This is the coastline that spoilt me forever. It is over half a century since I first came to know the beaches of Mozambique, the lullaby cadence of crashing waves and the suck of the swell, the sting of salt and sand on hot skin as my mother wrapped me in a towel to calm me. Each summer for the first 10 years of my life we would pack the old Vauxhall Victor with a few clothes and bumper bottles of Hawaiian Tropic and cross the Vumba mountains from Rhodesia into Mozambique then drive 300km down to the port of Beira.
Our beach holidays there came to an end for the same reason everyone’s did: a civil war that would last 15 years, leaving the country limp with fatigue, pockmarked with landmine craters and almost entirely emptied of wildlife. They say even the birds in Mozambique stopped singing for fear of being shot for the pot.
Since the end of the war in the early 1990s, I have returned to this coast many times, to sail around the dreamlike islands of the Quirimba Archipelago in the far north, pub-crawl the dive bars and nightclubs in the capital of Maputo in the south, and swim with manta rays in the Mozambique Channel in between.
I have scoured the world for a stretch of sand and sea to match this extravagant expanse of wild, dune-backed shoreline but have seldom come close. The tidy coral beaches of the Maldives are too confined for me; the Seychelles’ forest-backed coves too honeymoon brochure; the Atlantic waves of Uruguay and Brazil beautiful but cold; the lagoons of the South Pacific shallow and tepid. No, for me the coast of Mozambique is perfection, especially at its most terrifyingly loud, wild and windy when humpback whales breach offshore and whale sharks take shelter from storms in the bulbous coral outcrops and caverns of its depths.
The small, sandy islands of Mozambique’s Bazaruto Archipelago lie just a few kilometres from the sleepy mainland town of Vilankulo, where there are sand-floor bars and simple thatched lodges and campsites. The archipelago itself is in a protected marine park and consists of just five islands: skinny Bazaruto, the largest in the group with a 30km phalanx of dunes running down its spine; Benguerra (about half its size) and then, smaller and smaller, Magaruque, Santa Carolina and tiny Bangue. I first came here 14 years ago when news of the islands’ beauty had just started to filter further afield, but I had been hearing about them for many years before that.
In the 1950s, when Mozambique was still a Portuguese colony, a hotel of some stature – 250 rooms with an airstrip and private chapel in its heyday – opened on Santa Carolina island, renamed Paradise Island with some justification by its owner, Joaquim Alves, a colourful local businessman. In the 1960s my grandmother and her boyfriend Tommy would dance on the terrazzo-floor terrace of its dining room as a pianist played the latest Jim Reeves hits on the baby grand. It was the sort of place the young and robust went to sunbathe in olive oil, drink Mateus rosé and feast on fat prawns dripping with garlic and piri-piri sauce.
The hotel was abandoned in 1973 when Joaquim Alves fled the country just before independence, fearing the worst. The increasingly derelict husk later served as a military base during the civil war, then was left to the mercy of storms and cyclones. Seven years ago, it was announced that Adel Aujan, a Saudi who at the time owned five hotels in the country, would raze the old ruins to the ground and build a $50-million property on the island. His partner in the venture was John Bredenkamp, a Zimbabwean billionaire accused of arms-dealing during the Iran-Iraq war. The project never happened, although Bredenkamp has since built a private lair on nearby Magaruque Island.
Many breathed a sigh of relief when the deal to redevelop Paradise Island fell through, for such is the power of nostalgia that couples who honeymooned here in the old days still revisit the ruins for a booster-shot of memories, and many will tell you, with great conviction but no proof whatsoever, that Bob Dylan composed his song ‘Mozambique’ on the very piano from which my grandmother was serenaded.
The four lodges on Bazaruto and Benguerra islands are the only places to stay in the archipelago. The two oldest opened back in 1990 as basic fishing camps, but have grown in sophistication over the years, dictated by the demands of fishermen’s wives and girlfriends who objected to roughing it in such a paradisiacal setting. My old favourite, Benguerra Lodge, was recently bought by a consortium including South African businessman Dick Enthoven (who also owns the Spier wine estate in Stellenbosch) and given a makeover. Now managed by the respected safari conservation outfit AndBeyond, the rejuvenated property is laid out like a traditional bush camp with guest cottages on either side of a central dining and living room. Each has a private plunge pool and outdoor shower; the new interiors are smart-colonial and the setting is cool and shady, a refreshing glade set back from the refractive, bouncing light of the sand and sea.
In its previous incarnation the lodge was managed for a quarter of a century by Sally Bryson, an instinctive and generous host who taught the staff how to cook superb meals and inducted them into the often-perplexing ways of fussy Westerners. Bryson has since retired, but most of the original members of staff are still here, which lends the place a relaxed, practiced rhythm.
THE COAST OF MOZAMBIQUE IS PERFECTION, ESPECIALLY AT ITS MOST TERRIFYINGLY LOUD, WILD AND WINDY
The cheerful beach bar in front of the lodge is built from a traditional dhow of the sort still used by local fishermen. The elegant sailing vessels are everywhere, a constant reminder that Mozambique was once the southernmost Indian Ocean outpost for Swahili and Arab traders long before Vasco da Gama washed ashore in 1498 and kick-started 500 years of Portuguese rule.
