Mozambique, December 2009

Mozambique is not really a typical destination for me. But then, even though the place is a bit warmer than I usually like, I never had been in that area before - except for a single day back in 2001, I had never been to Africa at all, when I got the chance to travel to Maputo, I decided to add a couple of days of vacation in Mozambique as well.

While I spent four days in Maputo, I didn't have that much time for sightseeing. Most of the time was spent at the conference center and the hotel (which was pretty nice).

View from hotel room Southern Sun hotel, Maputo

So I just had part of a Saturday to walk around a bit in Maputo.

I started at the railway station, which was designed by Gustave Eiffel, though it doesn't really show. (At least it doesn't flaunt big metallic structures like his famous tower, the Statue of Liberty or even the Casa do Ferro in Maputo.) Maybe that's why the statue on the plaza in front of it gazes at it with such a stern look.

Maputo Railway Station Historic train, Maputo Historic train, Maputo
Maputo Railway Station Maputo Railway Station Statue in front of Maputo Railway Station

From there, it's only a short to the outdoor 'art market' (essentially just for tourists) and the fortress, which looks quite impressive and well preserved, but that's mostly because it is a fairly recent building. While there was fortress at that site in the 18th century, that was destroyed 75 years later, and the current fortress was built on that site in 1941, so it's not quite as historical as it appears.

Maputo fortress Maputo fortress Maputo fortress Maputo fortress

I didn't have time to take the ferry over to Catembe, so I just took a walk along the shoreline.

Catembe Ferry Maputo Shoreline Maputo Shoreline Maputo Shoreline Maputo Shoreline

Unfortunately, what could have been (and probably once was) a popular seaside promenade, was in a sorry state of disrepair.

Which was the case for a lot of places in Maputo, whether these were apartment flats, formerly expensive catamarans, now serving as playgrounds for local kids or even the ministry of tourism (though probably not the ministry itself, but just a branch office - but still).

Apartment building Broken catamaran Ministry of Tourism building

The most interesting thing to see was a bit further down the seaside promenade, namely a long (about 300 meters) mosaic, which was done by a Mosambique artist named Naguib. I was a bit surprised that I stumbled across that place almost by accident, since it wasn't mentioned in any guides I had read.

Part of the reason was surely that it was finished only two years ago, so printed guides don't mention it, but I would have expected that tourist web sites would provide some coverage. But except for a single blog entry, and a couple of pictures, there's not much information to be found at the moment. Admittedly, it's not a mayor tourist attraction, but it's a nice detour.

Naguib mosaic, Maputo Naguib mosaic, Maputo Naguib mosaic, Maputo Naguib mosaic, Maputo
Naguib mosaic, Maputo Naguib mosaic, Maputo Naguib mosaic, Maputo Naguib mosaic, Maputo
Naguib mosaic, Maputo Naguib mosaic, Maputo Naguib mosaic, Maputo Naguib mosaic, Maputo
Naguib mosaic, Maputo Naguib mosaic, Maputo Naguib mosaic, Maputo Credits for Naguib mosaic, Maputo Me and Naguib mosaic, Maputo

After the days in Maputo it was time to head further north, via Vilanculos, to an island named Bazaruto.

Vilanculos landing approach Vilanculos harbour

If you're looking for tourism options in Mozambique, there are essentially two: safaris and seaside resorts.

And the gist was that, if you want to spot wildlife on a safari, you're probably better off in one of the neighbouring countries like South Africa, Simbabwe or Sambia. While there are conservation areas in Mozambique, the wildlife has been pretty much depleted during the civil war. The infrastructure in the parks is fairly limited and while the parks are supposedly rich in the variety of species, they seem to be more like places that specialists (like reptile and bird fans) would appreciate, while the large herbivores and carnivores, which a first-timer on a safari would be looking for, are mostly absent.

