Stranded & an army escort

Inhamitanga – near Coutada 12

Wrapped in a blanket of déjà vu, face-down & buried in leaf litter, oily-dank & a mustard-gas-like assault on the senses, I found some solace in the week’s success. A nearby skittle & a whisper in a language I know not, I assume a call to arms, confirmed the impending arrival of my new-found 8-legged, 4-eyed kinsmen.

Somewhat susceptible to bursts of imagination, the arachnid out on point & on final approach, undoubtedly stalked delectable delights somewhere on my precious. Sharp fangs snapped; hairy, hobbit-like legs rasped… All the while silent screams emanated from I know not where. Not I, surely? Truly a delightful exercise of restraint & the modus operandi we had adopted in our latest pursuit of Central Mozambique’s Os Tres Grandes (Big 3) i.e.: African Pitta, White-chested Alethe & East Coast Akalat.

Coconut Bay – prawn fishermen boats

The prologue to our mid-Dec, Central Mozambique tale had been written earlier in the week, on a sand-spit, out to sea, on a rising spring tide and in the black of night. Before that we’d spent a night in transit from South Africa’s JHB to Mozambique’s Inhambane in Coconut Bay, a few kilometres up-coast from Bilene, the once-grande sea-side resort.  Whilst largely uneventful, except perhaps for the single Roseate Tern we found at roost, the local folk are, in economic hardship, an indomitable beacon of hope for something more.  Natural resources from the sea & on land are relied on for sustenance which must, in eventuality, fail & therein lays the rub.

Coconut Bay – indeed…
Chiniziua ‘Forest’ – ceased to exist near public roads

Formal economics is almost entirely absent, other than in Maputo, the country’s capital. The domestic reliance on an informal infrastructure for the exchange of goods necessitates a lax approach to the application of the law. This is particularly the case when it comes to the harvesting of natural resources. Chatting to a forestry post-doc student we met sometime later, the formal protection of fauna & flora is seemingly well entrenched in law. Enforcing the law is, however, not prioritised. By way of example a bag of hard-wood charcoal is approximately 15% the weight of the harvested wood. A 60kg bag, sold on the side of the road for 130 Mt or US$ 4 approx. is the product of 400kg of raw wood…  Parrots & other wild-caught passerines are freely for sale & who can blame a people largely left to fend for themselves.

Inhambane & the nearby tidal estuary at Ponta Da Barra is, in the austral summer, a springboard for many migrant waders. The regionally-rare Crab Plover, a bird we’d yet to see this year, necessitated another visit to the Flamingo Bay Water Lodge.

Flamingo Bay Water Lodge – low tide on the tidal estuary
The ‘Long walk to a dry towel’ – 50% home

We’d be accompanied this time by the seasonal horde of SA piepie-jollers who descend on these parts for some ‘Summertime sadness’, an inspiring, eerily haunting melody & particularly spell-binding at 3 am. If Praia da Barra is infamous for its summer pap & sous then Areia Branca (White Sands) Lodge, situated at the tip of the Barra Peninsula, is equally famous, in birding circles, for roosting Crab Plover. Areia Branca is adjacent the tidal lagoon on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other & under certain conditions i.e.: when the tide’s in; becomes separated from the mainland by a sea of salt water.  During spring tides i.e.: high highs & low lows the sea-level variance around Areia Branca is impressive. The lagoon, at low tide, is dry as far as the eye can see. Misguided birders can walk half-way to India without so much as a dampened squib. Off the point & for interest I can’t recall working any harder for a single addition to our list as we did for Crab Plover. We were unsuccessful, sadly.

Homewards James & spare them not – I stayed…

The family had returned to Flamingo in the mid to late-afternoon after another session ‘out-to-sea’, on dry land.  I elected to finish my sand castle & scope the roost for a few hours longer; some 3km ‘out-to-sea’ & well aware that high-tide would coincide with dusk. Most beaches slope up & away from the shorefront which affords sand-castlers enough time to move up & away when the tide turns. In a lagoon, when the tide turns, the dry to wet process manifests in less time than a sand-castler can shout “Mommy!’ At sunset, therefore, I inadvertently found myself marooned on an island spit of sand, 3km ‘out-to-sea’. The lodge lights twinkled merrily across the rising ocean. All around 1000s of waders discussed my impending demise. Infinitely preferring the warmth of the roost to the misery of the depths, I began the long walk back to dry-land. Using the lodge’s lights as a landmark the walk became a wade which soon became a swim. I arrived back home a touch after curfew & was shown the couch bedraggled, without supper & more than a little sad at the sure loss of my castle; an outstanding likeness of the Arc de Triomphe.

