Journey to the Centre of the World, and The End.
I had my first “Habana Libra” in Nacala, northern Mozambique, listening to Elvis with a man called Mendonça. The drink is basically Cuban rum and coke, mainly rum and Nacala is one of the world’s deepest and most beautiful natural harbours.
Mendonça (Mário to his friends) is a director of Promotur, the company that owns and is refurbishing Hotel Nacala as well as the Pousada (small hotel) on historic Mozambique Island.
LAM (Mozambique Airline) had flown me from Johannesburg via Maputo and Beira, to Nampula. On board there was a loud, red-faced South African who was so drunk he decided we had arrived in Maputo before we had left Joburg International. From Nampula I took a local “chapa” taxi down the tarred but bumpy road to Nacala, a 3-hour ride which cost R15. It was late afternoon and although bus-driver Galiano already had three return-journeys under his accelerator pedal that day, he still smilingly drove around in the dark to find Mário’s house and deposited me tired and grateful right on the front door-step.
Hotel Nacala (which in future will be called Hotel Maiaia after the region’s former traditional chief) overlooks the beautiful bay and is bound to become a favourite with business-travelers.
I first saw Mozambique Island (called “Ilha” locally and now a World Heritage Site) from the decks of a smuggler’s launch in the Spring of ’92. Those were the days of bandits, bedlam and bombed bridges which cut off the island from mainland access for twenty years. When I signed the musty museum’s dusty guest-book (in 1992) it appeared that I
was the first foreigner to land for a mighty long while.
Two nights at the Pousada which then lacked running water or electricity, and long evenings watching the setting sun from the fort’s ramparts set much musing in motion, none of which even vaguely anticipated that “Ilha de Moçambique” would become the restored gem that I rediscovered last week.
Mário drove me from Nacala on a generally excellent road to Lumbo, where we dropped in at the old airport (Mozambique’s first International), before crossing to the Island on the 3.5km long single-lane causeway.
Built in 1960, the structure of the bridge has become unsafe for large vehicles and so reinforced concrete pillars now prevent access by vehicles wider than 1.93m. So measure yours now if contemplating an overland trip including the Island. Folk I know have done this arduous trip, and after spending ten tough days getting there and back, remember only the rows of islanders defecating on the beaches – enough to frighten them away before they even got close to the museum
section. The social “squatters” were still there but in much fewer numbers than I remember. Mário assured me this practice would be outlawed once the new communal ablution facilities were completed.
Pousada de Moçambique (the old Inn) stands on the narrow neck of the 2½km-long Island, overlooking a small bay as well as the fortress and the nearby deserted islands of Goa and Das Cobras. Due to re-open in December this year, the Pousada will become Hotel Omuhipiti, after the name for the island in the local Make dialect. I wandered
around the small but spacious 15-roomed hotel and found that the improvements such as air-conditioning, modern bathrooms and bigger windows were practical and tasteful.
And yet I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of nostalgia for the days when washing water drawn from a cistern deep and cool under the fortress arrived in my room by the bucket-ful.
Outside I found a beaming boy called Amisse waiting. Although he had been only four years old when we first met, he had recognised me and was now old enough to volunteer his services as guide. Amisse showed me to Himo’s guesthouse just a few hundred metres from the hotel and I gratefully dumped my bags and enjoyed a refreshing shower before following Amisse to the Museum of St Paul where there is now a well-organised Tourist Information Centre, which provides refreshments, maps, videos, souvenirs, booklets and English-speaking guides.
Sensing I might be ready for lunch Amisse led me to “Restaurante A Relíquia” (The Relics), which, with it’s ancient ambience and modern facilities, was another pleasant surprise. Relíquia opened over a year ago and has become the social and cultural hub of “Ilha”, putting on cabaret shows, drama and live music most weekends. Don’t expect breakfast before ten though, the proprietor is not a morning person.
