A Travellerspoint blog

Swazi Secrets

And so off we went, yet in another tiny, white combi which we spotted waiting on a random street corner in Maputo. We loaded our bags, paid the man and sat cramped in the backseat, watching the street and feeling the morning get hotter and hotter until we started our bumpy ride to the Swazi border.

The minibuses (or combis, if you prefer that) are the single thing that I shall never miss about Africa. My sweaty arm stuck to Rich's- it was impossible to stretch your legs or to sit with your shoulders straight whilst the driver sped down the road, obviously, like every African driver, wanting to break the world record for speed as well as discomfort.

Crossing the border was a breeze; however, after driving down the Swazi side for a few minutes, we got stopped by the border control police. Not unsual in itself, but the items they were looking for was: clothes. The guy looked at my dusty backpack suspiciously, wanting to know what was inside. Usually, in these situations, I have no idea what the correct answer is- I've come across places where they check you for the oddest things, and I always answer wrong. So I said, clothes, thinking it was fairly innocent and normal, and the guy's face became very intent. New clothes? No, not new. You sure? Pretty sure, yes. Hmm. I opened the top of my bag with my old toiletries bag and a manky towel. He moved over to the next person, (possibly because of the towel, deciding it was not worth venturing further inside) who rapidly started unpacking piles of used winter coats from a black binliner, as the border control counted each one. Maybe there's a limit as to how many used winter coats you can bring into Swaziland; it would certainly explain why the man was in a hurry to sell one of the coats to a female passenger just before crossing over.

Market stall in Mbabane

Market stall in Mbabane

Traditional brooms for sale

Traditional brooms for sale

Three years ago, I spent a week in Swaziland, because I had a cold and decided to sleep it off there. I remember visiting an orphanage where an acquintance was working; I drove down to a waterfall and did some shopping, but that was pretty much it. This time around, I mainly went along because Rich had never been to Swazi, and I also wanted to do some shopping. I really wanted to like Swaziland- even the name sounds far-flung and exotic. The truth is, though, that it really is not that interesting. Most people come out of curiosity, or to get their passports stamped, or, like me, to shop for crafts.

Masks for sale

Masks for sale


Swazi lady statues

Swazi lady statues


Spears

Spears


Making baskets

Making baskets

And so we shopped. After a frustrating day of trying to find Manzini market, famous for its cheap prices, we finally found it, and I picked up a few things, but even the market had changed in my mind- it wasn't as big or good as I'd remembered. Interestingly, many of the bracelets had the words "Swazi secret" spelt on them- it's also the name of the tourism advertising campaign. I went for the soapstone carvings instead. After we moved hostels more towards the Ezulwini Valley, we also spotted a huge crafts market along the main road to Mbabane. I got very very excited, and after a day of looking around Mbabane (nothing much there, except more markets) we decided on a day of indulgance- first, I got pizza, and second, I got a proper coffee and a cheesecake, followed by a trip to the markets.

(Cheesecake's a bit of a thing for me. I cannot pass a cheesecake shop without trying one; it's like an addiction. This one, in Mbabane of Swaziland, was, maybe slightly unexceptedly, incredibly good.)

At the hostel that night, I chatted to a few Swazi ladies who worked there, and somewhere along the lines we decided that we should all take part in the tradtional reed dance festival, and try to marry the Swazi king who picks another girl from the bunch each year, and marries her. It's a great honour and a position many girls aspire to. Elaine, the girl working at the hostel, told me how she'd taken part a couple of times in the last few years, but the competition was always fixed- the king would know, or he'd been advised beforehand on who to pick. I asked the girls if they knew how many wives the king had and most of them didn't know, but the guesses ranged between 12 to 100. They were, though, scrutinising the pictures of the most beautiful and prominant princesses, who pretty much made up the gossip column in the local paper. The girls joked that a lot of people were indeed somehow connected to the royal family, perhaps unsurprisingly.

Manzini market

Manzini market

Wall painting in Manzini

Wall painting in Manzini

We left Swaziland on an identical minibus to the one that we'd arrived on, and as the driver attempted suicide on the narrow roads to South Africa, I looked at the rolling green hills, dotted with houses and cows, and I had a feeling I hadn't seen the best of the country. However, I can't see myself returning for the third time- despite being told that Swaziland is full of secrets, to my disappointment, I never found a single one.

Posted by Ofelia 02:29 Archived in Swaziland Tagged backpacking Comments (4)

101 of Travelling by bus in Africa

Buses in Africa do not depart on time, even if they have a schedule or a departure time. Except in Mozambique. And except for the first bus of the day in Zambia. Although not with every company. In Namibia, they do depart on time. Except when they're running late. In Malawi, they depart when full, except if the driver wishes to leave early. Sometimes, you can buy tickets in advance (Uganda), sometimes not (Malawi), sometimes only for certain buses (Tanzania), sometimes online (South Africa), sometimes in person only (pretty much everywhere else). In Kenya, you simply get shot at in buses.

