Time and tides in Mozambique
In thrall to music and magical underwater experiences
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.’’
A beach scene in Mozambique, which boasts 2000km of sundrenched coastline