The first leg of the journey thus consigned to history our gaze turned north, far north. To get there we’d spend a night at Vilanculos, the mainland ugly sister of the Bazaruto Archipelago.

Arriving visitors step off the plane & immediately charter out to the islands. We’d spend the night onshore unfortunately & as these things go the SA piepie-jollers did the same. ‘Summertime sadness’ looping on repeat rather than on shuffle, kept audible pace with the rising temper in the bed along-side.

Earlier we’d been approached & subsequently warned by officials & the proprietor of the lodge that the way north was no longer viable.

Our beach companion at Vilanculo – ‘Little Yella?’

Conflict between RENAMO & FRELIMO, north of the Save river, barred travel for all but those prepared to accompany an armed army escort. Lying awake at 2am, whilst mulling the conundrum of challenge vs. health & safety & in time to ‘Summertime sadness’, was, in the end, simply an insult too far.  In retrospect I have no doubt that the exit-squeaks from the bar-besieged eight were expressions of holiday joy rather than from the inflammatory doubts cast on the validity of their parents’ matrimonial certificates. Additionally, one more observation if I may; it’s amazing how far an iPod can actually fly when the summer madness takes hold. Fortunately the tide was out.

Save Bridge – 2 hour chaos ‘behind enemy lines’

The EN1 from Save to Maxungue is closed to all civilian traffic other than the official FRELIMO army-accompanied convoy. This 110 km conflict-road stood between us & central Mozambique.  For context RENAMO rebels had attacked the military personnel accompanying the convoy the previous morning. The intentions of the rebels thus confirmed, turning back was seemingly our only option, at least as far as I was concerned. Alisha, however, ever pragmatic, urged us north & as it turned out, correctly so.

FRELIMO army readies the convoy & escort

What transpired in those 7 hours from the time we arrived at the Rio Save bridge to the finish at Maxungue will remain indelibly imprinted on my mind for as long as I live & not for reasons associated with a potential attack, but rather for the acceptance of circumstance that epitomises Africa. The acceptance of fate, however gruesome, never ceases to amaze me.

Abandoned shells litter the 110 km stretch north (EN1)

Ordnance was impressive; troop discipline exemplary. The Mozambique Government is clearly taking the threat, real and or imagined, very seriously. Suffice to say we made it through, unscathed, only just. In fact, we’d come closer to the happy forest in the sky at the hands of the ensuing free-for-all, as vehicles jockeyed for position, than we might have done in any conflict with the rebels. There was, certainly as far as we were concerned, a large ladle of farce served in all their haste – FIFO would apply, surely? ie: First in, first out.. That’s first into the hole, first onwards to a happy place, somewhere nice! We preferred the LILO method & in this case that’s exactly what we did; lie low!

Pee stop – @60km & ground zero. Convoy attacked -24 hrs prev..??
Vehicles skirt hastily filled trenches dug overnight

The prevalence of species not found elsewhere in the sub-region, other than in Central Mozambique is, for most birders, the raison d’etre for a repeat visit. In a country perhaps not best remembered for its peaks & valleys, the Gorongosa mountain range stands sentinel & forms the hub around which we’d circumnavigate.

Our clockwise adventure would take us from Gorongosa NP, roughly in the south west, to Catapu in the north & on to Rio Savane in the east, a few kilometres north of Beira. To kick off proceedings we’d make our pilgrimage up ‘the mountain’ for the localised Green-headed Oriole. Found only in the forest canopies dotted along the Gorongosa mountain range & well supported by a large supporting cast of other avian goodies, the arduous 5-mile trek up hill & down dale, is all but forgotten. Standing cast in a post-dawn ray of sunshine, filtered through aeons of arboreal evolution, is sustenance for the soul & an intravenous shot of purest peace.

Pap & vleis – Gorongosa style

At the foot of the mountain a hand-crafted boom stands guard; a small fee & a signature in the visitor’s book pays the gate-keeper.  Locals gather at the boom & exchange information; enquire about changes to security; movement of men etc. People stand their ground & smile in genuine welcome. Here RENAMO rebels hold vigil in the highlands, well-armed & quietly determined. Speaking to these men you can’t help but feel a sense of foreboding for the people of Central Mozambique. Whilst I don’t care for politics, I feel empathy for these people, bound by a sense of purpose in a conflict they might never understand.