So they are mainly places for people who have seen all the well known conservation areas and get bored by 'yet another lion' as well as the steady stream of tourists and are looking for somewhat more unusual, remote, less developed, with other types of animals to look for.

Fine for them, but somewhat inappropriate for someone who has never been on a safari before.

On the other hand, I've heard Mozambique mentioned as the place "where South Africans go on vacation for diving and to spend some time at the sea". And even though I don't dive, that seemed like a hint to look for something sea-related and less land-related.

The main choices for this were near Pemba and near Vilanculos, but since Mozambique is a pretty stretched country and Pemba is almost at the other end of it (as seen from Maputo), I didn't really fancy a 3-4 hour flight each way, just for a three day vacation (followed by another 14 hours in an airplane to get home from Maputo), so it boiled down to 'somewhere around Vilanculos' (which is only halfway up the coast, so the flight only takes two hours).

After checking out the options there, it started to dawn on me that there really was no reasonable priced accommodation. Mozambique had missed the mass-tourism phase (I am tempted to say 'luckily', but since the reason for that was a civil war, it seems quite tasteless - maybe the 'luck of the Irish' would be a more fitting phrase), so there were no large hotel complexes outside of Maputo, so the choices were either backpacker-type places or rather high-priced resorts. The latter are usually not something I would opt for (and the prices did really make me flinch quite a lot), but then decided to stay at one of them anyway. Partly, because I was only there for a short vacation, so while the price tag was quite heavy, the absolute amount was still bearable, but partly because I expected not to like it. Which seems like an odd reason, but the basic idea behind it was that, if I had taken some cheaper option and didn't like it, I would probably wonder forever whether it might have been better if I had chosen something else. While, if I didn't like staying at this resort, I would be pretty sure that it's because resort vacations are not the right thing for me (and it's not because of this specific place). And, admittedly, I was faced with a similar decision almost two years earlier in Brazil, when going to Jericoacoara, and then found that I liked it after all.

Anyway, that was the reason why I found myself sitting in a small plane for the transfer from Vilanculos to Bazaruto, looking out at the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean below.

Accommodation was indeed quite impressive with individual chalets, separated from the beach by a strip of lush, green vegetation. And sitting in the bathtub at night, looking out at the night sky through panorama windows was nicely relaxing. And the place had a nice modern look and didn't try hard to look 'folkloristic' or anything like that; so, for example, the mosquito net at the bed was a mesh curtain on rails in the ceiling and not some four-poster bed or one of these 'tent' like nets that are hung up in the middle. All in all, quite neat.

Beach Chalet Main room with veranda Bathtub lowered into the floor Mosquito net on bed

And the place itself was also nicely spacious, with space between the buildings and along the beach, much greenery, elevated walkways, swimming pools and a well groomed beach (which was combed every night...) So, as beach resorts go, this was pretty spectacular and nicely understated at the same time.

Qolf course Daytime beach Tropical ocean hammock Pool (foreground) - ocean (background)
Pool grotto Walkway Lizard View from resort spa
View from resort spa Resort spa Space between chalet and beach Space between chalet and beach
Beach Beach Beach - combed for the night Beach - combed for the night

To sum it up, if you like vacation resorts, this is pretty good.

But if you are a single traveller, who likes to move around during vacation, it's nice, but not really worth the price.

Mostly I had the impression that I was on a dream vacation, but it was somebody else's dream.

I know a couple of people who would probably rate the vacation as close to perfect as it is ever going to get. And I was there, having a fabulous holiday on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean and going most of the time 'yeah, that's nice'.

It wasn't a bad vacation, but (for me) not a great one.

Part of the reason for this is that it was just too warm for me. So I spent a large amount of time in the air conditioned room, watching TV. Which, if you spend more than the local yearly GNP (per capita) each day, just to watch TV, seems somewhat inappropriate. And also leaves you with the feeling that you might be able to watch TV at a slightly cheaper rate...

