The Quirimbas Islands were occupied by Arab traders from the 10th century onwards, using the distinctive dhows that still sail its waters, such as this one off Matemo Island. Dhows continue to trade between East Africa and Arabia, carrying back dates and fish in exchange for mangrove timber sold to the Persian Gulf.
Quirimbas Islands – Long Read

“I like to spend some time in Mozambique”

Photo by Jad Davenport

Quirimbas Islands – Long Read “I like to spend some time in Mozambique”

Hello Mozambique, where the Quirimbas Islands remained an ecological paradise during the country’s long but now-ended civil war, protected by their remoteness and coral reefs. As more and more travelers rediscover the country’s magnificent Indian Ocean coastline, can these islands retain their pristine beauty?

Daniel Allen
Daniel Allen

“I like to spend some time in Mozambique, the sunny sky is aqua blue,” sang Bob Dylan. Standing on the seafront of Ibo Island in northern Mozambique today, his words come into mind as I survey a vista of coral-white sands, aquamarine Indian Ocean and, yes, high aqua blue skies. In the heat of mid-day, the only sign of movement is a fishing dhow, far out on the glittering sea, its triangular sail evoking romantic images of voyages to Arabia or the Persian Gulf. Behind me, the town snoozes in the bright Africa sun.

Mozambique enjoyed a brief tourism heyday in the swinging 1960s, when it was a remote Portuguese Colonial outpost on the fringes of the Hippie Trail, but the Quirimbas Archipelago attracted few visitors even then. Dylan wrote those words in the brief time of optimism after the country’s war of independence ended in 1975 and before a vicious civil war broke out that claimed perhaps 1million lives before it too ended in 1992. During all those decades, however, the Quirimbas remained a place apart, protected by its coral reefs and its distance from what central government clung on in the capital, Maputo. “The civil war barely touched the islands,” says my Zimbabwean driver Causemore Dzvene. “It did, however, wipe out what was left of the local tourist industry.”

Close to the border with Tanzania, 2,500 kilometers north of the Mozambican capital Maputo, Ibo and the other 30 islands of the Quirimbas are a colorful mix of African, Portuguese and Arabian influences. The graveyard holds the remains of the Indian, Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese and French who died here at the center of a trade network based on cargoes of spice, ivory, amber and slaves. Ibo supplied slaves to the French plantations on Mauritius and Reunion, while Indians and Chinese came from the Portuguese colonies of Goa and Macau.

Cannon still jut impotently toward the ocean

Fading colonial mansions, their pastel colors faded in the sun, line the main street, watched over by ornate street lamps rusted to hollow shells by the salt air. Only the brightly whitewashed walls of the 16th-century Catholic church, its thick walls planted solidly in the African earth, shine bright. The once-elegant houses hark back to the 1800s, when Ibo was part of a chain of trading posts along this Indian Ocean coastline, their names redolent of history: Lamu, Mombasa, Zanzibar… By the time slavery was banned at the end of the 19th century, the island’s decline had already begun and its population plummeted from 37,000 to just 3,500 in 2006. With the days of wealth long gone, most Quirimbas islanders now scratch a living from subsistence level fishing and agriculture, and life expectancy hovers around 40 years.

I end my walk on the ramparts of Ibo’s Fort de São João Baptista, where squat cannons still jut impotently toward the ocean. The walls of this star-shaped stronghold once held huge numbers of slaves, shackled together in stygian squalor for weeks on end and destined for the plantations of Mauritius, Reunion and even Brazil. It is easy to visualize them huddled in the dank rooms below, bewildered and pain- stricken, and hard to reconcile the beauty of the landscape with the callous greed that once dragged these poor souls so far from home.

In the courtyard, a spreading tree shades a group of silversmiths who earn a living by melting down old coins to make jewelry for tourists. This transformation from slave prison to craft-market is a tangible sign of the hope that tourism has brought to Ibo and the rest of the Quirimbas. Zimbabwean businessman Kevin Record is typical of the entrepreneurs who see the islands’ future in upmarket visitors. He and his wife first fell in love with Ibo during a visit in 1994 and they have now renovated two of the former colonial mansions into a boutique hotel.

