Mozambique | Dare to dhow!
If that famous line by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean”, strikes a chord within your holiday-making soul, then permit me to paint you my own picture of a dhow trip to Mozambique’s Bazaruto Archipelago.
Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner might not deal with a seaside holiday in Mozambique, but still, these fitting words kept on running through my mind during the three days my wife, Wendy, and I and another retired couple, Jill and Angus Morrison, spent island-hopping in a traditional Arab dhow, complete with crew and cooks, on our very own painted waters.
Nights were spent at a comfortable base camp on a mainland beach, accessible only by dhow.
Each day we visited a different island: exploring sandy beaches, climbing towering white dunes, swimming in a turquoise sea, snorkeling on the coral reefs, lunching on fresh fish and crab …
Forget Coleridge, I felt like Hemingway’s old man of the sea personified.
First of all, though, we had to get there, and this meant getting to the coastal town of Vilankulos, the gateway to exploring the chain of islands that make up the archipelago.
The Pearl of the Indian Ocean
The Bazaruto Archipelago, which was declared a national park and marine reserve in 1971, consists of the islands of Bazaruto, Benguerra, Magaruque, Banque and Santa Carolina (also known as Paradise Island).
The archipelago boasts some 180 bird species, as well as endemic butterflies, suni antelope and crocodiles.
The reefs provide a habitat for more than 2 000 fish species, dolphin, dugong, giant lobster and several species of marine turtle.
When early sailors first saw the dugong, they thought they had discovered a new sort of seawater hippo.
The archipelago has the largest dugong population along the eastern African coast.
No wonder some people refer to the archipelago as the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean”.
Bazaruto is the largest of the islands, at around 37 km long and up to 7 km wide.
South of Bazaruto is the second largest island, Benguerra (around 11 km long and 5 km wide).
These two islands and Magaruque were once part of an extensive sand peninsula attached to the mainland.
Magaruque and Santa Carolina are closest to the mainland, with Magaruque 10 km east of Vilankulos, and Paradise Island a similar distance from Inhassoro.
Paradise Island is where Bob Dylan apparently got the inspiration for his song Mozambique. The island is also where Survivor SA: Santa Carolina was filmed.
Mozambique, here we come!
I presume that since you are reading this magazine, the thought of flying in never crossed your mind. Of course not. You want to drive there, and there are three routes from which to choose, both going and returning.
If you are in a hurry, and the lengthy queues at Ressano Garcia border post do not faze you, then point yourself towards Nelspruit, then Maputo, before turning north on the ENI highway towards Vilankulos, some 800 km further.
Or you could go via Letaba in the Kruger Park, the Giriyondo border post and the Limpopo Transfrontier Park. Because it is not dependant on the water levels of a major river, you can drive this route of some 830 km at any time of the year. (This is the route we used on our way back.)
An early start from Letaba is recommended, because the first section of road between the border and the massive Massingir dam is good gravel, but very stony.
Drive this section slowly – you don’t want a puncture at the very start of your trip.
Once you’re out of the park, the road is tarred, but beware of potholes.
But none of that for us! We chose the macho route via the Kruger, the Pafuri border post and the Limpopo Transfrontier Park. Which, by the way, you should only consider if you have a “proper” 4×4 with low-range, some experience, are travelling with at least one other vehicle, and during the dry winter months, when the waters of the Limpopo are low.
Pg 2 | You’re on your own
From here on in, you’re on your own
Why is this the macho route? Well, for a start, it means actually fording the great, grey, green, greasy Limpopo, to paraphrase yet another author – Rudyard Kipling.
Also, you will have to camp wild one night. I suggest you ensure you have a GPS, preferably with Tracks4Africa loaded, and enough fuel for more than 600 km (Punda Maria is the ideal launch site, as well as being the last fuel stop before the coast. So fill up your jerry cans.)
But back to fording the Limpopo. After leaving South Africa via the Pafuri
border post, a reasonable track lined with fever trees and baobabs skirts the floodplain for about 80 km to Mapai. It is here, at this higgledy-piggledy village, that we crossed.
First, of course, we sent the wives wading in to test the depth of the water, which proved more than anything the depth of their tolerance for us menfolk. Their version is that they were really sent in to check for crocodiles, while we men kept watch from the safety of the bank!
If you don’t want to ford the river, local entrepreneurs have constructed a makeshift bridge of mopane logs in the riverbed. For their forethought they charge a toll of about R70 per vehicle.
As using the bridge supports the local economy, we felt this to be a reasonable and worthwhile contribution. And should you get stuck, they have a team of oxen waiting in the wings to haul you out.
From here on in, we were on our own. We followed a sandy road which had the occasional tyre track to reassure us that we were heading in the right direction.
There were no signposts, no cellphone reception and only a few, scattered villages until we reached Mabote.
The condition of the road varies. Largely winding and sandy, and with the odd wash-away, progress was slow, but I never thought for a moment that we would get stuck.
It was getting dark by the time we started approaching Banhine National Park from the north. Don’t expect much here. From the GPS we found an old camp in the park, but some festive locals with palm wine to hand, were firmly entrenched, so we pushed on.
The trick is to find a stretch of deserted bush, far from any habitation, and then to drive off the road, well out of sight, and camp wild.
