The three of us – my two companions, Lorna and Mike, and I – head down to the docks in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to catch the ferry from there to Mtwara, in the south of the country, en route to Mozambique. We arrive a good 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time to find hundreds of people milling around. The ground is extremely muddy and there are piles of cargo littered around the quayside, waiting to be loaded onto the boat. Embarking on the ferry appears to require a treacherous journey down a slippery, narrow wooden plank, lying at an angle of about 45 degrees, with a 20ft drop into the murky waters below. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

In the meantime, due to the obvious fact it will take ages to load the cargo, let alone all the passengers, we take a seat on a wall, out of the way. By 10.15 – we’d been due to sail at 9am – the crowd doesn’t seem to have got any smaller and cargo is still piled up on the dock. But, with alarm, I notice they have started untying the ropes holding the ferry to the shore. We charge to the gangway, shouting that we have to get on. There’s only one ferry a week, and there’s no way we want to spend another day in Dar, let alone a week. A policeman and another man, who I guess to be Greek, are blocking the gangplank, while would-be passengers try to shove money in their hands to let them on, to no avail.

Fortunately, we manage to talk them into letting us through, although the Greek reprimands us for being late. I ‘politely’ inform him that we’d been waiting for ages, only we couldn’t get on because of all the people and the “not very efficient” method of embarking. We agree to differ, and concentrate on our next obstacle: the 4ft gap that has appeared between the gangplank and the quay.

Under pressure to get a move on, we hurl our packs onto the ferry. Mike flings himself across the divide – just. Then it’s Lorna’s turn. Holding my hand, she launches herself across; Mike grabs her other hand and, for a few agonising seconds, she’s dangling over the void, screaming, the choppy water crashing against the dock below, as if waiting expectantly for her to fall. Thankfully, Mike manages to haul her aboard, and I hastily jump over too, sliding down the muddy gangplank at great speed and landing in a heap on the deck.

The ferry immediately starts to move. We’d made it, albeit caked in mud. We make our way through the masses in deck class – the sight of three muddy mzungus causing much amusement. The ferry docks briefly at Mafia Island, where we are treated to the farcical sight of a sheet of glass being carried on to the boat – to me, to you – while goats are manhandled ashore.

Smuggled into Moz
We arrive in Mtwara the following day. From here, we have to get to the border town of Msimbati on the coast some 40km away. The roads after this point are non-existent, so we will need to catch a dhow to get into Mozambique. It’s getting late, but we decide to push on, so, followed by an ever-growing procession of locals, we walk to the main road, hoping we can hitch a ride. I start feeling nervous that we are going the wrong way, but one of our trusty band of followers leads us to the right spot, where we flag down vehicles until, finally, one will take us for a price we can afford. However, the driver is only going as far as Madimba, halfway to the border. We decide to chance it.

Luckily, for us, just outside Madimba a truck has broken down, blocking the road, and holding up a number of Land Rovers heading to the border. By now it is pitch black. We find a lift, persuading the driver that he can make it up the bank and around the truck. On arriving at Msimbati, we are searching for the immigration post when some lads offer to help. They lead us out of town, and paranoia creeps in as we walk in complete darkness, not knowing where we are or where we are going.

We eventually arrive at the policeman’s house on the beach, safe and sound, and stay there, chatting to the cop, while the others go off in search of the immigration officer. He is nowhere to be found, but they take us to his house anyway, to wait, which, conveniently, is also the pub. Finally, about 10.30pm, he shows up and we traipse off to his office, where, by candlelight, we are stamped out of Tanzania. He tells us to catch a dhow with a group of guys who are leaving for Mozambique that night, so we rush down to the beach.

Around midnight, 21 of us get onto a very small dhow, which is currently beached because the tide is out. We settle down for an uncomfortable night, lying on sacks of who knows what. I awaken a couple of hours later to find the tide has come in, and we are afloat.

We spend the next day lying under a kanga, trying to keep out of the burning sun, all the while listening to the lads’ one Bob Marley tape on a continuous loop. A pod of dolphins swims alongside us for a while, breaking the monotony of the journey. For lunch, we pull up at a sandbank, where our companions dig for grubs and cook them over a fire. I’m hungry, but not that hungry.

Another uncomfortable night follows before we spot Mocímboa da Praia, a port some 130km into northern Mozambique. The ‘captain’ orders us all to duck down and keep out of sight. We anchor about 150m offshore, and wade to the beach in waist-deep water with our backpacks on our heads.

We are pointed in the direction of Immigration – about 1km along the beach – while the rest of the dhow’s occupants disappear into the bushes, clutching their bags of illicit goods, headed for the black market – we have apparently hitched a lift with a bunch of smugglers. While we traipse along the beach, pondering how we can explain our miraculous appearance this far inside the country, a local lad, with a gun slung over his shoulder, shows us to the immigration office. Our passports are stamped, no questions asked.

To the island
Our plan is to head to Ilha de Moçambique. There’s no public transport in this area, so everyone gets around by hitching, negotiating a price with the driver for their trouble. So we head to a truck stop and sit down to wait. We play football with some kids to pass the time. After a couple of hours in the blazing heat, a vehicle pulls up. It’s already chockers, but we squeeze in the back at contortionist-like angles.

At the next stop, Lorna is offered a seat in the cab; at the following stop, the ‘conductor’ gives us our money back, causing us to wonder what she is doing up front. Thankfully, the numbers in the back get fewer and travel becomes slightly more bearable… Until it rains. We swiftly scramble under some tarpaulin.

We were going to be dropped off at the ‘corner’, where the road forks south, but the truck’s co-drivers, brothers Abdul and Ali, are continuing in our direction the next day, so they invite us to spend the night in their hometown, Mueda. They take us to a hotel, where Abdul tells the owner he will pay for two of us. Unfortunately, due to the language barrier we think he is only asking for a room for two of us, leaving the third to find accommodation elsewhere. We keep trying to explain we need a room for three. Abdul insists on two. After a few minutes of heated debate, he relents and agrees to three, and then pays. It then dawns on us what he had meant. Embarrassed is not the word, but he won’t accept any money. They also buy our drinks all night – doing shuttle runs to their shop for more beer.

We wake up at 5am, as reluctantly agreed, ready to carry on our journey. But it seems the previous night’s excesses were too much for Abdul, who sheepishly comes down to breakfast at 8. Later the next day we reach another fork in the road, where we part company with our generous hosts. As we sit at the roadside awaiting our next ride, a large number of people begin to form a horseshoe around us. They just stare, not saying anything.

There is a distinct lack of traffic, so we take shelter in the shade of a shop. There’s no food in there, though – just soda and South African beer. We spend a cold and hungry night sleeping in the shop doorway. The next day, after four hours at the roadside, a truck appears as if by magic. And we are on our way again. We get off at who knows where, and are instantly surrounded by about 200 people. We seek refuge in a cafe, but they continue to stare at us through the doorway. We move further up the road to another bar, but, intrigued by these strange people, the crowd follows us – it’s as if we are bearded ladies in a freak show. But I suppose this is understandable – we may be the first Europeans these people have seen for some time, or ever, for the younger ones.

It’s now dark and things are looking desperate. Then someone comes over to me and says there is a truck going to Ilha. I negotiate a price with the driver and run back to get the others, but there’s no Mike. I run around looking for him, frantic that we will lose the lift. Dejected, I return to the bar to find he’s returned, having negotiated a lift with the same truck!

After two-and-half hours sitting on bags of sugar, we are on Ilha. In return for helping unload the sugar – shifting 50kg bags is damn hard work I can tell you – they drive us to a pousada (guesthouse).

Rock lobster
The next day we take a walk around the island. It’s a beautiful place, with stunning coastline and Portuguese colonial architecture everywhere we look: an old bandstand, church and town square, all in an unfortunate state of disrepair, but still characterful. The streets are quiet. It’s a sleepy place and I wonder what it was like in the colonial days – full of hustle and bustle, no doubt. But hopefully, since independence and the civil war, their lives are better now – certainly more peaceful. We chat to some fishermen, who still catch their prey the traditional way, using a spear.

Back at the hotel bar, we meet a Danish woman, who works in Maputo. I can’t recall her name, so for the sake of this story I’ll call her Astrid. Music plays and Mama Shuffle, as we affectionately name our hotel owner, dances around, wiggling her rather large bottom. She decides to shut the bar early because she is tired. Island life, eh: mañana, mañana.

