Echoes of old Portugal

On a steamy east African island, Nicola Walker finds a fascinating blend of old European, Swahili and Arabic culture.

In 1983 I came across a novel called Slow Train to Milan by Lisa St Aubin de Teran, whose name, quite apart from her life, made me feel profoundly dull and envious. She had eloped at 17 to live on a Venezuelan sugar estate with a handsome psychotic man and proceeded to two more marriages to charismatic men in unusual locations.

I was not built for such drama and did not ever think our paths would cross but de Teran now lives in Mozambique, way up in the northern province of Nampula, about 1500 kilometres from the capital, Maputo, where my sister has lived for almost 18 years.

We fly into Nampula's tiny airport and stagger out into the heat to find the driver waiting for us, as prearranged with the hotel. Senhor Ihmo is a genial chap, which is just as well as he has four Walker females to contend with, two of them quarrelsome children.

Two hours later, we glimpse the fort of Sao Sebastiao dominating the northern tip of Ilha de Mozambique, the headquarters of Portuguese Mozambique for nearly 400 years. An island three kilometres long and 500 metres at its widest, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991.

The tide is low and the sea translucent as we cross the mile-long causeway linking Ilha to the mainland. Fishermen stand thigh high in the water and a dhow with plastic sails bobs by. Skinny palms soar above a tangle of Arabic and European buildings aglow in the noon sun. Even the children fall silent as we approach.

The Hotel Escondidinho on Praca das Amoreiras, a pretty blend of European and Swahili architecture, was originally a feitoria, or trading house, and for much of the 19th century slaves were the chief commodity. It was a pensao just before independence in 1975, after which it fell into disrepair, like most of the buildings on the island. Now sensitively restored, it is popular with expatriates from all over Mozambique. The cafe overlooks a little walled garden and pool.

At dusk we venture out and are immediately besieged by a polite gang of youths. Pretty soon everyone on the island will know that Stacey is married to a Mozambican and speaks fluent Portuguese and that I hail from Australia, that we are here for five nights with our daughters and that, yes, we might buy some of the famed necklaces reputedly made from old trade beads at some point.

More than a hundred ships foundered on the nearby coast on the journey between Europe and India and, as well as beads, fragments of pottery still wash up on shore (we found a fair few ourselves). The island was an invaluable wintering station for Portuguese trade ships and they were determined to keep it, having first wrested it from a Muslim sheikh. One by one the Portuguese knocked out a string of little Swahili fiefdoms on the East African coast.

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They began work on Sao Sebastiao fort in 1546 and 37 years later were still going. It proved worth the effort when, in the early 17th century, the redoubtable Dutch twice laid siege and were repelled, thereafter sailing on to the Cape. The capacious cisterns are in perfect order today. Behind the fort, on a ledge of coral, perches the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere, a tiny white-washed chapel with a vaulted dome and cruciform windows dating to 1522.

One afternoon Stacey supervises at the swimming pool while I slip away to visit the Palacio de Sao Paulo. Originally a Jesuit convent, until their expulsion in 1759, the governor's imposing palace is built around a central courtyard. It is the strangest thing to see statues of European dandies in doublets on a steamy African island. The floor is patterned in dizzying black-and-white tiles and the air is thick. I feel like Alice, as I follow the guide around to peer at the rooms stuffed with ornate wooden furniture from Goa and China, the dining table laid for a banquet and the huge, lumpy beds with miniature staircases.

Out of the long windows overlooking the bustling main square, the Portuguese governor could view slaves tied to the flogging post. In the 1850s, the first British consul to the island reported a population of 7000, most of whom were slaves. On arrival he was offered an ornate palanquin for the five-minute walk to the palace, one of which is preserved in the basement museum.

Arab caravans rounded up people in the interior and walked them to the coast; the survivors were shipped out to Cuba, Brazil, Reunion and the US, the last in 1878. Oddly enough, there is no memorial to their suffering on Ilha. In the square at this torrid hour only Vasco da Gama, who first chanced upon the island in 1499, gazes mercilessly upon the sea from the safety of his plinth.

