Hair, There and Everywhere

Seeking a bald man in a nature reserve is like hunting a black cat in a coal cellar, as Chris Harvie discovers

They told us that Eric was in charge.

Nobody seemed clear whether he was French or Italian but they all agreed that he was bald and we’d never find him in the 2100 square kilometre Gili Reserve. Never. So we’d better not get stuck.

The Mozambique rain was coming down in sheets but the road should be fine, they said, even after all the cyclones. Bob went through three times a week, they said, although no one seemed quite clear exactly who Bob was …

The wind lashed through the trees and the downpour grew in vigour. Trees crashed to the ground around us.

Passing mysterious villages, fording raging torrents and balancing on precarious beam bridges, we asked the locals for directions. Gili? Gili?

They looked completely bemused and pointed randomly. The road fizzled out and we slurped through a rank gassy marsh, where, in the nick of time, the lost GPS suddenly focused and tracked down a road. We followed it.

A gate and three men, rolling with laughter in Portuguese. We were funny.

Entrar” we said. “Traversar to Alto Molòcué?” We have little Portuguese.

It was obvious we were a rarity. The previous vehicle had entered three weeks earlier. Maybe it had never come out. Four other names appeared in the interim. Mode of Transport: Velopede. Bicycle. Reason for entering: Visitar a familia.

No tourists. No sign of Eric, either. Or Bob, for that matter.

We signed in. The senior ranger wrote a note for the exit gate-guard. It appeared to say:

THESE TWO PRIESTS ARE LOST. WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH THEM. PLEASE LET THEM OUT IF THEY REACH YOU, WHICH THEY PROBABLY WON’T. OBRIGADO.

We don’t know why they thought we were priests. My balding pate, maybe?

The pole raised; we splashed onwards. A red duiker ducked. Shrikes shrieked in the branches. Baboons bobbed about in the blustery bush.

Smashed trees lay all around us. We manoeuvred around them, avoiding any lingering land mines and, six bone-rattling and confused hours later, emerged from a river to find the muddy track blocked by a vast brachstyegia. No way around.

A bakkie screamed up. Six men in green fatigues. Five armed with AK47s, one with a chain saw. The five surrounded us. One set about the tree.

The driver jumped out into the deluge. A bald man. A priest maybe, with an armed escort? No, wait … Eric?

And elusive Eric it was, contrary to all predictions. Impressed by our fortitude he wished us luck en route to the gate we’d probably never reach where four equally astonished faces let us out to continue the final 300-kilometre vehicle-scrunching journey.

Passing drenched missions and cathedrals, we slid up onto the teabush-dressed mountains of Guruè, where we stopped for the night at the only accommodation in town, the Catholic Mission.

The rain stopped momentarily and the greeting was curt. A bald man. A priest, presumably. We could stay. Pay the missionary in the morning. He would also be a bald man, we thought.

It rained all night but the clouds cleared at dawn. We met the bald man from the night before. He cheerfully offered us coffee, dates and pistachio sweetcakes for breakfast. He was a road-builder from Jordan. A Muslim.

He was no more a priest than we were. Or Eric. We didn’t know about Bob, of course. And perversely the mission priest, when we met him, wasn’t bald at all.

On the road, things are never quite as they seem. Not everyone who looks like a priest turns out to be one.

But everything’s certainly a bit of a mission.