History in the Sand – Mozambique, Africa

Mozambique is more than just sun, sand and sea. In the south, where hotels and dive schools are the main attraction, it is hard to imagine a history older than a couple of centuries. It’s in the north, where much of the land along the coast is still wild, that the story of Mozambique’s first beginnings truly exist, in run down buildings and ruins resting amongst old palm plantations. Much of its background is kept alive in the world heritage site that is Ilha de Moçambique. Arab merchants were using this little island as a maritime trading centre from the 10th to the late 15th centuries. In 1498 Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, landed on the island and claimed it for Portugal, a strategic base for the Portuguese explorations and trade ambitions in India and the East Indies. Only four years later, the first Portuguese settlers made the island their home, building the first fort, St. Gabriel, and later in the 16th century, St. Sebastian withstood an attack by the Dutch.

The old fort stands strong. Visitors can walk around battlements and rooms for a small fee. There is usually a guide who can give you a bit of background information. Ask around. Some locals have very interesting stories. Don’t miss the cisterns that once provided the fort and its army occupants with precious fresh rainwater. Request the guardian unlock the gate to the Capela de Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, older than the fort. Built in 1522, people claim this to be the most ancient European building in the Southern Hemisphere. It is tiny, whitewash walled with old and heavy wooden doors with a pair of gargoyles set on top to guard it. Inside, the crucifix shaped windows throw a soft light of spirituality, even if you aren’t religious. Unfortunately, robbers broke the marble plaque on the right side of the altar, hoping to find treasure in the remains of seamen put to rest.

Closer to town is the museum which was originally a monastery and later the Governor’s Palace. The museum still contains some of the original furnishings and art works, but plenty more has been looted and stolen over the years. In front of the museum is the promenade with its quartz stone paving and old gazebos. A statue of Luíz de Camões, Portugal’s national poet, stands tall as you look out on a yacht sailing past a broken, moss covered jetty. A short walk down past confusing roads and equally confounding squares, you find the hospital, a huge property extending right down to the beach with the main building an imposing façade of steps and Roman columns. It is still used as a hospital; one can see people milling about inside, waiting for treatment. Places like Mozambique give new meaning to the word patient; most people wanting to see a doctor need lots of patience – waiting hours, sometimes days, to be seen.

In what seems the middle of the island, is Mecuti Town, a dirty mass of shacks squashed together below ground level in what was once the quarry used to build the fort. The island has been overcrowded since the civil war when people flocked for its safety. The government is trying to find solutions to the problem, including a plan to relocate people onto the mainland.

The island is enjoying a revival with many interested investors renovating some of the houses to their old glory. Restoration guidelines are in accordance with World Heritage restrictions. Slowly the island is transforming itself from a post war ruin to a top tourist destination. Walk the streets and you are forgiven for thinking you are somewhere in Europe. Turn the corner though, and there is evidence of Africa in the dusty streets and overcrowded conditions. In Stone Town which is right in the centre of the island, accommodations and guest houses show just how beautiful the island once was. Walk down Avenida da Republica and you’ll find a craft shop filled with an array of sculpture, beads and clothing. There is also Books and Bottles, a great little bookshop selling good wine. The bottle store stocks Belgian chocolates and espresso coffee. The Ancora D’Ouro serves great food and ice cold beer, the perfect lunchtime break. Further along, by the fort, rumour has it that the old Piscina or public swimming pool, is being converted into what will be Café del Mar, a bar and restaurant right on the sea’s edge.

You’ll need a couple of days to explore the twists and turns of Ilha’s history and present day status. Once you feel like you have had enough of the town and its tourists, you can always hop over to the mainland where, at the two Cabaceiras and Chocas Mar, you will find the perfect mix of sun, sand, sea and history. There are two ways to get there. You can go by road, over the bridge from Ilha and take the Chocas Mar turnoff. A more exciting journey would be to hire a dhow to take you over the seas to the Cabaceiras, much in the same way old Vasco da Gama would have travelled to the mainland, which supplied Ilha with fruit, vegetables and perhaps even slaves.

