Pemba was supposed to be a stopover and more of a gateway to the Northern Archipelago as opposed to anything else but thanks to some newfound mates, a little exploration and some very friendly locals we managed to turn it into a destination with far too many beers. We even managed to find a little slice of paradise just outside of town, down a dirt track and through a little village where Susanna has set up a perfect restaurant on the beach with a few spectacular double story bungalows with some amazing views.
With the compass set South and were staring down the barrel of a rather difficult decision. We didn’t, however, think the last statement was going to be literal. Mozambique has endured a 30+ year struggle between FRELIMO, the government party, and waring factions of what started off as a Rhodesian Central Intelligence funded and backed destabilisation unit that has morphed into the now known RENAMO or (Mozambique National Resistance). In order to get to the Southern Archipelago we would have to drive through two 100km militarised convoys in RENAMO held territory. We had discussed the pros and cons of the military convoy and had decided to get closer to the action and make a decision then. This meant aiming South for Nampula where we were hoping to find someone who had been through the convoys recently or at the very least some more info. Happily hurtling through the bush at max cruising speed for Frank which is at about 100, windows down, enjoying the sun and the latest playlist we were blissfully unaware that we were about to spend some more time in a dreaded workshop. About 80km out of Nampula we noticed a constant clicking coming from under the car, after both hanging outside the doors and sticking our heads as close to the noise as we could get we came to the hard fought agreement that it was coming from the back and it was associated with acceleration. For those not mechanically minded, noises associated with acceleration are generally not good news. 20 minutes nose buried in the manual and google we were certain that it was either prop shaft of rear diff, well above our pay grade either way. Last time we drove through Nampula Tash noticed a Toyota dealership and thats where we limped off towards trying not to exacerbate franks injury.
As we got in we were sent to the diagnostics bay where the mechanics and managers could all speak 3 languages a piece, none being english, so after much pointing and mimicking the car was lifted and within seconds the mechanics came to the agreement that it was indeed prop or diff and that we had to come back tomorrow to fix it. We limped off for the night expecting the worst.
The issue we had now was that our limited Portuguese did not extend to understanding the inner workings of a car, and the one guy who spoke a little english was not very clear at all. None the less it took all of 30 minutes and a couple of trips up and down the main drag the next day to figure out it was not the prop shaft and was definitely an issue with the diff. for reasons we couldn’t understand the guys didn’t want to open up the diff and wanted to order a new one before working on it. We struggled through the next hour of discussions, drawings and numbers on calculators, it felt like we were just going in circles. a light bulb appeared over Tash’s head as she remembered that her old housemate, Anderson, was Brazilian and thus could speak Portuguese. We jumped onto Facebook and a minute later Tash was handing the phone over and hoping for the best. It sounded like we were getting somewhere, what we didn’t know was that that somewhere isn’t where we wanted to be. Thanks to the difference in dialect Anderson could gather about 50% of what the guy was saying and then relaying it to us. Turns out they wanted to replace the entire diff and that the “ 4 to 5” day wait was actually a 45 day wait!!
With this new info in hand we went to the bar and had a beer. Our first call was to Rob, living in Tete, and asking if he knew anyone in the area that may be able to help. He put us onto Andrew that miraculously lives and operates out of Nampula who in turn had a mechanic from Zim leave their business quite recently to start his own business, within minutes we were through to John who was going to popp by after work and come have a look/listen to the situation. John confirmed it was definitely the diff, most likely the crown wheel and that he could crack it open first thing in the morning and look at sourcing a replacement. The following morning John and his team had the diff open revealing the 5 shattered teeth in the crown wheel, after a short chat about options it was decided that the best thing to do was to find a replacement for the entire diff and go from there. After searching for the entire day John had found 5 replacement options, all of which were going to cost between fifty and eighty thousand mets, a price that if we went in search for the options would have garnered an additional “muzungu” tax of about 50%. We decided that this was the only way to go, the next hurdle was sourcing the money, ATM restrictions meant that it would take about 5 days to get the cash together so we were back in scramble mode, after a couple of calls back to SA and Andrew who happily handed over the 50 grand (to be repaid later) that was sent to John who could go pick up the diff and hopefully have it replaced and ready to go by the evening. This did happen and by 7 o’clock that evening the diff was sealed, oiled, primed ready to go, but it wouldn’t. The prop shaft just spun when drive was engaged, the diff, although seemly in good condition, was actually not functional. It had been a long day so we whipped the prop shaft off and stuck it into 4wd essentially turning frank into a 2 wheel front drive ready to attack the issue of money and another diff in the morning. The money was refunded and faulty diff returned with John waiting on the new one, after being kept for 5 hours through a series of issues only Africa has the ability to throw at people trying to run a business. John was in the car on the way to a the new diff which turns out he was being taken to a diff he had already looked at and rightly refused to buy because it had been stolen off one of the ambulances, that in Mozambique are all land cruisers like ours. A lovely, helpful christian man, John was clearly distressed as his patience was wearing thin with the suppliers and the looming situation where our choices were becoming quite limited.
