Monday 12 August 2013

Ilha de Moçambique diary


The dhow caught the six o’clock tide and after a silent, pellucid journey through mangrove swamps we spent three and a half hours waiting in a bus shelter opposite a baobab tree of
colossal size for Luis, who claimed to have left Ilha at 4. It was my first baobab tree, apart from the one in The Little Prince, and I was very pleased to see it but the charms even of baobab trees can be exhausted. A man sold bottled water and dry biscuits from a table across the road from the tree and we bought some biscuits. ' Tasty, aren't they?', I said to Maeve. 'No.'

So delighted was I when Luis arrived that I left behind my panama hat and linen jacket in my excitement. Now someone is, I hope, strutting around in them. 

To Ilha de Moçambique took about seven hours, not along the coast but through sparsely inhabited and not very interesting landscape, but, as soon as we got across the two-mile bridge which links Ilha, as its inhabitants call it, to the mainland, I knew I was glad I had come to Mozambique. 

Ilha feels like the very end of the world. William Morris wrote a novel called, wonderfully, The Well at the World’s End. Ilha is the obscure, run-to-seed Portuguese colonial outpost
at the world’s end. A forgotten place in utter decay, under an African sun, in the Indian Ocean. Exactly the kind of thing I love and the reason I came most of the way across the world.

Ilha was discovered and fortified by the Portuguese in the teens of the sixteenth century, when England was still Catholic and North and South America was still new discoveries. Ilha's fortress and oldest church, which date from 1522, are said to be the oldest buildings in the Southern hemisphere. It is not terra incognita. It has two or three small hotels, tucked out of view, some pensions and a couple of hostels, one owned by Luis, but it is only just starting to get visitors and this means there are things to do, nice places to eat,  without the feeling that one should have been here ten years ago. It has not yet been deflowered, but it will not keep its innocence very long. Its inaccessibility protects it, though.

I am not very interested in Africa. I travel for architecture and food, history and culture. Black Africa does not have much of those things, but Ilha de Mocambique, the Isle of Mozambique, does. It has all four and is the most poetic place I ever visited in my life. 

Ilha is haunting and I wished I had had longer there.

Vasco de Gama discovered the island in 1498. The Portuguese fortified it and the fortress withstood long sieges by the Arabs and the Dutch. Had the Dutch taken the island it might be the capital of South Africa now and be full of houses with high walls, shopping centres, money and violent crime. instead shortly afterwards the Dutch founded Cape Town. 

Until 1752 the island was ruled from Goa. When I was a little boy of eight I dreamt of going to Goa and Macao and, though Goa, alas, is now a beach resort, my desire to go there has been reawakened. I shall forgive the five star hotels and British package holiday-makers.

Salazar, the Portuguese dictator from 1928 to 1968, was right when he said that bringing Western civilisation to Southern Africa was a benefit for the indigenous inhabitants, but the slave trade continued in the Portuguese colonies for ninety years after Britain abolished it and slaves were one of Ilha's great exports. A garden in Ilha, laid out with UN money, makes a moving memorial to the slaves, who were treated with great inhumanity. Though had Mozambique never been colonised the slave trade would still have flourished here, conducted by Africans and Arabs. 

The Isle of Mozambique was capital of Portuguese East Africa until sometime around 1898 (no-one oddly seems sure of the exact date) when it was moved to Lourenço Marques. Ilha then fell into decay but became much more decayed after 1975 when, catastrophically, the Portuguese and Indians left the country and the Communist army, FRELIMO took over. I suppose I have a morbid taste for Communist dereliction.

Ilha consists of the very attractive and old stone town built for the whites, and, below the stone streets like a ground floor seen from a mezzanine, are the straw huts of the African town where the life of the place is.

But there is tourism here and guiltily my friends and I ate a wonderful meal, penne with crab, on the roof of the Italian restaurant, Bar Flor. The evening was warm and innumerable foreign constellations shone brightly.

I am not sure why so many backpackers I meet loved spending four weeks in say Malawi or Madagascar. One clever twenty-five year old English public school man, with an MA in Urban Planning and a flat in Amsterdam, explained to me that it was not so much to see sights but for the sheer joy of travel. Yes, I can see that, but I think African towns and cities resemble each other like happy families and, as for lemurs, do I really care about them? Actually, and I feel a terrible show-off for saying this, I enjoyed being woken by their song in a village in Madagascar, but that is about it.

But actually I do understand. Africa is still uncooked, raw. This is what made me want to visit Eastern Europe when it was Communist.  For people in their twenties who have only known the expanded but constricted world of globalisation, Africa means freedom. 

