Driving In Africa Without GPS

Early in the morning we crossed the leafy, jungle border at Thornwood/Milange into Mozambique. Stamping out of Malawi took mere moments, but entering Mozambique was a much more thorough process.

The visas took an hour to process as the police quizzed us, eager to see our yellow fever vaccination cards, and know where we were going to stay (we had no hotel, but we made up a story). As we waited, locals passed through the border with scraps of paper with their name written on them, stamping through as though they were passports.


Even after our passports had been returned with visas, the border police wanted to search our car. A senior Mozambican soldier conducted the search. He wore a red beret, a green military uniform with sleeve insignia and sleeves rolled up, forearms covered in tattoos, and carried an AK-47 with his finger on the trigger. He had a serious face, creased and frowning, no-nonsense, battle-hardened, and certainly looked like a soldier who had participated in Mozambique’s long civil war. A fitting welcome, perhaps, to a country that features a machine gun prominently on the national flag.

He poked through the car, pointing at items. “What is this”, he asked, pointing at our first aid kit. “What is this”, he repeated, when he discovered our mini-fridge. We were hoping he didn’t discover Wessel’s massive Zanzibari door frames, the only items that didn’t seem to belong amongst the camping gear. 

They were just wooden beams, souvenirs, but they might have been perceived as suspicious. After a few minutes of searching, he was happy that we weren’t smuggling anything, and waved us through to Mozambique.

We drove out of the border town and down the highway which would take us to Mocuba, the biggest major city before we arrived at the coast. Without a map, I wasn’t entirely sure that we had chosen the right road, but the other two were positive. The highway began as a sealed road, but the asphalt was quickly exhausted and we began sailing through deep sand. We noticed buildings by the side of the road bearing bullet holes.

Mozambique’s bloody civil war raged for nearly twenty years and claimed nearly a million lives. We hadn’t learned much about the war yet, but we could see that the wounds were still fresh. There were large areas of Mozambique which still had active minefields, and we had been warned not to venture too far offroad.

The day was hot and the highway had degraded into deep orange sand, snaking and winding. Sand driving was always exhausting, physically and mentally. It was slow going, required constant vigilance, and threw our bodies from left to right. Long yellow grass and dry scrubland spiked up along road, and tribal villages appeared every few kilometres.


I was still anxious regarding the direction we were taking. And what’s more, no idea how long this round actually was. Mocuba could have been 2km or 200km away. We stopped occasionally to pee, smoke, drink water, and take a break from the spine-shakingly bumpy ride. The drive was hypnotising, the day was long, and yet we pushed on agonisingly for hour after hour. The surrounding grass was tall and we couldn’t survey the landscape; all we knew about Mozambique so far was the relentless orange sand. A day of orange sand.

The drive took around 6 hours, and we reached Mocuba exhausted, hungry, and irritable, at about 3pm. We sat at a cafe on the side of the road and ordered a round of 3Ms, the local beer. We struggled ordering in Portugese, the language of Mozambique. Our spirits improved. Storm clouds started to roll over, and we decided, as much as were enjoying the break, to finish the drive to Zalala Beach.

I wasn’t drinking, so was nominated as the driver. Zalala beach was a few kilometres out of Quelimane, a port city on the coast. The highway was finally a sealed one of good quality, and we relished the asphalt blast down to Quelimane.

Quelimane was an crazy place. The streets were broken and shattered to a point of disrepair, there were people packing up their market stalls, and ramshackle cars with shot suspension rumbled down the streets. The town was a hive of apartment blocks, colonial-style buildings, palm trees and pedestrians making their way home.

We drove until we reached the coast, finding a low stone wall built against the water’s edge, but no beautiful beach in sight. Two German tourists wandered past, so we leaned out the window to ask for directions. They pointed us to Praia de Zalala, through the coconut plantation. But Zalala Beach was nothing like we even expected…


2 thoughts on “Driving In Africa Without GPS

Comments are closed.