After another 8 hour day in the workshop sitting next to Frank we were at our wits end and decided to walk around town and head to the shops and discuss our options. To our amazement on our return at 5 o’clock John was fitting another diff, with a spark in the dark everyone hopes were raised and the mood was lifted, we just had to get through the tentative point where we had faltered previously. The engine roared to life, everyone at this point was blue in the face holding their breath as I shifted the car into gear. Forward motion. We had a working diff, as we were heading off to our campsite for the night John jokingly said “ I hope you don’t hear a whining or clanking when you get the car up to speed” a clear sign that the bearings were worn. Sadly this was exactly the case and we made he dreaded call to John, we were due to be back in the workshop at 6 the next morning. You could smell the disappointment between us and we hardly said a word to each other. Early, but not bright we were back in the workshop, by this point even I was capable of cracking open the diff and pulling it apart, we found out that it was the pinion this time and within minutes we had pulled apart the two semi functional diffs and had created frankensteins diff. The owner of the half diff was not dropping his price however and we spent the rest of the morning driving around trying to find another diff but eventually we packed it in, frankensteins diff was in perfect working order and we decided to just go to old mate and try break him down. we managed to get him down to a point where the labour over the last three days and the new price meant we broke even. We were done, it was time to go to our campsite out of town, crack open a beer and relax, we were going to leave Nampula first thing in the morning and put her woes behind us. Or so we thought…
We had been dodging some of the worst driving in the world and had done incredibly well so far, not a scratch on Frank. Till today. A chappa, or minibus, decided to cut across two lanes of traffic and try squeeze in front of us to get to the other side of the road, before i knew it, it was too late. The minibus had caught franks bottom front bull bar, he had scraped the bull bar so heavily that it actually bent the bracket and snapped the bolts holding one side onto the chassis. I was absolutely ropable and furiously grabbing at the door to rip it open and launch at the driver who had stopped in front of us. I was waiting for Tash to grab my shoulder, stop me from jumping out and tell me to calm down before doing anything, this wasn’t going to happen as Tash had lurched out of the car and was now standing above the short driver scolding him and soon to be joined by me. He apologised profusely getting the full force of our pent up anger over the past few days. The crowd had swollen and the scene was getting chaotic, the driver gestured to us that we should follow him to get away from the crowd, we both went to the bumper to make sure it wasn’t going to fall off and before i knew it Tash was tearing down the main road after the taxi that had all but disappeared into the crowd and traffic. He was gone, I collected Tash down the road and we phoned poor John who was very apologetic for the actions of the driver and within 20 minutes the bracket was welded back on, bolts replaced, reinforced, spray painted and actually in better condition than before. We took solace in the fact that there was hardly a scratch on frank and that the taxi driver definitely came off second best.
We finally left Nampula and after a day we were in Quelimane, getting ready to take on the first of the two militarised convoys. We had heard reports of contact quite often but that RENAMO were only interested in fighting with the soldiers, they had no interest in passenger cars, tourists or trucks. This was all very reassuring till other reports came through that a funeral precession missed the convoy a week prior and they were killed when attempting the roads without military presence. We had had two sides of the story from “ dead bodies lining streets” to “a walk in the park”. We decided to make our own minds up and were at the start of the convoy well in advance of its supposed departure which was still a mystery for obvious reasons. The departure window was between 12 and 3, we had stocked up on cokes and cigarettes for the troops and we were thankful we did as most came past for a chat and asked for cold drinks or smokes and were very happy when we handed them over. The guys were quite jovial and looked more like mercenaries than army troops, all of a sudden sirens and hooters were going with the guys on the back of trucks gesturing for everyone to get into their cars and start driving forward. The buses were moved to the front, followed by us and the rest of the passenger cars with the big freight trucks and lorries bringing up the rear. A slow start soon turned into a chaotic scene as people started jostling for place. We were trying to stay close to the lead army team but not too close as to catch a stray bullet. The road deteriorated aggressively and opened up huge potholes to the point that there were times where 4 cars were driving across it looking for the best route, terrible driving ensued and we couldn’t focus on the threat of fighting due to the jostling with the trucks buses and other cars. It was an absolute joke at times.
