. . . AFRICA 1999
Africa 1999

The Team

1. The Start
2. Southern Arrival
3. Cape Town Comfort
4. Namibian Sand
5. Africa Wins Again
6. Into the Margin
7. Kwaheri Kilimanjaro
8. Ugandan Abandon
9. A Turn into War
10. To Congo and the Worst Road in Africa
11. Mozambique Madness
12. Malawi to Zambia
13. Revisiting the South

Around-the-World 2001/02
Panamerican 2003
Various Trips
Planning an Expedition


Kensington Tours can help you plan your own expedition anywhere in the world.



Mozambique Madness
31 May, 1999  (2,931 km)
(Lilongwe, Malawi)

The long civil war, a recent famine, and a closed economy has left Beira in shabby form. Formerly a seaside resort town, the superb hotels and sweeping boulevards of grand houses have been reduced to weed strewn shells with black-eyed windows. It waits for new money and new life.  

Zimbabwe had escaped my depredations so I headed south in a long sweeping curve. First stop, Bulawayo. Formerly called Rhodesia, Zimbabwe achieved “independence” only recently in 1980. It was a bitter struggle and unlike most African colonies had involved two phases. Initially Rhodesia had resisted the concept of equal voting. The ruling whites had seen the devastation in neighboring Congo and East Africa. Arguing that they were the best guardians of power, the government led by Ian Smith made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1964 to escape the pressure from Britain to accede to popular rule. In response a general embargo was declared and Rhodesia became an international pariah. Their critical pipeline for materials and supplies was through the south, but after a few years of support the South African government of John Vorster cynically struck a deal with Britain – close the noose on Rhodesia and they’d turn a blind eye to the apartheid regime.

In 1974, essentially starved to submission, the government agreed to share power. It took six years but finally free and fair elections were held in 1980 bringing Robert Mugabe to power. And that was the last time there were free and fair elections in Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe. After his ascent to power, Mugabe ignored the fine rhetoric of his campaign and began to rape his country in the time-honored tradition of all the Big Men of Africa. At independence the country boasted one of the finest infrastructures and economies in the continent – today the infrastructure is crumbling and the economy is on its knees. As with Kenya, it takes some time to bring a country to death’s door, but with continued committed corruption a true leader can get the job done. Do I sound cynical? Sorry that just slipped out. Certainly the white rule was wrong; some form of power sharing needed to be worked out. But the majority of Zimbabweans I spoke with during my trip would return to the old days willingly. We all think the old days are better, and I suppose that devastation is one stage on the long road of progress. I get tired sometimes thinking about the pain inflicted on the rank and file. They deserve a real leader. They deserve Nelson Mandela – one of the truly great men of the continent.

Highlights of Zimbabwe
Bulawayo sported the long broad boulevards and huge public parks endemic to classic colonial design. It still works well! Ordered grids, lines of palm trees and sweeping green lawns. Safe and neat – old habits die-hard. A regional capital, Bulawayo is the second largest city in Zimbabwe and has some first rate restaurants. There’s not much else to do except watch movies that are 18 months old – but it was a fine place to kill the weekend. I fell asleep on Stanley’s back seat (the name of the Land Rover) listening to a plumy English announcer on the radio and my first good jazz in months.

“Great Zimbabwe, the greatest medieval city in Sub-Saharan Africa, provides evidence that ancient Africa reached a level of civilization not suspected by earlier scholars. As a religious and temporal capital, this city of 10,000 to 20,000 people dominated a realm which stretched across eastern Zimbabwe and into Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa. The name Zimbabwe is believed to be derived from the Shona language: dzimba dza mabwe (great stone houses).” (Lonley Planet)

I’d seen the pictures of The Great Enclosure but I was not prepared for the massive Hill Complex. Dozens of rooms almost perfectly preserved and displaying cunning technique and organized social order. The king lived in the Hill Complex together with metal working craftsman, attendants, and priests. One nifty feature was the “loudspeaker cave”, a conical cave that pointed directly to the Great Enclosure where the Queen lived and the Ridge Enclosures which housed the other wives. “Hey there, ahhh, wife #43 please report to the Hill Complex, STAT!” I digress. My enthusiastic guide crammed the two-hour tour into five hours as we rambled about discussing history, politics, and religion.

We inspected the massive Great Enclosure and I had to chuckle a few times. Lonely Plant describes one section thusly, “The greatest source of speculation is the 10m-high Conical Tower, a solid and apparently ceremonial structure which probably has phallic significance…” My guide described it more simply, “Here is a way that the king showed his people that he was their source of food, it is a giant model of a Shona grain silo.” I had to ask, “Any, ahhh, phallic significance there?”
“Phallic? Errr, like ahhh…” (points down)
“No it’s a grain silo. The king had over 50 wives. Everyone knew this. What is this phallic thing about anyway?” 
Ahh Freud, you plague our consciousness still.

