Published in the Globe and Mail
Squinting in the cavernous darkness – through a cross-shaped slit chiselled into the foot-thick stone wall – I can see nothing but dazzling Indian Ocean azure. Nearly 500 years ago, a Portuguese priest likely stood in this exact spot within the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, yearning for the arrival of a caravel from Lisbon – dreading the sight of a Dutch warship or Arab pirate dhow.
Perched on the eastern edge of Ilha de Mocambique (Mozambique Island), this masterwork of Manueline vaulted architecture is considered to be the Southern hemisphere’s oldest still-intact European building.
Behind it looms impregnable Fortaleza de Sao Sebastiao, where thousands of colonial troops once manned one of the largest fortresses ever built south of the Sahara. Together, these remnants of colonialism tell part of the fascinating story of this crescent-shaped speck of coral barely four kilometres long just off Mozambique’s northern coast.
Seized shortly after Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama came ashore in 1498, the island that gave Mozambique its name was for centuries the capital of Portugal’s African empire. But after the colonial government relocated in 1898, Ilha de Mocambique slid into obscurity, forsaken by the 20th century.
It wasn’t until 1991, when UNESCO awarded it World Heritage Site status for its remarkable architectural uniformity, that Ilha de Mocambique began to emerge from isolation. Today, it still welcomes relatively few travellers, but those who do venture here have an historic island as exotic as Zanzibar virtually to themselves. They discover a living museum, where the centuries melt away and where wooden dhows set sail every morning before dawn – as they have for 1,000 years – their crews of Muslim fishermen chanting timeless tribal songs.
Most visitors to Africa come for a safari, but a trip to Mozambique is not about ticking the Big Five off your list. It’s about exploring a rich culture and country re-emerging after decades of post-colonial struggle and civil war. One boasting a 2,500-kilometre-long coastline sprinkled with pristine, empty beaches, abundant marine life, superb diving and islands such as Ilha de Mocambique that time forgot.
Last year, increased violence between Mozambique’s ruling party and the opposition prompted the Canadian government to advise against non-essential travel to some of the country’s provinces. But cooler heads are prevailing and both sides pledge a peaceful run-up to the presidential vote in October, easing fears of continued unrest.
My introduction to Ilha de Mocambique was Stone Town, site of the original European settlement, now connected to the mainland by a narrow single-lane causeway. Today a sleepy fishing village, this maze of silent, slave-built cobblestone alleys that converge on palm-lined town squares feels like a surreal, shuttered movie set. Decaying yellow, blue, terracotta and pink colonial-era limestone mansions, their wooden handcrafted entrances carved with Arab, Indian and Oriental motifs, broil beneath the African sun.
On Stone Town’s languid waterfront, fishermen loiter beneath the peeling façades of former Portuguese trading houses, waiting for the high tide to take them back out to sea. In the shallow bay, grandmothers and children scour the seabed for shells. Other women, draped in brilliantly coloured capulanas, the traditional cloth that Muslim Mozambicans wrap around skirts, scrub laundry along the shore near the wharf. Some have painted their faces with musiro, a natural wood-based lotion and sunscreen.
Most of Stone Town’s inhabitants are descendants of Mozambique’s original African Muslim population, driven off the island by the Portuguese in the 16th century. They only began to return in significant numbers after the country gained independence in 1975. With the outbreak of civil war in 1977, thousands more flooded in, desperate to flee the inland fighting.
“When I was a child this was a very broken place,” says James, a slight man in his mid-30s who offers to show me around. “The local Makua people still call this place Omuhipiti, or ‘refuge,’ because so many of them hid here.”
After the civil war ended in 1992, many refugees returned to their ancestral mainland homes. Others migrated to Macuti Town on the south end of the island, and Stone Town once again became a ghost town.
From Stone Town, I board a dhow and sail to a peninsular headland across the bay. Awaiting me is a swath of white sand beach that Mozambican author Mia Couto described as a place “where the Earth undresses and where the gods come to pray.”
My destination is a cluster of airy bungalows on the dunes overlooking the sea. Coral Lodge 15.41 – a reference to its cartographic co-ordinates – is operated by Alexandra and Bart Otto, an enterprising Dutch couple who quit their management jobs six years ago to move here. It is the only luxury lodge in one of Southern Africa’s last remaining unspoilt coastal regions.
“We fell in love with the location, which is still largely unexplored, as well as the rich history and culture of the area,” says Alexandra over freshly caught lobster with siri siri, nhewe (local spinach), coconut rice and baobab ice cream on a shady deck overlooking the lagoon.
Using traditional African and modern design elements, the lodge was built entirely of endemic wood and other natural materials by local artisans. The Ottos employ more than 40 residents from the adjacent village of Cabaceira Pequena as lodge staff and guides. “From the start, our mission was to hire as many local people as possible to ensure that this area would develop,” Alexandra says, explaining that many of the townsfolk have little access to secondary education or training.
To that end, the Ottos have financed a primary school and orphanage in Cabaceira Pequena, and stand by their staff whenever they can. “Everyone has my cell number and they call me for help when they need it. I’ve had calls from hospital emergency wards, sprung people out of prison and even helped deliver babies in the middle of the night,” Alexandra says. “We’re more than just an employer. We are family.”
Alexandra and I cross barefoot through a lush mangrove forest from the resort to Cabaceira Pequena and visit a group of women drawing water from the same well that Vasco de Gama’s sailors once frequented. They greet Alexandra as one of their own.
Later, local boys tag along as we explore the nearby ruins of one of Southern Africa’s oldest mosques. Peering through a jagged hole in the mosque’s crumbling wall I can see the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte across the bay, perfectly framed like a holy relic, where so many prayers were once uttered.
Now, thanks to renewed interest from the outside world and the promise of newfound political stability, prayers for a better life in this remote, largely untouched stretch of Southern African coastline – with its ethereal island outpost at the end of the world – are finally being heard.
IF YOU GO
Most connections to Mozambique require an overnight stay in South Africa’s capital city. Airlink (flyairlink.com) offers daily direct flights from Johannesburg to Nampula. From there, road transport can be easily arranged for the three-hour ride to Ilha de Mocambique. Canadian citizens require visitor visas prior to entering Mozambique. They can be obtained by contacting the embassy of Mozambique in Washington, or with the assistance of the outfitters mentioned here. There is no nationwide travel advisory for the country, however the Canadian government urges a high degree of caution due to violent crime, including a recent significant increase in cases of kidnappings.
What to do
The spirits of doomed mariners are said to inhabit Stone Town’s Marine Museum, which houses the remains of shipwrecks – everything from navigational instruments to precious Ming porcelain. Maxim guns, rusted cannons and other artifacts of warfare still litter the courtyard of the nearby Palace and Chapel of Sao Paulo, built as a Jesuit College in 1610. (whc.unesco.org/en/list/599)
Where to Stay
Coral Lodge 15.41 is a secluded luxury beach resort and a great base for exploring nearby Ilha de Mocambique. Guests can also go snorkelling, shipwreck diving or fishing, as well as visit the nearby fishing village of Cabaceira Pequena. Bungalows from $700 (U.S.) a night, all inclusive, based on double occupancy. (newmarkhotels.com)
The Vancouver-based Heritage Safari Company (1-888-301-1713, heritagesafaris.com) and Toronto’s Kensington Tours (1-888-903-2001, kensingtontours.com) can arrange customized Mozambique itineraries, including visits to Ilha de Mocambique.