Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Five Beaches and a Lake: Stanley in Mozambique, Land of the Sunbird

Sabie, South Africa, June 8, 2016

It always seems to take much longer than it should to get around to distilling experiences into blog posts.  The essence of blogging should be its immediacy and speed, and yet it seems to take me a few weeks (or even months) to get around to it.  I’d like to claim that it’s because it takes that long to ruminate on events and assess their significance, beauty and interest, but that would be a lie.  Mostly it’s that I don’t get around to it because I have other things (usually further travel) occupying my time and my mental phase space.  We left Mozambique 9 days ago, and we’ve been in a bit of a holding pattern, but I still am only getting around to writing about our wonderful two weeks in that unfortunate country now that it’s a grey day and we’ve done the hiking that we wanted to do in this area.
Waves coming into Pomene

I had been looking forward to visiting Mozambique for years.  I had heard about its lovely beaches and its historic remnants from other travellers and from friends who had worked in the country.  I heard that it was rebuilding after its brutal years of independence struggle and subsequent civil war, and that it was an optimistic place.  Looking through the Lonely Planet, it sounded as though there was a lot to see throughout the immense length of the country, and we planned to drive Stanley north, at least as far as the main border crossing into Zimbabwe, preferably as far as the Malawi border, and maybe as far north as the Quirimba Archipelago, about which I had heard great things.  Unfortunately while we were in Johannesburg in early April, having brunch with Erin Conway-Smith, fellow ex-Thunder Bay-ite and current Economist correspondent for southern Africa, she told Terri and me that things were rapidly falling apart in Mozambique, with Renamo, the losing side in the civil war, having walked out of government over its demands to rule the northern provinces of the country.  There were reports of frequent shooting attacks on traffic on the EN1, the main north-south highway of the country, carried out by Renamo, and of government retaliation against civilians in the Gorongosa and Manica provinces where Renamo’s centre of support is.  In an article in the Global Post, Erin wrote about the very real dangers of the civil war kicking off again, and urged us to be careful and keep ourselves informed about the current state of play in the country.  I subscribed to a couple of newletters and Twitter newsfeeds on the country, including the excellent Zenaida Machado (a Mozambican journalist) and as we travelled through Kruger, I would follow developments in the country, none of which looked good.  Hidden debts used to fund useless tuna trawlers and line officials’ pockets; imminent default on the country’s foreign debt; the IMF and Western countries cutting off financial support; more shootings; mass graves in Gorongosa.  We set off for Mozambique already thinking that we might not be able to venture beyond the beautiful beaches of the south, firmly held by the Frelimo government and out of range of the Kalashnikovs of Renamo.

On the dusty road through Limpopo Park

We entered Mozambique on Thursday, May 12th, at Giriyondo border post.  This is one of the most soporific border crossings imaginable.  We arrived at 8:05, just as they opened for business, and crossed relatively quickly, although not painlessly.  We were the first vehicle to enter Mozambique there that day; we heard later that in total three vehicles crossed all day.  The South African side was relatively quick, while the Mozambican side was a bit more leisurely.  We regretted not doing our homework and reading up on visas in more detail.  Mozambique issues 30-day single-entry visas at the border, but the prices vary wildly depending on the currency in which you pay.  In Mozambican meticais, the price is Mt 2085, or a little under US$ 40.  If you pay in South African rand, the price is R 785, which is about US$ 52 at current exchange rates.  If, however, like us you want to pay in US dollars, it’s US$ 90 per person, which is an outrageous markup.  We scrounged together enough rand to buy one visa, then swallowed the loss and bought the other in dollars, muttering under our breaths.  Perhaps the visa prices (which were on an old printed list) were set when the rand and the metical had not yet fallen off a currency cliff.

Terri at Fish Eagle Camp
We drove along a reasonable dirt track for the next hour and a half to get to Campismo Aguia Pesqueira (Fish Eagle Camp), through the Parque Nacional de Limpopo.  In theory Kruger, Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe and Limpopo Park in Mozambique should form a single tri-national wildlife safety zone that is one of the biggest wildlife reserves in southern Africa.  In practice, Limpopo is almost bereft of wildlife, its elephants and lions poached long ago.  We drove through scrubby forest very similar to the bush on the South African side, and yet we saw barely a single animal, other than a snake, a handful of zebra and a few impala.  It was sad; there were barely even any birds.  Despite Kruger’s relative lack of visible game, it was still the Garden of Eden in comparison with Limpopo.

Fish Eagle Camp sunset over Massangir Dam
We pulled into Fish Eagle Camp around noon and instantly fell in love.  It’s a wonderfully situated campsite, high above the waters of the Massangir Dam, and the campsite itself is well appointed, with nice bathrooms and braai pits.  We found a great spot with a particularly good angle for sunset and settled in.  We did some exercises, then went for a stroll down to the shore of the reservoir.  As we returned for sunset, another 4x4 camper drove up and picked the campsite next to ours, doubling the number of inhabitants of this idyllic spot.  It was a German couple, Edith and Marcel, in a camper that they had rented in South Africa.  We watched the  wonderfully coloured sunset together and, after an excellent dinner of steaks grilled on the braai, we had them over for whisky and Amarula and stories.  They had wanted to do a similar trip to ours a few years ago but had been put off by the hassle and paperwork involved in buying a vehicle in South Africa, so they were interested in how we had managed it.  In the dark we could see the fires of the local villagers who were cultivating maize and running cattle in the bush near the water; between farming and fishing, it’s not that surprising that there aren’t many wild animals to be seen around the park, other than a few beautiful fish eagles soaring high overhead.

The next morning we waved goodbye to Marcel and Edith as we made an early getaway after our usual feast of oatmeal and fruit a la Terri.  We drove out over 20 km of fairly awful track before we left the park and turned unexpectedly onto asphalt.  Our map had shown dirt roads all the way to the coast, so it was a pleasant surprise.  We crossed the massive dam wall, then turned into the small town of Massangir, where we got money out of an ATM (no more miserable exchange rates for dollars for us!), bought a SIM card, had a bite to eat and tried (unsuccessfully) to buy third-party car insurance (compulsory in Mozambique) with the help of a friendly local guy, Artur, who worked for the national park as an agricultural extension officer.  Marcel and Edith drove by and headed off towards the coast.  We drove as far as Chokwe along a new, smooth, empty asphalt road.  Chokwe was a substantial town, full of banks and shops and offices, so we got more money from an ATM, had a splendid lunch and eventually found an insurance guy who sold us a month’s third party insurance for MT 660 (about US$ 12).  I was having fun trying to speak Portuguese, a language I don’t know.  I basically spoke Spanish, trying to put on a Portuguese-sounding accent, and hoped for the best, and often it worked.