The other thing is that resorts are strongly couple and family oriented. So most activities had a minimum of 2, 4 or 5 persons, so as a single traveller, the choices mostly came down to pay the double (or quadruple) amount for activities, join some other group for an activity (which, since there weren't that many groups at the resort - I'd guess there were at best ten chalets occupied), usually meant that a couple wanted to do something and I was added to that trip. Which everyone was quite nice about, but I still felt like an intruder on somebody else's tour.

Similar thing during dinner. It was quite nice and romantic to have a table set up on the beach, right next to the ocean, a sky full of stars above you (and the night sky was very impressive), a flickering torch beside you, enjoying a good five course meal, but between courses, all you can do is stare into the darkness, since it's too dim to read a book. (And you don't really want to open up your laptop...)

So while there was nothing actually wrong with the vacation, it was just on the verge of greatness, but never really crossed the line for me. If you're having dinner on a tropical island beach and wistfully think back about dinner eaten from plastic bags, sitting in the snow, next to a pack of dogs and a tent at -15°C, it's hard to escape the notion that this kind of vacation might not really match your preferences.

(Which I, admittedly, knew all along. But while I was pleasantly surprised in Jericoacoara, this time my expectations were met.)

I then decided that it was time to stop whining and just enjoy the vacation for what it was (a nice vacation) and to stop sulking about that (for given the price tag) it should have been a great vacation.

And, as far as activities were concerned, I actually managed to do quite a lot, even given the limitations.

There was snorkelling at the nearby 'house reef'.

Snorkeling at the 'house reef' Snorkeling at the 'house reef' Snorkeling at the 'house reef'

There was also riding along the beach (fun, although it confirmed my belief that I am not much of a horse person).

Me, riding along the beach Me, riding along the beach

And there was more snorkelling the next day, since there was a small group of divers going out for the 'Two mile reef' (a reef that is, not surprisingly, two miles off-shore). I didn't get to dive (I don't have a diving license), but they had booked two dives with a bit of snorkelling in between, so the original idea was that I would go with them on the boat, they would do their 45-minute dive, while I would be waiting on the boat, then all of us would go snorkelling for about the same time and then they would do their second dive.

Although there was an ad-hoc change of plan and it was decided that while they were doing their dive on the ocean side of the reef (which is a bit deeper at about 12 meters), I would be snorkelling on the landward side of the reef (which is only about four meters deep), so I wouldn't need to sit around on the boat and wait. That turned out to be a good decision, since the water at their side was fairly muddy and visibility was about an arm's length, while the water at my side was quite clear. So, after their dive, they decided to call it a day and forego their snorkelling and second dive, so I was glad that I had managed to do some snorkelling in the meantime.

Snorkeling at the '2 mile reef' Snorkeling at the '2 mile reef' Snorkeling at the '2 mile reef'

Time to head back to the resort, with a quick stop at the beach, where someone was setting up some sun shade. Not for us, though. As a 'Honeymooners Hide Away', you can have a private tent or sunshade and picnic lunch set up at the beach and then be dropped off there and be picked up a couple of hours later. At a sandbank a bit further on, they were also setting up two separate sunshade umbrellas - though I'm not quite sure what activity package this belongs to. I'd call it "Seven Year Anniversary Hide Away", but I'm too cynical for this kind of thing anyway...

Boat back to the resort Sun shade at the beach Two sun shades at the beach

After a short time at the beach, it was time to head back.

Bazaruto beach Bazaruto beach Bazaruto beach Dhow Resort from bay

The next activity was sea kayaking, which I, surprisingly, enjoyed a lot. (Don't be fooled by the worried look on my face - that's just me being afraid of dropping my camera into the ocean). Maybe because you could just grab one of the kayaks and head out whenever you wanted to and the water looked amazing and you could listen to the MP3 player at full strength without disturbing anyone - though listening to punks songs about squatting flats feels somewhat inappropriate when spending time in one of the poorest countries in the world kayaking on the Indian Ocean, enjoying a vacation at a deluxe beach resort...

