A day hike that turned into an illegal border crossing
Usually my blog posts are about my latest trips. Here is a story that happened four years ago in Mozambique.
About four years ago I was in Mozambique working with an NGO. My friend Thomas and I worked on a project in Maputo which took us deep into the townships of Maputo and to some interesting meetings with local entrepreneurs. After about a week in Maputo, we headed for the coast in order to spend a few days in a beach house in Ponta d’Ouro. It was Thomas, his brother Troels, a friend of ours called Anders, his son Henrik and me. Anders and Troels both lived in Mozambique at the time so they had borrowed the house from a friend.
We were all full of expectations as we sat in Troels’s turquoise blue 4×4 on our way to the ferry. We were going to cross the Umbeluzi River from Maputo to Catembe. But on our way through Maputo, right before we reached the ferry, the car breaks jammed and we had to take our car to a mechanic. It was a setback for about an hour. It was a good thing it didn’t happen during our 4 hour long ride through KwaZulu-Natal however. A trip you can only make in a 4×4.
It was a long and beautiful but bumpy ride. And before we reached Ponta d’Ouro it was dark long ago. My friend Thomas and his brother Troels are both keen surfers, so they had already set their minds on hitting the waves the next morning. Knowing that this was one of the most shark infested waters in the world I made other plans.
The next morning I packed my backpack, told my friends that I would take a hike down the coast and that they should start looking for me if I wasn’t back before sundown. The weather was nice and it was quite warm although this was winter in Mozambique. The weather forecast said that there was a bit of rain coming in from the east but otherwise it would be fair weather. And so my trip started.
I went down to the beach from where the surfers took off. The right side of it was cut off by a cliff extending into the ocean. As I walked towards the cliff this black labrador came towards me as if it knew me. I said hello to it and pushed it away gently. I continued to walk towards the cliff but the dog kept following me. As I reached the cliff, I started climbing onto it to see if it would be possible to get around it. Hiking on the coast can be very dangerous if you’re cut off by the tide with nowhere to escape. So I was careful not to go too far without having an escape route. This was completely unknown territory to me so I was being extra careful. I managed to get on top of the cliff to a place where I could walk more easily. It was razor sharp with small holes in it everywhere. – It was almost like touching broken glass. Definitely not a place you would want to get stuck in.
The dog was still following me like we were playing some kind of a game. I made an effort to ignore it and I tried pushing it away more aggressively several times. Little did it help. I thought it might give up once we got further away from it’s known territory.
As I made my way around the cliff I was met by the most amazing view. A desolate sand beach stretching as far as my eyes could see. There was no sign of civilization or human activity whatsoever. Not even foot prints or other tracks. It was like I had just entered a completely different world.
In the horizon I could see a mountain. I decided that to be my destination. Not knowing how far away it was or if I would be able to reach it at all. By now the dog had been following me for quite a while so I thought to myself that I would let him come along with me. Like I had a choice anyway. I thought it might be a good idea to have a dog for protection if I was to meet some dangerous animals on my way. I realized now that I was heading into an untouched wilderness like I had never seen it before. Little did I know at the time that the area I was entering is called Kosi Bay – also known as “Predator Bay”. The home of both crocodiles, hippos, sharks, pythons and more. As I stood there alone with the waves of the Indian Ocean on my left, an endless and completely untouched sandy beach ahead of me and dense vegetation on my right I had this indescribable feeling of total freedom. Something I had never felt before in my life. I hadn’t planned this trip remember. I didn’t bring a map and I didn’t do any research about the area in advance. I had just told my friends was where I was heading and that they should start looking for me if I wasn’t back before sundown.
As I walked towards the cloud covered mountain in the distance I could see thousands of ghost crabs scurrying in and out of the water with the waves. I remember thinking that they would make excellent survival food. I found a cuttle bone in the sand that I brought as a primitive weapon in case I should need one. The cuttle bone is the internal shell of the cuttlefish. It has a sharp edge and is very point in one end. The only gear I had brought was my Haglöffs day-pack with a couple of liters of water in two plastic bottles, a fire steel, my “Victorinox Mountaineer” Swiss knife, a Silva compass and a small back-up compass.
