x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Just two decades after the end of a civil war that left more than a million dead, Mozambique’s natural riches and enlightened tourism industry are making it one of the most coveted destinations in Africa.

Humpback whale at Indigo Bay Island Resort and Spa. Courtesy of Rani Resorts
Humpback whale at Indigo Bay Island Resort and Spa. Courtesy of Rani Resorts

Look out for whales,” says the South African pilot of the seven-seater GA8 Airvan ripping through the sky over the Quirimbas archipelago. “My colleagues spotted two yesterday – they’re a month early.” The Australian-built Gippsland aircraft is the workhorse of the light aircraft world, sturdy and noisy, but the landscape below is anything but. The three other passengers and I fix our eyes downwards.

It’s early in the season for humpbacks, which take refuge in this protected marine area for several months each year, but I still gasp when I see a hulking mass of whale-shaped darkness through the water. It’s only seagrass.

This is probably the wildest part of Mozambique’s still-largely wild coast. Our flight from Pemba has taken us over dense mangroves, forests and snaking rivers, changing from rich brown to milky white. At high tide the sea is biting at low, earthy cliffs, eating them alive in a white, saliva-like froth. Then there is a vast hinterland between firm ground and deep sea. The seabed is mottled brown, patchy and streaked, pockmarked under the shallows. A handful of lone, wooden, motorless sailboats, not unlike the ones used since Arab traders were superseded by Portuguese explorers in the 1400s, float eerily along the coast under languid sails, before a wide stretch of open sea and our destination, the tiny, isolated speck of Medjumbe Island, uninhabited save for an exclusive 12 chalets.

This hideaway, operated by Rani Resorts, a South African-based hospitality group owned by the UAE-based Aujan Group Holding and the largest investor in Mozambique’s tourism industry, is pleasantly low-key. One kilometre long and 350 metres wide at high tide, the resort’s main building is airy and open, so you can have your afternoon tea, dinner, or drinks at the bar with the sight and sounds of the sea beside you. The rooms, too, are just metres away from the beach, and I jump straight in before walking to the end of the island’s sandy spit for sunset. Hundreds of crabs and a few lone birds make an appearance, but nothing else is visible anywhere.

There’s just enough time before dinner for a trip to the Sanctuary Spa, an unfussy chalet room but all the more relaxing for it.

My South African therapist Joanne has a refreshingly hippy aura, promising to “rebalance my energy” in just 30 minutes. “It’s the end of the day; any thoughts that come into your mind, let them go.” It’s actually been a very long couple of days –

I should have been here 36 hours earlier but for a flight cancellation in Vilancoulos - and, what with the 17-hour trip from Abu Dhabi, there’s quite a lot to let go of. Miraculously, it works. Using a combination of head, face and shoulder massage with oil, hair pulling and the pressure of sea shells, my head which had felt ready to explode was soothed and my shoulder muscles coaxed out of a rocky spasm.

Inhaling the fresh sea air, I head to the restaurant for a delicious dinner of fresh tuna sushi, sauteed calamari and vegetable curry. I could hear the sea from my bed and but for my Gulf-style addiction to air con, the night would have been silent. The next morning, as time came to leave, the receding tide left a startling view: tantalisingly shallow turquoise water, white sand, and, beyond, reefs where local fishermen came with small boats and rods.

It’s a very different story on Bazaruto, the main island in the southern Bazaruto archipelago. Though geographical differences shouldn’t be surprising in a country with almost 2,500km of coastline, this is an island where guests come into contact with local people, both fishermen and residents of the local village, supported partly by a community fund levied by the hotel. Ilho do Bazaruto, as it’s known in Portuguese, is 35km long and 4km wide. Prior to the civil war between which affected the entire country after independence in 1975, and which only finished in 1992, the island was one of Africa’s biggest game-fishing centres. More intriguing for me, however, are the enormous sand dunes and that sit like a tall spine down one side of the island, and the crocodile-infested lakes and wild grassland that separate the exposed eastern side of the island with the west.

When I arrive at Indigo Bay, on the western side, it’s as flat and glassy as the name suggests. After a lunch of seared tuna and avocado salad and peri-peri chicken with fries and fruit salsa right by the water at the hotel’s Club Naval, I check into my “villa”, an elegant and spacious bungalow on stilts with its own piece of sheltered garden next to the beach, I walk to the end of the bay. In the distance I see a fisherman butchering what looks like an enormous beast. The sand is covered in blood and huge bones but as I inch I see that it is - or was - a huge stingray. Happily there’s no fence to cut off local people from the hotel section of the beach or anything stopping them using the water.

Late afternoon I take a 90-minute guided horse-ride to the centre of the island for a close-up look at the crocodile lakes, the plains and the local village. My mount, Holy Lad, is an effortless ride in a Western saddle, allowing me to concentrate on the sights and take photographs as we go. Although we’re on an island, this feels more like a safari. We return under a full moon. Dinner that night, at Golfhinho restaurant, seems appropriate: carpaccio of ostrich and plump fillet of impala.

The following morning I’m up early for a day trip to Ilha Santa Carolina, also known as “Paradise Island”, for snorkelling and a barbecue. It’s a cloudy day so snorkelling isn’t as good as it should be, though wading out through hundreds of metres of shallow water to the boat, sidestepping some enormous starfish, provides some dramatic photographs. The weather clears up later for our barbecue. After grilled fish, steak and salads with other guests in the group, who include some South Africans, a Hong Kong Chinese couple, an English family living in Angola and a professor from the United States, I hike around the island’s entire edge. It’s got a desolate feel: having been a playground for the rich and famous in the 1950s and 1960s, all the buildings are now abandoned and derelict, though redevelopment is planned. Given the islands lovely beaches and surrounding reefs, and its proximity to the mainland, it should be successful. Back on Bazaruto, salvaged from Santa Carolina, is the piano used by Bob Dylan to compose his 1976 classic Mozambique (“It’s nice to spend some time in Mozambique / The sunny sky is aqua blue / And all the couples dancing cheek to cheek / It’s very nice to spend a week or two.”)

