Palm trees, white beaches and… giraffes! Join us on an adventurous drive from the Kruger Park to the Mozambican coast and back.
The aquamarine water over the coral reef is devoid of motion. Coconuts nap on the sugary sand under arching palm trees. Far away on the horizon, where the blues of sky and ocean merge, white clouds puff into balls of cotton wool that might, or might not, build into a thunderstorm. No wonder the Portuguese named this place – halfway between Inhassoro on the coast and the island of Bazaruto – “Paradise Island” and built a luxury hotel here in the 1950s. These days it’s called Santa Carolina Island. Bob Dylan is rumoured to have composed his hit “Mozambique” here, sitting at the grand piano in the hotel’s ballroom with a glass of rum in his hand, staring at the Indian Ocean:
I like to spend some time in Mozambique The sunny sky is aqua blue And all the couples dancing cheek to cheek It’s very nice to stay a week or two And maybe fall in love just me and you Today this tiny island is deserted. The once luxurious Santa Carolina Hotel and its chapel are in ruins. The Portuguese owners fled in 1973 during the civil war, leaving everything behind. Most items of value have been plundered, although you might still find a “Não Perturbe/Do Not Disturb” sign in one of the rooms. (Apparently Bob’s grand piano was relocated to a museum in Maputo.) Cicadas unite into a choir as I explore the ruins and overgrown gardens in the searing heat. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the melancholy of things lost, but I’m also grateful that I can experience this place, which – through neglect – has become unspoilt. Despite history’s hurt and the poverty of its people, Mozambique simmers with potential. Your head longs for the country to experience progress and prosperity – there’s talk of a big hotel chain building a new luxury resort on Santa Carolina – but your heart wants to hold onto the romantic ruins just a little longer…
SHIFTING SAND (opposite page, clockwise from top left). Some of the giant baobabs in the Limpopo Valley are centuries old. The Kruger (and its animals) almost always rewards those who hit the road at sunrise. The stretch of Mozambique between Pafuri and the coast might seem like a massive depopulated mopane forest, but you will encounter tiny settlements and the odd cattle herder. Rule number one for driving in sand – lower your tyre pressure!
The Kruger’s remote corner
It’s three days earlier and my wife Ronel and I are at Punda Maria in the far north of the Kruger Park to meet Riaan Haasbroek – our guide from Bhejane 4x4 Adventures – and the other members of the touring party. We’re about to embark on a 10-day circular route that leads from Punda Maria to the Mozambican coast near Inhassoro and returns via Massingir Dam. Each couple will drive their own 4x4, but the team from Bhejane will pitch all the tents (provided) and serve up three tasty meals a day. At the coast, we’ll stay in a lodge and camp at another one. The north of the Kruger feels like the final frontier. I know the south quite well, but I’ve only read about Punda Maria, Crooks’ Corner and Pafuri – mythical places that were once the hideout of big game hunters, smugglers and slave traders. The far north of the park is also the southernmost reach of many Afro-tropical bird species, like grey-headed parrot, blackthroated wattle-eye and tropical boubou. (My Roberts bird guide and binoculars were some of the first things I packed.) We’ve hardly set up camp when an almost familiar bird with a curly Elvis fringe scurries past. My first crested guineafowl! We stroll down to the hide at the floodlit waterhole after dinner, but no animals are in attendance. We stare at trees and bushes for 15 minutes then decide it’s time for bed. As we stand up to leave, however, I hear branches snapping. A big shape lumbers out of the darkness. Soon another elephant ambles in from the opposite direction and the two entwine their trunks in a pachyderm greeting, a mere 10 m from my eyes. They’re so close I hear their stomachs rumbling.
We’re out of our tents early the next morning. Today it’s a long drive of about 200 km along a bumpy, sandy road to our camping spot next to the Chefu River in central Mozambique, about halfway to the coast. We also have to negotiate the Pafuri border post, and a border post in Africa can be a niggly thing. I budget 90 minutes for the 55 km drive to the border so that we can be there when the gate opens at 8 am, but 90 minutes is not nearly enough time! We stop often to photograph giant baobabs and to gawk at the landscape. Along one densely forested stretch, it feels like we’re exploring the Congo. At the Crooks’ Corner viewpoint, where Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique touch borders, you could spend days watching waterbirds like giant and pied kingfisher, saddle-billed stork and African spoonbill, all of which I see within the first five minutes. But the border post is waiting. The South African officials send us on our way within minutes, and thanks to Riaan’s advice about where to go and what to do, it doesn’t take too long on the Mozambican side either. Only the final vehicle in our convoy gets delayed because the number of beers being brought into Mozambique has apparently been exceeded. “At least they didn’t touch my wine!” says Sergio Messi from Joburg with a wry smile. We’re officially in Mozambique! From here it’s two days of travelling at 40 km/h to Inhassoro, where four lazy, tropical days await.