We had gotten quite complacent and had put the music on by this stage, frank was handling the conditions well and we were raised above other cars so we weren’t worried about much apart from the odd bus that just hammered through potholes not even trying to swerve. In my side mirrors I noticed the police truck starting to pull forward a bit, keeping the cars in line. He eventually caught up to us till he was about 5 metres behind us on the other side of the road.
All of a sudden two shots rang out from what was close enough for both Tash and I to both instinctively duck. The cars in front slammed on breaks in reaction to the shots and within milliseconds heavy return fire rang out from the army truck now stopped right next to us. It was rapid semi automatic fire at first till the heavy mounted machine gun fire started which felt as though the shots were coming from inside the front with us. There was complete chaos and a slow motion glance between Tash and I proved that we had no idea what to do. The convoy had completely stopped now and the police truck moved up the line with the rangers urging people to keep moving between firing into the bush, a few more shots echoed through the bush and with what felt like minutes passing the convoy picked up speed again. We felt like sitting ducks, not knowing what to do, where were the shots were coming from or going to, all we knew is that it was not a nice place to be in. Tash was visibly shaken but held it together remarkably well, I was the same but slowly the adrenaline wore off and we eventually chatted and joked about what had just happened, fully aware that this was no joke but not really knowing what else to do. Eventually we were through the 100km stretch that needed the convoy and we were left to fend for ourselves. We had found a convoy buddy earlier and he let on that there is a nice enough place to stay about 40 km past Gorongoza National Park and that we would be fine to drive at night (being our only option) and then we could then attempt the second convoy the following day. This is exactly what we decided to do but due to the bumpy and rough going we had loosened a few wires causing a loose connection to the brights and our spotlights, the road was still terrible at parts and not having the spotlights was debilitating, not to mention I had been driving since 6 am in the morning. At about 9 o’clock we came closer to Gorongoza and decided it might be best to find the campsite there and head off the next morning, the place seemed deserted (probably was due to it being smack bang in the middle of the two convoys) neither of us felt comfortable in the place so we headed back out the park and drove on into the little town of Inchope where, at half 10, we magically came across the place our convoy buddy had mentioned. A strange but necessary little place we were down for the count. We were up first thing the next morning making sure we had enough provisions to get us through the convoy and then some. We threw in some cokes and little bottles of water for the troops and pulled out another box of cigarettes for those that weren’t lucky enough to get a cold drink.
We arrived at the start of the convoy which seemed much more organised, police had blocked off the road, the army presence was much more prevalent and there seemed to be more people gearing up for the next hundred kms. We managed to get enough Portuguese out of our mouths to get the answer of what time the army thought we would depart and had a rough estimate to follow. The time spent waiting under the mango tree was odd. Hawkers of all description had caught on that these convoys were profitable. Everyone needed food, cold drinks, chickens, goats, mechanical work, tyres, wood, coal basically anything you can think of was offered at your window while you wait for the departure. Worryingly this convoy looked allot more serious than the previous one, there were now two armoured troop carriers with mounted machine guns, everyone in the back of the police pick up trucks had full webbing and flack jackets, the mood was much more sombre and we were definitely more nervous considering these guys were more prepared for contact than the other teams yesterday. What were we in for today. The convoy moved off and soon we passed huge tented bases, burnt out trucks and buses and the odd village. We were joined by another full blown armoured troop carrier with mounted machine guns adding to our nerves.
The pace was harder this time and there was allot more order, whenever a truck or bus tried to overtake the convoy was stopped, driver scolded and licence removed, and then started back up again. Drivers soon got the picture and order was followed. We drove for about 70kms with the 3 armoured vehicles and 4 police trucks moving back and forth holding the line of cars till everyone seemed to just floor it. The armoured cars pulled back and waved everyone forward where those that could, got up to 130+ and stayed there. For the next 30 kms we shot through not stoping for anything or anyone and not quite sure what was going on till finally we reached a line of trucks and cars indicating the start of the convoy heading the other direction and essentially our “safe zone”.
After a few more light exchanges with army, police and customs officials we were through, a weight had been lifted and the 70kms to Inhassoro was a delight, it was time for a well deserved drink and a cigarette to share. The stress of the last few days melted away and we had a lovely afternoon watching the fishing nets come in, even managed to save a few turtles that had inadvertently been caught in the nets. After a victory meal and a few more drinks we called it a night as we have allot of relaxing to do over the next few weeks in this special part of the world. If you were wondering whether it was worth getting shot at, these pictures should give you the answer.