Time seems to stand still on Ibo. Languishing off Mozambique’s north east coast, this magical island is shrouded in a The Land Time Forgot mystique. Those three letters – Ibo – conjure visions of a distant tropical paradise, a name redolent with meaning, full of adventure and mystery. Ibo is soaked in history – African, Arab and European. During the 16th Century Europeans dislodged Arab traders, who previously controlled these waters, beginning a period of European empire building in Africa that would last for five centuries.
It’s a cliché, but arriving on Ibo is like stepping back into history. It’s not just the old Portuguese architecture, the cemetery which has European, Chinese and Arabic graves dating back hundreds of years, or even the traditional dhows which sail these waters and are modelled on the Arab originals. Ibo seems to have turned it’s back on modernity. You’re more likely to spot goats on the sandy roads than vehicles. I saw only one motorised vehicle the entire time – a motorbike.
The Portuguese who replaced the Omani Arabs turned Ibo into the second most important town in Mozambique. Gold, silver and ivory passed through Ibo, but the main trading commodity was human – slaves from the African interior. The Arabs traded slaves and the European arrival expanded the trade in human flesh; slaves were shipped around the world, including to that other Portuguese colony, Brazil. Ibo’s existence can’t be understood without recognising that this was a centre of the slave trade.
When the Portuguese moved their administration to Pemba in 1902, Ibo slowly declined. People left the island, houses decayed and crumbled, tropical vegetation thrived, and the whole place took on the appearance of a ghost town. Even though tourism is bringing some life and commerce back to Ibo, walking down it’s dusty streets at night it’s possible to imagine the once grand colonial houses inhabited by the ghosts of their former occupants.
Life on the island comes and goes with the tide. Tides also dictate the comings and goings of tourists. You can fly to Ibo but we decided to take a boat, intending to arrive on the high tide as people had done for centuries. Ibo lies in the Quirimbas National Park, about 40 km north of Pemba. The national Park includes a large area of the Mozambique mainland and a marine reserve, including several islands of the Quirimbas Archipelago.
No boats were leaving from Pemba so we had to take a car to the nearest ‘port’ at Tandanhangue. Here a channel cuts through the mangroves to the open sea. We left very early in the morning to ensure we caught the tide, the sun only started to rise as we bounced wildly over the final 50km of rough dirt road. Hitting a particularly enormous pothole my head crashed into the roof of the car for the twentieth time, I began to understand why people chose to fly.
Reaching the port we gingerly got out of the car, checking for broken bones. While buying some overpriced water, our small motorboat arrived and instantly attracted a group of people wanting a lift. There was room for a couple more people, which meant a bit more money for the boat’s captain and very little inconvenience for us. We set off for Ibo full of expectation.
Our first sight of the old Portuguese buildings that cluster together on the waterfront was electrifying. The uncomfortable journey faded from memory as we passed through a gap in the mangroves surrounding Ibo to reveal a centuries old Portuguese church. Small, brightly coloured fishing boats sailed by and more whitewashed buildings came into view as we headed towards the entrance to Cinco Portas, an old colonial house turned guesthouse.
Stepping onto dry land we were instantly seduced by Ibo and Cinco Portas. The pace of life, the friendly people and the wonderfully relaxing environment quickly overpowered and disarmed us. We’d planned to stay for three days, in the end we spent eight days on the island – leaving only because we had a wedding to go to.
We’d arrived in time for a late lunch, this being Ibo seafood was on offer. Our arrival had been noted by at least one local fisherman, who followed hot on our heels with a couple of Mozambique’s legendary lobsters. After a little negotiation, we became the proud owners of two lobsters, which the cook at Cinco Portas turned into something delicious. Is it any wonder people arrive on Ibo and find it difficult to leave?