Chidenguele dawn
The drive to Chidenguele was long, made longer by the horrible state of the road after Chokwe.  The next 40 km were paved road that was in such a potholed state that it was much worse than a dirt road would have been.  Lots of slaloming between craters, driving beside the road and (finally) a detour onto a parallel dirt road that was both a lot better for driving and a lot more scenic than the ruined highway.  Progress was slow, made slower by our fear of being pulled over by the traffic police.  South African tourists are a big target for the traffic cops, who patrol the speed zones around towns (80 km/h on the outskirts, 60 km/h in the town, with the signs frequently missing) and insist that you were speeding and show an old, stored speed gun reading to back up their claim.  We drove with exaggerated caution past Chibuto and down to the coastal road as darkness fell around us.  We finally hit the main EN1 road just east of Xai Xai and continued another 50 km to the Chidenguele turnoff, where we drove another 4 km down increasingly sandy tracks to reach the idyllic Sunset Beach Resort, where we found Marcel and Edith already established.  They had arrived an hour before us but had been pulled over for speeding along the way, only escaping by genuinely not having a single metical to their name to pay the fine.  The campsite was very nice, with individual bathroom/dishwashing huts and great shade trees.  We slept well after a great fish dinner in the restaurant.

Graydon on the beach at Chidenguele
In the morning, we woke up early with the small, noisy child in the campsite opposite ours, and went up to the restaurant to watch the sunrise.  It was our first view of the Mozambique coast, and it lived up to its billing.  We were above the beach, perched on a sand dune, and the surf of the waves provided a great backdrop of white noise.  We went for a brief walk along the beach before breakfast, then ate in the restaurant before taking a much longer stroll along the completely deserted beach for a couple of hours.  White-fronted plovers and crabs were the only other creatures taking a stroll along the golden sands, and it was a relief after so many days cooped up in the car in Kruger to walk for so long with the wet sand beneath our toes.  When we got back I went out for a run along the road we had driven the night before, as far as a lagoon where fishermen were casting their nets and locals were filling up water jugs.  Back at Sunset Beach we took a dip in the swimming pool, did some yoga, had a luxurious late lunch overlooking the beach  and then bought a freshly spearfished snapper from a local guy who was selling fish to the restaurant.  We cooked it up on the braai, the first of a number of memorable home-cooked seafood dinners in Mozambique.
Terri on the beach at Chidenguele

We had a lazy morning the next day, doing yoga, juggling, lazing over breakfast, and didn’t even start driving until 10 am.  Terri was at the wheel when we had two encounters with traffic cops keen to shake us down, but since we were nowhere near the speed limit, Terri managed to talk our way through both speed traps.  We switched drivers and I was at the wheel as we turned off EN 1 at Lindela for the long trundle towards Inhambane.  We had decided to stay in Paindane, about which we had heard good things, and everything went well until the last 5 km.  The track had been getting sandier and sandier, and suddenly we were stuck in deep sand.  We engaged our 4WD and then got out of the first sand trap, deciding to take another road around.  We got stuck on that one too, and local kids and adults helped push us out, but it was tough going.  What we should have done, and didn’t because we weren’t aware of how much a difference it makes, was to let most of the air out of our tires, all the way down to 1.0 or even 0.8 bar, to greatly increase the contact area of the tire with the sand and “float” us better, rather like fat skis in powder snow.  We continued spinning our way furiously, followed by a small battalion of excited kids who knew that they would be digging us out again soon.  I managed to get us to within 100 metres of our destination before finally and definitively getting mired in sand so deeply that our wheels could no longer even spin, as our differential was buried in the sand.  We dug and dug and dug, using the spade that came with Stanley, but were unable to get out. 
The lagoon at Inhassiro

I walked up the road to the Paindane Resort and to the neighbouring resort in search of a vehicle that might be able to pull us out of the sand.  Paindane Resort was all but deserted, with only a security guard on hand, but Vossie, a South African dive instructor, was at the neighbouring resort and came to our rescue.  He asked why we hadn’t deflated our tires properly (a fair question), deflated them all to 0.8 bar and then tried unsuccessfully to pull us out.  As it turned out, his tires weren’t properly deflated on his Land Cruiser and his Hi-Lift jack wasn’t working, so he retreated in search of replacement parts for the jack.  In the meantime I had been digging, along with the team of local kids and an adult, and we had managed to free the diff from the sand.  Putting the vehicle in low-range 4WD I was able to free myself from the sand just as Vossie returned.  We drove Stanley over the sand into Paindane Resort, managed to get the security guard to agree to let us camp outside a cottage (we were the only guests of the entire resort) and cooked up dinner (a fish curry, using the leftover snapper from the night before).  It was a spectacular spot to camp, high up above the ocean, and we slept well.
Lobster lunch at Paindane

Having expended so much effort to get to Paindane, we weren’t keen to leave too soon, so we spent a couple of days there.  On the first day we had a local spear-fisherman, Peter, drop by and ask if we wanted him to catch us any fish.  We agreed to take some lobster, and by lunchtime he was back with 9 lobsters; we had 4 for lunch and kept 5 for later consumption.  We lunched magnificently looking out over the bay and the fringing reef, and then dropped by Vossie’s resort (20 metres behind where we were staying) to see about going diving the next day.  We agreed to go as he promised dragon moray eels (something I had never seen before) and gave us a very reasonable price (290 rand for a dive, plus 220 rand for gear rental, for a total of US$ 34 if we did one dive or US$ 53 if we did two).  We then went for a long walk along the beach north towards adjacent Guinjata Beach in search of a supermarket.  It was a beautiful walk, with lots of shells and crabs to distract our attention and great light.  Taurus supermarket, tucked into a bay full of South African holiday homes and a couple of big resorts (Jeff’s and Guinjata Bay) was full of imported South African goodies at inflated prices, but we were low on supplies and had no choice but to stock up there.  We had great sunset light on the walk back, and supped magnificently on leftover fish curry.

