Up the Coast of Northern Mozambique


'... The years of war kept developers away from one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. Over a twenty five year period when many of the best beaches on the planet - from Costa del Sol to Phuket - had been ravaged by realtors dreams, this stretch had remained pristine. Here were nearly 3,000 kms of white sands with few footprints... and if you added dhows (unmotorised, due to fuel shortages), the odd deserted Portuguese fort with seaward pointing cannons or overgrown ruins of Muslim origin, its the stuff of travel-brochure romance.'

'...overlanders have to exit or enter northen Mozambique via Malawi, an interminable and arduous detour
.'
Justin Fox - With Both Hands Waving.


While there is no land border crossing between Mozambique and southern Tanzania and no bridge over the Rovuma River which separates the two countries, I had researched the options and was determined not to have to detour all the way back through Malawi. My understanding was the road faded further north into a sandy track, but if I couldn’t get through that way, I had read there is some local trade by dhows, the coastal sailing boats, which hopefully could be used to get to the Tanzanian side of the border.
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The route appealed as it would bring me up the little travelled coast of northern Mozambique, and in particular via the oldest European settlement in East Africa and the former base of the Portuguese Indian Ocean - the famed island of Ilha de Mocambique.

Ilha de Mocambique
I rode across the three km bridge onto the island and threaded my way up the few kms of its length, through narrow alleys, past old colonnaded walkways and faded whitewashed churches in the Portuguese architectural style, understanding now why this is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Though the town was quite obviously run down - many of the old colonial buildings were derelict, some squatted in by families cooking over open fires inside - there was a strong atmosphere of an old east African coastal outpost from centuries ago... ‘A place of pirates, slaves, gold and ivory; an island haunted by the legacy of Jesuit priests, Arabian merchants and Dutch invaders; site of sea battles and sieges, intrigue...’

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Named by Vasco da Gama after the local sheikh Moussa Ben Mbiki - from where the country now has its name - Ilha was the most important Portuguese settlement on the east coast of Africa for four centuries, a stop over for Portuguese ships waiting for the trade winds to bring them across the Indian Ocean. The massive stone fort (above) at the top of the island - walls up to 20m high built of cut limestone shipped from Portugal as ballast - guarded the sea route from Lisbon to Asia and was for centuries the biggest building in the southern hemisphere, playing a major part in the history of Southern Africa. Twice it was besieged by the Dutch navy, both times unsuccessfully. It is argued that if they had managed to capture the fort, the island would have become the centre of the Dutch East India trade, and not Cape Town. Of course that would have meant no Dutch colony in the Cape of Good Hope, and no subsequent Afrikaner nation there.

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On the very tip of the island, standing on a promontory jutting out into the blue of the Indian Ocean, was the Church of Nostra Senhora Baluarte (pictured left) - the oldest standing European built building in the southern hemisphere. (On the floor a stone plaque marks the tomb of the Portuguese Bishop of Japan, buried there in 1588!)

My Bradt Guide informed me that by the mid 16th century, some seventy odd officials, ranging from a judge and doctor to priests and soldiers, were listed on the official payroll of the island. Depending on how many ships were docked, it supported up to one thousand Portuguese at any one time. In the 19th century Ilha had become a major slave trading centre. Most of Mozambique’s nearly one million slaves passed through, sold by Arab traders to the Gulf, to the French sugar plantations on Mauritius and Madagascar, and some even to Brazil. Early in the 20th century, because of economic decline, Portugal moved their capital from here to Laurenzo Marques
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(now Maputo) in the south of the country.

Wandering around the old streets of faded mansions - some renovated, others crumbling - I paused in front of one particularly solid and impressive building, on a corner of the promenade, facing out to the white line of the Indian Ocean breakers on the reef a kilometre off-shore. Peering through a window into the dim interior, I could make out a suggestion of a high ceiling in carved relief and a huge curving central stairway. A temporary note stuck to a wall informed me this building used to be the French consulate.

