Scenes from a story book

The grandiose past of Ilha de Mocambique brings magic rewards for explorers, writes Megan Holbeck.

Jumping from the wooden dhow, we waded through the thigh-high, clear blue water to the white sand. The thin strip of beach was crowded with ancient boats, nets and people, quickly giving way to the quiet lanes that make up the island's interior. IlhadeMocambique is narrow, less than 500metres across, but it is divided into a maze of streets and buildings that make it bulge into bigger dimensions.

Once absorbed into the network of dirt roads and alleyways, the only dependable landmark was the water. Winding past old Portuguese mansions, their crumbling walls interrupted by wrought-iron gates and elaborately carved doors, all sense of direction was lost.

Glimpses through doors revealed life behind the facades: a family cooking in an overgrown courtyard; a tarped home standing in the ruins of an old palacio. A restored building all bright paint and white, gingerbread-frosting edges stood in a deserted square next to tiny shops with creepers brightening up their crumbling edges and tapping along the fault lines of the future. It was like a scene from a storybook: a beautiful, important city abandoned in its prime and now inhabited only by cats, waiting for a wand, a want, a purpose to return and with it, the island's life.

Ilha de Mocambique is like a tiny, forgotten version of Zanzibar's Stone Town, sharing the same labyrinthian layout, mixture of African, Arab and colonial influences and historical dependence on trade. It was an important trading post as early as the 10th century, when merchant ships from as far afield as India and Arabia traded slaves, ivory, gold and spices along the Mozambican coast, the Muslim merchants intermarrying with African families and shaping the region's culture.

Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed on to the scene in 1498, opening the trade route from Europe to the East Indies and cementing Ilha's importance. The three-kilometre-long island was the capital of Portuguese East Africa for more than 300 years, its colonial history obvious in everything from the layout of the streets and buildings to the massive fort, church and palace. (The fort's Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, built in 1522, is the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere.)

From 1869, the trade that sustained Ilha drained down the Suez Canal, the island's future sealed when the southern city of Maputo became the capital in 1898.

Mozambique is one of Africa's up-and-coming tourist hot spots. Last year, it made its way on to Lonely Planet's Bluelist of 30 "hot destinations", something inconceivable little more than a decade ago when the country emerged from 20 years of guerrilla war, its wildlife and infrastructure destroyed, the countryside riddled with landmines and little in the way of development.

But those dark times have been relegated to the past and travellers are now drawn by Mozambique's Afro-Latino vibe, stunning coastline, delicious and abundant seafood and relaxed, easy travel. But that "easy travel" (and resulting tourist numbers) is restricted to the south: Ilha and the rest of the northern region may as well be another country, described as "one of Africa's last wild frontiers".

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However, the area has many of the country's top historical drawcards, as well as the most beautiful archipelagoes and beaches imaginable, and you'll have them to yourself. Travel here can be a challenge, the rewards for which are the region's time-warped sites, incredible sense of space, magical coastline and occasional oasis of luxury. Despite first impressions, there's a lot more to the place than its "time capsule" appeal and our four days on the tiny, UNESCO-listed island were not long enough. About two-thirds of the island is the old Portuguese "stone town", a quiet place of plazas, churches, museums, fortifications and ruins nestled into neighbouring mansions.

"Makuti" (reed) town covers the south of the island in a contrasting sprawl of thatched shacks that house most of its inhabitants. From our hotel, a short walk led us to another world where street stalls sold spicy Indian-style pancakes for breakfast, crumbling concrete buildings lined the maze of streets and churches were replaced by mosques.

A bustling market sold produce brought over from the mainland in dhows, with dusty tomatoes piled next to oranges and fresh cashew nuts, one of the country's main exports.

The island's diverse cultural heritage is obvious in everything from skin tone to dress, with headscarves and saris mixing it with the standard uniform of tattered T-shirts and shorts. Although Portuguese is Mozambique's official tongue, it bears little resemblance to the European phrase-book version.

Many people in the north speak only the local Makua language, related to the Swahili spoken up and down Africa's east coast. English is rare; patience, persistence and a sense of humour are very handy.

