I’m writing this blog post two months after this road trip took place, but I made notes along the way so I didn’t forget (as I am prone to doing) all the totally amazing things we saw and did and ate. Given what a rambler I am, this trip will be split into separate blog posts. Exciting!
We decided to head out of Tofo over the Christmas period because the tiny town floods with tourists, mostly people driving in from South Africa, and we didn’t fancy sharing the beach and bars with 10,000 holidaymakers. That’s the true British spirit shining through. I also needed to leave the country at Christmas anyway as my three month visa was about to expire, and to get another one you have to do a border run. So Caty, Charlie and I planned out a road trip into Zimbabwe, anticipating being away for about two weeks.
It became clear very quickly that these plans were going to have to change, for a reason that I had not even considered – currency. Due to the appalling way in which Zimbabwe has been “governed” by the Mugabes, the value of the Zimbabwean currency sank through the floor in 2008 – inflation hit 80 billion percent. EIGHTY BILLION. $1 was worth Z$2,621,984,228, 675,650,147,435,579,309,984,228. So, they switched to US dollars, which is now the main currency of Zimbabwe – Mugabe has introduced a new currency called the bond note, but who knows if that will hold its value. We needed to get US dollars for our trip, and we needed a lot. Anecdotal evidence suggested that we wouldn’t be able to use cash points in Zim, so we needed the dollars before we arrived there. I went into the nearby town, Inhambane, to get metacais (Mozambican currency) changed into dollars and hit a brick wall. We asked around in Tofo, as often businesses accepted dollars from tourists, but no one had anywhere near the amount we needed.
So, we came up with a new plan, and rerouted into South Africa first, where we would be able to change metacais into rand and rand into dollars. This would add a significant chunk of driving onto the trip, but it was the only option we had. I was actually thrilled that this was the new plan, as it meant we could safari through Kruger National Park first, which I was dying to do.
We also had to vacate our house in Tofo over Christmas, so the night before we departed saw lots of frantic packing as we emptied bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen, and trips back and forth to the office to lock away any valuables we were leaving behind. I am a serial overpacker, and my rucksack was as heavy as when I left the UK, whereas Charlie’s rucksack was the size of a shower bag. He managed to refrain from rolling his eyes when I staggered out of my room with my immense load. Caty and I went to the market the day before we left, and bought enough food to feed a small army on a six month campaign. The traders were delighted with this, which was actually really lovely.
We were driving to Nelspruit in SA with a couple of other MMFers (videographer Will and project manager Kris) who were spending a week or so in Swaziland before going back to the the UK, so they had literally all of their stuff with them. So at 4:30am on December 15th, bleary eyed and slightly irritable, we were somehow squeezing 5 people, nine rucksacks, pillows and sleeping bags, cooking equipment and three weeks’ (supposedly) worth of food, booze and water into a Toyota Hilux Surf. We were picking up tents and camping chairs in SA luckily, otherwise I’m pretty sure I’d have been made to sit on the roof.
By 5:30 we were all in, and Charlie and Will drove and navigated respectively, while Kris and I snoozed in the back and Caty sent three thousand emails. Our first stop was in a city called Xai Xai, and I am definitely not in any hurry to go back there. We stopped at about half ten for breakfast, and the cafe had been the scene of some hideous beetle massacre. Dead and dying beetles were everywhere. It was so weird. We ate there anyway – needs must – and had nutritious breakfasts of omelette, chips and bread rolls. We beat a hasty exit, crunching over thousands of beetle carcasses on our way back to the car. We would pass the occasional cashew nut “tree” – bags of cashew nuts hanging on wooden fences – and would shriek at Charlie to stop so we could buy some. He never did.
The roads had been pretty good so far (or at least, they hadn’t disturbed my nap), but to get round Maputo and avoid driving through the city itself we needed to take the bypass. This wasn’t a bypass like anything I had seen before! It was a narrow dirt track between vast tracts of farm land, and I don’t think we saw more than 2 other vehicles in the five or so hours that we were on it for. The only traffic we saw was herds of cows meandering around on the track, unconcerned about our car heading towards them.
We finally made it to the border after about 10 hours of driving, and had to get through customs and immigration. Getting our passports stamped was very straightforward, as none of us needed visas for South Africa, but I ran into problems with one official who wanted to see Charlie accompanying me as the named person on the car documents. Nobody else had had this problem, and when we had queued back up, I went to a different desk who had no interest in seeing Charlie. I was learning that when it comes to African bureaucracy, inconsistency is key.
