The stunning Bazaruto Archipelago and Mozambique’s other natural attractions are threatened by politically motivated violence.
As the boat lurches from side to side the air is filled with the thud of the anchor being thrown around and the roar of the ocean. The little green and pink painted dhow boat feels so tiny next to the waves crashing over its sides. I cower on my wooden bench trying to shelter.
“Do you want a cup of tea?” shouts Mateus.
Mateus, our weather-beaten cook, is building a fire using coal housed in a wooden framed pit. As I contemplate the safety aspects of an open fire on a wooden boat in high winds, a wave rears out of the previously pristine blue waters and hurls itself into my face.
“Errm no thanks I stutter,” washing the salt out of my eyes and wondering how on earth I would keep a cup with hot contents steady.
There are four of us on the Dhow. Mateus and Philippe simply continue with their respective duties as boat cook and boat driver, their faces unmoved by the angry ocean. I and my trip companion, Rick, sit opposite each other on the boat’s wooden benches wondering what on earth we have let ourselves in for.
Perhaps, I muse, today was not the day to undertake a boat trip to the Bazaruto Archipelago, when suddenly I am almost thrown off my wooden perch by another gigantic wave.
I had arrived in the town of Vilanculos, on central Mozambique’s famous Indian Ocean coastline only last night. With only one day to savour it’s delights I had hot-footed it directly to the office of “Sailaway”, the most reputable dhow trip provider in the area, and had been bitterly disappointed to discover that there were no bookings for a trip out the next day. An eleventh hour call from Rick, a travelling tattoo artist keen on doing the trip today, had fortunately meant the boat could go out. Experiencing this particular archipelago had been a long held dream of mine. No amount of wind the next day could dampen my spirits. That was until the nausea began.
Now my stomach churns and bubbles with a fervour that can only be matched by the swirling ocean. It is a familiar feeling, I know instantly what this means. As a long- term sufferer of sea-sickness but an avid snorkeller and diver, marine animals in several continents had been unlucky enough to see the contents of my stomach.
“Now we go snorkel” smiled Mateus pointing to the ocean “don’t go too close to reef!”
Then comes the all too familiar dilemma – staying on the reeling boat would almost certainly lead to more sickness, but getting in the ocean could mean the same.
As I convalesce on the boat dreaming of dry land, Rik explores the delights of “Two Mile Reef”, a barrier reef protecting a narrow channel famous for its colourful fish, manta rays, eels, turtles and the occasional dugong.
A pearl in the ocean
Soon enough, however, calm is restored and the little yellow boat bobs along nicely in the glassy ocean. As the archipelago comes into view I can finally see why this part of the coast is one of Mozambique’s biggest tourist success stories. Known as “The Pearl of the Indian Ocean,” it consists of six islands and it’s turquoise waters harbour some of the most pristine coral reef left in the Indian Ocean. The area is rich with diverse marine and bird life, being home to one of the last viable population of dugong along the east African coast. Perfectly formed white sand bars are dotted neatly in the clear water. Some house luxury low-rise hotels, while others are empty. As we draw closer to Margaruque Island, I see three young boys fishing off the rocks, their silhouettes like storks. I am reminded that, even in paradise, people have a daily struggle to survive.
Unlike other similar utopian spots I have visited across the globe, we are the only boat around. The only footprints on the island are those of the birds and the fishing boys. Although Mozambique is not high volume package tourism destination, the sombre reality of the current tourism situation has been made clear to me since I arrived in the country a few days earlier.
It’s November, usually the month that the Indian Ocean resort towns are gearing up for their deluge of foreign visitors in Southern Africa’s holiday season, but the mood is grim. “We haven’t had a trip booked for the last 2 weeks,” Richard at Sailaway had lamented the day before. “The Zimbabweans are really starting to get too scared to drive here.”
Since the middle of 2012, RENAMO, the rebel anti-communist group who were behind Mozambique’s bloody civil war, have been at loggerheads with the government leading to violent clashes in Sofala province, central Mozambique.
As I travelled up and down the coast the stories were similar. Bookings were at an all time low, beach hotels were deserted and businesses faced tough times as Zimbabweans and South Africans and more recently Europeans become fearful of the troubles.
