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Quirimbas Archipelago

Text Catherine Born Photographs Mike Rose One of the most exciting things about visiting Mozambique is how foreign it feels, yet you don’t have to travel far to get there. A two-hour flight from Johannesburg and you’re in Pemba, where echoes of the Arabs and Portuguese who once lived here linger in the architecture and the ‘Boa tardes’ that greeted our early afternoon flight. Sweet-smoky smells and baobab trees remind you, though, that you’re in Africa. Pemba is not only the springboard for exploring the Quirimbas (a splatter of islands just off the coast of northern Mozambique), it’s also home to a busy souk of crafts and silverwork. Here, too, tours of nearby cashew plantations or visits to the local white-marble workshops can be organised. However, you’ll be forgiven for succumbing to the thick, tropical air – and Clube Naval at Pemba Beach Hotel, where you can rest your sandy feet while comparing the local brews, 2M and Laurentina. A few days spent here and in the hotel’s top-rated Sanctuary Spa will slough away memories of to-do lists and relax weary muscles – all necessary to get you into the rhythm of island life. BLUE-SKY THINKING My African holidays have usually involved a trip to my destination by nerve-jangling taxi in the company of cackling chickens or a sack of fish. Perhaps that’s why I so thoroughly enjoyed our 20-minute hop from Pemba to Rani Resort‘s Matemo Island lodge in the four-seater Beechcraft that skimmed over mangrove-lined rivers emptying into the ocean, creating swirls of teals and leafy greens. The fin-shapes of dhow sails pricked the ocean, while splashes on the surface hinted at the marine life teeming below. Immediately after landing alongside a row of palm trees that lined the runway on Matemo Island, we were saved by a golf cart from the five-minute walk to reception, where fruit cocktails and cooling hand towels awaited. It appears I’m well suited to island living! My first priority was a dip in the ocean, whose sandy bottom and crystal-clear water created the impression of a swimming pool that extended towards the horizon. Splashing around in the sun inspired thoughts of lunch, so after a quick rinse under the outdoor shower of my little palm-thatched bungalow, I joined the others at Jambo restaurant where, over a fishy feast, we decided to spend the afternoon exploring nearby Ibo Island. Just a few hours after arriving on Matemo, I found myself watching it recede, hair flapping in my face, as the resort’s speedboat took us thumping over swells towards Ibo, one of Mozambique’s most interesting, but largely unknown, places. OF PIRATES, SLAVES AND SILVER COINS Ibo Island is a place of lost secrets, where the remnants of a once-thriving capital are slowly being strangled by the roots of fig, almond and flamboyant trees. These exotic species hint at the origins of the island’s former inhabitants. Feuding between Arab and Portuguese traders led to the building of the first fort to defend the narrow shipping lanes around the island, which were also under threat from pirates. Later, when French plantation owners on Mauritius and Reunion needed labour, Ibo became even more prosperous as a slave station, and a further fort was needed. Villas and municipal buildings sprang up around a central square, and Portuguese settlers, together with Indians and Chinese from the Portuguese colonies of Goa and Macau, all lived here. Chinese gravestones dating back centuries can be found on the island. Then, just under a hundred years ago when Pemba was made the capital of the province, colourful Ibo fell into decline, its grand colonial facades now only shadows of their former selves. The few people left on the island became craftsmen, melting down reserves of old Portuguese coins and turning them into intricate pieces of jewellery. While the coins have long since gone, the island is still known for its silversmiths, who now work from São João Baptista, the largest of the abandoned forts, and sell their wares to tourists. With sea spray stinging my eyes as we made our way back to Matemo, I contemplated all that had taken place on this outcrop in the Indian Ocean. Ibo’s value is only now being appreciated, with plans underway to make it a World Heritage Site. Back on Matemo we were reacquainted with all that is good about the Quirimbas today. At the bar we ordered caipirinhas in our continuing quest to find the best in the archipelago. It’s a task we took seriously after our host assured us that ‘you don’t get hung-over in Mozambique’. A feast of crayfish tails so big that I had to share my second helping was a sublime way to end a day highlighted by sensory offerings. IT’S LIFE, JIM, BUT NOT LIFE AS WE KNOW IT Spock’s famous words echoed in my mind as I looked out at the long stretches of shallow, Listerine-coloured water surrounding Medjumbe Island, the second Rani Resort-run island in the Quirimbas. After days of arresting views, spectacular Medjumbe was a bit otherworldly. A private island so small that we could stroll round it in less than an hour, it was, until recently, uninhabited. It’s home to a wide variety of birds, some migrating each year all the way from Siberia. We spotted a dimorphic egret and a whimbrel among the many herons, ibises, plovers and sandpipers around. (Pack binoculars with your sunscreen.) Dripping from reading a book in my private Jacuzzi, I joined my companions, who were enjoying a late dessert after spending the afternoon diving on a nearby reef. The Quirimbas is one of the most biodiverse marine regions on earth, where you can, if you are lucky, swim with dolphins and even spot a rare dugong. While eating our chocolate éclairs, we engaged in animated discussions about dolphins and a wormlike sea creature that even the dive master could not identify. Inspired, I donned mask and snorkel, and went looking for the tiny reef sharks that’d been spotted nosing around the rocks below us. I’VE STILL GOT SAND IN MY SHOES… ‘Is today Friday?’ a voice asks, the question left floating in the air by our blissed-out group, tummies satisfied from a buffet breakfast that offered Bloody Marys along with bacon and eggs. Too hot for fancy clothes, too sticky for jewellery and too relaxed to care, I am lolling on a Zanzibari day bed waiting for our plane to emerge from the sky above and take us back to Pemba, and back home to deadlines, schedules and traffic. When the plane’s whining engines are heard, we look around for our shoes and get ready to leave. Knowing that life can unfold so perfectly in this corner of the world will be fuel for future daydreams. PACK YOUR BAGS To book contact Blue Moon Travel. In Cape Town call Julia on 021-552-9593 or 082-446-0398, and in Jo’burg call Marta on 011-616-7236 or 082-557-1615. GETTING THERE

  • Airlink operate two flights a week, on Wednesday and Saturday, from Johannesburg to Pemba. To book contact Airlink 011-451-7300,
  • CFA Air Charters transported us between the islands, to book contact CFA Air Charters, 011-312-0196,
This article was originally featured in the January 2010 issue of House and Leisure.