Imagine this..... you are riding along the Wessex Ridgeway on a hot summer’s Sunday afternoon, there are walkers galore, as you approach each group they hurry out of your way, they stop, and wave merrily as you pass. If you blip the throttle and kick up a bit of mud they cheer delightedly and applaud enthusiastically.
Well that is reality here in the northern province of Nampula, Mozambique, but it is not mud it is sandy tracks that you ride through, and the people are so friendly.
I have been here now to five months working on a study for the establishment of an industrial forest plantation. There is one tarmac road that runs through the province (which is the size of Wales), everywhere else are dirt roads and footpaths. The main form of transport here is 4x4 if you are one of the really wealthy or foreign(which is not many), motorbike for some and bicycle for most. So once off the main dirt roads there are just bike tracks and footpaths.
The main dirt roads are a formation of a compacted clayey red soil on top of a sandy base, in the winter (that is now) which is the dry season they have mostly been regraded after being washed out by the rains and are mostly firm going, but it does not take much for trucks and cars to break through the hard top and for the road to turn into a sand pit every now and then which makes it interesting. Elsewhere is it mostly sand to varying degrees of depths.
I call Mozambique affectionately the plughole of Africa, four of the largest rivers of Africa wind their way through it to the sea, and flying north from Maputo to Nampula in April along the length of the country all you can see is the glint of sunlight reflecting off water in amongst the trees and grass. The country is pretty flat gently undulating between watercourses and wetland areas. However Nampula province is characterised by this landscape being broken up by huge mounds of smooth rock rising vertically out of the ground, typically 300m tall some as high as 700m – Inselbergs. The only other place in the world where they occur is Australia – Ayres rock.
Mozambique retains vast areas of native forest, 25% of the country (about the size of the UK). 200 years ago it was all forest everywhere and over time slash and burn subsistence agriculture has removed or degraded the forest. You are left with ten foot grasses, a few large trees that are too big to cut down or that have some spiritual significance, and coppiced tree stumps that they cut periodically for charcoal interspersed with machambas (food growing plots). Nampula Province has the third largest city and one of only two railway lines in the country running east-west and connecting the port of Nacala with Malawi. Population pressures mean that it is heavily deforested. So this is where we are looking for land to plant trees but we are looking in some of the least accessible areas, where even 4x4s struggle to go. This will be a big project if it goes ahead, and without giving too much away they have budgeted US$ in the millions for motorcycles alone over the first 15 years.
To my delight, but not for my exclusive use, the company bought two new Honda XL125s to assist our survey activities. I had half expected this when I left the UK in April and cunningly brought with me one pair of enduro gloves. Just as well for some protection – the bikes were delivered with a free helmet each, Chinese origin and too big even for my head. One size fits all is the retail strategy here – when I first arrived in Mozambique after our first field visit in which we discovered the extent of the wetlands, the team had their feet sized and someone was dispatched to buy gumboots, only to return with 12 pairs all of which were size 44. A set of keys was presented to me (they knew by this stage that I am a motorcycle fanatic – by their standards at least) and I was invited to take it home for the weekend and run it in.
The following morning I checked it over – things here are sometimes done a little sloppily – and apart from it having only a teaspoon of oil in the engine it was generally OK, a few loose spokes, and chain unoiled. Corrections made I set off to the only “nice” location in the area a little restaurant overlooking a dam built for a fruit farm 30km out of town. Bear in mind that this is sub-tropical African winter - the dry season, all the rain falls in December to April in this was July, and not a drop of rain had touched my head in three months. Two kilometers out of town, it starts to rain, actually it was drizzle – just my luck. At least it settled the dust, and I carried on regardless (mad dogs and Englishmen and all that).
White men don’t ride motorcycles here, and no one rides standing on the foot pegs. The combination of the two draws great interest and excitement, particularly as standing you can absorb the corrugations in the road more easily and proceed at full throttle (60kph). Just as well they are only 125cc, quite a nice little bike really. Actually you cannot buy a moto larger than 125cc in Mozambique.
At the restaurant the ancient Portuguese owner is so surprised that a customer should arrive on a moto in the rain, that he plies me with coffee and tries to tempt me with 45 proof aguadente distilled by himself Enika made from bananas then Mamau made from pawpaw, and practices his English. Suitably warmed and fortified after a couple of hours the rains stops and I make the return journey with a couple of bottles (reused beer bottles) of Mamau in my camelback for later consumption.
Out of town the roads are quiet, just a few bikes, I passed and was passed only by a couple of cars on the whole trip. In town it is a different matter, 4x4s blast their horns and expect you to get out of their way. I think there is some sort of highway code but it is not obvious what it is or that anyone follows it – I suspect it is “he who dares wins”. Cars drive through red traffic lights and pull out of side roads randomly – not unlike Devizes I suppose.
My next trip was a day long outing about 120km, about 5 hours of riding sandy tracks. Riding in sand was a first for me but I can report that it is not much different from riding in mud, but you have to keep moving to keep cool (same as on a big BMW). After 5 hours my legs had started to turn to jelly, but I determined to tackle my prime ambition to ride up the local inselberg at the edge of Nampula City known as Radio Hill. I use it quite frequently as one of my favorite 14km running routes, gives a fantastic view of the city. It is about 100m high and most of the approaches are about 100% slopes, but there is a reasonable route up one end.
Local people use this end of the rock as a stone quarry, they burn logs on it in small areas and then apply water, they then sit and break it up with hammers into various sizes of scalpings which they sell in little heaps as building material.
Permission was sought and granted from a random passer-by, so up I went jelly-legged and the sun just about to set. The surface was quite uneven and the front wheel was bobbing up and down alarmingly. Optimistically I thought I would get up in second gear, till I got to the steep section and found the engine fading and my nose almost touching the front mudguard to keep the frontend down, even in first gear the sheer length of the climb and my weight was proving too much for the little engine and I began to doubt that I was going to make it. Determined to get to the top the only solution was to start “tacking” across the slope to allow me to build up more momentum. I passed two very surprised walkers coming down the mountain. Keith would have been proud of me, I did not foot once and got to the top just in time to catch the sunset. The little bike did not loose its grip once – it would have been a very different matter in the rain. Coming down was easier than I thought. I was not happy just leaving it to first gear engine breaking so I applied front brake gently most of the way without grief. The best bit was still to come though....
As I arrived at the bottom of the rock, two enduro bikes appeared. A Yamaha WR450 and a Honda CRF230 ridden by young Portuguese and South African guys. Neither of them dared to venture in my tracks and they were pleasingly respectful of this grey-haired Englishman on a humble Honda 125. I suggested to them that if they planned to go up they needed to be prepared to fall off, and as neither had any protective clothing at all (shorts and tea shirt) they took my point. I felt quite chuffed and began to realise how much I have learnt about riding from all you guys and girls at TRF.
One of the first things I did when the company bought these bikes was to recommend, better helmets, some protective clothing at least, and rucksacks with spare lever, tube, tools, and the usual stuff, as well as training on how to change a tube in the field. Of course the advice was ignored and both bikes have since been dropped and levers bust and haven’t been in operation since.
I am determined to do one more trip to explore some of the native forest areas just to the north, maybe camping. Oh and there is not much danger of being eaten by wild animals – locals eat them all during the civil war, there is hardly even a bird to be seen it is so devoid of wildlife.
I have been having a good time but I will be glad to be back riding the lanes on a BMW in Blighty despite NERC.