Friday, February 27, 2009

Komatipoort, South Africa

Friends: On occasion I am boggled by my present reality, lost in a euphoric state of wonderment that I am where I am. So it was my two days in Mozambique. It seemed an unimaginable place to be pedaling my bicycle. How did I ever end up here, I kept thinking. This wasn't one of those distant places that had long allured me, but here I was and it was a superlative joy.

From the moment I crossed into Mozambique, I felt enamored. A festival was going on at the border town. The streets were teeming with happy, beaming people. They reacted to me, the unlikely site of a white on an overloaded bicycle, with delight, as if I were part of the festival. And such was my reception the 120 miles I biked through the bottom corner of this lengthy coastal country. No one regarded me with suspicion or malignancy, only glee.

I wasn't even sure if I would be allowed into the country. It was advised to get a visa ahead of time, but I would have had to detour 50 miles to the capital of Swaziland for it. I elected to take my chances at the border. If I were turned away, I'd just have to backtrack twelve miles and return to South Africa by a different route. Visas cost $25, something I was reluctant to pay as South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland had all been free. And it would also be the first time I would have to use a currency other than rands. Changing money is never a happy occasion. Eight of those twelve miles to the border were up steep hills. I was certainly hoping my efforts wouldn't be in vain.

A sign on the counter by the customs official priced visas at 172 rands or $25. That was double good news--visas for sale and my option of paying $17 in rands or $25 in greenbacks. I didn't have to think long making that decision. From the border it was a gentle fifty mile descent and then mostly flat to the coast and the capital city Maputo, past largely unfenced terrain dotted by short bushy trees of the low-veldt, idyllic for camping. It was a shame I wouldn't be able to take advantage of it. My one night in Mozambique would be spent in a hotel, though I had been hoping to find a seaside campgrounds in Maputo. Unfortunately, there was no such thing, not even beaches. Mozambique has miles and miles of fabulous beaches, but none in the port of the capital.

It caused me considerable pain to be wasting the near infinite number places to camp. It was a marked contrast to South Africa, a land of barbed wire fences that made camping much much more of a challenge than I like, just about the most challenging I've encountered. South Africa offered similar great landscape, but it was mostly fenced off, another version of apartheid. Among other things, South Africa is a country of barbed wire. It comes in many varieties and patterns and is strung in many imaginative and threatening ways, frequently in circular loops. Never have I seen so much of it, nor in so many different places. It is another symbol of hatred and fear.

I will forever associate Mozambique with mangoes. It provided the most succulent mangoes I've ever encountered. I was looking forward to indulging in one of the red-hued, softball-sized gems that went for 35 cents at least every ten miles on my ride out of the country from roadside vendors. Unfortunately the sixty mile route from Maputo back to South Africa was a recently built toll road all the way to Pretoria, 300 miles away, through unsettled countryside. I'd had a couple of the mangoes on the ride in to Maputo and I couldn't stop thinking about them. I was lucky to come upon one lone mini-cafe selling cans of coke for 25 meticals--27 to the dollar--on the steamy ride out of the county. It was a great rip-off, considering small stands everywhere else sold bottles of coke for 10 meticals. But I needed to escape the scorching sun and heat and humidity and drink something cold, so I didn't hesitate in paying a buck for a can. I spent my 120 remaining meticals at the border on mangoes and cashews.

A young man at the border took charge of me, grabbing my passport and taking it to the head of the line. I feared his hand would be out afterward, but he was another Mozambican simply trying to please. Not too many travelers or tourists visit this country, so few in fact that most of the travel literature at the tourist office was in Portuguese, not in English, that the few who do are treated as guests to be looked after and tended to. It was the same in Swaziland. Many South Africans go to Lesotho since it is so distinctly unique, but they don't bother with Swaziland, as its not much different than the surrounding South African countryside. The kids there hadn't been corrupted by sweet-giving tourists, so they didn't associate whites with gifts and didn't come running making demands. Rather they were just happy to receive a wave in response to their waves.

Kruger National Park is just to the north of here. It is the largest national park in the world, the size of Israel. I thought I might take a day trip in and take a gander at some of the big game. The owner of this Internet outlet called three of his local friends who offer such a service, but none had any trips on schedule. This isn't the best time for it, as the animals are hidden and lethargic in the heat. The Internet owner said he knows many people drive the length of the park, a couple hundred miles long and hardly see anything. He lives on the fringe of the park himself. It'd been a week since he'd seen an elephant. I passed a giraffe grazing along the road and saw zebras and buffaloes and antelope in the Swaziland game reserve I was allowed to bike through. That will have to do. I was hesitant anyway about being confined to some safari vehicle with a bunch of tourists driving through terrain similar to that which I've biked through.

The giraffe is big, but it isn't among the Big Five--the rare more glamor animals that everyone wants to see. They are the elephant, black rhino, Cape buffalo, lion and leopard.

Later, George

1 comment:

T.C. O'Rourke said...

So glad to read of friendlier and luckier experiences, George.

Still, your hard goings make for good reading.