This is despite the fact that Vilanculos, Tofo, Xai Xai and all the other Indian Ocean resort towns are completely unaffected by the skirmishes.
The treasure of peace
After a brutal 15 year long civil war, two decades of peace have allowed mineral rich Mozambique to re invent itself economically. Now one of the fastest growing economies in Southern Africa, Mozambique has attracted major international investors. Bursting with untapped potential, prior to the latest troubles it received over 2 million tourists a year. Whilst almost 60% of the population remain in ‘absolute poverty’ (living on below $1 per day), hope of a brighter future is alive. It is no surprise that foreign donor nations recently urged Mozambican government to “preserve peace like a treasure” during an international crisis meeting.
Silence is beautiful
After a morning spent chopping, peeling, mixing and boiling on the boat, Maetus beams as he proudly serves us our freshly cooked fish lunch on the beach. We stretch out on a picnic blanket with our banquet laid before us and all the drama of the morning is gone.
I can hear nothing but the gentle wind blowing the sand up and see no one but the fishing boys and our boat crew. Then I am running up the island’s gigantic sand dunes, squealing like a child. From the top I drink up the scene like a delicious, cold margarita: the island’s perfect curve of sand and moonscape like interior, the sparkling flat ocean in every direction and the windy silence.
As I slide back down the huge sand dune and head back to the boat, I am grateful that the Mozambican government has had the foresight to protect this archipelago from development. Raw beauty like this is becoming a scarcity for travellers.
Back on the water the sail creaks gently through the now thankfully gentle waves. As each wave breaks, its white tip parts as if to make way for our passage. The brightly coloured traditional dhow boat with its sail up is the iconic image of these waters. Made of pieces of tarpaulin lashed together with giant sized stitches, the triangular sails had their origins with the Arab traders of the ancient world.
Festival of Fun
As we near the shore of Vilanculos beach I can make out the distinctive beats of the Mozambican ‘batuque’ drums floating towards me. I am not prepared for what awaits me on the beach. A mass of noise, people, colours and sounds fill almost every square inch of sand.
“Is it is festival?” I ask Sebastian who works behind the bar at my lodge.
“No it’s just a Sunday,” he says, “the people are having fun.”
Groups cluster on the beach together chatting, singing and greeting each other with the southern African handshake. Others stand watching the various drummers and dancers as children weave in and out of the crowds. As the sun goes down the noise level is almost deafening. Cries of joy, and the sound of laughter, clapping, drumming and singing are all backed by the crashing of the waves. The moon shines down and you can just make out the twinkling of the lights from Bazaruto Island.
What is incredible to me is the warmth and kindness of a people for whom the indiscriminate brutality of war is barely a generation ago. Wherever I travel I am greeted with keen smiles and the sincerity of a country where tourism is but a young industry.
A Mozambican town
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the small town of Vilanculos, a few hundred metres away from the beach.
“When I arrived here in 1994 Vilanculos had no schools, roads or running water”, Richard from Sailaway told me. There are now at least 15 guesthouses & hotels stretched out along the palm fringed beach, and despite having basic schools, roads and running water the town centre of Vilanculos remains typically Mozambican. The market is buzzing with stalls selling everything from lengths of bamboo cane to brightly coloured ‘capulanas,’(the Mozambican sarong). In the central streets women carry sacks of grain on their heads and their children on their backs. Their faces are not stoic but smiling in the burning hot sunshine. Second hand shoes hang by their laces on a corner stall, and young boys sell plastic bottles and biscuits from wheel barrows. Every so often a large 70’s made bus rattles through the town to the one main bus stop, leaving a trail of black exhaust smoke behind it. At the moment there is no hint of the tourism that lies only a few hundred metres away.
Back at the lodge I am sitting at the beach bar chatting to Sebastian. He speaks a good level of English thanks to the free classes given by foreign volunteers who were stationed here in better times. He is obviously very happy to be working where he is.
“Have you seen the boys selling wooden things on the beach each day?” he asks.
I have. There are 4 of them working in pairs trying to sell to the handful of tourists who sunbathe on the beach each day.
“What will they do if there are no tourists?” he wonders out loud. He is right. For these children secondary education is a luxury most families can ill afford.
“What would you be if you could be anything at all?” I ask Sebastian. “A teacher,” he says brightly.