In the night the wind changed direction and started blowing hard from the southeast, rattling the canvas tent sides of Stanley.  We woke up to a windy morning and a building swell.  We walked up to Vossie’s and suited up for a dive.  His dive shop was well-appointed and he seemed to be a very experienced and competent dive instructor.  We drove down to the launching point on the beach, climbed aboard the rigid-bottomed Zodiac and headed out into the sea.  Our dive site, Dragon’s Ledge, was beyond the shelter of the fringing reef that protects Paindane Beach, and it was pretty rough water by the time we dropped overboard.  We did a negative entry, dropping immediately below the surface swell.  The wind shift had changed the currents and we ended up fighting current for much of the dive, meaning that I sucked my air down faster than usual.  We had a good dive:  the dragon morays were there, along with more usual marble morays in some profusion, all attracted to a cleaning station where legions of cleaner shrimp serviced them.  We missed a turtle on the initial descent (Vossie saw him, but we weren’t fast enough to turn our heads before he vanished into the distance) but had a number of pipefish, lionfish and two rays, one an electric ray and the other a very large blotched ray, to feast our eyes on.  The coral was nothing special, and we did our safety stop out in the blue, but it was still an interesting dive, my first in nearly 2 years (since Indonesia in August, 2014).  We surfaced to even bigger waves, and decided against a second dive in the worsening conditions.  We beached the boat on the sand in a crazy James Bond-esque manoeuvre that had us holding onto the side ropes for dear life with our toes tucked into floor straps as Vossie gunned the engine at full throttle to hurl us clear of the surf.  I have never landed on a beach like that, and would be happy never to do it again.  We sat around at the resort afterwards chatting with Vossie about his 9 years in Mozambique, the local attitude toward conservation (complete disdain), the fate of dugongs and manta rays (eaten for food; there aren’t any in the area anymore), the malign influence of China in Mozambique, the deteriorating security situation with Renamo, and the perils of not treating coral cuts immediately.

Terri at Paindane
We went back to our deserted resort and had another massive lobster feast before I went out for a run in the dunes.  It was really hard work running through the soft sand, and I returned with tired legs.  Having lunched so magnificently, we settled for a toast and soup supper and an early night.

In the morning we packed up to leave, but not before the resort manager finally made an appearance to collect money for our stay.  Paindane, like much of the Mozambique coast, is full of resorts that have either closed or are barely ticking over.  All the tourists come from South Africa and outside of major school holiday times, there are very few South Africans coming to Mozambique.  Apparently tourist numbers have been declining for a couple of years with a worsening economic outlook in South Africa, but xenophobic riots in South Africa last year in which a Mozambican man was lynched by a mob led to a mass exodus of South Africans from Mozambique and a plunge in tourist numbers.  Mozambique has a lot to offer, with long stretches of unspoiled coastline, but South Africans are reluctant to come to a place that is falling apart politically and where they feel unsafe.  Paindane Resort was apparently only open during major holiday times, and was basically closed when we arrived, although they were happy to take our money.  Peter the spear-fisherman showed up with some freshly caught snapper and, after some negotiation, we agreed a price for four fish weighing in at a total of 3.5 kg, which we tossed into our refrigerator.

Terri at Morrungulo
We set off towards Morrungulo, described to us as the nicest campsite on the Mozambican coast.  Terri drove us out across the sands; with the tires deflated, it was relatively easy and even rather fun to drive, a complete contrast to our dismal arrival.  We got out to the main gravel road and used the small air compressor that Etienne, the previous owner, had bought for Stanley to re-inflate our tires to road pressures; we were glad for Etienne’s meticulous care in equipping the vehicle for all possibilities.  In the town of Maxixe, back on EN1, we stopped for an ATM and to get Vodacom to get my cellular data service to work on my (not so-) smartphone.  It took the young woman a while to figure out the problem, but eventually I had a working data connection.  
Terri making friends at Massinga market
We drove off north towards Morrongulo, stopping in Massinga for fresh vegetables before we turned off the road for the beach.  This road was hard-packed and such easy driving that we didn’t have to deflate tires or even engage 4WD.  The campground is in a faded colonial-era resort that is slightly overpriced and slightly rule-bound, but situated in an absolutely lovely shady garden that fronts directly onto the ocean.  I raced out to swim in the surf, although the fierce longshore current made bodysurfing tricky.  
White-fronted plover, Morrungulo
We chatted with James and Barbara, the Zimbabwean couple who have run the place for years, and with Harry, their son, an engineering graduate who has returned to help run the place.  Terri cooked up a feast of breaded snapper fillets and we went to bed with full stomachs, happy with the loveliness of the area.

Our day off in Morrongulo was pretty idyllic.  After a lingering big breakfast, we went for a long walk along the beach, then put on our running shoes and went for a run.  We passed other, almost-deserted resorts like Sylvia Shoal, as well as armies of pink crabs that ran away into the surf on our approach.  After doing some yoga, we went for a swim, then tried out our folding Giant Expressway bicycles for the first time.  It wasn’t ideal conditions, with soft sand on the road playing havoc with our bike tires, but it was still good to get out and ride a bit, past a few tiny bakeries in the village and past newly-built houses set in banana, coconut and cashew plantations.  It was all rather idyllic.  Another feast of snapper fillets and we were in bed early to escape the searching south-easterly wind that hadn’t died down in two days.
Multilingual but bread-less bakery, Morrungulo

We were reluctant to leave the beauty of Morrongulo, but talking to other campers there we had heard that Pomene, which had been on our wish list for ever since watching a nature documentary set there, was well worth the long sandy detour involved in getting there.  We stocked up on food back in Massinga and then turned off for the 57 kilometres of dirt roads and sand dunes that separated us from Pomene.   It was an easy drive until we entered the Pomene Nature Reserve and ran into deep sand.  We were wise enough this time to deflate our tires and had no difficulty, other than believing in our GPS, in arriving at Pomene Lodge, easily the loveliest place we stayed in all of Mozambique.  The lodge is located on a narrow spit of sand between the Indian Ocean and a saltwater lagoon, and we put Stanley in the shelter of some trees with a view out towards the ocean.  Jorge, the friendly Mozambican man at the front desk, was a fount of information and sent us out towards the tip of the sand spit to watch the sunset and look for flamingoes.  Both quests were successful:  the sun set over the retreating waters of the lagoon in a pleasingly beautiful lightshow, while a group of several dozen flamingoes posed for us in the lagoon.  We even had the bonus of seeing a humpback lagoon surfacing periodically as he hunted for fish.  As we walked back to Stanley, plovers and crabs scuttled along the sand.  The nearly-full moon rose out of the ocean in a fiery orange ball, and we went to bed satisfied.
Stanley on the beach, Pomene

