There are two ways to fly to the small, off-the-beaten-path, luxury resorts in northern Mozambique, accessed via the town of Pemba.
The easy and direct way is a 3-1/2 hour flight on South African Airways (SAA Airlink) from Johannesburg. We previously enjoyed flying on SAA from North America to Johannesburg when visiting the African continent for the first time a few years ago. (There are also flights to Pemba from Dar es Salaam and Nairobi.)
The less convenient, more out-of-your-comfort-zone way is to fly from Johannesburg on LAM, the national Mozambique airline – this is how we flew. Don’t ask us why! It could have been because SAA only flies 5 days a week to Pemba and we needed to fly on a day they don’t fly. Or maybe LAM was less expensive. Whatever, most of the LAM flights themselves turned out to be just fine.
But, and it’s a big but, flying on LAM does mean overnighting in Maputo, Mozambique’s capital city, at both ends of your journey – which you may not want to do. And you have to be prepared for significant flight delays and/or cancellations – which can really mess with your holiday enjoyment.
How to get to Mozambique
We were a little concerned at first about whether our Mozambique flights would actually take off. After booking months ahead, we found out about various schedule changes (learning about these changes only upon checking LAM’s website). One resort later told us “LAM is going through hard times” and is prone to delaying or even canceling flights without notice.
For us, specifically, we left Johannesburg on time in the evening and 45 minutes later, we landed in Maputo, where we overnighted in a guesthouse. (Be sure to arrange your airport pickup in advance with your Maputo hotel or guesthouse. Mozambique is very poor, and you have to be careful and aware of what’s going on around you. Our “taxi” – no taxi sign – was a beat-up old vehicle, but at least reliable, and we stayed safe.) The next morning, we boarded another LAM plane for the 2-1/2 hour flight to Pemba (and again, the flight was on time).
We weren’t so lucky with our return flights. Our Pemba to Maputo flight was rescheduled from early evening to late morning in the weeks before we left on our trip. Then, on the day of the flight, while just about to leave for the Pemba airport, we got an email in Portuguese (Mozambique’s official language) that our flight would now take off mid-afternoon. Fortunately, we were staying at a private island resort – Azura Quilalea – which uses its own helicopter to transfer guests to and from Pemba. The helicopter pilot told us just to “chill” so we were able to hang out at the resort for this delay, rather than at the Pemba airport. But then once we checked in, we found out the plane was delayed further, and we stewed at the Pemba airport for another 3 hours. All told, we pretty well wasted the whole day hanging around waiting for our flight, which finally left at 5:15 pm.
Our Maputo to Johannesburg departure the next morning was also changed in the weeks before we left on our trip – from 9:00 am to 7:00 am – meaning 2 hours less sleep that day. But it left on time.
LAM says it has 13 planes, but we hear that perhaps they have fewer operational planes in use, and this may be one reason for their flight delays and cancellations.
Many planes are the Brazilian Embraer make. For example, we flew on the Embraer 190 between Maputo and Pemba. These planes were clean, with leather seats and more legroom than on American and Canadian carriers, and these flights were pleasant. However, that seriously delayed 2-1/2 hour flight from Pemba to Maputo was, to put it politely, less pleasant. The plane was an old 737, with some broken arm rests and stained seats. It was overheated from the start and for much of the flight, and the air was stale. Being a totally full flight probably didn’t help.
Food and drink service? On each flight, we were handed red-and-white cardboard boxes with a single-slice cheese or ham sandwich and juice inside. Water, tea and coffee are free; alcohol can be purchased.
Traveling in a completely foreign country is challenging in ways you might not expect. It felt quite strange to be part of a definite minority, two of just a handful of pasty-skinned foreigners among a sea of locals. Some people speak some English (and in-flight announcements are given in English as well as Portuguese), so communication wasn’t an issue.
As for safety, the second page of the in-flight magazine displayed the IOSA Certificate showing LAM’s registration certificate of IATA Operational Safety Audit Program (IOSA) until October 26, 2017. Note, however, that according to Wikipedia and other sources, LAM is on the list of airlines banned from the EU.
On all our flights, we noticed passengers getting their checked luggage wrapped in plastic, so we thought we should do the same as other Mozambique passengers. We learned this isn’t to protect your suitcase from damage, but from theft – and it’s an absolute must-do if you don’t want clothes or other items taken from your bags.
It’s too bad LAM is not wholly reliable (at least at the time of this review). For now, we’ve been told it would be better to fly SAA (or other carrier if not flying out of Johannesburg).
We’re just finishing up an almost five-week African trip, which included an extensive visit to northern Mozambique – we’ll be writing about our trip here soon, so stay tuned! Northern Mozambique admittedly requires a bit of effort to get to, but don’t let that deter you – for untouched remote tourism, the country’s northern beaches and Quirimbas Archipelago of islands can’t be beat.
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