Determined that I must see all the improvements on the island as well as the many fascinating cultural and historic sites, Amisse led me enthusiastically down the Rua dos Arcos, once Ilha’s equivalent of a shopping mall. He pointed out a shop that sells cold drinks, and then we headed across a shady plaza, with a brightly painted bandstand in its
centre, to a doorway where there is a soft-serve ice-cream machine.
Down a narrow cobbled lane we found the derelict house where fabled Portuguese Poet Luis Camões (1524-1580) once lived. However, only an ornately carved Arab front-door, which opens onto ruins, suggests the (posthumous) fame of it’s former resident. Camões’ statue (he
documented the voyages of 16th Century Portuguese explorers such as Vasco da Gama in an epic called “Os Luciades”) now stares out to sea at the end of Rua do Fogo (once the island’s red-light district) in front of “Casa Blanca” (Casa da Dona Flora), a charming and cool 400-year-old house where I stayed on the second night.
Anticipating that the humid afternoon heat might be becoming a little over-powering for his pale-skinned charge, Amisse showed me to the Complexo Indíco which lies on the windward side of the island (Relíquia is on the leeward side) and is cooled by sea-breezes. Later we investigated all of the guesthouses advertised by the Information Centre.
Until Hotel Omuhipiti is opened in December, folk willing to pay a little extra for their comforts are advised to book well in advance for either Casa Blanca or Himo’s as these houses are quite comfortable and very popular. Backpacker’s seem to favour Luis’s place near the bridge, sometimes called “Private Garden” and which does indeed have a fair-sized garden – very unusual on this tiny island.
Late afternoon (when the sun shines onto it’s majestic façade) is the time to visit the “Palaçio de São Pãolo” museum which is presently undergoing extensive renovations due to be completed by next March. Once the home of the Governor of Mozambique, the
museum still contains most of the original furniture, fittings, ornaments and paintings that were left behind by the last Governor who departed when Mozambique became independent from Portugal in 1974. Arab chairs and carpets, Chinese porcelain and Portuguese wall-hangings and chandeliers adorn a building which will once again be quite magnificent when restoration is complete. On the ground floor there is a Maritime
museum which houses exhibits of local and foreign boats as well as naval weaponry.
Behind the palace is the somewhat austere “Museu do Arte Sacra” (Museum of Sacred Art) where an unusual Makonde (northern tribe famous for their intricate and often bizarre wood-sculptures) carving depicts Christ on the cross in ebony. Note that permission from the National Director of Museums (Maputo) is required to take photos inside the museum.
Many of the women on the island displayed the characteristic white-daubed faces, which have become symbolic of the beauty and mystery of Ilha da Moçambique. This face pack, made from the Nssiro tree, is referred to by the Makua as the “mascara de beleza” (mask of beauty), and is used as a cosmetic by the women, as well as to provoke the attentions of men. The paste is worn until is dries and flakes off, a process which could take a week making it unlikely that “Western” women (or men) would tolerate looking as pale as ghost in public in order to use Nssiro. Apparently in days gone by only virgins or women whose husband’s are away were permitted to adorn themselves in this manner.
As we made our way around the island, kids would repeatedly shout out “Ungunya, Ungunya” which Amisse said meant “white person” in Makua. Perhaps irritating for some, for me the fact that tourists are still considered to be a minor spectacle here is just another indicator of the place’s splendid isolation. Even once the hotel is open, total beds
available for visitors will remain less than one hundred which, together with it’s unique location at the cross-roads of ancient trading routes, will preserve a living monument considered to be the only point where all the World’s main cultures have come together and are co-existing peacefully – indeed the centre of the world.
Most visitors, attracted by it’s imposing sandstone walls and brooding bulwarks, head straight for the fortress, ignoring most of the Island’s less dramatic but arguably more intriguing attractions. Finding me watching the sunrise with Luis Camões after an evening visiting two cinemas, four bars and enjoying a very comfortable sleep at Casa
Blanca, Amisse decided it was high time we roamed those ramparts.
