Miles on the clock: 32,945
Sebastian is five. He is walking along the dusty verge of the road with a five-litre container of water held stable on his head with his left hand. His little sister’s hand is grasped firmly in his right. It is hot and the diminutive pair plod slowly in the wake of their mother who has a yellow, ‘Made in China’ water container on her head. It weighs 20kg but she needs no hands to steady it. Her long-practiced, smooth gait is second nature and her muscular neck is comfortably rigid; perfectly straight. She also has a baby tightly tied to her lower back with a sheet of cotton, the colourful patterns now faded.
Bicycles are normal here, the easiest way to carry heavy loads. Nobody in the village owns a car. Still, there is something different about this bicycle shape. These are not bundles of wood or bags of charcoal or a tightly-bound goat being carried. They are unfamiliar bags. Worse still, as the rider nears the increasingly-uncertain group of three, the high sun’s darkening, silhouetting effect fades and it becomes a white man. A white man with hair all over his face and head. This is either Jesus come to save us or a stranger, a bad man, bringing nothing but trouble!
Sebastian’s mother makes a decision as her panic rises. She grabs his hand. He grips his sister’s hand tighter and the four Mozambican villagers hurry into the bushes, dropping Sebastian’s water in their frantic dash. They peer out as the amused, and yet a little offended, white-skinned apparition cycles past looking back at their uncertain, leaf-obscured faces.
It wasn’t Jesus. It was me, and I am not him, despite being called by his name on a daily basis for the last couple of months. His name...and also that of Chuck Norris. Bush dwellers on Northern Mozambique’s little travelled roads fled from me on an hourly basis.
* * *
Two hundred miles of parched, brown bush was my first taste of Mozambique. At the border I’d been warned of lions in the area. The road dipped and bobbed across a hilly landscape punctuated by bulbous, freestanding rock formations. It was hot. The villages were few, far between, and very poor. Rude mud walls; grass thatch roofs; simple shapes roughly daubed on walls with a darker shade of mud. Maputo, the capital, is so far south that it’s effectively out of mind, as is the funding and aid that rarely reaches this far into the remote northwest.
My first night in the country was presided over by a clear sky housing an ebullient full moon. Faint but continuous drumming floated through the bush to my tent where I sought sleep and found sweat.
I breakfasted in the half-light cast by a setting moon and an approaching sun. By 8am the temperature soared and tedious headwinds heckled. I stopped at every water pump to top up. The women that didn’t run either eyed me suspiciously or laughed openly at me. Several times water was kindly pumped for me by women simultaneously breastfeeding.
Occasional mango trees, massive and fecund, were to be found in groves that locked in cooler air. Their dark shelter were as oases to me and I read and dozed through scorching afternoons; gorging on their unowned bounty.
For three days the heat hovered in the mid-forties. I rose early and watched from the saddle as the wobbling, orange sun hefted itself above the horizon. The southerly wind licked with a dry, rasping tongue, mercilessly stealing any moisture on my body and in my mouth. Sweat evaporated instantly on departure from pores. My tires’ friction on the simmering tarmac melted glue on past puncture repairs and I found myself wheeling Old Geoff into the shade for surgery on an almost hourly basis.
Few people spoke any English and I spoke no Portuguese so I was able to converse little. I saw few people anyway. The shadowy shapes of human figures in various attitudes of somnolent recline melded into the shade of roadside trees, seldom moving or noticing the abnormality pedalling by.
I had a time press to reach South Africa so forged on fast across mile after mile of uneventful bush. I dislike rushing. It goes against the ethos of this journey. When one rushes on a bicycle all there is to look forward to is food and sleep, and finishing rushing.
It was too hot and dry for mosquitos so I slept in the open, enjoying the cooler night breezes. On the third night out of Tete the wind picked up. I lay down my sleeping bag on a patch of deeply-cracked mud and tried to sleep. A mouse had other ideas. It silently and repeatedly crept close to me before scuffling noisily around and scurrying away.
The wind flapped the tent violently and soon snapped the pole – the pole that had survived three and a half years of regular use. So, defeated and exhausted, I struggled out of the sad ruins of tent and lay on top of them to prevent them being blown away. At this point the rain began. Utterly deflated, I wrapped myself in the remains of the tent and slept fitfully while the rain thoroughly soaked slowly though me. At least the mouse pissed off; probably into a warm, sheltered, dry hole in the ground.
