I had been shot at by the Taliban and wanted to go somewhere very far away and quiet.
Ibo island, in northern Mozambique, was both those things. It took almost two days to get there from our doorstep in southwest London, and there were no cars, no banks and, oh bliss, no web cafes. It was so quiet that about the most stressful incident was a standoff with a goat. I had wanted to sit on a stone bench in the shade of the flame trees in the main square, but the billy had got there first and had no intention of moving. Hardly the end of the world.
Ibo felt like a state of mind rather than a place.
It did not seem quite real, particularly in that grassy square of abandoned colonial houses in ice-cream pastels. Their grand size and wrought-iron terraces and lampposts suggested prosperity. But the ironwork was rusted, the walls pitted with black mould, and fig trees growing through them.
Ibo’s wealth was based on trade in slaves and ivory, and the island’s graves tell how, in centuries past, it attracted the Chinese, Arabs, British and Portuguese. It felt as if time had stopped since the Portuguese left abruptly in 1974. Since then, Ibo’s population has fallen from 37,000 to fewer than 4,000.
That it was once thriving is clear from the large whitewashed church of Nossa Senhora do Rosario in the square. Today, as most of the remaining population is Muslim, its main congregation is a colony of fruit bats. In the vestry, candlesticks and brown-skinned wooden saints gather dust, while its graveyard
of falling headstones, including those of 15 children, speaks of tragedy and disease far from home.
As yet, Ibo has no written history, but its crumbling walls seemed peopled with the ghosts of grand parties of days gone by; the Sundays when men in tall hats and women in big skirts came out of church and sat gossiping on the benches; the amorous Portuguese bishop driving the only car on the island.
Not all the stories are in the past – islanders talk of spirits haunting the fort and the small neighbouring island, where an old German widow and her son live alone raising cows.
Apart from the church, the grandest building on the square is the Alfandega, or Customs House, pink-painted with ornate iron lattice along its roof. Inside, in a vague attempt at tourism, it had been turned into a tourist office. The unmanned display consisted of an elephant skull, an old dining chair with a label reading cadeira usada pelos portugueses – chair used by the Portuguese – and a table laid out with a few coffee beans.
Much more interesting was a back room where we found the archive: shelves crammed with large ledgers of ships, yellowing pages, and a rusted old typewriter, which fascinated my seven-year-old son, who’d never seen one except in Tintin books.
Ibo’s heyday was in the late 18th century, but then came the abolition of slavery and, in the 1900s, the development of modern ships that no longer needed to stop off so often for water and supplies. Today, there hasn’t been a postal service for years. There are rumoured to be two television sets, though we never saw them. The island doesn’t have a single high school.
As we came out of the customs building, a woman was wandering up from the beach carrying fish on strings. A dhow had just come in with the morning catch and this was lunch. Life on Ibo is governed by the tides. Boats go out early in the morning at high tide, or what the locals call maji-mwingi. This is when the ocean rises enough for the fishermen to be able to sail their dhows to the fishing grounds and traders to guide their vessels to the mainland through the mangroves.
ILHA DO IBO is one of a string of 32 islands that make up the Quirimbas archipelago. The remoteness that is part of its charm means it is not easy to get there. We flew overnight to Johannesburg then on the next day to Maputo, from where it is another five hours north to Pemba, gateway to the Quirimbas. There, the adventure really begins. We climbed into a rainbow-painted, six-seater aircraft, like a toy plane, for the 30-minute trip. As we headed out over the Indian Ocean, we could see small islands dotted with coconut palms and deserted white beaches, and coral reefs easily visible through clear turquoise waters.
Ibo is tiny, a mere speck in the ocean at two miles long and two miles wide. The airport is miniature, just a small white-stone platform with Ibo painted on it. Our plane could only land on the small grass runway after children had chased away some goats.
We were met by Kevin, a Zimbabwean, who, along with his wife Fiona, runs the only lodge on the island. He loaded us and our bags into a tuk-tuk (there are no cars on Ibo – in fact, there is little of anything except fresh fish) and off we went. Ibo Island Lodge comprises three colonial buildings on a grass strip of palms and frangipani trees overlooking the sea. The houses have been lovingly restored to create a haven with most of the luxuries of modern life and none of the stresses. The rooms have four-poster beds, ceiling fans, power showers and a scattering of silk cushions in calming turquoise and aqua.
Kevin and Fiona met in 1993 in England. They decided to spend a year travelling through Africa in an old Bedford truck and were lured to Mozambique by the Bob Dylan song of the same name: “I like to spend some time in Mozambique/ The sunny sky is aqua blue/And all the couples dancing cheek to cheek./It’s very nice to stay a week or two.”