The following day I was fortunate to get a tour by the occupant. The building - the second highest on the island and offering a great view of the town, the distant reefs and small satellite islands, and across to the mainland - belonged to a Portuguese equivalent of the Opus Dei, a Catholic organisation. Joao was the caretaker and lived in a small partitioned room on the second floor. His makeshift kitchen was on the landing. I was struck by how grand the building was inside, and also how sad it was to see it in such disrepair. The downstairs corner room with thick walls and windows (the restaurant in this my tastefully renovated fantasy guest house!) looked out on one side across the street, the other to the ocean. At present it was the one room in the building that had been cleaned up. The walls were plastered and the ceiling reinforced with steel girders. Rows of chairs were set out, a board with lectern at one end, from a conference held there two years previously.

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“It’s a scandal what the French did there! That building was a fine example of colonial architecture and it was their responsibility. When they left, they gave it to the church for a paltry sum, who ripped out the hardwood floors and ceilings. Destroyed it!” Bente Matheson was the Norwegian architect looking after the Bergen - Ilha de Mozambique conservation program and was exasperated at the neglect of many of the buildings.
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I had met Bente through an encounter earlier that evening with her husband Luis Corte-Real, a balding, distinguished looking and very friendly East Timorese gentleman in his late fifties. Having a fondness for Ireland (we had supported them during their fight for independence) he had invited me back to their apartment for a glass of vintage Portuguese brandy.

East Timor in Mozambique
It was through a roundabout series of events that they found themselves in Ilha de Mozambique. During the East Timorese fight for independence, the former Prime Minister had lived in exile in Mozambique, invited here by the sympathetic Frelimo government. There was a connection between the two former Portuguese colonies. Luis was related to that leader in exile. His residency in Norway and subsequent marriage to Bente, and Bente’s position as conservation architect in the Norwegian World Heritage Site of Bergen - all led eventually to her developing the Bergen - Ilha de Mozambique conservation project. The project extends up the east coast of Africa to the other historic Swahili trading islands of Zanzibar in Tanzania and Lamu in Kenya.

Formerly the East Timorese representative for Scandinavia and instrumental he told me in the awarding to his comrade Horta the Nobel Peace Prize, Luis had since been practising as a psychologist in Norway for a number of years, having moved on from his diplomatic career. Or perhaps not. He told me of developments over which he was deliberating, whether to accept the post of Ambassador to Thailand in his country’s new government, responsible for all South East Asia, or to get involved in more active politics and accept the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs, or possibly Social Affairs both positions for which colleagues had lobbied for him. Though the responsibility of being a Minister in his government was more prestigious, he indicated his preference for the quieter diplomatic life of an Ambassador. He would know the next day - unfortunately I was to leave and didn’t find out if I had met the incoming East Timor Minister for Foreign Affairs.



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Impressions on Ilha
Visible on the shore across the bay from the island were the enticing sands of Praia de Chocas, accessible from Mossuril on the mainland. One day with Debra, a friend visiting from South Africa riding pillion, I took the bike - the long way around - to this beautiful beach (pictured below), about two hours by road. The final few kms were through deep beach sand - manageable as I wasn’t loaded with luggage. And it was worth it for the long deserted stretch of white sand, and milky blue sea calmed by a reef about a kilometre offshore. We swam out to a small rowing boat moored bobbing offshore, and sprawled dozing in the sun, hypnotised by the rocking and the sound of the sea lapping against the side - slipping into the water occasionally to cool off. Lunch was a huge, very rich grilled lobster for €6 washed down with the juice of a fresh young coconut, the top knocked off with an expert sweep of the beach boy’s panga.

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Other impressions of Ilha...
- The light blue of the Indian Ocean in the bright sunlight at the end of a street of two story faded colonial buildings;
- Large, impressive institutions like the hospital, or town hall, signs of a former grandeur, now derelict and crumbling;
- Enjoying a sun downer in the back garden of Reliqueria restaurant on the sea shore, the music of the great Mozambican guitarist Jimmy Dludlu on the stereo;
- The amplified cry of the muezzin five times daily heard throughout the island calling the predominantly Muslim population to prayer;
- An indulgent picnic of delicious imported Portuguese cheese, meats and wine below the walls of the massive fort (and time spent in the haven of Fernando's tiny air conditioned delicatessen drinking short black coffees sampling European chocolate);
- Watching local boys and girls enjoying the island’s small beach on Sunday, horse playing on a sailing dhow (below), outlined black bodies shining in the setting sun...

