We knew driving across Mozambique was going to be tough, but I don’t think we quite knew what we were in for. Overall, Mozambique is not a touristy country. It has had quite a rough history with a long and bloody civil war that has only recently subsided. The infrastructure and economy have taken hit after hit since the country was given independence in 1975. Only recently has there been enough peace to start rebuilding infrastructure and focusing on tourism.
Most people that visit Moz, only stick to the southern half of the country, because this is where the best beaches are and you will find the only well developed tourist infrastructure. You can usually find someone who speaks English in these areas, but most of the locals only speak Portuguese and their local dialects. After you pass Vilankulos, its basically like heading into the wild west!
In the past Moz has had a reputation for having some of the worst corruption in Africa. We were told the border crossing would be quite long and taxing. People warned that we would be incessantly stopped on the roads and harassed until we paid bribes. But thankfully there has been a recent change in attitudes with the police. In just the months leading up to our trip, the police were heavily reprimanded for harassing tourists. Things had gotten so bad that tourists (particularly South African tourists) were avoiding the country and this was starting to devastate the economy. We definitely noticed the change because we had no problem at all crossing the border.
There are definitely road blocks throughout the country, and these get more frequent the farther north you go. However, there wasn’t much harassment or demands for bribes. In southern Moz, we got stopped about 4 times in a week. But once we passed into the northern provinces, we were getting stopped about 5 – 7 times a day! It was annoying because of the time it takes out of your day, however, the police were usually nice and just asked for a cold drink or a snack. If we said we didn’t have anything they would send us on our way.
We only had issues at the bridge crossing over the Zambezi river. The officer wanted to check the whole car and had us remove everything. He found my first aid kit that is packed with enough medications and supplies to handle most any condition you can think of. He demanded papers to give permission for having the medical supplies. He threatened to confiscate them. I was terrified because the contents of that box is probably worth over $1000 in medications and supplies that were quite difficult to collect. No way was I going to give them up!! What I have learned in Africa is that you have to be firm, stand your ground and do not show weakness. As long as you stay polite, stick to your guns, you will usually win the battle. So we basically packed up all our stuff and had a staring contest with him. We just kept repeating that we did not need papers and we would be continuing on our way. Eventually he conceded and let us go…. what a relief.
We heard roads were bad in Moz, but we thought people were just over-reacting. Our first taste of tough roads came right as we crossed the border. From the south African border to Ponta d’Ouro there is no road, just deep sand tracks. However, within the next few months a new road will be completed that links Maputo with the south African border. This will be a total game changer!
From Ponta to Maputo was a nice new tar road. They have almost completed the bridge to cross over the bay into Maputo, but we had to take the Catembe ferry. This was an interesting experience. We pulled up to the dock and had to figure out ther ferry procedure without being able to communicate with anyone. We waited for 2 hours before we could get on the ferry. Luckily Garrett was the first one to drive on – making parking easy. They pack the cars like sardines onto the boat and he is not very masterful with maneuvering the bulky landrover. Driving over the little bridge to get on and off was pretty nerve racking too.
It was smooth sailing up through Tofo until we reached Vilankulos. We got to the town at night and found that certain streets were completely torn up and impassable. It took us 5 different tries to find a passable route that would allow us to reach our lodge.
After Vilankulos the road disintegrates into a total mess. At first there’s just a few potholes causing annoyance. But when you enter the Sofala province, all hell breaks loose. You wonder how on earth could this be the nation’s main highway! The road looks like a war zone…and then you realize it actually was a war zone during the civil war. Central Mozambique around Gorongosa National Park was the epicenter for guerrilla warfare – which explains why it is in such bad condition.
The first day of this drive was the worst. I actually thought we were going to have to turn around and call off the rest of our plans for Mozambique. I even started considering alternatives like driving to the eastern border of Zimbabwe. With every jarring crash, my heart sank, I imagined the insides of the defender cracking and falling apart. I wondered how long until the car would fall apart and we would be stranded in the most dangerous part of Moz. Driving was like a game of frogger where you not only had to avoid the potholes but also had to avoid the oncoming cars careening unpredictably at you through the mine field of potholes. It was stressful for me just being in the passenger seat so I can’t imagine how horrible it was for Garrett as the driver. I don’t know how we managed to get through 2 full days of driving in these conditions. But somehow we made it.
Aside from the road conditions, another tough part about driving through central and northern Mozambique is that there are few cities and thus very few places to stay. You have to plan your route carefully and time it so that you aren’t stuck in a rural area when dusk hits. We used Tracks4Africa and the Drive Moz website as a resource for finding places to stay. We had trouble in a few spots where the places marked on the map didn’t exist. The worst was in Mocuba when we tried and failed at 3 different spots because they were either full or closed. We were left to drive around after dusk searching for anything that looked like a motel in a very scary looking town. In Mozambique they call hotels pensaos, but I didn’t know this at the time. I saw a big building with a restaurant that was labeled as a pensao. I walked into the bar and tried my very best to communicate with the bartender in Spanish and embarrassing hand gestures. I don’t know how he understood me, but I was able to secure a room above the restaurant for around $20. It was a very creepy place and I was terrified of leaving our car parked outback. But it all worked out fine and by some crazy stroke of luck that place even had free wifi!