On our last morning in Vilankulo, we discovered a new one; a bus didn't leave because it didn't have enough passengers. Usually, this is not a problem in Africa- the bus will simply stand there for whatever time it takes for it to fill up (usually the driver will either be asleep or drinking at a bar) before taking off. However, a nice Chilean guy we'd met stumbled into our hostel in the early hours of the morning; he later told us that he'd gone to the bus station around 2am (a usual time for a Mozambiquean bus to depart) only to be kept waiting and then being told that the bus wouldn't go because there wasn't enough passengers. He ended up hitchhiking to the main road later that day, and since we never heard from him, figured he found some way of getting up north. Or he might still be at the junction, waiting for a bus.

Anything is possible with African buses, and very few things surprise me anymore. Apart from the hugely expensive one in Mozambique, they are also uncomfortable, hot and cramped; you'll always come out with a bad back or a cricked neck, or end up holding a baby or a goat in your lap. It's also a great experience which you cannot have elsewhere- with people sharing their snacks and hawkers going on overdrive when they spot an approaching bus. Taking buses and doing long journeys is a part of every African's life.

Basically, there's always a bus. Or if not a bus, a taxi. If not a taxi, a combi, a matatu, a minibus, a truck, a donkey. You can always get around. And really, there are no absolute rules, and so when we were told that our bus to Maputo would leave "in the morning", it didn't fill us with confidence.

In Mozambique, buses usually depart early, before sunrise. To be on the safe side, Rich walked over to find the bus driver the evening before (we were simply told to "go in town and look for the driver" whilst I, err, had a cider and played pool) to ask what time he'd depart. Apparently, around 3am. So, we set our alarms for 2am, and walked, with the assistance of the night watchman, to the side of the road. The bus was already nearly full, with chaotic people loading bags and kids, and with most passengers looking as if they'd slept in there (including the driver). As the bus filled up fast, it left early, about 20 minutes before it was officially due to leave. Why wait if it's already full?

The basic thinking would be to arrive early, and expect to leave late. If you're lucky, a half an hour's wait will do. Unlucky, and you'll have to come back the next day. Or next week. Really, there are no rules, and I would suggest doing what I do- pick a time and hope for the best.

Posted by Ofelia 04:21 Archived in Mozambique Tagged transportation Comments (0)

The dotted horizon of Vilankulo

When travelling, you get used to disappointments: the Eiffel tower is just a big, industrial metal structure, Macchu Pichu is so full of tourists that living your Indiana Jones -moments is pretty useless. London is crowded, an African safari feels more like modern photo-hunting, and almost everywhere else is expensive, overpriced and under-delivering. That's why, every now and again, it's refreshing to come across a place which actually lives up to the expectations and mental images you'd had ever since you were a child.

Mozambique is certainly refreshing, not only because of it's unsual cultural mix, but because it is viewed by most backpackers as off the beaten track, hard to travel through (which it is) and too large to take on. Most people we'd met had concentrated around Maputo and Tofo, which meant that although our hostel in Vilankulo was fairly full, it was only the slightly more independent travellers that had made it that far (no overland bus in sight- yay!). Which, in my mind, always means they have a story to tell.

Girl and a baby

Girl and a baby

Vilankulos is not a big town. It's certainly bigger than Tofo, and more of an actual town , with banks, big local market with big, burly blokes playing tiny drums with a passion, and little coffee shops and restaurants, all selling pretty much the same variety of chicken, fish and maize. The beach is unusual- rocky and not particularly attractive at high tide, and yet wonderfully colourful during low tide, when the sea retreats several kilometres out, leaving exposed dunes of sand, seashells and little dhow boats with peeling paint.

Vilankulo beach at low tide

Vilankulo beach at low tide

Vilankulo beach

Vilankulo beach


Abandoned boat

Abandoned boat


seashells

seashells


Low tide

Low tide

We met a wonderful bunch of people, all whom arrived from various places- some just starting their trip, some working locally, some just finishing a year-long trip. It was a fantastic mix of people, and we spent happy evenings playing cards, drinking beers and staying cool.

My favourite part, however, was the fishermen and their boats. To me, it made Mozambique look like everything I'd imagined during my Finnish/English confinement. The sun setting behind us, and the little boats coming in, different coloured dots in the horizon; the women, wearing orange, pink, green, yellow, tying their chitenges and laughing, gutting fish, trading in fish, talking about fish. Kids picking crabs, carrying younger siblings and chasing dogs; dogs chasing each other and the birds; and the excitement and chaos which ensued when a boat arrived- the huge, odd-looking fish being gutted, smelling foul, right by the water's edge.