The next day the weather had become even windier, stirring up a steady swell.  We walked along the beach for a wonderful hour, past a myriad plovers and salmon-pink crabs and a handful of local villagers, to the ruins of the Portuguese-era Pomene Hotel.  We strolled around the headland to the bay tucked around behind, looking for the blowholes that start up at high tide.  We waited for a couple of hours, but the blowholes never really got going.  The scenery made up for it, though, with big swells surging into the sheltered rock pool through a narrow keyhole gap in the rocks and colourful crabs scuttling across the limestone rocks.  After a while, with the sun sinking in the western sky, we gave up on blowholes and walked back to Pomene Lodge along the sandy track we had driven on the day before.  We passed through the fishing village of Pomene and looked in vain for anyone selling fresh fish.  
Pomene flamingoes
On a tip from Andre and Carien, two South Africans we had met in Morrongulo, we asked around for Doc, a local woodcarver.  He wasn’t at his stand, but we were directed to his house in the village.  We arranged for him to cook us a feast of big mangrove crabs the next day and then continued our walk back to the lodge, with sunbirds accompanying us along the way in the bush.  The sunset was just as beautiful as the day before, and the full moon rising over the ocean, an hour later, was spectacular.  We cooked chicken on the braai (in the absence of fish), watched the moon light up the ocean and basked in the natural beauty of the place, glad that we had come to Pomene.
Tree art, Pomene

Pomene pink crabs
Sunday, May 22nd we awoke to local women strolling by to sell avocadoes, passion fruit, fresh bread and oranges.  We got up, had a breakfast of toast, tomatoes and avocadoes, then rented a sea kayak for the day for US$ 12 and went out for a paddle on the lagoon.  The tide was going out, and it was hard work paddling upstream against the tidal current.  The lagoon was rapidly becoming shallower, and finding deepwater channels became challenging.  There were birds everywhere:  distant flamingoes, cormorants and egrets up close, pied kingfishers hovering over the water to pounce on fish.  The mangrove swamps lining the edges of the estuary teemed with crabs and birds, and everywhere villagers were out casting nets and gathering some of the abundant shellfish.  
Sand art, Pomene
We made our way as far upstream as we could before the stream petered out into mudflats and oxbow lakes.  We drifted back with the current and made it back to Pomene Lodge in time for a quick swim and a long run along the beach before setting off for our late crab lunch.  We stopped by Doc’s place and then were directed to his father’s restaurant.  His father is chief of the village and is clearly the wealthiest guy in town.  Doc eventually appeared with a huge platter of rice and crab stewed in coconut milk and we sated ourselves.  It was interesting to get into the village and see how life outside our idyllic campground worked; mostly, Doc’s father and his friends sat around watching Premier League football while his sister-in-law served us food.  Kids kicked around ragged footballs and steered elaborate handmade metal toy cars around the streets.  As we drove back to the lodge, we passed neatly tended huts and compounds with fish being smoked over fires.  The sunset that evening surpassed the previous two, as did the moonrise.  I sat playing guitar on the beach, and it was hard to believe that we were ever going to want to leave Pomene.
At the old hotel, Pomene

Smoking fish in Pomene

Pomene sunset
Sadly, the next morning saw us leaving.  We hadn’t arrived with very much cash, and the lodge didn’t accept credit cards, so we were out of money until we got back to the main road.  On the way out of the lodge, we had a couple of baby plovers running like mad along the sand in front of Stanley, waving their tiny stubby wings madly.  We stopped and waited for them to get out of the wheel ruts, but the chicks, only a few days old, weren’t strong enough to climb up out of the tracks and into the surrounding bush for several minutes.  It was a long sandy slog out of Pomene on partly deflated tires, along a track chewed up by people trying to drive on fully inflated tires, and just after leaving the nature reserve we pulled out the compressor again and reinflated the tires.  We made it back to EN1 and turned north.  It was an uneventful drive to Vilanculos, an actual beach town, and our first couple of stops were for cash and to refill the diesel tanks.  We looked around for a place to stay, but weren’t terribly impressed by the lodgings in town and couldn’t find anything north of town.

Pomene sunset
We ended up driving south of town, following a ridiculous route plotted by our GPS, to the Blue Water Lodge.  We arrived there not long before sundown to find it had closed for business months before.  Luckily the caretaker wasn’t averse to us camping there for a consideration that went directly into her pocket.  The initial asking price was Mtc 1000 (US$ 20) for one night without any power or water.  We bargained that down to the same price for three nights, then sat beside the empty swimming pool gazing out to sea, sipping a sundowner and watching fishing dhows returning to shore from the islands of the Bazaruto Archipelago.  We headed down to the beach and, in my miserable pidgin Portuguese, managed to buy a couple of decent-sized snappers from one incoming boat for a great price of Mtc 200, far cheaper than we had paid in Chidenguele or Paindane.  We cooked the larger one on the braai, watched the moon rise over the bay, thinking about the slightly melancholic feeling of being in a closed-down resort.   It was yet another reminder of the decline of the Mozambique tourism industry. 
Re-inflating the tires on the road out of Pomene

We spent two lovely days in Vilanculos.  The first day we slept in, had another big oatmeal and fruit breakfast and then spent time doing yoga and going for a long run on the beach at low tide, when it looked almost as though we could walk all the way out to the islands of the archipelago, ten kilometres offshore.  We lunched on toast, tomatoes and avocadoes and then drove into town to fill up our water tank, buy some groceries and see about a boat trip out to the islands.  We ended up booking a snorkelling trip with Dolphin Dhow Safaris, run by the grandson of an Indian immigrant who lamented the fall in tourist numbers which had led to him cutting back from eight boats to two, laying off most of his employees.  We returned to Blue Water to cook up a delicious fish and coconut curry after watching a dramatic sunset light show in the sky. 
Vilankulo fish braai