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The few days spent on Ilha de Mozambique was like living in a time warp, isolated from the rest of the continent by three kms of sea... and a few centuries in time. Though tourism is undeveloped because of its distance form other obvious attractions, there is a growing (though unobtrusive) tourist presence there.
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Because there is a market, there is a growing choice of accommodation - from basic local options, to tastefully refurbished old high ceilinged stone mansions. (Our modestly priced room at Mouxa guest house, opposite the old Immigracao office, pictured right). And some good restaurants too! I could have stayed longer, but the journey beckoned. Before climbing onto my bike, I took a picture ( below right) of the manager of the guest house.
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As was the Makua custom, on her face she had smeared paste made form bark of a local tree as a beauty aid, a moisturiser.

My next destination was Pemba further north. The road cut inland, bringing me away from the coast and through the lush interior. Where
chapas and buses stopped in villages, women in capulanas - like a sarong - sold bags of cashew nuts. These were to be seen sold at most road stops throughout the country. Cashew nut trees had been brought here by the early Portuguese from Brazil, and were a major export. Regularly men would wave a live pair of chickens by the claws at me. Where did they think I’d put them? Debra had taken a chapa the previous day - vowing never again. It had taken twelve hours, most of it standing, stopping at every crossroad and settlement, cramming more passengers in.

The five hour journey was on fairly decent tarmac, and I made good progress. The Lurio River bridge marked my crossing from Nampula to Cabo Delgado, the northern most province, its isolation giving it a reputation for trouble. ‘Fiercely independent’, it had been a strong support base for Frelimo during the fight for independence against the Portuguese, and saw some of the worst fighting during the civil war.

Four-Legged Hazards on the Road
Riding around the byways of Africa on a motorbike, animals on the road are a fact of life. You learn which ones to be wary of, and others that are used to traffic. Donkeys - ‘not natural enthusiasts, they walk as if they have arthritis’ - seem quite oblivious to what's going around them, and usually don’t react to my passing. However if spooked they can dangerously bolt across the road. I slow right down for donkeys. And cattle for similar reasons. Dogs are fairly street wise and get out the way. Goats I’ve found to be reassuringly predictable in their reactions to my approach. They follow a pattern, when disturbed invariably taking the obvious direction getting off the road, whether its joining the rest of their brethren, or ducking off the nearest edge.

My record so far had been pretty good - only collecting one young goat under the wheels while riding slowly through an Angolan village. Today my record would double, an incident with a goat head butting my foot at 80 kms an hour marring the journey somewhat. There was a fifty fifty situation with one goat separated from his pals on the road. If I was riding cautiously I would have slowed down, but I was lazy, foolhardy, leaving it up to the goat to decide his own fate. Of course at the last minute he veered the wrong way. It would have been dangerous to swerve suddenly so I braced for the impact. He hit my left foot with his head, and despite wearing protective motocross boots, sending such a painful shock up my leg I was sure my foot was broken. Not stopping to enquire after the goats health, I continued on, all kinds of thoughts going through my head - what does a broken foot mean for my trip; how could I get the bike to Pemba without being able to change gear, or even stand; is there a hospital there... But when the immediate shock of the pain subsided I found I could actually move my foot! Hooray, maybe just a sprain. Reassuringly the bike had maintained its steady course - the BMW may be criticised for its weight but it can hit goats at speed without faltering!

Wimbe Beach
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Arriving in Pemba a couple of hours later without further incident, I made my way to the only campsite, ‘’Russell’s Place’, at the end of Wimbe Beach. What an exciting first view of the beach - milky blue sea glimpsed through coconut palms and white sand - as I rode along the promenade. On landward side, holiday houses and apartments (low rise to be fair) gave the Wimbe Beach quite a developed feel. It was a destination where European tourists flew in to the resort, and flew out again. The accommodation and restaurant prices I was to find reflected this.

Russell himself is a friendly Australian from Brisbane - presumably the climate there equipped him for Pemba’s humid heat - and had been up here for eight years. The campsite is an attractive spot with a popular bar and various ex pats made it a rendezvous for socialising. Nick, a South African who previously had been a ranger in the Kruger National Park, had a tourist concession in the nearby wilderness. He had semi permanent campsites and took visitors on three day walking safaris (“not hunting”) into the bush. His two mates Ian and Connie were helping him out. Ian saw me limping and thought he was being smart asking me if I had a problem with gout. “No”, I shot back at him rather defensively (I actually used to!), “Problem with a goat!” They thought I was joking. The next few evenings the greeting became, “How’s the gout?”