Furnished with antique furniture, including four-poster Zanzibari beds, and opulent bathrooms, Ibo Island Lodge has become the island’s most important tourism investment, employing 40 local people in full time jobs. “We estimate that the lodge directly or indirectly benefits up to half of the population,” says Record. “We use fishermen to crew all of our dhows, which are a very green way to get around, and always try to buy local produce. We also teach most of our employees English, which in itself makes them far more employable.”

Conservation is development here

The lodge is typical of the thoughtful development taking place. “The archipelago’s Tourism Development Plan is about exclusivity, not attracting huge numbers of visitors,” says Sean Nazerali, a Mozambique-based support officer for the World Wide Fund for Nature. “Conservation is development here,” he continues. “If environmental resources are squandered or spoiled, which would undoubtedly be the case if everyone was allowed to build a hotel or eco-lodge, then what kind of legacy would be left for future generations?”

Some of this is a recognition of reality. Most visitors are from South Africa but it is an effort even for them to get to the provincial capital of Pemba before taking a small prop plane to Ibo or one of the other islands. The enforced solation has become a blessing and a selling point for the Quirimbas, preserving both a simple way and life and, more importantly, its marine environment. The waters are home to the dugong, a near-extinct sea mammal whose human-like breasts may have given us the legend of the mermaid. Turtles, whales and dolphins are among the other headline species to be seen 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. To explore further, I join an inter- island safari on one of the lodge’s weather-beaten dhows.

Beached on wooden supports at the mainland coastal village of Arimba, Vagabundu's  superstructure 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. Arimba itself is a simple place where chickens and goats scratch in the sand between huts made of coral and palm fronds. Hundreds of tiny iridescent fish and octopus lie drying on racks, filling the air with an odor so pungent it overwhelms the senses.

Eyes shine brightly in a pair of spectral masks

A trio of middle-aged women in capulanas – the Mozambican word for sarongs – sashays past, balancing huge bundles of grass on their heads. “It’s for roofing,” shouts Dzvene as he dashes off for water and, I suspect, a surreptitious cigarette. Beside one of the huts a makeshift stall offers passers-by a selection of unripe tomatoes, giant hands of finger-sized green bananas, and some desiccated corncobs. Two young girls lean against the stall, their faces caked in white musiro paste – the local sunblock. Beneath colorful headscarves their hazel eyes shine brightly in a pair of spectral masks.

Rapidly overcoming any initial shyness, the children of Arimba soon have me surrounded. Foreigners are clearly a rarity around here. “Hello, hello mzungu!” they scream, before tripping off down sandy alleyways or posing jauntily for photos. One girl upturns a metal bowl, wedges it on her head, and becomes queen of the crowd for five minutes. “Mzungu means someone who meanders aimlessly in Swahili,” says Dzvene. “At first it was used to describe colonial explorers. Now it just means any white person.” It is not the first time I have been charged with aimless meandering.

A group of boys lead me down to the beach, performing extravagant somersaults on the baking sand. Others hold up a succession of beautiful, conch-like shells for inspection. For a magical half hour I am the center of everyone’s attention, as we communicate with a comic combination of hand signals and facial expressions. I finally drag myself away, trailed Pied Piper-like by kids clutching bunches of tiny dried fish.

Edison, the camp cook, has been working hard in my absence. Under the shade of a waterproof awning, I take a seat at a table loaded with freshly baked bread and plates of rich prawn curry, succulent squid, and grilled kingfish. The tide is flowing and a procession of fishing dhows are now tacking across the horizon, their triangular lateen sails billowing in the wind. Further in, approaching across the narrowing foreshore, are the women of Arimba, their daily seafood foraging trip brought to an end by the advancing tide. A series of small groups walk across the sand with languid ease, buckets and bowls balanced nonchalantly on their heads. After eating, I walk out to meet them.

