Lonely Planet told us that the three and a half kilometre bridge from the mainland to Mozambique Island has a 1.5 tonne limit; since that was just over Joseph’s live weight we would never get over it. Luckily enough for us there was a campsite right next to the aforementioned bridge; we could camp there and walk over.
Unsurprisingly, we arrived at the bridge, campsite to our left, and saw the capital letters that spelt “FIVE TONNOS WEIGHTOS DELIMITOSADADA” (that’s paraphrased pigeon Portuguese.) (Another turd in the cap of an already foul smelling head dress borne by LP.) It was splendid news, but we decided we’d check out the campsite anyway as the island’s accommodation was sure to be pricey.
The campsite initially appeared deserted but after a few minutes wandering we found our man. He looked like a crap Mexican wrestler, without his mask and on his day off. His pubic hair brimmed over his faded and stained light blue swim shorts as his spherical, pert and surprisingly hairless belly formed the mountain above the forest. He had one or perhaps two earrings and mid-neck length curly hair that was greasy and fitted well with the overall image he was sporting. He wanted 200 meticais each to camp (five quid) plus 300 for Redvers. This meant that he was a thief as well as a visual disgrace. We told him we’d look around the island and would be back if there was nothing else. We left him in his empty campsite; we’d be living it up on the island for a few days.
A quick history lesson; Mozambique Island has been a trading station in some form or another for over seven hundred years. The Arabs, Persians, Madagascans and other locales were all using it as a centre of commerce. From the fifteenth century onwards ivory, gold, porcelain, silk and slaves were traded, amongst other things, and the fortress of Sao Sebastiao was built by the Portuguese at the northern end of the island. Huge granite walls and cannons galore provided an adequate turret to see off the unwelcome advances of the Dutch amongst others. The island soon became the capital of Portuguese East Africa until it was relocated at the turn of the 19th Century to Lorenco Marques (now Maputo.) In recent times the island has become a UNESCO world heritage site for its architecture and history (they’re busy gluing roofs back on and sticking information plates to important buildings; the island is a history lesson in itself but is none the less a place that remains very much alive in the twenty first century. Every building has people in it, whether legitimately or squatting. People shit on the white sand beach because it’s what they’ve always done, if you gut your fish the entrails go seawards, if you have rubbish it gets dumped in the street, someone might clear it up. The island would be falling apart if it wasn’t only just held together. Multiple layers of fading paint are evident on the cracked and crumbling walls and some of these aged facades can hide wealthy second and third homes for those who have enough money. It is a place that has seen much wealth, a place where some of the wealthy still choose to have a home and a place that is certainly visited by the wealth from abroad. However it is a place made up mostly of the poor and it is they who live as if they were in medieval England, the island has a smell that never goes away. It’s the smell of the sea and of rotting rubbish; the rise of fancy bars and plush accommodation may signal the beginning of something different but this island is lived in and it is the leftovers and refuse from its inhabitants’ existence that fight with its history and architecture for the most memorable quality of this rock in an azure ocean. Fortunately the latter wins, but it faces stiff and relentless competition from the former.
As we drove onto the island we suddenly became the focus of attention, it felt like we might be the only vehicle there. In hind sight they probably stared because we looked like lost children far from home as we wandered slowly, wondering where to go and where we would stay. (There were several other cars too.) We came across a large green mosque that had opposite it a smart looking establishment with a fancy name. The big letters said ‘Patio Dos Quintalinhos’ the little letters said ‘Casa De Gabriel’ and our now expansive understanding of Portuguese informed us that this house was where Gabriel lived.
Inside we met a lady who spoke Portuguese and told us in sign language that there was no room at the inn. We were back outside; we’d need to make a plan. As we were formulating a plan B, a slender tanned gentleman in his thirties pulled up on board his Chinese 150cc two wheeled import. “Allo, I’ma Gabree-eller, thees ees mai ‘ouse, you’re luke-ing fora somewhere to stay-er?” Oh thank God, he was our Italian saviour who included Portuguese and English in his vocal repertoire. He was fully booked that night but he found us a place around the corner and we could stay at his place the following evening.
Amakhthini (Casa De Luis) wasn’t quite in the same league as Patio Dos Quintalinhos but the lady and her daughter seemed very nice. (We couldn’t work out which of the three men was the ‘Luis’ of the house’s title.) It had a dimly lit room with mosquito net, fan and double bed and it had showers with water. We had only been on the island for an hour and we were still in the’ little lamb’ phase. Outside I nervously poured the diesel from the jerry cans, stored on the roof, into the tank, assuming it would make it less easy to steal. We secured our things in the safe and put the curtains up and locked Redvers down. It’s fair to say we were paranoid. We always are when we first arrive somewhere; most of the time we’re proved wrong, sometimes we’re proved right, (especially after our stay in Mutare when someone had rubbed a hole in the dust on the back window to see what was inside.) The saying is ‘better safe than sorry’, but what better fulfils that white European stereotype than to pull up in an African village, in a car worth ten years salary of the average man, and proceed to look nervously around whilst bolting every last thing to the chassis. Whether we like it or not we’re consumers that live in a materialistic world and our materials included a camera, a computer and a car, the theft of at least one of those would be disastrous. An hour later we’d solidified our image but felt a lot better for it.
