Close to the border with Tanzania and roughly 2,500 kilometers north of the Mozambican capital of Maputo, the waters around Ibo and the other 30 islands of the Quirimbas are a colorful mix of African, Portuguese and Arabian influences. To explore them properly, I joined an inter-island safari on a weather-beaten dhow.
Beached on wooden supports at the mainland coastal village of Arimba, our boat – the Vagabundu – throws long shadows onto glaring mud and stranded seawater pools. Her name is hand-painted in bright purple acrylic close to her stern but little else in her design seems changed from the days of Sinbad, when dhows such as this were first used for inter-island commerce. The tide is out and the distant sea is a shimmering turquoise line, capped with smudges of white surf.
The stars are still blazing overhead when I am woken at 2am with a cup of steaming coffee. I can just see the 'Vagabundu' bobbing offshore in waves lit by a bright sliver of moon. Yesterday, the sea was a distant haze but now it wraps the nearby mangrove trees nearby in its salty embrace.
The Vagabundu’s captain, Juma “Papa” Chande, supervises the hoisting of the hefty lateen sail, which takes all six of the crew. The sail goes taut in the stiff breeze, while ropes of coconut fiber groan in protest. As the crew relaxes on the narrow deck Chande comes to sit beside me, massaging his sandpaper-like stubble as we all admire a fiery Quirimbas sunrise.
Vagabundu is already making stately progress toward Mogundula, an uninhabited island dotted with palm trees and squat baobabs. The captain beaches her on a low sand bar, where she is washed from both sides by gentle surf. I am not sure whether to go snorkeling, kayaking, take photos, or just read a good book.
By sunset I have managed to find another option: all of the above.
The waters of the Quirimbas Islands teem with life. They are home to the dugong, a near-extinct sea mammal whose human-like breasts may have given us the legend of the mermaid, as well as turtles, whales and dolphins. But it is the unbleached corals that are the true treasure of this corner of paradise. They shelter countless thousands of other tiny fish and break down into the bright white sandy beaches that are littered with starfish and alive with crabs.
My next few days are spent in equally leisurely pursuits; snorkeling the coral outcrops that ring the shoreline, meandering along coastal forest paths, swimming off the sand spit that juts out to the south, or simply soaking up the endlessly gorgeous views.