The next morning we go in search of somewhere to change money. We meet an Indian man, driving a BMW. He takes us to meet his friend, who takes us to his house – a big, old Portuguese mansion he’s doing up. Over coffee we negotiate an exchange rate. He then gives us a grand tour of his house: the rooms are huge, including a bathroom so large that the bath is dwarfed by its size. He is in the cashew nut trade and tells us that, during the war, for every truck he sent to the port two armed trucks escorted it. In all, he lost just two to the rebels.

He says that if we “need anything, just ask”. Money in hand, or rather, in money belt, we head to the beach, and marvel at the coral littering the sand. We even find the remnants of an exploded canon ball.

Later, we meet up with Astrid, who has arranged for the island’s museum curator to take us around the fort, which is normally closed to the public. The Portuguese began building the fort in 1558 and it took some 50 years to complete. We spend a pleasant hour exploring the crumbling battlements.

Fortunately Ilha was declared a World Heritage Site in 2006, and a conservation programme is being undertaken to preserve this remarkable island.

On the way back we spot the fishermen we met earlier, wading back into shore, clutching a fresh catch. Much to their delight, we buy a job lot of lobster from them, which we cook over a charcoal burner at the house where Astrid is staying: eating and drinking on the verandah, with a sky full of stars and the sea lapping at the wall. Bliss.

Although it would have been nice to have some food for breakfast rather than just Castle lager (sometimes), Ilha is amazing. We were told we were among the first 10 Europeans to have visited there for many years. I was surprised, but happy, to see the lack of evidence of the war. Yes, there was poverty, but with the farmers starting to return from exile, the hope was that it could only improve.

The next day we grab a lift to Nampula. We plan to catch the train to Cuamba, near the Malawi border, but there are only one or two a week.

No man’s land

Mike wakes us at 8 o’clock the next morning with the news that the train is in the station and it’s leaving in an hour. We hurriedly get our stuff together and rush down there. The train looks a nightmare – very hard benches, some without backs, there’s no glass in the windows and the toilets smell like the last day at Glastonbury in 1989, which, for those of you who weren’t there, was very bad. On boarding we are told the journey, a distance of less than 300km, “could take 24 hours”. We gulp. “Or it could take five days, depending on the state of the track”. We gulp again.

En route we pass through barren countryside, with a few villages dotted about. We occasionally glimpse the traffic-free road, apparently undriveable due to landmines.

During the day the lack of glass in the windows is refreshing: a gorgeous breeze cutting into the heat. But once the sun goes down, it is absolutely freezing.

After a shivery night on the cold metal floor, we wake to find we are just 65km from Cuamba. But it is false hope. The track is in a terrible state and it takes a painful seven hours to reach our destination. Every stop, more and more people get on, armed with sugar cane, and we watch our already limited space becoming smaller and smaller – although they do chomp their way through a fair percentage of the cane, so it could have been worse.

We arrive in Cuamba 30 hours after we left Nampula, which is not a bad result, all things considered. On the train we had met Foxtama, or ‘Foxy’ to his friends, a Malawian salt importer. Foxy sorts us out a room, and says he will take us to catch the train to Malawi the following morning. He promises to sort us a seat in the engine, but this doesn’t materialise, and we end up crammed on to a cargo wagon. The departure is delayed… and then delayed again, so we nip off to get a drink, and then have to sprint back as the train whistle sounds – it’s about to leave. We charge down the platform and pile on to the carriage. I rip my shorts in the process. But we are on. An hour later, it leaves.

We arrive at the border in pitch darkness. We have a 2km walk in the dark to the Malawi border, but when we get there it’s shut. We are stuck in no man’s land for the night. Luckily Mike has a tent… but he’s never put it up before. Surrounded by inquisitive locals we struggle to get the thing upright – only to find the zip is broken and there is a hole in the side. Still, needs must, and if we must share our tent with hundreds of mozzies then so be it.

Early the next morning we strike camp, scratching a new collection of bites. The villagers, bless them, have boiled some water for us so we can have a wash, and we have chai and bread at one of their houses – just another example of the characteristic generosity shown by everyone we met here in Africa, particularly on this leg of the journey.

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