Travel, exploration and a little bit of adventure…

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Pomene

Four generations of my family have owned and run country hotels. The hospitality trade, filled with the comings and goings of people – the liveliness of the pub, where my father inherited the name Jokie, after all his storytelling to captivated listeners hugging their lagers, to all the mouths to feed in the dinning room – all of this is part of us. It’s in our blood.

It is not surprising then that when the holidays where over and everyone returned to work in the cities, that my family would choose the loneliest places on earth and our ideal holiday destination.

“Away from the maddening crowd” my dad would say and he’d whisk his girls (he only had daughters) off to a small speck of beach down some forgotten road that cars had long since stopped using. And here, after hours of being pulled and pushed around by potholes and overgrown bush, we would arrive to – nothing!

Water always had to be nearby – my dad loves fishing and we liked playing mermaids in amongst the rock pools. This was always coupled with a massive expanse of wilderness, untouched and feral-like and just waiting to be explored and conquered by three prima donnas in bikinis armed with a bucket and spade.

me

I imagine my dad used this time to let his mind wander and to relish how simple things, like just being yourself with the sand beneath your toes and the spray of the waves on your skin can yield such pleasure. Some things money can’t buy…

It is this trait that I’d like to think he has passed onto me. Bear in mind, it is not the type of holiday for everyone. It requires a certain kind of strength, both externally and internally. Externally, one has to battle the elements – the sun, the wind, the rain, the bugs and lack of resources. And internally, one has to deal with the calm. The lack of external distractions can sometimes be a little unsettling. As if one’s ego decided to have a little afternoon snooze.

the calm

But don’t misread this as proof of having nothing to do. There’s loads of activities from swimming, fishing, walking, eating, exploring and snorkeling but all of this is done with the understanding that you are alone in the universe making your little journey through life.

Most of these sorts of trips were spent on the Wild Coast, which when I was younger was still remote enough to feel wild. But over the years, the tarring of roads has made it accessible to the outside world. Today, Mozambique is like the Wild Coast of yesteryears. And it’s right on South Africa’s doorstep. Furthermore, the years of civil unrest that plagued the country until 1994 has left many undiscovered treasures at the end of a zigzag of dirt tracks.

And now I am going to spill the beans…

650 kms north of Maputo, past the Barra’s and Tofo’s and Ponto’s, lies Pomene, in the Macachula province. After Massinga, one turns onto a dirt road of red sand that disappears into the bush. Very quickly this turns into a treacherous and slow moving journey, the road punctuated with the remnants of what was a concrete-surfaced road many years ago, now only craters and rocky ledges. Eventually this even disintegrates into nothing but beach sand and faint tyre marks leading the way. In short, you have to have a 4×4.

the way home

On our way, we came upon a truck filled with ladies on their way to Massinga. They had blocked the narrow road after getting stuck. A few cars could not pass and they now waited patiently for someone who could help. They had all been waiting for quite some time when we arrived. So a tow rope is a good idea too.

Our host for our stay, Dale, was also the navigator and without him, we would have been totally lost. There aren’t any signs and not many locals around either.

Dale’s family have been coming to Pomene for many years. They are now in the final stages of building their own little place on the waters edge. Dale has many stories to tell about the mammoth task of building his dad’s dream home and retirement plan. Its taken well over 3 years to complete – from a camping spot to 4 fully functional free-standing bedrooms with bathroom en suite all connected by a wooden walkway that leads to a main kitchen/dinning area. Sadly, his dad died of cancer earlier this year and was not able to see the project’s completion. But, perhaps his job was just to have the vision…

sunise

After two hours of driving, you suddenly rise up onto a ridge and the earth in front of you drops away to reveal aqua blues to the left and a marshy green to the right. The North bank in Pomene is sheltered from the sea by an estuary that stretches out like a never-ending swimming pool, completely protected. It’s like a harbour for small boats.

