Alive on the Skeleton Coast

Blog 21 by Mick: Alive on the Skeleton Coast

 

Was it ever nice to be riding again! We had run a few little errands before leaving civilisation, and with those done we roared out of the big smoke after a bit over 3 weeks of the sedentary life. After watching the Dakar and even staying one extra day in Windhoek to see the finale, and ecstatic with Toby Price’s very impressive (but not unprecedented) third place on debut, I couldn’t help myself but have some fun on the gravel, sticking my leg out and making braaap braaap noises in my helmet (ok, the second bit I didn’t actually do, but it was great to be riding again nonetheless). I had been cautiously optimistic about Toby’s potential in the race, knowing full well the bloke is ballistically fast and probably capable of a stage podium, but I had expected him to do the usual talented rookie trick and impress for a couple stages, then get lost or crash and lose a couple hours or worse; basically “do a Sam Sunderland”.

Interestingly, the only other bloke to podium on debut was also an Aussie, Andy Haydon, who has a great story worth recounting briefly. A well respected and insanely fast off-road racer from South Australia and 2 time Oz Safari winner, Andy proceeded to gather some support to attempt the Dakar. He raised just enough money to get himself and his bike to France, and left Dakar a couple weeks later with 2 stage wins and a third place over all, all as a privateer on a basically stock KTM 620! The Dakar in the late nineties being even more Euro-centric then what it is now, he couldn’t gain enough publicity in Australia for himself and his sponsors to attempt it a second time, so never returned.

 

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This is our way out of town, on our map spelled “Bosua Pass”, on the sign “Boshua Pass”.

 

Anyway back to us. Windhoek might be the capital city of Namibia, but it only has 3 tar roads out of town; one west, one north and one south. Thankfully we were heading east towards Bosua pass so we had some great gravel riding on empty roads through the hills and managed to see some Kudu, which we were able to warn each other of with our now functioning again intercoms. Before leaving Australia we each bought a pair of custom molded earphones made by the Aussie company Earmold. They don’t come cheap but they are one of our favourite bits of kit; they are made from medical grade silicon and are very comfortable, significantly reduce road noise and the sound quality is great. Unfortunately the headphones we got had some issues with the cables and have been discontinued, and upon learning that both of ours had problems Earmold swiftly replaced them. Unfortunately it has taken us a long time to receive them as for months we’ve lacked a fixed address, however having some down time in Windhoek meant we got them delivered there. We were stoked to have them back again right in time for us sourcing some new batteries for our Sena intercoms which had also both failed.

 

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Tan enjoying a Rock Shandy, a drink we have only found in Namibia and what we think might just be the most refreshing thing in the world. Its half lemonade, half soda water, a generous shake a bitters and some lemon slices.

 

Turning right after Bosua Pass, we headed north for Hohenstein Lodge. When we had the hire car before Christmas we had dropped by here as we had heard it was possible to do a tour of the small miners who mine the nearby Erongo mountains for minerals specimens and gemstones. It wasn’t possible at the time due to the festive season, so we decided to come back when we had some 2-wheeled transport.

 

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Enjoying a swim at Hohenstein Lodge.

 

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And the view of Hohenfels, our destination for the next day, from the lodge.

 

We had an early start the next morning and made our way up the mountain. It wasn’t a tough climb and soon we were in the cave that some of the more senior miners call “home”. The unemployment rate in Namibia is about 30% and people have to make a living somehow, so these guys manage it by mining by hand for tourmaline, aquamarine, topaz, and other minerals. The best specimens get sold to traders who come from Europe. A top quality tourmaline specimen might sell for up to US$100k. The miner will probably only see about 10% of that though, the traders pocket the fattest bit of the deal for the doing all the hard work of buying the specimen and selling it on. Well done lads, the world sure needs more middlemen.

 

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Rest Stop #1. They are sure organised these guys….

 

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Hiking near the top of the trail.

 

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This is an impressive Tourmaline piece at Hohenstein Lodge with an iPhone for scale. We were told this one was probably worth about USD10000.

