Malawi in the rear view mirror and moving East toward the Indian ocean kicked off rather annoyingly as the gleaming new tarmac road wasn’t quite finished, so for the first 2 hours we had the pleasure of driving on a bumpy dusty dirt road all the while staring at a stunning flat piece of road only a tantalising few meters away.
The going was tough and the gradual decline in numbers of army on foot patrol meant that it was starting to get remote, we were now heading towards Mount Mabu which is also referred to as ” The Google Forest” due to a 30 year long, still active, civil war. Not many outsiders have had the chance to explore the region and hence it was “discovered” by scientists who’s initial means at studying it was through the use of Google Earth. It is also well know thanks to its many newly discovered species and now famous butterflies, brought to light thanks to Attenborough’s Africa series. We had had mixed reports and were still unsure how safe the region was and were very aware that this is where Kingsley Holgate and countless others had been met with hostility and the wrong end of an AK-47 so we decided to push on towards some semblance of civilisation and the ocean. The realization that we wouldn’t make the coast that day set in and we decided to stay in the tiny town of Mocuba with the local missionaries, due to the lack of any other form of accommodation. Early the next morning we made headway for the coast, not early enough though as Beani got caught in the “we are all doomed to hell” chat, and yes, it was just as awkward as we all could ever have hoped for. The drive East was long and tiring only stopping once in Nampula to refuel the car and ourselves and thanks to the lack of english anywhere, argue between the different fuel options, gasolina or gasoleo. Eventually Beani “spilled” some and smelt it before deciding that Frank needed gasoleo if we were going to make it to the ocean.
Eventually we arrived on Ilha de Moçambique as night fell. The first attempt to cross the single lane 3km bridge to the island ended abruptly as a car was coming the other way and we had to reverse half a kilometer back, quite an ordeal on a bridge only marginally wider than Frank. The second attempt however went much smoother and we were soon driving around the tight winding streets of the beautiful island.
After parking Frank we walked through the narrow streets, followed by 10 screaming kids, all yelling at us in Portuguese whilst we wondered around in amazement at how the crumbling buildings looked more reminiscent of Cuba than Africa.
We succeeded in our mission of finding food but failed to find a cheap bed for the night (even with the 10 offers a second from the kids as to where we should stay) as there are no campsites on the island so resorted to the only camp back on the mainland. English seemed to be completely alien to the managers and the best we could do was park the car and point at it questioning “aqui, quanta kushta” roughly translated to “here? how much?” and after 10 minutes we were eventually greeted with a smile and a thumbs up.
The next morning we woke up to find ourselves camped right on the beach overlooking the island with locals wandering past and going about their daily business, with some, more curious and brazen folk, stopping to have a good stare at us and Frank!!
The island is the old capital of the formerly Portuguese colony and is a hugely interesting place with a rich and chequered history. A melting pot of culture with the islands’ people made up mostly of Chinese, Indian, Arabic, Portuguese and Mozambican heritage, making for beautiful architecture, customs and food.
Over the next few days we explored the island on two very suspect half broken bicycles, sourced from locals willing to give up their transport for half the day, we thought we had a great deal but their smiles and waves on our departure makes me think they were the ones with the deal.
Mine in hot pink with a wonky pedal that made moving forward fun, and Beans that had a persistent clunk and a seat that continually slipped backward that made for an interesting ride. Thankful for my wonky pedal we moved around the island from the old town, where the locals live down in the old stone quarry and the old Arabic house with their maze of pathways to the Portuguese area with its large churches and European style buildings, all on an island less than 3km long and 500m wide.
It was on one of our excursions that we wandered into Rickshaws, a beautiful restaurant owned by two Americans, overlooking the water. The building looked like it was plucked straight out of Greece, where we sat enjoying the view and pretended we had more money that we actually did!!
After a great few days on and around the island we moved North to Pemba, a port town with a lovely beach that is used as the launching pad for people traveling to the Northern Quirmbas Archepeligo. Two nights in Pemba with expats galore, Zimbabweans, Rockspiders and some of the UK’s finest, including meeting a guy who is the childhood friend of one of my old housemates in Australia. Once we decided we had drank enough beers we made our move to the Northern islands and further into the unknown.
The road North was dirt and in terrible condition thanks to the yearly floods they receive and we slowly bumped our way past washed out bridges, broken down trucks,dilapidated buildings and the continual villages filled with extremely friendly locals. There was a surprising number of old Portuguese buildings in what seemed to be a pretty remote, uninteresting area that turns out all had historical relevance but we couldn’t understand the plaques or the crowds that gathered the second we got out the car. When we reached the end of the road we followed the basic instructions that we had received; drive to the top of the hill, take a left at the monument, drive to the bottom of the hill towards the water and look out for the big baobab tree. That is apparently where we should park the car before boating over to the island. Seemed legit. Shockingly we found a baobab and there were indeed cars parked next to it. Again the language barrier got interesting and I’m still not sure if we were paying the guys to guard the car or to not steal it but either way we put as many padlocks on everything we could, bartered with the three middle man to get a price from the captain and headed off for the islands. There was a rush to leave as the tides were almost too low and so we ended up on a small supply boat shipping a few crates of beer to Ibo with 3 crew and a captain who could not speak a word of English between them. After about 30 minutes of slowly moving in and out of the mangroves, continuously getting soaked by the increasing swell we started to joke that we may have made a bad life choice and wondered how our disappearance would be depicted in the news, but there was nothing we could do about it now. We were committed and had to just hold onto our stuff and make sure the emergency stick was nearby for when the engine cut out.