Simple aspirations for a nation of happy people. I only hope their dreams can stay alive.
Getting to Tofo:
Direct flights from Maputo/Johannesburg to Inhambane with LAM Mozambique. Local minibus (Chapa) from Inhambane to Tofo beach takes around 40 minutes.
Fatima’s Place runs a shuttle bus from their hostel in Maputo direct to Fatima’s Nest in Tofo. They usually leave around 4.30am from Maputo and takes 8-10 hours.
Public buses run from Maputo’s main bus station to Inhambane leaving between 5 and 6am and taking 8-10 hours. Buses vary greatly in quality and speed and generally leave when full. For Tofo get off at Maxixe and catch the regular ferry (20 mins) over to Inhambane. From there catch a local minibus (chapa) to Tofo.
TCO Turismo were running the best quality coaches up and down Mozambique but they are currently not operating.
Luciano Coach is a coach company operating from Maputo north (and also Maputo to Durban). Coaches run from Rua Do Telegrafo in Maputo on Tuesdays and Fridays at 6.30am.
Weng Coaches also run services between Maputo and Maxixe/Pambarra.
Intercape also run the main routes but at the time of going to press had suspended all routes north of Maputo due to unrest in Sofala province.
Getting to Vilanculos:
Direct flights from Maputo/Johannesburg with LAM Mozambique and SA Airlink
Public buses leave Maputo as per above and continue north from Maxixe to Pambarra Junction (around 12- 14 hours) where you can get off and take a local minibus (chapa) to Vilanculos.
Minibuses also run between the main bus stop in Maxixe and Vilanculos (around 5 hours).
Where to stay:
Fatimas Place Backpackers is a great budget option in Maptuo. Dorms/Singles/Doubles. Cafe, kitchen, transport and general travel information. 1317 Avenida Mao Tse Tung.
Maputo Backpackers is a small and friendly budget option 7km from city centre within walking distance of beach. Dorms/Doubles. 95-98 Quarta Avenida, Barra de Triunfo, Costa Do Sol
Phone: (+258) 293 84247.
Fatima’s’ Nest (Sister hostel of Fatima’s Maputo) is a large hostel with direct beach access and great sea views from cafe. Dorms/bungalows/camping, kitchen, bar/cafe. One of very few accommodations in Tofo owned by a Mozambican. Praia de Tofo, Inhambane Province.
Turtle Cove is a relaxed retreat 15 minutes walk from the centre of Tofo in Tofinho . Dorms/chalets/camping, gardens, swimming pool, restaurant/bar and regular yoga classes
Mozambeat Motel is a funky newish mid range option with uniquely designed cabins in Tofinho . Dorms/cabins, swimming pool, restaurant/bar, roof top sun deck, movie nights. The outdoor en-suite bathrooms are a highlight!
Zombie Cucumber is a friendly, laid back backpackers located near the beach. Dorm/4 bed huts. Casa Joules is a new mid range hotel on the same site with en suite rooms sharing the pool, restaurant and bar with Zombie Cucumber. French/Belgian owners. Marginal, Bario Centra.
Casa Cabana Beach is an upmarket self catering option with a beautifully designed 2 storey house situated right on the beach front. Doubles/Cabins/self catering units. Swimming pool, beach bar/restaurant, free airport transfers.Tel (+258)847073693. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. http://www.casacabanabeach.com
Things to do:
Cavalheiros Do Tofo is a riding stables located opposite the entrance to Bamboozi Lodge. They have 5 rescued Zimbabwean horses and offer 2 hour rides along the beach and through small communities.
Contact Volker on email@example.com / (+258) 843 080 300. www.facebook.com/pages/cavalheiros-do-tofo/112100985495725
Muakaleni Tours organises innovative community-based cultural tours around Tofo and Inhambane, including dhow boat trips. They are now based with Volker as above.
Sailaway are based in Vilanculos and offer dhow sailing trips around the Bazaruto Archipelago which include day trips and 2-3 day camping safaris. http://www.sailaway.co.za
Mozambique Horse Safaris offer horse riding trips ranging from a few days to a week in and around Vilanculos, including rides along Vilanculos beach, rides on Benguerra Island and cultural rides to a fishing village. www.mozambiquehorsesafaris.com