Talking Clichés – Topuito, Mozambique, Africa

Most people think they know all about the islands of Mozambique. I mean, there are ads and articles about them everywhere; they’re the latest ultimate destinations. But what most people don’t realise is that there are other islands, ones that are as yet untouched by the world of powered water sports and beachside restaurants. I am talking about islands as they are before they become a piece of commercial property and believe me, they do exist. It’s just a matter of knowing where to look.

Northern Mozambique has been largely ignored by the tourist world, in part because they have been too busy taking over the south, and in part because the north has been quite inaccessible. This is largely due to the difficulties in developing the northern territories, the great Zambezi being one of its biggest obstacles.

Many bridges and roads were destroyed during the civil war from 1977 to 1992. While there has been a massive drive to repair and rebuild these, it has been a project that has gone bottom up and top down, with the Zambezi problem waiting in the middle. This has made transportation of goods difficult, pushing up costs and in turn hindering many business opportunities. The north has simply been too difficult – until now. The contract to rebuild the bridge over the Zambezi at Caia has been awarded and construction has begun. Slowly, slowly industry has been picking up in the provinces of the north. Along with its history and wild beauty, tourists are starting to look upwards for their adventures in Africa.

There are plenty of challenges available to those who look for them. Being a risk taker, I found myself living out the perfect off-the-beaten-track adventure recently when I was invited to visit a couple of the country’s most pristine islands, completely undeveloped and totally deserted. Found north of Nampula City, these islands are really just about the last islands along a 2,000-kilometer coastline that haven’t been commercialised. They are about to, which makes my experience that much more unique.

After some tedious flying on LAM, the Mozambican national airline, I arrive in Nampula, (this is after I have stopped in Maputo, Beira and Pemba, getting on and off the plane as if in a taxi). The first thing that hits me as I disembark is the hot humid air, like having a bowl of warm pea soup thrown in my face. Another indication I have arrived in the tropics are the palm trees lining the sunset, like some cheesy beach chalet artwork. The airport is tiny so I have no trouble locating my friends. With bags loaded, we drive the five minutes into town, offload and set out for dinner at one of the city’s most popular eating spots. Copacabana Restaurant is famous not for its value or fine cuisine, but rather for its being one of only a handful of places to dine out, each pretty much the same as the other. With a cold 2M beer in hand and plenty of plans to discuss, I barely notice the slow service and lack of atmospheric music.

The next day is an early start. At 6:00 a.m.., the car is packed and ready. Although the back of the Nissan Patrol pickup is full of the things that are going to make our stay on the islands pleasurable, there is little comfort in sitting three to a single cab on some of the worst roads in southern Africa. To make up for the bumps and bruises, the five-hour journey presents the perfect opportunity to get a real feel for this place.

I spend the time gazing in awe at the incredible contrasts and beauty of the landscape. Bright green rows of cassava plants form a border along the rich red earth that is the road. Set back and ever present are the cashew nut and mango trees, constantly competing for one’s attention. Within an hour of our drive, we pass the Pink Floyd Bar with its sign for cold drinks and frozen chicken. Not long after, we go through Nametil, a small outpost town that, like so many in this area of Mozambique, tell of a past glory gone to ruin, seen in the old farmstead buildings and cracked main streets. Leaving Nametil over a steep valley, we look back down the road where through the morning mists people and bicycles make their way to who knows where. I think I have found my perfect image of Africa.

The road starts to deteriorate from here. It is slow driving right until we turn off to Moma, where a major mining project means graded roads at last. Red dust turns to white sand. My friend points to some wooden poles lying everywhere on the sides of the road. “For the power lines. From Cahora Bassa.” This is good news for the communities in this long forgotten area who have been living without power for so long. It also shows major improvement is coming to the north at last.

One more corner and there they are: two islands off the coast, their white sand beaches glistening in the sun even from here. I can’t believe they are real, maybe this is because all idyllic islands are usually found in the pages of a magazine and not right there in front of you.

It takes us another ten minutes until we arrive at the campsite on the Larde River. The boat is waiting for us. Our bags and all the stuff crammed in the car are transferred. We are off again. This time the ride is smoother and the cool, fresh air is most welcome after the humidity on land. Mangroves line the sides of the river. We weave this way and that to avoid fishing boats and the weird V-shaped walls of sticks, a primitive method of trapping fish.

After a few bends we are on course for the open water. Foaming at the mouth with white waves crashing into the river, the sea opens wide and welcomes us to her domain. I spend the twenty or so minutes on the open ocean scanning for dolphins and checking our approach to Nejovo Island. Each time I look up, the island has grown until we are suddenly over the reef. The water has changed from denim to the clearest of blues; the beach is right there. It’s difficult to describe the feeling of jumping off a boat into the shallow waters of a coral reef island, one that is empty bar a few staff members. I can say it is somewhere between elation and disbelief. It’s a fantasy really, and not many of us expect them to come true, let alone be swimming in one.

The island is a continuous round beach. Walking all the way round can take between 10 minutes to an hour, depending on how you like to do it. I find myself getting completely absorbed in the process of seashell collecting, stopping only when my hat can carry no more. There are many large beautiful shells, fully intact and perfectly pink. These I leave, thinking it better to preserve the environment.

My days on the island follow an exciting pattern of getting up for an early morning swim, having breakfast, reading a bit, going down to the beach for at first a low tide seabed exploration and a bit later a snorkel, eating, lying in the sun, then the shade, reading, more swimming and finally sundowners, and an early supper under the stars. Being so far away from my usual world where holiday normally means running from museum to museum in an attempt to see as much as possible, I can sense myself relax into a state of superb inertia. I simply feel good, nothing can disturb this peace. After only one day, it seems as if I have been here weeks – the world beyond a distant reality. The water’s temperature is a constant mix between cool and refreshing, warm and comforting. Snorkelling brings me face to face with some of the prettiest little fishes and plenty of colourful coral. I become an instant addict.

We manage to get ourselves up out of our laid back stupor and make a day trip to the larger island of Caldeira. The boat ride takes less than 30 minutes. This time, as we arrive within the reef, we spot a few whales, baleias, dancing about halfway to the horizon. Caldeira Island is much the same as Nejovo, except for the rocks at one end and a larger, denser forest in the middle. Caldeira refers to the crater like indent formed by white dunes all around. Surprisingly enough, the snorkelling here is even better than around Nejovo!

After exhausting ourselves in the underwater world, we sit on the beach discussing what it will be like when there is a lodge built. Being able to order a world class lunch and cold drinks at the bar, top our list of improvements, as does the thought of a fan cooled beach house and all the conveniences thereof. We also dream of what it will be like to have such adventures on hand as diving, sailing, fishing and surfing, something a sports centre will be able to provide. We still hope the islands will keep the same spirit of calm relaxation and untouched natural beauty that has for so long inspired my friend to build an exclusive eco-friendly and sustainable lodge, an integration of luxury and nature. He likes to call it Robinson Crusoe with designer style. I like to call it paradise, even at the expense of sounding like a cliché because isn’t that just what a deserted island is?