Sea kayak Sea kayak

Another fun activity was dune boarding. While I was the only tourist doing this, in addition to the guide two guys from South Africa joined in, who worked as interns at the resort and needed to learn about the activities they would present to guests in the weeks to come.

Luckily, the sand at the dunes was reasonably firm, so walking uphill was mostly like climbing up stairs, without the added effort of walking in sinking sands. But, obviously, downhill was a lot quicker, with speeds around 30 km/h.

Waxing the board Ready for dune boarding Long way up the dune Final instructions
Going down Quite a bit of a way down Nice view from the top

I didn't do any water skiing, but I managed to do some more sea kayaking.

Water-skiing Sea kayak Sea kayak

In the late afternoon there was a 'cultural drive', giving a chance to leave the resort and see how the rest of the island lives. There weren't any significant villages, just small clusters of huts, separated by a kilometer or so of sand roads.

Hut Huts Sand roads

An oddity were the 'modern' additions, which spoke of ambitious, but failed projects, like this rusty satellite antenna, which is next to the hospital building, and was probably intended for some sort of tele-medicine, but is now defunct.

Defunct satellite antenna

Onwards to a school building and another small cluster of huts. The school building seemed fairly recent, but I'm not sure whether it's part of a 'let's just start from scratch' syndrome. Right next to the building was the fundament of the previous school building, but it's hard to tell whether it would have been better to maintain that instead of letting it decay and just build a new one next to it.

School building Me in school building Former school building Sand road

Cluster of huts Chicken and drying clothes Trash in trees

Then it was on to the eastern half of the island, which is uninhabited (at least by humans). Here is the dune belt and a couple of small lakes, which look good for swimming, but aren't.

The reason for not swimming are the odd discontinuities in the water surface, like in the lower right of the next image.

Crocodile in lake

A population of crocodiles had moved to Bazaruto a couple of thousand years ago (when it was still a peninsula) and then got stranded here, when the place got separated from the mainland.

We didn't get close to the crocodiles (which was probably a good idea), but here are some resting on the other shore of the lake.

Crocodiles on lake shore Crocodiles on lake shore Crocodiles on lake shore Crocodiles on lake shore

Some more sightseeing on the way back.

Crocodile lake Bazaruto dune Bazaruto lake Bazaruto track
Colourful bird Palms at lake Low sun at lake Heron at lake

And one final stop at dawn at the slightly larger village, which is closest to the resort and (presumably) profits most from the influx of tourist money. There was even street lighting at night and a concrete building with satellite TV.

Something that was a bit surprising for me was the church building. Usually, wherever you go, churches are the most representative buildings around. But here, the church was just a fairly run-down corrugated iron shack.

Local church

Time for some sunset watching.

Admittedly, Bazaruto has very impressive sunsets.

And then it was time to head back again.

The transfer plane back to Vilanculos was unusual. I've never seen a plane with such a cramped interior. It was a 'Britten-Norman BN-2B Islander', which seats 8+2 people, but is not very wide, so there is no aisle, just wall to wall seats. For a ten minute flight it's quite ok, but it feels a bit odd.

Britten-Norman BN-2B Islander Britten-Norman BN-2B Islander

Some great views of the resort, the ocean and the coast near Vilanculos on the way back.

Resort from above Sea near Bazaruto Sea near Bazaruto Bazaruto
Sea near Bazaruto Sea near Bazaruto Vilanculos coast

Here's a quick overview of the location of Bazaruto and the various side trips.

Bazaruto satellite image

In Vilanculos it was back onto the regular plane to Maputo (with a short stop in Inhambane).

Coast near Vilanculos Inhambane from above

One more night in Maputo and next day it was already time to head back to somewhat more moderate climates (well, sort of - back home the temperature was below freezing at that time...)

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