(First published on Chasing the Rainbow)
As we screamed along the rough dirt road, driving way faster than we had dared so far in Mozambique, I wondered whether this Kamikaze style drive was in fact the safer route home and pondered over how we had managed to get ourselves into this dangerous off-road high-speed car chase…
It all started the day before when after a long day on the road from Vilanculos to Johannesburg, we arrived at our overnight destination of Bilene. So far, we had traversed Mozambique’s Quality Street smorgasbord of assorted roads without incident, barring a speeding ticket, which is fascinating in itself as we have never driven slower on a road trip.
It’s hard though to know how fast you are actually allowed to go on Moz’s roads. The speed limit on the EN1 is 100, but this decreases to 80 and then 60 through each settlement. As the land around the highway in Mozambique is pretty much fully settled, this means there is an equal split between 100 and 60.
And of course the traffic police set up hidden speed checks in the trickiest 60 zones – the ones where the signs have fallen off and you are unsure of whether it’s still 60 or 100 again. It was in one of these when Ralph saw the back of the 80 sign on the opposite side of the road and figured that meant that 60 was over on our side.
It was in one of these when Ralph saw the back of the 80 sign on the opposite side of the road and figured that meant that 60 was over on our side.
As he started to accelerate, out jumped a lady in a white shirt and blue cargo pants – the uniform of the official traffic police. We followed the instructions in our tourist guide, opened our window, removed our sunglasses and turned the music off. She rattled off something in Portuguese and sighed at our blank wide eyed expressions.
‘Drivers license’ she huffed and for a moment I thought it may be just an innocent check. But she sauntered off with Ralph’s license, and after a while came back and said ‘speed’ while shaking her head and tutting in disgust. So Ralph got out, crossed the road and went to the guy with the official receipt book to find out he had been fined 1000 meticais (around R250) for doing 72 in a 60 zone.
Although the lady officer seemed to have given us ample time to offer a gift in exchange for forgiveness, we are really anti bribery and corruption, so chose to rather fork out a legitimate amount than pay less to get off.
The fine experience had left us angry and also nervous as this could end up being a very expensive drive if it kept on happening
So we puttered along under the speed limit, traveling at 60 if in doubt. Hence the extremely long day on the road and our immense relief as we pulled into Praia do Bilene just in time for sunset.
We followed the directions from Booking.com to our lodge – through the town and past the beautiful lagoon while the road turned from tar, to paving, to sand. We had got used to driving on sea sand roads as this is how they are in Xai Xai and Vilanculos too, so were not overly alarmed until we drove down a valley and saw that the only way out was over a steep hill through what looked like a giant mud wallow.
Oh dear – not good for a normal car
First attempt up, we got about a quarter of the way up, before coming to a muddy, wheel spinning stop. Luckily it was a steep enough incline for us to reverse out of our pickle with gravity on our side. Back down to the bottom and a rev up for attempt number 2. This time we got about halfway.
By now, a few other cars (all 4×4) had stopped to assist and give Ralph advice. The fact that they stopped was very comforting but their advice together with our family’s panicked conflicting instructions sent Ralph into a spin. He reversed back down the hill, this time all the way to the bottom.
‘Everybody out’ he yelled like a man possessed. We jumped out, removing our excess body weight for that little extra edge. Ralph pushed the accelerator flat to the floor and launched the Kombi up the hill, and it looked like he was going to make it until just near the summit where the wheels lost their precarious purchase and succumbed to the soft mud. Now we were truly stuck and had to get all the helpers involved to push us backwards down the hill again, the acrid smell of burnt clutch filling our noses.
In a troubled twitchy panic, Ralph reversed skew and instead of on the hard track, we ended up in a deep soft patch of sand at the bottom of the hill. This was the final straw. Now we could not move forward or backward, the wheels just spun in the sand, digging us deeper in.
Our crew of onlookers, helpers, passing pedestrians and our kids all pushed and pushed, using our collective grit to get that Kombi out. By this stage, the owner of our chosen overnight accommodation had pulled into the fray, and he watched as we pushed the car out of its pickle and then beckoned us to follow him on a ‘better’ back road in.
By now we were a combination of thoroughly traumatized and finely skilled at pushing our Kombi out of tight spots. We ramped after the lodge owner in his 4×4, getting stuck a couple more times and realizing as we progressed down the sludgy slope that there was no chance we were going to make it back up the way we were driving.
We made it to the lodge
Which was bitter sweet – although it was an enormous relief to have arrived, there was no on site restaurant and the closest one was 1.4km further along the sand road hell. And this time in the dark.
But we had to eat, and the prospect of a large cold glass of wine was very attractive, so we jumped back in the Kombi, and trekked along the sand road to the Highlander Fishing Lodge without incident. We were in really bad moods by the time we got there, but when I mentioned to the owner Gerard that we were concerned about our ability to leave Bilene at the crack of dawn the next day and he very kindly offered the services of his business partner Piet to assist us, things started looking up. Piet had a seriously rugged vehicle with a winch and offered to meet us at our hotel at 6am and escort us out, giving us a tow if we got stuck.
This huge offer of assistance by someone completely unknown to us, for no benefit whatsoever to himself (quite the contrary actually), was one of those moments when you are in awe of how marvellous human nature can be. Sure enough, just after 6 the next morning, Piet arrived and escorted us safely out of Bilene’s quagmire without incident. Along the way we picked up couple of other South African families (in their 4x4s) who were also to drive in convoy with us to the border post.
Piet knew a short cut which avoided the EN1 and traffic police
This is how we ended up flying faster than we have ever dared along a narrow dirt road through the Mozambican countryside. It was a hair-raising drive – our Kombi rattling along in the dust of Piet’s rocketing bakkie, and us completely unsure of where we were going or how long it would take.
The one thing I can say about driving second in a convoy is that at least we could rest assured that if there was any oncoming traffic, it would be number 1 and not us that would plough into them. Also, when our engine started flashing various warning signs as our Kombi succumbed to the off-road pressure we had exerted on the poor town car, we could be assured that there were more vehicles behind us to give us a hand if need be.
Eventually the dirt road came to an end and as we turned onto the tar highway again, we spotted a familiar bright yellow T-shirt sauntering along the road. Never have we been so happy to see Jacob Zuma’s cheesy grin. Komatipoort border post was in sight.
Waiting to cross into South Africa at Komatipoort.
We had made it in one piece back to South Africa. As we crossed the thick barbed wire border gate, we breathed a collective sigh of relief – we survived our Mozambique road trip!
If any of the marvellous people who helped us in Bilene happen to read this story, THANK YOU from the bottom of our hearts! In our trauma, when we got the Kombi moving we were too scared to stop again in case we got stuck and we hurtled off very rudely without saying thanks. Also, if you ever find yourselves in Bilene, please check out the Highlander Fishing Lodge – it is run by the kindest, most helpful and capable people, it has a fabulous restaurant and is a seriously good deep sea fishing spot.
Did we enjoy Mozambique?
Most definitely. Would we do it again? We have conflicting answers here. Ralph and Jacob say sure – they want to return to Highlander Fishing Lodge but in a four-by-four next time. Luke, Cian and I say, no way. No more road trips to Mozambique for us thanks. Once was enough of an experience. However, we wouldn’t say no to flying to one of those fancy island lodges we saw from our boat.
We love South Africa!