The only words the South African cricket all-rounder Albie Morkel was able to get through the cell phone to his wife Marthmari, before he was arrested and taken to prison, were: “I’m going to be stuck in Mozambique for a little longer; there’s a problem but I can’t talk now because the guards are coming with their AK47s”.
The harrowing ordeal, which Morkel, one of South Africa’s most recognisable cricketers’ thanks to his nine years in the Indian Premier League, describes as “the most horrific two days of my life”, began a couple of hours earlier.
Morkel, 37, arrived at Chingozi Airport in Tete, northwestern Mozambique, after a fishing trip targeting tigerfish on the lower Zambezi River in July.
The incident had its genesis in a hunting trip Morkel, who is known for his love of the bush, went on a couple of weeks earlier. Upon his return, he asked his gardener to clean his car.
When the gardener found a small packet of ammunition in the vehicle, he wasn’t sure what to do with it, so he put it in the side pocket of one of Morkel’s old cricket bags.
That was the bag Morkel thought would be perfect to put his fishing tackle in when he went to Mozambique.
Getting through OR Tambo International Airport and arriving in Tete without any problems, the drama started when the Pretoria-based cricketer was about to board his flight back to Johannesburg.
“It had been a fantastic trip and I was at the airport on my way back when the airport security found some ammunition in my bag that I didn’t know about. With the language barrier, things escalated very quickly into a big mess. I told the other guys in our party to go ahead and board and I’ll just sort this problem out and catch the later flight.
“But two hours later I was in Tete provincial prison for the two most horrific days of my life. I was held for the serious criminal charge of weapons smuggling and nobody at the court was willing to help me before it closed at 3 pm, so I was taken to jail.
“The situation got a bit ugly when the guy helping me jostled one of the policemen a bit and out came the AK-47s. I was pushed into a car and next thing I knew I was at the gates of the prison,” Morkel revealed on The Dan Nicholl Show on Wednesday night.
Morkel was fortunate to find the help of two inmates when his spirits were at their lowest.
“I’ve never been close to jail before and this place was just inhuman – 800 prisoners, some of them clearly mentally unstable, all together in an open prison in 45-degree heat.
“They were so crammed together that at night they would just relieve themselves on each other.
“Luckily, I met a couple of guys in jail. Andrew was a computer tech guy from Malawi, who had been inside for six months because he couldn’t show his papers after they had had a few drinks in the pub, and the other guy had been there for 11 months after being arrested for selling cellphone batteries that the police thought he had stolen.
“They told me who I should stay away from and that the shade belonged to the main okes.
“Fortunately, I was allowed to sleep alone in the office at night and, five minutes before the jail closed on Friday afternoon for the weekend, my friends on the outside managed to get me out,” Morkel said.
How they were able to dig a famous sportsman, whose name meant nothing in Mozambique, out of his predicament, remains unclear, but Morkel has an idea.
“They never got into how they managed to get me released, but they certainly knew how the system works over there.”