Inhambane is South Africa’s favourite Mozambique holiday town. Evan Haussmann found a relaxing, easy road trip route with some surprising stops along the way.
Sun, sea, colourful cultural attractions, diving with manta rays and whale sharks, dhow trips and aromatic markets make Inhambane a popular holiday spot for South Africans, but the 12-hour-plus drive on Mozambique’s EN1, much like trying to read this sentence in one breath, can be exhausting. Instead, my girlfriend Claire and I decided to break up the trip and see more of the country we so often whizz through. We discovered, with the completion of a ring road that skirts the erratic Maputo traffic, that we could be in our first slice of paradise in about six hours. Here’s how we did it:
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To the Beach…
We made the Macaneta Peninsula our first stop. It’s a relatively easy drive from Joburg and a popular weekend escape for the people of Maputo, just 40 kilometres north. We’d also heard about El Paso, an old-style ‘cowboy resort’. After turning off the main drag, our GPS cracked us up when the voice said, ‘In 500 metres, take the ferry.’ I didn’t know GPSes could say that. Sure enough, as we rounded the corner a ragged, rusted and smoking diesel craft laden with cars chugged towards the bank. While waiting to board we bought fresh prawns and ice-cold beers from chatty vendors in the parking area. The crossing, though a bit hairy due to the dilapidated state of the ferry, was uneventful.
Safely ashore, we took a 15-minute drive along a dirt road, following signs to El Paso. The road weaves through tiny villages and bush and becomes quite sandy (passable with a sedan, but it’s better to use a high-clearance vehicle). El Paso is modelled on a Wild West town; horses roam around creosoted wooden buildings decorated with interesting antiques and wagon wheels on the verandas. The rustic bar, with the requisite swing doors and bar stools made from horse saddles, was a great place to have our first 2M beer in Mozambique.
The people there were gracious enough to ignore my terrible cowboy accent and instead offered advice on accommodation and the best routes north to Inhambane. We were disappointed not to be able to stay in the Gunsmith ‘shop’ or the El Paso Post Office for the night as they were fully booked. But we did take an exhilarating horse ride through the bush to the beach. Back in the saloon afterwards, Claire’s horse sidled expectantly up to a window behind the bar and was given a beer for his efforts. My inner Wyatt Earp ventured: ‘Well I’ll be darned! Only in the Wild West, y’all!’ The locals may have been happy to see me ride off into the non-sunset at this point.
The great lake escape
Saddle-sore (and not very hungover at all), we were a bit slow to leave the Macaneta Peninsula the next day, which put us on the EN1 quite late. The main highway is busy and the strictly enforced speed limits make progress slow. We didn’t force the issue. We took it easy and languidly passed through a number of dusty but busy towns with no differentiating features between them. We were still travelling when night fell. I’d been told that driving at night in Mozambique isn’t advisable as it can be quite dangerous. In reality, and my opinion, it’s not any more dangerous than anywhere else.
On a whim, and against popular sentiment, we pulled off at a roadside bar, bought a cold drink and sat on a bench outside. Passers-by were clearly intrigued by us being there at that time of night and stopped to chat with the crazy tourists. A few kilometres later, Claire heard loud music and again we pulled off the main road to search for the party. Cruising slowly down a side street lined with food stands and clothing stalls, we made our way through the dim lights towards the beats. At the end of the
At the end of the lane we found a group of youths hanging out in an open- fronted, tin-shack bar with a massive sound system pumping out local dance tunes. The vibe was amazing and we hung out with the kids, dancing in the dust and joking in broken Portuguese, English and sign language.
Further along, the GPS directed us to Chidenguele (which means ‘the highest point’ in the local Chope language) and Naara Eco Lodge, our accommodation for the night, set near a network of freshwater lakes shielded from the Indian Ocean by high dunes covered in indigenous vegetation. In the morning we rose before dawn and paddled kayaks across the largest of these waterways, the mirror-like Nhambavale Lake, in perfect golden light.
Afterwards, with wet butts but smiling, we tucked into delicious omelettes in the lodge’s understated, open- fronted restaurant overlooking the lake. We’d wanted to visit King’s Pool but the tide wasn’t in our favour, so instead we headed to the Bao Paz lighthouse. The view from the top reveals an endless beach on one side and a network of inland lakes on the other.
Reluctantly, we tore ourselves away from the luxury and serenity, fired up the Fortuner and slowly headed up the dirt road to get back onto the EN1 and the 200-kilometre home run to Inhambane, which takes you through the seemingly nondescript towns of Quissico, Inharrime and Jangamo. In truth, though, we knew that every one of them had something to offer. One just has to take the time, stop and look.
Plan your trip
For the first part of the road trip – from Johannesburg to El Paso: Take the N12 and N4 from Joburg to the Lebombo border, then the EN4 to Maputo. Cross the Rio Matola Bridge, then turn left onto the new ring road (avoiding Maputo entirely). Drive 3,7 kilometres, cross the railway line via another bridge, head right at the traffic circle, drive 12 kilometres and take the slipway left onto the EN1 at the Xai-Xai sign. Head north for 33 kilometres to Marracuene village. Turn right at the Macaneta Lodge sign. At the next T-junction turn left, cross the railway line and then the Inkomati River (by ferry or the new bridge, which should be complete by the time you read this). After 6 kilometres keep left at an off-centre T-junction and follow the signs to El Paso.
