Skimming across the ocean in a traditional dhow on our way to a desert island felt like living out a castaway fantasy. Dhows are a common sight on the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, where the seafaring vessels have been used for centuries to ship goods and slaves across the sea. These days, the Arab-style dhows are mainly used by locals for trade and fishing, and make for an idyllic island-hopping holiday off the Mozambican coastline.
We were searching for pansy shells on a small island in the Bazaruto Archipelago when we looked up and couldn’t see the boat. Legend tells of thieves and pirates being left on tidal sandbars to die, and we couldn’t help thinking about what it would be like to be stranded on Pansy Island. Without even a palm tree to climb it was a scary thought to be stuck as the tide slowly crept in, but there was no danger of that as our boat soon came into sight again.
Strung out like the pearls these seas were once famous for, the Bazaruto Archipelago is made up of six dune islands near the seaside town of Vilanculos. With its soaring dunes and crocodile-infested lakes, Benguerua Island is a 20-minute boat ride from the mainland, or a slow sail in a wooden fishing dhow. The island was originally called Sao Antonio by Portuguese explorers, but was later changed to Benguerua after a local tribal chief.
We stayed in a sea-facing suite at Marlin Lodge, tucked into the trees above the white sands of Flamingo Bay beach. We went snorkeling with turtles, reef sharks, and devil rays at Two Mile Reef and watched humpback dolphins jumping through the waves behind our boat. Deep-sea fishing reels in sailfish and marlin and we put our chef’s hats on to learn how to cook in the style of Mozambicans using big-game fish landed by the local fishermen.
The Matsonga people rely almost entirely on fishing to feed their families and sell what they can spare to Marlin Lodge. The lodge hires out dhows from the nearby village of Chirigoma for sunset cruises, and serves fresh seafood straight from dhow to plate. Rather than tossing out leftovers, the chefs make hearty bowls of soup that we helped spoon out to the island’s children, who go hungry when the sea gets rough in bad weather.
Proclaimed as a national park in 1971, the waters in and around the Bazaruto Archipelago are home to East Africa’s last viable population of dugong. Working together with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), Marlin sponsors a program that helps protect these so-called mermaids of the sea. We joined project manager Karen Allen on patrol looking for these mystical creatures in the seagrass beds and removing illegal gill nets.
We looked on from the shore as the local Macua women waded into the water with bunches of hand-woven nets on their heads. We had been dropped off by boat for a beach picnic of fish wraps and freshly squeezed mango juice, set out on a table and bench sculptured out of sand. When we had finished eating, the sarong-clad women came over to greet us with baskets full of fish and sang a few traditional songs that had all of our hips shaking.
Surrounded by thousand-year-old baobabs, Nuarro Lodge lies at the far end of Memba Bay in a remote corner of northern Mozambique. At the end of a long dirt road lined with mango trees, the lodge is powered by solar and windmills, with herbs and vegetables grown in old fishing boats. Hidden away in the sand dunes, our beachside chalet was hand-built by people from the next-door village of Nanatha using coral stone and thatching grass.
From the hammock on our sundeck we could see dhows sailing by and humpback whales with their calves breaching in the bay. We swung ourselves out of the hammock and paddled across the water in a sea kayak, secretly hoping that a whale would surface next to our boat. Kayaking into the mangroves provided respite from the heat and we got close-up to vervet monkeys, tropical boubous, and hornbills amongst the shady trees.
The warm waters of Memba Bay are teeming with tropical fish and we pulled our masks and fins on almost every day. We snorkeled straight off the beach at Nuarro home-reef and dived with South African instructors Kerry and Aaron from a dive boat adapted from a traditional dhow. Nanatha Bay is an underwater paradise for snorkelers and divers with mantis shrimp, cowries, butterfly fish, moray eels, and blue-spotted stingrays.
The unspoilt beaches, bush, and coral reefs at Nuarro are all co-owned by the local Macua people. Donations from every overnight stay and activity contribute towards long-term projects at Nanatha, including a community center, a health clinic, and a primary school. These places bring people together in the same way as the women who gather at the village well each day with multi-colored buckets to collect water and carry it back to their huts.
The white sails of our dhow billowed in the breeze as we sailed away from Ibo Island and into the Mozambique Channel. With the wind in our hair and saltwater stinging our eyes, we listened to stories of the sea from dhow captain Sussi, who has been tracking the tides for as long as he can remember. After three hours of smooth sailing we landed on the shores of Mogundula, one of 32 islands that make up the Quirimbas Archipelago.
Here at last was our very own island hideaway with just us, the dhow skipper and crew, and the resident crabs. Completely uninhabited, Mogundula was the ideal spot to play at being cast ashore like Robinson Crusoe, but without the cannibals and mutineers. All we had to do was sit against a coconut tree and get lost in dreams of being shipwrecked, blissfully unaware of the crew setting up camp, building a fire and catching us dinner.
We swam and snorkeled off the white spit of sand until the sun got low in the sky and it was cool enough to kayak around the island. We washed the salt and sand off under a bucket shower and sat down to a seafood feast with our feet in the sand. Lit by a blanket of Mozambican stars, chef Momba served up freshly caught lobster cooked over an open fire and we fell asleep to the sounds of the local fishermen singing to lure in their catch.
On the sail back to Ibo Island we snorkeled off the dhow with sweetlips and angelfish. Set within a walled garden, Ibo Island Lodge lies within three Portuguese mansions that have been painstakingly restored to their former glory. Surrounded by the scents of frangipani and bougainvillea, we indulged in a massage and a musiro facemask made from Quipalo bark, worn by the local Mwani women as protection against the sun.
With its crumbling stone town and 16th-century forts, Ibo Island is one of the oldest settlements in Mozambique. Once a thriving Arabian port, the days of pirates, slaves, and ivory trading have long gone and life for the Kimwani people has stayed the same for hundreds of years. On this island where time slows down we met one of Ibo’s silversmiths whose intricate work is supported by the lodge and joined a lively football game on the street.
The coastline of Mozambique is dotted with palm-fringed islands and filled with the mysteries of a long forgotten era. The slavers and traders are gone, but the white-tipped waves of the Indian Ocean continue to be crossed by dhows, whose design has remained unchanged for over a thousand years. Mozambique is where fantasy becomes reality and the vibrant local culture spices up a beach holiday like the peri-peri sauce sold on every street corner.
For more information about responsible travel in Mozambique go to: www.mozambique-collection.org
Note: Marlin Lodge is currently closed due to bushfire damage, but the Dugong Emergency Protection Project is still being run by the EWT.