Bilene, southern Mozambique’s wondrous beaches

To say Mozambique is blessed with spectacular beaches, is to state the obvious and to be guilty of understatement at the same time. Mozambique is the home of the spectacular beach. Leaving the peace and tranquility of northern Mozambique behind, we headed south to attend the wedding of two friends at the beachside town of Bilene. This tiny town seemed pretty cosmopolitan after a couple of weeks spent on Ibo Island and in Pemba. There was a strong mobile phone signal and even internet access – although Mozambique isn’t blessed with spectacular internet speeds.

Bilene is only a few hours from Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, and in a low key way is geared towards tourism, including many people from South African. Situated around a calm and warm lagoon, there are numerous accommodation options and a pleasant lagoon beach. However, it is the roaring waves, sand dunes and endless golden beach of the Indian Ocean that make Bilene special.

View over the lagoon, Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

View over the lagoon, Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

The dunes before the storm, Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

The dunes before the storm, Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

The dunes before the storm, Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

The dunes before the storm, Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

We took a boat across the lagoon and, as we walked through rolling sand dunes, we could hear the waves crashing into the beach ahead of us. Our first sight of the turquoise water was magnificent, and the beach really does stretch endlessly and emptily into the distance. For all it’s beauty, the ocean here has to be respected. The waves are fierce, and a powerful rip tide and undercurrent that could easily drag an unsuspecting swimmer under the waves.

The beach at Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

The beach at Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

The beach at Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

The beach at Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

The beach at Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

The beach at Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

The beach at Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

The beach at Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

The beach at Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

The beach at Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

The beach at Bilene, Mozambique, Africa.

The beach at Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

The beach at Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

The beach at Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

The beach at Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

After a day of lounging on the beach we headed back to the lagoon to inspect the sunset…pretty impressive as well.

Sunset over the lagoon, Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

Sunset over the lagoon, Bilene, Mozambique, Africa

There’s more than one way to leave Ibo

During centuries of European global exploration, the ‘Tropics’ were synonymous with disease and death. The Caribbean’s Mosquito Coast got its name for a reason. West Africa was notoriously dangerous; European ships seeking to buy slaves along the coast came to expect a high mortality rate amongst their crews. The riches Europe sought from Africa, the Americas and the Far East were deadly in more ways than one. A visit to any country where Europeans established trading posts, and later colonies, inevitably leads a modern-day tourist to the cemetery.

Old Portuguese cemetery on Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Old Portuguese cemetery on Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Old Portuguese cemetery on Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Old Portuguese cemetery on Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Old Portuguese cemetery on Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Life was fragile for men, women and children who found themselves transported from the temperate climes of Europe to the Tropics. Pondering the fates of people who came half way around the globe, only to die in some remote outpost long forgotten by history, has become something of a pastime over the years. In India and Sri Lanka I visited dozens of old British cemeteries, marvelling at the final resting places, and causes of death, of people who came from my own country. On Ibo the cemetery is a dusty, decaying symbol of the fate of Portuguese colonialism.

Old Portuguese cemetery on Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Old Portuguese cemetery on Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Old Portuguese cemetery on Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Old Portuguese cemetery on Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Old Portuguese cemetery on Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Old Portuguese cemetery on Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Walking away from town down a dirt road, I found myself alone at the small but atmospheric cemetery. Many of the graves date back several hundred years, and interestingly there are French, Chinese and Arabic inscriptions on the graves in addition to Portuguese. Sadly, the cemetery is in a spiral of decay from which it is unlikely to recover – not dissimilar to its inhabitants.

While many would-be rulers of Ibo only left the island for the long, cold sleep of the grave, today there are easier ways to leave the island’s charms behind. Walk another kilometre beyond the cemetery and you suddenly find yourself in the middle of a long narrow clearing. Several footpaths are worn into the grass, and the occasional goat makes an appearance, but there is no mistaking that this is Ibo’s airport. Since we arrived by boat, we decided to leave by air.

Road to Ibo Island airport, Mozambique, Africa

Road to Ibo Island airport, Mozambique, Africa

Ibo Island airport, Mozambique, Africa

Ibo Island airport, Mozambique, Africa

Ibo Island airport, Mozambique, Africa

Ibo Island airport, Mozambique, Africa

Ibo Island airport, Mozambique, Africa

Ibo Island airport, Mozambique, Africa

The short, stimulating flight in a tiny four seater plane, starts at the ‘terminal’, complete with ironic graffiti. You can hear the plane long before you see it, and when it does come into view it looks ridiculously small. There is little need for airport security on Ibo, so we threw our bags on board and fastened our belts for take off. The pilot swung his plane around to give us a spectacular view of Ibo and Quirimba Islands, before heading for the mainland. It was a wonderful experience, although landing at Pemba’s airport in a tiny plane was vaguely ridiculous.

