Tri-Nations Tour (Part 2)

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We had already spent the better part of a week exploring some of the lesser known routes and sights of Southern Kruger before moving into Swaziland where we had set up base in the beautiful wilderness of Malalotja National Park.

It was ‘low’ season (February); a time of year when rains can turn some roads into liver pate, and when mosquitoes can drive you to maddening distraction. But its also a time of year when the hordes of tourists and fellow 4×4 adventurers tend to stay at home.

We had experienced Kruger as a ghost town, and Malalotja as an empty canvass of grassy plains and roaming blesbok. But it was now time to head off to Mozambique to experience those ‘ever so popular’ and ‘often quite crowded’ tropical paradise beaches.

Would those places be empty too? Would we get the dunes, the prawns, the fabled snorkeling rock pools and the 4×4 trails all to ourselves?

I’d have to wait and see.

We had experienced Kruger as a ghost town, and Malalotja as an empty canvass of grassy plains and roaming blesbokDale Morris
Although its only about 310 kms from Malolotja to our next destination (Ponta Mamoli) it still takes us most of the day to reach there.

The first leg is a piece of cake. We travel east along the MR3 highway and through the city of Manzini before descending from Swaziland’s granite domed highlands and into the green and humid bushveld of the lowlands.

It’san easy165kms from the park to the Goba border post on the Lebombo mountains , but then, once on the other side, expect road conditions to change (and not for the better)

There are various routes that one can take to get to the coast from there, but Mozambique is often very wet in February, and the dirt tracks(many of which are not the best kept byways in the world) often end up resembling chocolate mousse.

We stay on potholed tar for as long as we can, switching to mud roads at the town of Boane on the Umbeluzi River some 50kms from the border.

It’s not hard driving, just slow because some of the larger holes and churned up sections can be deceptively deep. I get out at one point to wade through ahead of the bakkie, only to discover myself thigh high in slick sticky mud. The feel of it between my toes is really quite nice.
In the one and a half hours it take us to travel 60kms to the hard packed 201 (road)we pass several sunken cars and a couple of ‘stuck fast’ trucks.

One particularly large pothole had been commandeered by a tribe of pot bellied pigs who rolled around and grunted in apparent bliss.

We then pass the Maputo elephant reserve with its imposing electrified fences, and follow a sandy track through a landscape of woodlands, marshes and grasslands until we reach the coast at Ponta Mamoli. Its tough and slow going, but a lack of traffic of any description makes us feel as if we are on a true wilderness adventure.

Off to Mozambique

Sand tracks in this region of Mozambique can be pretty confusing at times due to a lack of signage, so if you are not on a guided tour, it’s always a good idea to bring your Garmin loaded with an up to date Tracks4Africa map. If you don’t, you could easily find yourself dazed and confused, or worse, stuck fast with no change of passing traffic to help you out.

We don’t have any problems thanks to Frank’s local knowledge, and that evening, we find ourselves sitting on a beautiful wooden deck at the Wakene beach estate overlooking the turquoise blue of the Indian Ocean. The beers in our hands are cold but the weather is warm and humid despite it being late in the day.

At sunset, we walk down to the sands and take a swim in the balmy sea. The only others who share the beach with us are a dozen or so ghost crabs who scuttlebetween our feet like little clockwork toys.

“You should see this place in the high season” Frank tells me as we float around in warm water “It’s packed with South Africans. Too many in fact. The sandy track between here and Ponta do Ouro can get so congested at times that you would swear you were back in Joberg”

Once again, I am struck with the realization that traveling in the non-traditional wet season has its benefits. Just as it was in Kruger, the southern beaches of Mozambique appear deserted. There’s absolutely no one else around except for a few middle aged German men in speedos accompanied by young local girls. It’s almost as if an apocalypse has happened, and most of the human race is gone.

The sandy track between here and Ponta do Ouro can get so congested at times that you would swear you were back in JoburgFrank
After a peaceful night’s sleep, lulled by the sound of lapping waves, I join Frank for an early morning body surf in the warm ocean waves before driving from our lodge along a sandy track to the tiny coastal village of Ponta Malongane, 10 kms further down the coast towards South Africa.

Our tires need to be deflated to cope with the soft sand but the drive is not at all stressful due to the lack of traffic. We encounter one quad bike and a delegation of drunk local politicians who are busy spinning their wheels, honking their horns and gettingtotally and utterly stuck.Their eyes are as red a stoned zombies, and they look ever so annoyed with the performance of their new million rand cars.

Overweight ladies with gold encrusted high heels and tight fitting dresses, waddle around the vehicles like stilettoed hippos, offering up all sorts of incoherent advice to their boyfriends and husbands..

We offer to help, but they flag us on.

“We can do it! We can do it” says one of the men, lifting his beer to us in drunken saloute as we slowly pass by on the sandy track “Weeeee can doooo it!”

I doubted that they could.

The landscape in this region of Mozambique is mostly one of thickly forested dunes and open grasslands dotted with lakes. Hippos (real ones, not the human variety) are sometimes seen, whilst Samango monkeys (rare elsewhere) are abundant.

Lobsters in Latrines

Green and purple Touracos, prettier than our southern variety, scamper through the branches, feasting on the same ripe figs as the monkeys.

