Isla de Mozambique – Part 2
Anyway, we arrived at the house to be met by the three guests already there. Jamie is a sort of “Monarch of the Glen” in that he has just inherited an estate with a “bijou” castle, which he hopes to restore to its former glory. Unlike Archie of the TV series, I suspect he is a lot brighter and probably wealthier though perhaps not as aesthetically pleasing to the feminine eye. With him was his brother Rob, who does up houses in Sri Lanka and who speaks Portuguese, having lived in Brazil for a while. The third chap was Peter, a friend of Jamie and also from Scotland, who used to work for the UN in various situations. He presented some interesting insights into the moral irresponsibility and ineptitude of that august body. Peter had also spent a few years working in Zimbabwe for the Camp Fire (game conservation) project in Guruve in the mid-nineties. He remembered discussing dhow safaris with my brother a few years back. All three were thoroughly nice blokes and good company.
Because of its strategic importance over the centuries, the island was a major trading post for ships rounding the Cape on trips too and from the Far East. As a result there were numerous wrecks in the waters surrounding it. When the tide goes out the locals go and sift through the sand searching for beads. These were used by the Portuguese to trade for gold and slaves with the likes of Monomutapa of Great Zimbabwe fame. They natives make colourful necklaces from them which they then tout to the few tourists that appear. It is claimed that because of their origins, i.e. 16th century Venetian glass etc and their historical significance, these beads are very valuable. This is possibly true. However, I have been conditioned over many years of colonial upbringing to laugh at the naïve and gullible savage who has traded his country away for a few beads. Manhattan Island springs to mind. I am damned if I will give the now savvy savage the opportunity to con me in return.
The island is also littered with what appears to be and what I am assured are bits of blue China pottery, invariably deemed to be of the Ming dynasty by enthusiastic tourists and touts alike. We met a diver there who with his team had uncovered a wreck with loads of the stuff. They had reached an agreement whereby anything of unique significance would go to the government, but the run of the mill bits and pieces they could dispose of for profit. Unfortunately for them, most of the collection was of such historical importance that the government got to keep it and they barely covered their costs.
Wandering around the island you do come across a few other white people; either tourists or UN aid workers. There is an infallible way of determining which is which. You smile and say hello. If they acknowledge, they are tourists. If they ignore you then they are aid workers; or perhaps missionaries.
It is somewhat depressing to learn just how out of touch with reality these aid workers are with life in Africa. Just by the mainland end of the causeway is a group of high rise buildings, apartments built for relocated inhabitants of the island. Here is a society (I use the word in its broadest sense) that lives entirely by what the sea provides. They live in rude huts that are regularly destroyed by cyclones. They build the crudest of boats with the most basic of rigging and the most rudimentary of paddles, none of which receive more than the bare minimum of maintenance. Apart from when they are hungry or need to answer nature’s apparently ever-so-frequent call they sit around doing nothing all day. It is a perfect example of subsistence living. While one might argue that this is how it should be, a bunch of woolly-minded, liberal third-world groupies who think that they can advance the welfare of these people by imprisoning them in modern high-rise flats where they have to conform to the social mores of petty bourgeois western culture, are bound to be sadly disillusioned.
Speaking of things rudimentary, the facilities of the villa are, to-date, pretty basic, although restoration work is ongoing. There is little in the way of furniture and the floors are rough concrete. That in itself is not a problem as all of us were quite willing to camp. But few of us knew beforehand, that camping was the order of the day and therefore did not plan accordingly. i.e. no sleeping bags, though there were foam mattresses which, I noticed, originated in Uganda. It did not matter though as for most of the time it was warm enough and when it did turn a bit chilly nobody bothered too much if they had to sleep in their clothes. I don’t wish to sound disparaging. The whole laid-back effect was very relaxing and, as I soon learned, typically Tomas. The company was excellent as was the food and drink. Rob proved to be a fine and industrious cook and Tomas a more than generous host.