We can’t afford to send her far away

Anisia Mutola is wearing thick-soled men’s shoes to protect her feet from sea urchins and razor clams, while her face is smeared with a thick layer of musiro. With Dzvene interpreting, I ask her what life is like on Arimba. “Life is tough,” she says. “Look at us. My husband is a fisherman and between us we just about collect enough to eat. My daughter goes to school here now but she will have to stop when she’s 11. We can’t afford to send her far away.”

Mutola’s friend Martine Maculuve approaches with a sharp knife and clam-filled bucket in hand. She also is wearing men’s leather shoes, although these do not even have laces. “Of course things are hard,” she says in halting Portuguese. “Usually we have food to eat, and we try to help each other if we can. The main problems are education and health – we need a better school and the nearest clinic is a long way away. Still, tourists have started to camp on our island. We can sell the camps fish and show them our culture. It brings in some money.”

The stars are still blazing overhead when I am woken at 2am with a cup of steaming coffee straight from the camp kitchen. Warming myself at the driftwood fire, I can just see Vagabundu bobbing offshore in waves lit by a bright sliver of moon. Yesterday, the sea was a distant haze but now it wraps the mangrove trees nearby in its salty embrace, while our dhow strains at anchor below a bright sliver of moon. The tide is right, a soft Indian Ocean breeze blows offshore and it is time to sail. Dzvene and his retinue of assistants collapse our camp around me with well-honed efficiency, packing everything into an unfeasibly small number of plastic crates.

The sail tautens in the stiff breeze

I am ferried out in a small wooden dinghy, crammed in with portable toilet, shower, and brace of dome tents, and clamber aboard – thankfully without shedding any camera gear into the sea. Vagabundu’s salty captain, Juma “Papa” Chande, supervises the hoisting of the hefty lateen sail, which takes all six of the crew. The sail tautens in the stiff breeze, while ropes of coconut fiber groan and protest. As the crew relaxes on the narrow deck, he comes to sit beside Dvene and me, massaging his sandpaper-like stubble as we all admire a fiery Quirimbas sunrise.

I chat with Willard, a young crew-member looking rakish in matching Ibo Island Lodge baseball cap and polo shirt. “I just started working for the Lodge,” he says. “I was a fisherman before, but it was impossible to save any money. If there were storms or my nets needed fixing, I sometimes had to ask for food from my friends. Now I have a regular income I can get married and get a bigger house.”

As dawn starts to light the sky, Vagabundu is already making stately progress toward Mogundula, an uninhabited island dotted with palms and squat baobabs. The captain beaches her on a low sand bar, where she is washed from both sides by gentle surf. As another camp takes shape – same layout, breathtaking new view – Dzvene wanders off to hunt octopus for dinner. I am not sure whether to go snorkeling, kayaking, take photos or just read a good book but by sunset I have managed to find another option: all of the above.

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.

Harvest what they can from the exposed coral reefs

Mogundula may be uninhabited, but it is by no means deserted. Every morning a group of local women arrive by dhow, buckets in hand and spears at the ready, to harvest what they can from the exposed coral reefs. These seas are officially a marine park, but still provide a livelihood for the villages that line the mainland coast. I am struck by the disparity between the lifestyle of most Quirimbas villagers and the pampering I am experiencing on my dhow safari, or that is on offer in the luxury eco- lodges.

However, without the tourism income, the people of the Quirimbas are likely to remain mired in subsistence level poverty for years to come. The region’s natural resources also need protection and at the moment only foreign investment seems able to provide the necessary expertise and funding.

That night, seated around a blazing campfire, Dzvene marvels at the resilience of the local people. “They have suffered a lot,” he says. “Yet they still take pleasure in the small things. They even welcome back the Portuguese, who didn’t exactly do the country many favors for 500 years.” I stare up at the one of the most majestic night skies I have ever seen, and wonder how these islanders really view the mzungu today. As saviors of the local economy or just another generation of outsiders looking to take what they can from a utopian piece of tropical real estate? As I go to sleep, I am hoping it is the former.

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