Our little boat seemed to be the right choice however as we came across the passenger ferry, filled far past its capacity with people and cargo, including a motorbike, that it’s owner was still sitting on. A small exchange between the crew on our boat and theirs and our ‘spotter’ (guy who just sat at the front of the boat pointing at things) gestured towards the other boat saying “gasolina”! Theres nothing like seeing a cramped boat floating at sea with no fuel to make you thankful for your own questionable boat choices. Soon a plastic fuel container with the top cut off was being passed, full of fuel, from us over the heads of the passengers to the stranded boats engine whilst our boats were held together by various arms from those on the stricken vessel. We assume this fixed the issue, as our captain didn’t wait around to check, we heard no reports of people being lost at sea, and so assume that they made it in safely.
On arrival onto the island, we checked into our first hotel in months only to discover the Aussie couple (Anna and Dan) and the French lady (Marie) who were at the same campsite in Pemba as us, only they had had the pleasure of travelling by local bus (in the back of a truck)!
En route they had met Jeu, a Chinese guy who was 500 days into his solo travels, and soon the 6 of us hatched a plan to hire a dhow the next day and set sail to enjoy dolphin swimming, snorkelling and lunch at the sandbank.
Heading off the next morning we found our aquatic mammal friends, however thanks to the swell we could technically swim with them, but seeing them from in the water was impossible. The next stop was the sandbank where we enjoyed a short snorkel before relaxing with a few beers and some fish and coconut rice, grilled right there on the beach on what could only be described as a paradise island.
As the others headed off for a few days we spent the next couple of nights at the stunningly beautiful Ibo Island Lodge, being spoilt with luxuries such as hot showers, king sized beds and amazing food.
Here they kindly sent us back to the sand island, only in luxury this time. We set sail at 6am on a beautiful boat, all to ourselves and our 4 crew before arriving at the sandbank to enjoy a cooked breakfast under the shade of a tarp the crew made for us, an incredible experience made even more amazing by the fact that we had the whole island to ourselves.
Later that day we went on a historical tour of the Island (basically walked around and had a chat with someone who had lived there for ages)
With only 4,000 inhabitants its a peaceful part of the world with hardly any crime at all. We visited the old fort, with a dark past during the war for independence.
It now doubles as a maritime museum and ‘storage’ for the old records of the pioneers and colonisers. Left to ruin, the records date back to the 19th century and have been left in ramshackle piles over collapsing shelves, many fallen to the floor and trodden on. The painters who had decorated the room had used them as a cover on the floor and the discarded paint cans still littered the room. Tourists are free to pick up the documents, and sadly many have even taken some home, folders that contained photographs and old forms documenting peoples’ identification were everywhere. The whole room looked like it belongs as part of a scene from an exhibition entitled ‘the disregard of history in our modern day society’ in a gallery like the Tate Modern.
This fort also now houses the local, famed silversmiths. The craftsman here smelt, mould and manipulate all the old silver coins themselves, using age old methods and even older machines.
A wander around the rest of the island showed buildings from Indian, Portuguese and Arab traders, most in various states of ruin, some just requiring some paint, others, far beyond repair, now jostling for place against the trees as nature retakes the ruins.
It was also on this walk we were introduced to João Baptiste, the islands self proclaimed historian and most famous inhabitant who was at one point a prisoner at the fort and then educated by the Portuguese. At somewhere between 85-95 years old he’s a character. He speaks no English but happily welcomes and encourages tourists onto his porch where he sits daily in his old chair, showing them the pictures and articles that he had had written about him in various travel and history books and magazines, even the book he has published himself. He asks for nothing in return, he just seems genuinely happy to see, meet and sit with people, posing for photographs and grasping your hand as though you are a friend he hasn’t seen for years.
As our time at the lodge drew to an end we couldn’t drag ourselves away from this amazing place, maybe it was the $1.20 beers and $4 lobsters, who knows, but we ended up staying for an additional night at yet another hotel, a little gem hidden behind wooden doors with an eccentric Swedish manager who turned out to be a world class chef. Only here as a replacement because the previous owner died and the hotel was ransacked. Here we relaxed with yet more found traveller friends and of course Dik-Dik, an orphaned tame little suni buck who loved a scratch under the chin just as much as his popcorn and cornflakes all set in a lovely garden filled with chameleons.
Eventually we had to give up our island life and we decided to go and see if we still owned a car complete with all our worldly belongings.
This time we, along with Jade and Adam, chose to be one of the locals and travel back on the $1 public boat. 2 hours after its scheduled departure time they began to load the boat, roughly a 25 person capacity wooden boat we loaded at least 35 people on, plus all of their cargo, 80% of which was dried or fresh fish on string which made for an interesting and rather pungent aroma. The beginning of the journey was rather disappointing as the engine wouldn’t start, but a little tinkering from a few guys on board, as we floated worryingly close to the shore, and the engine spluttered back to life. As it turns out it didn’t make too much difference as we had a meager 25hp on a boat that required at least an 80hp engine to get it anywhere. Slowly, very slowly we chugged along, surprisingly we only had another 2 breakdowns, at which point we were expertly navigated by a guy and the emergency stick (as we learnt from our time on the island, each boat comes with, what we apply named, ‘the emergency stick’, a stick, or two, on the boat that can be used to push you off of sandbanks or the shore and doubles as a mast or rudder if yours snaps. The first world could save a lot of money on safely equipment if they just stuck a few emergency sticks on board ships). Emergency stick, patent pending
We were even more surprised when we actually pulled into port and collected our bags, that now had an eau de fish aroma as a memento of the trip, and found Frank safe and sound waiting for his trip south to Pemba where we could plan our route to the stunning Southern Archipelago.