Ibo Island airport, Mozambique, Africa

Ibo Island airport, Mozambique, Africa

Ibo Island airport, Mozambique, Africa

Ibo Island airport, Mozambique, Africa

Ibo Island airport, Mozambique, Africa

Ibo Island airport, Mozambique, Africa

Ibo Island from the air, Mozambique, Africa

Ibo Island from the air, Mozambique, Africa

Ibo Island from the air, Mozambique, Africa

Ibo Island from the air, Mozambique, Africa

Quirimba Island, scenes from an Indian Ocean paradise

The Quirimbas Archipelago is an incredible place to spend time. As on Ibo, life on Quirimba Island seems to go on much as it has for centuries, moving to a rhythm and at a pace all of it’s own making. Luckily, getting in step with the pace of life is simple…after all, there’s no internet, no mobile phone signal and no electricity other than that provided by a generator for a couple of hours each day.

It really is a place to turn your back on modern-day distractions and switch off. If the prospect of a WiFi free world fills you with dread, the Quirimbas Archipelago is going to be a bit of a challenge. If, on the other hand, disconnecting from the world sounds like an ideal way to pass a few days, here are some additional reasons for visiting…

Sailing boat, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Sailing boat, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Boats, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Boats, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

People, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

People, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Boats, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Boats, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Boats, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Boats, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Village, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Village, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Village, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Village, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Portuguese colonial church, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Portuguese colonial church, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Mending nets, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Mending nets, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Young woman, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Young woman, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Ocean, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Ocean, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Beach, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Beach, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Beach, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Beach, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Mangrove and boat, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Mangrove and boat, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Quirimba Island and a walk across the Indian Ocean

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.

Leaving Ibo Island for Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Leaving Ibo Island for Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Leaving Ibo Island for Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Leaving Ibo Island for Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Mangroves en route to Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Mangroves en route to Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

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, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Children on the beach, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Children on the beach, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Boat, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Boat, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

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.

Village, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Village, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Beach, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Beach, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Beach, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Beach, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Beach sign, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Beach sign, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Beach, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Beach, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

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.

Beach, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Beach, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Beach, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Beach, Quirimba Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

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.

Quirimba Island walking back to Ibo, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Quirimba Island walking back to Ibo, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Quirimba Island walking back to Ibo, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Quirimba Island walking back to Ibo, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Our guides walking back to Ibo, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Our guides walking back to Ibo, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

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.

Starfish, walking back to Ibo, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Starfish, walking back to Ibo, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Sea urchin, walking back to Ibo, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Sea urchin, walking back to Ibo, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

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.

Its a long walk back to Ibo, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

Its a long walk back to Ibo, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique, Africa

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.

Ibo Island, a tropical paradise with a brutal history

Wandering Ibo’s dusty streets, discovering it’s sights and sounds, will live with me for a very long time. The slow pace of life gets under your skin and seems to seep into your bones. The lack of activity – there are hardly any motorised vehicles on the island, never mind any roads for them to use – coupled with the heat, is very seductive. You could pass several happy days on Ibo without giving a thought to why it is home to a slowly crumbling European city in the tropics.

Fishing dhow, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Fishing dhow, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Scratch the surface though, and you’ll soon discover that Ibo has a terrible and brutal history, one that is intimately linked to the slave trade. Ibo’s Arab and European history is all to do with trade, trade that helped reorder the world economy and facilitated the colonisation of the Caribbean, Americas and the Far East. The sparkling blue ocean which surrounds Ibo was the gateway to exporting African slaves around the globe.

There are three old Portuguese forts on Ibo, built to protect trade from Arab and European competitors. The most impressive of which is the star-shaped Fort São João built in 1791. Fort São João commands great views over the ocean, the times I visited there were no other tourists exploring the battlements. Today the fort is home to several of Ibo’s legendary silversmiths, who work on fine sliver jewellery in rooms underneath the fort’s battlements, but it’s history is violent and bloody.

Fort of São João from the ocean, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fort of São João from the ocean, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fort of São João from the ocean, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fort of São João from the ocean, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fort São João was originally built to protect Portuguese trade. This included gold, silver and ivory, but the main export from Ibo was human. The fort was intended as a very visual, domineering reminder of Portugal’s intentions to fight for control of the slave trade; and the grand colonial buildings on Ibo were constructed from the profits of the ‘human trade’. Fort São João was used to house slaves before they were shipped to other parts of the world, which makes any visit to the fort today not a little macabre.

Fort of São João, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fort of São João, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fort of São João, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fort of São João, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fort of São João, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fort of São João, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

If this history isn’t bad enough, during the struggle for independence Ibo’s isolation off Mozambique’s northern coast made it the perfect place to send political prisoners. Fort São João housed hundreds of independence activists, imprisoned here to keep them from communicating with supporters elsewhere. Prisoners were routinely tortured, many were murdered. The horrors the walls of Fort São João have witnessed can barely be imagined, but understanding what happened here is an important part of any visit to the island.