 

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A nice piece of topaz

 

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This is a pretty standard collection. The black ones are tourmaline, the blue ones bottom right are aquamarine, the green ones are fluorite, and the rest are a collection of bits and pieces.

 

There was a real spread of miners, some of them had been on the mountain for 40 years while some were as green as grass, and they were from every corner of the country. One of the older guys was an informal chief for the miners on the mountain and would settle disputes and evict unruly and unwelcome miners who were causing trouble.

 

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This guy was the informal chief, and here he is displaying some of his specimens.

 

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This guy had been on the mountain the longest – over 40 years.

 

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And he loved a smoke. Local style – rollies with newspaper.

 

The miners were very keen to see us as it was an opportunity to sell some of their wares without having to leave the mountain. Plus I think it broke up the monotony a little. We looked trough all the collections and bought at least one item from each guy to try a spread the wealth a little. A nice tourmaline specimen could be had for about US$3 to 5, and topaz for 4 to 10 bucks depending on size and quality. Aquamarine sat somewhere in the middle, and quartz and amethyst really varied. There were some other noteworthy pieces there, including some native iron which had grown in platelettes, and some livid green flourites.

 

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We got an interesting native iron piece from this guy

 

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And a couple tourmaline and aquamarine pieces from the “chief”. He had some of the best and most unique pieces.

 

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These are a nice aquamarine on feldspar and a perfect fluorite cube also on feldspar

 

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A columnar aquamarine

 

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And a black tourmaline with perfect cleavage… Yes that is the correct term.

 

It was interesting discussing the trials and tribulations of the miners. They generally can spot evidence of a vein from the surface and will sink a shaft down on it, following it down hoping to find an elusive “pocket” – a vuhg (sorry, that’s a geo term for an opening in a hydrothermal system) in the vein where large crystals can grow and be easily recovered without damaging them too badly. If the vein doesn’t amount to anything, they try again somewhere else. However, if the vein produces some crystals, they will mine it down to a depth of about 25m, by which it becomes too slow to remove the waste, too hard to pump out if it rains, and far too dangerous. Falling from that height is akin to jumping off a 7 or 8 story build – rest assured it is a one way trip. And sadly it does happen – if the miners haven’t seen someone for a day or two, they will start looking for him first in his shaft, and occasionally find a crumpled mess of a person at the bottom.

 

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The entrance to one of the many many shafts

 

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Safety First! Who needs engineered anchor points when you’ve got “a dead shrub”.

 

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Tan having a squize. Note the rope looped around the root for extra safety!

 

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And inside, you can see evidence of one of the veins in the wall. We only went a couple metres down.

 

However more often they’ll find a guy on a mission. If a miner does hit a “pocket”, they won’t stop until it is mined out, which might take anything up to 3 days of non-stop digging. This is done to obviously maximise their pay day when they take the booty into Windhoek to sell, but also they don’t want to leave any crystals in the shaft which can be robbed. This act is apparently one of the leading causes of eviction off the mountain, in addition to violence, stealing and not paying debts.

 

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The view from near some of the shafts.

 

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A handful of guys lived in this cave. They had a reasonable little setup.

 

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And had a couple of pretty healthy and happy dogs for company, but mostly to scare the baboons away so they don’t come into the cave and steal food while they are in the shafts.

 

Discussing the mining itself with the guys, the parallels with the modern mining industry were uncanny, just on a micro scale. They younger guys lamented the costs of mining, at having to hire generators, pumps, and electric jackhammers off of the more established older guys. It immediately struck me that their overheads were massive relative to their modest revenue (hiring about $1000 or more of gear and fueling a geni to sell crystals for $3 each?) and must consume the vast amount of their income, a fact sadly confirmed by the younger miners discussing how hard it was to get started. They really needed to hit a massive pocket to finance their own gear and lower their production costs, however the hire arrangement makes this a very difficult thing to do, as not only do they pay a fixed component for using the gear, but a variable component as a split of the profits made from the shaft. The older guys make more money hiring gear out and letting the younger guys do all the work. Now that’s a capitalist scenario that is surely familiar?