The rain continued through the morning when I rose to discover both my tires were flat. At this point I was as close to the end of my tether as I’ve been in many months. Thankfully I reached a town before too long and sat in a café where a friendly Eritrean man questioned me about my journey and gave me cup after cup of sweet, milky tea. The kindness of strangers is often my revival at low points.
Mentally refreshed, I wheeled back out into the rain and made peace with an afternoon, night, and following day of general sogginess. Wind drove chilly water down my neck and through my panniers. Once accepted, discomfort is less of a problem.
The rain drizzled to a halt during the night I spent sleeping in an unwalled cooking hut – one of three thatched huts that a three-generation family inhabited. A mangy cat cuddled up to me and a couple of chickens roosted on a bar a couple of feet from my head. It was a good night’s sleep.
I rode into Chimoio on a hot morning and followed directions to the workshop and offices of the HALO Trust. I’d been put in touch with Olly by a friend who also works for the charitable mine clearing operation. Olly showed me samples of the various mines they deal with and how they detect/detonate them. There are only two minefields remaining in Mozambique so hopefully HALO will finish its objective next year after 20 years of operation in the country. Olly kindly put me up in their staff house for a couple of days of rest.
Traversing flat land and repetitive scenery, I found time splayed strangely. There was nothing to note the passage of miles except the sun’s movement and increasing tiredness. Three hours could pass in an instant and then ten minutes could last an eternity. I soon stopped looking at my clock and aimed for a blank-minded, trance-like state that I rarely achieve but is satisfying to emerge from and find you’ve cheated time and distance.
I’d heard a month earlier of trouble stirring in the Rio Save area of Mozambique. The former anti-government rebels, Renamo, had lurched back into action and declared an end to the peace treaty that closed the country’s brutal 16-year civil war two decades ago. Renamo forces stormed a police station and armed guerrillas had begun attacking vehicles crossing a 60-mile stretch of road.
Everyone had fled into the bush. It was eerie. I saw not a soul for a few hours and soon found out why. A truck sprawled in the middle of the road - well, what remained of it. Tire skid marks told of an abrupt stop, and several bullet casings on the tarmac told of a struggle or at least warning shots into the air. The cargo had been looted and the truck was burned out. The mostly-melted rubber of the former tires still smouldered and the air was acrid.
Feeling foolish, I hurriedly took a few photos and then got back on my bike and rode quickly away. The convoy soon shot past me at a frantic pace. About 100 vehicles, most with soldiers perched on the back clutching automatic rifles. At the front and back were armoured personal carriers. Surprised faces would materialise for an instant in the passing blur of each window. Soon I was left in silence again.
I started to feel uneasy. When I got a puncture I dragged my bike behind a thick bush to repair it. I camped far from the road, surrounded by aggressive looking thorn bushes. My ears were pricked deep into the darkness hours.
The road continued south, unaware of these problems. The road is always unaware. Because it is a road.
I neared the coast, and even sniffed salt in the air but the route remained largely inland. The dry bush gradually gave way to tall palms and lush, green mango trees. Groups of boys stood around these trees hurling unripe fruit into the higher branches to dislodge the juicier prizes. The glade like, sheltered areas underneath the palm canopy harboured tidy huts with walls woven from fronds. Roadside charcoal stalls were joined by coconut stalls. I’d reached the coast on my bicycle for the first time since Egypt five months earlier.
About twenty miles north of Maxixe I heard a sudden sharp PING! My front wheel’s rim had finally given in after years of service. It was on the bike when I brought it second-hand in 2007. With regret, I hailed a passing truck and got a lift into the town. I asked a Ghanaian-born Canadian woman for directions to a bike shop and she kindly offered me a shower and a bed for the night. Antoinette is teaching English literature at the university and treated me to a cooked dinner, sending me out onto the road feeling refreshed in the morning. I bought a new wheel for £9 and ploughed on towards Maputo.
I rested for a day and then left the coast and headed west. The ride to Swaziland was short and increasingly hilly. A brisk, sweaty morning deposited me at the border of ‘The Switzerland of Africa’.