We find ourselves held hostage by the beauty, isolation and insane prices of a “bush camp” in the north of Mozambique and attempt to escape before the money runs dry.
Ilha to Namialo to Pemba
Leaving Ilha de Moçambique for Pemba, we thought we might have to break up the trip in over-priced Nampula, but discovered a slicker way to make the trip in one day. Instead of taking a chapa from Ilha to Nampula — spending the night and then catching a bus the next morning for Pemba — we’d get off the chapa early at the Namialo junction and get the first thing headed north. We were told that buses ran north very frequently up until about 9am, and that the trip from Namialo would take about 6 hours.
Getting out of Ilha, however, proved a bit more of a challenge than anticipated. We were told that it was very easy and that chapas start circling town around 4am. Some people told us that one would come by our lodge at 4am and one at 5am. Others said they come by whenever. Regardless, we were waiting on the street at 4am, and when one hadn’t come by for a while, we decided to walk toward where we had seen them (the hospital). And it’s a good thing we did, as the chapa we ended up on circled town about four times but never went by our lodge, so we may have been waiting a very long time.
By the time we left the island, it was well after 5am (we got to watch the sun rise from a cramped minibus taxi as we went around and around and around. One time we even stopped at the toll gate for the bridge off the island, only to reverse all of a sudden and go around another time). Great fun.
Two hours later, we rolled into Namialo. Per the usual, the cobrador (money collector) on the chapa from Ilha tried to get more money out of us than originally agreed upon. At the beginning of our time in Moz I was polite and patient. By this point, however, I had lost my patience for these people. Chapa people are some of the most difficult to work with anywhere, many are just unreasonable. It’s not like the good-natured back-and-forth you have with market people. Sometimes it gets very heated and aggressive and some of these guys are some of the most underhanded, nasty people I’ve ever had to deal with. But if I learned anything during my two years living in Moz, it’s how to handle chapa guys. Time is money for these guys, so no sense in wasting time arguing. You pay what you originally agreed upon and walk away (preferably in the opposite direction that the chapa is headed).
We walked to the junction and headed north on the highway about a hundred meters where we found a Pemba-bound bus waiting. In hindsight, we were very lucky to have caught this particular bus as we didn’t see anything else for the rest of the day (our bus was among the slower vehicles on the road, so we would have seen most other buses as they passed us, but nothing else ever did).
It wasn’t exactly what you would call a luxury coach (see above), but I’d take one of these any day over a newer, bigger bus with a bigger engine and a maniac at the wheel. I’ll also take one of these over a tiny, sweltering and overloaded chapa (minivan taxi) any day (give me my own seat and a window that actually opens and I’m a happy David).
The trip took six hours (a bit on the long side), but it was a relaxing journey on a good road, allowing us to get some sleep and snap some photos as we lumbered by villages and mountains — and the mountains in these parts are pretty amazing.
Pemba Dive & Bush Camp — Day 1: Arrival
We had the bus drop us off at the Pemba airport, where we were to wait for our ride to our lodging for the next three nights.
Being that we decided not to make the trip out to the Quirimbas after all, we now find ourselves with about six days in and around Pemba until our flight out of Mozambique on the 29th. So, what does one do in Pemba for six days, exactly…? We decided we’d spend three nights at Pemba Dive and Bush Camp on a secluded stretch of beach on Pemba bay, which sounded very appealing, then spend a night or two in Pemba Town, and finally a night or two on Wimbi beach.
I’m not sure where I came across Pemba Dive & Bush Camp, but was attracted to it because it was the only place we could find with “backpackers” accommodations for what was passing for a “reasonable” price these days (~US$40). What does one get for $40 in Pemba, you ask? Two beds with nets in a glorified dorm (with partial walls separating the three “rooms”), generator power at a handful of hours throughout the day and night and a 100m walk to the toilet and shower. No breakfast included. Very basic. $40.
So this is what lured us in, the promise of a place near the beach to lay our heads that wasn’t a bunk in a dorm for the low, low price of $40. The next closest option was more than double that. In PEMBA! Who goes to Pemba, anyway???
The location was absolutely stunning though — certainly can’t argue with that. But we couldn’t help but feel we had been a little duped. The website had advertised that, in addition to serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the Potbelly Restaurant (sounds legit, right?) that there was also a bar where you could by drinks and snacks, and a small general store where you could get snacks, etc. There was no pricelist online for meals…this would prove to be our undoing.
What’s that old adage?: “When you assume…” Well, Lori and I did make some assumptions (which later proved to be false). We assumed that their website would be correct. We assumed that there’d be more than one insanely priced option for dinner (perhaps a snack at the bar, like samosas or fries, which you can generally get anywhere in Moz). We also assumed that, in a pinch, we could dole out the cash and share a meal (which is what we usually do anyways). Lori and I have been to a number of countries, stayed in a variety of lodging options and consider ourselves experienced travelers. Yet, none of that would prepare us for what we encountered at PD&BC.
We arrived starving.
