Ibo Island may lack one of the world class beaches in which Mozambique specialises, but a short boat ride away is Quirimba Island. One of the largest islands in the Quirimbas Archipelago, it can boast several kilometres of pristine white sand beach and warm turquoise ocean as far as the eye can see. The island is home to a small fishing community and a commercial coconut plantation, owned and run by descendants of German family.
The Gessner family came to Africa in 1922 and established a coconut plantation on Quirimba Island shortly afterwards. The coconut plantation continues to be commercially viable, employs around 70 people and sells about half of its produce to Tanzania. The rest is sold locally. The descendants of Europeans owning the lease on the majority of an Mozambican island, seems something of a throwback to a bygone era. Yet the Gessner family have created industry and employment, and, amongst other things, have constructed wells and a free health clinic on the island.
Quirimba Island makes for a fabulous day trip from Ibo. People in the village, where a colonial church and a few Portuguese-era buildings are slowly disintegrating under the influence of a strong sun and intense humidity, are friendly; the beaches are beautiful and empty, and the journey there are back provide a proper adventure through narrow sea channels and mangroves. Walking through the dusty and functional village, the first sight of the ocean, with it’s dazzling blue and turquoise, is stunning.
Getting to Quirimbas Island is easy from Ibo, many of the fishermen will happily take you as a charter. Getting back to Ibo from Quirimba is another matter. The nature of the tides means that if you get a boat to Quirimba on the high tide in the morning, the tide will be out when you want to return in the late afternoon. The Gessner family run a guest house on the island, which makes it possible to stay the night, but it wasn’t open when we were there. We had no choice but to walk back to Ibo.
Walking across the vast sand flats and wading through sea channels, left behind by the receding tide, has to be one of the more unusual walks I’ve done. Returning to the port village, we met a couple of other tourists and hired two local guides, young men who for a small fee offered to guide us back to Ibo. The walk started pleasantly enough, although there isn’t a scrap of shade to be had anywhere, and we found ourselves spotting starfish and other marine creatures stranded by the low tide.
It was only when we arrived at a wide sea channel that a lack of shared language with our guides proved tricky. They were trying to tell us about the water, it seemed important. A series of increasingly comical mimes were played out on the sand flats; finally we realised that the water was going to be a lot deeper than we’d expected. We bundled our possessions and, balancing them on our heads, set off through the water. It came up to our necks. Guided only by wooden poles sticking out of the water, we gingerly made our way across the channel.
Half way across disaster struck. Sharon, a very brave Brummie, stood on a piece of mangrove hidden in the water. It pierced through her foot and snapped off. Our guides were amazing, one of them removed the piece of mangrove sticking out of Sharon’s foot, and then sucked any remaining bits of mangrove out. We still had plenty of walking to do; leaving the sand flats behind we entered mosquito infested mangrove swamps for the last segment of the walk. Back on Ibo we were able to get medical assistance at the guesthouse.
The foot was saved, but the experience made us very aware of how limited options are if disaster strikes in a place like Ibo. Thanks to Mozambique’s chronic shortage of medical staff and facilities, this is a dilemma local people face on a regular basis. In rural areas doctors are few and far between and local people simply go without health care.
Ibo, at least, has a government medical centre. While walking through the town one evening I met the doctor, who spoke English. The government sent him to Ibo, where he would remain for a couple of years before returning to Maputo. Before his arrival the post had been unfilled for several months. A situation all too common in a country desperately short of medical professionals.