Three bodies of water mark the terrain of the North bank – sea, estuary and swamp. The majority of the locals live up on the top of the ridge overlooking this vista. But for those staying below along the waters edge you begin to familiarise yourself with the unique challenges and charming mystique of this idyllic paradise.

the beach

Firstly, like so many other places in Southern Mozambique, the tide plays a pivotal role in shaping the landscape and prohibiting or aiding movement. Islands appear or are swallowed up with the approaching tide whilst boats lie marooned on the sand at low tide.

skeletons

The swamp is mosquito heaven and February is the worst month. Thankfully, I arrive in July and do not spot even one! The sand flies are the next culprits, or “no-see-ems” as my dad calls them. They are so small that you cant see ‘em but in the summer months, unless you are prepared with Dettol and Savlon, big angry welts begin appearing on your ankles and knees. It’s as itchy as all hell and takes a few days to settle.

Everything in Pomene has to be bought in. Absolutely everything. Food, water, diesel and all your garbage has to go back out with you. There is no power, so unless you have a generator or have installed solar, there is no running water or electricity.

the way through the swamp

But none of this seems to matter as we arrive and are greeted by a beautiful wooden floor with thick beams rising up to support a low-slung thatch roof. Like a dog with shaggy hair, the thatch hangs down over the sides of the building, acting as a sort of wall blocking out the wind but not stopping the breeze. I marvel at the workmanship and different textures.

thatch grass

None of this would be possible without the help of Sergio – our right-hand-make-any-plan man. A local to the area he has amazingly learnt Fanagalor. I watch amused as the boys I have arrived with banter in Zulu and English and Sergio chats back to them. The relationship between Dale and Sergio is most interesting because it relies on a fundamental understanding of respect. There is a mutual need that exists between this white man from another country and the Mozambican who lives with paradise on his doorstep. They both cannot exist in this landscape in their current form without each other, both having different skills they bring to the table.

We spend days just soaking it all in. The smells, the warm balmy air, the food – Matapa and coconut rice prepared in the kitchen so we can all watch how its done. A very lengthy and time consuming process for Mozambican women, our chef makes grinding cassava leaves look like a piece of cake. I marvel at all the boys in our group (I am the only woman) sampling the local flavours and experiencing the different cultures. It is an experience, which sadly many South Africans miss out on when they come to Mozambique.

We walk along the beach discovering treasures on the ocean floor once the tide is out – starfish, cucumbers, puffer fish, shells and crabs. I begin to feel like Wendy in Peter Pan, mothering her lost boys.

the lost boys

On my last morning, I awake before sunrise and shuffle everyone out of their safe mosquito net cocoons. I am in search of flamingos. We jump into the boat and head towards the mouth of the estuary – a bubbling cauldron of currents and churning water. The water is so clear you can see the bottom metres below. Finally, just as the sun is peeking through the clouds we find a flamboyance of flamingos wading in the shallow waters. They always remind me of liquid eyeliner. Their dainty pink legs and shocking pink plumage alongside a very definite bold line of charcoal black – the femme fatale of the sky.

flamingos

Packing up later, I take a few minutes to watch the world around me, taking in its imprint so I can carry it around inside of me everywhere. My boyfriend and I stew on the idea of getting married here… (He still has to ask me though!)

Dale’s family are on their way from South Africa. They plan to scatter their father’s ashes in the place he loved the most. They have named their place Drift Sands – a little piece of heaven on the sand. Sounds like the right place to spend eternity.

 

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Joy

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Moz magazine

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Births & deaths

saying hello

I meet him as an old man in a chair
A small blanket covering his legs
Our conversation is brief
He apologises for not being able to get up and say goodbye properly
And then we leave a little while later
My boyfriend’s uncle
The old man in the chair

Today, it’s a few weeks later
Everyone is out doing shopping when we arrive
A hospice notice is tacked to the cabinet near the front door
It hangs in mid-air, where it can’t be missed
It feels like an announcement
This is no ordinary family lunch
Perhaps even the last one.

hospice notice

The dining room table is decorated with cutlery, plates, eats and cakes
I realise we are not the only ones who have come through these doors doing the last respects march
The old man in the chair has been replaced by the metal frame of a hospital bed
A crumpled form lying beneath its sheets
Its unexpected and I’m unprepared
I enter with Grant and we sidle up to the bed to say our hellos when
Quite suddenly this man who I hardly know
Who I only met for a few minutes takes both my hands in his and grasps them tightly
“Hello Rowena,” he says “its so nice to see you”