By the time we reached the lodge, we had been up since 3am and had been traveling for nine hours. During that time, we hadn’t had an opportunity to get a proper meal — just crackers and cookies — and were looking forward to a nice, big lunch at the lodge. It took about an hour for the staff to get us settled and checked in, at which time we asked what the restaurant was serving for lunch. Now, in hindsight, we should have ran away…far, far away, at this point — though where exactly would we have run to!? We had six days to fill in Pemba and this place was the cheapest lodging option near a beach.
This is as good a time as any to point out that there is no public transport to this place (which is 5km from the main road down a steep hill). A shuttle from the lodge can give you a lift once in the morning or once in the afternoon, but even then, you’re still quite a ways from town and would need to catch a chapa.
So, apparently, they didn’t serve lunch. Of course they didn’t. The manager, who is a warm and kindly middle-aged white South African woman said we could buy something from the “backpackers pantry” to make sandwiches, but they didn’t have any bread at the moment. They only had peanut butter for sandwiches. Ok…what about the bar? Snacks? Haha…nope.
Fortunately, Lori had the better sense to restock our cookie supply (big surprise…) while waiting for the lodge “shuttle” (a pickup truck) outside of the airport. After a long day of eating crap, this would be our lunch.
Then the manager asks, “so can I put you both down for dinner?”
YES!!! PLEASE, YES THAT SOUNDS GREAT. DEFINITELY.
Manager: Ok, great, two people?
YES!!! DEFINITELY. I COULD EAT A HORSE. TWO OF US.
Manager: Excellent. Ok, we’re having steak, vegetables, salad, potatoes and dessert.
WOW!!! THAT SOUNDS DELICIOUS. WE CAN’T REMEMBER THE LAST TIME WE HAD STEEEEEAAAAAK.
Manager: Dinner is served at 6pm.
PERFECT. EARLY. WE’RE SOOOO HUNGRY. WE’LL BE THERE EARLY.
Manager: Beautiful. I’ll see you at 6pm. Oh…and dinner is 500MTS.
(500MTS = US$16)
OH. OK, FINE, UM YEAH.
Manager: 500MTS per person.
WHAT!? HOLY SH–
About an hour later, we went back and asked her if we could share a plate. It was a buffet, so we didn’t know how this would go over, but the heck if we were paying $32 for dinner at an isolated bush camp in Mozambique. Fortunately, this was alright and we breathed a sigh of relief and counted the minutes until dinner as our stomachs began to protest against our strawberry-flavored cookies and began to eat themselves. Ahh…paradise.
6pm finally rolled around and dinner was served. And it was delicious. I don’t know where they got the steak, but not from Mozambique, that’s for sure. It tasted like steak in a steakhouse back home, which may explain the pricing to some extent. But the fact that there was not a single other option (not even a vegetation option) for less money made me furious. If the website had said “Dinner: Chef’s choice buffet each night, 500MTs per person” then we would have been able to make an educated decision.
In all fairness, PD&BC does have a communal kitchen that you can use. But stocking up on groceries coming direct from Ilha and not having our own car was wildly impractical for us. Plus, we figured, like every other place we’ve EVER stayed claiming to have a restaurant, bar AND general store, that we’d figure something out.
Regardless, we enjoyed every last delicious bite of our dinner, basking in the warm afterglow of variety and fullness, before heading off to bed. We decided that we could probably make the next few days work if we got ahold of bread and peanut butter and shared one of the dinners. Doing so wouldn’t totally break the bank. Oh, wishful thinking…
Day 2: Bread & Peanut Butter Day
We enjoyed sleeping in and waking up to the warm sea breeze licking at our faces and listening to the coughs and snoring of our backpackers housemates on the other side of the reed walls (in our separate twin beds bedazzled by mosquito nets across the room from each other)…que romantico!
We had slept surprising well…that is, until the manager lady (and owner guy, born in Pemba but German-descended), burst into the “room” next to ours in the middle of the night, very drunk and VERY, VERY LOUD to show a couple to their room. Now why they were showing them the room at this hour was beyond us (we were certain they had not arrived that late as we had seen them after dinner). Our best guess is that the manager and the owner and the couple just decided to get sloshed before taking care of such formalities. Lori and I, of course were besides ourselves as they knew full and well that there were four other people staying in the complex and that the walls neither reached the ceiling nor were made of anything but grass. But when you’re drunk I guess none of that matters. The good news is they were having a good ol’ time at 1am, hoopin’ and a hollerin,’ laughin’ and just carrying on. We would’ve notified management…if they hadn’t been the ones making the racket. Classy Pemba Dive & Bush Camp…classy.
We had a relaxing morning walking along the gooey beach exposed by the low tide. Guests have complimentary use of kayaks and we decided when the tide came in in the afternoon that we’d definitely have to take them out.
The manager found us some time around noon to let us know they now had bread for sale. You could tell she felt a bit bad for us. We thought it was very kind of her, but didn’t need her pity (we had enough between the two of us to go around). From the website and what they had told us on the phone we had no reason to believe we’d be out-priced and so isolated at this place. If they actually had a restaurant that served more than a breakfast and one set meal for dinner (that wasn’t priced by a lunatic), and perhaps if they actually had a wider selection of food in their “backpacker’s pantry” other than peanut butter and a small assortment of canned foods, and if their bar actually served some sort of little snack to, you know, soak up alcohol or provide sustenance for someone between the hours of 9am and 6am, then we would have been just fine. This wasn’t a five star resort by any measure, but that was sort of the way we felt we were being treated.