Our explorations led us to understand that the island is split into two. Stone town, with its huge fort and once fancy stone buildings, the historical residences of the well heeled; and Macuti Town, the semi-subterranean city which sits two metres below everywhere else because that ground was where the stone came from for the Portuguese fort. The buildings in Macuti were a lot smaller, varying from holey-roofed shacks to sturdy concrete single or double roomed buildings; mostly, they were made of wood with thatched roofs and sandwiched together uncomfortably close to one another. Our house was just on the Macuti side of the invisible border looking past the mosque, over the litter and filth lined shore and onto the channel of Indian Ocean separating us from the mainland. Our first beer came sat at a table and chair on the beach with sand between our toes and the vast Indian Ocean in front of us. We’d crossed southern Africa, Atlantic to Indian, Skeleton Coast to Mozambique Island, 8000 kilometres on land and nearly four hundred by ferry or canoe; not a bad achievement and certainly worthy of a beer.
Pressingly, we were about to learn a valuable lesson; the big bottles of beer were cheaper than the small bottles because big bottles get recycled whereas small bottles were yours to keep. The fact didn’t prevent a moderately heated discussion with the bar-keep over this alarming, (but gradually more pleasant as its true meaning sank in,) idiosyncrasy. We found another bar and as the light faded Somers spotted a couple that she’d seen in Tofo, (in Southern Mozambique,) one year previously when she’d been on holiday there with Emma and Sarah from home. Hendy was a local guy, born on Ilha (the cool-kids abbreviation for Ilha De Mozambique,) who had been working in Tofo where he had met his Israeli girlfriend Noa. Laura had originally spotted Noa’s beach time yoga sessions on the beach down south.
We got talking to Hendy for a while, it was his birthday and he suggested we could meet up later; six hours gone and we knew the locals, Somers was a pro. Our bar was pleasant in the extreme; situated on a street corner with narrow dirt roads running down two sides and glass windows looking across to a church that stood opposite. A few tables and chairs had been placed outside to take advantage of the cooler evening air; the rundown buildings with their ornate window frames and crumbling facades gave it an aged and antique feel. The night air was filled with song rising from the evening church service; the island was alive. It was a very nice place to be drinking a big beer and a mango brandy.
Our bar crawl extended to Flora De Rosa’s, another very smart bar whose major selling point, apart from its a superb Caipiroja’s, was its roof terrace, complete with log fires, that looked out over the old hospital. Whilst Somers got stuck into the cocktails I carried on marvelling that more beer cost less. We stumbled back to our abode a little drunken and a little in love with the island. We’d originally planned two nights but by the end of the first we knew it would never be enough.
The next morning we took a leisurely, onion omelette followed by mango, breakfast before moving over to Casa De Gabriel. Gabriel owned a garage so Redvers would be safe and our minds would rest easy; in fact, they would rest very easily as Gabriel’s place was beautiful. The front door opened onto a small courtyard with a huge palm tree that grew from the floor and out into the sky above. The next room back had a cushion-lined mokoro canoe suspended from the ceiling by ropes so that it could ‘float’ just eight inches from the ground; around the room stood armchairs, clocks and lamps. We continued through the building into a longer courtyard, past the stone steps to the roof terrace, and found an open air swimming pool nestled at the back of the building next to our room. Our bathroom was bigger than our bedroom and the hole in its roof allowed both the sun and the rain through and onto its black and white tiled floor. It was magnificent.
We spent the hottest part of the day in the pool with another couple, Thomas and Linda, Austrian and South African respectively and soon to be living in Tel Aviv. That evening we wandered around the island again, enjoyed a small beer in the exceptionally swanky, but during our visit at least, as quiet as a library, Villa Sands before dining at a local restaurant where we bumped into Hendy and Noa again. Over beers they told us that they were hiring a boat to get across to another island, Isla De Goa where they could camp for a night, and hinted that we might like to join them. The fact he was a local meant that he’d got the boat cheaper than anywhere we’d seen advertised and he was willing to split the costs evenly. We said we’d think about it.
