Monday, October 04, 2010

Drive and Dive 2010

My mother thinks I work too hard (and for once she is correct).  So she was excited to hear that I decided to take a week off after the brutal last few months.  At least she was excited until she found out that I was planning on taking a road trip with my Former Roommate into northern Mozambique without a map or guidebook or really any sort of concrete plan whatsoever – with the vague intension of finding coral reefs and diving on them.

Things started out swimmingly.  Despite drinking until 3 am the night before, we were on the road by 9.  Drove all day south to a town called Mikindani – where we expected to ask around until we figured out where the ferry boat was to cross the river in to Mozambique.  This devolved into a game of good news/bad news.  The bad news was that the ferry sank three years ago.  The good news is that they just finished a bridge.  The bad news is that the bridge is a back-track and detour of a few hundred kilometers inland.  And we still had no frigging map.

Fine, onward!  As we got closer to the mythical bridge, the road devolved into a pitted sand track dotted with wooden culvert crossings (the last of which was so completely rotted through that we had to hug the far wall to make it across).  And we needed gas.

Fortunately the sand track abruptly ended at a 1 kilometer stretch perfect tarmac – and the gleaming new Unity Bridge – which is huge and wide and well capable of taking any form of transport serendipitous enough to make it there.  It was white with four giant protruding tusks (because if you are going to build a white elephant you might as well be literal about it).  We dealt with the border formalities and found someone to bring us a 20 liter plastic container of gas.  Across the bridge and into Moz -  where I am flying down the brand new smooth tarmac.  For about 400 meters.  Then the pavement ends as abruptly as it began and I have to make a U-turn to find the pitted sand track we are actually supposed to be driving on.

I last about 30 kms at the wheel - fishtailing around the sand roads before– in a move rooted partially in compassion and partially in self-preservation - Roommate takes over.  And so we go banging across the nothingness.  We had heard that northern Mozambique was sparsely inhabited, but we passed less than 10 villages in over 100 kms.  We had just driven through Number Nine, we came upon the Problem.  A tractor-trailer pulling construction equipment had jackknifed across the narrow dirt road.  The cab had slammed into the hillside on one side of the road and the back four wheels of the trailed hung off the edge on the other.  So precariously balanced was the truck that the back two wheels of the cab were suspended off the ground.  With no truck crew in sight.

We learned through a pigeon of English and Swahili that the tractor trailer crew had gone to the next town to see if it could figure something out.  After a brief unsuccessful foray back to Village Number Nine in search of food (they either won’t share or didn’t have any), we returned to accident site to wait it out (at this point we didn’t have enough gas to do anything else.)  We toss our mat in a shady spot under a tree and read for awhile.  Occasionally one of us will tramp off into the woods to pee or futilely search for an alternate route.  Basically we just swat at the flies and sit in the dirt.

A few hours in, the circus came to town.  A heavy logging truck arrived, as well as a South Asian foreman, three gendarmes, and assorted hangers on.  Much discussion ensued.  Roommate and I moved the mat up to the top of the hill over-looking the scene and passed the water bottle back and forth.  Plan A is to use the logging truck to ram the back of the stuck tractor trailer and hopefully push it free.  A couple attempts at this only succeed in pushing the truck further off the cliff.  Plan A ends is a large dent in the tailgate of the logging truck.  Plan B, proposed by the gendarmes, was to just unhitch the trailer, let it drop over the cliff, and voila! road is clear.  (The South Asian foreman was less than impressed by this suggestion.)  Plan C is to dig into the cliff to make a path wide enough for traffic to get by.  The foreman predicted that this can be done in two hours by ten men with spades.  Perhaps true, unfortunately what we had on hand was spade, a garden hoe, a tire iron, a bent section of metal pipe, a gaggle of semi interested children, and three able bodied adults (including the Roommate).  The children dug with their hands for awhile, then left.  Roommate dug with the spade and pipe until his hands were bleeding (about 20 minutes).  In the end, the whole process took more than seven hours and ended with some drunk guy standing in front of the car yelling for us to hit the gas (and presumably hit him) as the car pitched onto a nauseating angle before righting itself and landing all four wheels on the dirt on the other side of the truck.  At that time we did in fact hit the gas and got the funk out of there.
We had just short of 100 kilometers to go before the first town of any size that might have gas or a money changer.  It was 9:30 at night.  The road was crap, but the alternative was to sleep in the car.  We passed a hyena in the road, and banged on until we reached Mueda – a shit little town in the middle of nowhere, with a dirty little guesthouse, gas, cold beer, grilled fish, and Chuck Norris movies on TV.  Success.

Next day it was back on the road again.  This included only a half day of driving and only getting lost and stuck once, though there were a few uncomfortable moments as we passed men in green jumpsuits sweeping the side of the road with their metal detectors.  (We both really thought this province had been de-mined already.)  Extremities intact, we arrived on the beautiful coastal town of Pemba.  After a late lunch of beer and fish on the beach, we made some plans for the coming days.  Diving, then a drive up the coast for a hundred or so kilometers, then a boat over to the island of Ibo and then on to Matemo – where a five star all-inclusive dive and beach resort awaited us.  Beers and bonfire on the beach capped off the day, and barring the one more small problem of mice getting into our luggage during the night and eating all the soap, toiletries, paper (including nibbling on the car title), and a few assorted items of clothing, we were officially on vacation.

The next day consisted of two leisurely morning dives, then a short two hour drive, then a bit of weirdness with getting the boat to the island (ie carrying the luggage as we waded into thigh deep water), then more grilled fish and beer.  In fact “diving, grilled fish and beer” basically can sum up the rest of the week (with perhaps a smattering of “sitting on the boat, wandering Portuguese colonial ruins, and vodka-tonic”) so, as you have indulged me this far, I will spare you the details.  For me, the week ended Sunday by jumping on a plane back to work and Dar.  Roommate and Car are still in Mozambique/southern Tanzania somewhere.  (Please let me know if anyone has heard from them.)