MARY FITZPATRICK celebrates a little-visited nation that’s big on beauty.
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.
Here, 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.
New developments are most noticeable in the national capital, Maputo, which is in Mozambique’s far south and is economically welded to neighbouring 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.
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 April, and temperatures are somewhat higher than in the south.
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. Meanwhile an ever-growing array of restaurants serve seafood platters, spicy samosas and sizzling steaks.
Exploring on foot is also feasible. But whatever your mode of transport, don’t miss Maputo’s elegant early 20th -century train station on Praca dos Trabalhadores. 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 is an imposing fortress, known locally as the Fortaleza, that harks back to the Portuguese colonial era.
Another highlight is the National Museum of Art, with an eclectic collection of works by contemporary Mozambican artists. The chaotic Mercado Municipal on Avenida 25 de Setembro, open from about 8am until 6pm daily, makes an enjoyable detour, overflowing with piles of tropical fruits and spices.
For respite from the market’s noise and crowds, duck into one of the small, dark shops opposite, with their colourful batiks and capulanas (cloth wraps worn by many Mozambican women). Finish exploring with a leisurely drive along the breezy seaside Avenida Marginal. En route are several restaurants where you can savour a heaping plate of grilled prawns and beachside views.
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. The Franco-Mocambicano Cultural Centre is a good venue for an earlier start, with performances of traditional and modern Mozambican music.
After all this activity, it’s time to 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 surrounding the archipelago abound with marine life. The largest island, 35km-long Bazaruto, and the somewhat smaller Benguerra are home to a handful of comfortable lodges where you can spend your days listening to the rustling of palm trees or swimming and snorkelling amid well-preserved coral formations. As you explore, you’ll see flamingos, fish eagles and many other bird species. Dolphins cavort in the clear waters, while manta rays glide into the shadows and whale sharks swim through the depths. They are joined by many other types of fish, plus loggerhead, leatherback and green turtles. With great luck, you may even spot one of Bazaruto’s rare dugong, who spend their days foraging among the sea-grass meadows.
While Mozambique’s coast gets most of the attention, there are several inland gems. Gorongosa National Park 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 affectedly 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 be seen, with elephants, lions and many antelopes among the highlights. Birding is rewarding, and the landscapes are stunning, thanks to the park’s mix of jade-green floodplains, open savannah, woodlands, forests of fever trees and stands of palm.
In northwestern Mozambique, on the shores of Lake Niassa (Lake Malawi), is the sublimely beautiful Nkwichi Lodge (mandawilderness.org, another conservation and community development 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, with luck, you might see sable antelope, elephants and even a leopard or two in the surrounding Manda Wilderness Reserve.
Dawn comes early in the Quirimbas, a chain of about two dozen islands and islets strewn along the 300km of coastline between Pemba in the south and the Tanzanian border in the north. By 5am, the day has begun.
On tiny, crescent-shaped Vamizi, one of the most northerly in the archipelago, women in brightly coloured wraps walk along the beach balancing baskets on their heads. Water birds wade in the shallows and crabs scuttle across the soft, white sands.
About 150km south of Vamizi is Ibo, the historical heart of the archipelago. It is an enchanting place, with sleepy, sandy lanes lined with dilapidated villas and crumbling, moss-covered buildings. The late-18th century star-shaped Sao Joao Fort dominates the island’s northern end, serving today as a centre where Ibo’s silver artisans practise their craft.
Unlike Vamizi and some of the more northerly islands, where patches of white sand shimmer amid turquoise-hued waters, Ibo is mostly surrounded by mangrove forests.
Just off the northern mainland, Mozambique Island is just three km long and 500m at its widest. But this Unesco World Heritage Site is a highlight of any visit.
In its 17th - and 18th-century heyday, the island was capital of Portuguese East Africa and a hub for Indian Ocean trade. Today, its legacy as a trade crossroads is reflected in its diversity. Christian, Muslim and Hindu communities rub shoulders, while immigrants from East Africa, Goa, Macau and elsewhere mix with local Makua culture.
In the island’s northern half or “Stone Town”, graceful Portuguese-style praças (squares) are rimmed by once-grand churches, pictured, while stately colonial-era buildings keep watch over quiet streets. Makuti Town is the island’s younger, livelier southern section: thatched huts tumble into each other; narrow alleyways echo with the sounds of children playing and fishermen repair their nets on the sand.
Don’t miss the restored Palace and Chapel of Sao Paulo, the former governor’s residence; or the massive Sao Sebastiao fort, begun in 1558 and the oldest complete fort still standing in Sub-Saharan Africa. – UK Independent-Lonely Planet