Russell had four or five backpacking Europeans, who’d made their way this far north, working in the campsite in return for bed and board. Along with these I met two English ladies who owned a restaurant in Ibiza, here on holiday. And Leslie, a remedial teacher of juvenile delinquents in Toronto with her ‘travelling partner’, the permanently good humoured Mussa, a tall rasta with model good looks from Lamu island in Kenya. Two Tanzanian registered Land Cruisers pulled in one evening, the drivers having deposited their Italian clients in more upmarket accommodation had elected to stay at Russell's. English was the second language of Tanzania, and so I chatted with them about their country, and more importantly the road conditions. They confirmed what I expected - lots of deep sand! They also kindly made a list of essential Swahili vocabulary for me. English wasn’t understood in many parts of the south of Tanzania through which I’d be travelling.

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Resort experiences
With their brick pizza oven, Friday night pizza was a favourite draw in Russell's Place, and in fact the regular evening buffet there was good value in comparison with the more expensive options further down the beach. The Aquila Romana - as the name suggests, an Italian restaurant - was recommended and so Debra and I decided to treat ourselves one evening. We were early, the first customers, and were shown to a table on the side of the restaurant with a view out to the ocean. A three sided room, set dramatically above the shore, the fourth side was open to the sea. A glass wall separated the main restaurant from what appeared to be a large reception room, but on further inspection was the manager’s office (or was he the owner?). Brightly lit and minimally decorated, the white walls were hung with a small number of attractive art works. This stylish look was accentuated by a simple but heavy timber desk - side on, in the middle of the room. The manager was seated at the desk, the surface naturally cleared, looking occupied studying a sheet of paper.

He had a shaved head and fashionable week-old blond stubble and was dressed untidily chic in baggy t-shirt, waist coat and cut off denims. Oddly, an ethnic textile handbag swung from his shoulder wherever he went. What did he need to carry around we wondered, amused at the eccentricity. A little later the manager approached our table to greet us and inform us the special was tuna. When I asked about it, he pointed behind me to where two kitchen hands were butchering a large fish on the beach.

I had politely asked did he speak English. “A leetle, yes.” He responded. This usually indicates the speaker is being modest and has enough to converse. This guy literally had a little. He translated into Portuguese our order to the waiter at his side - but way off target. My very rudimentary grasp of the language was enough however to realise we were going to get something quite different to what we thought we were ordering if I didn’t correct it. He seemed to be making it up!

The restaurant was now filling. A walkway at the edge of the floor area curved out over the rocks, at the end of which was perched a dining table with an uninterrupted view down Wimbe Beach. It looked to me like a film set for a James Bond movie. Silouetted against the evening sky, a couple in their early thirties - northern European in complexion - were seated at this candlelit table, and after a little apparent self conscious chat and giggling, seemed to settle in to the conspicuousness of their position in the restaurant.

However, a short time after receiving their food, a few ominous, heavy drops of rain made us all nervous for them. Two waiters hurried out, fussing around their table attempting to erect an umbrella as the couple paused over their meal. They were probably aware this was now developing from a curiosity to a source of amused diversion for the rest of us. And then the wind came up and the heavens opened. The couple, huddled together under the umbrella to avoid the splashes from the downpour, abandoned their meal and ran for cover under the restaurant roof. Such was the ferocity of the cloudburst, most tables were now affected, leaks streaming from gaps in the makuti roof, and there was a general movement back from the edge. The thing was, everyone was grinning! What could have been a drama, was indeed entertainment. And of course the rain stopped as suddenly as it had started.

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‘...pink Portuguese planter in a palanquin’ - (the pompous, priggish) Paul Theroux
Before Independence in 1975, there had been a two tiered society in Mozambique, skin colour determining social relations. The Portuguese colonials were then largely expelled - or fled I couldn’t find out exactly, many to neighboring South Africa - after Independence, reputedly destroying factories, equipment and machinery they couldn’t take with them. Apparently many of these Portuguese were now behind the huge increase in South African investment in the ‘new’ Mozambique, particularly noticeable I was told, in the burgeoning tourism industry in the south of the country.