The sky may have been aqua blue, but the country they found was just coming to the end of a brutal 20-year civil war, and the roads were all broken and full of landmines. However, if you could get to them, the beaches were incredible. I was there at the same time, reporting on peace negotiations, and was so taken by the palm-fringed white sands and the most delicious prawns I had ever tasted that I almost bought a beach with two friends from the UN. It’s a decision I have often regretted.
Some old men playing backgammon in a bar directed the couple to Ibo. They took a boat and fell in love with it, and then spent years trying to find a way back. Five years ago, they bought the first of three houses, renovating them and finally opening for business last December.
By then, other lodges with more resources had started building the infrastructure and promoting northern Mozambique as a destination, helped by high-profile visitors such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Prince Harry and his girlfriend, Chelsy.
But logistics are a nightmare. Not only did all the cement and wood have to be brought over by dhow, but Ibo does nothing but fish, so almost all food has to be imported. What little fruit is grown is distilled for alcohol – drinking is a big problem on the island. One day, walking through the square, we saw some very drunk people on a veranda. The noisiest of them turned out to be the chief of police.
As the biggest employer on the island, the couple are determined that the lodge should benefit the whole population. They have set up a school that teaches English, for instance, and are encouraging enterprise projects such as silverwork, making use of silver from old Portuguese coins.
Training local staff is a real challenge, as most cannot read or write and have never left the island. When they instructed waiters to ask, “Would you like chocolate or vanilla ice cream?”, they would reply, “What is ice cream?”
FOR THE time being, most of the staff are Zimbabweans, no bad thing for the tourist, as that country boasts some of the best service in the world. Our son was totally spoilt by Charles, the maître d’, and Livingstone, the barman, who made him special pizza. The food at the rooftop restaurant was superb – the prawns just as exquisite as I remembered.
Adding to the charm was the fact that we had often helped buy the seafood while out on boat trips. Once, we came back with several kilos of prawns from along the river, while another time a makeshift wooden skiff drew alongside, manned by young men whose upper bodies were heavily muscled, glistening with sweat. As they came close, we could see that the bottom of the boat was thrashing about with bright-coloured fish such as red mullet and parrotfish.
Between meals, there was something very restful about watching dhows with large white triangular sails. I could sit for hours on the rooftop or the swing-seats on the terrace, watching the tide recede and the plovers or long-legged herons emerge to pick their way through the mangroves.
The only disappointment was that the island has no beach from which to swim.
The lodge has a pool, but otherwise guests are taken by dhow or motorised dinghy to a sandbank that appears as the tide recedes.
The indefatigable Kevin makes up for the lack of beaches with activities such as kayaking, crocodile-hunting and trips to other islands, often seeing whales or dolphins en route. The dive walls around the island are as much as 300ft deep and offer some of the least explored coral reef in the Indian Ocean.
Ibo is not an obvious place to take a child, but my son loved everything from the dhow to the giant red crabs. As we walked around, we gathered an audience of children, including a girl of about nine with a baby strapped to her back. They were as intrigued by the curly-haired white boy as he was by them.
Once he had got over the idea that there was no point showing them his Game Boy, and that there was no entertainment of an electronic nature, he was soon joining them in football played with a ball made out of plastic bags. “They’re good!” he said after they’d dribbled circles around him in their bare feet.
On our last day, it was a shock to enter the square and see a group of English and French tourists snapping away with their cameras. They were day-trippers from another island (many people island-hop) and it was a rude invasion after being used to having the place to ourselves and the lodge’s few guests. With property buyers apparently snapping up the ruins, it will be hard to maintain the sense of desertion that is Ibo’s charm.
By the way, it seems Bob Dylan never did go to Mozambique.
Christina Lamb travelled as a guest of Rainbow Tours (020 7226 1004, www.rainbowtours.co.uk ), which can tailor-make itineraries throughout Mozambique. A week at Ibo Island Lodge (www.iboisland.com ) costs from £2,075pp, including flights from Heathrow to Johannesburg, the onward connection, light-aircraft transfers, and full-board accommodation with activities. Alternatively, a bush-and-beach holiday, combining a three-night safari at Djuma Bush Lodge and four nights at Ibo Island Lodge, costs from £2,345pp. Other specialists include Audley Travel (01993 838 0000, www.audleytravel.co.uk ), Expert Africa (020 8232 9777, www.expertafrica.com ) and Idyllic Islands off Africa (01993 773269, www.africanislands.co.uk )
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