I have to fight to hold back the tears
He is half the size he was before
His skin is pulled tightly around his skeletal structure
Comforted now only by the bones that lie beneath
But still he holds my hands
Complaining about medicine schedules, bring the next round of pills and ooh yes, don’t forget the morphine

And so, I’m having my hand held by Uncle Binks in a room surrounded by memories and old furniture when suddenly my head is reeling with questions it needs to ask
Or rather answers it must have in order to understand
What does it feel like to be hanging on?
To be waiting to die?
Why doesn’t the body just give up?
I am struck by how the living are so poorly equipped to deal with death
I realise, I too one day, will be a sibling like his brother next to me watching life loosening its grip on one of my sisters
All I want to do is get out my camera and somehow document what’s happening because it’s all so raw and so real

Funnily enough, Uncle Binks has a few tricks up his sleeve
He perks up a bit and sips his medicines
And despite the hollow colour of his cheeks, his hair is curly and alive. Full of energy!
I watch him and find comfort in his ability to laugh at himself
He notices a cupboard that was next to him is missing
He could have sworn it was there a few days ago
He tells me stories of crabs in the house and shopping with his wife until I am laughing out load

By now the gang has arrived bringing with them the noise of lives that are just beginning
I am touched by the generosity of a family I am just starting to get to know
They let me take photos of what remains of their little family and give me a box of old photos so that I may immortalise all they have left

caylee2

the family

On our way out, I sneak into the lounge to say goodbye
Uncle Binks is curled up on his side
In front of him the wall is decorated with beautiful old black and white photographs
All the lives that have come before him
Outside I hear the chatter of all those that will come after
It’s safe and warm in there with him and I think to myself that this is how I’d like to go one day
Surrounded by people that love me in the faint afterglow of the afternoon sun

binks in the lounge

help!

playing

hey you!

granny with her granddaughter

caylee and binks

last kiss

caylee

Sea Desert

dhow safetyHOME:

I am in the kitchen packing food for our camping trip when I suddenly realise why I have not been on holiday with my family since the age of 12. My mum gives it away. She is at the sink washing dishes, splashing the water for extra emphasis as her voice begins to rise dramatically.

- I have to do everything. Now I must wash the dishes and I haven’t even packed my toiletries yet! Olive oil! Why are you packing that?

Despite having her back to us, I think she has eyes in the back of her head. I hastily put the olive oil back in the cupboard and signal to my younger sister, Jamie. We’ll have to decant some of the oil out whilst mum is not watching.

- 10 days is too long. What will the animals do?

She continues, unfortunately at the same volume. Years of practise behind us, my sisters and I are pretty good at tuning out this frequency when it gets to this stage. But today, I find myself 20 years out of practise. And this is not just any family holiday. We are going camping – in another country! This is passport control, foreign currency, another language…

I bite my bottom lip and soldier on. As mum leaves the kitchen for 2 minutes, I swig on an open bottle of wine

- To family holiday!

My dad, affectionately called Baba by his daughters, which means father in Zulu, calls at this point – should he play another 9 holes of golf or come home now?

Golf? How did he manage to organise that whilst us three girls are stuck packing with mum? I tell him to come home, its his turn to be shat on.

Kate, my middle sister, floats through the kitchen wearing sunglasses and a floppy hat.

- Anyone need help? And out she floats before I can answer yes

Jamie returns holding our secret glass jar for the olive oil. We pour it in quickly, careful not to be caught. Oil in, I screw on the lid and jam it into the crate, palming off my heavy cargo onto my dad who has finally appeared. He whisks it off. He’s as eager as I am to leave. My dad and I are very similar in this regard. The lure of distant lands is an adventure to good to pass up. My mum and Kate, on the other hand, are the complete opposite. Panic kicks in and when its time to go, Jamie plays the happy medium sticking plasters on any potential arguments that might derail the whole process.

