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

Pemba, a town of endless beaches

Seen from the air, the port town of Pemba sprawls across a peninsula that juts dramatically into the bright turquoise waters of Pemba Bay like a giant thumb. Pemba Bay is massive, the third largest natural bay in the world; fringed by golden sands, it seemed tranquil from the air. As our plane descended, the sails of small fishing boats could be seen cutting across the water. After a long journey, and an unplanned day trapped in the surprisingly cold Johannesburg, our first sight of Pemba was thrilling.

Stepping out of the air conditioned plane, Pemba’s tropical, languid heat took our breath away. Thanks to the combined incompetence of Virgin Atlantic and South African Airways, we didn’t have any bags to collect, so hopped into a taxi and headed into town. We decided to stay in a beach-side cabana on Wimbe Beach; fringed by palms, this beautiful white sand beach stretches along the peninsula for a couple of kilometres. There is a constant buzz of human activity around the beach: fishing in the shallows, selling fish and crafts, children playing. Sitting and watching the world go by is wonderful.

Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Sunrise over Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Sunrise over Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Boat near Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Boat near Wimbe Beach, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

After driving through the ‘functional’ town centre, I was glad we were staying at the beach – Pemba town is quiet, relaxed and safe, but a visual treat it is not. Rather than being a destination in itself, Pemba has traditionally been a jumping off point for the spectacular tropical islands of the Quirimbas Archipelago. That is changing, as the beaches, extraordinary seafood and relaxed atmosphere attract an increasing number of domestic and foreign tourists.

Wimbe Beach feels fairly remote from the town, and the temptation not to move from the beach is almost overpowering. ‘Luckily’ we had to keep visiting town to try to discover where our lost baggage was – we abandoned hope when finally told they had been sent back to Johannesburg. This, it turned out, was a lie; we would eventually be reunited with our bags two weeks later while searching through a room full of lost luggage at Maputo Airport.

Bairro de Paquitequete, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Bairro de Paquitequete, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Bairro de Paquitequete, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Bairro de Paquitequete, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Beach and boats, Bairro de Paquitequete, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Beach and boats, Bairro de Paquitequete, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Pemba was founded in 1904 as Porto Amleia, after the Queen of Portugal – who I assume never visited this colonial backwater. It was a company town run by the Niassa Company, an Anglo-French operation granted the rights to run a huge swathe of Mozambique and its people. Something it did with relish, instituting a system of plantations and forced labour.

Taking the opportunity to have a look at some of the less visited areas of the town, we walked down to the ocean through Bairro de Paquitequete. This is one of the oldest communities in the area, an almost exclusively Muslim area populated by fishing families. It’s not the most salubrious area, and can feel a little sketchy, but it was fascinating to stroll through. When we reached the beach it was full of activity as people readied their boats for fishing or repaired nets.

Beach and boats, Bairro de Paquitequete, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Beach and boats, Bairro de Paquitequete, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Beach and boats, Bairro de Paquitequete, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Beach and boats, Bairro de Paquitequete, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Beach and boats, Bairro de Paquitequete, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Beach and boats, Bairro de Paquitequete, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

We’d planned to walk around the headland and explore a little more, but stupidly we went just after midday and the fierce Mozambique sun soon forced us back to Wimbe Beach. Not learning from this experience, I managed to get mild sunstroke a couple of days later after going for a walk at sunrise. It turns out that sunstroke and malaria share a lot of similar symptoms, so I climbed onto the back of a motorbike and went to the local hospital. Sharing a bench with several women and their small children, I was given a rapid malaria test and sent away with a flea in my ear.

Beach and boats, Bairro de Paquitequete, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Beach and boats, Bairro de Paquitequete, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

IMG_7960

Bairro de Paquitequete, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Bairro de Paquitequete, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Actually, the doctor was very nice, the waiting times better than the NHS and the system for testing for malaria was second to none. I did offer to pay, but the doctor pointed out that the European Union supported the hospital financially so that it could offer free malaria services. I don’t imagine the EU had foolhardy tourists in mind when they funded the project, but I was very appreciative. Plus I’d provided plenty of entertainment for the collected women and children, who had clearly never seen an idiot before.

The days in Pemba flew by in haze of relaxation, sea food and the occasional dip in the water…

Memories of Magical Mozambique

Locked in the seemingly endless Northern European winter: lashed by gales, soaked by torrential rain and with parts of southern England currently under water, my mind drifts back to warmer climes and cheerier times. There’s not a lot on earth that is cheerier than Mozambique’s friendly people, endless golden beaches and the deep turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. I’d wanted to visit for years, finally a friend’s wedding in the lovely coastal town of Bilene provided the incentive to book our flights.

Planning a relatively short trip to Mozambique is tricky, the country is huge, the transport infrastructure not great. We’d decided to head north – almost all the way north – to the town of Pemba, from where we’d take a boat to the beautiful island of Ibo, in the Quirimbas Archipelago. Ibo is the site of a 16th Century Portuguese settlement, and it was from here that the Portuguese, and Arab traders before them, sought to control trade between the African interior and the rest of the Indian Ocean.

