Crossing the border into Mozambique is a strange experience; it seems somewhat absurd that by driving a few hundred meters across an artificial border you can experience a complete change of landscape, culture and language. During the hour long stretch from the border to Maputo, you’re left with no doubt that this remains one of the poorest countries in the world. The landscape is a barren expanse of overgrazed, unpopulated scrub that serves as a humble welcome. The road is well maintained and a pleasure to drive – even for a gaggle of gay boys out for an exotic beach holiday.
Left: A beach in Xai Xai
Upon reaching Maputo (468 km from Joburg), the country’s capital city, everything changes. You’re thrown into a vibrant African metropolis full of extreme contrasts. It’s one of largest built-up cities in Southern Africa, and it’s here where you get a sense of the schizophrenic nature of the place. A crumbling building sits unapologetically next to a plush newly renovated one; the town’s natural seaside beauty is contrasted with the empty dilapidated shell of a skyscraper abandoned by the Portuguese; and the broad avenues boast quaint names like Karl Max and Kim Il Sung. The colonial parts of the city maintain their European charm, complete with street cafÃ©s and art deco buildings. It all has an absurd run-down beauty which is hard to reconcile.
Places to look out for include the Central Market (on Avn. 25 de Setembro), where you can haggle for absurdly cheap fresh prawns, the steel Eiffel House designed by Gustave Eiffel (of the Paris tower fame), and the Polana Hotel – that is once again the poshest place to stay (if you can afford the scary US dollar rates). There are plenty of places to eat in the busier main streets – and credit cards and Rands are accepted at most reasonable looking venues. Expect to be harassed by street children and merchants, and be smart about your car and valuables.
Like much of Mozambique, Maputo is crawling out of a dark past resulting from the sudden collapse of the Portuguese colonial government in 1975 and the subsequent sixteen year civil war. There’s a long path ahead, but it’s showing every sign of becoming a prime tourist location within the next decade. Even now it has so much to offer. Maputo has limited openly gay nightlife, and unless you know any locals, be wary. Homosexuality is illegal in Mozambique, punishable by imprisonment.
Our trip along the Lagoon coast (which stretches from Ponto do Ouro in the South to Inhambane further North) continued. The roads remained in great shape for the rest of the trip. Here, I got a glimpse of rural life with small villages and towns scarred by the war and dotted with huts and Mango and Cashew trees. You can happily buy a bag from the hawkers selling cashews on the roadside. The nuts are freshly roasted and cheap.
The town of Bilene (145 km north of Maputo – look out for the sign on the EN1 in the town of Macia) was a prime tourist spot in its day and many citizens of Maputo still visit for a break. It’s known for its stunning 20km long lagoon, surrounded by snow-white sand. A handful of resorts and restaurants at the lagoon provide respite from the heat. Try the local beers – they’re as good, if not better, than our own. (I enthusiastically recommend Laurentina). The lagoon is warm, and the clear water barely reaches your crotch. It’s a clichÃ© of a paradise-like beach.
Right: Bilene Lagoon
Continuing north on the EN1 you’ll reach Xai Xai (224 km from Maputo), the capital town of the Gaza Province. It’s a miserable run-down settlement, but full of colour, friendly locals and captivating textures, sounds and smells. Here you can draw money from a couple of ATMs and buy supplies, but there’s little else of interest.
Turning right from the main road, head to Xai Xai Beach (Praia do Xai Xai) – the small seaside-town hamlet, complete with its own obligatory crumbling colonial structures. There’s a pretty beach at the village itself, but rather head up the sand road to the nearby comfortable Xai Xai Beach Resort – with fab chalets – or Chongoene Backpackers (both South African owned). Rates are very reasonable, and they’re a two minute – or less – walk to the beach. Backpackers also offers a quaint beach bar and restaurant with great food – again, very reasonably priced.
It’s the beaches we came for and beaches we got; beautiful, un-spoilt and with barely a soul in sight. Ask the locals which stretches are best-suited for swimming. You might even spot a whale or two. Take a walk North along the beach (7kms from the center of Xai Xai Beach town) to Praiai do Chongoene where you’ll come across the remarkable abandoned Chongoene Hotel. A once stately colonial behemoth it’s now an empty and ramshackle Grande Dame who’s seen better days.
Our trip didn’t extend further than Xai Xai, but there’s much to see up North, including (often expensive) resorts on the idyllic Bazaruto Archipelago. The northern part of the country also takes on a more Muslim influenced flavour. While many recommend tackling Mozambique with a 4×4, most areas we traveled were judiciously accessible by car.
Left: The abandoned Hotel Chongoene
Mozambique offers an opportunity to really escape from the urban madness, and immerse yourself in a very different world. It’s certainly edgier than traditional South African resort towns, but if you like your holiday travel with a touch of adventure, and don’t get too stressed out about digging your car out of the odd sand road, grab your swimming trunks and go. Get there before it turns into another overcrowded holiday-apartment-packed destination.
Tips and Notes:
- There are regular flights from Joburg to Maputo.
- Don’t expect to use your credit card anywhere outside Maputo. Carry cash (vigilantly).
- While Portuguese is the official language, many of the locals will speak basic English.
- Visas are no longer needed if you are traveling on a South African passport.
- Good cell phone coverage (if you have international roaming) extended from the border right up to Xai Xai beach.
- Expect to be stopped by police when entering or leaving Maputo. Don’t give them any excuse: if you don’t have all your paperwork (including car registration papers or car license) or aren’t wearing seatbelts, or don’t have the obligatory red emergency triangles in your car, you will be fined. In typical third world fashion, you will be asked to negotiate the amount and even pay in Rands.
- You will need to take Malaria medication, as well as mosquito repellent sprays or creams. Consult your chemist at least a week before leaving.
- Get the Driving Mozambique foldout map from the AA, it will give you advice on everything you need for the trip.
- Xai Xai Beach Resort: Tel: 09258 282 35030
- Chongoene Backpackers: Tel: 09258 84232726
- Mozamibican Tourism Authority Website