The other place to stay on Benguerra is beautiful Azura, owned by a British banking couple, Chris and Stella Bettany, and built on the site of Gabriel’s backpacker hostel, which I remember with fuzzy-edged fondness as a place of undiluted revelry. Its replacement is a far more restrained and sophisticated honeypot, a laidback beach hotel with a sunny disposition, a great wine list and excellent chalkboard menu. Like AndBeyond – just a short dhow ride down the beach at high tide – Azura slots into island life beautifully: even before opening the lodge, the Bettanys had built a school and set up a charity for villagers, who also built the lodge from scratch.
These are not isolated pockets of indulgence of the Maldivian variety. More than 1,500 people live on the islands and you will undoubtedly wake to the sound of fishermen as they set off at dawn; take a walk on the beach in the milky early-morning light and children will call after you, splashing happily in the shallows as their mothers collect sand oysters in baskets woven from lala palms.
The Indian Ocean here is fabulously warm and rich in marine life, with plentiful manta rays and whale sharks, schools of dolphins and loggerhead, green and hawksbill turtles. It is also home to about 200 dugongs, Africa’s last sustainable population of the big grey mammals thought to have given rise to the myth of the mermaid. Thanks to the Endangered Wildlife Trust, they have a guardian angel in Karen Allen, a determined young South African based on Benguerra who has made it her life’s mission to save them.
Benguerra has also proved itself a safe haven for eight horses rescued from Zimbabwe by Pat and Mandy Retzlaff, who were forced off their farm during Mugabe’s land invasions. After it was destroyed, the couple returned after dark to save their horses and those of their neighbours. As time went on and more and more farmers left Zimbabwe, the couple amassed a herd of more than 100 abandoned thoroughbreds, part-Arabian stallions, polo ponies, foals and elderly mares. Finally, they managed to spirit the horses across the border into Mozambique, where they have set up a horse-safari outfit based in Vilankulo and on Benguerra Island.
On a late afternoon ride across the island with Mandy Retzlaff, through villages and up sand dunes with views across its pretty inland lakes to the ocean, she showed me where my mount – a patient and gentle grey mare named Princess – still bears the scar of a bullet wound on her withers. One of the others, a spirited bay called Tequila, was taken to Benguerra to foil his repeated attempts to head back to Zimbabwe. Tequila’s escapist tendencies still manage to get him into trouble on the island, where he is known for his night-time escapades, often accompanied by his willing accomplice Slash.
The northern tip of benguerra reaches out but doesn’t quite touch its much larger neighbour, Bazaruto. The bigger island is perhaps even more beautiful, if only because there is so much more of it. There are a great many freshwater lakes, five with crocodiles, all stocked with fat bream and tilapia. Flamingos are regular visitors, as are flocks of white-breasted cormorants, grey herons, pelicans, and elegant great ibis. There are meadows of sea grass, mangrove swamps and swaying savannah grassland; evergreen forests shelter shy red duiker antelope. In places the island calls to mind Africa miniaturised, especially in the villages where women grow sweet potatoes, sorghum and cassava and children run out from mud huts to wave at passing strangers, still enough of a novelty to induce great squeals of excitement.
This year the island’s Indigo Bay hotel was rebranded following a management deal between its owner, Adel Aujan, and the Bangkok-based Anantara group. Even when it first opened in 2001, it marked a radical departure from the islands’ quieter, more intimate lodges and the newly christened Anantara Bazaruto Island is still the biggest and brashest around. On the surface, the rebranding appears to have made very little difference to the hotel, which is exactly as I remember, if now a little frayed around the edges. There are profligate buffet dinners, golf buggies to get around, a great spa and two resort-style pools, one with a cascading waterfall for families, and the other with a swim-up bar for grown-ups. South African families absolutely love it, and the islanders who work here are perhaps the smiliest and most welcoming anywhere on the archipelago.
The Bazaruto Archipelago was once part of a peninsula connected to the mainland, and at low tide the retreating sea exposes millions of sand spits and tiny isles of baking-soda-white sand set in radiating swirls of vivid blue. In the Portuguese era, so the story goes, convicts would be shackled together and left here to drown with the rising tide; these days guests from the lodges are dropped off for desert-island picnics. One of the most beautiful of these ephemeral isles is Pansy Island – named after the sea-urchin skeletons with distinctive pansy-shaped imprints found there – which hugs the southern shores of Bazaruto. From here, against screen-saver blue skies, there are views of the imposing procession of dunes that have for epochs protected Bazaruto from extinction, and always the growl and thunder of the Indian Ocean as it pounds onto Sailfish Bay, 30km of deserted white beach, an immaculate and almost-to-scale model of the 2,500km Mozambique coastline of my dreams.
AndBeyond (www.andbeyond.com) offers an eight-day Mozambique Experience from £5,417 per person, all-inclusive, with return flights, transfers, and two nights each at AndBeyond Benguerra Island, Azura Benguerra Island and Anantara Bazaruto Island Resort & Spa. It also includes a scenic helicopter flight, one activity (sea kayaking, sunset dhow cruise, snorkelling) and one experience (castaway picnic, island expedition, village tour) at AndBeyond Benguerra Island, a 15-minute massage, a Landrover island drive and a sunset dhow cruise at Azura Benguerra Island, and non-motorised activities at Anantara Bazaruto Island.