Mozambique flag painted on a wall, Mozambique

Mozambique flag painted on a wall, Mozambique

1930's statue from Portuguese-era, Maputo, Mozambique

1930’s statue from Portuguese-era, Maputo, Mozambique

Ibo feels like a Hollywod film set. It’s beautiful colonial houses and government buildings are slowly decaying in the tropical heat. Some of these magnificent buildings are now being renovated. A couple have been turned into hotels, allowing you to absorb the island’s African, Arab and European history in comfort. To romanticise this however, is to forget that Ibo was a centre for the slave trade. Slaves passed through here to other Portuguese colonies, Cape Verde and Brazil.

Fishing boat, Ibo, Mozambique

Fishing boat, Ibo, Mozambique

Beach and ocean, Quirimba Island, Mozambique

Beach and ocean, Quirimba Island, Mozambique

Vasco de Gama, the legendary explorer, arrived in 1498, and by 1505 the first Portuguese colonial settlements were established. The exploitation of Mozambique’s ample natural resources had started, and continued to independence in 1975. Mozambique’s independence came later than much of Africa. Portugal was determined not to surrender control of its colonial possessions, even while other African nation’s gained independence.

Despite Britain and France ceding control of their colonial possessions, Portugal, Apartheid South Africa and the white-settler government of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, supported each other to create a formidable barrier to independence in southern Africa. Independence was only achieved through a prolonged guerilla war led by The Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO). Portuguese collapse in Mozambique had a domino effect on white minority rule in Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe under black majority rule in 1979.

Fish and fishermen, Ibo Island, Mozambique

Fish and fishermen, Ibo Island, Mozambique

Beach and ocean, Quirimba Island, Mozambique

Beach and ocean, Quirimba Island, Mozambique

In the heat of the Cold War, white-controlled Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa launched a campaign to destabilise independent Mozambique. They received covert support from Europe and the United States, who saw Mozambique as a Soviet satellite. They armed and funded the anti-communist group RENAMO, leading to a devastating civil war which raged until 1992. By 1992 the Cold War was over, Nelson Mandela had been freed from prison and Western support for Apartheid South Africa had collapsed.

Fishing, Pemba, Mozambique

Fishing, Pemba, Mozambique

Small port near Pemba, Mozambique

Small port near Pemba, Mozambique

Portuguese colonial church, Ibo, Mozambique

Portuguese colonial church, Ibo, Mozambique

Multi-party elections were held in Mozambique in 1994. Although this led to greater stability, the social and economic impact of decades of war left Mozambique in a perilous situation. The official end of hostilities between FRELIMO and RENAMO hasn’t stopped periodic fighting from erupting, and RENAMO maintains armed military groups. Conflict erupted again only a few months ago, with government military operations sparking fresh violence.

Despite much development, and a vastly improved economy, Mozambique remains one of Africa’s poorest nations. Travelling in the country, particularly rural areas, this poverty – unemployment, poor health, education and transport infrastructure – is evident everywhere. Life is unrelentingly hard for the vast majority of Mozambique’s population, not helped by the official corruption most people face on a daily basis. Yet it remains safe for tourists, and is a friendly country to visit.

Fishing boats in the Indian Ocean, Pemba, Mozambique

Fishing boats in the Indian Ocean, Pemba, Mozambique

Repairing fishing nets, Pemba, Mozambique

Repairing fishing nets, Pemba, Mozambique

After couple of weeks in the north, we would spend a few days in Maputo before heading to the wedding festivities in Bilene. First we had to negotiate our way to Pemba. Thanks to the awful customer service of Virgin Atlantic and South African Airways this almost didn’t happen. To cut a long story short, our flight to Johannesburg on Virgin Atlantic arrived late, we missed our connection on South African Airways, and were left stranded in International Transit with neither airline willing to take responsibility.

Camp fire over the Indian Ocean, Pemba, Mozambique

Camp fire over the Indian Ocean, Pemba, Mozambique

Sunset, Ibo, Mozambique

Sunset, Ibo, Mozambique

I’ve spent a lot of time in airports, but 18 hours in Jo’burg International is the worst experience I’ve had. We were in danger of reprising the role of Tom Hanks’ character in the film The Terminal. Even when finally liberated from the airport, it was to discover our bags had made the connection to Mozambique without us. We would only be reunited with our bags (clothes, toiletries, books, shoes, etc.) two weeks later when we physically searched lost luggage at Maputo Airport…picture the scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Beach and Indian Ocean, Bilene, Mozambique

Beach and Indian Ocean, Bilene, Mozambique

Transport, Ibo Island, Mozambique

Transport, Ibo Island, Mozambique

Putting this poor start to one side, and quickly purchasing some necessities in Jo’burg, we finally arrived in Pemba…proof, if proof were needed, of the healing power of sunshine, blue skies and a warm ocean.