From marine walks and snorkelling to sandboarding, land safaris, whale-spotting, and kayak explorations of mangroves, Mozambique offers a bewildering variety of adventures. Devanshi Mody gets introduced to the country’s many treasures, including its forgiving people. Text by Devanshi Mody
“LEELA AND GILLI HAVE HAD BABIES,” Jacqui says. “Leela and Gilli?” My brow arches. “No wait, Lolly and Gilli… let me check,” Jacqui, White Pearl Resorts’ Activities Manager, is ever diligent. “Yes please, it’s essential to get the names of the dolphins right,” I aver.
Rowdy winds have sabotaged my Ocean Safari, aimed at spotting whales and dolphins. The weather has been ghastly since I arrived at 11 pm at White Pearl Resorts when, incidentally, at check-in, a bottle of sparkling wine was popped, I was handed a champagne flute that my butler refilled across stretches of wooden way under arches of kissing trees, past a brilliant cobalt pool, to my pool-suite on stilts.
Day One. No Ocean Safari. I am dispatched instead to Ponta do Ouro where I whisk Domingos, my illustrious guide, to that wild wave-smashed point where Mozambique ends and South Africa begins for a spot of unscripted adventure: to stand with one foot in Mozambique and the other in South Africa. “Let’s go!” Domingos frets. “If South African Marine Patrol catches us, we’re in trouble and even bigger trouble if the tide suddenly walls us into the cliff!”
Day Two. No Ocean Safari. But White Pearl Resorts makes up with land safaris in Maputo Special Reserve, which turns out to be very special. Here’s jungle extraordinarily hemmed by lacy seas. This is the real Africa, with unvarnished roads undulating like camel humps through the raw wilderness—or what’s left of it. Poachers set the forest ablaze recently, and the conflagration raged for months, leaving vast vacant patches gaping blindly, almost symbolising the opaque immensity of human stupidity. Domingos assesses, “Why don’t people see? Poaching brings quick money, but preserving wildlife will bring tourists and long-term revenue. We must educate people on conservation.” An infinitude of scorched forest finally cedes to trees with their lower branches singed where the fire licked but didn’t devour. As the forest thickens we descry bounteous antelope, wildebeest, zebra, and giraffe. The reserve’s 54 lakes are ornate with birds, bulging hippos, and crocodiles. Domingos perches the car on a lake facing hillock and assembles a bush breakfast
as I inspect a rocky outcrop on the lake—it’s a congregation of 50-odd hippos. There’s no ‘Big Five’ here, but that obsession is a naive and parochial approach to wildlife.
As an unruly elephant crosses our path, Domingos explains the behemoth’s belligerence.
“Elephants don’t forget.” And Mozambican elephants haven’t forgotten the violent civil war.
Domingos vividly evokes 10 years of war against the Portuguese followed by 16 years of foreign-sponsored civil war, which exterminated a million Mozambicans. Elephants were butchered for ivory, and the rhino population eradicated for horns. Yet, the reserve boasts around 500 elephants. When the orchestra of birds is jarred by a cavalcade of Chinese tourists, Domingos is alarmed. Everyone knows elephant tusks and rhino horns are usually China-bound.
Day Three. Ocean Safari. Finally! The winds haven’t abated, galloping waves are charging the shores like white steeds, but watching whales breach from my glass-façade suite or the ample daybeds stationed grandly around the resort doesn’t suffice.
The boat catapults onto lofty waves totter at their hilt, and comes crashing down, rocking between crests, seemingly taller than the cliffs on the shore. Debbie, the delicate blonde on board, shrieks wildly. A bird bobs on the turbulent seas placidly. I want to venture further out to sea; Debbie shoots me savage looks. In the tumult of churning waves and screams, Jacqui pierces, “Look!” There are three hammerhead sharks. A turtle is unruffled by the theatrics. The boat pounds down again, as Debbie roars, “I need a whisky! And my Chanel shades!” And then she spots a whale…
At Medjumbe in the Quirimbas Archipelago, North Mozambique, the peacock sea fans out her colours: sapphire, emerald, jade, pearl… This Anantara private island number is unique. It’s a delight of lively colours, almost like a nursery classroom. Would you believe this is Mozambique’s most glamorous address? Its exotic nonchalance captures the quintessence of East Africa; its languid ease has an almost Don Juanesque irresistibility about it. The 14 beach villas aren’t an architectural extravaganza. There’s no style artifice to distract from The Maker’s insuperable art: the sea’s myriad blues; the sweeps of white birds that shroud the rocks; the sun that, come dusk, slips gently into a diaphanous pink negligée. Anantara has appointed young Fernando their resort manager—he is Mozambique’s sole local luxury-resort manager. Fernando says Medjumbe is about doing nothing. My nose wrinkles—I can’t do anything. Yet, soon, the hypnotic serenity sedates me. Come evening, Medjumbe transforms magically. A splash of colour from bewitching vibrant lamps hovers above the bar. Have I had a few or are those barbie-doll girls featuring in gowns like they were in Cannes? I regard my little summer dress in dismay. Quick, where’s that fairy godmother and the pumpkin? Ah, the pumpkin’s gone into the soup for supper inappropriately chichi portions. Nothing detracts from svelte waistlines except the hot chilli-spangled cashews and samosas accompanying cocktails which, incidentally, barman Abdul must craft every evening to match identically an Italian guest’s dress. The staff does everything to please. You don’t have a private butler. It’s as if you have 12 of them, with all the inimitable charm of East Africa about them.