Mozambique's war-torn past, combined with the north's isolation and lack of development, prevented any tourism for more than two decades. As a result, the trickle of travellers is greeted with lazy curiosity rather than the friendliness found in neighbouring countries. Gone are the big smiles but also much of the hassle. "Stone town" is a photographer's delight, where the ornate is juxtaposed with the decrepit: a modern payphone is sheltered by a gnarled tree, its roots exposed in the foundation of a crumbling building; frangipanis brighten the decaying limestone exterior of a once-grand house; a pastel-painted mansion is set off by a backdrop of blue sea and the ever-present triangular silhouettes of dhows.

We spent days wandering the streets, arriving abruptly at the water or a familiar landmark, rarely taking the same route twice.

The massive Portuguese Fort of Sao Sebastiao is perched on the island's northern tip, 19th-century cannons still aimed out to sea. Its construction took more than 60 years, finally finished in 1620 after the interruption of several Dutch attacks. The fort also repelled the Omani Arabs, English and French, which is unsurprising given the thickness of the walls and its commanding view. Local children competed to show us around, practicing the basic English that is evidence of the opportunities available to this first generation born in peace.

In the main square, the impeccably restored, bright red Palace and Chapel of Sao Paulo give a better idea of the island's former wealth and importance. Two storeys high and set around a central courtyard, the building is an extravagance of floorboards and high ceilings, full of opulent goods and furniture fit for a king. (Nevertheless, the king didn't make it here, although it served as the governor's palace for 150 years.) Although travellers are still thin on the ground (in four days we saw less than 20 fellow acoonyas), Ilha is a tourist hot spot by the standards of northern Mozambique.

This translates into services that you won't find for hundreds of kilometres: the main street's restored buildings boast a bookshop selling English titles, a gift shop with beautiful photos, fabrics and other handicrafts, an internet cafe and a pharmacy. The three-star O Escondidinho hotel has been created from a grand Portuguese house, the restaurant's walls adorned with black-and-white photos from around the island, the high ceilings and large windows set off by tasteful furniture.

One side of the room is open to the building's internal courtyard, lush with vegetation and a sparkling pool in which we lounged away the hottest hours of one day.

The French chef's creations are delicious, with seafood (unsurprisingly) making a starring role giant prawns, lobster, fish as fresh as you could wish. Meals displaying the island's influences are served at excellent local restaurants: the menu at O Paladar offers piri-piri grilled chicken, the vegetarian staple of matapa (peanut and cassava-leaf stew) or prawn curry served with rice or maize porridge, all washed down with delicious Dois M beer.

The small islands surrounding Ilha are perfect for a day trip, with the clear water making fishing, swimming and snorkelling a wonderful escape from the midday heat. (This can be organised through a hotel or direct with a dhow captain, if your Portuguese and bargaining skills are up to it.) Regular dhows also run to the mainland near the beach of Chocas Mar, a mirage of white sand stretching into the distance, and the tiny settlement of Cabaceira Grande. We spent two nights there as the only guests in a 17th-century Portuguese convent converted into a College for Tourism by the not-for-profit Teran Foundation.

There's no electricity or running water and visitors are both guests and guinea pigs, a role we relished as we sat in the candlelit restaurant tucking into our lobster, ordered directly from the local fisherman that morning and cooked over a charcoal stove.

Absorbed into the world surrounding Ilha, it seemed as though we had travelled back three centuries.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Qantas and SAA fly direct from Sydney and Perth to Johannesburg, with SAA offering connections to Maputo. Linhas Aereas de Mocambique also flies from Johannesburg to Maputo and onward to Nampula. See lam.co.mz. A car and driver is the quickest way to Ilha de Mocambique, the drive takes 2-3 hours. There are buses if you're not in a rush.

STAYING THERE

On the island, O Escondidinho (escondidinho.net) offers three-star accommodation, while Casa Branca (www.openafrica.org/participant/casa-branca) is a great value guesthouse, with sea views and breakfast is included. One guest room is available at the Teran Foundation's College of Tourism on the mainland: see teranfoundationorg.blogspot.com.

FURTHER INFORMATION

www.mozambiquetourism.co.za.

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