Time and tides in Mozam­bique

In thrall to mu­sic and mag­i­cal un­der­wa­ter ex­pe­ri­ences

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - MATTHEW CROMP­TON

THE first thing I no­tice about Mozam­bique is the rhythm — trop­i­cal and in­fec­tious, a quick two- step that sets your hips in mo­tion, head bob­bing slightly like a palm tree sway­ing in the breeze.

It moves you with a flavour wholly its own, African in­flu­ences wed to Por­tuguese, Ara­bic to In­dian. The 2000km of sun-drenched coast­line draws you in like a dance.

I think of all this at 3amas above the throb­bing bass of the mu­sic, Ab­dul jug­gles polyrhythms on the djembe. I have been danc­ing for hours at Fa­tima’s Nest, a beach­side bar in the south­ern Mozam­bi­can town of Tofo; the sky is be­gin­ning to grey in the east but the party shows no signs of end­ing.

The mu­sic on the sound sys­tem is an ex­cel­lent pro­gres­sive house and Ab­dul, a slim cigar balanced in the cor­ner of his mouth, is seated on the edge of the packed dance floor with his large African drum, beat­ing out a deliri­ous ca­dence that has peo­ple go­ing crazy.

‘‘I play in clubs all over the world, man,’’ he tells me as I sit be­side him later, my feet al­most raw from danc­ing bare­foot on the rough stone floor. ‘‘In Africa, Ger­many, Brazil . . . here in Tofo is still the best. It’s all about peo­ple feel­ing me drum­ming, me feel­ing them danc­ing. Here peo­ple are re­ally about the mu­sic, not just about the scene.’’

Ex­hausted, I walk 1km back to my beach chalet up the wide, de­serted sands at dawn, rose light rib­bon­ing the sky, feel­ing as if I have dis­cov­ered some­thing truly spe­cial.

A pat­tern emerges across a week here — day­light hours swim­ming and snorkelling with whale sharks in the turquoise ocean and, when dark­ness falls, danc­ing like a ma­niac to great mu­sic in bars up and down the beach.

Much as I hate to leave, the rhythm moves me from Tofo back to the cap­i­tal, Ma­puto, and then a two-hour flight to the provin­cial cen­tre of Pemba in the far north, where the view from the hills opens on to the calm wa­ters of the largest nat­u­ral bay in Africa.

As I de­scend the long slope into the 40ha Pemba Dive & Bush Camp just south of Pemba, it’s not just date palms and coastal man­groves along the way but dry sa­vanna grasses and thorn trees. Stately baob­abs stand like enor­mous sen­tries guard­ing fire­coloured wa­ters as the sun sets over the beach.

‘‘We in­tended the bush camp not just as a re­sort but as a wilder­ness pre­serve,’’ owner Brenda Franck tells me next morn­ing at her home in the ram­bling grounds. ‘‘We’ve got about 170 bird species, 15 kinds of rep­tiles, mon­keys, civet cats, gazelles . . . and we try to work with the local com­mu­nity to ed­u­cate them about wildlife con­ser­va­tion — not slash­ing and burn­ing, or over­fish­ing the reefs.’’

Sarah Clever, who runs cater­ing for the camp, later tells me, ‘ ‘ For a lot of Africans the bush means truly wild coun­try, and that [can be] a re­ally spir­i­tual thing, this orig­i­nal wilder­ness. We try to help peo­ple here to ex­pe­ri­ence that.’’

Around sun­set, I take a guided na­ture walk around the grounds with Franck’s son Kai. He ex­plains the var­i­ous eco- sys­tems we tra­verse and their an­i­mals and medic­i­nal plants. There’s a beguil­ing smell em­a­nat­ing from the earth — warm and sweet and dry — and I can feel the day’s trapped heat on my bare feet. ‘‘I lived the first 14 years of my life in South Africa,’’ says Kai, ‘‘but it’s only up here that re­ally feels like home.’’

It’s easy to set­tle into the lan­guid tempo but I’m also cu­ri­ous about what lies off­shore, par­tic­u­larly on the nearby is­lands of the Quir­im­bas Ar­chi­pel­ago.

The tri­an­gu­lar sails of leaf­shaped dhows — a style ap­pro­pri­ated from Arab traders cen­turies ago — dot the hori­zon in the evening light as I make the cross­ing from Tan­dan­hangue port, four long hours down a bumpy dirt road from Pemba.

As my boat ap­proaches the is­land of Ibo, the cap­i­tal of the 400 isles of the Quir­im­bas, through the man­groves, I can see the crum­bling colo­nial ed­i­fices of Ibo town, its an­cient Por­tuguese church stand­ing like a vi­sion out of time across the bay.

An hour later I head out from my guest­house into the dusk for din­ner at the prim­i­tive is­land kitchen of Pan­ela Africana, where French owner and long-time Ibo res­i­dent Stephane Cade serves ex­cel­lent seared white­fish in a mus­tard mari­nade with the African sta­ple of man­ioc and ground peanuts known as mat­apa.

‘‘Orig­i­nally it was the wa­ter that drew me here,’’ Cade tells me. ‘ ‘ I loved ev­ery­thing about it: the boats, the scuba div­ing, be­ing on the sea. And when I dis­cov­ered the other is­lands — trop­i­cal, white sand, co­conut palms, like a lit­tle Mal­dives — I was com­pletely hooked.’’

Next morn­ing I’m up at dawn to catch a dhow across the bay. My des­ti­na­tion is the dive site known only as the Ship­wreck; here a cargo ship sunk in the early 20th cen­tury lies par­tially ex­posed at low tide, the palm- fringed and largely de­serted is­land of Matemo stand­ing in bril­liantly clear shal­lows across the bay.

The rust­ing bow and stern look sin­is­ter at first but wreck­age, sit­ting in as lit­tle as 1m of wa­ter, is like an un­der­wa­ter play­ground, a vi­brant gar­den of live healthy corals and thou­sands and thou­sands of gor­geous fish, from thumb­nail­sized clown­fish to schools of deep­wa­ter species the size of house cats chas­ing each other down the cur­rent.

Huge schools of tiny feeder-fish tickle my body as I swim. I am smil­ing so much, I keep get­ting wa­ter in my mouth.

That night, hap­pily tired and sun­burned, seated at the bar in Cade’s kitchen, I men­tion how dra­mat­i­cally the land­scape of the Quir­im­bas seems to change with the tides, huge sand­banks in the bay be­ing hid­den and re­vealed, the dhows moor­ing far off­shore to pre­vent be­ing grounded, chil­dren splash­ing in the shal­lows past the ru­ins of the old Por­tuguese fort, where ear­lier there had been deep wa­ter.

‘‘ That’s life here in the Quir­im­bas,’’ he shrugs. ‘‘We must do ev­ery­thing with the tide. To fish, to make a voy­age, to dive, we go with the tide. That’s the first thing you learn here: that the tide is re­ally the ul­ti­mate rhythm of life.’’

pem­badi­ve­camp.com

MATTHEW CROMP­TON

A beach scene in Mozam­bique, which boasts 2000km of sun­drenched coast­line

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