Boys offer you coins found in a shipwreck nearby and I bought two necklaces allegedly made from coloured glass from the same wreck. They also offer boat trips to nearby islands but it is a very soft, rather shy sell. I wish I had had a week there instead of three days. It would have been fun to have seen nearby islands or to snorkel but what I like best is mooching. Ilha is a very moochable little town. There are few places more so. 

You do not go to Africa for gastronomical reasons and the local people probably do not dine well but I did. As Logan Pearsall Smith said, 
How can you say my life is a failure? I have eaten well for sixty years and not been eaten.
Fifty years in my case.

I ate very well everywhere in Mozambique, though I found I began to get bored by seafood every day and started eating chicken. The fish somosas in Ilha were very good and made me feel truly in the Portuguese Empire. I recommend the Villa Sands Hotel for good dining beside the ocean. I had a wonderful lobster soup there. I also liked Bar Flor. But everyone had told us that the best place to eat was Sara's restaurant, which we were told every time was a 'local' restaurant. Fifty years ago people would have used the word  'native'  where they now say 'local'. And everybody was right. It really is one of the best restaurants I have eaten at. It is an ill-lit noisy place made of reeds opposite the grandest and most striking building on the island, that looks like a splendid ruined palace but is in fact the extraordinarily derelict hospital. Everyone said that I must order the seaweed in coconut sauce, which I did. It was a great poem. Then chicken stew with mango was wonderful, my dears. In front of the place sat people drinking beer including Sara herself, a splendidly fat black women with a bright smile of gleeful complicity, who has grown fat on her own very good cooking.

I stayed in a beautiful hostel called Ruby's, where a private room with an uncomfortable bed costs $30 a night. Ruby's is run by a lovely man called Uwe and a lovely Brazilian girl, and with interesting guests, clever people in their twenties. I, who travel for buildings, towns, history, food, lack of tourists and an edge, enjoyed Mozambique. if you love beaches, sailing, diving and wildlife you will love it even more than I did. Ilha and the Quirimbas islands are  perfect for honeymoons too and Tatler readers would like both places, safely ensconced in the few expensive hotels. I'd love to go back, but know I won't. It is just too inaccessible for a second trip. 

For my visit to Maputo, click here. And for Ibo, here.


  1. I hope to hear more of your thoughts on Mozambique.

  2. So now I have. It's just lovely. Did you take the wonderful
    pictures? The little pickaninny girls (if I may be so quaint) are wonderful too.

    1. Thank you. Yes I took the pictures. I went many years without a camera and even now rarely remember to take mine with me when I travel or use it if I do, so it is very flattering when people tell me I am a good photographer. I should show photography more respect.

  3. Photography like painting and other arts discernment is the first element. You have it or don't. I think you do. Your photographs and prose are your quotes of the day.
    Ilha de Mocambique has history, culture, architecture and food.
    It is the most poetic place I've visited in my life.

  4. If you like Ilha check out Ibo island - fantastico

    1. But I did go to Ibo and wrote about it here. Sorry that my nlog posts are not in chronological order - I wrote them after I returned.

    2. I also went to Quirimba

  5. I love the quote:"
    How can you say my life is a failure? I have eaten well for sixty years and not been eaten."

  6. A great read - thank you for the entertainment, both in writing and pictures. Makes my recent holiday in Croatia investigating Roman and Venetian history and remains seem just a little less exotic: Dubrovnik in particular was overrun with noisy, littering tourists - quite the other end of the spectrum from your experience in Mozambique. You were right about inducing envy, but I am curious as to why you felt you would never be able to make the effort to return to that alleged small patch of paradise on earth: in the end, was something missing there?

    1. Thank you. I thought Dubrovnik the most beautiful city I had ever seen when I was there in October 1997 - and few tourists because the war had put them off even though it had ended, as far as Dubrovnik was concerned, five years earlier. I really travel to see cities, churches, things Africa does not have. I suppose Mozambique would be fun to do again but there are so many places in the world. The Balkans is equally interesting but nothing compares, for me, with lack of tourists, which is why I love Albania - and Romania - especially the Danube delta. Ilha though is quite quite wonderful. If I go back I shall fly via Addis and spend a week revisiting Ethiopia.

  7. Thank you, Paul, for this wonderful story. It makes you, indeed, curious and wanting to see the places you have visited, even if they are at the "end of the world" :) And, please, use your camera more often! The pictures are really nice!

  8. Thank, you Paul, for this wonderful story. It makes one, indeed, curious and wanting to see the places you have been, even if they are at the "end of the world" :)) And please, use more often your camera - the pictures are trully revealing! All the best to you!