The second area was the door lintel of the main entrance. The guide explained, “The first European explorer to view this examined the wood and decided it must be cedar. Since cedar only grows in the far north he decided that the city was controlled by the Queen of Sheba. He didn’t want to admit that the Shona could build such a city. But it wasn’t cedar, it was African Sandalwood and there was a grove of such trees a few dozen kilometers away. So you see, such a shame. Only now do most historians give us credit for the city.” Odd how progress works. The Shona had built a city that rivaled those of Europe or Egypt or the Aztecs, but the food ran out, the land was over-farmed, and a series of migrations finally left it empty. But for better rains?! Who knows what could have been there in the middle of Africa?

North then to Harare, the nation’s capitol. Modern and sleek, it was hard to believe that the core of the economy was rotten. But for better government… Mozambique visas are only issued at consulates so I was forced to stick around for a few days. Some mall shopping and more great restaurants. I did perform surgery on Stanley with my Swiss Army knife and a broken stick! Evidently the gas line right under the driver’s seat had cracked and petrol was spilling out. A chance spark and we would have gone up like a bomb! So there I was in the parking lot of a pizza place with my only nice white shirt on – lying under the truck with gas running down my arm trying to jam a whittled stick into the feed line. The patch held long enough to get the truck to Land Rover, and they replaced the feed hose for free. Nice!

Thurs. 5/27 - Up at 7. Email. English Breakfast. Hit the road. Easy driving through Mutare. Fast food lunch at BP. Misgivings about Mozambique. 

Mozambique was giving me a bad feeling. Only recently emerged from civil war and with a reputation for aggressive roadblocks and chaotic neglect - I wasn't sure if I wanted to pop in for a few days. Tim & Amy were due in Malawi shortly and if I was detained or worse... they'd arrive to a non-existent welcoming party. Ahh well. What the heck.

The border crossing went much better than expected. I’d obtained a visa in Harare in the maddeningly slow line at the consulate, so Immigration was a snap. Customs required the usual paperwork in triplicate – but only a few dollars “registration fee” instead of the more extortionate $20 “road tax” of Tanzania. I couldn’t escape the state insurance fee, but even so it was only $15 – much better than Zambia’s $45 hit. Back in the crowded parking lot swarming with peddlers, yelling money changers, battered taxis, sarong clad women with gigantic bundles on their heads, filthy kids demanding change, and bored soldiers with the ubiquitous machine gun – I was hailed by a South African guy. Seeing my license plates he asked where I was heading, “Beira”. Well if I was willing to wait we could convoy – no problem.

Jurg van Dyk and his friend Hennie were driving an overloaded Land Rover to Beira for a pastors conference. They’d stuffed so much extra food and supplies to leave with the local folk that the truck swayed on it’s suspension only inches from the ground. We made good time on a superb sealed road with a surprising lack of roadblocks or belligerent police and Beira arrived quite quickly. Waving goodbye to the guys I headed into downtown Beira in good spirits. A complete lack of street signs and a diabolical street layout left me driving in circles to the amusement of the locals. I was searching for the Praca, the main square in town which supposedly boasted a bevy of cafes and shops. After half a dozen circuits I popped into the square.

The Praca - the downtown square of Beira

A ruined hotel n Beira - the country is rebuilding after a long civil war

The Macut rusts on the beach only 50m from the Beira lighthouse

Beira Lighthouse

The Macut rusting in solitude on the beach

The long civil war, a recent famine, and a closed economy has left Beira in shabby form. Formerly a seaside resort town, the superb hotels and sweeping boulevards of grand houses have been reduced to weed strewn shells with black-eyed windows. It waits for new money and new life. The Praca huddled around a few palm trees and a dysfunctional fountain. Café Capri was still open and I settled into a cheap white plastic chair for a coffee. One thing for sure, all else can go to pieces but the coffee is still superb – rich, strong, Portuguese coffee! I hadn’t realised how complete the language barrier is in Mozambique till the menu arrived – Portuguese. Desperately I scanned the items but they didn’t look even close to French or English… never mind Swahili. Fortunately the waiter understood “ham and cheese sandwich” via sign language before I had to resort to making pig and cheese noises.

Surreal Incidents 
Biques is a hotel/campsite on the beach. For a few dollars I was able to rent a tin shell trailer with slat beds and foam mattresses which saved having to pitch the tent in the sand. Cricket was on the tube and within a short time my table had accumulated the few backpackers in the restaurant/bar. Mozambique is well off the beaten track and the few travelers around felt a common bond of deprivation. Sean argued against the Shona origins of the Great Zimbabwe monument, his girlfriend smiled tolerantly, and Steve the journalist shot mock glances of despair at me while he tuned in the game. Our easy companionship was broken like a tidal wave.

“I’M RAY RICHARDSON – 6’2”, 245LBS, FROM NEW ORLEANS!!” (slightly slurred). Ray was a rolling, beer bellied, fleshy, middle aged sailor – stranded in town with the rest of his crew while their ship of US relief grain was being off loaded. “I’M HERE DOING &%# SLICK WILLIE’S WORK AND THEM *&&#$# FELLERS ARE SELLING THE *&%*## RELIEF GRAIN THAT SUPPOSED TO BE FREE RIGHT OFF THE *&^*%* DOCK.” Ray didn’t speak any lower than a bellow. “WHAT’RE YOU ALL DRINKING? I’VE GOT NOTHIN' TO SPEND MY *&^$*& MONEY ON EXCEPT ^%$*&% BOOZE.”
“Uh, I’ll take a bottled water.”

