31.10.2014 - 02.11.2014
The group met in the Airport Game Lodge hotel, 10km from Johannesburg airport and seemingly a cross between a petting zoo and a country motel, on the Friday evening. I arrived earlier in the day, exhausted from over 18 hours of travelling, pissed off that my airport pick-up hadn't turned up, and dehydrated from plane aircon. In the middle of nowhere, with just a few ostrich and deer (?) for company, I slept for most of the afternoon.
After a brief overview if the trip from our guide Dana, night fell at 6pm. We ate dinner together which consisted of takeaway pizzas since the hotel didn't have a vending machine that worked, let alone a restaurant service.
We were a mixed bunch: a young married American couple from San Francisco (Craig and Alex), an older Finish couple, two friends from Baltimore (Angie and Lani), an Australian and his father (Sam and Dad), a Canadian naval officer and his friend/partner, two German girls, a Scottish employee of the Conservative party (Andrew), an solo Canadian woman (Kim), a Torontonian woman on a long sabbatical in Africa (Krista), a pub chef from Nottingham (Jan) and me.
We went to bed before 9 in anticipation of a 7.30am departure for Swaziland the next day. I slept quite well and was woken by animal noises well before my 6.30am alarm went off. After breakfast, we piled into a large minibus and were off along the highway, out of Johannesburg towards the Swazi border.
I'd chosen not to spend time in Johannesburg as having heard that it was a little dangerous and that I wouldn't be missing out on two much. But I sat with Kim and Andrew on the bus and enjoyed listening to them talk about the trips that'd taken over the last couple of days.
The road was dull; according to Dana we were atop a large plateau, 1000m above sea level. There was little vegetation, little to see at all really. We passed a couple of 'townships' which from Dana's explanation, sounded a little like a cross between a shanti town and a council estate... You lived in a flung together shack whilst waiting a long time for the government to build you a house on your patch of land (and add plumbing!).
After a couple of hours the scenery became more interesting as we left the flat plateau behind and drove into the mountainous area before the Swazi border. There were more trees (apparently predominantly Australian imports), rocks, hills and shrubs. It was an over cast day and, being at some altitude, the clouds hung low over the mountains which were quite spectacular.
After around four hours of driving, we approached the Swazi border where there were some beautiful purple trees and interesting colourful birds. We were quickly stamped out of South Africa with a square stamp that read only Oshoek, presumably the name of the border, and the date. On the other side we queued for longer, in an system where the locals clearly took priority but were eventually stamped into Swaziland with little regard for the other stamps in our passports - instead of choosing one of the eight clean pages left for this unique and interesting stamp, she chose to put mine on top of Singapore and Canada.
Once in Swaziland the mountains and the mist continued, we were ow 1400m above sea level and it wasn't particularly warm. We checked into out hotel which was only a short drive from the border and consisted of little huts in a variety of shapes with thatched roofs. Mine was round with a wall of only about a meter high and then a high conical thatch forming the rest of it. I was pleased to be alone as the door-less bathroom (just behind a wall) afforded little privacy. But as a room for one it was perfect, if a little chilly, and very unique.
We waited a long time, 'Africa time' (which seems to be the same as Laos time, Spain time, Indian time and all other sorts of time) for a lunch of steak sandwiches.. I knew little of southern African cuisine but perhaps toasted sandwiches and take out pizzas was it? But I sort of hoped not.
After lunch we were taken out by a local guide for a three hour hike. It was undulating and uneven - we saw little wildlife other than a few cows (and passed a chicken abattoir!) and with the low cloud leaving damp in the air, we could have almost been in Wales or the Scottish highlands.
As we walked, our guide told us 'jokes' and gave tidbits of information about Swaziland. Apparently, through the fog, we were about a kilometre from one of the king's palaces. The King of Swaziland is 49 and has 11 wives. As I understood it, his heir is decided as the boy who has no direct siblings. We didn't get as far as what happened if there were two. And apparently, even regular (rich) men in Swaziland can take up to 5 wives and the first wife is involved in the selection of the subsequent ones.
As we ate dinner later that evening, Dana described the following day to us as a means to an end - travelling to and through the capital city of Mozambique with the sole aim of reaching the beaches. I began to wonder why we hadn't flown.
The next day however, as we drove the width of Swaziland, I understood exactly why as it was a beautiful journey to the next border. There was a slight chill in the air at first but the mist had lifted, the clouds had cleared and the sky was blue.