 

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This young guy had not been on the mountain very long.

 

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But already needed a new pair of boots.

 

We hit the road in the afternoon for the short ride north to Brandberg, the tallest mountain in Namibia and home to some famous San Bushman rock paintings. We arrived at the White Lady Campground, set up camp by throwing our cots on the sand and suffered through a quite average and overpriced dinner.

 

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Saying goodbye to the Erongo Mountains.

 

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Sleeping on the ground – the easiest way to go!

 

Our tyres now had over 5000kms on them and that is a fair run for a Pirelli MT21 knobby. The centre knobs on the rears was no more than a 1mm high by this stage and the traction was pretty woeful on the sand around Brandberg, and especially in the Ugab River bed which is the White Lady campground. We had brought replacements for our assault on Damaraland and Kaokoland, so I figured this was a good chance to change them. With my tyre off I found the rear wheel bearings starting to get a little notchy, so both of those and the cush drive bearing (had about 20000kms on them so not too bad) all got changed in the campground.

 

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We woke up in the morning an found this – tracks of a big male elephant

 

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And this is how close he came to us – about 30 or 40m. Apparently he went to the lodge and tried to break into their orchard. Elephants are insane for citrus, and with their incredible sense of smell there is no hiding it.

 

While under my bike I noticed the bash plate had come loose again. When I built the bashplates I used the factory mounting holes for convenience and to save time rather than make extra mounting brackets like the B&B plate uses; that was a decision I was now regretting. The factory mounting holes have captured nuts with minimal engagement and the threads had been damaged mounting and removing the bashplate multiple times. Through experience I found its much too easy to cross thread these when trying to balance the bashplate in one hand and index the bolt with the other, especially as the front mount is tightened it pulls the plate forward thus increasing the likelihood of cross threading even more. I’d been getting by for a while now with very little engagement on just a turn or two of decent thread and lots of Loctite, but even liberally Loctited the last bolts had fallen out anyway, and now the threads were completely buggered. It is times like this that I thoroughly get the shits having to maintain and repair two bikes getting the workout these two do.

 

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Rear wheel off and resting on the peg leg.

 

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New rear tyre, new wheel bearing, and tube slime.

 

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Some more troubles….. bloody hell.

 

The following morning I got up bright and early and went to the workshop at the campground. The previous day we had spoken to the proprietors and they had generously offered the use of their workshop and tools to fabricate some new mounts. Unfortunately though, there was a shed with no vice, which would make fabrication difficult, and welder with no rods, which would make fabrication impossible. So we packed up the camp and headed back to Uis where we had been told there was a mechanic that could help us.

We tentatively pottered back to town. Even on the main road there was a number of whoops and washouts which would be rather easy to bash the exposed motor on some rocks. We found the mechanic no problems and I explained to him the predicament and my idea for fixing it, which wasn’t my idea at all as all I wanted him to do was make some mounts exactly like the B&B bashplate has. I explained and drew what I wanted and he assured me he understood completely; a bad sign if ever there was one.

 

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The sandy trails on the way out of the campground and back to Uis.

 

We went and had some lunch at the Rest Camp in town while he got to work. Some beers and a good feed later I made my way back to the workshop just as they were fitting up the bashplate. He had kind of understood what I wanted, but arsed it up pretty thoroughly. Seems just because you can pull the trigger on a drill and strike and arc with welder doesn’t mean you can fabricate. Or even bloody measure it would seem. My bashplate now had some mounting bolts coming through some poorly aligned holes so the exposed nut and thread of the bolt was at about 70 degrees to the bashplate and doesn’t pull up even close to square, in addition to a hole drilled through the plate about 40mm away – how he had mis-measured so badly God only knows. Anyway, it was my stupid fault for leaving the bashplate with him as even at the time I wasn’t overly convinced he had understood or was capable of what I wanted. But leave it with him I did and lesson learned, don’t trust people nodding profusely with confusion in their eyes.

