It’s a good job the planets were in alignment. Apparently Jupiter and Venus blazing in the velvety night sky were a good omen.
Just as well, otherwise I might still be marooned at Mozambique’s Vilankulos Airport. Actually there are far worse airports to be marooned in because this one is spanking new, built by the philanthropic (?) Chinese and everything works. Except the fingerprint machine.
All the other arrivals have gone – happily fingerprinted – but I’m standing alone at the Immigration Desk as the machine stubbornly refuses to record my prints.
Thank goodness for the always delightful and helpful Mozambicans. The big airport boss kindly lets me use his fingerprints on my visa so for the rest of my stay I am masquerading under a false identity.
You just can’t go wrong with a beach holiday in Mozambique, which has Africa’s longest coastline bordering on the balmy waters of the Indian Ocean.
I’d been warned that Cyclone Irena was about to hit, but trusting to the ever reliable Turkington weather luck (my neighbours in Ireland used to plan their holidays to coincide with mine to be sure of good weather) I flew off with Federal Air (the reliably efficient and friendly airline with superb staff) to Vilankulos.
Skies were overcast, but the local fishermen drifting by the long, lovely beach at Vilankulos Beach Lodge didn’t seem to mind; nor did the whimbrels, turnstones and plovers foraging on the shoreline, so neither did I.
The lodge didn’t survive the catastrophic cyclone of a few years ago (remember the baby born in a tree?) but has re-risen, phoenix-like, in a new reincarnation on the same spot.
I stayed in one of 24 thatch bungalows, all sea-facing, and all perfectly secluded from one another in gorgeous indigenous gardens. The brochure describes the accommodation as “rustic”, but I find it hard to relate polished wooden floors, super-comfortable beds, lots of cupboard and shelf space, useful desk, “his and hers” wash basins, shower, air con, fan and safe with “rustic”.
If you need a break from white sandy beaches, azure seas and pristine coral reefs, you can park on your personal wooden deck and sit and read as bulbuls keep up their continuous cheerful chatter and Burchell’s coucal calls its melodious “water pouring from a bottle” song.
Vilankulos Beach Lodge sits in the middle of that long Mozambican coastline, just 8km from the little village of the same name. It’s a three-star lodge, which means that it’s affordable for cash-strapped South Africans, although your water activities, some meals and drinks are extra.
But a visit to the magical islands of the Bazaruto Archipelago, which lie just offshore, is non-negotiable. The diving and snorkelling are rated among the best in the world as the reefs are still in a pristine condition.
Daniel, the American dive master in charge of diving, fishing, snorkelling and jet-boat skiing, explains why. Apparently these islands, beaches and villages were largely uninhabited until refugees from the bitter 1977-1992 civil war took refuge here. They had no tradition of fishing, so new technologies and over-fishing were not on the agenda. The people fished just for food or to sell.
And the food! Never ever did I think that by my fourth night in Mozambique would I say: “I just can’t face any more prawns!”
My friend and colleague Marie and I take a tuk-tuk for an afternoon around Vilankulos to see the “sights”. (Blink and you’ll miss them.) But we bartered with friendly women in the “old” market for lengths of colourful Dutch wax cloth, and eyeballed freshly caught sardines, squid and lots of other unidentifiable fish in the “new” market. (Tip: if you are self-catering, the new catch comes in to this market at 4pm.)
We visit the harbour, an old Catholic church and the colourful mosque. Our guide, John, is knowledgeable and speaks excellent English. He has a brother living in Randburg with “two cars and a house” and longs to join him.
“There are no opportunities here, no jobs, no future,” he tells us as we splutter along the main drag, Av Eduardo Mondlane, more potholes than surface.
“We need a new government. We’re supposed to have a democracy, but there’s only corruption and people in power getting richer and richer as the poor suffer.”
I ask him about freedom of the press in Mozambique. What would happen if he criticised the president?
“I’d be in prison tomorrow.”
From Vilankulos, we fly courtesy of CFA Air Charters to the five-star award-winning resort of Indigo Bay on Bazaruto Island, a proclaimed marine national park. It’s a Rani Resort, so expect top quality, top food, top staff, top everything. Although it’s pricey, everything – including all your water activities, drinks and amazing meals – are included. Only treatments at the Sanctuary Spa will come out of your own pocket.
You can also go horse riding, dune boarding, bird watching (spot 180 species), whale and dolphin watching or search for dugongs, those elusive, endangered huge sea mammals, the supposed origin of the mermaid myth.
Indigo Bay prides itself on conserving the natural environment and investing in social and economic schemes that benefit the locals.
It’s particularly proud of its “tag and release” fishing activities, and has achieved an almost 100 percent release rate on sailfish and marlin caught by guests. The resort has won accolades for the most tagged fish among all charter operations along the southern African east coast.
One perfect day when Irina has vanished over the sparkling blue horizon, we chug out to sea for a picnic on the aptly named Paradise Island. Once the playground of the rich and famous in the 1960s, the abandoned hotel has a Fellini-like quality, but the beaches and marine life are still heavenly.
The snorkelling is memorable – fish of every colour, size and description, dart, float, mooch and glide among pink, green and bronze coral reefs. Afterwards we drink local beer to wash down the peri-peri prawns and laze in the shade of a canvas pagoda straight out of the pages of The Arabian Nights.
Our new friends, Caryn and Jonathan, a honeymoon couple from Joburg, fall asleep intertwined on the white sand.
That night, tables are set out on the beach and we dine under those blazing planets and a full moon.
And among my magical Mozambican memories are two large fingerprints in my passport that certainly don’t belong to me.