No Man(It)’s An Island – Ilha De Mozambique - It Was Love At First Sight
As good as his word Pai Diesel was waiting for us at the boom and entrance gate as he’d agreed. We understood that heavy vehicles like the Honey Badger would not be permitted to cross the 4 km bridge built in the 1960s, linking Ilha de Mozambique with the mainland.
He said it would be “no problem.” Just a negotiation with the officials operating the gate. “If heavy Handling delivery trucks can trundle across the bridge,” he said, “then we have no problem.” Butch wasn’t so sure. “Rules is rules”, he maintains. While Diesel went off to negotiate, we got stuck into finding a suitable parking spot for the truck.
Born and bred on the island Diesel knew everyone, even the gate operator. Within minutes, after much pointing and gesticulating, explaining repeatedly, the guard stopped shaking his head and nodded an empathic yes. Whoop-whoop. Diesel’s big toothy grin confirmed we would travel to Ilha de Mozambique in our truck.
Fees had to be paid, and a receipt was issued. The transaction was above board. That was a comfort and proved to be our saving grace a week later.
While we made our way slowly across the bridge, Diesel got stuck into finding a camping spot. There are no official campsites on the island, but he knew of a few possibilities. The Hotel Omuhipiti in Stone Town would be perfect. He knew the manageress and was sure she’d be “thrilled to have us stay.”
It could be female intuition or our Superpower, which enables women, who’ve not lost the ability, to glide, or sidle, into a situation and feel the atmosphere on our skins and in our bones. We can walk into a home and sense the skeletons shaking in their closets. That’s why no sweet talking by an estate agent can tell us whether a house is the right fit. Often the ugly ducklings speak the loudest. Their potential is hidden beneath layers of paint, wallpaper, musty carpets, claustrophobic walls, and ugly tiling. Lifting the layers unearths all the potential. Likewise, a picture-perfect mansion can leave us cold.
I had the same feeling driving off the bridge onto the island. It was love at first sight. The ghosts of history speak loudly, calling us to look, learn and experience this island’s contradictions, beauty, horrors, repulsive scars, freedom and bondage.
The Island of Mozambique is a calcareous coral reef situated 4 km from the mainland on Mossuril Bay in the Indian Ocean—Nampula Province of the Republic of Mozambique.
The island forms an archipelago with two small uninhabited islands, the Islands of Goa and Sena, to the east.
The island communities are intimately associated with the history of navigation in the Indian Ocean, as the island played a unique role in intercontinental trading links from the 10th century. Its historic importance relates to developing and establishing Portuguese maritime routes between Western Europe and the Indian subcontinent.
On the seas, traditional Arabic Dhows continue to set sail swishing silently in the bay, their white canvas sails pockets bulging on the trade winds.
Hezron, my friend from Beira, told us how his grandfather, a sea trader, would gather cargo and sail his Dhow north with the trade winds, a wind blowing steadily towards the equator from the northeast in the northern hemisphere or the southeast in the southern hemisphere. He would barter goods, filling the hold as he sailed. They would return six months later on the northeast wind.
Diesel explained that the island has two different types of dwellings and urban systems. The stone and lime town of Swahili, Arab and European influences in the north, called Stone Town, and the Macuti town (a neighbourhood of roofed palm leaves and thatch) of traditional African architecture in the south.
The Macuti town was built below street level to conceal the “slums” from wealthy prying eyes. This warren of alleys and tiny homes is the heart of Ilha De Mozambique. Most labourers, builders, carpenters, fishermen, traders and stall keepers still live in Macuti town, where building materials’ scarcity and elevated costs have not been conducive to maintenance or improvements.
Macuti town had an enormous population influx during the civil war (1976-1992), leading to overcrowding and poverty and the inadequate water supply causing sanitation problems.
Wells are used to collect water as there is no fresh water source on the island. The primary water supply for the Ilha de Mozambique is a piped system. It dates from 1966, when the bridge was constructed. During the rainy season, floods cause erosion and exacerbate the severe decay of buildings, the technical infrastructure and the restoration environment.
The stone and lime town, created over 400 years, is remarkable. With its administrative and commercial properties, it was the first seat of the Portuguese colonial government that lasted from 1507 to 1898.
Mozambique Island’s buildings and fortifications are exceptional examples of architecture and building techniques resulting from cultural diversity and the interaction of African people, Arab, Persian, Indian and European origin. This uniformity makes the town an architectural collective of exceptional uniqueness and value.
The same building techniques, materials and decorative principles were used throughout. The island’s heritage also includes its oldest fortress (St. Sebastian, 1558-1620), other defensive buildings and numerous religious buildings (including many from the 16th century).
The island is also in the path of cyclones, and much restoration work to the damaged buildings has been required due to the devastating 1994 storm.