It’s soon time for another beach barbecue. This time there’s an entire buffet of seafood, including grilled mackerel caught just two hours earlier. The service at the hotel, which has 200 staff for 44 rooms, is gracious and genuine. There are no flies, mosquitoes, hassle or garishness. Two weeks might be pushing it, but five days here, I think, would be ideal.

Alas, it’s soon time to return to Maputo. Flying between most major island destinations or even between the main points on the coast and the capital is generally a triangular affair - rather than flying from Inhambane to Vilancoulos or Pemba or vice-versa, all flights have to go through the capital. It’s thus that my flight cancellation leads to an unwanted stay in a hotel in Vilancoulos. Still, it’s pleasant enough, and I pass the time with two accountants working in Maputo, one Indian and one Mozambiqan. Between them I get the ins and outs of the country’s business culture and some eye-opening descriptions of local vigilante-style security “solutions.” We fly back to the capital together the following day (I was quoted $700 for a taxi) and arrive in one piece after dark.

Despite being one of the world’s least developed countries - ranked 185 out of 187 on the UN Human Development Index, life expectancy is just 50 and 11 per cent of adults have HIV - Mozambique’s population is a manageable 25 million and Maputo, a city of around 1.5 million, is pleasant and very safe, given its proximity to South Africa.

Like most of the airports in the country the international airport is new, Chinese-built and fairly close to the city centre. On each of my nights there I stay at the new Radisson Blu hotel close to the beachfront on Avienda Marginal, a low-key beachfront with a hint of faded colonial grandeur about 2km from the city centre. Set back from the road in its own grounds, the hotel is clean, fresh and luxurious by African standards. Service is excellent and secure transfers in the hotel’s new minibus take no more than 20 minutes.

Yet there’s no escaping the huge gulf in wealth – we pass through a huge slum called Maxaquene on our way to the city centre. Nothing happens, but since we are stopped in traffic, I make sure all the doors are locked. Anachronistically, as we drive through the embassy district, I notice that some streets – notably, the more expensive-looking ones, bear the hallmarks of their 1980s socialist history - Avenidas Vladimir Lenine, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Ho Chi Min.

Wanting a tour, I’m picked up from the Radisson by Bruno Caldeira, a Portuguese who runs a safari company, Bushfind, and Selvino, a local guide. We drive south along the tree-lined waterfront through Sommerschield and Paulana, wealthy areas with some impressive villas, to the fort. Bruno points out that we could be in Swaziland in an hour and a half, but I resist the temptation for an impromptu day trip.

Selvino begins his tour inside the fortress, explaining how although the Portuguese first arrived in the Indian Ocean in 1498, it took them several hundred years to get control of all the land between Ibo in the north and Maputo, which they named Lourenco Marques. “They simply thought of it as part of Portugal”, says Selvino, a thought which seems ludicrous today. It was important to control of Maputo Bay, then known as Delagoa Bay, Selvino says, as through that flowed a huge trade in ivory, whale oil and slaves. Between 1500 and 1700, Portugal took most of the trade away from the Omani Arabs, but after that time, some of it was regained. “It took them a long time to control the whole country”, says Selvino, but by the 1800s they had the latest high-tech weapons.” Selvino points to some 17th century armoury with rounds still filled with bullets and carrying the Portuguese coat of arms. The final insult came with the defeat of the chief of nearby Gaza province, commemorated in a bronze relief.

Our next stop is the train station nearby, a landmark building used in the filming of Blood Diamonds. Its dome was designed by an associate of Gustaf Eiffel, but the interiors are just as impressive. Walking inside, it’s as if time has stopped: there’s original wooden panelling, peeling paintwork and lilting music coming from the Chez Rangel Jazz Café, situated between two platforms. It’s wonderfully atmospheric.

We return to Bruno’s vehicle to carry on our tour. Everywhere we park someone must be paid a nominal fee for “watching” the vehicle to make sure that it isn’t broken into or its lights or other parts stolen. Apart from that, Bruno says, the city is safe. “Of course if you go to some places here after 6pm it’s dangerous, but even there there’s no violence, just robbery. People are often afraid of foreigners.”

As 6pm is approaching we head, to the Dhow Bar, a café with a view of the city, for sunset. Then Bruno drops us off at the Fish Market, north of my hotel just behind the seafront. Dozens of sellers and restaurants compete in a business whereby you buy your seafood fresh and then have it cleaned and cooked for you. We bought a lot and Selvino didn’t bargain very hard, so the meal including drinks cost over 1,400 meticals (Dh170) – but it tasted sensational and we enjoyed the spectacle of watching a metre-long tuna fish being carried away to restaurants by pairs of men, grappling under its weight. We talk about the irony of the fact that now, given its poor economic situation, significant numbers of Portuguese are now trying to find work in Mozambique, often without success. “Our government is making it difficult for them to get visas to come here, as they come here to find work, want to stay and run out of money.”

I walk back along the Marginal to my hotel through a dark, sketchy looking area with nightclubs and casinos on one side and hawkers on the other. Much of the beach vegetation has been bulldozed to widen the road: it’s under construction, so I hope the end result won’t be too devastating.

As I arrive safely back at my $300 a night hotel, it’s filled with high-spending tourists and even more and higher spending businessmen from other ex-colonial countries like Brazil. These are the foreigners that the country formerly known as Portuguese East Africa now chooses to let in, and I can’t help feeling that it’s fitting.

rbehan@thenational.ae