Sometimes there are simply no bridges…


Crossing the Save in Mozambique on the way northwards

Actually, on secondary roads in Africa bridges are something of a luxury.

Africa is a vast continent with relatively few ports, few railway lines and few roads to serve its far-flung interior. Road transport is the mainstay of supporting such industry as there are in the interior – predominantly mining, which require heavy and bulky logistics. Furthermore, very few consumer goods are manufactured north of the South African borders, so in Southern Africa the growing demand for these commodities also have to be moved by road.

The result is that one is left with few and mostly bad choices when it comes to choosing a route to one’s favourite remote haunts. Main routes often mean lengthy detours and may turn out to be tortuously slow because of their state and their load of heavy trucks. Another important consideration on main routes is which border posts one has to endure. The ones on the main routes are congested to the point of dysfunctionality and they are hotbeds of petty crime and corruption – extremely unpleasant.

Secondary roads on the other hand, could be a lot shorter, but their information on maps is often unreliable and their state may be so bad as to require ad hoc repairs in places, or at the minimum very good driving and recovery skills.

Sometimes one has to ”know” the road to use it, like this crossing over the Save River in Mozambique. If one was heading into the north or north-east of Mozambique and wanted to avoid Beit Bridge and Mutare in Zimbabwe, one could use the little-known Pafuri border post from South Africa into Mozambique. One would then have to follow the Limpopo river south-eastwards along a terrible little track that consumes hours to cover its eighty-odd kilometres, to a place called Mapai. Here one could drive through the Limpopo if it is low enough.

The locals at Mapai, however, have gotten wise to travellers trying this and getting stuck and then expecting help from them to get out. So they have constructed a causeway across the river by chopping down the ironwoods that grow in the area and laying them crosswise in the sand. Now everybody can drive through without getting stuck, but, you have to pay a toll fee to use the causeway – cheeky!

Once across the Limpopo you could travel north-eastwards across the Zinave flats along a gravel road one notch above a track. It eventually joins the main north-south route along the coast – potholed and unpleasant the last time I cursed my way up it.

But, if one was heading north and knew the area one could branch off at a point north of Mapai onto a track that leads to a little village and a place where one can drive through the Save River. I know the area from somewhat recklessly exploring and hunting around there towards the end of the bush war. The river’s banks are high and steep and the bed is wide and quite treacherous with its high sand bars, but, again, if one knew the ropes… Of course, if the water level is too high for your vehicle (which you can only know when you reach the river), you have a lot of bad road to backtrack over.

I was told by my tracker at the time of my exploring that an enterprising local living on the northern side of the river offers a team of oxen or a tractor (at a slightly elevated fee, no doubt) to help people get through. In fact, he absolutely insisted that getting across without such accompaniment was an impossibility.

But, judging from the faded tracks down the bank it was clear that  crossings there were few and far between. So the oxen would be out grazing somewhere in the vast bush and they would have to be found and gathered  and brought up and inspanned – think hours. Maybe something to consider if one lived close by and could come and see the owner to make prior arrangements, I thought. And the tractor…? Well I never saw it, but I somehow I just doubted that it would actually be running. So, that time, and the few times since I simply relied on good luck, a nod from Orion up high and my trusty old bush vehicle. On at least one occasion it turned out to be a lucky coincidence for a local too, which I could pull through.

Be that as it may, this option saves a long and painful detour to the coast, but it has its disadvantages. Getting through the river is one. Another is that the area north of the Save seems to be particularly uncharted and roads are tricky to figure out. They are not on maps and the ones that are, are just about impossible to find on the ground – that is, if they really do exist at all. To make things just that little bit more interesting, there is no fuel till one gets to the larger towns along the Beira-Mutare corridor.

Ok, maybe not something to try if you tend to be a bit nervous…

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