Finally the car is packed. The engine starts, we’re driving out the gate. Here we go! We’re ten minutes into our journey when I realise I hate the book I have chosen for my holiday. Great! Swamped beneath my dad’s fishing gear, extra bedding and all our luggage, I realise I am stuck in a car full of Gemini’s. At least this leg of the journey should be easy. First stop is the Ladysmith Home for Men. Oh well, its good practise for getting all the way to Mozambique.

LADYSMITH:

A bigger Pietermaritzburg tinged with a bit of Graaf-Reniet. We arrive late afternoon after 100mm of rain. Someone has even organised us sunshine as we drive through deserted streets. It’s very much a public holiday here today allowing what I imagine usually jostling streets to have an almost quaint feel. The town itself is steeped in history, famous for being under siege during the Boer war. One B&B is even called “Boer and Brit B&B.” Brooke lace and Victorian balconies line the main road in-between Russels and Pick n Pay.

We turn into a property surrounded by houses. In the middle stands a massive boat – the showpiece – “Velapi” proudly written in red along her side. Yeah, I think, where the fuck are you going? (I later learn “velapi” actually means where have you come from)

We meet Jeff – my dad’s best man from his wedding. Jeff and my dad have been friends from high school and in-between meeting the rest of Jeff’s family (he also only had daughters) we are entertained by their stories of boarding school and later their service in the South African navy. The air is balmy so we eat dinner in the garden next to Velapi, drinking wine and talking about our trip whilst mosquitoes get drunk on our blood. I sus out my companions rattling off their birthdays – lots of September babies, should be challenging. The pack disperses quickly after dinner much to my dismay; I was just beginning to get warmed up. Before bed, I sit on my balcony, Christmas beetles humming in my ears. Below me, the cars wait, packed, ready to depart at first light. I suddenly remember my phone was disconnected earlier today. I am amused by my lack of concern. So no-one can reach me. See if I care, a haughty grin spreading across my face. This time, I want to keep moving…

ON THE ROAD:

The morning comes with a bang!

Lack of sleep from fighting with mosquitoes in the night and wrestling with my demons don’t help when Jeff’s voice booms from below

- Right let’s go!

Of course, Kate wakes up much annoyed – a lethal combination. We are rushing now, running to keep up with Jeff, the impatient ringmaster. And so Kate goes slower. Temperatures rise as the car becomes a dangerous warzone. One-liners, bitchy remarks and defence mechanisms fly around the car making it a game, round and round we go.

Vryheid finally comes into view. We waste time as families do when they are trying to get to somewhere else. Pep, Wimpy, Spar. I dash around madly, trying to locate some film for my camera. Each shop I ask at I am met with blank stares.

- We haven’t sold film since 2001. Why don’t you go and buy yourself a nice digital camera?

I smile sweetly realising I am dealing with the Middle America mentality of South Africa. In typical Aldous family fashion, I begin making my problems everyone else’s.

- Hi, I’m a photographer and I forgot to buy film. Can you help me?

I realise I am beginning to look foolish. Am I supposed to be learning something here? Please God, help me find a roll of film. And then Jeff phones and my dad asks him to look for film without me having to prompt him. Bless him

MOZAMBIQUE:

We drive slowly because towing a boat, I begin to realise, is no easy business. Despite our lack of speed, we still seem to arrive at places. Our journey is punctuated with border posts, sudden pockets of people milling around filling out paperwork – a last reminder of normal life.

Jeff makes us stop just past the Goba border post, on the border of Swaziland and Mozambique, at a small broken down Vodacom building. It looks like a product of the civil war that ravaged Mozambique from 1977 to 1992. A woman, overweight and drowsy from the heat, welcomes us. She sits under a makeshift cover of grapevines and plastic sheeting. Jeff’s been here before so she doesn’t seem too perturbed by his rooster-like performance. Well, it’s either a rooster or a bull. Ritchie, Jeff’s youngest daughter’s boyfriend, and our resident go-for runs inside the dilapidated shack and returns with 2M and sprite – juice for alcoholics. We could be in Italy were it not for decay and rubble around us – Africa’s telltale sign.

We’re drunk now. Jeff reminds us how much fun we are having and with that the holiday is officially declared on!