Cottage 25 – Mphingwe Camp: Catapu; Ant & Pat White

Back in the leaf litter, roughly 250km north east of Gorongosa, the aerial assault had commenced. Dracula & his tsetse minions had not been repelled, impressed or fooled by the ultrasonic screams that continued unabated. Newcomers, rowdy, unwashed & clearly ravenous, were bid welcome by the 8-legged crowd already in attendance. 6-legged waiters scurried back & forth at service. Delirious from blood-loss & on the verge of a coma, from out the haze stepped an azure-tailed angel.  Trumpets sounded; harps harped & forest nymphs sang an ode of joy. Pitta… less than 3 shakes of a short leg from where I lay, wide-eyed & very much alive. Magical!

Before I complete part 2 (Catapu & coutadas) of our 2nd Leg (circumnavigation of Gorongosa) I need to fast forward to part 2 & a half, of Leg 2.. Part 3 (Rio Savane) lay further to the south east, some 250 kilometers or so near coastal Beira. To get there we’d have to take the ‘good gravel road‘ [It isn’t**] from Inhaminga to Dondo. For those who like a checkered history, look no further. Bombed railroad-carriages, from the 17-year civil war, litter this road still. The amputee hospital at Muanza, midway to Dondo, is another that we tread a fine balance, nothing more. Also near Muanza is the turn-off to Chiniziua ‘Forest‘ [It isn’t a forest, at least not as we know it].

Whilst not afforded a full part in our circumnavigation, by rights it’s worthy of a mention. Chiniziua is a victim of circumstance, lax governance & greed. 30 years of commercial logging & subsistence-felling have amputated the last living limb. The 30 km route inland, off the main road is, however, an attractive smokescreen for what lies at its death. Whilst the access road parties-on, only crows take the floor for the last turn. As other amputees might lament, it’s a rather sad indictment of our indifference from which we’ve learn’t nothing. Nothing at all. Casting north once more, to Catapu, a 25000 hectare forestry concession, the outlook is different. Here the concessionaire plants three trees for every tree felled. By rights I’d rather have the tree alive but there’s at least an argument for foresight, even if the current status quo lies 300 years hence.

Somewhere between Inhaminga & Condue; en route Dondo

** If Chiniziua is a triumph of greed over logic, then the main road down to Dondo is simple stupidity. The G7 donated sufficient funding to the Sofala authorities to ‘fix’ the road ‘gud an proppa-like‘. ie: once & for all. They haven’t. The rainy season is but a drip away & this highway of hell (the loggers’ words, not mine) becomes virtually impassable.

Rio Savane – the ‘ferry’ ie; shank’s pony

The driver [inset pic – blue truck; heading north] & the first of 28 logging trucks [headed south] had narrowly missed a, one-headlight-between-em, head-on collision. The ensuing scramble for the trees rendered both Freightliners immobile. Poked fun at by Father Time & as is our custom, we called the meeting to order. 60 people [2 pax per vehicle] debated the merits of traction versus gravity, without much practical application, a state of affairs that grows tiresome after 120 minutes of pass the weed… Having taken our leave, perhaps unaccustomed to the bleating of hog-tied goats perched atop a 35 tonne vehicle, we elected to drive over the problem but not before recovering a stranded ambulance which had tried the same, a few minutes earlier. For the record I did it with a smile not because the ambulance was a Land Cruiser but because it was my civil duty to do as much.. Notwithstanding, whilst we’re at it, God save the Queen & all those who build proper vehicles!

Our third & final part of Leg 2 were the wetlands of Rio Savane, 30 km up-coast from buzzing Beira. Wetlands in mid-December they’re not. Puddles next to the road maybe but that too is a stretch. Whilst crossing the Rio Savane by ferry ie: foot; to the island lodge is interesting & reminiscent of my adventure down south. It’s not exactly first class & neither is the lodge.

Locust Finch – always ‘in pairs’… Really?

The birding is, at this time of the year, a little paradoxical. Given the resident status of the specials & given that they were confined to the road’s edge, views of these beauties were cheek to jowl, which is exactly how I like my birds. The Locust Finch pic [inset] my daughter captured with a 100 mm macro lens. Now that, for those of you still awake, is nothing to finch at! Blue Quail eluded us but that’s how these things flush.

We returned home via Zimbabwe’s Beitbridge but not before two nights well spent in the Eastern Highlands mopping up those which had not gone before. Cecil Kop served up both tits ie: Cinnamon-breasted & Miombo. The Vumba Botanical Gardens, which had recorded 300 mm of rain since we’d last been there a fortnight before, was a veritable Cinderella. Trees were in full blossom, as were the Bronzy Sunbirds, another prodigal returned safely to book.

We’d left the best to last, just as originally planned. In truth conditions might not have been conducive to the perfect score but, in hindsight, this tail-end story caps our tale.

Be generous of your time.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *