Mozambique has a lot to offer for the touring cyclist, but in this country more than almost any other, nothing comes for free. Whether it is the hordes of South African tourists in the south, the long uninterrupted stretches of bush in the center, or the remotest regions of the north where lions and buffalo roam free outside the parks, every day will push you to your limits. Don’t worry though, it’s worth it – the people are welcoming, the countryside is spectacular, and there’s even some of the best food we had through our whole trip.
Really the country can be divided in two (and should be politically divided into two some would say) – the south is far more developed and far more visited. This is where you’ll see other mzungu, and also where you’ll find a vibrant arts scene, spectacular beaches, and a relaxed easy mixing with the local population. In the north though, everything is different. Bombed out remnants of the civil war are more common than new construction, entire days can be spent cycling through areas that almost no white people have visited before, and the tourist sites, though still spectacular, are far from developed. Where else in the world can you have a UNESCO world heritage site (Ilha de Mozambique) all to yourself?
We biked in Mozambique in January and February 2011. This is the rainy season, which meant that it was oppressively hot and humid in most of the country. The rain itself varied greatly, from gray drizzly (almost Belgian) days that saved us from the heat, to apocalyptic thunder storms that sent us cowering in cafes hoping our bikes wouldn’t get washed away. Our advice? Avoid the rainy season!
Oh, and one last thing, avoid the Lonely Planet guide for Mozambique at all costs! This is quite possibly the worst guide book ever published. There is not a single map that isn’t at least 50% wrong, the descriptions of towns are laughably inaccurate, and the whole book gives you the impression that it was written by someone who has never been anywhere near Mozambique. Better buy a guide to somewhere else – Peru maybe? – it couldn’t possibly be less accurate for Mozambique than this one…
Route: We entered Mozambique at the Goma border post from Swaziland. From there we pedaled to Maputo, pushing it a bit since there was nowhere to change money before the city. And yes, it is farther than you think – the distance signs along the road are all wrong.
From Maputo we took the N1 north to Inhambane. It is a busy road, but there is no realistic alternative if you’re heading north, especially not in the rainy season.
From Inhambane we took a bus north to Quelimane, hoping to avoid the worst of the rains. It is easy enough to get bikes on buses in Mozambique, though a bit expensive as well. From Quelimane, it was back on the N1 up to Nampula, where our trip came to a sudden end when my rear hub broke. There are no bike shops up here, and though there are plenty of mechanics along the way, their resources are limited; if you care about your bike you’d be best off bringing your own tools with you.
We had hoped to continue on to Pemba and then head west to lake Malawi via Lichenga, where there are still lions and elephants and hyenas seen frequently along the main road. Instead, we put our bikes on the train west, which was also easily done and not nearly so expensive as the bus.
Roads: The N1 is paved all the way to Pemba, though there are some stretches where ‘paved’ is clearly more of a euphemism than anything else. The government seemed to be reworking the roads though, and it’s possible by the time you read this that the whole situation is changed. If they’re newly paved, they’re nice.
Our occasional experience of dirt roads (during the rainy season remember) was that they were impassable. Along the coast they are extremely sandy, and no matter where they flood easily with the rains. There are certainly exceptions, but it is worth asking many people before setting out on a certain route.
Dogs: None beyond the typical cowering African village strays. As for other animals, we heard a rather harrowing story about a German cyclist being attacked by hyenas along the road to Lichinga, so if you go up there, don’t bike after dark and be sure to sleep in villages.
Food: One word: matapa. You’ll hear a lot about Mozambican shrimp and shellfish, but the best catch gets exported and what is left is invariably overpriced. Matapa on the other hand is a stew of cassava leaves, coconut milk, peanut sauce, and sometimes shrimp or chicken. Served on coconut rice it is absolutely delicious, the best dish we had during our whole trip. It is widely available along the coast, and can vary from a truly exquisite (though pricey) tourist restaurant preparation to a simpler bowl at a local restaurant. Either way though, it’s not to be missed.
For breaks along the way there is also plenty of fruit available and, in some areas, endless streams of cashew nuts. Pineapples, coconuts, mangoes, papaya, anything you can think of grows in Mozambique.
And also, for those who like it hot, any restaurant will offer a bottle of blistering hot sauce (piri piri) if you’d like, don’t hesitate to ask. In the south they even sell it along the road – though it’s serious stuff, not for the faint of heart…
Sleeping: Hotels in Mozambique are expensive and terrible. After spending 50$ so Dave could fight off food poisoning in a hotel that had leaking roofs, windows, and floors, we gave up on Mozambican hotels in general. Who knows where the idea to charge so much comes from, but it is simply inexcusable, and no amount of complaining will get a discount or a refund – trust us, we tried. The best bet, we learned later, is to threaten to write in the Complaints Book. Every hotel has one and they can be fined for negative comments, so sometimes the threat can accomplish more than any other measures ever would. We learned this too late for some of the worst hotels, so we wish you more luck than we had!
Instead of hotels, we slept almost exclusively in villages, pitching our tent in compounds or school yards. We were never turned away, and were often invited to sit around a fire and share some food or drink with the family we were visiting. For a long stretch, it seemed that every day ended with just the sort of experience we dreamed of when we started planning our trip – whether it was going to sleep to the sounds of a school choral rehearsal or sharing cashew beer in the dark with a family, we spent our days in Africa, with Africans; Mozambique is a fantastic country for getting out of the standard tourist circuit.
Things Shouted at us Along the Road: Tudo bem? Mozambicans are friendly people, and though in the north there was a lot of silent staring and suspicion, a smile and a little Portuguese could always break the ice. In the south, even that wasn’t needed though, and the amount of rest breaks that ended in sipping cashew beer or splitting a coconut with strangers who had become friends were too many to count.