Monday was spent exploring the island. We ate lunch at a restaurant. It was discovered that you had to order the meal about 90 minutes before it would arrive. But when it did, it was excellent, provided that you stuck to prawn curry. Which is what we did. On the Tuesday, we rented a dhow with the intention of going to swim off one of the islands. As there was very little wind, the “skipper” persuaded us that this would be a bad idea as it would take all day to get there. Instead he press-ganged some oarsmen to row us to the main land where we swam and explored rock pools. It was a lovely setting and reminded me of my first trip to Mozambique aged 4 when we visited Paradise Island on a family holiday.
Part of the purpose for the trip was the opportunity to go and explore a piece of land that was up for sale a few miles north of the island. We loaded bags and some supplies onto the back of a truck while we all boarded an open motor boat. Essentially a dhow with no sail but a 15 hp engine instead. It was a calm sunny day and off we set in high sprits. After an hour or so we stopped for a swim. It turns out that Rob was a free diver. You know one of those people who dive deep, without scuba. Under his guidance I managed to dive what he estimated to be 7m. I was impressed until I learned that his record is 65m, albeit on a sled.
After a journey of about 3 hours, we reached our destination. The vendor, who had driven ahead in the truck, was a rather decayed gentleman of questionable ethnicity, who rejoiced under the stellar name of Omar but refused to let any inferred Islamic associations interfere with his impressive capacity for the consumption of alcohol. He had rather thoughtfully prepared for us a repast of crabs and prawns, accompanied by a couple of bottles of wine. We sat at one end of a veranda in the collapsing remains of a house that had seen better days. At the other end, various hangers on pottered around a fire and an old tin can from which our current meal had emerged and from which further meals would in due course emanate.
Signs of better times were indicated by an avenue of coconut palms that led to the ruins of a much grander house. Omar claimed that when he was a young man the farm had been prosperous, with cashew and mango plantations as well as much wildlife. He had personally shot 7 black rhino and had the horns to prove it. This news was greeted with mixed feelings. On one hand we were all horrified that he had shot rhino on the other glad to know that they had been around as recently as that and that with a bit of time, money and dedication they could perhaps be reintroduced.
The house where we were camped was next to the beach, which at low tide stretched for a couple of hundred meters. Beyond that was a large horse-shoe island with trees and mushroom-shaped rock formations. It really was a lovely sight. The water was beautifully clear and the sand white and soft.
After lunch we went for a drive round the property, but as it was rapidly getting dark we did not get very far. We repaired to the veranda for drinks, during which chef appeared with a live chicken. After a bit of negotiation with Omar he went to the back of the house. A bit of a squawk, and the next thing we knew, dinner was stewing away in the old tin can. And a jolly fine dinner it was too.
Afterwards we went onto the beach to do justice to the remaining wine. Tomas insisted that we all sleep on the beach instead of in the cramped and smelly house. Omar thought this a bad idea as it would be too windy. Wisely Jamie and Rob followed his advice. Molly, Peter and I on the other hand were too idle take the mattresses, which by this stage where on the beach, back to the house. None of us had anything to keep us warm apart from a kikoy (sarong), or so we thought, until Tomas produced a cashmere blanket, recently given to him by his “fee-yarn-say”. The rest of us shivered our way through the night too cold to move and too cold to sleep. Actually it was not that bad. I awoke at about 4 and re-lit the fire and waited for the sun to rise. Well worth the effort.
The next day we took an extended tour of the property which consists largely of sand-veld. It was pretty and there were a couple of small lakes, some high ground and some lovely big trees. But there had obviously been a fair amount of deforestation and there were lots of “squatters” on the property, eking out a living growing millet and cassava. Anybody who wanted to make a commercial venture out of the property would have to evict these people, which given the state of affairs, would inevitably prove to be a delicate process. At every village there were numerous children, and it is not difficult to know why, given the effect it must have on the men folk in the neighbourhood, of what I can only describe as the ‘inappropriate pelvic gesticulations’ directed towards us by the young maidens we passed.