The ‘cradle of coral’, the northern Quirimbas Archipelago, is magnificently endowed with 180 species of some of the world’s best-preserved coral, teeming with 400 species of reef fish. But I won’t see any of these snorkelling at Quissanga Island, a 15-minute boat ride away. Courtesy bizarre weather and wind-rustled waters. The fabled annual whale migration is also impaired. Mismanaged environment, concomitant climatic changes and their impact on ocean life spark concern, as does illegal fishing, which disrupts food chains.
Although my dhow cruise is cancelled, a chopper ride to Azura Quilalea Private Island exhibits some of the world’s lushest mangroves, through which estuaries snake-like fat pythons.
Quilalea has an untamed grandeur about it. At night, gusty oceanic winds blast through the large open windows of indigenous villas.
Claudia and Leon manage the island. Claudia runs a tight ship; Leon charms guests and pairs wines. Quaffing wine at Quilalea’s bar, which frames a beguiling terrace, I relate my Ibo Island adventure to American guests—the desolate ghost town which the Portuguese forsook and the fortress where slaves were horrifically cooped like caged chickens. “See, the Portuguese did it too!” exclaims Martha with near-glee. “Only America gets blamed for the slave trade, but every civilised nation that conquered others did it.” Ah, it is indispensable that one part of the human race subjugates another part of humanity so that their descendants can afford to luxuriate on private islands. Well, what does one do? One laps up astonishing coconut rice and curry and tucks into the best-ever lemon cheesecake, or was it chocolate cheesecake? Leon’s wines are so good I forget.
Next morning, I go for a marine walk with activities manager Jasse. It’s low tide. The shore is unconcealed, bearing explore-worthy caves. Cautious not to tread on long-stranded angel feathers or collide with scuttling crabs, hopscotching over darting eels hurtling blindly between solid surfaces that they slither past only to knock against another impediment, we stop to inspect prized sea cucumbers for which the Chinese set sail for Mozambique in buccaneering times. It’s wondrous how their plump ‘heads’ hissing with feelers are vacuumed compactly back into supple, winding rotund bodies. And then, oh goodness! An octopus clasps its mouth around a crab, which combats valiantly until the octopus’ belly widens into a fan from which emerge lithe dangling tentacles and the octopus charges off with its kill. Just moments later, the indomitable crab shoots out of its predator’s clutches in a dramatic billow of dusky ink!
In the afternoon, we meander through mangroves on kayaks. The oven ocean cedes to cool channels crisscrossed in an overarching tunnel of mangroves, upon which birds preside—massive, majestic, and exuding poise. Paradisiacal, but for plastic entangled in branches which Jasse extracts dutifully. As we emerge from the soothing encapsulated chill of the mangroves, hordes of white birds take off like a billion pearls cast across the skies.
For sun downers, on a forested incline sits a sea-facing tub effusing flower-inlaid froth. The evening ends in a colour-coordinated moment as bougainvillea petals that lie like a ruby necklace round my neck in the tub match my swimsuit and the sun dissolves in a blast of bougainvillea.
A morning ocean safari proves un-enterprising. The ocean is like a museum that has shut its doors to the public. Then, I see a dead fish on the waters. The crew scoops it up for lunch. “Boys, I got you that fish. And there’s no free lunch! So, you’d better show me a whale.” Jasse suddenly effervesces. A whale! And its baby! The massive mother arcs gracefully into the waves. The little one beside her imitates and melts into a light turquoise amorphous shimmer. And then, tuna leap out as birds cry stridently above and knives of flying fish hurl into the water. Suddenly, the ocean has arisen in a razzmatazz of vigorous action.
