Saturday 14 September 2013

Quirimba diary


In Zanzibar they advertise Sunset Dhow Rides for tourists and this will be the fate of Ibo, but at the moment there are just teenage boys who come to the Miti Miwiri offering to guide us across the mangrove swamp at low tide to the next island, Quirimba, and bring us
back by boat at high tide. 

One boy suggested this to us, for a reasonable price and we agreed, but he was undercut a moment later by Ibrahim who offered to do take us for whatever we wanted to pay.  He seemed a more enjoyable companion, so my Austrian friends decided to go with him. The first boy was very angry and the next day went to the police to lodge a complaint against the Austrians and the police called on the Miti twice while we were away. I didn’t hear
the end of that story. They were looking for 'a German woman', so the trail was not very hot.

I do not ask enough questions. The walk turned out to take three hours. The mangrove swamps at low tide are a very slithery labyrinth and most of the time we were knee deep in water. It was an interesting walk, fun, but it was not too soon that we came to the open seabed.

As we walked across the seabed the island came into view. Cerulean sky, strange trees, wooden boats on the beach. I suppose one of the most beautiful places I ever saw. And then we saw a Land Rover pull up across on the island, timed perfectly, and one of us said that Johannes has arrived. And so he had. And that meant, after three hours hard walking, that there would be coffee. Good coffee too, because grown locally.

The Portuguese must have felt as if they had found a new planet when they first landed in Africa. When they disembarked at Quirimba they found an important trading post, governed by the Arabs. Perhaps it had been held by the Arabs since the twelfth century, perhaps earlier. Quirimba has not changed very much in eight centuries, although the Arabs are long gone and the Portuguese Empire is gone too. The most important changes, after the conversion of the natives to Islam, probably took place after Mozambique became Communist in 1975: it now has a school, some modern medicine and the people mostly wear flip-flops. The island today has a population of four thousand blacks and two Germans, Johannes and his sister, both in their late fifties. 

Johannes drove us through an Anglo-Saxon village. Huts. A forge.  One man was dressed in scarlet robes and was, Johannes told us, the Muslim priest. Johannes and he are foes. According to Johannes, the priest battens off the villagers and manipulates them to do what he wants,  'because he is slightly more intelligent than they are'.  

Soon we were in their house, being offered brandy, wine or beer – I took local coffee, which tasted good – and Johannes told us his story, which fascinated me.

He and his sister were I suppose among the last survivors of Germany's African empire, which was created by Bismarck and conquered by the British during the First World War, though I know there are some (often very right-wing) Germans in Namibia. I wonder if there are any in Tanzania. These two spoke German, according to the Austrians, of  a dated 19th century kind. They are  German citizens but, until their fifties, neither had been to Germany. Contemporary Berlin was a surprise.

I liked Johannes, a very emotional man, who was dedicating himself to keeping up a tradition that deserved to be kept up and keeping seventy villagers employed. He drank brandy in the morning and smoked hard, which made me feel relaxed in his company. Perhaps he is a Joseph Conrad character. 

Their grandfather had lived in Tanganyika  and, wanting to return to Africa after the Great War, had landed a job in Uganda. One day he decided to leave, ‘took two boys with him’ and began to walk. He walked until he came to Ibo, where he settled. He founded the coconut farm.

At first I thought the Germans were a couple but they were brother and sister and brothers and sisters never grow up in one another’s  eyes and bring out the child in each other. They left the island for South Africa at the age of six but his daughter came back to nurse her father in his last illness and the brother and sister sold their businesses in Johannesburg and came back here six years ago. Things are worse for the blacks they say than in the Portuguese times. Witches from the mainland, whom the Portuguese would never have tolerated, come to the island and con the villagers into paying for potions and spells. One witch conned a man out of his life savings and then gave him a medicine that killed him. I wonder what sort of savings the unfortunate man had.

Johannes does not have a permit for paying guests but they are allowed to have friends to stay. I am tempted to return. With many books on a kindle. No internet.

