We’re rattling along a goat-track of a road when I see the sign nailed to a tree. It immediately strikes me as quite ridiculous. The message, messily drawn and written in English, reads as follows: ‘Beautiful Thing Here; Come Look Today’.
Where is the ‘thing’, I wonder? We hadn’t seen any ‘thing’ for a couple of kilometres either side of the sign. I look all around me to see if there’s something I’ve missed, but there’s nothing. I soon figure it’s another of those baffling occurrences that happen when travelling in this part of the world and I return to gazing out the window, watching the world pass by. Past the pineapple fields and the cashew nut stands. Past the lazy little villages with thatched-roof houses and the herd boys attending to their cows.
Later that day, when we stop for petrol, I get talking with a gap-toothed old man who speaks a little English. I ask him if he understands the message I saw scrawled on the sign. I’m not sure if it’s a language problem or if he thinks I’m an idiot but, to him, the sign makes perfect sense. “It’s simple. There’s a beautiful thing here, you come look today,” he says. “Why this difficult for you?” When I ask him what exactly the ‘thing’ might have been, he looks at me with a mixture of disbelief and sympathy – a look reserved for those who ask stupid questions. “It is everything, my friend; it is Mozambique!”
Welcome to the Terra de Boa Gente, The Land of the Good People. A destination as confounding as it is delightfully uncomplicated. A nation whose ongoing battles with war, weather, famine and disease seem difficult to imagine while sipping a chilled cider on its big, beautiful beaches. A place where teenage boys who dress and speak like American gangsters still debate a girl’s appeal in terms of the number of cattle she might be worth. A country where it feels as if it’s still possible to truly get off the beaten path, yet doing so risks stepping on landmines. Welcome to Mozambique.
I arrive in Mozambique aboard a big, blue overland truck operated by global tour company, Kumuka. We’re kitted out with everything we need, from our food to our tents, our guidebooks to our two local Kumuka guides. It feels like a youth hostel on wheels: a 22-seat, four-wheel drive, German-designed mobile guesthouse. We’ve just spent a few days in the comparative luxury of neighbouring South Africa, spotting the Big Five in the legendary Kruger National Park and mingling with the grey nomads in their campervans and caravans. Crossing the line that separates the two countries, I notice a dramatic change. The highly efficient and functional tourist experience of South Africa is replaced with a genuine developing-world adventure. The lazy-looking immigration officials seem only to be motivated into passport-stamping action when a few US dollars are flashed about. All manner of people and things are walking across the busy border without garnering much attention at all. The happy singsong sounds of Portuguese float about in the warm breeze. There’s a rawness and roughness here that seems a world away just over the border. After some aimless waiting in the sun, the stamp holder inks our passports and waves us into his country.
By land and by sea, Mozambique has been invaded, visited and colonised by people from all over the world. It’s a great cultural crossroads. From Bantu-speaking African tribes to Arab voyagers, Goan merchants to Portuguese explorers, Mozambique’s land and people have enticed those in search of ivory, gold and slaves. In the late 1700s, its ports became one of the main channels for selling slaves. Some estimate that up to one million people were sold into slavery from here. The Portuguese, whose interest in Mozambique began more than 500 years ago, ruled the country until June 1975. Since independence, the country has been ravaged by civil war, drought and famine.
Beset by serious poverty and a shocking HIV infection rate, today’s Mozambique is still largely dependent on foreign aid but is desperately trying to move forward. Tourism is vital to this process. Slowly, visitors are arriving and finding a destination rich with cultural and geographic diversity. Its people are an ethnic patchwork of African tribes mixed with Portuguese, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Arab and more. And its 2,500 kilometres of pristine coastline, with warm blue waters, untouched islands and swarms of sea life, is some of the prettiest on the planet.
Our first port of call is the country’s colourful capital, Maputo. This city quickly reveals itself as quite an attractive beachside metropolis, with some lovely colonial architecture and big, broad boulevards flanked by flame trees and jacarandas. There’s a palpable energy and plenty of sidewalk cafes and restaurants from which to watch the action. We spend the afternoon ambling along the sand with a few sundowners in hand. At night we eat seafood and drink sweet rum from the bottle and sample a couple of nightspots. This is definitely a place to spend a few days, but we’re not here for the city. The next morning we take off up the coast to Barra.
After another bumpy day on the truck we arrive at Barra Lodge, well and truly ready for the fine food, luxury and adventure promised in the brochure. Barra doesn’t disappoint. Only 30 minutes from the charming historic town of Inhambane, the Barra Peninsula is a brilliant seaside location offering hotels and resorts and loads of adventure activities. We check into our cute little self-catering cottages and head for the beach bar. That evening we dine at candlelit tables on the sand, tackling the enormous seafood buffet as local performers dance and play drums in the moonlight.