We got the braai going, sipped a fine red wine and then set up a table and played bridge late into the night. Perfect!
Once reaching Mabote, we also reached “civilization” again. Road signs and radio masts welcomed us, on this, the final leg before Vilankulos and the coast.
In Vilankulos we transferred our equipment from the 4x4s to the Andrietta, our dhow.
That first morning, as on the following mornings, I leapt out of my tent at dawn to be greeted by the sight
of dhow sails silhouetted against the rising sun.
As I stood on the sand, a line of crew members started wading from the Andrietta carrying our breakfast. Manguesa, the cook, prepared all our meals on board − on an open charcoal fire in a sandbox.
Within minutes we were tucking into an assortment of fruit salad, eggs, fresh bread and steaming coffee.
After breakfast, we waded out to the dhow and clambered aboard. It was anchors aweigh, and our first port of call was to be the largest of the islands, Bazaruto, about 20 km off-shore.
On the southern tip of Bazaruto we climbed the towering dunes of Ponta Dundo. We were rewarded with a magnificent view of Benguerra across the narrow straits to the south, while far out to sea to the east a long line of breakers indicated Two Mile Reef, a world-renowned diving spot.
We four pensioners (aged between 65 and 75) made a valiant attempt to explore this reef in a choppy sea.
Abandoning our pride, we donned children’s armbands and life jackets, and gave it our best shot. We spluttered and floundered, much to the delight of the crew.
Lunch was once more brought ashore. Fresh fish and crab, accompanied by local dishes such as matapa (a bean dish), restored our energy for an afternoon of swimming and exploring, or in my case, fly-fishing off the reef for that prize of prizes, the elusive kingfish.
Balm for the bones
On our way back to base camp, we kept a sharp eye out for turtles, rays and the critically endangered dugong, a sea mammal almost like a tiny whale, believed to be the inspiration for legends of mermaids.
Every now and then we caught our collective breaths when a pod of dolphins circled our dhow or leapt out the water in our wake.
So went three lazy, hazy days, “day after day, day after day, we stuck nor breath nor motion,” to go back to Coleridge’s Rime, where we let ancient trade winds blow us to dreamy islands.
If I had to pick a favourite island, I would have to say Magaruque. It is small enough to walk right round, the beaches are pristine, it boasts a crocodile sanctuary on an inland lake and the birdlife is impressive.
Best of all, for us geriatrics the base reef was ideal for novice snorkelers. All we had to do was lie in warm, clear water teeming with brightly-coloured fish of all shapes and sizes darting over an explosion of coral.
But most of all I enjoyed our evenings. It was odd to be camping out in the open, but nowhere near my car. That lent a sense of freedom I saw reflected in the eyes of my wife and friends, as we sprawled round the fire each night, gripping a cold 2M beer in one hand and a juicy crabstick in the other.
It had been a laugh a minute, which was balm for these pioneering old bones.
Show me the way to go home
But, unfortunately, all good things must come to an end.
Our route home involved going through the Limpopo Transfrontier Park to Letaba.
On the way we went through at least six police checkpoints, but were not asked to pull over. Nevertheless, if you are pulled over, make sure you have all your documentation to hand, and be polite!
To break the journey, we made frequent roadside stops for cashews, for chilli sauces, and to take photographs.
The locals were friendly and relaxed, which made the fact that we leaving all the worse.
The memories will stick with me for a while, I suspect. So I heartily encourage you to park your car, and go see what three days on a dhow will do for your own batteries.
Pg 3 | I want to go too
Best time: May-August
Stay at least:
The dhow trip is either 1 night/2 days, or 2 nights/ 3 days.
Explore sandy beaches, climb towering white dunes, swim in a turquoise sea, snorkel on the coral reefs, lunch on fresh fish and crab …
The dugong, related to the elephant, can stay underwater for six minutes before surfacing. They sometimes breathe by “standing” on their tail with their heads above water.
Know before you go
The cooler winter months (May-August)
Tracks4 Africa on your GPS; Info Map’s Mozambique; Andy and Lorrain Tinker’s Kruger National Park Map (for detail of the Transfrontier Park).
4×2 or 4×4?
Preferably a 4×4. A 4×2 only if conditions are dry, and the Limpopo’s level is low.
Basic recovery gear such as a spade, jack, shackles, tow strap and tyre repair kit. Also take a proper first-aid kit, complete with malaria prophylaxis.
Rands are accepted at most Mozambican fuel stations, supermarkets as well as lodges.
General road conditions?
Fair, generally sandy, deep sand on coastal roads, interspersed with stony patches. Look out for potholes.
Where do I book?
Sailaway Dhow Safaris, a Vilankulos-based company:
+258 293 82385;
+258 82387 6350
1 night/2 day: $230 (R1 800) pp;
2 night/ 3 day: $345 (R2 700) pp, all inclusive (except liquor).
The trips are fully-catered and equipped.
Do I have to book?
In school holidays and peak periods, yes.
For updated info on the water level of the Limpopo, call +258 (0)13 735 8934;
+258 (0)13 735 6870 (per favour of border officials).
More information. See Drive Out #29 for more on the Pafuri-Vilankulos route.