Boats coming in

Boats coming in

Boats coming in

Boats coming in

Crabs

Crabs

Man and a boat

Man and a boat

Kids on the beach

Kids on the beach

Waiting for Fishermen

Waiting for Fishermen

A girl waiting for the boats

A girl waiting for the boats

Crabbing

Crabbing

I was intrigued by all this, and went down to watch the boats and wave to the kids every day just before sunset. It was calming and peaceful to think that their routine had hardly changed over the years (Except, possibly, for the fact that the fishermen had mobile phones), and that people seemed so happy and content.

Making a traditional dress

Making a traditional dress

Big fish and a little girl

Big fish and a little girl

We didn't, in the end, even go on a boat trip to the Bazaruto; we were quite content just being there. If I could dot down my favourite places on a map, Vilankulos would certainly get a pin. Not so much because it's unusual or stunning or affords you with tons of activities, but because it offers that special vibe that everyone chases when they go travelling: it removes you from what you know, and shows you something totally new and different.

Posted by Ofelia 01:04 Archived in Mozambique Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Who says beach life is boring?

There's something about a nice beach place, it doesn't particularly encourage you to do much anything. I'm not a beach person, and cannot understand people who book a two-week holiday to a Greek island or similar; I think I'd die of boredom. However, arriving somewhere peaceful and picturesque whilst backpacking is a bit different; after weeks of moving around nearly every day, manouvering big, awkward tents and unpacking and re-packing your sleeping bag is heavenly, regardless whether or not you're a beachy type. Like for us- after stepping of a hellish bus from Maputo to Tofo, it was a joy to see a silent, peaceful beach, fringed with palm trees, and happy, tanned tourists and locals, who, to my surprise, weren't that hard on the sales side. I think they get enough tourists down there to be able to relax a bit.

Beach at Sunset

Beach at Sunset


Tofo Beach at sunset

Tofo Beach at sunset

On the beach

On the beach

We spent a few days in Tofo, not really doing much, except for whaleshark snorkelling. I was a bit iffy about it- my meagre funds were quickly evaporating, and I'd done diving/snorkelling trips before. But, in the end, a drunken south african couple convinced me, and I handed in about 35 euros of hard-earned window cleaning cash. And it was pretty cool. I'm slightly scared of water- not massively, but a bit intimidated (far more a flying/in the air -kind of person), and so I put on my mask, took a deep breath and tried to look elegant when I splashed into the sea. I really wanted to give into the panicky feeling; but as I swirled around, there it was, coming up underneath me- a huge, 17-metre whaleshark, looking at me in the eye. It was a slightly surreal moment, as all I heard was my own heart pumping, and I couldn't believe this bulky, big animal floated next to me so silently and smoothly. I swam along him for a bit, close enough to touch, and he didn't seem to mind me at all. Undescribable. Humpback whales, dolphins and more whalesharks. I was a happy girl.

We spent a few more days in Tofo, wandering into the little town, taking pictures of local life, and going out dancing with other backpackers in surprisingly energetic and lively little nightclubs. Fred came along too, and being a popular chap, got bitten by a man in a nightclub. Yes, really. He's receiving intensive care, and we hope to restore him soon.

Fabrics at the market

Fabrics at the market

Woman with sarongs

Woman with sarongs

Making bamboo mats

Making bamboo mats

Tofo Beach

Tofo Beach

But, alas, as many nice people as we'd met, it was time to move on. We had a vague idea of heading towards the Bazaruto and Vilankulo (Vilanculo? Vilankulos? Who knows!) and staying settled there for a few days. Our short journey (short in the terms of distance travelled...only) started with a walk into town; waiting for a little minibus; bussing it into Inhambane; walking through Inhambane; boarding a rickety little fishing boat across the bay to Maxixe; waiting in a generic coffee shop, eating eggs, eggs and more eggs (and a bit of Rich's dish as well, probably). Then waiting at the side of the road for the big bus which was late, or coming to the other side of town, or coming there but not till later. People sometime gather around me, thinking I, as a foreigner, might know. I don't know! I'm just standing at the side of the road, hoping that eventually a useful mode of transport will arrive! We got on the big bus, but they didn't have a fare for this particular stretch from Maxixe to Vilankulos- so they guestimated, and we paid quite a bit, but got a luxury bus- the first bus either of us had gone on in Africa that wasn't packed full. It was, in fact, surprisingly empty. They left us at a dusty road junction with not much else but a few run-down market stalls, all covered in a shreds of plastic, with a few curious kids and sad-looking goats. We got a lift at the back of a very windy truck down to the town centre of Vilankulo, me holding on to my hair, earrings and bags.

