so bad that only more sturdy and able vehicles like trucks made the trip.
As I sat on my Chapa in Quelimane station just after sunrise I wondered a little anxiously what the day ahead had in store for me. Buses only go when full and I watched the empty seats ahead of me slowly fill before we finally departed north-easterly in the direction of the Mocuba, a town 100km away and where the bus would be dropping me off as it stayed on the paved route directly north.
We made good progress there I thought to myself as the driver let me off at the turnoff towards Malawi just outside of Mocuba. It was just after 11am and I felt confident of quickly getting a lift towards the border.
In the meantime I settled in at the junction waiting to flag something down. Minutes passed and I put my backpack down as a seat. Traffic was coming in my direction along the paved road but it continued that way. The occasional rugged 4×4 turned off and stopped when I waved but they were not going as far as the border.
Feeling a bit peckish I bought a bag of nuts to eat from the hut at the corner of the turnoff. Luckily these were the type that needed to be shelled so I passed the time getting into each nut before having a moment of savoury satisfaction and starting the whole process over again.
Midday came and went as did 1pm. I started to think the transport to the border had already departed early in the morning and it might be the next day again before any more goes.
I’ll give it until 2pm then get a place to stay in Mocuba and try again tomorrow I thought to myself. I didn’t really want to be travelling at night if I could avoid it and given the fact that the border was 200km away along what looked like a bad road I thought this was the best option.
Just as I was about to give up hope a truck came from the direction of Mocuba and slowly turned off. It was one of the large tipper type trucks that carry sand or gravel but instead of carrying building materials it was full of people, lots of people.
I waved and the truck slowed down and then stopped. After I had established it was going to the border I jumped into the back to join well over fifty others with baggage and all kinds of belongings.
Immediately I was ushered into the centre area of the trailer where it was mostly women and children sitting or crouching on belongings. Most of the men sat around the sides resting their behinds on edge of the trailer in what looked uncomfortable and dangerous in equal measure. They swayed and moved with the rhythm of the truck counterbalancing each jerking motion to stay poised in their positions without looking like it was the slightest effort. They had probably been using this type of transport for years and were well practised at it but it made it no less impressive.
I on the other hand was finding it hard enough to keep seated on my backpack. Because space was so tight I was half sitting half crouching a lot of the time. About 2 hours in the road got even worse, so much so that the truck was reduced to walking pace to navigate some parts of the road. In the worst sections the truck would bounce so much that I was lifted into the air and plonked back down onto my backpack and the floor around it. I started to brace myself when the truck slowed because I knew what was coming but knowing what was coming made it worse in a way.
The weather started to get a bit more temperamental the closer we got to the mountainous region nearer the border. One minute there would was strong sunshine and dust being kicked up from the wheels of the truck, the next it was heavy rain. When the rain started a tarpaulin was unrolled and stretched over everyone which kept the worst of the deluge from us.
As the evening drew to a close I saw no sign of any towns, only the occasional light of a house in the dark and wondered when we would reach the border. Border towns are dicey at the best of times and arriving late at night was one scenario I didn’t like but was now one I couldn’t avoid.
I should have cut my losses and stayed in Mocuba for a night I thought to myself as we bounced around in the dark in the direction of the border.
The road did smooth out towards the end of the trip and the pace quickened but it was still after midnight before we rolled into the bus station to disembark the truck. Mocuba was dimly lit by a few street lights but I couldn’t make out any hotels on the way in. I asked the driver and few more people about accommodation and they either didn’t know or couldn’t understand me. I lingered at the bus station for a few minutes trying to think of the best course of action and as everyone else started to drift away to where they were going I decided it was time I did the same.
I walked out onto the main street and could only see one man and he was approaching me.
“Hotel,” he said.
“Yes,” I replied.
He beckoned me to follow him. Unsure of what else to do I just followed him down the main street and left onto a side street. About 100 metres down there was a hotel and was I happy to see it.
I gave the good Samaritan a tip for delivering me safely and asked the owner about a room. He spoke good English and showed me a tidy room with a TV and bathroom. He told me the price and I agreed as I was in no position to negotiate.
“Have you looked in the mirror?” the owner asked.
“No,” I answered but guessed from the question that it may be a good idea if I did.
I was taken aback by my appearance when I saw myself. I always wear a thick layer of sun cream when I’m in a hot country and back then I had some real heavy duty stuff that gave your skin a greenish tinge when you first put it on. Apart from protecting me from the sun it made me really sticky and all the dust being blown up during the day stuck directly to me.
I got the hotel owner to take photo and I put on a deliberately grumpy expression which made the snap even better.
Whenever I see this photo now I am reminded of my real introduction to African travel. A combination of unpredictability, great people, wonderful scenery, hard roads and adventure.