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iol travel dec 10 nt  nu moz40 INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS Indigo Bay Island Resort and Spa on Bazaruto Island in Mozambique.

Maputo - Indian Ocean sunrises, turquoise waters, a 2 500km coastline and a fascinating cultural scene: all this and more awaits in Mozambique, one of southern Africa’s least-visited destinations.

In this long land running from South Africa in the south up to Tanzania in the north, the African bush fuses with Mediterranean flair (this was once Portuguese East Africa), humpback whales migrate up the coast while lions and buffalos roam the interior.

Despite all Mozambique has to offer, its vibrant present is often overshadowed by its darker past. From Vasco da Gama’s first foray in 1498 to independence in 1975, much of the country was under the loose control of the Portuguese, who left their mark on its language, cuisine and culture.

After an independence war and a brief, economically disastrous flirtation with socialism, Mozambique fell into a protracted guerrilla war fuelled largely by external sources. Only since the 1993 peace accords have Mozambicans had the stability, peace and massive influxes of foreign aid needed to rebuild their country.

Over the past decade, things have really taken off. New developments are most noticeable in the capital, Maputo, which is economically welded to South Africa. Mozambique’s north is in many ways a different land, with vast tracts of dense bush in the interior and idyllic islands scattered along the coast.

Because of Mozambique’s size, it is best to focus on either the south or the north. Southern Mozambique’s climate is ideal almost year round, apart from January, which can get very hot, and March to May, when there is usually lots of rain. In the north, the main rains fall from about February through to April.

iol travel dec 10 nt  nu moz10 The northern coastline of Mozambique features pristine beaches and excellent snorkelling. .

For most visitors, the first port of call is Maputo, a striking and unexpectedly pleasant capital city. Long, wide avenues lined by flame and jacaranda trees flow down into the lively low-lying Baixa commercial area. Swanky villas overlook the blue expanses of Maputo Bay and Portuguese-style pavement cafés offer respite from the streetside bustle.

Restaurants serve seafood platters, samoosas and sizzling steaks. Painted “laranjinha” tuk-tuks wait outside the landmark Hotel Cardoso (hotelcardoso.co.mz) on the edge of the busy central area to take you sightseeing (from about R50 for a short trip). The hotel’s doubles are $280 (about R2 470). Exploring on foot is also feasible.

But whatever your mode of transport, don’t miss Maputo’s elegant early 20th-century railway station on Praca dos Trabalhadores. Waiting for the badly dilapidated train isn’t worth your time (there are just a handful of mostly local runs), but the building, with its wrought-iron lattice work and a dome that was designed by an associate of Gustave Eiffel, is an architectural masterpiece.

Nearby an imposing fortress, the Fortaleza, harks back to the colonial era. Another highlight is the National Museum of Art at 1 233 Avenida HoChi Minh, with an eclectic collection of works by contemporary Mozambican artists. The chaotic Mercado Municipal on Avenida 25 de Setembro makes an enjoyable detour, overflowing with piles of tropical fruits and spices.

Maputo’s nightlife, permeated by a satisfying fusion of Latin rhythms and African beats, is renowned, although things don’t get started until close to midnight.

When bedtime calls, Polana Serena Hotel, which has graced the city’s skyline since the 1920s, has doubles from $250 (about R2 500) including breakfast.

Head out of Maputo to the Bazaruto archipelago – a national marine park reached via a 45-minute flight up the coast – for some relaxation. The turquoise waters abound with marine life. The largest island, 35km-long Bazaruto, and the smaller Benguerra are home to lodges.

With great luck, you may even spot one of Bazaruto’s rare dugong, which forage among the sea-grass meadows.

Azura (azuraretreats.com) on Benguerra Island has double villas from $1 250. Pestana Bazaruto Lodge, on Bazaruto Island, has doubles from $474, full board.

While Mozambique’s coast gets most of the attention, there are inland gems. Gorongosa National Park (gorongosa.net) in the centre of the country is a success story in the making. Once one of southern Africa’s premier wildlife parks, Gorongosa was renowned for its large prides of lions, elephants, hippos, buffalos and rhinos.

This abundance was affected badly during the fighting of the 1980s. In recent years, an international effort has set Gorongosa’s restoration in motion.

While wildlife still cannot compare with that in other southern African destinations, there is plenty to see. Explore Gorongosa runs a seasonal tented camp and walking safaris.

Tour operator Toescapeto (toescapeto.com) can arrange a five-night safari to Gorongosa National Park with two nights at Chitengo Camp and three nights at Explore Gorongosa.

In north-western Mozambique, on the shores of Lake Niassa (Malawi), is the sublime Nkwichi Lodge, another success story.

The lake here is crystal clear, with days spent swimming and canoeing. At night, sitting around a campfire on the beach and looking up at the sky or at the tiny lights of the fishing boats lining the horizon, it’s easy to see how the “lake of stars” got its name.

By day you might see sable antelope, elephants and even a leopard or two in the surrounding Manda Wilderness Reserve.

Just off the northern mainland, Mozambique Island is just 3km long and 500m at its widest. But this Unesco World Heritage site is a highlight of any visit. Don’t miss the restored Palace and Chapel of Sao Paulo, the former governor’s residence; or Sao Sebastiao fort, begun in 1558 and the oldest complete fort still standing in sub-Saharan Africa. Accommodation mostly involves simple guest houses. – The Independent

If You Go...

SAA (flysaa.com) flies from Joburg to Maputo. For the Bazaruto archipelago, you can fly on Federal Air (fedair.com) from Joburg and Nelspruit to Vilankulo, or from Maputo to Vilankulo on LAM.

Once in Vilankulo, island lodges are reached by short charter flight, helicopter or boat transfer, organised by your lodge.

For the Quirimbas archipelago, head for Pemba. SAA flies there from Joburg, and LAM flies from Maputo. Transfers to the islands (via charter flight or road and boat) can be arranged directly with the lodges.

Mozambique Island is accessed from Nampula, reached by LAM flights from Maputo and Pemba. From Nampula, it’s a three-hour drive on the causeway which links it to the mainland.

Gorongosa National Park can be reached with CFA Charters (cfa.co.za) from Maputo or the Bazaruto archipelago. Or fly LAM from Maputo to Beira, from where it is a 200km (three-hour) drive to the park.

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