We entered Mozambique at Espungabera and it was all very easy once again, although the customs official did insist on searching the van and declaring that we had “too much beer” – hint hint!
We took to the road heading for the coast and stopped one night in a town buzzing with life. We parked up in a hotel compound in the centre of town and soaked up the very “African” atmosphere around us: water being hauled up in buckets from a well, a massive pot heating up on the open fire in the middle of the yard, people coming and going, chatting, shouting, laughing, market stalls, tin shack shops, fruit sellers with large bowls of pineapples perched on their heads, huge trucks parked up along the street. This town was clearly a major stopping off place for truckers.
The road was appalling – potholed tarmac, the worst kind of road surface (after corrugations) and incredibly hard work for Bruce to navigate as he had to concentrate 100% on the road ahead, dodging and swerving round massive holes in the road. It is an impossible task to avoid all the holes, so Buster was bucking and rearing like a bad-tempered stallion, throwing us and the contents of the van all over the place! However, the road improved once we got over to the coast and a bit further south (where the South Africans come up for their holidays).
The roads in Mozambique are not just full of potholes. Cattle, donkeys, sheep, goats, horses and dogs all wander around unperturbed by oncoming traffic. Slightly more worrying though is that there are children absolutely everywhere! There are schools in every village and the children literally swarm onto the roads. It has been similar in both Botswana and Zimbabwe but more so in Mozambique.
Also, the roadside sellers are prolific – avocados, mangoes, bananas, and pineapples piled on bowls and buckets perched on top of the heads of women and children, whilst cashew nuts are hung in plastic bags from trees by the side of the road like weird Xmas decorations.
Our first port of call on the coast was Inhassoro where we stayed in Goody Villas, the best campsite we found during our stay in Mozambique, an ideal location right by the beach in a beautifully kept garden. We stayed there for 4 days and the only reason we didn’t stay longer was because I started to form a dangerous attachment to a beach dog! What can I say? She knew how to pull on my heart strings!
Our plan was to have a couple of weeks “holiday” on the beach in Mozambique before heading over to Swaziland and that was exactly what we had, it was fabulous. However, there are places along the coast which are not so great, where the 2017 cyclone which hit this area has left evidence of the devastation caused, with skeletal buildings in abandoned lodges and near deserted villages.
When we started our travels we had a few “bucket list” sightings we would love to achieve, like Rhino, Leopard and (for me) the African Wild Dog – a beautiful animal which looks like it has been splattered in paint (hence the other name for it, Painted Dog) and with huge ears! Although we had not originally intended to visit Kruger, we decided it would be our best chance to spot these animals, so we headed off to Limpopo, which together with Kruger forms a trans-frontier park between Mozambique and South Africa. A slight hiccough with our visas for South Africa resulted in the border officials giving us 30 days instead of the expected 90 days, but we had to just hope we could sort that out on one of the other border crossings to come (Swaziland or Lesotho).
Kruger was very much as expected, ie busy, slick and very commercial (the park lodges were heaving with coach loads of people and reminded us very strongly of motorway service stations back in UK, only with worse food!). On a game drive, if one vehicle stops then everyone stops to find out what they’re watching. Not long after our arrival we saw some vehicles had paused so we duly pulled up alongside and I was thrilled to see a pack of Wild Dogs sleeping under a tree just by the edge of the road.
At the lodges there are Sightings Boards indicating where certain game has been spotted that day. We were pottering along the road when I said to Bruce “I think this is where a Leopard was seen” and his reply was “there it is”. By the time I looked over there was just a tail disappearing into the trees! We stopped and waited hoping for a reappearance (joined of course by half a dozen other vehicles) but he/she wasn’t going to indulge us.
The best moments are when we are completely alone and have a sighting all to ourselves. This happened for us twice, once on our first evening drive we headed down one of the lesser used tracks and spotted a couple of male lions sauntering slowly down the bank beside us. The second occasion on the next evening we were on a long drive taking to the back lanes once again and following a river. As we drove down a track to cross a dry river bed there were two white rhino making their way along the river bed towards us. It was a truly special moment to see these vast, powerful beasts at such close quarters! They came right up to have a look at us, a thrilling and nerve-wracking moment! Luckily they decided we weren’t worth worrying about and turned round to saunter off. Altogether we saw eight rhino on that game drive. Because of poaching, Rhino sightings cannot be put on the board so it was sheer luck we had decided to take that particular route.
When we left Kruger we stopped in a campsite on a golf club just outside the Park. It was here that we bumped into a lovely Dutch couple, Tom and Ans for the third time, having previously met them on two separate occasions at campsites in Mozambique! Travelling overland in Africa proves the expression “it’s a small world”. This was also where we had our first close up view of a venomous snake, a Vine Snake, that had got itself into the golf bag of one of the lady golfers having tea on the terrace! After much shrieking and shouting, the snake was slowly ushered out of the bag, along the railings, down the stairs and into the grass by the golfer brandishing a feather duster!