I'd slept well in real darkness that only real countryside affords and was woken gently as the sun came up and the wildlife came to life, well before my 7am alarm. We ate a hearty breakfast before piling back into the minibus for the next leg of our journey.
Swaziland is divided into three distinct landscapes, we'd overnighted at the highest point in the mountains, just a short way from the South African border and continued through mountains passing colourful villages, rickety houses and plenty of cattle. The mountains were stunning, impressive and likely home to some excellent hiking - I wondered If Swaziland was indeed a hiking destination, perhaps for South Africans. And despite the altitude, some good, busy and well built roads had been constructed, winding a path through the peaks. Gradually however we seemed to be descending, the mountains became more rolling and less dramatic and eventually, after several hours, flattened almost completely as we reached c.400m above sea level.
Mid morning we stopped at a supermarket. Dana told us he didn't know how long the border crossing would take and that we should get some snacks in case. I've always enjoyed foreign supermarkets and this one was no disappointment. They sold brick-sized slabs of cake that came packaged with just one fork and I was surprised to see marmite on the shelves.
As the journey continued, we reached the low lands and one of Swaziland's three national parks, Hlane. En route, Dana had told us about an Irishman called Mick Riley who was essentially responsible for the population of indigenous animals in the country. Apparently he'd arrived in the 60s and, after remarking how the wildlife had so little protection, had befriended the previous king, convinced him to give him a patch of land, today the Milhawane (?) national park, and regenerated much of the wildlife. It'd been so successful that the King had given him two more patches of land where he'd repeated this success.
Hlane was the largest of these three parks and the only one to house predators and Big5 animals. We drove through on the main highway that seemed to cut through the middle and, although Dana suggested we may see elephants, the road was fast and busy and the bush was thick. We kept our eyes peeled but I remained dubious, until, from the front of the minibus, Krista suddenly yelled 'Giraffe!!!'. It was on my side and about 20m from the road neck stretching up into a tree. And that was it, my first sighting of a 'real African animal'.
After the park, we crossed a small range of mountains that formed the border between Mozambique and Swaziland and came to the border. Leaving Swaziland was east enough, there was little queue and, just a day after receiving our entry stamps, we were stamped out the other side.
We'd been strongly advised to get visas for Mozambique in advance as they had been known to turn people away at the border. Since we were to spend 9 days of a 14 day trip in Mozambique, this didn't seem like a risk worth taking so I'd duly trekked across London to the Mozambique embassy several weeks previously, paid my £40 and collected my passport, complete with visa the following week. Most of the group had done the same but via post; the Finns had posted their passports to the Mozambique embassy in Sweden and the Canadians theirs to Washington since the Mozambicans clearly didn't see Finland or Canada as embassy-worthy countries. Two of the Canadians, two of the Americans and the Australians however had not taken such a precaution. Dana didn't seem concerned and as those of us holding visas waited with the driver, he walked them through to the other side, past an un-uniformed 'official' sat at a swivel desk chair under a mango tree.
We crossed with the minibus about 20minutes later to find that things were not going smoothly at all. The six of them were stood in a corner looking unhappy. Dana looked extremely frustrated. Apparently they'd told they weren't allowed to get a visa on the border, despite there being a price list in various currencies on the counter.
As we entered with our visas and Krista headed first to the counter, this only seemed to worsen the situation, leading the woman behind the counter to question if some Canadians in our group had managed to get a visa why the others had not. We filed through slowly, our passports heavily scrutinised but without too much trouble as Dana continued to negotiate with one of her colleagues, all the while becoming more and more pissed off.
Whilst the people behind the counter were in uniform, there was also a local, who spoke much better English, mingling around wearing jeans and a tshirt, talking to our visa-less group members. Initially we thought he was being helpful but it turned out that that was far from the case.
Whilst we waited outside, stamped into the country, those inside began to fill out forms and mr tshirt came outside to fill us in. What had originally began as we don't do visas at the border, had now become $100 USD per visa. Although the list price was $82. And the very fact that there was a list price, indicated that they quite clearly did do visas at the border. It was obviously a bit of a corrupt system but it didn't seem too outrageous if it would help us on our way. But that was just the start of it.
