There are no Quick and Easy Bus Rides in Africa
Trip Start Jan 20, 2005
58Trip End Dec 27, 2005
Day One - Vilankulo to Beira (520 Kilometers)
We got up early the first morning to catch the bus at 4am to Beira. Andreas (Dresden), Jacomein, Ben (Netherlands), Caroline and Hisham (London) and ourselves woke early the first day in order to catch our bus at 4am. This would be a trend for the trip because every bus going longer distances always seems to depart at 430am. I didn't know why at the time, but it soon became apparent as each journey's length was determined by so many unknown factors (police stops, road conditions, bus breakdowns, pickups and drop offs etc) that the drivers probably wanted to ensure they arrived the same day
When we got to the bus, we all dumped our packs into the trailer behind the bus and piled in fighting for a seat. 5 of us made it, Caroline and Hisham didn't get a seat and decided to try the airport. We'd had our first victims on our journey and it hadn't even begun. I pleaded with the driver in incoherent Portuguese-English to find a spot, hell, it seems there is always room for one more on these buses and so I couldn't understand why he had a limit on the number of people all of a sudden. The driver wouldn't hear of it though as the bus was packed to the gills already. V was lucky enough to get a spot in the back row squished between a couple ladies with babies. I got one of the seats that fold down in the isles that are propped up by a block of wood. Still we had seats and our waking up at 330am wouldn't be in vain.
The first 5 hours of the trip were pretty smooth sailing. The road was mostly paved with sporadic periods of potholes. There was also a lot of construction so in a year I am sure the stretch will be pretty good. Between the cities here you drive past bushy forests and huts made of grass, thatch, mud, and bricks of baked earth. People in rural communities still live much as they have for centuries it seems. It always seems kind of surreal zooming past these lone huts and small thatch villages with their goats, chickens, and so many children! The bus we are on, as old and road weary as it is, just doesn't seem to fit into the surroundings. As long as bus rides are, I don't really get bored just soaking in what's around the next corner. The landscape changes quite a bit and every time we reach a small village or town, there is so much activity going on as people are trying to sell you fruit, nuts, bread, biscuits, and coke (everywhere you go, Coke is sure to be there) that just trying to get off the bus is an adventure. People in Mozambique are poor though. The average wage is less than 50 dollars a month. At each stop though, people all seem to be selling the same things, which makes the prices ridiculously cheap (supply and demand). 4 pounds of fresh tangerines 20 cents. a pound of cashews for a dollar. Fresh bread for 4 cents. 4 pounds of bananas for 15 cents. We did enjoy a lot of fresh fruit and foods so we didn't starve.
The first day went by pretty quickly and we rolled into Beira around 3pm. We were dusty and in need of a shower, but feeling great. We stumbled around town finding a room at the luxurious Savoy hotel. I swear this hotel was the DMZ during the civil war here and they just put beds in the room. Well, it wasn't that bad, but our first room had a door that looked like someone had rolled a tank through it then put it back together with glue and finishing nails. We just wanted a shower though and got our stuff, went down the hall to the bath room only to find the first shower without water, the second shower's knobs came off in my hands as I turned them, and the last bathroom on our floor was filled with old mattresses to the ceiling. Hmmm. We went downstairs and found of the 4 bathrooms there, only one had a working shower. Ok, not so big a deal, but then all they had was cold water. All this and the room was costing me $20. What I could have gotten in Southeast Asia or India for $20! There is just no competition here due to them having so little accommodation. The people here don't seem to be that entrepreneurial or lack the capital to get things off the ground. Most businesses are foreigner owned it seems. The five of us traveling together fought to get into the only shower.
We took a cold shower, and then wandered around the streets until dark. The former friendship between Mozambique and the Soviet Union means that this country has some amazingly functional, but astatically appalling socialist architecture. I have seen the same block style buildings in East Germany, Russia, Mongolia, and china. They all love to build these big concrete monstrosities. There were also some nice old Portuguese buildings in the town center though. We had a really great dinner at a little place called 2plus 1. If you are ever in Beira, I encourage you to drop in.
Because we didn't want a repeat of the mornings fight for a seat, we decided to go back to the bus station to reserve a place on the morning bus to Quelimane. We found a bus going there, and it was a newer bus with nice plush seats. We got tickets and talked the driver into letting us pay in the morning as we didn't want to get shafted if the bus wasn't there. We were giddy when choosing which seat would be ours and slept well knowing that we had the mornings fight already won.
Day Two - Beira to Quelimane (750 Kilometers)
We awoke the next morning, humped our packs over to the bus station in the dark, got on the bus and felt good. 15 minutes before our departure time of 5am the bus left the bus station with only us 5 and about 5 other Mozambicans on board. We thought this was odd because the usual rule in Africa is that the bus departs when it is full regardless of what time it is. They drove us through some back streets and stopped the bus in a really dark part of a street with no street lamps. The driver and attendant then got off without really telling us what was up and walked away down the street in the darkness. This seemed odd to us. After waiting around for 20 minutes we heard some screaming and yelling which made us more nervous. The locals on the bus told us this was strange and that this wasn't a good part of town to be hanging around in the dark. Before our driver had left, he had loaded a couple of our bags into the bus's rear compartment and tied it off with a lot of nylon rope. We thought about getting off, but didn't want to leave the bags. After another 10 minutes, we'd had enough. This was the perfect situation to rob us all in and we weren't going to wait around to be victims. We got off the bus and I was struggling to get the nylon rope off the compartment door so I could get my bag when Ben said enough was enough, whipped out this big ol` buck knife he carries with him and ripped through the rope. We all grabbed our stuff and made our way through the dark streets back to the bus station. No sooner had we arrived and felt better being in the light, then a policeman and two helpers, one in old US army fatigues and the other in a surf T-shirt, stopped us and demanded to know what we were doing in that dark part of town. We explained our story and he demanded to see our passports. After leafing through every bloody page of each of our passports, they let us continue on. We found another bus (not as nice as the first) and loaded up our stuff. We then had to wait around until 7am for it to fill sufficiently for the bus driver to leave. At one point there was an obviously mentally challenged man sitting on the curb next to the busses with a suitcase. After some people talked with him, looked in his suitcase, they helped him onto the bus and sat him down. We all think he may have been on tranquilizers he was so out of it. At the time I wasn't sure he was supposed to be going to Quelimane or whether he had the 16 dollars fare on him and the bus driver needed to make his quota so he put him on the bus.
The trip itself started off rather easy, though we had gotten a very late start and were all very anxious after the morning's excitement. The highway made a huge loop to Qualimane, but it was brand new tarmac and smooth sailing for much of the way. At one point during the trip, we stopped for one of the frequent misc stops the bus makes and the mentally challenged guy woke from his stupor and tried to get up. After people tried to seat him again as we wanted to get going, it became apparent why he wanted to get up. He urinated himself and people just shrugged as it was too late to change anything, sat him back down and we were on our way again. Later at another stop everyone got off the bus and the same guy decided to take the opportunity to get up and sit on 5 different seats on the bus. Jacomien was lucky enough to have her sweatshirt fall victim to this guys stunted bladder control. In the wild, this guy had marked out half the bus as his territory. Everyone was again very kind to him and understandingly sat him in his seat again and others even looked danger in the eye and kept giving him more ammunition in the form of bottles of water.
7 hours into the trip, we came to the Zambezi River. We had to cross on a small ferry and enjoyed a snack of stale biscuits and Coke on the banks of this mighty river. We finally arrived in Quelimane at 7pm tired, bruised, but in good spirits. Being the naive optimists that we are, we enquired about a bus the following morning to Nampula, our next stop. We found the bus and were told that we couldn't buy a ticket, but we could reserve a seat on the bus by putting something of no value on the seats as a placeholder. Andreas had some brochures filled with animals and birds from a Safari and V and I had a couple of sleeping mats and we spread them out on 4 seats and felt good that we had taken care of the mornings travel arrangements.
We left the bus station in the dark wondering where we were going to sleep that night and made our way towards town. Along the way, Andreas head a guy speaking French and asked him the way to a hotel we had in mind. The guy offered to take us there himself and after taking the point, asked us why we didn't just stay with him that night. He said he had a couple extra rooms and if we had sleeping mats we'd be more than welcome. When he said he had hot water, we would have walked through the worst slums following him without another word. Roger was from the south of France and was working here for a Prawn Exporter. His home was a very nice townhouse probably built by the Portuguese with 4 bedrooms upstairs and he gave us the run of the place. We each took a nice hot shower then we all went out to an Italian place for some pizza, pasta and beer. He was a funny guy and we all felt really lucky to have such a hospitable host.
Day Three - Quelimane to Nampula (518KM)
We woke at 330am, packet up our stuff and left Rogers for the bus station. We were all pretty happy after how our day had ended yesterday and were feeling good about our prospects for the day. When we arrived at the station, our bus was overrun with people. Andreas and I decided to fight with the bags and get them loaded and sent the ladies onto the bus to get our seats. No sooner had the ladies left than they were back saying that some people had discarded our `reservations` and were occupying our seats. We were pretty ticked and started thinking of what to do next. Andreas got the driver and had him fight with the occupiers until a couple of them gave up. We found one more seat in the front, but that left us one short. Oh well, we'd have to switch off. The bus had a sign saying full capacity was 65 - at my count we had over 100 packed in the seats and the aisle. It started off poorly.
The first 2 hours were the worst. V and I both stood for an hour in the jammed aisle constantly fighting for space with our feet and rear ends - it was all out war to defend your territory as people were always looking for an opportunity to take an inch or two. After this, people kind of settled in and the journey bounced along some of the worst dirt roads we'd encountered. It was to be a long day. At one point Virginie was having a battle with this very big boned mama with so much junk in the trunk I think she was hiding a caboose under her dress. I could see the futility in Vºs fight, but she has fire in her. At one point I saw V fly off this woman's rear end as the woman backed up. We then hit a bump and the woman lost her footing only to careen back into my petite wife. I lost sight of her for a second fearing the worst- suffocation by big cheeks. Then the big lady pushed her elbows back into Vºs stomach and propped herself up. The tears that Virginie shed then did earn her some pity space from the aisle dwellers, at least for an hour or so.
We traded off standing for the next 10 hours until we were so close to Nampula, we could smell it. We were starting to get giddy at the thought of finishing our journey when we heard the sound of metal crunching coming from the front left tire. The bus driver stopped to check the tire only to find the brake pads in pieces. Everyone unloaded and it took a group of 20 men an hour to get the wheel off and then to pound the brake pad off the wheel. Its funny how 2 are actually doing anything and the other 18 were just offering advice. After an hour though, they managed to get the wheel back on and we were off. We arrived at 5pm after 12 hours on the road and we were tired but excited about having made it through these 3 days of long, long roads. Looking back, not sure I would want to do that trip again, but more roads wait for us.
Day four Nampula to Ilha de Moçambique (120km)
This was to be the small jaunt to the coast, the last stretch that we could accomplish in our sleep as we were ending our journey to our final destination. After a good sleep in Nampula, we were feeling good about heading off. V and I left at 830am to the bus station to catch a bus to the island. We got there and were herded onto a near empty bus headed to the island. We then had to wait 2.5 hours for the bus to fill to the brim in order for the driver to depart. The whole time he was driving through the city with his helpers screaming out the windows `Ilha, Ilha, Ilha!!!`. At one point I even helped out, stretching my body out my window screaming and pointing at people too to see if they wanted to go. This only seemed to lead to confusion, as people didn't know what to make of a huge white guy yelling some botched Portuguese out of the window. I got a lot of weird looks and a few people looking around them then pointing at themselves as if to say, are you talking to me?
Once the bus was filled we set off and the first 2 hours went by without a hitch. The road was good and the sky was blue. That is until we hit a small town, unloaded some people and headed off only to hear grinding and screeching coming from the busº clutch. After banging around under the car with a steel bar for a while, the driver established that while we could drive, there was no 1st gear. We set off for a while without a problem though that is until we reached a police stop at the bottom of a long hill. After coming to a stop, the police waved us on, but the bus was only making screeching sounds as the desperate driver attempted to shove the car, yet again, into first gear. The police only laughed. The driver's two helpers then had to jump out and attempt to push the loaded bus up hill to gain some speed. Miraculously, they did and we took off, but the driver couldn't slow down to let them on so they were running after the bus and had to jump onto the back ladder, climb along the side of the bus and then in through the windows. It was a pretty stunning feat, though I am sure it is not the first time these guys have performed it for exactly the same reason.
We arrived to within 1 Km of the island and had to transfer to a small minibus because the big bus couldn't cross the 3km bridge to Mozambique Island. No sooner were we loaded on the minibus and 100meters from the station then this bus too broke down and we had to return. It just wasn't our day. We went back, got in the back of a pickup truck and were ferried to our guesthouse on the Island. Casa de Luis was the home of Luis and his wife and two children. The little boy is cute, but he is loud as hell at 5am and his parents don't seem to care. They are very friendly people though-though the wife is prone to yelling at Luis and their 2 house helpers all day long. But its a clean room and inexpensive. It was here that we ran into Andreas and Jacomein again and they said that though they had left at 11am, they had arrived an hour and a half before us. Their trip only took 3 hours, ours 7. There are no short bus rides in Africa for us.