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Published: October 28th 2019
Mozambique isn’t really a tourist destination and Isle de Mozambique, off the coast, is not even known to many backpackers', yet. The little hotels are empty until Saturday night when some expat oil workers turn up for a weekend break.
Isle de Mozambique was “discovered” by Vasco da Gama around 1498 and quickly became the capital of Portuguese East Africa. Long before Vasco's discovery, Arabs and Swahili locals had been trading gold and slaves here but it was the Portuguese who turned it into a city and this was the country's capital for 400 years.
So it is very strong on faded grandeur. Everywhere there are decaying buildings longing for some love and money to restore them to their heyday. Our hotel was once a ruined trading house; now it is rather splendid. Hanging brass lamps and ornate mirrors adorn the walls; every room is really a suite; the central yard is now a cool pool and the old boat dock is the restaurant and sunset bar. All this at Travelodge prices!
At the top of the island is a huge, rather neglected, fort that was built between 1550 and 1600. The Portuguese defended it against the Dutch,
the British and Omanis to protect their trade routes. Even in its decaying state the fort still feels solid, indomitable.
On a headland just outside these walls is the tiny, single room, Chapel of Our Lady. Built in 1522, it is the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere. Rundown and unkempt, certainly, but also atmospheric and uplifting, a magical place.
We take a dhow trip cross the bay. Our island is a coral bar in a river mouth and there is a reef further out to sea. Sailing in a dhow is a great way to travel across these calm waters to the mainland. With the engine off there is only the sound of water lapping on the bows and the creaking of the sail.
We land on a long, white coral beach that hurts the eyes. The blues and greens of the water are no less stunning. After a paddle in the clear water, we picnic under two ancient baobab trees. Baobabs grow extremely slowly, these trees saw the Portuguese arrive and leave.
In a small lagoon we spot tropical fish, our private salt water aquarium until the tide comes in. Then we sail
along the coast to a Swahili village; most Swahilis moved to the mainland during Portuguese occupation. It is a large but poor fishing community of about 4,000. The village well is another a Vasco da Gama’s “discoveries”.
On Sunday nobody works; the shops and the schools are closed. But nobody is at church, this is a 95% Muslim community and they prayed on Friday. Instead, many are working for themselves on the beach. There seem to be two main occupations, the first is searching for clams and crabs in any shallow water. Clams are good eating and can be a foot (30 cm) across.
The second occupation is panning for gold! Small groups sit on the beach washing away the sand with water and staring at what is left, searching for any gold which, being heavy, has not been washed away. Gold was, of course, the first commodity traded here but the whole thing seems ridiculous... until two young lads show us the flakes of gold they have found this morning.
As we come to the end, we realise, we have not mentioned the weather on this trip. It's been hot. Most days have topped 30c without
a cloud in the sky; even the locals walk on the shaded side of the street. Here on the island the sun rises before five and drops back into the sea around five in the afternoon.
We've learn to work with it; early breakfast then get out and doing. By eleven the sun is truly overhead; there are no shadows and it's time to seek the cool of the hotel. Late afternoon and early evening are lovely. Time for a beer and a g&t on the old boat deck; it's wonderfully warm with a nice cooling breeze.
An owl flies past; another day in paradise.
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