Ponto Malongane, a bustling little tourist village by all accounts, is dead when we pass through it. A few listless wood carvers sit around their souvenir stalls smoking joints and cigarettes, listening to Bob Marley or else sleeping in hammocks, but the numerous open fronted sandy floored bars here are all completely empty.

There are no other 4x4s on the track and there are no other tourists wandering around and the wide and beautiful beaches are deserted and the restaurants lie empty.It makes ordering a big plate of prawns a little problematic, but with some perseverance and a bit of asking around, we soon found someone who was willing to open up shop for us.

“Mozambique is famous for its prawns” saysan inert looking barman “You must enjoy them. but take my advice and don’t eat the lobsters. At least not the big ones. They grow them in the latrines you know”

I didn’t know (thank you very much) but the image he put into my head of a big colorful clawed crustacean wading around in the bottom of a long drop has put me off eating these delicacies for life now.

Don’t eat the lobsters. At least not the big ones. They grow them in the latrines you knowFrank
A few kms down the road, we pull into Parque de Malangane which is a huge forested campsite situated right on the beach front.

Its lush and shady here; rather like a tropical garden, and there is space for literally hundreds and hundreds holiday makers. None of them are here now though. Its bliss
The first group of tourists we meet are at the local dive shack at the end of the beach. There’s about ten of them and they are all here to take advantage of Mozambique’s tropical reefs and shallow clear waters.

I decide to join them whilst the rest of Frank’s team drink beer and eat yet more prawns served up from the open air campsite restaurant.

“Is eating all these prawns a sustainable practice?” I ask Frank as he stuffs a few more into his mouth

“Probably not” he tells me whilst washing them down with a good cold castle “But as the saying goes…When in Rome!”

The SCUBA dive I go on turns out to be awesome, and I get to meet some fantastic fish (and a few living prawns as well) There are elegant rays and slithery eels and octopi and lion fish and sharks and spotty things I didn’t even know the name of.

Sea urchins, and silver fish, mantis shrimp and weird wobbly jellyfish. It was a real journey into SpongeBob’s domain.

The best part was when a huge potato wrasse, the size of a sofa, swam right up to me and asked for a cuddle. I tickled his gills and stroked him on the head before he finally got bored of the company and drifted off to go play with one of the other divers for a while.
It was a magical experience, and one I will always remember.

Going Home

In the afternoon, I join the same group of divers for a dolphin and whale watching boat trip which turns out to be just as much fun as the diving. The sea is calm so no one vomits (a bonus for sure) and the dolphins turn up en mass to ride on the bow wave of our high powered boat.

“We see plenty of whales here in the winter” said Morne the guide and boat driver “And if you get lucky, you might encounter a whale shark. There’s nothing quite so thrilling as jumping into the water with one of those giant beauties”

Unfortunately, we don’t get to see a whale shark. Apparently, a big one can reach 12 meters in length and weigh upwards of 15,000 kilograms. That’s over twice the weight of the largest of elephants, but they’re not to be feared, unless of course you’re a shrimp, because shrimps are the only thing they eat.

Back at the beach bar, Frank and the guys are still relaxing. It’s a rare day off for them, and I think they intend to put as many prawns and bottles of beer into their stomachs as they can find room for. But I prefer to do something a bit more active, and head back to the beach armed with fins, mask and snorkel.

Rock pools reveal themselves at low tide and are great places to do a spot of aquarium appreciation without having to actually go swimming, and so, there I float, enjoying the company of a big moray eel, some cute little box fish, a scorpion fish, and a cuttlefish or two.

Frank’s team and I spend two days doing this sort of thing. Walking on beaches, eating seafood, drinking cold beers and reveling in the fact that we, the dive crew and the wrinkly German in speedos with his underage girlfriend appear to be the only tourists here.

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All good things must sadly come to an end (or so the saying goes) so after our last plate of prawn samosas, enjoyed in an open air bar on the shores of lake Sugi we turn our steering wheels south and head for the Kosi Bay border with South Africa.

“A man can get confused with all these sandy tracks” says Frank as we work our way through an open grassy dune field that looks very much like areas of Zululand I have seen.
There are multiple deep ruts and trailsthat criss-cross this open landscape, they split into manifold directions, they overlay each other and they veer off at surprising angles.
“But keep south, and you’re sure to get where you need to be”

It’s around 17kms of sandy driving to the border, and once through, my heart sinks with the realization that the trip is now at an end.

“But no”Frank tells me as we head south along comparatively immaculate highways “We have another day and night to enjoy at the Pongolapoort Dam. It’s just a few hours’ drive from here”

It is about 150kms SW from the border to the campsite on the shores of the lake, following tar roads all the way. Once there we set up camp before hopping onto a double decker tour boat that whisks us out into the middle of the serene fresh waters of Pongolapoort Dam .

The skies are blue at this time of year, full of little fluffy clouds, and the Lebombo mountains that form a backdrop to the lake are emerald green and as bright as freshly grown grass.

We toast our last beers together on the foredeck and cast eyes across the waters to where dozens of buffalo graze upon the opposite shore.

It’s been an excellent trip, for numerous reasons. The animal sightings have been great. I have seen dolphins and leopards and eels and elephants, and I have also encountered a great variety of scenery along the way from tropical beaches to towering mountains.
But the best thing about it was the fact that we went at a time of year when so few others are out and about.
For us, these three countries were green and lush and vibrant, and what’s more, they were mostly very empty.

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