The day of our boat trip dawned sunny and cloudless.  We made our way to Dolphin Dhow and set off in a dhow, sadly under motor power and not under sail, with an Irishman, Paul, and a Kiwi woman, Jacqui, probably the only two real backpackers in Vilanculos.  It was fun to sit and chat about our various travel experiences and to watch the light flash green over the sandy shallows.  We watched keen-eyed for signs of dugongs, found in the area, but had no luck; we probably needed to head out further towards the fringing reef to have had a more realistic chance of spotting them.  We landed on tiny Macaruque Island and spent a few hours walking the dunes, watching the cormorants and crabs and snorkelling in the lagoon.  
Macaruque Island sea colours
The sky clouded over and a few spits of rain came down, making for dramatic skies but cold snorkelling.  We had a big lunch on the beach, then motored back, passing dhows that were floundering under sail in the almost windless afternoon.  That evening Terri cooked up a lentil stew and we did some internet activities until a sudden burst of rain drove us under the roof of an open-sided hut (a barraca, in Portuguese).  We fell asleep to the sound of drizzle, and were awakened several times in the night by torrential downpours.

Terri on the beach on Macaruque Island
We had decided not to push on further north from Vilanculos, with our Twitter feed bringing us news almost every day of further shooting attacks on the EN1.  Instead we packed up Stanley on the morning of Thursday, May 26th and set off on the long drive south, back to Chidenguele.  We split the driving; I used my passenger stint to try to book camping spaces in Kruger again.  It was a futile quest, and we ended up deciding against backtracking through Kruger in favour of the direct route through Maputo and Ressano Garcia.  I took the wheel after Maxixe and drove us through huge cloudbursts to Chidenguele.  We had almost no run-ins with the traffic police, although there were an increased number of security checkpoints, perhaps in response to the surge in Renamo attacks.  It was a pleasure to return to the familiar loveliness of Chidenguele, where we had the campground to ourselves.  It felt strange to have water, 24-hour electricity and a reliable cellular data signal again.  I braaied up some delicious steaks and took advantage of the data connectivity to restore my iPod after iTunes had deleted all my podcasts a few days earlier.
Macaruque Island, Bazaruto Archipelago

Friday, May 27th was our last day in Mozambique and it went remarkably smoothly.  We set off early, drove steadily past Xai Xai to the northern outskirts of Maputo, where a half-finished ring road brought us to the EN4 towards the border with only a few stretches of mud and potholes to navigate.  The EN4 is newly built, smooth and mostly empty, so we raced to the border unexpectedly early.  The border crossing was remarkably smooth and easy, with only the minor hassle of would-be touts trying to earn a few meticais by telling us to do what we were already doing.  We traded the rest of our meticais for rand with one of the hundreds of women sitting beside the road with bundles of banknotes and crossed back into the familiar confines of South Africa after two enjoyable, beautiful weeks in Mozambique.
Tree art, Macaruque

We really enjoyed the Mozambique coast, and had a great time.  We had very few hassles from the traffic police, and other than that had very positive interactions with Mozambicans.  We had pristine, wild beaches almost entirely to ourselves, ate delicious seafood, saw lots of colourful sunbirds and made use of our transport freedom to see some really wonderful places, especially Pomene.  It was a bit sad seeing the decline of the tourist industry, and sadder seeing the signs of Mozambique’s impending decline into economic malaise and possible civil war, but overall it was a very positive experience.  I only wish we had been able to continue north directly to Malawi, rather than making a multi-thousand kilometre detour to avoid the depredations of a bunch of cash-hungry hoodlums.  I would gladly come back to Mozambique in the future when the central third of the country has calmed down again. 
Pomene sunset

Sand art, Macaruque Island

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Volunteering in Livingstone, March 2016

Martigny, April 23rd

Terri and I arrived in Livingstone, Zambia on March 8th, more than six weeks ago.  It’s funny to think that since I left Leysin last June, I had not spent three weeks in one place at one time until our three-week sojourn in Livingstone, and it seems unlikely that I will spend three weeks in any other place for a long time to come.  It felt as though I had given up my nomadism for a while, but since then we have restarted our peregrinations in South Africa, so it’s normal service resumed.
Terri, Angela and the 15 Kumon students at Victoria Falls

After two enjoyable weeks at my mother’s place in Ottawa and another week in Thunder Bay visiting my father, getting a flavour of the winter that I have missed by being in the southern hemisphere (although Ottawa has had a record-breaking El Nino-fuelled warm winter), I flew to London overnight on March 6th-7th and had ten hours between flights, so I hopped on the Tube and headed into the city to visit my friend Sean and his girlfriend Shelby.  We had an outrageously good tapas lunch at a restaurant in Katherine’s Wharf, a tiny chic yacht harbour tucked away near the Tower of London.  It was good to see Sean, whom I last saw in Bali 18 months ago.  We have crossed paths all over the world, from France to Egypt to London to Japan to Bali, ever since we met as bicycle tour guides working for Butterfield and Robinson back in 1997.  Sean had to hurry back to work, but I still had a few hours, so I went to the Botticelli Reimagined exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  The first part of the exhibit was kind of strange:  20th century uses of Boticelli’s Birth of Venus in all sorts of post-modernist settings.  The second part showed how the Pre-Raphaelites were influenced in the late 19th century by Botticelli, and was more interesting.  The main part of the exhibit, paintings and drawings by Botticelli himself, was fantastic, even if The Birth of Venus and the Allegory of Spring weren’t there as the Uffizi in Florence wouldn’t let them go.  I really liked the painting of La Bella Simonetta, the young mistress of one of the Medici.  Then it was time to snooze my way back to Heathrow on rhw  and the next leg of my trip, refreshed by a few hours of companionship and culture.

The flight to Johannesburg was uneventful, and once there, I met up with Terri, who had flown in from New Zealand a few hours earlier.  We had a reunion, catching up on the past three weeks, and then got on separate flights back north to Livingstone.  I was stamped into my 123rd country and emerged to find Terri waiting with Mr. Sakala, the driver/advisor who has worked with Terri on her Zambian trips since 2007.  We drove to YCTC, a youth vocational training centre run by the local Catholic diocese, and settled in for our long stay. 

