ROADS NO LONGER TRAVELLED
This is the shiny new bridge that killed the fabled journey to Catembe and the Ponte mercado
Mozambique’s R11.3-billion Maputo-Katembe Bridge has brought many changes – as well as nostalgia for what has been lost.
First thing we used to do on arrival in the happy, shabby seaside village of Catembe was catch a cold beer at the local mercado (market). It was in a place called Ponte, which means “bridge” in Portuguese, at the end of the harbour’s jetty where the ferryboats came and went.
There was a chaotic and colourful strip of barracas (street shops), a petrol station, a pharmacy and palm trees. People would gather here to haggle, trade, gossip, drink beer and watch football. Women sold fresh fish as well as fruit and vegetables from their mashambas or plots of land.
Ponte was the nexus of Catembe. Tourists could get beer, airtime, cashew nuts and headache pills. Locals could get freshly baked pão (bread), basic foodstuffs and sit-down meals. They could get their hair done or their bicycle tyres repaired. There were taxis, fishermen, vendors, peddlers – all the deliciously vivid flotsam of a tiny African port.
I adored the mercado at Ponte. It made me laugh and want to drink rum. Many times, it made me drop to my knees in prayer and give thanks for life.
That was because getting to Catembe was often such a wild ride.
To take your car from Maputo to Catembe, you had to board the legendary rust bucket of a ferryboat, Bagamoyo, or her equally cantankerous sister, Mpfumo.
Getting all the passengers and about 18 cars aboard was a lively exercise that involved ferry guards, port officials, ancillary helpers, runners, fixers, hustlers, as well as passing gogos by whose collective power the 18-odd cars and all the people and their piles of shopping and bags of xima (mielie meal), their car spares, their small generators and their chickens as well as all the tourists somehow squashed themselves together on board like the Mozambican opposite of a Rubik’s Cube.
Bagamoyo lurched her way across the waters, straining and groaning at an excruciatingly slow pace. It could take more than an hour to make the 1.5km crossing. Sometimes, she would break down and loll about in a dreadful fashion as babies cried and children puked and couples fought. We would clutch our pearls and think of the lyrics to that old Chris de Burgh song:
Don’t pay the ferryman
Don’t even fix a price
Don’t pay the ferryman
Until he gets you to the other side.
But of course you had to pay upfront.
By the time Bagamoyo had disgorged her long-suffering contents, and everyone had found their land legs and their cars again, Ponte would thrum into life with the sounds of trading and the smells of chicken and fish and delicious possibility.
Now the little mercado at Ponte is dead.
Bagamoyo lies rusting and exhausted, after nearly 40 years of carrying passengers and vehicles, seven days a week. I don’t know where Mpfumo is.
The taxis have gone, the hustlers, the fishermen, the women traders.
The boat maintenance, piloting and other services that sustained many fisher families in old Catembe are redundant.
Now Catembe is called Katembe and you can cross over from the capital in a mere 10 minutes via the longest suspension bridge in Africa, the price tag of which was more than 5% of the country’s GDP.
The Maputo-Katembe Bridge was a mega-project partnership between the Mozambican government and the China Roads and Bridges Corporation.
It cost $725-million (about R11.3-billion) and has completely redefined the city skyline. The bridge is an emblem of Maputo now, as much as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris and Big Ben of London.
We cross it at dusk, as the city lights begin to sparkle. There are only three other cars in sight, but the bridge lights are all lit in a wondrous arc. There’s an electronic gantry, lane lights and flashing signs.
The main span of the four-lane suspension bridge is nearly 700m and the total length is more than 3km. It is 60m high so ships can easily pass underneath to get to the Maputo harbour. What a sensation, crossing this magnificent structure – the combined forces of nature and structural engineering, the sheer glittering modernity of it all. Maputo city is now within easy reach for things such as building materials, shopping malls, schools and healthcare.
A trip that used to take a day now takes a few minutes. Within nine minutes, we are at the roundabout, the new nexus, where people now wait to catch the buses and chapas (taxis) to the city.
We get petrol at the new Chinese garage. Our first beer stop is at the Nigerian-owned shop as you turn left into Katembe.
The next day, we visit internationally renowned artist Goncalo Mabunda at the building site where his new home and atelier are taking shape.
For Mabunda, it is a dream come true to be able to finally move out of the crowded Karl Marx Avenue in the city and raise a family in Katembe; the peace, the quiet and the impossibly gorgeous views of the Maputo skyline.
We talk about life and art, about the new tarred roads and the politics of DUAT (Direitos de Uso e Aproveitamento de Terra). These are land-user rights, a 50-year title that can’t be mortgaged or transferred but may be renewed. There are backlogs. The municipality handed out more than 1,000 in 2021, but foreigners are still waiting for theirs.
We stop for a beer at our friend Mudda’s house in another part of Katembe. He can easily get to his work as a security guard at night in the city. He takes a taxi and he’s also been able to get building supplies and add an extra two rooms to his place to rent out.
Most Katembeiros don’t own a car, he says, but those who can commute say the tolls are too expensive.
A newly formed residents’ group is petitioning the government to lower the tolls.
The government, of course, has its own plan: the General Urbanisation Plan for the KaTembe Municipal District. It envisions a new city with prime real estate, ecotourism and industrial development reaching almost half a million people in 30 years.
Four government ministries will be moving to Katembe and the national assembly has already allocated large plots of land for future housing for MPs.
The World Bank has donated funding and will support the local administration.
We visit Danish friends who recently moved across from the city to Katembe into a gorgeous double-storey home with that impossibly beautiful Maputo skyline. Like others, they’re concerned about the rise in crime, noise and traffic since the bridge. Can Katembe’s water supply handle the construction boom, they wonder. Development seems fast and haphazard; planning too slow.
The new bridge killed the Ponte mercado, says a longtime resident, who has worked in development for many years.
The women who sold fresh produce were forced to move off the mashambas that they’d been cultivating for generations when the land was reclaimed for the building of the bridge. They were poorly compensated, she says.
Developers have been buying up houses from locals for peanuts and selling them on for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The fishermen say their catches have thinned.
We head for Diogo’s on the beachfront. There are new tarred roads, obvious signs of building and construction. Despite the tough lockdown, the restaurant has expanded. At the table next to us is a 21st birthday party.
Later we escape for a few drinks to a local spot affectionately dubbed The Brothel because, apparently, it offers rooms by the hour. We buy warm, freshly baked bread in the morning from the local padaria (bakery). Still the best bread in the world.
We drive for lunch to Ponta do Ouro – Ponta, land of white sands, blue beaches and postcard holidays.
Before the bridge it would have taken the best part of a day and was an epic bone-jarring saga involving potholes and heat-induced madness. Now it is 105km on a tarred road.
En route, we pass the colossal new Dugongo Cement factory in the district of Matutuíne.
A subsidiary of Chinese West International Holding, Dugongo opened in May 2021 and, already, massive trucks are delivering cement to infrastructure projects across the country at a price around half of what it was before. Seven local companies have complained about unfair pricing, but the residents don’t seem to mind, and, let’s face it, without the bridge, the industry would have been inconceivable.
The road to Ponta goes through a slice of the 104,000ha Maputo Special Reserve, a decade-long conservation collaboration between the Mozambican government and the Peace Parks Foundation. We see zebra and antelope, but no elephants.
Ponta itself is charming but quiet. It will pick up again, they say. The bridge will bring back the tourists now that the Covid-19 pandemic is nearly over.
From Ponta, the road to KwaZulu-Natal is also tarred now, which is good news for agricultural transport.
We sit on the beach with our signature red drinks. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.