Unloading a truck

Unloading a truck

A stop between Vilankulo and Inhambane

A stop between Vilankulo and Inhambane

Five different types of transport later, and yet hardly any physical distance, we'd finally arrived to Vilankulo, our nothern-most destination on the trip. And I was convinced I was going to like it.

Posted by Ofelia 08:18 Archived in Mozambique Tagged transportation Comments (0)

Bracelets, bangles and batiks in Mozambique

(Yes, I know this blog thing is a bit late, but I blame a lot of things- job hunting, flat hunting, and actually enjoying my holiday so much that the last thing I felt like was writing about it. So there you go. Sorry. Will slap own wrists later on.)

After Pretoria, it was time for what I'd planned to be the highlight of my trip: Mozambique. I'd wanted to go to Moz for years, mainly because of it's fantastic infusion of African and Latin cultures, combining what I best love- music, dance, rhythm, vibrancy and that laid-back, not-in-a-hurry-to-do-anything-but-stare-at-sky -attitude. I had high hopes as Therese's lovely friend, Anneke, dropped us off to the bus station in Pretoria. Another nightbus- we wandered around the station, Rich eating bacon, me eating chocolate, and decided to book our train tickets from Jo'burg to Cape Town for the end of the month.

We were the only white people at the train station (the stretch on the local trains between Jo'burg and Pretoria is known for muggings) and, although I am used to being stared at, this was different- it wasn't a curious stare, it was downright odd stare- white people do not go to train stations to queue. Or it might have just been down to our dirty backpacks and general dishevelled look.

As morning arose, we were suddenly at the border. The border hadn't opened yet, but an incredible, winding and chaotic queue had formed; animals, vehicles of all types, people, bags, furniture, litter, hawkers, money changers. The queue for people snaked around so far I couldn't see the immigration building, and I watched cars loaded so full of people and stuff pass that the bottom literally scraped the floor even on flat surface. One tiny car had several mattresses, a sofa, some chairs and dozens of little bags strapped to it- and that was just on the roof. Ah, the joys of border crossings.

Market by the border

Market by the border


Hawkers at the station

Hawkers at the station

I liked Maputo; not for any particular reason, but simply because it was a nice city. Africa's claim to fame is certainly not its fantastic cities, so whenever I come across a city that I do like, I get slightly excited. Maputo is also user-friendly- most cars are not out to get you, and you can walk fairly safely to pretty much everywhere. The slightly odd hostel owner (who called me ice-cream girl and appointed me to work as an assistant manager) had kindly given us a detailed map, listing the no-go areas around the perimeter of the town, and we happily followed his instructions. I tried to sneakinly photograph strangers, and loved the slightly run-down centre of town- each buildings seemed to have been painted in a different colour, and the result was a happy mixture of yellows, greens and reds which worked perfectly. Why can't London be like that? We spent a few nice days walking around, eating ice-cream (on second thoughts, that probably where the hostel manager got the name for me) and shopping for crafts.

Backstreets of Maputo

Backstreets of Maputo

Street colours

Street colours

Maputo street

Maputo street


Maputo Wall

Maputo Wall

Now, when I see a crafts market, I get excited. Obviously, I'm a girl and therefore like shopping- however, I also like haggling; something which most people either hate, or seriously dislike. Sure, sometimes you can't be bothered- like when the starting price is so high that you know you'll spend several hours getting down to a reasonable price- or when you really have no intention of buying anything. I haggle even when I don't want to buy anything. It's a cultural experience which I'd recommend to anyone. You start by asking for the price, which is usually astronomical- such as, say $15 for a bangle. Fine. Insert a small laughter, or suchlike, and offer 50 cents, and you're off.

One of the most fantastic things about travelling with a boyfriend is that you can do the good guy/ bad guy routine. I would play daft and be really keen on an item; Rich would look bored and annoyed and tell me to hurry up. I'd say that the price was reasonable; Rich would retort that the price was silly and he wouldn't allow me to pay that much. I'd shrug my shoulders and say, well, if my husband says that, then I can't do anything about it... And whoosh, the price would plummet. It never failed. Well, at least not very often.

]In Maputo

In Maputo

Bread Seller at bus station

Bread Seller at bus station

I could've easily stayed in Maputo for longer, had it not been for the tempting picture-perfect beaches up north, and the train ticket for Cape Town, which would also dictate when we had to be back in South Africa. But Tino, if you do read this- we'll be back one day!

Posted by Ofelia 05:14 Archived in Mozambique Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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