WHERE THE HELL IS CHEW BAHIR?
We’re off again. A new Hope Crosses Any Terrain 4x4MegaWorld supported expedition starts from Lesedi Cultural Village in the Cradle of Humankind. Colour, dance, xylophones, singing and drums. What a blast! Maskandi guitar and squash box from ‘Qadasi’ and Maqhinga, a traditional African feast of Mopani worms, tripe and beans that make the buttocks thunder! The musical group, Ntela nama Shoshozela performs a Rhino Conservation number. There’s Gumboot dancing, Xolani Ntombela’s Umzansi Isigenyana, the frenetic Zulu hunting dance and an excitingly rhythmic Tswana performance from the Kalahari. We’re heading north through 6 countries in a world first geographic and humanitarian journey of discovery to circumnavigate the great Salt Ocean of Chew Bahir in Southern Ethiopia by land yacht and Land Rover. It’s a great farewell reminiscent of the old expedition send-offs from Zanzibar and Bagamoyo. Safari Njema.
ARE WE SITTING DUCKS?
Across the Big Suspension bridge over the Rio Save and heading for Beira, with our Land Rover Discovery loaded to the hilt with expedition supplies and squashed in amongst over 100 trucks cars and a few armored vehicles and ragtag Mozambican military, we wait in the heat for the convoy to move North.
‘People have been killed and busses shot up and burnt by Renamo fighters. It’s not good,’ says truck driver Clement Hlatshwayo. He tells us that Renamo feels the last election was rigged and they want to rule, especially in the North. Alphonso Dhlakama the elderly chief of Renamo has fled from his home in Maputo and is being hidden by his guerrilla fighters in the depth of their traditional mountain fortress of Gorongosa.
‘He won’t come out because Frelimo will kill him,’ says Clement. ‘Stay away from the busses,’ he advises. ‘They carry soldiers and get shot up first. Dhlakama was furious when he heard that busses were also carrying Zimbabwean troops who had been co-opted into supporting Frelimo…’
But some analysts have speculated that Renamo’s return to bush war tactics is more a consequence of being excluded from the country’s burgeoning mineral wealth, especially coal, oil and vast deposits of natural gas in the north.
“Renamo [soldiers] will use one bullet and one is dead. Frelimo [soldiers] will shoot all the leaves off a tree.” They are good bush fighters, these Renamo ….
Another rumor we pick up on is that some Frelimo soldiers are throwing away their weapons and uniforms and defecting across to Zim and Malawi. Young soldiers on poor salaries don’t want to die for something they don’t understand. ‘It’s all about money and politics, the leaders must negotiate.’ Says Mozambican Babu Cosso whose been adventuring with us for years. And so we wait!! Business is brisk for the roadside hawkers who supply us with hard boiled eggs, a twist of salt and sweet tea…. More armed Rambo-like military, complete with black balaclavas and flack jackets and bumming smokes, bucks and cold drinks, take up their positions.
The convoy from the north speeds past led by a badly damaged military cruiser and then two armored troop carriers, one pulling the other. ‘This morning they dragged trees across in front of the oncoming convoy’ says a soldier from Nampula who won’t give his name. ‘But we shot our way out.’ ‘So will we be safe?,’ I ask. He gives me broad grin… ‘We must just pray.’ I think of all the past military convoys we’ve been subjected to. In the old days in Zim, situations in Angola, Algeria, Egypt, Liberia, Niger and for protection against Al Shabaab in Northern Kenya. Truth is, sometimes you feel like sitting ducks, especially when you know that the very soldiers who are supposedly protecting you are in fact the target. The last thing this beautiful country needs is a return to civil war.
POTHOLES AND BULLETS
We make it to the end point of the Rio Save military convoy without serious hassles. Then duck north-east onto a dirt track that crosses the Busi River via a clapped-out ferry and across a beautiful floodplain over the Pungwe to arrive in Beira in the dark – only to learn there are still more challenges ahead.
Now I don’t want to make too big a thing about this and put people off coming to Moz, its a great country and there are no troubles in the south, but the truth is that for this northern area there will have to be peace talks with Renamo otherwise it’s going to escalate into a real bun fight!! Renamo are also attacking cars and trucks on the road to Tete and the Malawian Minister of Transport is urging truck drivers to take the longer route through Zim, stating that the Tete convoy is too risky. This Renamo issue is affecting an already bruised economy says our host in Beira, who together with others urges us not to take the Dondo gravel road through to the Zambezi as was our plan as it seems bandits have also attacked and burnt out vehicles on that road. A call to friends in Gorongosa National Park seals our fate: ‘Taking the Dondo road is like playing roulette ‘Don’t do it.’ comes the reply. So after a break in Beira, we ‘Pothole’ it all the way to the start of another bloody military convoy, this time from near Gorongosa to hopefully take us through the beautiful natural forests past Renamo’s stronghold and down to Caia on the Zambezi.
The game is on! We juggle for position, dodging potholes and racing past eager bus, truck and bakkie drivers all whom, it seems, want to be directly behind the lead armored vehicle. And then, about an hour into our journey, the wildfire shooting starts. Machine gun and AK bullets spray the forest. Leaves and dust everywhere! We come across another burnt out vehicle on the roadside. Some of the troops jump down AK’s at the ready. Thick forest either side of the road I think what sitting ducks we are. This section of the road could also win the SADAC Pothole award. In the Landy Pink Floyd plays ‘Wish you were here.’ Life on expedition is never dull.
We’re first into Caia filling station for diesel. The soldiers give us a thumbs up we give them some coldrinks and water and then we’re off across the Zambezi. We break west to take the narrow track to Morrrumbala. The elephant grass higher than the Land Rover. Beautiful scenery. No Renamo here were told. All quite and peaceful from here on. We cross the Shire River on a hand-winched ferry and then head North up the Shire valley. Malawi here we come. But the late convoy start and the hassles on the convoy mean we can’t make the border in time, so we pull off the road to not be too conspicuous, light a small fire, throw out a tent and bedrolls and sit back. It’s the most beautiful starlit sky imaginable….
They hit us around midnight. We hear whispers in the bush. I shine my torch and then they’re all over us shouting and throwing our kit around. The torch gets slapped out of my hand. AK’s in our faces. Very nasty! Fortunately one of the soldiers speaks a little English. I take him by the hand and try and reason with him. Stop. Be calm. We’re just tourists. One of the soldiers gets into our tent and throws the bedrolls out. The bunch is high on tension and question and start forcing us at gunpoint to pack the Disco. Two guys force themselves into the Landy. Drive to the border we’re told. These young soldiers are threatening and want bucks. We keep calm. At the border compound they take our car keys and passports but allow us to put up a tent. In the morning we talk they say. One arrogant youngster says ‘Hey mister you not the boss. This the boss,’ showing me his AK. During the night I get a message out to a well-connected mate in Maputo who by morning has a strongly worded Portuguese message on our phone assuring the authorities of our credibility. It helps a bit but still we are searched from bumper to bumper. ‘We thought you were Renamo,’ said Mr Big. ‘The villagers thought you had come to kill them, they saw your lights in the bush and came to report to us, so we came to kill you… I get one of them to add a message to the large Canvas and leather bound Scroll of Peace and Goodwill that we carry on every expedition. Seems that at this rather tense time with Renamo, it’s sorely needed.
Will keep you posted.