Although the building materials and techniques are verified as original, and most buildings are authentic, conserving a “living monument” interlaced with complex socio-economic problems and changing demands will require an empathetic approach.
If the present development trends are not reversed, and its transformation through modern building materials continues, Macuti town’s authenticity could be compromised. A conundrum. Can one expect urban development to cease?
We were permitted to camp on the annexe to the Hotel Omuhipiti, on a lawn near the kitchen, where there was an electrical point. The manageress kindly allowed us to shower and ablute in the Hotel while she was on duty—a great help and lovely to enjoy a hot shower every day.
After one night, we were part of the furniture and were thoroughly spoilt by Chef Atija and her best friend, sous chef Agira, who would ply us with delicious treats. When Butch succumbed to a dose of the collywobbles, they were the first to minister healthy broths and a peppery porridge which settled his tummy immediately. If we mentioned a particular dish, they would serve it the following day when they reported for duty. The crispiest, piping hot samosas with a distinctive Mozambique bite were a favourite.
I would waltz into the kitchen whenever I needed advice or help, and they would welcome me even when I knew they were swamped. I’d miss them when we leff but, I have a lovely photograph on my wall of memories to remind me of their kindness and generosity.
Pai Diesel escorted us to excellent local restaurants, where we enjoyed the best local meals. After all, we open up, chat, and share our histories and stories around a table. These we did with Diesel, who generously shared his knowledge with us.
Tourism is the island’s primary source of income and pre-Covid, tourists flocked to enjoy its rich history, architecture and sights. Numerous upmarket restaurants, bistros, cafes, and eateries are dotted around the island, especially in Stone Town, the hub of the tourist industry with many hotels, bed and breakfasts, etc.
We did two exploratory cycles around the island, enjoying the laid-back, easy lifestyle. The villas and mansions remind me of Portugal and even Italy, with a liberal dash of India and Persia. I can see myself swanning, Catherine Deneuve style, about one of those old homes with the pretty shutters, cool, richly patterned colourful tiled floors and walls. I’m at an age where I could make an entrance gliding down the circular staircase (not on the bannister) in a red chiffon gown and beaded, feathery slippers—very Indochine.
Doing the touristy thing is obligatory, and on a day, Diesel chartered a Dhow, and off we went sailing on the sapphire bluest turquoise ocean to see the island with its red and white candy striped Lighthouse. The views were unsurpassed, and we posed for photos to commemorate our visit.
The skipper and owner of the Dhow was teaching his son to sail, the teenager had to trim the sails, cast off and anchor us when we reached the island. The gentle, quiet way his father taught, with good humour and kindness rather than an impatient scold was touching and spoke volumes about respect, love and a genuine passion to pass on his skills in an effortless way.
Lunch was a five-star experience at the Coral Lodge—a special treat organised by Diesel. We would later wild camp on the beach nearby.
I would drift in and out of sleep, waiting for a muezzin’s first call from a minaret well before sunrise summoning Muslims to enter the mosque for farz salat. When Adhan is recited from one of the many mosques dotted around the island. A while later, the second call, iqamah, summons those within the mosque to line up for prayers.
On Sundays, the church bell took over with a tintinnabulating ding, dong, dell.
That would be our signal to switch on the kettle while grinding our earthy, slightly smokey Gorongosa Green coffee bean grown by local farmers in the heart of Gorongosa National Park.
While we dipped the last of our Woolies rusks, sipped our dark nutty coffee, and caught up with news from around the world, our children and our friends, tendrils of smoke from charcoal cooking fires would lazily drift past. Soon after, the heady aroma of spicy teas and breakfast porridge would rouse us to face another day of adventuring.
We’d hop into our cycling threads, and I wrapped a Kenyan kikoi to cover my legs. For modesty. Ready for an early morning cycle before the scooters, bikes and tuk-tuks took over and clogged the narrow streets and alleys. We’re never early enough, of course.
Many of the accommodations and restaurants in Stone Town are owned and managed by ex-pats, Portuguese, French, Italian and Spanish, where the Meditteranean has infused local traditions and cuisines. Our mission after our rides was to find a good coffee. Not easy for two reasons. One is that many establishments only open after eleven in the morning, and the other is that coffee is not widely consumed. It is an expensive commodity. Milky Chai Tea is more prevalent in the markets and on the street.
On our return, we inevitably found two, still warm, plates covered in cling film with our scrumptious brunch—something comforting or healing for Butch (the pampered pet) and something sweet for me. These plates would take us to supper.
Everyone takes to the streets in the late afternoon. Fishermen go out to set their nets or sail off to the horizon or further to catch their quotas. Friends gather around cooking fires, street food stalls, or families stroll out to sit on the ancient polished stone or cement benches along the marginal to watch the sunset and the youngsters play football on the beach.