At about 11, we began our trip back. Rob wisely, as it turned out, opted to go in the truck. The rest of us piled into the boat and set off. It was just past high tide, so we were able to move off from the beach. We told the boatmen to take us to the island which we would walk across and they should meet us on the other side. Fairly typically, things took longer than expected and there were some quite anxious moments when the party split up and the boat had not arrived. The tide was rapidly going out and if we left it too late, we would be stranded until later that evening. We did however, just make it to deep water. But that is when the fun started. Whereas on our journey there it had been calm and gentle, now there was a strong wind blowing against us and there were some heavy swells. The boat was woefully under powered. The skipper indicated to us that we all sit at the back of the boat, next to one another. We presumed this was to balance the boat. However, it soon turned out that it was nothing more than a ruse to protect him and his mate from the spray. We were all soaked within minutes. It was down one swell, bucket of water in the face, up the next. And so on for four hours. After a while the fixed grin you wear trying to show what a jolly good sport you are and how much you are enjoying yourself begins to make your jaw ache. When you are out in the stormy ocean, sometimes several miles from land, which in any case for much of the time is bordered by coral cliffs; when there are no life jackets or radios, or even a cost guard or rescue service to call; when you are cold and wet and tired, it is possible you may just start to think that perhaps this was not the wisest thing to be doing. And then all of a sudden up pops a little black kid with a pair of goggles and a snorkel and you think, if he is ok, then so am I.
At about 3.30, we staggered back to Isla. After a wash and a change of clothes, we were back to normal, bragging to Rob of our experience and what fun it had been.
The next morning, being Friday, we left to fly home. Peter was hitching up to Pemba to visit some friends while Jamie and Rob were due to fly back to London via Maputo and Lisbon. The five of us plus Mike, flew to Nampula where they caught their plane. We then engaged in a somewhat farcical affair of trying to refuel, clear customs and fly back to Zimbabwe. Unfortunately for us there was a political conference in town which meant the arrival of several bigwigs. As a result various customs officials emerged from the woodwork and drunken stupors to escape reprimand and demand certain fees. Just as we were about to leave a gentleman looking rather the worse for wear demanded $20 for customs. This was a new one on Tomas who had done this trip many times before. I have no doubt that had he been piloting the plane he would have ignored the man and flown off. As it was he stormed off making threatening noises. Eventually they re-emerged, smiles all round. The man who had in the past always been absent from his post had shown evidence that a fee was in fact due. However, having examined the documentation more closely he realised that it was in fact only US$10 instead of $20, especially as a receipt was required. I found this an unusual form of corruption. Normally you get off paying a lower fine if you agree not to ask for a receipt. These people have much to learn.
Before we had even alighted from the plane in Zimbabwe, a customs official was demanding to inspect our bags. Judging by his demeanour and the smell of him he, like his counterpart in Nampula, had decided to make an early start to the weekend.
Mike and Molly, who had done a bit of flying herself, had regaled us with horror stories about the incompetence of the air traffic controllers in this part of the world. Irrespective of one’s attitude to colonialism, English is the international language of air traffic control (except in France where apparently it is only a “temporary measure”) and it therefore helps if the controllers can speak it. It also helps if they know left from right. Not an assumption to be taken for granted by pilots new to the region. One pilot without an instrument rating inadvertently got caught out after dark and had to be guided in by ATC. It got so confusing that eventually the pilot of a passing BA Jumbo en route to Joburg guided him home.
It was satisfying to note that on our return to Charles Prince, one of the armoured cars was no longer at is base at the end of the runway. Instead it was stuck at the entrance to the car park where it had broken down. Cars were forced edge carefully around it. You might have expected a degree of embarrassment by the brave soldiers defending the sovereignty of their country, but not a bit of it. They could not have been less concerned.