Up here in the far north, maybe unluckily, I encountered a few unpleasant representatives of their tribe. One was a Wimbe Beach restaurant owner, a sixty year old man with tinted glasses and liver spots, who when I found him, seated behind the wheel of his luxury 4x4 ready to pull out of the restaurant compound, reminded me of Paul Theroux's line. I knew he was chairman of Pemba Tourism, and he looked at me suspiciously as I introduced myself. When I challenged his unbelievable rudeness to Debra, he became obsequiously polite (though just another tourist I was tidily presented, unusually for me, and presumably represented a ‘civilised European’ to him. He wasn't to know I was one those budget travellers that camp up in Russell's Place, and don't drop much money at the resort), naturally claiming it was all a total misunderstanding and insisted we be his guests at the restaurant. I didn't accept.

Another was during our final evening in Pemba when we went to a restaurant famed for its steak, “flown directly in from Nelspruit” claimed the Afrikaans owner. I was looking forward to this as it had been a long time since I’d had a good steak. And the possibility of wine... Once again we were early, arriving at ‘556’ restaurant looking over the old port of Paqueteke in Pemba, to catch the evening sun setting across what is proudly declared in the tourist information as the third largest inland bay in the world. As we entered the bar, a very drunk white Mozambican - I assumed he was Portuguese until he corrected me - tried loudly to accost me in conversation. In his mid forties and lightly bearded with a ponytail, when he discovered I was Irish he began railing on about what great drinkers we were, fighting the English, etc, etc.

After pausing I managed to continue past him without being rude. Seated outside, a group of young American girls were also enjoying a sun downer. Our drunk friend stood at the door trying to chat them up. Unsurprisingly not getting very far, all we could then hear from the other end of the wooden deck was loud denunciations about Americans, and “why don’t you go to Iraq”, until he got quite personally abusive towards them. The girls didn’t respond which seemed to rile him more. Unable any longer to ignore the situation, I suggested to him that was enough, and of course I now replaced the girls as the object of his invective. “Don’t tell me that's enough,” he roared. “Motherf****r.” And on he ranted - though he didn’t come down the steps - until the owner came out and talked the troublemaker back inside. A few minutes later I thought of my bike parked outside the door and hurried out to check. The drunk had gone, and I saw his angry face behind the wheel of a ‘backie’, or pick up truck, pealing off up the road. The owner, obviously in an awkward situation as the objectionable customer was a local, came over full of apologies, “some people just can’t hold their drink”. (I was left a little apprehensive, mindful of an incident involving a friend in the States where the drunk returned with a gun!) It didn't affect my dinner. The T-bone steak, with a bottle of red wine, was one of the best I’d eaten.

... little used route between N Mozambique and S Tanzania. The border route is one of the most challenging in Africa. Bradt Guide to Mozambique
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After the fun and games in Pemba it was time to move. A final quick dip in the bath warm sea, and I got into my gear and said my good-byes. A gathering of curious staff came out to wave me off, and there was even an audience of street vendors from across the road. For the first time on my journey I felt a nagging sense of melancholy and doubt tugging at me. Why was I continuing to flog this journey? I’d achieved my goal of travelling from my home in Kilkenny to Cape Town at the other end of the continent, yet now I was looking at many more months of loneliness, discomfort, and risk.

Riding through the countryside, the feeling of being again on the move gradually began to dissipate my despondent mood. Wondering what was behind it, I thought back to the events of that morning before departing. Lets see - firstly getting out of bed, a necklace I’d been given and worn since way back in Burkina Faso eerily broke (of course it had to at some time, but why today?). There was a lingering disappointment at The Irish Times not responding to an article I’d sent in. And no doubt the thought of Debra, stepping on a plane later that day on her way to the comfort of Durban, a new job and regular income, was a factor.

But probably more significant, I recognised an underlying anxiety about the road ahead. I was riding north into terra incognita as far as any guide books were concerned, and nobody could give me any information on what the conditions were like. This far north in Mozambique, I still didn’t know if it was possible to cross into southern Tanzania.