Everyone highly advises against driving at night in Mozambique, but there were a few times where we didn’t have a choice. We got delayed because of the roads/car trouble and ended up having to drive 3-4 hours in the dark to make it to a safe place to stay. We never encountered any problems, but I know a lot of stuff could have gone wrong. We were very fortunate! We had a scare when we approached Montepuez around 8pm without any leads for a place to stay. The lodge that Tracks4Africa listed didn’t exist. We saw a church on the map and decided to take a chance and see if they would let us camp outside. We found some of the sisters outside and just as I was trying to figure out a way to explain camping to them…..a man appeared out of nowhere and collapsed at our feet! His face had been badly beaten and was dripping with blood. He had been attacked by men with a machete while riding his bike. Chaos ensued. Lots of screaming and shouting and trying to figure out what to do. The pastor got his car and drove the man to the police station and then the hospital. Thankfully there were no serious injuries.
We didn’t know what our next move should be…..was this a good idea to camp in an area where a guy just got mugged? We thought for a long time about our options…..and we basically had none. At least there were security guards, lights and open spaces at the church. If we went back out to the road and into town to search for another place to stay, I imagined the risks being much higher. So we stayed. Thankfully there was no problems and we awoke to the beautiful sounds of the church choir at 6am. The pastor was the only one at the church who spoke any English. He was very kind and soo happy to have us. He didn’t expect any money but we wanted to offer some. We gave him $20 as a donation to the church and were surprised that he directly gave the money to the security guard to thank him for guarding us overnight. $20 is a lot of money in Moz so we couldn’t believe he just handed over all of it!
Things weren’t so bad making the final haul to Pemba. The scenery became quite beautiful around Nampula with scattered karst like cliffs sprouting up in all directions. We ran into a large political rally in Nacala which was a bit nerve racking. All the violence in Moz tends to stem from rivalry between the opposing Frelimo and Renamo parties. Luckily it was a peaceful rally and only lead to some traffic jams.
From Pemba there are two choices of roads to get to Ibo Island. The shorter route has a very rough road that we were advised to avoid in the rainy season. We did a longer route, which offered a tarred road for most of the way and gave us no issues. However, on the way back from the islands we had an unexpected disaster. In the middle of the national park the engine cut out. It would start and then just die. Garrett reviewed all the obvious potential problems but everything looked fine. By some stroke of luck, we had cell service and were able to call his mechanic friend in South Africa. Together they deduced that something was wrong with the starter. Garrett pulled out the ignition and attempted rewiring everything by trial and error until he got it to start! He hotwired the ignition and we made it all the way to Malawi like that!
We chose to get to Malawi by driving the northern route across the Niassa province, mainly because we didn’t want to have to repeat the awful road we already traversed through central Mozambique and we wanted to see a different part of the country. We knew the roads were bad and potential impassable if the conditions were rainy. It hadn’t rained in over a week so we decided to take our chances.
The landscapes were dramatic and breathtaking – but we definitely had to pay the price for taking this risky route. The road from Marrupa onwards was not really a road at all! It was just a rocky dirt track that cut across farmland. There were large ditches, ravines and huge muddy pools. It made us look back fondly on the pot holed roads of central Moz! We got semi stuck a few times but managed to get ourselves out. Then we made a stupid mistake and drove through the middle of a pool instead of following previous tracks – this is a key rule that we had to learn the hard way. Even if it looks dry around the pool – you should always follow the previous tracks! Never try to go around or to the side because its usually a hidden soggy mess!
So we finally did ourselves in and got really really stuck. But like magic, about 7 local guys appeared out of the surrounding corn fields to help. They shoveled out the mud to allow Garrett to put down sand tracks. They banded together to push the truck and we were able to break free from the mud. We had gathered an audience of about 15 people and everyone cheered! We gave them the equivalent of less than $10 and some Fanta as a thank you and they acted like we had given them $100. Mozambique is incredibly poor and this area is like the poorest so even $1 is a lot of money.
We made our way onward slipping and sliding through the puddles. Soon we came to a combi that had gotten itself stranded in a large pool. We were pretty anxious about trying to pull him out because our truck was not in the best of conditions, but obviously we had to try to help! Pay it forward right! Thankfully we got him unstuck and the road returned to tar shortly after.
The road got really bad again on the stretch from Lichinga to the border. If it had rained during our drive through Niassa we would never have made it. We could have been stuck for days. Thankfully we had no further trouble and made it to the border. Like the flip of a switch once we crossed into Malawi the roads transformed into well laid tar. What a relief! Although we had made it past the worst roads, we would continue to deal with damage done to the car in Moz for the rest of the trip.
Driving Mozambique is not for the faint of heart, but I am grateful for the opportunity to have seen the incredible raw beauty of every different corner of the country. Out of the 10 provinces in Mozambique, we visited 9! I loved the people, the architecture, the history and most importantly the endlessly changing landscapes. We will certainly be talking about this most wild adventure for the rest of our lives. Mozambique we will definitely be back – but next time we’ll be focusing on our favorite areas around Tofo.