Then we snorkel. Quilalea’s house reef reveals itself to me in all its pageantry and splendour. Every conceivable hue of coral and fish presents itself. It’s like a blasted kaleidoscope spangled across the ocean bed. A dazzling resplendence of fish waver, tick-tack, and glitter in and out of the natural architecture of the ocean floor. The Americans and the Chinese will explode this coral to sap the world’s fourth-largest gas reserves. Over supper in Maputo, Joao Jorge, LAM’s CEO, will plead, “Can you help save our coral?”
Post-snorkelling, I am led to a picnic set before seas echeloned in blue, from which emerge immense flat-topped islets that look like tables on which banquets were unleashed when giants strode the Earth. Embroidering the shores are million-legged mangroves that entrench the waters.
Claudia’s ‘treats’ apotheosise in a ‘Baobab Supper’—set under a great baobab. The island boasts 58 baobabs, some 2,000 years old and one with five trunks that looks like an orgy of elephants. Couples can dine romantically under their own baobab tree.
Anantara’s resort in Bazaruto Archipelago receives guests with fanfare: islanders perform an indigenous dance to thunderous drumming—a call to adventure.
Guest relations manager Charles remarks that excursions to Paradise Island are the popular cliche, but Pansy Island has an esoteric ethereal beauty. Indeed, it does! First, a Bond-style high-speed boat-ride through the channel between Bazaruto and Benguerra islands known as ‘the washing machine’, appositely so as the boat rattles through concussed waters and into the deep seas to track whales. They elude. “Dugong!” shouts someone. “Where?” The endangered creature extrudes its snout, then its flabby grey-brown body—quite unlike the dolphin’s sleek tightness—lethargically dunks into the water spouting a fanned tail-fi n curved out of a tapered tail, and I see how the dugong could have inspired the myth of the mermaid. Pansy Island is not quite an island but an immaculate white-sand bank. It’s low tide. Interspersed between smarting white sands are fingers of blue widening into mesmerising pools like a desert mirage as sand dunes rise behind. Don Carlos, Bazaruto Island’s tip, is little-known because Anantara accesses it exclusively. Next morning, in a safari jeep we traverse the island passing high dunes—I rode a horse up to these at sunset the previous evening and sand-boarded down—past four lakes where the resident crocodiles don’t manifest, through mangroves, as the dunes change from clean-shaven to stubbly to fi nally bearded. My attentive guide Jose, an island boy, takes me snorkelling and then orchestrates a regal picnic. White sands stretch to the island’s end with nothing but variegations of blue beyond as the seas lift seamlessly into the sky, the blue broken by an occasional splotch of white movement—a gull. On my left, afar, six fl amingos are silhouetted against the horizon. The beauty of emptiness and silence is enthralling.
Returning home, we pass villages with their primitive homes, their long-fringed thatch-roofs overhanging squat mud walls. The village’s most impressive house is Jose’s, from where he walks 45 minutes to reach the resort, sometimes leaving home at 4 am to prepare for excursions like mine. I shall reflect on this as I languish in Mozambique’s most
sophisticated spa, stunningly cliff-edged, relish bespoke ‘Dining by Design’, and slumber in a just-revamped beachfront villa.
&Beyond Benguerra Island is an extraordinary amalgam of a safari lodge, beach haven, and Portuguese colonial villa. By far the most romantic rooms in Mozambique are in porcelain blue with in-room stand-alone tub and private butler. My butler, Gellario, could teach Jeaves a thing or two about the niceties of serving.
The island drive with activities manager Lorenzo culminates at a dune from atop which you can see a whale in the ocean on one side and a crocodile in the lake on the other. And then there are magic flying carpets—in frenzied winds, carpets of sand from the dune can fly five kilometres to the resort. Isaac, who heads the resort’s community and Oceans Beyond Borders projects, serves me a rehearsed speech about &Beyond’s community and environment commitments. More engaging is the fluid conversation over a beach dinner at my villa when Lorenzo and Isaac, who dive intrepidly with bull sharks, say Mozambicans fear dogs—they etch apartheid Mozambique, and apartheid South Africa where trucks roamed with dogs that were set on blacks walking the streets. The people still fear dogs. As LAM launches a route to Lisbon, I say ironically 500 years of servitude will be forgotten and the Portuguese ushered in. Isaac says, “Mozambicans are forgiving people.” They are also capable people. I envisage a Mozambique where Lorenzo and Isaac, not white expats, are resort managers. Anything is possible. This is a country that, after all, evicted the Portuguese in 24 hours!