Terri has been running a humanitarian trip for students from her former school since 2007, bringing in Japanese high school students to do work at a small pre-school that she has been funding for the past 9 years.  Even though she no longer works in Switzerland, the school ran a trip this year and we were on hand to help run it.  In contrast to previous years, we arrived a good 10 days before the students to give Terri a chance to do some time-consuming bureaucratic work and keep an eye on the construction of a new classroom building.  I had never visited Zambia, and had been hearing about this project for years, so when we both left our jobs last June to travel, we decided that it was a perfect chance for me to see the pre-school in action. 

My first impressions of Zambia were of heat, rain and a strange déjà vu.  I lived in Tanzania back in 1981-2, when my father worked for 2 years at a university in Morogoro.  Morogoro is on the train line and road leading to Zambia, and we would see heavily-laden copper trucks roaring along the road whenever we drove out of town.  Looking around Libuyu, the poor neighbourhood of Livingstone in which YCTC is located, I could have been back in Tanzania 35 years ago.  There were a few differences; cell phones have arrived in a big way, and the cars are all Japanese instead of the Peugeots, Volkswagens and Land Rovers I remembered, but the shanty towns, the women walking long distances with heavy loads on their heads, the dirt roads, the huge numbers of children and the Asian-owned shops were all familiar sights.  Although Zambia is held up as an example of Rising Africa (the 15-20 sub-Saharan countries that have shown sustained economic growth since about 2000), in the outskirts it looks more like Stagnant Africa.  Long line-ups at service stations for scarce gasoline, frequent power cuts and complaints of official corruption were drearily similar to my childhood memories.

I had never done voluntary humanitarian work, and I have to confess that my two adolescent years in Tanzania left me a bit skeptical of the entire aid industry, which too often seems to degenerate into empire building and boosting home-country industries, rather than bringing about lasting improvement in the lives of people in the target country.  Terri’s ongoing project in the poor neighbourhood of Ngwenya, though, was quite different.  
Some of the output of the Ngwenya quarries
It’s run on a shoestring, using money raised by students at her former school, the Kumon Leysin Academy in Switzerland (KLAS, or Kumon).  Students, Terri and (this year) her successor Angela raise money by selling snacks at school, running bake sales and a big charity raffle.  This year Angela and some of her enterprising students took fundraising to a whole new level with enthusiasm, persistence and the clever use of online fundraising tools, and raised far more than had ever been raised in a single year before.  That money, of course, goes far further in Zambia than in overpriced Switzerland and has a huge effect on the lives of over 100 pre-school and lower elementary pupils at the newly re-named Olive Tree Learning Centre.  The money goes to pay for half of the salaries of the teachers and staff at the school, as well as for the school lunch program and for occasional capital projects, such as the construction this year of a new building which will double the available classroom space. 

Brenda, the hand-washing monitor at Olive Tree
It might well be asked why a project that has been running for 9 years still needs ongoing funding support; one of the great complaints about aid and humanitarian projects is that they never become self-funding.  I had the task of having a look at the financial books this year and essentially the school funds about half of its ongoing expenses through school fees which, at 130 kwacha (about 12 US dollars) per term, or 36 dollars a year, are very modest but still beyond the very modest means of many parents in what is a very low-income area where huge family sizes are the norm.  If the school were to charge 300 or 400 kwacha a term (some of the schools for better-off students in Livingstone charge more like 600 kwacha a term), it would cover its expenses, but would in the process price out the very students that Terri has always wanted to help the most.  

School lunch line:  same as anywhere in the world
About a quarter of the students who attend the Olive Tree do so free of charge, as the school management feels that their families are too poor to be able to pay any fees at all.  The others pay a low fee that helps fund the school without making it a school just for the better-off.  The additional funding brought in by Kumon students is the difference between having another school for lower-middle-class pupils and having a school that makes a huge difference in the lives of the poorest children in a tough neighbourhood.

Olive Tree students 
The big construction project this year took up a lot of time and organizational effort.  Essentially a three classroom building, with two classrooms for the expansion of the school up to grade four and one multipurpose room that could be used for adult education or for income-generating activities to increase the self-funding capacity of the school, was being built from the ground up.  We watched the building rise from the extra plot of land that had been purchased a couple of years earlier.  One builder, a few permanent staff and some casual labourers methodically moulded construction blocks from sand and cement, laid a big concrete foundation slab and then began laying courses of blocks.  It all happened remarkably quickly, in a matter of perhaps six weeks in total.  What amazed me was the cost.  A fairly sturdy construction, tons of sand and concrete, doors, gates, windows, many man-weeks of labour, and it was all done for under US$10,000.  The same building would have cost 25 times as much in Switzerland, and 10 times as much in Canada.  Of course, the fact that building labourers work for 20 or 30 kwacha a day helps keep costs down.

At any rate, we watched the building foundations being prepared for the big day of concrete laying as we waited for the Kumon students to arrive.  Justin, the contractor, worked harder than any of his labourers laying blocks, mixing mortar and shoveling sand.  He had conferences with Mr. Sakala, our driver, who had been a builder in his day and was a masterful jack of all trades; they discussed the design of the building, the height of the concrete slab, the supply of bricks and sand.  I even got in on the act, trying to estimate the number of blocks we would need to produce, and hence the quantity of sand and cement we would need.
Starting to lay the foundation of the new school building 
The pre-school itself, still called the Little Angels Pre-School (the Olive Tree re-naming would happen while the Kumon students were there) was a hive of activity whenever we visited.  The school consisted of a main building with two classrooms and a tiny office, a cookhouse that had one room being used as a classroom during the construction (which had claimed one classroom as a storeroom for construction materials), a couple of latrines for the students and a chicken coop where the school supplemented its meagre income from school fees by raising chicks to adult size and then selling them for 45 kwacha (US$ 4) each.  It was a mildly profitable business that kept the otherwise chronically underemployed security guard busy. 