I had booked us a room at a backpackers in Nelspruit, so that was our first destination in South Africa. However, it was insanely hot so we stopped for ice creams at the first convenience store we came to. Having been in Mozambique for over two months by that point, Caty and I found it absolutely overwhelming. So much choice! So much plastic packaging! Such bright lights! We walked up and down every single aisle, marvelling at all the different types of vegetables on offer, the kitchen utensils we’d forgotten about, the sheer volume of STUFF. We bought 5 ice creams in a daze and headed back to the car, where the boys were doing stuff that I hate doing, like checking oil and water. Such a bore.
Off we went again on our last leg of the day’s journey, and after about two hours, arrived at Nelspruit Backpackers. We were greeted by two gorgeous Rhodesian Ridgebacks, who were built like tanks and were the soppiest, most affectionate dogs you could wish to meet. Unfortunately whenever each of them leaned against my legs for another round of pats and cuddles, it felt like my knees were being forced to bend backwards. There was also a feisty little terrier, who would wait for the Ridgebacks to lie down before climbing onto their backs and chewing their ears. Adorable.
Our host was absolutely lovely, and advised us on dinner plans, so as soon as we had dumped our stuff and showered (I now had properly clean hair for the first time in weeks, not full of salt, sand and coconut oil), we headed back out to eat. We decided upon a little Italian restaurant, and knocked back wine and pasta, staring at each other in a slightly spaced out way. We hadn’t been anywhere like this since leaving the UK, and it was weird to not be sitting on little wooden benches, sand everywhere, sweating and drinking 2M, the local beer in Tofo. This place had AC, cold tap water, wine in carafes, and a decent bathroom. It was very exciting.
We wandered back to the hostel and crashed out. I fell asleep the moment my head touched the pillow, and slept solidly for nine glorious hours. No mozzie net needed! We were up at 7, repacking and guzzling fried egg rolls and mugs of tea (setting the tone for the next 4 weeks of my life) and planning our next steps – getting US dollars and driving to Kruger. Caty, Charlie and I said goodbye to Will and Kris, who were heading for Swaziland, which made us very sad, as they had been such fun and lovely people to be around – I feel like if Will ever reads this he’ll be scoffing at this display of warmth. Shut up, Will.
So the three of us got back in the car, slightly less crowded than before, and headed for the shopping centre to change money. This was also a culture shock to us – huge malls, multi-storey car parks, and traffic lights were all things that we had forgotten ever existed while in our Tofo bubble. We bought a few more bits and pieces that we needed, like sleeping mats and gas canisters for the camping stove, and then headed for the forex. It was a public holiday in South Africa (we didn’t know this until the previous day) so we had until 12pm to get dollars. We got to the forex at about half ten, and there was a massive queue. I was sweating by now. We went to the ATM to withdraw rand to exchange, and my card decided not to work. I realised I hadn’t told my bank that I was going to be anywhere other than Mozambique. The others were very nice about it, but it meant that getting enough dollars was going to be a problem. I felt terrible.
Then, problems flared up at the counter. A man wanted to exchange his dollars for rand, and he wasn’t able to. Then there was a rumour that this place didn’t have many dollars anyway. Charlie collared the man with the dollars and asked if we could buy them. I was by now a gibbering wreck, absolutely convinced that this was in some way illegal, and that we were being fleeced, and we were about to be arrested, deported, or shot. To be conducting unofficial currency exchanges in the middle of a forex seemed to me the height of money laundering activities and I was very scared, being a big scaredy cat who doesn’t break rules and has a very healthy respect for authority. Charlie and Caty (God, especially Caty) are goddamn rebels and told me to have some chill. Caty and I stood in the corner counting out THOUSANDS of rand while Charlie liaised with man. The man didn’t have as many dollars as we needed, so then another dude piped up with dollars he wanted to sell. I was absolutely convinced that the dollars we were buying were counterfeit or covered in cocaine, and as soon as we left the building the FBI would pounce.
Surprisingly, this didn’t happen, and after exchanging a small amount using the official channels(!), we had all the dollars we needed. I was still mortified about my failed bank card, and rang my bank to ask them to unblock it, while the other two sighed and rolled their eyes about what a muppet I was. So it was to my delight that the bank were like, “nah mate, your card is fine, you told us you were going away and you can use it anywhere, it doesn’t matter that you’ve gone from Moz to SA, it was just a dodgy ATM – try it again somewhere else and it should be fine.” I was very pleased and smugly told the others that it wasn’t because I was a moron. They looked unconvinced.
Then it was back to the car park to fit in the new stuff we’d bought – including halloumi! – into the car and we were on our way to Kruger National Park.