The dog was chasing the ghost crabs around the beach before they disappeared into small holes in the sand. I thought it would be interesting to see if I could actually catch one myself. They appear to be right in front when you see them but once you get closer, they’re gone as quickly as they show up. I tried figuring out their pattern of behavior and realized that if I could cut them off before they reached their small holes I might be able get a hold of one. After a few attempts I finally managed to catch one. I quickly released it again, caught another one and then left them alone. That’s when I looked up and saw a big black silhouette moving over my head. It was an African Fish Eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer) I tried to take a photo of it but by the the time I had gotten my pocket camera out, it had moved too far in over land to get a good picture of it. It was amazing to see it in real life though.
I was walking close to the water. It’s much easier to walk on the wet sand closer to the water than it is in the dry sand. And it’s more fun. Of course I was surprised by a wave leaving me with both my shoes and socks wet. I took off my shoes and socks and tied them to my backpack and then continued bare footed. After all I was just walking on a sand beach.
I had been walking for more than an hour by now – maybe two – and the mountain in the horizon didn’t seem to be getting closer at all. I was beginning to doubt whether it would be possible for me to reach it at all. And now I could see heavy clouds coming in from the east. It was going to rain and I didn’t bring any rain gear or extra clothing. The climate was very warm and I had not expected to go hiking when I left Denmark. I took off my shirt and put it in my back pack. I would rather walk half naked in the rain and have some dry clothes to put on afterwards.
After another hour or so I was finally making progress. Suddenly the mountain was getting bigger. I was getting closer to my destination. I was excited to see what was ahead and it wasn’t long until I was finally there. As I walked closer the first thing I noticed was a river mouth. Another thing I noticed was animal tracks. I had no idea what kind of animals I could expect to see here so it was both exciting and a little bit worrying at the same time. After all this was Africa.
I had reached my destination and my plan from here was to go inland and find the main road back to Ponta d’Ouro. I soon realized that this was easier said than done though. The vegetation here was reaching beyond the shore and the only way for me to get off the coast was to cross the river. I started walking into it head on to see how deep it was but I soon realized that it was too deep and the current also seemed stronger than I had anticipated. I didn’t want to take any chances so I went back and found a place further up the river where it broke into a few more shallow streams. Here I could see the bottom and I managed to find my way towards the bush. I was just about to enter the bush when I heard a loud roar from an animal inside the bush right next to the shore. I didn’t know what it was but my guess was that it might be a monkey that didn’t approve of the dog’s and my presence. It was a deep and loud roar so I wasn’t sure if it came from a monkey or not. I changed direction a bit and managed to find a place where I could get on dry ground. The roars silenced and I made a stop to offer the dog some water. He wasn’t thirsty but we had become good friends by now. This was also the first time I saw signs of civilization since I left the cliff in Ponta d’Ouro. I was on a path now with plenty of human footprints.
As I started to walk inland along the path there were more roars coming from the trees above us. I looked up and saw a group of monkeys moving around. This time time they weren’t as agressive as before though. The path crossed a road now and then. Sometimes I would follow the road. Sometimes the path. I was heading for the top of a mountain. As I continued I passed an amazing thing. A big lake with ancient style fish traps set out by locals. I love to see these kind of techniques applied by indeginous people in present time. As a bushcrafter you can learn so much from these people.
After another half hour or so I finally reached the the top of the mountain and it gave me a chance to look back at the distance I had travelled from the coastline. I finally reached what I expected to be the main road back to where I came from. It was getting a bit late by now so it was a good thing for me to head back as well. I passed a lot of small huts and even a School. I was surprised to see that it had a South African Flag though. After all I was supposed to be in Mozambique.
As I continued I met some local kids and a few cars were passing me by on the way. The road had turned west for a long time which didn’t fit my compass bearings. It was off the direction in which I was supposed to go. After a while I passed a local bar. In this part of Africa it means a small hut full of guys. Outside it 8 men were trying to push a car free from the sand dunes. I went over to help them push and we quickly managed to get the car free. I asked them for directions to Ponta d’Ouro and they said something I was not happy to hear. They told me that all I had to do was to cross the border a few hundred meters in front of us. I realized now that I had accidentally crossed the border to South Africa without bringing my passport.
I considered my options for a second. I could turn around and go back the way I came from. But I wouldn’t be able to make it back before sundown. This meant that I would have to spend the night in the bush. I was unfamiliar with the area and I had told my friends to start looking for me if I wasn’t back before sundown. So this was not a great idea. The other option I had was to try my luck at the border. But you don’t just cross a border without any papers so this was also not an ideal situation. I went for the latter option however thinking I would be able to talk my way out of this.