I was once again astounded at it’s size (the walls are over 20m high and 10m thick), and I could understand why the Dutch fleet could not dislodge the Portuguese even after a period when they laid siege to the island intermittently for four years. The entire structure is
designed to catch and channel rainwater into a huge, subterranean cistern which sustained the Portuguese when under attack and was until recently the only source of fresh water for the island’s 11,000 inhabitants.
I could have watched the dhows slip by for another few days but I had other places to go before LAM would fly me back home and so I got onto an open chapa (bakkie) at the bridge and headed for Monapo where Arthur Norval, owner of a dive-camp near Mogincual called “Fim do Mundo” (End of the Earth) had arranged to meet me in his Landrover. And so it was that I was going from the “Centre of the World” to the “End of
the Earth” and all in the space of less than a week!
Arthur is one of those restless souls without which at least this part of Mozambique would have remained undeveloped. Having fished and dived in the area for eight years, he decided the reefs off the mangrove estuary at the mouth of the Mogincual river were the most varied and pristine and has built a small camp catering to serious divers and
Remote is a word used to describe many places in Mozambique, but after
three hours in a landrover on gravel and sand roads, we arrived at a spot which makes most other destinations seem rather nearby in comparison. “Fim do Mundo” is not for the “sipping cocktails around the pool” crowd; There is no pool, and the accommodation in traditional-style thatch two roomed “casas” (houses) may be cool and comfortable (flush-toilets), but is certainly not of the pretty postcard variety.
Arthur explained over an excellent meal in his shady bar and dining area that his market is the person who wants to spend the entire day diving and fishing, and return in the evening to excellent food, cold beers, hot showers and a comfortable bed. A stiff southerly prevented us from going diving but I have been told that the reefs will impress even those who think that they have “seen it all”.
3½km from the Mozambican mainland, 2300km by road north of Maputo, roughly in line with the top of Madagascar. Nearest large city is Nampula, 180km inland, capital of the Province with the same name.
Contact one of the agents under bookings below, or your nearest Mozambican Embassy or Consulate, at least two weeks prior to departure for advice on how to obtain one.
You can drive via Zimbabwe and Malawi (the route through Mozambique via Caia north of Beira is often impassable), but this takes at least four days, so rather fly with LAM who offer an efficient and comfortable service to Nampula from Johannesburg twice a week.
If staying at Hotel Maiaia in Nacala or at Hotel Omuhipiti on the Island, your travel agent will arrange transfers from Nampula. If travelling independently note that the last public transport (chapa) to Ilha and Nacala leaves Nampula at 3pm, the journey taking around 3 hours.
When to Go
December to April can be unbearably hot and very wet. May to October is
coolest although temperatures can still reach the mid-thirties.
Although Mozambique Island is reputed to be a surprisingly healthy place, precautions against malaria are essential. Contact the British Airways Travel Clinic
Get a copy of Malyn Newitt’s “A History of Mozambique” published by
Wits University Press.
Mozambique Travel Centre have, in conjuction with LAM (Mozambican Airline), put together fully inclusive packages which include Mozambique Island and Fim do Mundo.
Go Africa Tours offer packages which include Nampula, the Island and nearby Chocas-mar, one of Mozambique’s most beautiful beaches.
Near Mogincual about 100km south of Mozambique Island.
Bring your own mask, flippers, tropical wet-suit and fishing gear. Arthur has 7 full sets of SCUBA equipment.
Range in depth from 10m to 25m. Experienced divers will notice that they are untouched – many have never been dived. Wreck diving is an added attraction.
Contact Mozambique Travel Centre, see details above.
Note that Air Mozambique (LAM) have an excellent website and now offer a discount of 40% to folk under the age of 25 for internal flights.
Mozambique on the Internet
Time-Out Magazine (published in Maputo)