Maputo to Beira

Wed, 06 Aug 2008 13:20:11 +0000

Maputo Index Beira

At half past three the alarm went off and I hauled myself out of bed. I hope this sort of thing isn't going to happen too frequently, it's just unhealthy to be getting out of bed at this kind of hour. Unfortunately, this is exactly how bus travel in Africa works.

Catching this bus involves hanging around a mysterious "area", not a proper bus terminal, in the middle of the night, with no booking and no real idea what I should be doing. At the end of the bus journey, I'd be dumped into much the same kind of place at much the same time of day, with no hotel booking. This is surely about as risky as it gets, so I gave myself some extra insurance by shoving a credit card, a backup SD card, and a SIM card into my sock. It felt a little foolish, but not half as foolish as I'd feel if my backpack and hangbag were stolen and I'd decided not to fill my sock because it felt foolish.

As I was pulling on my boots in the corridor I ran into the South African guy who'd agreed to travel with me, so that was one relief: I wouldn't be travelling alone. He went off to have a very quick shower and I waited on a stool in the dark beer garden and yawned a lot. There was a taxi ready and waiting for us, so it was only shortly after four when we were at "Junta", where the buses assemble themselves.

My friend was off to Veronculos, a far more sensibly touristy destination, and he was quickly put on the correct bus. I was led a little further off to the express for Beira. They were asking 950 meticais for the journey, about EUR 30. More expensive than I expected, and left me with worryingly little cash. But I was glad, in fact quite surprised, to have a seat at all.

Well, when I say "seat", I mean that there was a small wooden stool next to the stairwell, and that's what I got. All the actual seats seemed to be already taken. I had to sit sideways, and so did whoever occupied the single seat just behind me. My information was that it would be 24 hours to Beira, and I'd be spending it all on that little stool. I was fascinated to see whether or not I could stand it. If not, I could always jump out at some sensibly-sized town on the way and try to find a hotel there instead.

While I waited for the bus to fill up, and watched the crew tying up bags in any spare volume not taken up by passengers, I was spoken at by a bloke called "Ali" who seemed intent on making conversation. I couldn't tell if he was trying to sell something, trying to rip me off, or was just drunk, but in any event this wasn't the fun local colour I was after. Ali, who turned out to be South African, picked up on my discomfort and quickly assumed I was scared of all the black people. But he assured me that some of his best friends were white. Well, coloured anyway. Clearly that is one deeply scarred country down there. I didn't get rid of him until we were ready to set off and everyone took their seats, but he didn't bother me after that.

At around five we got moving. I found that a sports bag wedged into my left made a reasonable surface to lean against, and I tried to get some sleep. I think I managed about half an hour: not brilliant, but enough to suggest that I'd get a few hours in the night. I could also lean forward and sleep on my lap like I did on the minibus at Kapiri Mposhi, so I even had options. Unfortunately in the first few hours we picked up a bunch more passengers, and things got too crowded for that. Some passengers were clearly going to be standing the whole way, which made me grateful for my little stool. Others found bags to sit on and filled up the aisle. There were no crates of chickens as the sterotype would have it: in fact, the other passengers were more burdened by big expensive smartphones. But I was forced to smell a lot of people's armpits on this journey.

There was a mother with a small baby just in front of me, and I was obliged to mug and gurn for the child's benefit. She handed me a slightly damp fragment of biscuit, which I forced myself to eat - anything else would have seemed rude. I replied with one of my biscuits, which seemed to go down well. Luckily I was at a goodish range when her nappy needed changing. I was very impressed that this operation was possible on a crowded bus travelling at a hundred along a highway.

I had some food with me: just a couple of packets of biscuits, some water and some fruit juice. But I was intent on rationing myself for the journey: being desperate to go to the toilet could make the difference between a restful night and utter misery. About eleven we stopped at the major food-buying point of the journey, and lots of people bought chicken and rice in styrofoam containers. Half an hour later they were shovelling through these meals as the bus bumped along, spraying rice and shreds of chicken around the bus. Not very hygienic, I must say. And when they were done, the styrofoam containers just went out the window. This is one of several local habits I just can't bring myself to adopt. I contented myself with my biscuits, refusing several offers to share other people's food. I knew that this you're supposed to share on these bus journeys, but the etiquette is just too problematic, especially with my lack of Portuguese.

Mind you, at one point after I'd put away the biscuits the lady behind me gestured to me to dig them out again. I thought I was being invited to offer my biscuits around, which I was happy to do. But it turned out it was just the baby, who thought I might be interested in handing another one over. I did this, and she played with it for the next half an hour or so. I realised that the whole front half of the bus was watching this drama unfold, so I was glad I did more-or-less the right thing.

There was music the entire way. It started with some 50 Cent. I was briefly worried that I was on a Jo'burg-style wrong-side-of-the-law bus, but then recognised the rapper and relaxed. No real gangster would listen to 50 Cent. This was confirmed when the next track was James Blunt, and then, incredibly, the one after that "Nothing Else Matters" from Metallica. My fingers involuntarily picked out the notes as it played. Eventually the music settled into reggae, mostly Lucky Dube. The whole time it was at ear-splitting volume, but I plugged in my earplugs and that reduced it to a reasonable background level.

I counted down the hours. After eight hours, I decided that I was uncomfortable, but I could live with it. Of course, the worst part would be the last eight hours in the night, but I thought I could endure that, staying awake if necessary. In fact, as with the TAZARA, I was kinda hoping the bus was delayed: turning up in the early morning is far preferable to turning up in the middle of the night.

After ten hours, I was getting noticeably sore from sitting in the same position for so long, but it still seemed like I would make it. Then I started noticing the street signs saying "Beira", and it occurred to me that the ride might be far shorter than I'd thought. I'm wary of flashing bits of technology around in this environment (I didn't take a single photo, by the way), but despite this I checked the GPS. Indeed, we were just a hundred kilometres from Beira! So it looked like we'd be in by seven o'clock. In one sense that's annoying, since I'd need to find a place to sleep tonight, in the dark. But on the other hand, I can sleep tonight, in a proper bed.

In fact it was about half past seven when we finally stopped. There's no proper bus terminus in Beira, just a street where, by convention, the buses stop. But at least it's right in the centre of town, not in some nightmarish no-man's-land as in Maputo. I took the first offer of a taxi that came along, and directed him to the "Hotel Tivoli", which seemed to be the best place on Wikitravel's list. When he agreed to a mere 100 meticals fare, I knew that it must be barely a hundred metres up the road, but I didn't care: wandering around Beira at night with all my luggage is a bad idea.

Wikitravel didn't give a price for the Hotel Tivoli, and from the description I assumed it was the usual crappy backpacker's joint. No, it's a proper 3-star hotel, with a uniformed bloke at reception and the whole business. Damn. I fretted about how much it might cost, and eventually decided that even if it was $100, I'd take it. Not worth trying to find something else at this time of night. It turned out to be $120. Double damn. I sighed and agreed to it. What a terrible waste of money.

It's not worth the price, I can tell you that much. For $120 I'm looking for a really good breakfast, a positively gleaming bathroom, BBC News 24 on the TV, power points galore, the works. I didn't have any of these things. It does, however, have free wifi - but in order to get that, I had to accept a smoking room, and it's a little whiffy. Still, I do have a soft bed, so I'll get what value out of the place I can. I've run out of clean clothes, so I hand washed a couple of changes of clothes. I used the Internet for a fair while, downloading some extra maps.

And so we'll see what I can do tomorrow. I need to figure out how to get to Malawi, and Wikitravel is rather light on advice. Hopefully the guy at reception will be a fount of wisdom on this point.

Maputo Index Beira