Do they have any hunting? 
'Only monkeys.' 
Monkeys were everywhere on the island, slipping from trees like small, bald old men.

Johannes took us on a tour but we were pressed for time. He showed us how coconuts are processed. He is busy planting trees, which will take fifteen years to yield useful fruit and have a life expectancy of seventy years. Many trees planted by his grandfather are dying now.  In the coconut warehouse I noticed an odd device made of wood – it was a bow and arrow. The guards use them to keep thieves away and for shooting monkeys. 'I hope they do not kill any people with them', I said. ‘Oh no. Not for twenty years’, Johannes answered airily.

Then he brought us to quite the most wonderful white beach, green turquoise water and one or two children. Reader, if deserted beaches are your thing - but no bars or restaurants - then Quirimba may be for you.

Then back to the house, a coconut curry and much South African wine and we heard more of their story. When the two give up the farm the sister's children will not take it on. They have left Johannesburg for the suburbs of Birmingham and do not want to return to Africa. She said she loves Birmingham. I have always intended not to visit Johannesburg but, hearing that, the picture I had of Jo’burg darkened. 

She said that she had been surprised at how many white people live in Birmingham and told terrible stories of savage murders and rapes in South Africa. These crimes are not racist it seems, just crimes. If whites are often victims it is because they have more stuff. I can see why Quirimba is an attractive alternative.

We could have spent much longer on the island but the tide was high and we had to go. Instead of a three hour walk our dhow ride took an hour and a half through the labyrinthine channels between the mangroves, as darkness fell.  Utter beauty and silence except for the splash of waves and sound of birds.

We had not agreed a price - it was left up to us to give what we thought the day was worth.  We paid $60. We were five so it came to twelve dollars each. Ibrahim, a nice boy, seemed very satisfied. It's a monthly wage in Mozambique.

I wish I were back there now.

For the next stage in my journey, click here,


  1. It's lovely. Did you take the pix?

  2. Paul,

    Your blog on Mozambique is much better than any travel guide could ever be.... When will you start on Romania?


  3. Made me to feel like going there.

  4. We need to get you a series with the BBC – move over Attenborough!

  5. Wonderful and very readable. When are you going to get some of it published? Jax

  6. Paul the posts are really amazing. You're a great observer.

  7. I really enjoyed reading it. Like the humor and love that all the details are right.


  8. “But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself and, by heavens I tell you, it had gone mad.”
    ― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

    Your post reminded me of the atmosphere of that phenomenal book. You have a very good pen Paul, I really mean it.

    1. Thank you very much, dear Cristian. I just scribbled it quickly. I ADORE Conrad, though not so much that book, which I have read three times. Read Victory. In the 90s in Romania I felt like a Conrad character, unaware that so many people live abroad these days. Romania in the 90s seemed like an odd, remote Conradian place. Not any more, or not nearly so much.

  9. You really should do something professionally with your writing – you’re insane to hide it under a bushel. Simon

  10. Excellent! (Finally you learned how to use the camera!) ;)

  11. Fascinating! If you you have a spare place for me I am available to join you on your next journey! Gabriel

  12. gabriel.zaharia@gmail.com6 October 2013 at 09:08

    Fascinating! I want to join you on the next trip, if possible! Cheers!

    1. I just found this comment again - I belatedly sent you a mail. I have have gone to Burma, Ukraine, Transnistria and Morocco since I wrote this.

  13. I like islands. As for Birmingham - one good thing about the place is how easy it is to get to interesting places from it (I know that is a rather backhanded complement). From Birmingham one can get to lots of interesting places in only a few minutes from the railway station. Places it would take much longer to get to from London (tucked away in the south east corner of England, rather than the centre of it), and which one can not reach from Kettering at all - at least not in a practical amount of time. Of course when people such as Denis Hills, or Tolkien, or Enoch Powell were young Birmingham was itself an interesting place - it is sadly ruined by post war development.

    Paul M