Fort of São João, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fort of São João, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fort of São João, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fort of São João, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fort of São João, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fort of São João, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

In atmosphere and architecture, if not in size, Ibo reminded me of the Sri Lankan city of Galle – another European outpost on the other side of the Indian Ocean. While several buildings on Ibo have been, or are in the process of being restored, many more are crumbling or being overgrown by tropical plants. It would be a shame if the incredible buildings of Portuguese Ibo were allowed to fall too far into disrepair. This is a site of great historical importance – history which needs to be remembered.

Fort of São João, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fort of São João, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fort of São João, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fort of São João, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Ibo’s history could be the spark which provides much needed investment in what are very poor communities. Handled badly though, tourism could be extremely destructive to Ibo’s environment, society and culture. There is a fragility to Ibo’s beauty, which could easily be damaged by even limited tourist development. As it is, tourism seems to be largely controlled by outsiders, many of them European. If that trend continues Ibo’s population could find itself disenfranchised once more.

Ibo Island, (more) scenes from paradise

Mozambique is renowned for its wonderful white-sand beaches, and it’s 2400 kilometre-long coastline is home to some extraordinary places to lay down your beach towel. In the south of the country there are plenty of beachside resorts catering to international tourists, many of whom arrive from South Africa. The further north you go though, the more undeveloped the coastline becomes; tourists are few and far between and an increasing sense of isolation from the world seeps into daily existence.

Overcrowded ferry boat, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Overcrowded ferry boat, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

People on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

People on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing boats and people on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing boats and people on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing boats and people on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing boats and people on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

The islands off the northern coast of Mozambique redefine isolation, even by the standards of this part of the country. Many of the islands have been turned into exclusive retreats for the unnaturally wealthy. On these private islands, private lodges and villas have been built to cater to those who are both willing and capable of paying US$1000 or more per night. For the privileged few, living out a Robinson Crusoe fantasy without sacrificing the mod-cons of 21st Century society is only a private boat ride away.

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Young girl poses on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Young girl poses on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

People and boats on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

People and boats on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

People and boats on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

People and boats on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Ibo Island is different. Although tourism is an important part of the economy, it is home to a working community, mainly of fishermen, that isn’t dependent upon tourism. It does have an exclusive lodge charging several hundred dollars per night, but it also has smaller guest houses and home stays which cater to independent travellers with more meagre financial resources. That makes Ibo a popular destination for people adventurous enough to head this far north.

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

The rewards for doing so are many, although you still don’t see many other tourists. Ironically, despite being surrounded by the warm turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, the one thing you won’t find on Ibo is a good beach. Oddly, this puts some people off visiting, After spending a week there I can guarantee that the relaxed pace of life, friendly people and the extraordinary colonial architecture set amidst tropical vegetation, amply compensate for the lack of a sandy beach.

Children play on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Children play on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Children play on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Children play on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Did I mention the sunsets? They alone are worth making the trip to Ibo worthwhile…

Sunset, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Sunset, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Sunset, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Sunset, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Sunset, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Sunset, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Sunset, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Sunset, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Ibo Island, scenes from a tropical hideaway

Time seems to stands still on Ibo, and thanks to the humid tropical heat so do most living things on the island. The temptation to sit under a shady tree reading a good book, with occasional plunges into the handy swimming pool at the Cinco Portas guesthouse, is hard to resist when the heat is so overwhelming. If Ibo seems largely undisturbed by the outside world, the remorseless heat of the tropics must be largely to blame – this is a place which redefines peace and tranquility.

Boat with plastic sails, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Boat with plastic sails, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Exploring the island, even early in the morning, is sweaty and energy sapping, but in the otherworldly surroundings of a decaying colonial city in the tropics, exploring is a truly wonderful experience. This is an island with a rich history and culture which demands attention. Elsewhere, you could expect that there would be several nasty tourist developments, but Ibo’s relative remoteness has meant it remains untouched by large scale tourism. Since the island has limited water resources, this is probably a very good thing.

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing boat, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing boat, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

The simplicity of life on Ibo is fabulously seductive. Outside of the occasional festival, what action there is tends to be found around the shoreline and on the beaches when the tide is low. When the island’s fleet of small wooden fishing boats returns to land, the skilled fishermen sell their catch on the beach. Given the sedate, and sedating, pace of life on Ibo, this is as close to a rush hour as the island gets.