It is believed that by sharing, one can strengthen bonds of brotherhood with the community and strengthen a sense of togetherness in society. Such a heartwarming philosophy has stood the test of time in these ancient communities that have survived political upheavals, the horrors of slavery, civil wars, natural disasters and poverty. Sharing is caring.
I can hear the muezzin’s prayerful call in the distance, the third one of five for the day. I’m sure the fishermen have arrived back on shore safely, and school’s almost out. Thanks will be offered, I’m sure. (We’re currently in Tanzania)
Ilha de Mozambique has four distinct flavours, the spiciness of India, the romance of Persia and the heady spices of the Arab traders, the olive oils, wines and vegetables of Portugal and the local fish, cashews and coconuts of colourful Mozambique all fused on a fragrant, spicey, smokey and colourful cauldron of simple pleasant food. We enjoyed sundowners, morning coffee, afternoon tea and dinner at the following places:
Rickshaws Pousada e Café, Flor de Rosa, Restaurante Reliquias, where we would always choose local cuisine, sometimes with a continental flair, but never something we could prepare and cook better at home.
Our first stop was a local restaurant near the fort, a family business run by the ladies in the family. We were so impressed with their fabulous matapa, a local spinach like leaf cooked with onions, garlic, chilli, cashew nuts and coconut milk, that we ordered a take-away for our freezer to be enjoyed later.
Another high point was Sunday lunch at a local restaurant in Macuti, where we joined regular clients who frequent this popular restaurant. Diesel selected the dishes he believed would give us a well-rounded tasting of the restaurant’s signature dishes which we shared. One of the dishes he ordered was a traditional Macuti fish stew enjoyed by everyone. Like our roast chicken on Sundays. Our tastebuds were wowed!
Afterwards, Butch had a few administrative tasks to complete and needed a printer, scanner, and reliable PC to do the job. In the Macuti, anything is possible, and soon we were parked outside a small 3mx4m internet shop where the very capable techies attended to all his admin needs and cheap as chips too.
I did a photoshoot in the clothing “boutique” next door, where the delightful sales lady posed, checked, deleted and posed repeatedly. Until she was happy with my feeble efforts and had me WhatsApp them to her. I felt used but succumbed to her charms.
The highlight for me was being able to walk wherever we wanted to go, never having to feel threatened or unsafe. As a South African, being anxious and nervous has become our norm. How liberating it is not to have to worry about our safety. No one is under suspicion. Our evening walks to and from the various restaurants were a highlight. We’d always walk past “my house”, the coral-hued stone Italian Palazzo on the corner. Passers-by often commented or explained something we didn’t understand as I swooned.
All land in Mozambique is state-owned. Local and foreign buyers own the right to use the land. However, the actual property on the land does not fall under this lease basis and thus can be sold, transferred or rented.
It can also be noted that we were not aware of homelessness. It is a matter of pride to the individual and a community to have a roof over their heads, no matter how humble. People care for each other, and I’m sure families and extended families would be concerned about someone in dire straights or older people.
I saw little girls, not much older than my youngest granddaughter, babysit a very young baby sibling, taking responsibility for that child while her Mum worked. Babies are “potty trained” at a few weeks old. Yes. Believe it or not. There are very few luxuries, and disposable nappies are only for a few privileged households. Give a child a ball, and you have given him freedom and a tool that will teach him limitless skills. In Africa children are your wealth... a few cattle and goats also help.
The Portuguese Governor’s Residence Museum was fascinating. Seeing their opulent lifestyle through the eyes of a local guide put a different spin on the historical facts, and seeing it through his perspective made an amusing and often shameful impact.
I could envision the small, slim man with his puffy velvet shorts, frilly linen long-sleeved blouse, tights and pointy leather booties holding court to strapping young fishermen in loincloths. Guess who looked the coolest or, as we say, who was “hot”?
It could only be a whip, gun or canon pointed at your head who spoke loudest.
I couldn’t swallow my shocked gasp when he showed us two Planter’s chairs on the veranda with extended armrests. The story goes that the Governor and his wife would recline on the chairs, their legs splayed and resting on the armrests to air and cool their nether regions. Have you ever?
The size of the ships/boats always fascinates me. It is hard to believe such perilous sea voyages could be undertaken in caravels, dugout canoes and Dhows. Like winebottle corks, they bobbed around the world.
With his keen interest in history, we were eager to visit the fort. Constructed by the Portuguese in the mid-16th century for defence and the trading of slaves, spices and gold.
During the Mozambiques civil war the fort was occupied by the army and the plaster of Paris replica of the fort was destroyed.
Historically human beings were bought and sold by African tribal chiefs, Arab Muslim traders, the Portuguese, and other European traders. Many Mozambican slaves were supplied by tribal leaders who raided warring tribes and sold their captives to the prazeiros.