From here we drove straight down and into Swaziland. Our first destination here was the village of Bulembo up in the hills. As we drove up the heavily forested, steep, dirt road a thick fog blanketed everything from view so we could only hope it would clear before we made our descent tomorrow. Bulembo proved to be a fascinating place. From about 1936 until the late 1970s it was the site of the Havelock Asbestos Mine, employing 4,000 workers. The Mine was home to 10,000 people and ran very much as a self-contained town with its own schools, shops and hospital. When it closed the whole town was abandoned and frozen in time. It is now run by a religious charity who houses and trains orphans of the AIDS epidemic into the hospitality industry. Many of the houses have now been renovated and let out as holiday accommodation.
We camped on the lawn beside the building which had been the Sports and Social Club for the staff, with a pool, sports fields, braai area, a cinema(!) and the most glorious view from its terrace. This building has not yet been renovated and still retains such a strong air of colonial era that I could almost see, smell and hear the partying that must have taken place every weekend!
The workers had their own “beer hall” down the road where all the worker accommodation was, not quite so salubrious a location! In the morning we visited the excellent and really fascinating museum on the site of the old mine. We watched a rather cringe-making video made in the 70s to promote the Havelock Asbestos Mining business and it is frightening to think about all the workers exposed to the dreaded asbestos during all those years.
Luckily when we left Bulembo the fog had cleared and we had wonderful views of the stunning hills as we drove away. We didn’t know what to expect in Swaziland and have found it to be a delightful country with great beauty and unaffected friendliness towards visitors with no evidence of the antipathy between black and white that still remains evident in parts of South Africa.
We visited and stayed in the fabulous Malalotja Nature Reserve with its rolling green hills and rocky outcrops, a lovely hiking area, and home to Zebra and Blesbok, or Brian as we called the one who came to lie down next to the van in the campsite!
After a visit to a glass factory to watch wine glasses being blown and to replace one of our own broken beer glasses, we drove down the 5th most dangerous road in the world! Apparently it used to be the number 1 most dangerous but has been superseded by others now. It was pretty scary, and seemed never-ending, even in Buster who only goes a top speed of 50!
We stopped for shopping in Manzini, an industrial town in the centre of Swaziland which has its brothels marked on Maps.Me, the navigation system we are using, Handy to know!
Our last few days in Swaziland were spent on a fantastic working farm called Maduba. It is a dairy farm and also grows crops, fruit and Macadamia nuts (we had avocados dropping off the tree by our van). However, the farm appears to be run just to keep the 50 or so employees in work as it is not really profit-making. There are also chalets and rondavels and a bunkhouse for paying guests. Mainly the farm serves as a base for visiting medical staff and overseas students undertaking internships at the local hospital. It also serves as a base for doctors and supplies to be flown in, there is a landing strip where a couple of helicopters from Mercy Air arrived during our stay. The owner of the farm is the Doctor running the hospital. It is a very beautiful place and guests are free to wander around the whole estate where paths through the long grass are kept trimmed for riding and walking.
Eventually it was time to move on and we drove on down to the border and back into South Africa, where luckily for us the kindly border guard gave us a further 30 days visa, enough to last till we fly home.
We drove on through vast swathes of sugar cane extending as far as the eye can see, heading for the Drakensberg Mountains before entering Lesotho. We took the Sani Pass up through the mountains, a steep and rocky climb with hairpin bends (where one of the shock absorbers sheared off) and the most incredible views over the green hills and valleys, arriving eventually in Lesotho and the highest point in Africa south of Kilimanjaro. Once in Lesotho the road improved dramatically thanks to China, the new colonial power in Africa! That is, until we diverted off the main highway and hit the dirt road through the mountains! With its cold, mountainous terrain, Lesotho is a hard place to live with the majority of people struggling on subsistence farming and everywhere we looked there were herders either on foot or on horseback, shrouded in their blankets and balaclavas and invariably wearing white Wellington boots (Chinese job lot no doubt)!
We spent a few days travelling through the beautiful, alpine-like hills of Lesotho and would like to spend longer in this fascinating country but we needed to start making our way down towards Durban where Buster has a passage to England booked at the end of March, and we had a need for good internet access and some warmth to end our trip, so we have headed off to the Wild Coast of South Africa for our final couple of weeks.
I know it sounds churlish, but we are feeling quite low about having only two weeks left until we fly home! However, I do appreciate how lucky we have been to have this opportunity to travel extensively around the southern countries of this wonderful continent!