It seems as though every humanitarian endeavour in Livingstone has a similar income-generating activity (IGA, in the parlance) going to supplement funds from overseas donors.  Chicken raising is a popular one, along with sewing, vegetable farming and an Italian restaurant (Olga’s) that was founded to help support YCTC, the Catholic diocese’s training centre for underprivileged youth.  It’s a worthwhile idea to help projects become self-sustaining, but these IGAs run the risk either of not making enough money, or of falling into disrepair due to lax oversight.  Olga’s was apparently not making nearly the money that had been forecast, while YCTC’s IGAs (making furniture and selling clothing) were languishing because of cutbacks, lack of motivation and quality-control issues. 

The Olive Tree is attended full-time by two classes of pre-schoolers, and two half-day classes of grades 1 and 2.  The enrolment of almost 120 is about eight times what it was in 2007 when Terri got involved in the project, and the school is thriving.  The three full-time teachers run their classes with lots of energy and enthusiasm while the school lunch program for the pre-school classes has the pupils looking well-fed and healthy.  One day, walking around the Ngwenya neighbourhood around the school, Terri and I saw a number of students with the orange hair and bulging abdomens that are tell-tale signs of protein-poor diets and malnutrition.  I was amazed that the school was able to feed 70 kids four lunches a week on a budget of about US$100 a month.  That’s basically about 10 US cents a meal.  The staple starch of Zambia, maize-flour porridge called nshima (think of polenta) is unbelievably cheap, and it is supplemented by green vegetables, dried fish and beans.  And yet, despite these low prices, many of the parents of the neighbourhood, working piecework for the rock quarries of the area, are unable to provide enough food for their extensive families.  The school lunch is vital for the pupils, almost more important than the educational opportunities that are also on offer.  It amazes me how little money it can take to make a real, tangible difference in the lives of so many children. 

A joyful, tearful reunion between Terri and Miss Bwaliya
When we weren’t visiting the Olive Tree-to-be, we went to town to do grocery shopping, to buy construction materials and paint, and to visit some of the circle of friends and acquaintances that Terri has amassed over the years of coming to Livingstone.  The no-nonsense Irish nuns of the Little Sisters of St. Francis, Sisters Frances and Fidelma, provided interesting conversation and insight into the problems of trying to run charitable programs in Zambia.  Mr. Sakala gave us stories of economic mismanagement and official corruption.  Ms. Bwaliya, a dear friend who used to work at YCTC, told stories of her family and community that were straight out of Dickens or Victor Hugo, full of poverty, disease, untimely death and horrible crime; I was amazed at her ability to keep going and keep smiling in the face of such adversity.  Zambia has a huge number of orphans whose parents have died young of AIDS, and yet seems to have almost no street kids sleeping rough at night; the extended family takes in the orphans, swelling already large families to Biblical proportions. 

Saying hello to students at Luumono Elementary School
The main complaints that Zambians have about their country and their government are those that you might expect:  shortages of running water, electricity and gasoline; official corruption; a lack of jobs for graduates; and misguided economic policies that have hollowed out the small industrial base that once existed.  While economic growth has occurred over the past 15 years, its benefits do not seem to have been very widely spread.  There is still widespread and obvious poverty, and now that copper prices have fallen off a cliff and the copper mines that were once the leading exports are mothballed, and with a drought driving up prices of corn flour, many people are struggling more than before to make ends meet.  The story of decisions made in the 1990s to allow imports of cheap used Japanese cars and cheap second-hand Asian clothing were interesting and a bit depressing.  Livingstone had a Fiat car assembly factory, a Bata shoe factory and a textile mill that made blankets.  
Sister Bridgit, an inspirational young teacher at Luumono
Shortly after the cheaper imports were allowed, these three factories were gone, taking hundreds (perhaps thousands) of relatively well-paid steady industrial jobs with them and casting the former employees back into the more precarious world of informal employment.  It hardly seems the way to develop a modern prosperous economy, and it’s certainly not the route taken by Japan, South Korea, China, Malaysia and other Asian countries to raise the living standards of most of their populations.  With a hotly-contested election coming up later this year, Zambians fear both more economic populism and real electoral violence.

Zebras at the Royal Livingstone Hotel

At the end of the day, Terri and I often went to a couple of riverside restaurants to take in the breathtaking sunsets.  The Royal Livingstone has an air of colonial elegance and an unbeatable location, along with giraffes, zebras and impalas roaming the grounds.  One of the giraffes, a big male named Bob, took a dislike to me and would advance menacingly if he caught sight of me.  By the time we left Livingstone, Bob had been deported from the hotel back to a nearby national park for being aggressive with other hotel guests.  Terri and I would sit watching the sunset, sipping drinks and watching the passing birdlife.   It was Terri’s favourite spot to end the day.  We also went to the Riverside restaurant, just up the river, with an equally lovely view but without the genteel air of the Royal Livingstone.   Olga’s Restaurant, the Italian joint started as an IGA for YCTC (I feel like a proper NGO worker, spouting an alphabet soup of acronyms) and the Zambezi Café, a lively joint popular with the local Zambian middle class, were other frequent supper spots.  Then we would return to YCTC, often in the darkness of a power cut, and sleep under our sagging mosquito nets.

Bob the aggressive male giraffe

Then, suddenly, the day of arrival was at hand and 15 Japanese high school students and Angela, their South African-born supervising teacher, were at the airport (sadly, without their luggage).  The next 9 days passed in a blur, with work trips to the preschool, a cultural exchange with YCTC students, a class trip with one of the pre-school classes to a big cat centre and an amazing safari trip to Chobe National Park (across the Zambezi in Botswana, a trip which I will write about in a separate post).  The trip, honed over the years by Terri, was a good mixture of activities for the students.  Essentially Angela and the students had already done a lot of the hard work over the past 7 months in raising thousands of dollars to fund the project; that was their biggest practical contribution, and without that money Olive Tree wouldn’t be able to keep operating.  At the same time, though, Terri wanted the students to learn through doing and contributing, so we put the students to work making construction blocks, repairing broken windows and repainting the original school building.  They also taught lessons one day to the youngsters at Olive Tree, and escorted two or three pre-schoolers each on the trip to Mukuni Big Five, the cat sanctuary.  