MAPUTO:

Somehow, just as Maputo is within reach, the two cars we are travelling in get separated. Luckily, I am in Jeff’s car by this stage, having given up on dealing with the family dynamics in my car. Jeff knows where he’s going, unfortunately my dad does not. As a result of my recent trip to Tofo, just weeks previously, I feel like a local as we cruise through the streets of Maputo. I point out all my favourite spots to my companions who have only one destination in mind, the yacht club. And despite Jeff’s clever idea of using walkie-talkie’s between my dad’s car and his, I learn they only work within a 1-kilometre radius. My dad and the rest of my family are now totally lost. I try not to panic realising my dad is in a car with 3 highly-strung women. I hope they don’t yell at him too much.

Thankfully, we leave the boat at the yacht club, ready for our early morning departure and manage to locate my dad and the rest of my family just down the road from where we are. That night, after dinner and a small family domestic, I take my sisters on a quick tour of Maputo. I am desperate to find the Pizza House on Mao Tse Tung Avenue, just up the road from Fatima’s Nest. The Pizza House, introduced to me by two lovely German girls I met on my previous trip has the best cuppachino and pastries in Maputo. Stubbornly I refuse to use the GPS, preferring to see a point in getting lost in a foreign country where police roadblocks are common. We drive up and down the city, using the MCEL skyscraper as my reference. As luck would have it, we get pulled over. I swallow hard knowing this could be highly dangerous for 3 girls, and seeing I am the oldest I make a point of refusing to show my sisters how nervous I am as the police official with an AK-47 draped casually at his side approaches our car. I smile sweetly at the officer who thankfully only speaks broken English.

- Hi, good evening officer. We are on our way back to our hotel

He pages through our passports, stopping occasionally to glance back up at us. We are all very quiet in the car as he does so. Eventually he waves us on. I breathe a huge sigh of relief, silently of course, so my sisters don’t realise how lucky we just were. We never find the pastry shop, instead I find one similar to the Pizza House and we enjoy our last bit of civilisation. The three of us playing grown-ups in a foreign country.

THE CROSSING:

My family learns quickly that travelling with the Richmond’s is not an easy business. Rule 1. We leave at the designated time. If you’re late, you get left behind. Rule 2. When the sun rises, so do you. When it sets, bedtime is not far behind. Rule 3. You sleep when you’re dead. While you’re awake, keep up.

Jeff decides that we leave the yacht club at 3am, that way the sea shouldn’t be so rough. I dress for the occasion thinking I am off on a cruise up the Nile with sunglasses and scarf draped around my head like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown. Two minutes into our boat ride and I realise I am not dressed correctly. Water crashes over the front of the boat, spraying my mum, my sister and I, as we plough through the water, setting off for Inhaca island, at this stage a small speck on the horizon. It takes us an hour and a half across Maputo Bay to Inhaca and when we arrive, I do not mind the fact that I am sleeping in an army tent without a door and windows in the middle of nowhere. I am just glad to be alive.

INHACA:

I have never really understood the point of camping. It’s a bit like the white man’s dream of getting dirty in Africa. I find myself sitting under a blue tarpaulin that flaps loudly above my head. I keep waiting for it to take off but somehow the bits of tethered rope at its corners hold it down. Despite my concern, I am thankful for the gusts of wind, without which the midday heat would be unbearable – a pregnant blanket under which me and my three Mozambican compadres sit.

Inhaca, a small island just off the coast of Maputo feels like one of the places God forgot about. It has this sense of forelorn or sadness that just hangs in the air, unable to escape and trapped by the muggy heat. Perhaps it is because the island was used by the British to control the slave trade during colonialism.

Most of Inhaca’s visitors come by boat. It’s the only way to get around the island. Petrol has to come from the mainland making a car a luxury. Unfortunately, the ferry from Maputo has doubled in price within the last two years due to rising fuel costs causing fewer tourists to frequent the island. A once booming tourism industry now long gone, the empty buildings littered along the only main road in the town square serving as reminders of better days.

