Moçambique!

A ticking clock is a right good motivator. It prompts desperate online auction bids. It demands quick thinking on game shows. It signals that the bomb is about to explode.

It spurs last-minute travel plans.

It sends us sprinting to Mozambique.

Actually, the decision was much less dramatic. Sitting on the couch after dinner one night, Jenny simply turned to me and said, “Why don’t we just go to Mozambique for the weekend?” We looked at each other, in silence, each of us contemplating what should have been an outlandish question. Then for another hanging moment, as we shared the unspoken realization that only now, with our days in South Africa tick-tick-ticking away, could we even contemplate such a whim.

“OK, cool,” I said. “Let’s do it.”

From that point, the only real decision to make was whether to drive or fly. The capital, Maputo, is an easy, 6.5-hour drive on the N4 from Pretoria. But, driving from South Africa with a South African vehicle can lead to trouble, particularly in the form of informal road blocks, sometimes set up by legitimate police officers, seeking bribes, etc. Not only did that not sound like fun, we were concerned that something might happen that would jeopardize the pending sale of our car.

So, we decided to fly.

A 45-minute flight dropped us in Maputo, where we waited in a short queue for a visitor’s visa, complete with our photos on them. It was much easier than our ordeal in Addis Ababa (sorry, Melhik and Adem, Abeba). From there, it was off to the Polana.

The Polana Serena Hotel

The Polana Serena Hotel is a colonial era structure long considered to be one of the finest hotels in Africa. It took a beating and endured neglect during the conflicts that engulfed the country through the eighties, but has been restored recently to reflect its past, but with some decidedly modern touches.

That afternoon, a Friday, we left the hotel on foot to explore a bit of the city. We walked down Avenida Julius Nyerere (named for the first president of Tanzania), along Avenida Friedrich Engels, through a park and on to a little sidewalk café, where we ordered a platter full of grilled prawns and a small pitcher of sangria. Then, another. Mozambican seafood was living up to its billing.

Saturday, we had bigger plans. Well, not really. Vacation, after all. But we did start after breakfast with a tuk-tuk ride down to Avenida Guerra Popular and Mercado Central. Before I wisely take a break and let the pictures do the talking, do yourself a favor and look up a map of Maputo, just for the street names.

Tuk-Tuk Taxi in Maputo

Sidewalk Vendor on Guerra Popular

Mercado Central

Mercado Central

Mozambican Foosball

[more market & street photos here]

Despite visiting a number of hard-sell markets like the ones in Maputo, such as at Merkato in Addis, Thamel in Kathmandu or Silom in Bangkok, I still find the experience to be exhausting. “No, I really don’t need a dirty jar of nuclear-hot piri piri sauce, thanks. I just paid twice as much as I should have for a t-shirt…I think I’m done.”

To the hotel pool, please.

Dinner on Saturday night was at a restaurant called Zambi. Nice garlic bread, white sangria with what seemed to be a cinnamon sapling in the bottom of the pitcher, and pretty decent TG prawns and langoustines. Nothing to write home about. We should have gone to Costa do Sol. Next time.

Sunday: Jenny jogged, we ate breakfast outside with a nice view of the Indian Ocean, then we walked to a permanent craft market across from the hotel. In addition to the usual stuff – tribal masks, cloth dolls, beads to make beads, wooden elephants that “my blind uncle just carved yesterday, my brother” – there was a young dressmaker displaying some really incredible work. Jenny was hooked.

Dressmaker in Maputo

Speaking of hooked, after the craft market, things got a little fishy. A lot fishy, actually.

As to be expected at Mercado de Peixe – the Maputo fish market.

Tubs of lobster and prawns at Mercado de Peixe, Maputo

The real attraction of the fish market is that you can shop for fresh seafood – LM prawns, lobster, snapper, you name it – then take your catch to one of the restaurant stalls behind the market and have it grilled on the spot. After negotiating prices for a nice lobster and three LM prawns, we paid, sat and waited for lunch to arrive. Decadent.

Fish Market Lunch: Grilled Lobster & Prawns

Yet, even as we pulled bite after delicious bite of succulent, white meat from the shells, we could hear the clock ticking. Tick! We must hurry to the airport. Tick! We must finish our projects in Pretoria. Tick! We must pack our bags for home. Tick! We must leave our life in South Africa.

And it just keeps getting louder. Things are about to explode.

The Drive to Durban

On January 20, Jenny posted the following to Facebook:

To which her sister, Jaimie, promptly replied, “Driving to the Indian Ocean. As one does.”

Thanks for always keeping us grounded, Foof.

Yes, I suppose that some six months in to our stay in South Africa, we may have started to take things for granted. Like the ability to drive from Pretoria to Durban, on the Indian Ocean, for the weekend.

The drive itself, which certainly didn’t need help from a guy called “Vanilla” to be vibrant (though it would have been nice to have our ragtop down so our hair could blow), was about eight hours, all in. However, since we couldn’t escape Pretoria until late on Friday afternoon, we decided to split the trip in half and stop over for the night in a town called Harrismith. Speaking of vanilla…

There’s not much to report from our short visit to Harrismith, save for one memorable exchange. Upon arrival at the guesthouse, the name of which we will not disclose here, we asked our host, an Afrikaner man not named Willem, for a restaurant recommendation.

“Ach, man,” he began. “Well, we mostly eat boer-kos, so we like La Moree. They have a nice fillet.”

“Yeah?” we asked, feigning interest in large slabs of beef.