Taro trying his hand at making construction blocks
I think that it was important for the Kumon teenagers to see the results of their fundraising, the smiling, irrepressible youngsters in their neat uniforms lining up for school lunches, eager to show off their poems and songs.  This sort of direct experiential learning leaves a much more lasting impression on teenagers than any number of academic lessons on the developing world.
Kumon students scraping before repainting Olive Tree
Taro discovers breaking rocks is tough

Daiki with three Japanese JICA volunteers
The impression can be so lasting, in fact, that students come back to Zambia on their own initiative to volunteer.  While we were there we spent a lot of time with Daiki, a former Kumon student who was on Terri’s first-ever Zambia trip in 2007.  He is now a graduate student in Switzerland, studying international development, and was on his second internship at YCTC.  He said that it was only a few years after the trip that he realized what a profound effect the trip had had on his conception of the world, and he was keen to try to help the students on this year’s trip get the most out of their experience.  It was great for me to have Daiki around as he was quite a good source of local information on what was going on at YCTC and in the wider community.  He also organized three local Japanese overseas volunteers who were working in the neighbourhood to come have dinner with the Kumon students one night and give insight into the life of an overseas volunteer.

YCTC dancers at the cultural exchange
The cultural exchange program with the students at YCTC got off to a slow start, with the YCTC group very late in arriving from their classes, but once it got going, it was a very worthwhile experience, with the Japanese demonstrating some typical Japanese skills like origami, calligraphy and wearing a kimono, while a group of YCTC students showed off their drumming and dancing skills.  Afterwards, there were throngs of Zambian students clustered around the tables getting their names written in Japanese characters or trying their hand at origami.  I think it was a good chance to bridge the huge gap in affluence, experience and expectation between the two groups. 
Drummers at the YCTC cultural exchange

Kumon students doing origami at the cultural exchange

Cheetah at the Mukuni Big Five centre

A caracal (African lynx) at the Mukuni Big Five
The grand finale of the "service" part of the trip took place on Friday morning.  Every year the youngsters who are finishing the reception class (kindergarten/pre-school) at Olive Tree take a class trip out to the Big 5 conservancy project at Mukuni village, near Livingstone.  The Kumon students are all assigned two or three tiny Olive Tree pupils to look after during the visit, and it's sweet to see the tall Japanese teenagers hand in hand with a pint-sized Zambian tyke on each side walking to the bus, sitting together on the bus, and then escorting their tiny charges into the Big 5.  For many of the Zambian children, it may be the first (or only) time in their lives that they come face to face with the charismatic megafauna that Westerners fly halfway around the world to see.  It was wonderful to see the excitement in their eyes as we walked past the lions, cheetahs and caracals.  The lions in particular took a keen interest in the small humans, sizing them up for a midday snack, and we were glad to have the strong chain-link fence between the felines and the pre-schoolers.  When Terri walked past the enclosure with Terry the lion inside, as soon as she turned her back on the lion, he perked up his ears, tensed his muscles and charged at her retreating back, only prevented from leaping on her by the fence.  It must have been a memorable and somewhat alarming visit for the Olive Tree children, and there were heartfelt goodbyes in the parking lot as they said goodbye to their protectors from Kumon.

After six whirlwind days of activity, hard work and service, it was finally a chance for the students to have a more touristy experience.  We went to Victoria Falls (my first visit after being in Livingstone for two and a half weeks) and experienced the awesome volume of water hurtling over the precipice.  At places the spray returning to the ground from the sky was like a second waterfall, drenching anything not protected by a waterproof rain poncho.  We could only really see one half of the falls, as the Zimbabwean half was completely lost in the dense clouds of spray.  
Victoria Falls, aka Mosi Oa Tunya, "The Smoke That Thunders"

Some of that Victoria Falls "smoke"
The waterfall’s spray is visible from many kilometres away on a clear day and is perhaps the most impressive part of an impressive natural sight.  That evening we had a celebratory dinner at the Royal Livingstone before heading off to the Chobe safari early the next morning.

One final coat of paint for the classroom.
When we came back from astounding Chobe, we had one final trip out to the Olive Tree, distributing some of the suitcases of donated clothing and sports equipment that the Kumon students had brought.  We talked through the figures:  the amazing amounts of money raised, and where that money was going to be spent.  We talked about what their efforts meant in giving youngsters in the poorest part of a poor country a bit of a head start through providing them with a safe space to learn and enough food to eat to be able to learn.  It was a bit heartbreaking seeing the crowds of youngsters from that neighbourhood who don’t go to school running wild in the streets, with little prospect of ever getting an education or a decent opportunity in life.  The educational needs of the community are far greater than one small school can provide for, but it’s better to do what we can than to do nothing. 
Mr. Sakala, his family and the Kumon students

As we waved goodbye to the Kumon group at Livingstone airport, it was a bit of a relief after 9 very intense days involving a lot of organizing and oversight, but it was also satisfying to have been part of providing both a possibly transformative educational experience to the Japanese students and a much-needed leg up to a worthy cause that is making a difference in the lives of a hundred families in Ngwenya township.  My long-held skepticism of a lot of large-scale aid projects is still there, but a small, focused effort like Olive Tree really does seem to be an incredibly efficient use of resources to do the maximum good.  There is still a ton of basic needs unmet in the townships around Livingstone (running water, sewage, electricity, health care, education) and it would be nice if the Zambian government did a better job of meeting these, but until (and if) that happens, projects like the Olive Tree will continue to play a vital role in trying to make a difference.  I am immensely proud of Terri and the program she has built up over the years, and I was glad to play a small part in this year’s trip.

Reunion with Natalie at the Royal Livingstone

And then, once it was all over, it was time for us to handle the last bureaucratic paperwork and have some fun.  On Monday, March 28th we met up with a former colleague of mine, Nathalie, who is now working at an international school in Lusaka.  It was great to catch up with her and with the group of colleagues with whom we were travelling.  Then on Tuesday Terri and I treated ourselves to a microlight flight over the falls.  It was eye-wateringly expensive at US$ 165 for a 15-minute joyride, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thrill, and provided by far the best overall view of the falls, as well as glimpses of giraffes, buffalo and hippos in the surrounding national parks. 
Terri going for a microlight flight

On Wednesday, March 30th we packed our bags, said goodbye to YCTC and to Mr. Sakala and caught a flight to Cape Town to start the next phase of our journey:  our overland trip around Africa.  More on that (and on the trip to Chobe) later!

Moe, Terri and Angela and the impressive fund-raising figures

Late afternoon light on the Zambezi

That smile says it all; it's why people volunteer