In our case, we have our own boat. But this has its own set of problems too. Inhaca bay and Maputo bay are fed with water through a small deep channel called Hell’s Gate. The volume of water that moves through this small space within the space of six hours has a dramatic effect on the coastline. Hell’s Gate is a bit like a plughole for the ocean. At high tide, our boat waits patiently for us at the bottom of some sandy steps just below the campsite. However, at low tide, one has to walk almost a kilometre out across the bay to get to the boat. The bay then resembles a marshy wasteland punctuated with treasures that lie on the ocean floor. In amongst the sea cucumbers (snake-like worms that are harmless), starfish, sea urchins and sea snails one finds razor clams; mussel type clams that stand upright in the sand. Their shells are razor sharp – hence the name — and can easily slice through your foot. Shoes are therefore a must. At high tide, they lie metres below you, safely concealed amongst the seaweed.

Several sandbanks also transform the coastline into a sea desert, rising out of nowhere, making smaller islands that disappear later when the water returns. Maybe this is what makes Inhaca appear even more neglected. Dhows and fishing boats lie abandoned, marooned on a sandy floor. Two men walk, silhouetted by the skyline and ocean, resembling Arabs in the Middle East and not fishermen in search of fish. In some places, the water disappears from view completely making boats in the distance appear as though they are sailing on a sea of sand.

My three new friends are our “butlers” I suppose, living on the island permanently. The eldest of the three spends a great deal of time staring into the distance. He’s very quiet, almost sad. Later I suspect, unfortunately whilst firecrackers are going off on New Year that he has Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The crackers remind him of the civil war and as they spray into the black sky overhead, he dives for the floor terrified for his life.

One of the younger men wears the same style sunglasses I bought for Anthony on our last holiday together in Paternoster. The lime green arms and black lenses are like a dim reminder of happier days, now lost in the present.

Later, as the sun is just beginning to set, we sit around our campfire, with plastic chairs and G and T’s. Ritchie has lit a fire so it keeps catching the light making golden wands through the bush protecting our little camp. My sisters and I have just been on the little sand track behind the camp that runs the length of the island connecting all the properties together. We pass a reed house where our “butlers” live. One of them, Adriano, is showering in his open air shower as we pass. Something glints in the sunlight as we walk passed catching my eye. Glancing to my left, I feast, much to my horror, on black skin glistening in the running water, golden and glowing. I then realise, it’s a man, he’s naked and I know him. My English roots kick in and I am suddenly overcome with embarrassment. My sister, also panicking at this stage whispers

- Turn back, turn back

But we are too far and I refuse to let this be awkward. I press on, covering my eyes to afford him some privacy and hurry along. I wander afterwards if Mozambicans behave in the same fashion, or if it’s only us ridiculous English folk.

When we return, I discover my mataba (wild spinach grown on the island) has arrived. Everyone remarks it looks like dagga. I am embarrassed to admit I have no idea how to cook it and rush off to find Paulo, who agrees to help me. Unfortunately, the rest of my group is not too keen on the idea of local food, much to my disappointment.

The New Year comes and goes. Thankfully, not without a raucous party which leaves our neighbours in a bit of disgruntlement. It’s never a good idea to send three gorgeous women onto the next door property, especially when its inhabitants are all happily involved. Lets just say, we caused a bit of a disturbance and were eventually escorted off the property by one of the unhappy girlfriends.

New Years day begins with a downpour that lasts most of the day. We are all quite happy though as it gives us time to sleep off our hangovers.

Eventually we run out of food and drink and realise its time to leave. By this stage however, most of us have broken out in some type of rash so perhaps it’s a good time to go. In usual Richmond style, departure time is at the crack of dawn. We pack up the camp and this time I dress appropriately, covered from head to toe in waterproof material. The crossing, however, is quite peaceful that morning. We even spot a few dolphins swimming in the bay on our way out. I realise my Faye Dunaway outfit would have been just fine.

- I met an incredibly kind man whom I only know as Carlos from the Pestana Inhaca Lodge dive centre. Unsuccessful in my search for a spool he gave me his only roll of film that he had already loaded into his underwater camera. I am indebted to his kindness.

under the sea

the richmonds

sunset swimming

snack bar

santa maria island

near hells gate

jamie the mermaid

jamie and baba

inhaca island

faye dunaway

dhow cruise

windsurfing

velapi

the crossing

sunset

mum and dad

lowtide

low tide

dhow

goba

pitstop

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