Holidays

Bazaruto Archipelago – The Islands of Mozambique

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Spice traders came here first, then marauding buccaneers. Now Mozambique’s Bazaruto Archipelago – wisps of Africa as it once was – is being rediscovered all over again.

The coast of Mozambique is perfection, especially at its most terrifyingly loud, wild and windy. This is the coastline that spoilt me forever. The small, sandy islands of Mozambique’s Bazaruto Archipelago lie just a few kilometres from the sleepy mainland town of Vilankulo, where there are sand-floor bars and simple thatched lodges and campsites. The archipelago itself is in a protected marine park and consists of just five islands: skinny Bazaruto, the largest in the group with a 30km phalanx of dunes running down its spine; Benguerra (about half its size) and then, smaller and smaller, Magaruque, Santa Carolina and tiny Bangue.

The Bazaruto Archipelago was once part of a peninsula connected to the mainland, and at low tide the retreating sea exposes millions of sand spits and tiny isles of baking-soda-white sand set in radiating swirls of vivid blue. In the Portuguese era, so the story goes, convicts would be shackled together and left here to drown with the rising tide; these days guests from the lodges are dropped off for desert-island picnics. One of the most beautiful of these ephemeral isles is Pansy Island – named after the sea-urchin skeletons with distinctive pansy-shaped imprints found there – which hugs the southern shores of Bazaruto. From here, against screen-saver blue skies, there are views of the imposing procession of dunes that have for epochs protected Bazaruto from extinction, and always the growl and thunder of the Indian Ocean as it pounds onto Sailfish Bay, 30km of deserted white beach, an immaculate and almost-to-scale model of the 2,500km Mozambique coastline.

In the 1950s, when Mozambique was still a Portuguese colony, a hotel of some stature – 250 rooms with an airstrip and private chapel in its heyday – opened on Santa Carolina island, renamed Paradise Island with some justification by its owner, Joaquim Alves, a colourful local businessman. It was the sort of place the young and robust went to sunbathe in olive oil, drink Mateus rosé and feast on fat prawns dripping with garlic and piri-piri sauce. The hotel was abandoned in 1973 when Joaquim Alves fled the country just before independence, fearing the worst.

 

Many breathed a sigh of relief when the deal to redevelop Paradise Island fell through, for such is the power of nostalgia that couples who honeymooned here in the old days still revisit the ruins for a booster-shot of memories. The four lodges on Bazaruto and Benguerra islands are the only places to stay in the archipelago. The two oldest opened back in 1990 as basic fishing camps, but have grown in sophistication over the years, dictated by the demands of fishermen’s wives and girlfriends who objected to roughing it in such a paradisiacal setting.

The cheerful beach bar in front of the lodge is built from a traditional dhow of the sort still used by local fishermen. The elegant sailing vessels are everywhere, a constant reminder that Mozambique was once the southernmost Indian Ocean outpost for Swahili and Arab traders long before Vasco da Gama washed ashore in 1498 and kick-started 500 years of Portuguese rule.

 

More than 1,500 people live on the islands and you will undoubtedly wake to the sound of fishermen as they set off at dawn; take a walk on the beach in the milky early-morning light and children will call after you, splashing happily in the shallows as their mothers collect sand oysters in baskets woven from lala palms.

 

The Indian Ocean here is fabulously warm and rich in marine life, with plentiful manta rays and whale sharks, schools of dolphins and loggerhead, green and hawksbill turtles. It is also home to about 200 dugongs, Africa’s last sustainable population of the big grey mammals thought to have given rise to the myth of the mermaid. Thanks to the Endangered Wildlife Trust, they have a guardian angel in Karen Allen, a determined young South African based on Benguerra who has made it her life’s mission to save them.

The northern tip of benguerra reaches out but doesn’t quite touch its much larger neighbour, Bazaruto. The bigger island is perhaps even more beautiful, if only because there is so much more of it. There are a great many freshwater lakes, five with crocodiles, all stocked with fat bream and tilapia. Flamingos are regular visitors, as are flocks of white-breasted cormorants, grey herons, pelicans, and elegant great ibis. There are meadows of sea grass, mangrove swamps and swaying savannah grassland; evergreen forests shelter shy red duiker antelope. In places the island calls to mind Africa miniaturised, especially in the villages where women grow sweet potatoes, sorghum and cassava and children run out from mud huts to wave at passing strangers, still enough of a novelty to induce great squeals of excitement.