Chocas Mar is a small rundown holiday town with wide dirt roads, brilliant blue ocean right in front of a few rows of single-story seaside cottages, some built in a truly bizarre style. It was once the resort town of colonial Mozambique, has stood still since the Portuguese left and the country entered civil war. Today there are more and more holiday homes being bought and done up; this town is slowly becoming once more the holiday spot of the wealthier Mozambicans from Nampula Province.

Through town and on the other side is Carrusca Mar & Sol, a small tourist complex of five cottages, a bar, a restaurant and a deck. This is the ultimate quiet place to come for a proper beach holiday away from it all; you do have to book ahead if you want to get one of the cottages over the weekend. Each place has its own room, mezzanine, bathroom, dining area and kitchen. But the best spot has to be the hammocks and deck chairs set out on the verandas, to watch the sunset over Ilha. The actual beach is long, blindingly white and empty, with possibly some other guests and the requisite hopeful shellfish and shell seller. Warm sea and a deserted beach make for a good excuse to do nothing. I have spent plenty of time doing just that. If you can drag yourself away, explore some of the surrounding sights – well worth it.

The two Cabaceiras – Cabaceira Grande and Cabaceira Pequena – as the peninsulas are called are not just another beautiful untouched spot. These areas were once important outposts for the likes of Mr. Da Gama. Cabaceira Grande is actually slightly inland, right beyond the mangrove swamps behind Carrusca. Flat marshy land gives way to rows and rows of palm trees. On the weekends you might catch a soccer game in progress. Beyond that, the treasures begin. The first is the Church of Nossa Senhora dos Remédio, complete with its chunky main door carved in Indian style and imposing a yet impressive gold gilt alter. Some say it is the oldest church in Africa. There is a small conflict with the church on Ilha, but all information is given by locals, not history books, pages that seem empty when it comes to this corner of the world. Still in use today, a vase of flowers sits next to candle and bible on a wooden table in front.

It appears this church is on its own in the middle of nowhere, in fact, it’s not. A short walk brings you to a cluster of buildings, the grandest being the old Governor’s Summer Palace, used as a school with evidence of pupils practicing their English writing on the walls. On the second floor the walls have been taken over by another kind of graffiti. Wild fig trees have taken root and grown to almost full size, their roots creating a criss-cross pattern across entire walls. Looking through enormous glass-free windows, I see Ilha standing majestic across a plain of greens, over blue sea shimmering in the afternoon light, the picture glazed in a golden haze of sun.

Behind the palace is the old Naval Academy, which began life as a convent. Something one notices most about this building is that it has been restored and painted an authentic looking mustard yellow. It is now home to the Tourism and Agricultural College started by the Teran Foundation. To complement the school is the Coqueiras bar and restaurant, a lovely little haven at the back offering great food, cold drinks and best of all, polite, efficient service.

Surrounding these three buildings, you may spot some ruins, broken down and covered by vines and shrubs. These are the old fortified residences. There is some speculation as to why the people thought they had to build a fortress around their house. Some say it was to keep slaves in. I think, like all new colonists, they were scared of the "natives". Apparently these places were used as supply gardens for those living on Ilha.

Cabaceira Pequena seems devoid of exciting artifacts. Its biggest claim to the history of the country is that here one can find the Vasco da Gama – well, one of many in the area, evidence that his name is spoken everywhere on this small chunk of the mainland. That is significant.

Cabaceira Pequena is a treasure in itself. Getting there one takes the road from Carrusca past the last bungalow, to a row of wooden gazebos built along the spine of the dune, a community space called the Verandas. The last Veranda, number 9, marks the beginning of Cabaceira Pequena. The beach curves around to rest on the shores of a small sea inlet, forming part of the mangrove estuaries. The black and turquoise water is instantly inviting. It is shallow enough to sit yourself down and rest in its coolness, or you can swim or walk across to the other side where a small dune takes you up to the beach at the tip of the peninsula. Once again, the views of Ilha are simply amazing. It’s one of those places where you feel you can spend hours, staring and taking in as much beauty as your mind has space for – a difficult place to leave.