The great lake escape – From El Paso to Chidenguele: Unless you have a 4×4 (see alternative route below), you’ll need to backtrack to the EN1. Turn right at Marracuene and head north past Xai-Xai to Chidenguele. Take the dirt road right into town and head west to the beach, where there are several accommodation options. To continue on to Inhambane later, head back to the EN1 and follow the signs.
Things to do along the way
Buy fresh prawns and Cokes at the Inkomati River. You’ll find the vendors in the parking area. Prawns from R100 per kilogram.
Ride a horse to the beach and back. Rides start and end in El Paso and take about two hours. From R250 per person. +258844833048, firstname.lastname@example.org
Play on Nhambavale Lake. It’s some 20 kilometres long and perfect for kayaking, fishing, birding and stand-up paddle- boarding. Kite surfers and sailors love it too. It’s free for guests of Naara Eco Lodge, which supplies kayaks and SUP boards (bring your own if you’re not staying there).
Climb the Bao Paz lighthouse and take in the endless views. It’s a short drive from Naara Eco Lodge and free. Get directions from the lodge.
Swim in King’s Pool, a natural rock pool, at low tide. It’s five kilometres long and the crystal-clear water ensures excellent snorkelling and superb fishing. It purportedly gets its name from kingfish so big that they strip fishing reels like candyfloss at a toddlers’ party. Bring your best gear. It’s seven kilometres from Naara Eco Lodge (they offer transfers there for R100, or you can drive yourself).
Take the ferry across the Inkomati River. Though the bridge might be in operation by the time you do this route, if there’s a chance to take a trip on the ferry, do it. It’s a thrill. R25 per vehicle.
Stop at any roadside bar, have a cool drink and mix with the locals to get a true sense of Mozambique. We found great friendliness and generosity.
Buy home-made peri-peri, fresh fruit, veggies and cashews from the roadside vendors too. You’ll not only get good organic fare but you’ll also be supporting the local economy. From R50 for a 500-millilitre bottle of the hot stuff.
See the Chidenguele Cathedral. It’s impeccably kept and the delicate stained-glass windows and impressively tall spire are incongruous alongside the low, traditional homes in the surrounding area. It’s open during the day (free entry) but if you can get there on a Sunday during service, you’ll be treated to a sermon in Portuguese and particularly beautiful singing; the acoustics are lovely.
Visit the locals. Walk with a guide and get a little insight into the community and it’s way of life. R65 per person (Proceeds go into a community development fund).
El Paso Mozambique has rustic Wild West-themed chalets. From R200 per person B&B (sleeps four). +258844833048, find it on Facebook.
Lugar Do Mar has self-catering chalets with air-conditioning and private braai areas. From R400 per person. 0823789870, +258840260409, lugardomar.com
Naara Eco Lodge & Spa is well- signposted from Chidenguele and easy to find in the day (it’s a little trickier at night – we had to rely on our GPS). The route to the lodge degenerates into a 4×4 track but the lodge offers secure parking for sedans and a free shuttle service to get you there. Ten private, deluxe en-suite safari tents are set around a very stylish restaurant, bar, spa and swimming pool overlooking a lake. Fantastic fusion meals use mostly locally sourced ingredients; ask to have your dinner on the deck next to the lake – romantic! From R1300 for two. +258843212209, naaraecolodge.com
At around R10 per litre, fuel is cheaper in Mozambique so there’s no need to bring jerry cans of petrol into the country (you’ll also get charged an import tax of around 40 percent if you do). When refuelling make sure the meter is zeroed and check the price before paying – ensure the correct amount is charged.
Crossing from South Africa to Mozambique at the Lebombo border is (generally) a breeze. The Mozambican side, however, is a challenge. This is mainly due to border officials allowing civilians to stand inside the border post and take advantage of travellers. Their modus operandi is to direct you to a parking space and then ask you to produce the gate pass, which you would have received on entry from an official in uniform.
Once the tout has your gate pass it’s very difficult to get it back as they doggedly guide you through the border entry procedure. There will, of course, be a ‘service fee’ for the assistance provided. If you don’t want to do this, don’t deal with anyone who isn’t in uniform. Officials are helpful and will direct you to the next stage of the process. Allow about two hours for this crossing.
Don’t forget the following
- Valid international or SA driver’s licence
- Vehicle registration forms
- Third-party insurance (available at the border or from a travel company)
- Two large reflective triangles
- Reflective jackets
- Fire extinguisher
- ZA sticker
This story first appeared in the November 2016 issue of Getaway magazine.
Our November issue features the next adventure frontier of Madagascar, affordable breaks in Hogsback, and what to do in the Cradle of Humankind.