Boats and people on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Boats and people on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Boats and people on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Boats and people on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing boats and people on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing boats and people on the beach, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Once this excitement has died down, there is little to do but return to wandering through the streets admiring the buildings, and trying to find a good spot to watch the dramatic sunsets in which Ibo specialises.

Sunset, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Sunset, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Sunset, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Sunset, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Sunset, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Sunset, Ibo Island, Mozambique, Africa

Ibo, a timeless island stranded in the Indian Ocean

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.

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

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.

The port of Tandanhangue, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

The port of Tandanhangue, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

The port of Tandanhangue, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

The port of Tandanhangue, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Birds en route to Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Birds en route to Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

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.

The port of Tandanhangue, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

The port of Tandanhangue, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Birds en route to Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Birds en route to Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

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.

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

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.

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Portuguese colonial buildings, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Fishing dhow, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Fishing dhow, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

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.

 

Cinco Portas, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Cinco Portas, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Cinco Portas, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Cinco Portas, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Cinco Portas, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Cinco Portas, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Fisherman selling lobster, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Fisherman selling lobster, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

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?

Lobster, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Lobster, Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Scenes from Wimbe Beach, Mozambique

The beautiful wide arc of Pemba’s Wimbe Beach, and the calm, warm waters of the Indian Ocean which lap Mozambique’s golden coastline, make it a prime location for tourists from the Northern Hemisphere to soak up the tropical warmth. Nestling amongst the palm trees which fringe the beach, cabanas and a couple of restaurants cater to the needs of the handful of tourists who venture this far north up Mozambique’s 2400 km long coastline.

Boats and children on Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Boats and children on Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Girls walk on Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Girls walk on Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing boat near Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing boat near Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Spend a few days on and around the beach though, and it becomes obvious that this is still very much a working beach. There is a constant stream of people moving along the beach, many with baskets of fish. Fishing boats can be seen out at sea and there are plenty of people working nets in the shallow waters off the coast. Hawkers sell their wares to locals and foreigners alike – although hawking in Pemba is pretty low key, and not the near psychotic hard sell I’ve encountered in some places.

Fishing near Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing near Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Women fishing, Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Women fishing, Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing, Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing, Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Over the years I’ve adopted the attitude that, however irritating, hawkers are just trying to feed their families. In Pemba though, they are a lifesaver for the non-Portuguese speaking tourist. Necessity being the driver of innovation, in a part of the country where even people who work in the tourist industry don’t speak a foreign language, hawkers are amongst the few people who do. That makes Pemba’s hawkers an invaluable source of information and assistance. Need help getting a local SIM card to work in your phone? Look no further than the bloke selling cold drinks on the beach.

Fishing, Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing, Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Woman and child, Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Woman and child, Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Women fishing, Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Women fishing, Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

After one such conversation, I decided to take local advice and walk in a southerly direction away from the main public beach. I love a good beach comb, so setting off early I soon found myself walking alone along the vast stretch of sand. In the distance I could see boats and people – a buzz of early morning activity as people laid out fishing nets and hunted for shell fish. It was fascinating to watch all this activity, so much so that I spent far too much time walking as the sun rose ever higher in the sky.

Women on Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Women on Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishermen near Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishermen near Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

The result was mild sunstroke and a trip to the local hospital. Luckily it wasn’t debilitating enough to stop us getting a boat to our next destination…the amazing and beautiful island of Ibo in the Quirimbas Archipelago.

Mozambique and the art of fishing with water

It’s curious and surprising what you notice when sitting under a large palm tree in Mozambique. Sheltering from the intense sun on Pemba’s Wimbe Beach, people arrived and departed with regularity: children ran around the beach and played in the ocean, an endless procession of women walked past with baskets and bowls balanced on their heads, men moved from person to person to sell carvings, food and drinks to anyone who looked interested.

It was the action out in the shallows of the ocean, where people were fishing, that caught my attention though…

Fishing, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing with water, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing with water, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing with water, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing with water, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing with water, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

A small group of people, mainly women, walked slowly through the water not more than 20 metres from the beach. The bright colours and peculiar behaviour instantly attracted my attention. Baskets balanced expertly on heads, the group walked through the water with plastic bowls in their hands. Filling the bowls with sea water, they threw the water into the air. The water came crashing back down onto the surface of the ocean. I didn’t understand what they were doing at first, then it dawned on me…they were using the water to ‘herd’ fish.

Fishing with water, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing with water, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing with water, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing with water, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing with water, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Eventually they formed a circle and, producing handheld fishing nets which billowed like sails in the breeze, they plunged their nets into the ocean to trap the fish. This process was repeated over and over as the group slowly made their way through the water in front of me. It was mesmerising to watch, although it was impossible to tell whether they were actually catching any fish.

Fishing with water, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing with water, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing with water, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing with water, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing with water, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Fishing with water, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa