“Why didn’t you just drive up from South Africa?” our driver Jose asked me when I pulled a face at the thought of four to five hours of bouncing around on soft sand in his 4 x 4 from Maputo down to Ponta do Ouro. It was already past noon and the mercury was rising fast by the time we cleared the airport so Jose had a good point, but it was a bit late to start questioning my travel agent’s wisdom. In hindsight I reckon it would have been a lot more comfortable, but nowhere near as interesting. For starters I almost got arrested at a vehicle checkpoint, but more about that later.
Most South Africans travel up through either Komatipoort or Kosi Bay on decent (sic) tar roads, only tackling the last 15 or so kilometres to Ponta on sand. Our entire journey was on sand, occasional gravel and a small piece of almost non-existent old tar apart from the ferry crossing to Catembe.
As ferries go I’ve travelled on several – from Dover to Calias and Ostend and from Buenos Aires to Uruguay, but none had prepared me for the Maputo ferry. The first hint that this was going to be a whole lot different was the young goat tethered to the quayside on a short piece of rope. I suspect someone on that busy quay had great plans for that goat. Culinary plans that is. But first it was going for a little flip across the Bay.
I was too busy living in the moment to make notes at the time, but on the return leg a few days later I counted about 25 cars and trucks, crammed like sardines into the available space. On this voyage a group of soldiers were guarding a heavy box of ammunition among the parked vehicles. It led to a heated debate when the Ferry operators objected to the amount of space the box and its’ guards were taking up, preventing another vehicle from being squeezed on, but the soldiers refused to budge and the ferryman gave up. The ramp-cum-door clanged shut about two inches away from the back of a young woman’s newish SUV. I shuddered at the proximity to her paintwork, but she didn’t even flinch. She had obviously made the crossing several times and as the Maputo skyline crept closer, a jovial Mozambican who had just driven up from Durban put things into perspective: “Where else in the world do you get to travel right next to ammunition?”, he chuckled.
The cost to ferry a vehicle across the Bay depends on the day of the week. Weekends are more lucrative for the operators, but passengers travel cheap at 5 Meticais – less than two Rand in South Africa.
A quick hop over the bay and you are in Catembe, a small and dusty fishing village and home to the famous Catembe drink of coca cola and substandard red wine.
The village assails all the senses. It’s a bustling, colourful cluster of market stalls selling fresh seafood, fruit and vegetables, cashew nuts and freshly baked pão, (long thin loaves, baked in wood-burning ovens), alongside a handful of eating establishments. Traditional music competes with Afro jazz and pop while people go about their business. From time to time a whiff of human excrement is carried on the breeze.
Cellphone branding is everywhere you go, even in the smallest of settlements and like most towns in southern Mozambique, Catembe has a fair amount of litter. A scraggly hen and her chicks picked through a pile of rubble optimistically as we waited in line to board the ferry back to Maputo.
The 100km journey from Catembe to Ponta is hard going. We stopped several times in the hope of finding some acceptable lunch. The Catembe Gallery Hotel was the best option but horribly pricey. Jose, having grown up in Mozambique to Portuguese parents, was happy to eat a plate of local food in one of the villages, but my sister-in-law was having none of that. Ravenous, we compromised, settling for fresh pão with margarine and bananas from a market stall in a dusty settlement before heading out to Salamanga, Zitundu and finally Ponta do Ouro. Wiser on the return journey, we had packed chilled orange quarters, potato chips and boiled eggs.
Oh yes, about that near arrest: The vehicle checkpoint at Salamanga is literally in the middle of nowhere – the last check before Maputo for stolen vehicles from South Africa. It’s manned by an assortment of uniforms only metres away from a fascinating Hindu temple (equally in the middle of nowhere), which I got out of the car to photograph while Jose dealt with the formalities at the boom. It’s when I snapped away at a heavily laden minibus taxi coming through the boom that the trouble started. I had inadvertently managed to get the checkpoint office – a small, unassuming cubicle – in the picture. The officer in charge was furious and wanted to know why I was photographing a government building. It was news to me and unintentional. My Portuguese is worse than his English and telling him I blog as a hobby and had a background in journalism wasn’t going to cut it in Salamanga. “I’m a tourist. I photograph everything I see”, I managed.
By then several other uniforms had gathered around us (I suspect the checkpoint may even have been unmanned at that point 🙂 ) and we spent what seemed like eternity flipping through all my snaps. “Catembe”, another officer ventured in decent English as he examined the digital screen. He showed the OC “Maputo” and the “Ferry”. Unsurprisingly he didn’t seem to recognise the arum lilies I had photographed in Tokai forest a few weeks before, but it must have been enough to convince them all that I was indeed a crackpot who photographs everything. The OC made doubly sure I had deleted the offending photos and then let me pass.
Back in the 4 x 4 you could feel the collective relief. Jose – who had come to my rescue in the dying minutes of my encounter – chirped brightly as we drove away: “He told me he was going to arrest you, you know”, he said as he gathered speed.
On the return journey I feigned sleep just in case the officer had had a change of heart while we were in Ponta do Ouro, but it must have been his day off. The checkpoint was being manned by others and we sailed through with my camera tucked well out of sight 🙂