The longer the negotiations went on, the more the extortion continued. First they wanted more money because our bus driver 'used a tone' with the woman behind the counter, then it was because our trailer wasn't registered, then a road tax. Mr tshirt flitted back and forth between the visa-d and the visa-less as if he thought he were in some border-crossing soap opera, stirring up the situation explaining how he was the woman's neighbour and 'she wanted extra money for a nice lunch' or some such nonsense. Dana was fast becoming furious as we were threatened with having to return to Mbabane, the Swazi capital, where it would take 'a week it get visas'. And the week later became a month. Then in became 'criminal to get visa at border' which seemed odd since the crossing office had all of the necessary application forms and photo-apparatus to facilitate such a crime.... A packet of cigarettes later, Dana, steaming at the ears, seemed to reach some sort of agreement.
The visa-less reappeared with visas, all shiny complete with photographs having paid $100 each. This was still less than the $200CND that the prepared Canadians had paid to send their passports and visa application off to Washington but the uncertainty made the extra money worthwhile. We coughed up another $120 USD to mr tshirt for reasons unknown and boarded the bus. But the negotiations were not yet over. Mr tshirt pointed out the final barrier to us, all the while still smiling, as he and a friend boarded the bus and started talking about taking us to the ATM.
What happened next can only be described as a hijacking, or even kidnapping, as with these two men aboard our minibus, we drove through the final check point into Mozambique. Mr tshirt looked at us smiling telling us Welcome to Mozambique. We glared back at him.There were billboard advertisements telling us that 'we all smiled in the same language'.
A kilometre or so later, we reached the first ATM on the road, Dana, still muttering about corruption, withdrew the maximum amount from the ATM as the two guys stood by flirting with some local women. He handed it over. He was looking more than pissed off (understandably). Then they shook hands and we drove off leaving the two men to make their way back to the border to rip off the next bunch of fools. I'd heard of corruption at borders but was shocked at the blatantness of this extortion and the lack of power that we'd had in the situation. And that mr tshirt and the officials were clearly all in cahoots!!
We were a subdued bunch as we drove towards Maputo, the country's capital. It was hot now and after lunch time and we'd been on the road for about 6 hours.
The landscape in Mozambique quickly became exactly what I expected. No longer in the mountains or the hills, the vegetation was clearly tropical with palms, mango trees and banana trees in abundance. The buildings initially were colourfully painted brick with tin roofs rather similar to southern India.
As we drove into Maputo however, my optimism that perhaps Dana was just exaggerating when he described Maputo as the arse-end of the world began to fade. It wasn't the worst place I'd been, but it wasn't looking positive...
It was indeed an ugly city with high-rises that looked like they could collapse at any minute, pavements that were barely pavements and seemingly very little going for it at all. After checking into the hotel and having a beer, we went for a 'tour' around the city and learnt a little more about the history of Maputo and Mozambique more generally.
I'd known very little about the country's specific economical and political situation and the snapshot we received from Dana was enlightening. About all I'd known previously was that Mozambique was a former Portuguese colony. His condensed summery went along the following lines: the Portuguese had left/been pushed out in the late seventies at a time that the country was beginning to prosper however the locals lacked the finances, skills, resources and education to continue this growth and within just a couple of years the country had declined dramatically and fallen into civil war. Only in recent years had things began to recover. This was evident in the dramatic state of disrepair in which most of the city found itself. Accommodation crumbled, billboards peeled, pavements were not pavements and the place mostly looked quite destitute. The parliament building sat next to a Portuguese style cathedrals, similar in architecture to those I'd seen in Goa, and opposite buildings that were completely beyond repair. Vast amounts of the city seemed to have been abandoned mid-demolition or mid-construction.
It wasn't all bad news however. Dana explained that more recently the country, and the city, had enjoyed investment from various sources, namely the Russians and the Chinese - which had led to a relatively Marxist form of government - which slowly was leading to some regeneration and the country was on the up with potential.
We drove the seafront where the evidence of some of this investment was becoming apparent. There were several shiny hotels and restaurants on and towards the costal road and Dana explained that the plan was to build a 'strip' of hotels, bars and casinos along the seafront. The palms were in place already.
It was dark and windy but we stopped at a bar on the waterfront for a blustery beer before heading back to the hotel for dinner and an early night in advance of a 6am departure the following morning. Dana explained that the, seemingly quite densely populated city got incredibly busy early on (understandable with daylight hours of 5am-6pm) and that a lot of the roads became one way to facilitate the flow of traffic and therefore he wanted us to get an early start en route to the beach.