“Ach, not to be racist or anything,” he continued, as if he was among friends who would understand that it is not only perfectly acceptable to begin a sentence with “not to be racist or anything” but also illustrative of how tolerant you can be nowadays, “but there are no black people there. So, it’s quiet.”

“Oh…OK,” we lilted, swallowing hard. “Thanks…”

We were so shocked that neither of us thought to ask for a second choice, a more integrated, post-1994 option. Worse, we took his advice! We were tired. And hungry. And, apparently, racist. But, one cannot ask for absolution on an empty stomach. Just ask the diners at Cracker Barrel.

ANYWAY…

Early the next morning, after a lovely breakfast at the guesthouse, we set out for Durban. The stretch of the N3 between Harrismith and Ladysmith (yes, that Ladysmith) was breathtaking. The hills, the valleys, the mountains, the clouds, the cows, the sunlight, the shadows, the green, the greener…the Drakensberg. Gorgeous.

In just a few short hours, we were on the outskirts of Durban, 614 kilometers from and about 5,000 feet lower in elevation than Pretoria. From Durban, our destination at the luxurious Zimbali Lodge, was about another hour’s drive. We checked in quickly, changed clothes and jumped back in the car to return to Durban Harbour – we had a date with the Allen Gardiner.

The Allen Gardiner in Durban Harbour

The Allen Gardiner is a historic, wooden vessel built in 1942 in Miami for the South African Air Force. During World War II, it was used as a rescue boat to save lives when German U-boats attacked ships off the coast of South Africa. During our visit, it was used for a champagne cruise.

For about two hours, we skimmed the harbour and munched hors d’oeuvres. We sidled up to massive container ships from China, the Marshall Islands, Panama and Denmark. One monster even had the capacity to transport 4,000 automobiles in its yellow belly.

Back on land and fully appetized, we decided to cast a net in the direction of dinner. Seafood, of course. Someplace we hoped would be decidedly not “quiet.”

We chose New Café Fish, in part because it looked like an upside-down ship, but mostly because the guidebook recommended it.

At an outdoor bar above the marina, facing the Durban skyline…

The skyline at Durban Harbour

…we ordered drinks and a dozen wild, fresh, local oysters. That were as big as our heads.

It's a good thing we didn't have to pay by weight...

Seated, salted and sated, we enjoyed the city view, the sea air and the southern sky before driving the winding beach road back towards Ballito, in the dark, dark, dark.

Early the next morning, we went hunting for duiker. The Zimbali Lodge is on a small game reserve, meaning that both the game and the reserve are relatively small. Among the smallest of South Africa’s many antelope is the elusive blue duiker, one of Jenny’s favorites. So, we went out on foot to try to find one.

Sadly, we did not spot any duiker…at least not any live duiker. While wandering along a trail somewhere beyond the edge of the map provided by the concierge, we came across an intact skeleton of a small antelope, probably a duiker, and probably just a few days dead. It was picked clean, for the most part, save for some furry flesh around the ankles. Shame.

We did have a closer encounter with a living, breathing nyala. That was fun. But the real payoff of the hike was the detour to see this:

Indian Ocean surf laps the beach at Zimbali

With a healthy respect for riptides and sharks, we did not swim in this part of the Indian Ocean. We did, however, get our feet wet.

After breakfast, we went down to the pool and ordered cocktails. “As one does.”

While our cocktails were actually served in a different pool, this one is prettier

Fast-forward to Monday, past a day of lounging and night of prawn curry at a quirky little place called Impulse by the Sea. Find yourself in downtown Durban, looking for street signs with names like Dr Yusuf Dadoo and Bertha Mkhize, street signs that in some cases have been spray painted over with black lines in protest of the massive and controversial renaming project underway in the city. Look for the Victoria Street Market.

Got it?

Yep, but this is a one-way, how do we get back…?

Turn down that street.

This one? With all the minibus taxis and cardboard boxes everywhere?

Yeah, just try it.

OK.

Somehow, the Rio landed.

Victoria Street Market is…

Wait…Victoria Street Market is not a big truck or a series of tubes. It is electronics, spices, cell phone cases, t-shirts, arts, crafts, artycrafts, saris, vegetables, baskets, tourist traps, and other stuff. We didn’t last long.

It’s not that we gave up, it’s that the thing Jenny was most hoping to find wasn’t there. It was out on the streets. It was fabric.

Durban is well known in SA for producing (or at least selling) fantastic fabrics. Silks, cottons, jerseys, sequins, you name it. As we weaved our way from store to store, through sidewalks crowded with vendors, newsstands, piles of clothes, sleeping beggars, and fellow browsers, the sounds and smells of the Durban CBD carried us forth.

If you can’t tell from my extremely bouncy iPhone video, you should know this:

Durban:India::Chicago:Poland

That’s right. Just as Chicago has the largest population of Poles outside of Warsaw, Durban has the largest population of Indians outside of Delhi. Outside all of India, in fact. Of roughly 3.5 million Durbanites, 27% are of Indian descent. That’s about 945,000 people.

Durban’s high concentration of Indians gives the city an interesting vibe. There are obvious examples, like the number of curry shops, but it’s more than that. The added diversity (more than just black & white) was refreshing. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but perhaps the best way to say it is that Durban feels more relaxed somehow. Whether that’s due to physical (coastal location) or social (historic migrations) geography is unclear. Both/and, probably.

We often had to remind ourselves that we were still in South Africa.

For that, we had the drive home. Seven-plus hours through KwaZulu-Natal, Free State, a slice of Mpumalanga and back into Gauteng.

Back to work.

Back to reality.

Back to vanilla?

No…not at all.