Ray adopted us against our protestations and plopped down to start a monologue on the pitiful state of the town. The bar was changing before our eyes. Evidently I’d selected the hotel most popular with the expats and sailors, which in turn drew the hustlers, prostitutes, and weasels. Ray Richardson rolled over to the pool table and, squinting ferociously at the cue ball, barreled into a game. Sean had switched to another formless argument which Ray was attempting to understand through his alcoholic mist. A few expatriates anchored tables with bottles of beer and the standard cynical conversation.  Lined against the beach side wall, a line of well dressed prostitutes eyed us all, ripping epithets or lewd invitations.

Without warning a man detached from the bar, strode across and punched one in the head. She dropped like a sack of bones in front of our table. We were wide-eyed. She was a black prostitute, very drunk, and had been heckling the bar – this guy took it personally. He wound up and kicked her, spat a curse, and sauntered back to the bar. Numbed in alcohol, the woman struggled up and was bundled out by the owner. The expats talked on. An ancient Portugese gentleman edged out the door with a beautiful teenaged girl. Steve and I looked at each other, dislocated in the moment – this environment was as foreign than the country.

Big Ray Richardson roared away from the table belching curses at a newcomer – evidently a pimp that had stiffed him. He bellowed and threw a huge haymaker – the pimp ducked the punch easily which plowed into the stone wall. Ray hollered, the pimp dodged out the back door, and Ray was corralled by his captain back into the bar still cursing. He wandered over to our table and plopped down, shook his head slowly and looked up with weepy basset eyes, “Doggone, I wish I were home.”

Woke up early the next morning to look at the shipwrecks on the beach with the gang. Two coffees. Sean and girlfriend begged off so Steve and I drove a few kilometers north to the lighthouse. On the beach directly below lies one of the most spectacular shipwrecks I’ve seen. The cargo ship “Macut” towers massively above the water, it’s cargo hold eviscerated, the engine room leaking guts from the leprous rust.

Back to the Capri – coffee. Internet on a chugging modem – 80bps, a movie at Novocine, Oceana for lunch – coffee, and back to Biques for the evening – more coffee. Not particularly wanting to swim through the sewer like the previous evening, I left the bar and walked down to the beach. Acres of low tide sand dazzled, the full moon blasted through scudding clouds like a strobe, and waves lapped gently from the inky sea.

Wanting to savor the magic of the night, I dragged a mattress onto the beach and zipped into my light sleeping bag to avoid the mozzies. Too many strong coffees kept me wide awake, weird clouds swept the starry sky. Finally at 2am I dropped off, only to be awoken by a rutting dog determined to mate with my sleeping bag. If you’ve never been awakened from a sound sleep by a large nasty looking dog trying to hump you – well, it’s a bit surreal. I yelled, swung wildly, finally got up, threw sand, kicked, and at last he left me alone, panting, holding my sleeping bag in my hands feeling bewildered. Each hotel has a night guard who stays by the campsite to protect against thieves and killers. I’d dragged my mattress within view of the night guard before going to sleep – now he was gone, probably sleeping somewhere. 3am alone on a beach in Beira, I shrugged and slept again. Dawn burst across the ocean at 5am. So much for sleep.

Getting out of Town 
Sat. 5/29 - Scrubbed up, said goodbye to Steve, and hit the road north. Long day of driving on a pretty good road. Canned beans and tuna for lunch. Talked my way out of a speeding ticket in Goya. Impressive span of Zambezi bridge. Easy Malawi border crossing. Blatant shakedown on the way to Blantyre – talked my way through even though I hadn’t bought state insurance at the border (enough is enough). Another 1000km+ solo drive. Found Doogles, a nice backpacker hostel. Dinner, tent, hard sleep.

Sun. 5/30 – Slept in, breakfast, e-mail. Long lazy day watching cricket. Cute puppies on the couch. Finished "100 Years of Solitude". Canadian retired couple give me flag sticker for Stanley.

Mon. 5/31 – Up early and out. No roadblocks. Reached airport early. Lunch.

Tim and Amy Mechem exited Customs into the airport lobby in the bright sun and heat of Malawi. A long haired, bearded guy with shorts and sandals, who could use a shower, beamed a welcoming smile. They exchanged glances. “Hi! It’s me, Jeff. Great to see you! Welcome to Africa.”

It’s great to have travel companions again.  Tim, Amy and I will cover the last leg of the trip together – all the way back down to Cape Town.  Most of it will cover area that I traveled on my way up, but seeing my friends get wide-eyed and excited is it’s own reward.  I’m looking forward to it!

A big hello from Malawi - “the warm heart of Africa.”


Copyright January 1999-2011
All rights reserved - Jeff Willner
Contact: jeffwillner@yahoo.com