Paddling the Islands, Dodging the Cliches


[First published in Out There magazine.]

It’s been called the last frontier of Africa, a place of few people, shy animals and great empty places. Its seas have witnessed the shift of history, its forests are unmarked. Paddling to the Archipelago Das Quirimbas, Dominique le Roux is immersed in Northern Mozambique.

Advice to would-be writers: don’t send us copy that even hints at ‘turquoise’ or ‘aquamarine’ water, don’t even think about letting your sea ‘shimmer’, and if the shores of your destination are ‘palm-fringed’… Well, don’t bother. Especially not if the beaches are ‘white’ and ‘sparkling’. ‘Desert island”? Uh-uh. We’re not charmed by airbrushed brochure images. We’re not looking for glossy snapshots of a façade. We’re independent thinkers, rough travelers. We don’t buy clichés.

Trouble is, Northern Mozambique is a cliché. Certainly the coastal part, especially the string of 27 islands between Pemba and Tanzania’s border at the Rio Rovuma. It’s a pretty-as-a-postcard portrait of Paradise, with islands dotted along coral reefs, and the air thick with salt and the untold stories of slavery, piracy and romantic mystery.

The sea is clotted with colour. If I could just get a handle on any one of the dozens of local languages, I bet I’d find more words for blue than the Eskimoes have for white.So what’s a writer to do? Perhaps throw in the fact that the temperature is exorbitant, the humidity excessive. That the weary (and independent) travelers are cursing all those reflective surfaces – the shimmering sea, those sparkling white sands. And as for those palm-fringed shores…. Have you ever thought about how little shade a palm tree actually offers? Nada, to use one of the few Portuguese words acquired en route, or pouco at best. And then you have to dodge those falling coconuts. They’re silent bombs, really. Deadly. The region is Heaven and Hell in a single package – or the clichéd notions of these, anyway. Two for the price of one, really. And mostly experienced in quick succession. I arrive by air, landing in Pemba, followed by a scorching 4×4 journey across 142 drainage ditches to Quissanga. Later the heavens graduate from a bruised pink to black as our dhow slips anchor and is poled out along a mangrove-swamped peninsula. I’m in heaven and my heart beats so, I can hardly speak….. 

A trillion stars are pulsing light. Warm, worn wood conveys the gentle energy of the sea to a body lulled by the rhythm. Creamy canvas holds the wind gently overhead. Next to me a child murmurs at a dark breast. Rough ropes creak. High voices mutter lightly in a high, chirpy language. The dark waters reflect the stars in a phosphorescent wake….. I need the loo. Badly. By six a.m. tomorrow it’ll be shade I’ll be desperate for. The futures traders kayaking these islands with me will be reassessing the value of clouds, now the most sought-after commodity. By eight we’ll be squirming. Dripping. Sweat-drenched by ten. Dehydrated by noon. Daytime, we’ll find, has a certain hellish element to it. Then we’ll cool off in the heavenly turquoise seas, spearfish at dusk, glut ourselves on kreef. Chow down in Paradise after a day in Purgatory. Think I’m being a bit theatrical? Well, have you ever thought about the classic desert island? Real desert islands have no fresh water, lots of sand and not a lot of vegetation. And ‘tropical’ means hot. Sticky. Soggy T-shirts. Welcome to the Archipelago das Quirimbas. Welcome to Paradise. It’s a paradise that the very German Joachim Gessner and his wife, Linde, are struggling to make profitable. While an imaginative journalist spread the story that Gessner Sr. was a stranded U-boat commander, the truth is that the family have laboured hard to make their coconut plantation work.

But bureaucracy in Mozambique is crippling. The German couple are about the only expats to have stuck it out. Now a lodge has been built on Quirimba Island by a consortium of South Africans who’ll take it in turns to jet in. They took no chances. They flew in their own builders and plumbers, installed their own freezers, satellite phone and liquid rations. They’re serious fishermen, determined not to let a little local neglect hinder their holidays. The Gessners had to build things more slowly and had a harder time of it. Joachim shows us an old photograph of a Beetle straddling a dubious-looking dhow. His safari-suited farm manager chugs around on an old Vespa, ensuring the cows lumber off the runway when the jet comes in to land. Linde reminisces about the days when this part of the world was more than just a backwater, when the decaying buildings on nearby Ibo Island were decorated with more than strangler figs and peeling plaster. Then, its wide avenues bustled with people, Pemba – then Porto Amelia – was the third-largest natural harbour in the world and the centre of a thriving cashew and coconut trade.

“The north of Mozambique cannot honestly be recommended to those seeking comfort, predictability or packaged entertainment. Little visited, even by backpackers, this region offers the sort of challenging travel that is exacerbated by linguistic barriers, intolerable summer humidity levels, relatively high costs, and a public transport system that often defies rational comprehension,” says Philip Briggs in his excellent Bradt guide East and Southern Africa. “Travelling through northern Mozambique regularly feels like travel for its own sake – a lot of bumpy motion punctuated by few highlights.” North of Ibo, however, life goes on pretty much as it always has. Occupied by Muslim traders by the fifteenth century and attacked by Portugal in 1523, the Quirimba Islands have been more-or-less neglected since. Now fez-wearing fishermen ply the waters in dhows and outrigger canoes. They live in simple mud-and-bamboo huts, and rarely see white faces.

Briggs is right. Until you examine your notions of the tropical, paradise island dream. The entire archipelago is never more than a few kilometers off the green untrammeled mainland. Remember that this is still Africa. Travel here separates the men from the….er…men. But there are wooden boats on the horizon and I’m travelling in a canvas Klepper kayak. I love the hues and the blues, the island life and the highlights that punctuate….. A total tent collapse in a tropical downpour, and a drenched body emerges, delighted at the freedom….A night-time walk along a sandy peninsula and suspended gulls beat against the wind in tiredness and flap into us in fright….Inch-long fish leaping from the water in orchestrated schools that flash across the kayak bows in flights of green and silver…… There’s the rain on the mainland that paints diagonal stripes of charcoal and chalk across our misted horizon and poodle-size crabs emerging from mangrove swamps after the rains. There are the reef-breaking waves that we surf towards dots of land lit by beach fires, and dark divers emerging in battered masks, turning into sea cucumber salesmen at the sight of the approaching muzungus. I think of sleeping curled up in neat reed huts and closing my eyes under the roof of a Muslim farmer’s twig-and-coral home, listening to familiar voices from London days. “This is the BBC….” This is heavenly, hellish Africa. This is Mozambique’s north.

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