But at least it was securely on the bike now, which was a lot better than how it was 3 hours previously. And he only charged about US$30 for the job, plus gave us a couple pieces of his homemade springbok biltong, which is the best biltong we have had to date. Anywhere. It was lovely and tender and well spiced, very tasty but not overbearing. I tend to think he should hang up the spanners and open a biltong shop, he would sell it by the truck load. And he let me service the bikes there and leave the old oil, so it wasn’t all bad.

While I was at the mechanic, Tanya organised an afternoon tour of the local Tin mine which the town of Uis was built to service. The mine had opened in the 60’s when the world put trade sanctions on South Africa for its apartheid policies and it could no longer buy tin on the world market, so it started to produce it instead. Problem was the grade was so low that the cost of production was about double the market value of the tin. When the trade sanctions were lifted after apartheid was repealed the mine closed and the town was abandoned.

 

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An enterprising local was doing some aquaculture in the old pit.

 

Interestingly, Uis was reborn after the entire town was offered up for sale by the company which had run the mine, and bought by a European fella for a steal. He then started offering houses for sale for cheap which attracted people back, and the town now primarily services tourists who come to visit Brandberg, or through town on their way to the Skeleton Coast to the west or Damaraland to the north.

 

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Sundowners on the spoilpile overlooking Brandberg. Was a terrible way to spend an afternoon. Shocking.

 

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Check the sunset. Namibia does impressive sunsets.

 

Leaving Uis the following morning we tracked around the southern side of Brandberg and headed towards the coast. We were leaving Uis without visiting the White Lady, a rock painting by the indigenous San Bushman and the main attraction in the area, but we were comfortable with our decision. It would add about 60kms or so of riding to our day, plus a considerable walk from the car park to the painting and back. But honestly, the tourist attractions are not the main draw or interest for us in any area. We get so much enjoyment riding from place to place, and understanding and fulfillment from talking to local people when we get there. So learning the history of the area from Basil and sharing a beer and a chat in the bar was easily sufficiently rewarding experience for us. I hope that doesn’t sound too disrespectful to the San culture and I’m sure the painting is lovely, but we cant visit everywhere and we left the area content.

 

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Saying good bye to Basil and his Africa Twin.

 

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The Brandberg Rest Camp – a lekker joint.

 

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Views around the south of Brandberg. Riding is pretty good fun sometimes it must be said.

 

One more interesting factoid before moving on, the White Lady painting isn’t actually white, or even a lady, archeologists have shown it is actually a painting of a San shaman. That’s another pro for having a beard – I’m less likely to be mistaken for a woman in 10000 years.

 

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Rain clouds over Brandberg. Not people would have been lucky to see the big mountain like this.

 

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Tan got a flat front tyre just here near these Welwitschias.

 

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Anyone thinking “barren”?

 

We rode down to the coast and arrived back at the salt road, a dirt road running parallel with the beach which has been wet with salt water over the years. As the water evaporates, the salt leaves a hard crusty layer that provides plenty of traction and strength for the trucks that travel up and down. We had been told that the road gets quite slippery with some rain, so we backed off a little as a few light showers passed overhead.

 

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Tan chucking a U-bomb for a photo opportunity. She was a bit generous with the throttle though and nearly dropped it. Didn’t though.

 

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And the photo op. Some lovely outcropping, our first glimpses of the 700 Million Old

 

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Its tough country out here……

 

We made a stop at Mile 108, which was our first bit of civilisation since Uis and it was a pretty miserly attempt at that. With a motley collection of demountable buildings and a tower of water tanks, it was far more like a camp out of a Mad Max movie than an actual town. We had stopped to see what camping options were available and try and get a hot coffee to warm up a little, but with no hot drinks, over priced camping and drinking and showering water sold by the litre, instead we got some chips for a late lunch and left to see what bush camping options we could find further up the coast.

 

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Mile 108. Strange place.