Despite the architectural riches here, the indolent buzz of the place, I want to make the short hop across the sea to the mainland to visit the governor's summer mansion on Cabaceira Grande and we have been making inquiries. A small crowd gathers to see us off in the dhow at 9am. It is no joke taking children on a rickety boat without life-jackets but we are reassured by the wiry authority of our capitao and the briefness of the journey. Ten minutes later we run aground on a sandbank and are turfed out. At this point we remember that high tide was at 5am, a gory detail we ignored when arranging the journey the day before.

It is too beautiful a setting to be upset for long. The sandbanks glitter and barefoot women bearing buckets of clams on their heads pass us, stepping unerringly through water channels bristling with sea urchins and lolling sea cucumbers, named monks' dicks by the Portuguese.

Almost two hours later, we reach the humid reek of the mangroves and rest at the graceful church built in 1649 with its back to the sea and its portico to the African hinterland, wherein lay Portuguese hopes of wealth. Nossa Senhora dos Remedios has a beautiful painted interior but you have to ask the caretaker for the key.

Ficus roots are espaliered over the walls of the melancholy ruins of the governor's mansion. We come downstairs to find children lined up on the bottom step to have their school lessons in the comparative coolness inside. I immediately regret not bringing pencils for them.

Trekking back, we think the sign with an arrow pointing to Cafe 2 Coqueiros (Two Coconut Palms) must be a joke but, behind a rather grand municipal building, there's a shell-lined path leading to a stylish cafe. It is like finding the Ritz in Oodnadatta.

Our pregos (garlicky steak rolls) arrive quickly, which is unusual for rural Mozambique where food is cooked from scratch over a charcoal fire. When the foreigner sitting at another table comes over, we ply her with questions. The cafe is the training wing of a new college of tourism, set up to teach locals "to make the leap from mud huts to catering". The building was once a convent, then a Portuguese naval academy. It is now on loan from the government for 50 years. We look sceptical when the woman tells us that royalties from her books have funded its restoration, so coyly she reveals her name.

It is indeed Lisa St Aubin de Teran and Lolly, her teenage daughter (a former party girl whom, her mother says, has been transformed by her experience here). They show me around. The grand assembly room and dormitories are big enough for 200 students and 30 residential staff. Out in the walled garden, past the cook frying more garlic steaks for the pregos, Lolly proudly shows me the tomatoes, rows of lettuces and other vegetables, ample demonstration that these plants will thrive in the dusty soil.

De Teran has established an eponymous foundation and is busy lobbying government and aid organisations for help. Her new partner, from the Netherlands, plans to open a hotel nearby, which will provide employment for graduates. We are impressed by her audacity and determination and immediately feel the lack of these qualities in ourselves. De Teran probably has this effect a lot but less so on the Mozambicans of Cabaceira Grande.

We are tempted by the fresh garden salad but our capitao beckons and, full of gloom at the return trudge, we head back to find the mangroves awash and the dhow bucketing in deep water. El capitao and his side-kick, muscles straining, pole the heavy wooden craft out into open water. A scarily strong wind catches the sails and we zoom along, feet in briny water, head in the spray, not directly to the island but at zigzagging parallels, which allows us hours to imagine how, in the fading light, the silhouette and colours of the governor's palace on Ilha de Mozambique mirror those of St Marks in Venice.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Qantas flies to Johannesburg from Sydney for $2598 and $2617 from Melbourne (flying Qantas to Sydney to connect). Mozambique's national carrier, LAM, flies from Johannesburg to Nampula via Maputo for about $875. (Fares are low-season return including tax.)

Australians can obtain a tourist visa on arrival for $US25 ($29). See mozambiquetravelservice.com.

Staying there

Hotel Escondidinho on Ilha de Mozambique will arrange transport from Nampula (www.ilhatur.co.mz, phone +258 6 610 078). Ask for Senhor Ihmo, who was happy to make the detour to the excellent ethnographic museum in Nampula. Rooms from 950-1500 meticais ($41-$65). Hotel Omuhipiti has four-star, air-conditioned rooms from $US75 ($87) a double, including breakfast; phone +258 6 610 101 or see www.danatours.net. Ilha has a tourist information office and a bank with an ATM. There are several good cafes.

Morning walks are the best way to see Ilha. Allow at least four days to enjoy all the sights, including the immaculate graveyard in nearby Lumbo, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. For information on Cabaceira Grande and the Teran Foundation, email info@teranfoundation.org. Volunteers are welcome.

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