Ilha de Moçambique: a symbolic end to our Mozambique experience

Week 1 of our safari pilgrimage took us to a place that has been on our wish list ever since moving to Mozambique – Mozambique Island or Ilha de Moçambique. It’s one of the few tourist spots in northern Mozambique, an exception within our fairly rural Diocese. Think of it like a Mozambican version of Zanzibar – an island full of historical buildings, arabic charm, beautiful beaches, with traditional dhow boats patrolling the turquoise waters.

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A dhow with the island in the background. The red building is part of the palace.

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Dhows in the bay near the Fort of São Sebastião

Ilha de Moçambique is often said to be the place where Mozambique began and while that may not be fully true since “Mozambicans” were living here already, it certainly is true of the name. That fact also has a certain symbolic feel to us as we made our way out of Mozambique. It was strange to visit part of Mozambique that felt so different, so ancient, so indicative of European influence. As we wandered around the island we often felt like we could have been in older bits of Lisbon, with narrow streets, grand doors, ornate iron decorations on buildings and gates.

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The old hospital which sits between the Stone and Lime town and the Makuti town

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A door in the Stone and Lime town

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One of the many narrow streets in the Stone and Lime town

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At the entrance to the Fort of São Sebastião

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The oldest European building in the southern hemisphere, the 1522 chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte

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Sunset through the gates in Stone and Lime town

You could feel the history. One things we noticed was that people here knew that history and were proud of it. Our guide round the Portuguese palace was extremely knowledgeable; Ibrahim, a boy we met playing on the beach, knew all the tales of the island. Ibrahim reminded us that Mozambique the country took its name from Mozambique the island, the early capital of this region of Africa during colonial rule. Mozambique Island itself derives its name from Musa Al Big (say it quickly), a sultan in the times of Vasco da Gama. He also told us more about the trade beads that wash up on the beaches surrounding the island. These beads were used in times of the slave trade – traders would use strings of coloured glass in exchange for African’s lives. Sometimes traders’ ships from Europe would run aground on the reefs around the island and lose their cargo into the water. The beads have been washing up on the shore ever since. Now islanders collect the beads to make into jewellery to sell and make a living, taking the dark history behind the beads and turning it on its head. We spent some time scratching through the sand ourselves and were amazed by what we could find.

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Sifting the sand for beads. Joanne is wearing a bracelet made from them that we bought from a trader on the island

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The number of different beautiful tiny shells we found was amazing

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Prime bead-finding beach

We spent time walking round the island and exploring, getting outside and doing intentional exercise as our pilgrimage goals set. The southern part of the island is very different from the north: in the south, Makuti town, you find shacks with coconut palm leaf roofs, in the north, Stone and Lime town, you find old Portuguese-style buildings. In colonial times Stone and Lime town was reserved for Portuguese rulers, with Makuti town being where Mozambicans lived. The majority of the island population still lives in Makuti town, with a lifestyle similar to what we’ve experienced in the rest of northern Mozambique.

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A women’s football match in Makuti town

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Fishermen in Makuti town with the 3km bridge connecting the island with the mainland in the background

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A fisherman tidies his boat in Makuti town. The church of Santo António is in the background and apparently marks the highest point of the island

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Joanne walks the beach towards the church of Santo António

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Yoga on the roof of Ruby Backpackers

We took a dhow boat out to one of the nearby beaches on one of the days which was an amazing insight into the craft of sailing. The crew of two sat back and relaxed (off the edge of the boat to maintain balance) on the way out as we had the full force of the wind at a perfect angle, only revealing their skill on the return journey when we sailed contra-vento (against the wind). They chopped and changed our sailing angle numerous times, each time untying and retying the knots that hold the dhow sail out in front of the boat. The pristine white beach we visited was no doubt beautiful, but confirmed to us that we are not beach people as we longed to go walking rather than lying on the sand.

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Our dhow in the shallow water

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Balancing

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Detail of the dhow sail and mast

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Cabaceira beach near Carrusca lodge

The specialness of the island didn’t stop at its architecture or beaches – we even found a Mozambican post box, the first one we’ve seen in Mozambique since arriving! Ilha is a unique place and we really recommend a visit. One South African we met said it blew Zanzibar out of the water, and he lives in Tanzania. High praise indeed.

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Correiros de Moçambique. The first post box we’ve found

We got to Ilha via Nampula, probably the easiest way to get to and from the island, and an international airport where we could fly on to South Africa. In Nampula we stayed with friends, Lori and Victor, who hosted us in our first week in Mozambique. So, our last night in Mozambique was spent in the care of the same family who cared for us on our first night in Mozambique, completing a rather symbolic farewell to our home of the last two and a half years.

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A giant termite mound in Nampula

How did we do on our ‘How’ pattern of our safari pilgrimage?

  • Spend some time every day outside – tick. Lots and lots of outside time.
  • Eat fresh and local food where possible – tick. Seafood galore and a special Ilha dish, matapa with siri-siri and cashews, a delicious green leafy vegetable dish cooked in a coconut and cashew sauce.
  • Learn a recipe from everyone we stay with – fail. I wish I’d picked up the matapa recipe.
  • Do at least and hour every two days of intentional exercise – tick. We yogad most mornings and walked the entire island. We changed the definition of this one a little as we felt that exploring the island counted as exerise, so the the “beyond just walking around towns” aspect of intentional exercise really means not just going to the shops.
  • Have a weekly date night, an evening set aside for us – tick. Though we actually ended up sharing our food that we cooked with a person who had no plans for the evening. And though that sort of changed the date night, it was a nice evening.
  • Not allow screens in bed – tick. The lack of bed reachable charging points helped.
  • Find 7 geocaches a week – fail. Though we tried one. There just aren’t that many in Mozambique!
  • Financially prioritise unique experiences – tick. We took the dhow boat and ate seafood and saved money on lunches instead.
  • Visit people living in communities of all shapes and sizes and keep notes – half tick. It wasn’t really the week to visit communities, but Lori and Victor do live on a YWAM base, a sort of Christian training centre where people live in community. We will write more about community over the coming weeks.
  • Have meaningful conversations with people, not avoiding deep topics – tick. We had lots of time to talk amongst ourselves but we also managed to talk purposefully with other guests at the backpackers
  • Read the bible together whilst working through a daily devotional – tick. We worked through an updated version of Purpose Driven Life which gave us much to muse on throughout the day.
  • Try to go to a church each Sunday – fail. Our excuse is the fact we were travelling back from Ilha on Sunday and flying the next day so had to pack.
  • Continue to blog about Mozambique as we see things that remind us of our life there and about what we’re learning and experiencing – tick/still to come? We haven’t properly blogged but we have many things in mind to write about. The post box and the different level of Portuguese on Ilha certainly surprised us. We also spent a lot of time discussing how the islanders’ sense of history was something we hadn’t really come across before.

Not too bad? 9/13 or maybe a generous 10 since Geocaching was impossible?

Week 2, Cape Town. Stay tuned.

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