The following day, my high-energy companions go their separate ways to partake in the different adventures activities offered by Barra Lodge – reef diving, ocean safaris, deep-sea fishing, swimming with whale sharks and mantas, and other adrenalin-inducing experiences. I, on the other hand, opt for a boat trip to Pansy Island. While this decision did little to improve my standing with the ladies in the group, the experience far outweighed the indignity of the corresponding challenges to my manhood. Onboard a comfortable 33-foot catamaran, we cruise the clear, calm waters off Barra to Pansy Island – renowned as a top spot to find the beautiful and quite rare pansy shell.
I’m joined on the catamaran by South African newlyweds who look like they’d been back for a few too many helpings at the buffet. Peter, the proud new husband, is clearly enthusiastic about Mozambique as a tourist destination. “Five years ago, nobody wanted to come to this place, but now people are realising it’s okay,” Peter explains. “This place will be a mini Mauritius very soon.” We sit on the deck for a while, sunning in silence together, when Peter pipes up once more. “This place is so fucking beautiful, man.” And with that, he throws his cigarette butt into the ocean. We spend half a day walking around Pansy Island, looking for shells and snorkelling, eating some of the biggest and best garlic prawns I have ever sampled, and being slothful in the sun.
When we return to the mainland I make a desperate bid to reaffirm my masculinity by taking off on a quad-bike tour. We noisily slip and slide along sandy tracks lined with coconut palms, high-fiving enthusiastic children who run from their houses to watch us zoom by. We pass through small villages, along the beach front and cliff tops, with the salty air in our faces, and through a terrific little town called Tofo, where we stop for drinks and a stroll through the colourful markets. We spend two days at Barra Lodge, lazing by the beach and pool. We eat and drink well and feel 100 per cent adjusted to the idle pace of Mozambican beach life.
Our next destination is a town to the north called Vilanculos. This is the gateway to the stunning Bazaruto Archipelago: a group of tropical islands that satisfies every tropical island fantasy possible. The beaches around Vilanculos come alive each day when the fishermen return from a night at sea in their dhow boats (Arab sail boats). The sandy shore becomes an instant fish market, with hundreds of buyers and sellers bargaining for the day’s best deals. Colourfully clad women carrying huge buckets on their heads get to work gutting and cleaning the catch while their kids play in the sand. We join the action, play with the children and watch the sun set a magnificent orange colour over the Indian Ocean.
On day two in Vilanculos we make our way out to the Bazaruto islands in a dhow boat. Travellers search the globe for picture-perfect destinations, only to often find a yawning gap between the romantic notion of a place and the reality of being there. But the Bazaruto islands aren’t like that. These islands belong in a big-budget beer advertisement. Every airbrushed tourism-brochure image comes brilliantly to life. The blueness of the water, the whiteness of the sand, the lack of tourists, the king-sized prawns, and the succulent squid all leave me grappling for superlatives.
The next day I decide to permanently shake the ‘pansy’ tag by going horse riding. I envisage myself on a tall and strong steed, galloping across the dunes and at the water’s edge. For the purposes of this daydream I also imagine I’m wearing a ten-gallon hat and smoking Camel cigarettes as I ride. While Bazaruto lived up to my preconceptions, my Mozambican-man-from-Snowy-River dream is very quickly shattered. It’s not that we don’t ride across the dunes and at the water’s edge. We do. It’s not that we don’t take one of the most incredibly scenic horse rides to be found anywhere. We do. It’s just that the other guests get to ride tall and strong steeds with names such as Excalibur and Maximus while I get saddled up on a disobedient little brown and white nag called Meaghan. As pretty as she might be, she firmly reinforces my pansy-ness. It is still a great day out. We walk, trot and canter through villages, along the dunes, by the beach and even dip our hooves in the ocean. Our ride finishes with a cool beer at a little beach resort that looks out over the ocean and the islands. I get talking with an expat living in Vilanculos who can’t speak highly enough of the beauty of this place. He tells me some of the history of the region and, alarmingly, that mining is set to heavily encroach on this part of the world in the near future. “This place’ll probably be fucked in ten to twenty years’ time.” Somehow, he seems quite bright and breezy about this future.
Like most journeys, my visit to Mozambique is far too short. The possibilities for serious exploration here are endless. I merely scratch the surface along the thousands of kilometres of coastline. On the last day of my trip, I look out to the dhow boat sails flapping on the horizon like big brown leaves and I wonder if I’ll return. I quickly agree with myself that this is a stupid question. Of course I will. There’s a beautiful thing here.
South African Airways flies from Australia to Johannesburg.