The quest for El Paradiso in Mozambique
The concept of "El Paradiso" was first presented to me by one of our team members on a recent cycle tour of the southern coast of Mozambique. At first it was just a funny way of saying "paradise" but in the days to follow it would come to mean something so much more. It would become more of a philosophy than a phrase. An over-aching reason. A quest. The quest. The quest for El Paradiso.
Earlier this year Jill and I joined a party of would-be expeditionists as we set off for Mozambique in search of fun, adventure and of course, El Paradiso.
The idea was to cycle on the beach from Hell's Gate to Ponta Do Ouro equipped with nothing but regular mountain bikes (not those fancy fat-bikes) a can of Q-20 and a solid sense of humour.
None of us were serious cyclists nor did many of us even own a bike, but hey, this was supposed to be an adventure right? "What could possibly go wrong?" For future reference, in Mozambique, the question: "What could possibly go wrong?" has a very long list of undesirable answers with rapidly increasing degrees of seriousness.
Nonetheless, with blissful abandon, our party crossed the border from South Africa into Mozambique ready for anything. Ready for El Paradiso.
Trouble in El Paradiso
The trip had been planned a few weeks before we left. The gist of it was that we would take 4 days to cycle the 80-odd kilometres on the beach from Hell's Gate back to South Africa and camp along the way.
We had a rough idea of where we needed to be and by when, but we'd all been in the game long enough to know that: "the best laid plans of mice and men...often don't end up going that way."
Day 1 was a total breeze. Island-hopping, snorkeling and general chilling around Inhaca Island was the order of the day. It wasn't until day 2 that we realised that things were not going to be smooth sailing. One of the bikes had taken some damage on the road up the coast and was no longer in riding condition. This meant that one of the riders had to join the support team in the 4x4's - which was handy considering the number of times we broke down and needed the extra hands to push.
As it turned out, the remaining riders had also had a rough time of it. The heat on the beach and a total lack of pre-trip training had taken it's toll.
This part of the trip was definitely not El Paradiso. It was more along the lines of "El-are-you-kidding-me?" What was supposed to be a leisurely warm-up day had burnt us all out and we needed some time to regroup.
Rehab for the soul
The crew settled in to our first camp stop at an abandoned drug rehabilitation centre. While no one in our party was suffering from substance abuse, we were definitely suffering from another form of bodily abuse, so it seemed only fitting that we would find ourselves in rehab after the first leg of the trip.
The next day was a lay-day and one spent in the ocean letting the waves massage our tired muscles.
In the evening we found a lookout point atop one of the primary dunes. Mozambique is incredibly beautiful! Particularly this stretch of coastline. The dune-frindged beaches never end. The coastal forests carpet everything you see and the ocean is blue and inviting.
As I've gotten older I've come to really appreciate just how rare places like this are. I had to pinch myself a few times to remind myself that this was all real. We were in fact in El Paradiso.
The winds of change and dung beetles
After the day of respite it was back to the saddle for our team of riders. We had managed to resurrect the faulty bike during our stop so the riding team was going to have some more support this time. And they were going to need it!
In the night a cold-front had made landfall. And not just any cold-front. The mother of all cold fronts was sweeping over our little beach at gusts of 40 knots, kicking up sand and salt in it's wake. Cycling into that head-wind was going to be no mean feat.
How our riders managed to penetrate that wind is still beyond me, but by the time evening came, we were all reunited at our next camp stop in Milibangalala.
Milibangalala is a backwater campsite in the Maputo Elephant Reserve. Much as I love mosquito-infested long-drops and no running water, when I am accosted by a gang of dung beetles while I'm on the loo, I tend to draw the line. El Paradiso indeed! Inner city thugs have nothing on these guys. I clearly had what they wanted and they were coming to get it.
One thing Milibangalala does have going for it though is its beautiful beach just out front. It's a popular fishing spot, so you don't quite get that feeling of seclusion as you do with the other beaches on this coastline, but nevertheless, there is at least that to say for the place. I much preferred Ponta Dobela just down the road, but there was little time to explore so our stay at Milibangalala was not an extended one and before long we were back in the saddle and back on the road.
Elephants in the elephant reserve
Our next stage took us through the Maputo Elephant Reserve. Over the years I must have driven through this reserve at least a dozen times and in that time I've never seen a single elephant. I was beginning to wonder if the name was there to throw people off, but on this occasion we came face to face with the park's namesake on numerous occasions.
There were elephants everywhere! At one point, we encountered a herd of over 40 individuals in the wetlands near Dobela. It was incredible. Another prime example of El Paradiso before our eyes.
The elephants here are very different to the ones you find in other reserves. They are incredibly skittish and made sure we kept a good distance between them as they watched us drive away.
Nonetheless it was great to finally see them and put to bed my suspicions of their existence.
El Paradiso found
Our cycle tour finally wrapped up in Techobanine. It wasn't quite Ponta Do Ouro, but to be fair, we'd found what we were looking for. El Paradiso was no longer a campfire joke, but something we had experienced everyday we were out there.
Aggressive, maniacal dung-beetles aside, there wasn't one part of the trip that wasn't perfect even if it wasn't part of the plan. And that's the lesson I'm always taught when I travel. Adventures are about putting yourself in situations that are beyond yourself. And when that happens in a pristine environment with a group of good friends, that's what you call El Paradiso.