The abolishment of the “Prazos” by royal decree of 1832 and 1854 created the conditions for the emergence of the “Estados Militares” in the Zambezi valley, which dedicated themselves specifically to the slave trade, even after its official abolition in 1836 and later in 1842.
By 1800 Mozambique had become one of the world’s major slave-trading centres. Hundreds of thousands of Mozambicans were sold to slave traders and sent to the Americas.
Side Note: At Solms Delta farm in Franschhoek, stone plaques honour the farm’s slaves, and even those who remain nameless, there is a plaque entitled simply ‘female slave’ or ‘male slave’ that serves as a memorial, and a sign of respect. Not only is there a name, but where the slave was captured. I noted many names from Inhambane.
Solms-Delta is committed to preserving the farm’s heritage steeped in slavery; the first colonists to settle on the farm were Hans Silverbach and his freed slave wife, Ansela van der Caab.
Ironically, Vasco Da Gama said of Inhambane, “Terra da Boa Gente—“land of the good people.” How the gentle people’s kindness was rewarded.
The Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, located on the island’s eastern tip, is considered the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere. Bells toll all over the island callling believers to church. Religious tolerance is evident as Ramadan is celebrated in the Makuti and all people are welcome to part-take in the celebrations at the end of the fast.
Unbeknownst to us, Butch was bitten by an infected female Anopheles mosquito. Only Anopheles mosquitoes can transmit malaria, and they must be infected through a previous blood meal taken from an infected person.
In hindsight, we realise he was already showing full-blown malaria symptoms.
Ilha de Mozambique would be our swansong to this beautiful country. We packed our goods and chattels and said goodbye to the fantastic people who befriended us, Agira and her friend Atija who, like two mother hens, checked on us every day and spoilt us with their special restorative and moreish sweet treats.
The manager of the Hotel Omuhipiti was a star and couldn’t be more affable or more generous. She is currently visiting her Mum in Portugal, taking a well-deserved break.
Pai Diesel, how on earth can I thank you for everything you did for us? Impossible. You went the extra mile every day. Your suggestions, recommendations, and advice were spot on every time. You are the reason we both fell in love with Ilha de Mozambique. Our time there will be remembered as one of our favourite visits.
I hope everyone I know who travels to Ilha de Mozambique writes down your telephone number, calls you to make all the necessary arrangements, and uses your guiding services to make their trip unforgettable. My photographs were taken while we were whizzing about in your green tuk-tuk. You are an excellent driver too!
The picnic lunch you packed for us was one for the books. Excellent. Your cassava was my first taste of that delicious vegetable and it ignited my taste buds. The packet of salted roasted peanuts you made for us was a favourite snack. We would ration small portions to make our stash last longer. Thank you.
The market was something I can never resist therefore before we set off I had to dip into some piles of limes, pick a fresh lettuce, and choose some plump, red, tomatoes from all the delightful stall owners who come over from the mainland twice a week.
Our send-off from Ilha de Mozambique didn’t go without a hitch. The boom gate was my big concern because it was not built to open wide enough for a two-meter-in-diameter truck to pass through. Getting into Ilha caused a traffic jam as a queue formed behind us as we inched through the gap scrape by scrape. On this day, we had a mile-long line of people and vehicles eagerly awaiting their turn to cross to the mainland.
The official at the gate pulled us over and informed us that we were prohibited from being on the island and that trucks weren’t permitted on the bridge. Flummoxed, Butch looked at him, blinking and at a loss for words. Diesel realised we couldn’t understand a word of the rapid Portuguese being spoken and took over speaking on our behalf.
Twenty-five minutes later, after much explaining, incomprehension (the guard), frustration (Pai) and disbelief (Butch), Pai calmly called the official who had taken our fees and had issued the documents. He was summoned over to come and explain things and set it right. The four-kilometre walk from the mainland took him another thirty minutes.
At last, we could prove everything was above board. We’d paid our fees and were assured those fees included the return trip. He confirmed.
This encounter reinforced our belief that it’s best to go by the book and avoid black market dealings, bribes or offers of “sodas”. Eventually, we slipped through the boom gate and trundled off feeling very chuffed with ourselves and Pai Diesel for being there to help us. We would still be sitting in Ilha, in a cell, trying to explain ourselves in non-existent Portuguese or Makhuwa (Emakhuwa; also spelt Makua and Macua), the local language. It is at times like this that no one understands English.
Last but not least: even after all these months and all the fascinating, exciting places we’ve visited, I could live in Ilha De Mozambique’s Stone Town in a coral and granite Villa. There’s something magical about the sunsets, the people, the history, the architecture, the gelatos we loved, the restaurants. I fell head over heels in love with it all.
Of course, love is blind, impractical and absurd. I know the negatives outweigh the positive, romantic, pipe dreams I had. P.S I don't smoke, anything.
Guide Extraodinaire and Tuk-tuk driver Pai Diesel: +258845107143