As I approached the border I was met by two young men in full combat uniforms, bordeaux berets and machine guns. They represented the South African side of the border. I explained my situation to them and they smiled at me almost with indulgence and told me that they could let me through to the Mozambican side of the border. But they also made it clear to me that they would not let me in without a passport. I was happy to get this far however and I thought to myself that I had made it halfway through the border. When I entered the Mozambican side there were a few people here and there. No one seemed to notice me so I just kept walking. I thought to myself that I might be able to make it through without my passport. That’s when I heard a deep voice shout at me. “Hey you! Come here please!”. It was a female border patrol officer in a black uniform. A big black woman.
I explained my situation to her as I had just done it to the border patrol officers on the South African side. She looked at me with disbelief so I pulled out my iPhone and showed her the pictures I had taken along my trip. She then asked me about the dog. She was laughing now. When I told her that the dog had just followed me and that I was unable to get rid of it she was laughing so loud that one of the other officers came out to ask what was going on. She told him the story in Portuguese and now I had two people laughing at me. Another officer came along and soon he was laughing at me too. I laughed with them thinking that I would up my odds if we all became friends. She said something about letting me pass the border so I thought to my self that this was going well. That’s when her boss came along. He was not in the same kind of good mood and he told me that there was no way I would get into Mozambique without my passport and papers. He even added that if I failed to provide it before the border closed he would send me back to South Africa where they would put me in jail. My phone had no connection so he let me borrow his old Nokia to try and contact my friends. I only had my friend Thomas’ number and he didn’t answer his phone. He also had a Danish service provider so I didn’t even know if he had a connection. Further more he was probably still out surfing. It was about 4 o’clock now and the border was closing at sundown which was at 5. I tried calling him several times with no luck. Then one of the border patrol officers suddenly pointed his gun at the dog and told me to look. I didn’t understand what he wanted at first but then I saw it: A big telephone number written in black marker around its collar. “Yes, of course!” I said.
I immediately called the number and this English lady answered the phone. I told her about my situation as well as how her dog had followed me from the beach. She asked me if we just arrived the night before. It turned out that she had seen us when we visited one of local bars. She begged me to hold on to her dog and asked me where we lived so she could make her driver find my friends. I didn’t have the address but I told her that our house was located at the top of the hill and that my friends were probably out surfing. We hung up and I sat down to wait. After about half an hour I still hadn’t heard anything from her, so I called her up again. She told me that her driver had been unable to locate my friends but she was trying find out more. By now I only had half an hour left until I was going to prison in South Africa. When there were 15 minutes left the Chief of the border patrol pulled me aside. He took me to a room next to his office where he opened an approximately 40×50 cm big book almost 10 cm thick. He scrolled through the pages until he found a passage that was supposedly about illegal border crossing. Next to it was written an obscene amount of Metical – the Mozambican currency. I don’t remember the exact number but apparently this was the fine for crossing the border illegally. He then brought me to his office. He sat down and told me that my friends would not come. But he was willing to make a deal with me. Now I knew that I was in Africa. The deal was that I payed a tank full of gasoline for his truck and he would then accompany me to Ponta d’Ouro where I was to show him my passport. If I had my passport there we would be even, if not he would take me “back” to South Africa. I thought it was a fair deal so I agreed. We waited about ten minutes for the police truck to return from another assignment and a minute later I was in the back of it on my way to Ponta d’Ouro. With the dog between my feet of course.
We were driving through the terrain with maybe ten different tracks all leading to Ponta d’Ouro but there was no real road. So when we saw some cars driving in the opposite direction we had to pull to the side. That’s when I noticed that the one in front had a turquoise blue colour. Not the most common choice for a 4×4 here. I knew it was my friends so I told the officer to stop them. It turned out that the English lady had finally found my friends. Anders who was a diplomate at the Danish embassy to Mozambique got out of the car and started talking to the officer. And then they started arguing! Anders looked at me and asked if the officer had taken money from me. I told him that we had made a deal and asked him if there was a chance he could get me out of the police car before he started arguing with the officer. I was finally allowed to go and as I opened the door the dog jumped out and into the car behind which was the English lady’s driver who had come along to pick it up. Safe inside our own vehicle I was officially handed over my passport by Anders. I never got to thank the dog for following me that morning but we had a great trip together and I will always remember him as both my saviour and a great travel buddy.