 

Maybe only 20 or 25 kms up the salt road towards the Skeleton Coast park gates I noticed an interesting icon pop up on my gps, and with a little investigation I could see there was a shipwreck just up the beach a little. Turning off, we made our way a couple kilometers down to the waterline and found the wreck, or what was left of it after the salt water had eaten it away over the years. It was late afternoon by now with maybe about 2 hours or so of sunlight left, so we decided this was as good a place as any to camp. The weather was quite squally with heavy gusts of wind and showers which would last anywhere from just a couple seconds to a couple minutes.

 

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The Winston Wreck on the Skeleton Coast. We had the place all to ourselves, we didn’t see anyway until some fisherman drove by the next morning.

 

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The skeleton Coast, called that because its gets so little rainfall the dead bodies of animals don’t rot fully. So even on the beach there were skeletons of birds and bones from what could have been seals or something else. Not sure. But there are lots of bones.

 

We found a spot about 100m back from the beach behind some rocks, which gave us a small amount of protection from the sea breeze and considered our dinner options. Chukalaka (mixed vegetables in oily African style curry) and bully beef; a collection of beef hearts and other questionably edible unmentionables preserved in a can. What’s not to like?

 

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Our camp hiding from the wind behind some rocks. Was a great campsite.

 

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Tan enjoying the serenity on a piece of the Winston.

 

Down at the beach we were admiring the sunset when I gave Tanya her ring. Back at Onguma in the Etosha National Park at Christmas we had decided that after five and a half years together it was about time we got married, and while waiting in Windhoek for the bike store to open we found a fantastic jeweler to make an engagement ring with a Namibian green Tourmaline set in white gold. I had been joking that I would give her the ring only after completing Van Zyl’s pass, an insanely manic rocky off-road mountain pass that we were planning to include in our route through Kaokoland. But that was only ever a joke; starting off a life-long commitment only after completing a difficult task which could easily end in many tears or even serious injury didn’t seem so clever, even to someone as socially unaware as a qualified engineer.

 

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The light of the sunset through the clouds was pretty special and made for an eerie pink glow.

 

However a beautiful sunset on and isolated beach was a pretty damn good option. So while discussing the merits of mixing our curried vegetables with canned “meat”, I whipped the ring out of my pocket and asked if she would like to have it, and she did indeed. And that was that. And it turns out mixing the chukalaka with the bully beef was a good idea after all, that on crackers was our dinner and we went to sleep with the sound of wind and rain buffeting the tent.

 

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Bully beef in Chukalaka or Bully beef and Chukaluka? Mmmm? Conundrums conundrums…

 

We had a very relaxed start the next morning, even by our standards. Tanya couldn’t help herself but pose for a few engagement ring photos satirising the ladies who get their ring shown off in a few photos purely for facebook likes, but with the bike and in all her gear rather than with the usual bouquet of flowers and after a manicure.

 

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Did I ever mention tan is a geologist? Well if I didn’t, here is the proof. She loves the rocks.

 

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The ring.

 

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My precious!

 

We then rode the last handful of kilometers (maybe 5 or 10) north to the entrance of Skeleton Coast National Park and got a few photos of the gates, a tourist attraction in their own right. With that done, we were ready and very excited to head inland and start our exploration of Damaraland. And holy cow was our expectation rewarded!

 

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The Skeleton Coast National Park Gates.

 

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Check out the whale ribs!

 

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And about to hit the Ugab Menhir 4×4 track… Damaraland – we are coming!

5 Comments on “Alive on the Skeleton Coast

  1. What I meant to say was – can’t wait for the next one. And congratulations again on your engagement. The ring is truly stunning.
    K xo

  2. That coastline looks it lives up to its reputation. What wonderful colours and evocative scenes of the shoreline and sunsets. Truly splendid.

  3. Dear Tanya…..
    Is very rewarding to know that your journey continues going well ….. the places through which are really beautiful ….. and so beautiful thing ….. you guys publish enjoyed seeing your passage by the miners. … good people …. …. and humble fighter ….. beautiful stones …. thanks for sharing ….. I’m loving accompany you ……
    The best for you both.
    Elsa Serra(Egypt Embassy at Maputo- Mozambique.

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