The first stretch of driving takes us through the depopulated interior of southern Mozambique, along the border of Limpopo National Park (which borders the Kruger) to the village of Mapai. Here we cross the Limpopo River, then we skirt the boundaries of Banhine National Park to our overnight campsite near the Chefu River. There aren’t many people in this part of the country. And, with the exception of a lost impala or two, you won’t see many animals either. The civil war and the poaching that followed is largely to blame for this, but the Mozambican government does have plans to reintroduce animals. They just have to relocate the people still living within the borders of the Limpopo and Banhine national parks. Despite the lack of wildlife, the Limpopo Valley is beautiful. We cruise through a towering fever tree forest, past century-old baobabs and through clay-and-straw settlements where the only indication of modern civilisation is faded Vodafone signage on a crumbling wall. There are lots of birds – I spot my first brown snakeeagle on a telephone pole. At Mapai, the mighty Limpopo makes a wide bend, but today the river is no more than ankle-deep. The Nissan Navara I’m driving splashes through with ease. We reach our campsite, which belongs to a local tribe, only after sunset, but our tents have been pitched and the campfire is burning. The wailing bushbabies won’t be enough to keep me awake tonight…
Three hours into our journey the next day, we stop on a bridge next to Lake Banamana. “A year ago there was almost no water here,” Riaan says. “Then tropical cyclone Dineo arrived in February 2017 and turned this
HIT PARADE (opposite page, clockwise from top left). The sea around Paradise Island teems with fish… Great if you’re an angler or a snorkeller. It’s rumoured that Bob Dylan sat in the ballroom of the now-ruined Santa Carolina Hotel and wrote some of his hit songs. At Massingir Dam it’s just you, the view and the call of fish- eagles. You can walk along the beach for kilometres in any direction at Sunset Beach Lodge, or you can stay put and build a castle in the sand.
little corner into a paradise.” I look through my binoculars at thousands of greater flamingos on the horizon. I almost feel sorry for the African open-billed stork wading close by. If only he could close his mouth properly! White-winged terns, which until now I’d only seen at the coast, dart overhead. In the village of Mabote, the modern world intrudes again – a shop or two, lots of Vodafone advertising, a filling station – then we reach a T-junction with the EN1: Mozambique’s main coastal highway that links Maputo and Beira. The EN1 is tarred, and it might only be 50 km to the turnoff to Inhassoro, but this little stretch is a stern test after the freedom of the wilderness. There’s no keeping to the left – or right – of the road, you drive where there are no potholes. Our convoy sidesteps the potholes, and the fully laden trucks, and we reach Estrela de Mananisse late in the afternoon without mishap. The local name for this relaxed lodge on the outskirts of Inhassoro is “Star of Mozambique”. We’ll sleep here for the next three nights, on soft, clean linen. The balmy days melt into each other. In the mornings Ronel and I drink coffee on the deck next to the pool and watch the sun rise over Bazaruto Bay, as fishermen on the beach below laboriously pull their dragnets ashore. We eat fish and shellfish, shop at the local markets, explore deserted islands and snorkel over coral reefs where tropical fish dart about. Parrotfish bite down on the coral so hard that you can clearly hear the crunch underwater. Ronel eventually runs out of breath after swimming along with a loggerhead turtle for more than five minutes. One morning Riaan leads the vehicles north along the beach (with permission), past coastal dunes where yellow-billed kites do aerobatics, all the way to the tip of the Inhassoro Peninsula. There’s a lodge or two along the way, but hardly enough development to shake that Robinson Crusoe feeling. You start thinking: “I wonder what it would be like to stay here for a year or two… Or maybe forever?” Is it possible to miss a place even before you’ve left? After four days we have to say goodbye to the Star of Mozambique, and it’s as painful as watching your holiday romance blowing kisses through the back window of her dad’s car as they set off home.
Things can only get better
After an atrocious section of road between Inhassoro and Vilanculos, the EN1 gets its act together and improves. The landscape also changes dramatically the further south we drive. One palm tree becomes five, then 50, then 750 and then there are palm trees as far as the eye can see. Even Dineo couldn’t make a dent in them. We buy some coconuts (R5 each) from a man on the side of the road, who skilfully strips the husk and cracks the shell with a panga so we can drink the coconut water. South of Inhambane, Ronel and I pull over at a roadside stall to buy a large jar of peri peri sauce. It’s potent! (Months later, a tiny spoonful still adds a kick to a chicken braai.) The sun has set by the time we pull into aptly named Sunset Beach Lodge, close to the town of Chidenguele. Our campsite is under milkwood trees where scarlet-chested sunbirds flit through the branches. A spotted eagle-owl has made a nest on the roof of one of the bathrooms. I stand on the wooden deck at the lodge and look north and south along the beach. It seems to be endless. There are no people in sight, just the silver stripe of the full moon shimmering on the Indian Ocean. After a big grilled crayfish, chips with peri peri sauce and an indecently large 2M (the local beer, pronounced “do-shem”), I’m so relaxed that you could pour me into a mould, stick a wick in my ear and use me as a candle if the power went out. After two days of rest and relaxation at Sunset, we reluctantly head towards the interior again. We drive long stretches of reasonably good gravel roads, through rundown but busy little towns where the remnants of old colonial buildings manfully try to put their best facade forward, all the way back to Limpopo National Park. Our destination is Massingir Dam, inside the park close to the border with South Africa, where the Olifants River has been dammed. You’d be lucky to spot a steenbok here, but the tiger-fishing is excellent and the birdlife is plentiful. I tick off a kori bustard, a family of southern ground hornbills and an African crowned eagle. We’re camping at Aguia Pesqueira Camp, which means “place of the fish-eagles”. It’s high on a cliff with an unspoilt view of the dam. For the umpteenth time on this trip, it feels like we’re the only people on earth. Tomorrow we have to tackle the final stretch of uneven gravel to the Giriyondo border post, then we’ll thread through the Kruger back onto South African highways and home. But that’s tomorrow. Right now I’m going to sit in my camp chair next to the fire with one last 2M in my hand and listen to fish-eagles calling each other over the water.
SEA & SKY. When Mozambique was still a Portuguese colony, people would honeymoon at the luxurious hotel on Santa Carolina Island. These days the hotel is in ruins.