Lori snatched the bread and a small and overpriced jar of peanut butter from the “store.” We had splurged for breakfast (the most expensive of our trip, which consisted of an egg, toast and coffee/tea and juice) and thought that, in combination with bread and peanut butter would get us to 6pm. Then the manager asked if we would be joining them for dinner — she didn’t know what it would be yet, but either shrimp or chicken (seriously…$16 per person for chicken or something that you get for free 50 yards from your restaurant?) We told her definitely, but that we would like to share again. Then, with a nervous look she told us the owner said this would not be possible and that we shouldn’t have done it yesterday because it was a buffet and it is not right (note that the plate we loaded up for the two of us paled in comparison with any one of the plates loaded up by any number of obese South African fisherman who were also dining that night). So, if we wanted dinner, we’d have to get two plates. This was not going to happen of course, so Lori went back to the pantry, bought a can of baked beans and that was that.
The dinner buffet exchange was the last straw. The manager had told us it was fine that we shared and then tried to shift the blame on us when she got flack from her boss. So, not only were we out-priced, we were also being admonished for something that wasn’t even our fault.
At that point, we began to plot our escape.
It would not be easy because all of the budget places at Wimbi Beach (the main beach in town) were full for the next few days and none of the phone numbers for the budget places in Pemba worked. What would we do? Where would we go? We would have about 3.5 days before our flight…not enough time to go to the Quirimbas and get our money’s worth. We were stuck.
Regardless, we knew we couldn’t stay here for three nights. Tomorrow, we would leave. Today we would make the most of the amenities. They had an in-house guide who gave two-hour guided tours through the mangroves. We asked the manager at breakfast to sign us up for 3pm. At 3pm, we went down to where we were supposed to meet and waited, but no one came. We found the manager and she told us she forgot to tell the guy and that he had already moved on to MAKING MOONSHINE (true story!!!)
But all was not lost. As Vasco de Gama, the great Portuguese mariner used to say: When life gives you lemons, go kayaking. So we did.
We took the kayaks out about two hours before sunset, gliding across the silky smooth water and weaving deep into the mangroves. It was nice to be independent and off the compound, even if we had to travel by water to do so.
That night, the sky offered us another brilliant sunset — even better than the previous night’s!
It really was a beautiful place (and the bathrooms were AWESOME (sorry we didn’t snap a photo))…
…but we knew we had to leave the next morning.
Day 3: Plotting our Escape
After kayaking, we informed the manager we’d be leaving the next day. We spent our last morning soaking in the surroundings. In an attempt to make up dropping the ball on the mangrove tour, the manager organized a spur-of-the-moment baobob walk, which consisted of walking with a small group of guests to a very old (3,000 year old) baobob with a giant hole in it. Hardly a two-hour guided walk through the mangrove swamps, but it was an attempt. And the tree was pretty amazing.
At around noon, we were able to catch a ride into town with the owner. Luckily, he was on his way to run errands and going all the way into the center of town. He was a bit beside himself when he heard we were going to stay in Pemba Town, as it’s pretty slim pickings in terms of lodging options (budget or otherwise). As we rode through the center of town he pointed out two potential options (that he told us he would never recommend to people, himself…but nonetheless pointed them out to us (he must have thought we were nuts)).
Then (in what we hope was an act of generosity), the owner drove us clear across town and down to the “historic” area a few miles from the city center to another hotel with an Italian restaurant which was much nicer than the others. He recommended we start there. We knew he must have thought he was doing us a favor. Nevertheless, our hearts dropped when we saw how far away we had driven (all downhill) and how nice the place he took us to appeared. We knew that the place would inevitably be beyond our budget and we’d be spending the next hour or so trudging back up the hill with our heavy packs toward the town center in the blazing midday sun. And that’s exactly what ended up happening.
Some time later, sweaty, hungry and beat, we arrived at Residencial Lys — which wasn’t the Ritz-Carlton, but also wasn’t the dumpiest place we’ve stayed at either — and checked-in with a befuddled old manager who promptly pointed us upstairs to our room. It was certainly adequate — en-suite bathroom, warm shower and AC — but not cheap-cheap (US$43/night). While it was a few dollars more a night than our previous night’s place, it offered what Pemba Dive & Bush Camp didn’t: freedom!
After checking in, we basked in a light lunch at a nearby cafe and took a stroll about town. That night, we ate at Tasca Bar, a great little local place on one of the main thoroughfares where young men flock to watch the footy match. It was a raucous good time, the piri-piri chicken was excellent, the beer was cold and best of all, it was a fourth of the cost of PD&BC a half dozen miles down the road.
We felt much more in our element than we had at any time in the past 48 hours, relishing the fact that not a single soul at our previous abode from whence we escaped would ever consider doing what we were doing tonight.
Now, we just had to find a way to fill the next three days!