We bumped into them the following morning and made a plan; twelve o’clock the next day we’d sail, aboard a Dhow, to Ilha De Goa. We’d camp for the night and return the day after. It all sounded like a great adventure and whilst we mulled it over, Laura and I visited the museum and were shown around the old fortress.
The great ocean beckoned and the next morning we excitedly packed our bags and got to the museum just in time for an almighty rain storm to arrive. We sat, thoroughly soaked, under the shelter on the steps to the museum as it became apparent that the boat wouldn’t be sailing in the next twelve hours. Plan B was a day trip the following day. We wandered, took photos and swam, before buying some fresh fish on the shore-side market as the boats came in; we bought bread, shima (mealie meal) and coke for our rum. The fish was cooked whole with a little salt, oil and lemon and tasted brilliantly fleshy and fresh. A few rums hit the spot and once more we slept dreaming of Goa.
The fact that Casa De Gabriel was located across from a mosque had not gone unnoticed. As anyone who has stayed near a mosque can attest, their call to prayer can be extremely therapeutic in the early evening as the light goes and the rum gets to work; it can also be an absolutely shocker at four in the morning when the loud hailer whines to life and your man starts screaming for Allah. I knew God was on the side of the just when I awoke with a flourish at around four in the morning to hear the beginnings of the rant only for our man of Islam to burst into a coughing fit half way through and forget to turn off his public address system, “ Allah ma... achh, aggghh, gugh, gggh, grr... Allaggghhhhhh... ag, agkh, agck. ” You could hear the phlegm. Its only saving grace was that it was so early that the affair retained a dreamlike quality and an hour later it was only half remembered. More impressive still were the two or three small children somewhere at the back of our building who would take it in turns to cry in a relay of whinging tears. If I have children they’d better behave themselves or they’re going to an orphanage. The ‘babies’ thing should bring me on to another story about Somers’ observations on African women and children but we’ll save that for a bit later.
Before long we were up, packed, and ready to ship out. We waded out to our dhow and climbed aboard. As we pushed off past the water’s edge, an edge lined with some of the most disgusting debris imaginable, turds, tampons, fish guts and rotten mango skins, our vessel crested into turquoise waters above white sands. Our dhow unfurled its sail and an almost absent wind blew us across the channel. I tacked up the rod and put it to sea, the other guys threw out their lines as the huge sail provided our only retreat from the sun. An hour or so later, we landed on the beach, still fish-less, and a rather green Somers took for a bit of beach life rather than taking a quick spin back out to catch lunch. With my new rod and reel against three other sets of line with a hook at the end, I once more felt like western whopper in Africa. If I didn’t catch I’d look like even more of prat, ‘all the gear...’ etc. Anyway I did catch, and I caught first, which made the me the winner of the unspoken competition, it was about five inches long and should normally have been thrown back in, but today everything was lunch. The guys laughed when I used a huge wooden pole to foreshorten any fishy suffering by splattering its brains on the deck.”Why would you do that?” they asked through Hendy. I likened a fish out of water to a man under the water, and told them that that wasn’t a very nice experience, I’m not sure they really cared. It was another case of weird foreign ways. Hendy caught another tiddler and when he told me it was one one-one I knew that the competition hadn’t only been in my mind. Laura and Noa swam out through the azure crystal water to meets us and we swam back with them. Back on the island we met a spear fisherman that looked like he’d been through the entire cast of ‘Finding Nemo’ and had them to offer us for dinner. This would not be ethical eating, but they were already dead and we had nothing to eat. Two dollars bought us three probably slightly more endangered fish. Garlic, oil, lemon, fire, munchy-munch-munch with rum to wash them down. They didn’t taste endangered.
Laura and I went for a wander to see the light house and on our return found that the waves were now crashing on to the beach and our little wind powered dhow couldn’t get into land against the wind. It was a silly situation, had it just been us we could have swam out easily and boarded, but we’re westerners and our camera wasn’t as keen on salty water as we were. After half an hour of trying, the Dhow tacked out to try and make an alternative landing further up the beach. Two hours later they made it. We’d whiled away our time sleeping, swimming and playing on the rocks. The rocks were fun. In places they formed blow holes where the shelf-like construct had a hole in its roof as it were. The waves would crash under creating a huge pressure jet of water that roared through the holes and blasted up towards the sky; creating both a rainbow and an amusing place to put your head.
The return boat journey became melancholically ethereal as the wind suddenly dropped, the sun set and the stars came out. The starlight guided us across the Mozambique Channel and we glided past the fortress and into the harbour.
The long day, the sun, the salt and the endangered lunch had left us hungry. Miss Somers had temporarily lost her taste for fish, shima or anything else remotely African. We had superb pizzas in the same bar that we had visited on the first evening. Later we retired to Gabriel’s for our last night on the island.