Paradise lost and found

BEFORE I landed in Maputo, the images of Mozambique I’d been toying with were predictable.

Palm trees, white sands, ocean villas — identical to the images I had of the Maldives, Seychelles or Caribbean.

Long-haul paradises are marketed similarly, so brochure-flickers could be forgiven for distinguishing between countries as they do Coke, Pepsi and Dr Pepper.

Mozambique — a sprawling state in southeast Africa — is no paradise. It is more beautiful and broken than that.

“I’ve been on beaches where you could walk 15km without meeting another person,” one Irish diplomat said. “But you have to walk five miles for a drink of water.”

I watched as threadbare children mounted a riotous story dance in remote Tete province. Forget lion sightings in Kenya, souks in Tunisia or wine-tasting in the Western Cape — this was my most authentic African experience.

Balancing that was the $572 (US) I paid for a two-hour flight from the capital, Maputo, to get there. “You need competition,” I told the travel agent in exasperation. “There was another airline,” he shrugged. “But it broke.”

Mozambique is a stereotype-buster. Depending on your experiences, the former Portuguese colony is a luxury bolthole where you can catch the ritziest rays on the African coast, or a failed socialist experiment bedevilled by high incidences of HIV/AIDS.

Mozambique boasts 2,500km of coastline, and, since the civil war ended in 1992, the Quirimbas and Bazaruto archipelagos have evolved into five-star hotspots. Developed mostly by South Africans, resorts here are idyllic, graced by pink flamingos, lolling catamarans, thatched lodges and the warm, clear embrace of the Indian Ocean. Take Marlin Lodge. Set on Benguerua Island, its suites front onto a clear ocean teeming with 2,000 species of fish.

Swaying Mlala palms provide the shade, beach barbeques are a speciality, and activities range from dhow sailing to reflexology.

Mozambique may be a developing country, but its tourism product has much going for it, such as diving, game fishing and an African/Iberian/Brazilian-influenced culture.

Early visitors are getting the first bite of the cherry.

Gorongosa National Park is the best example of progress made since the civil war. Sitting at the southern end of the Rift Valley, this was a prime tourist destination in the 1960s and ‘70s — the jewel in Mozambique’s natural crown.

War and poaching decimated its wildlife and by the time the park re-opened in 1995, it was a landmine-strewn no man’s land.

Today, thanks to natural migration and a public-private restoration drive, a park that once boasted more predators than Kruger is open again.

Last year, National Geographic showcased its elephants, hippos and crocs in its film, Africa’s Lost Eden. Some of the waterfalls, spilling through cracks in rocky plateau, look like something out of Avatar.

Mozambicans have done their homework. Akin to the Maldives, tourism has kicked off with the luxury end of the market, with high-end coastal resorts like Marlin Lodge, or Flamingo Bay Water Lodge in Inhambane Bay.

Reached via regional airports like Pemba and Vilankulu, guests skim out on light aircraft and settle into magical island outposts where little luxury is spared.

It’s possible to dodge the ‘real’ Mozambique. This would be a mistake. Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, afforded me my opening and closing experiences of the country. Its broad, Iberian boulevards and Afro-Brazilian fizz soak up the noisy traffic and, though a developing city, things never descend into the squalor of Nairobi or Luanda.

Palm trees line the boulevards, vendors sit in the shade selling fulsome fruit; children bustle about with little trays of sweets. Maputo has few hawkers, no-go areas are obvious, and I only encountered one tourist who was mugged — a German lady, who had been stunned with a Taser on the ominously-named Robert Mugabe roundabout.

“It’s written everywhere that you shouldn’t go there,” she said. “And I did everything they tell you not to do. I held onto my bag. I struggled.”

Ambling through the Baixa district, I spent time in Maputo’s small central market, watching stallholders busy themselves selling fish, fruit and groceries. The city just about holds its own — crumbling at the corners, but rescued by old colonial buildings like Eiffel’s Steel House, or the French Cultural Centre. Dipping into the latter, I found an art exhibition featuring furniture made from reclaimed guns and ammunition.

Daytrips run from Maputo to Kruger for $180, but I stick around. Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and Ali, starring Will Smith, were both filmed in the city. The former’s bar scenes are set along the seafront Marginal, where many of the city’s best restaurants and clubs are. Not a bad spot for a caipirinha.

Along the Marginal, you can catch a ferry sailing to the nearby island of Katembe. The boat lolled about in the wash of bigger craft, puffing black clouds of diesel. I arrived as the sun dipped, getting caught up in a rush of commuters lugging produce on their heads and babies on their backs. Women sat by the bridge with tables of fresh fish.

Outside the capital, I made the trip to Tete. Mozambique is a unique mix of cultures (famous sons include Eusébio and Carlos Queirós), with diverse tribes, Arabian, Indian and Chinese influences and the funky Iberian flavours you’d expect.

Tete is off-radar.

Renowned as the hottest spot in southern Africa, temperatures crawl into the high 40s here come summer, but it made a big impression. Visiting a pastelería felt like stepping into a café in Portuga. Warm, custardy Pastéis de Nata sat behind glass counters, and an eagle-eyed Donna counted pennies at the till. Briefly, I could have been in Lisbon or Porto.

It was in Tete too, covering a story with the aid of the Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund, that I found myself in the middle of that frenzied costume dance. Out of nowhere, a little boy appeared wearing a mask. Villagers gathered around. Drums began to bang. The boy kicked up clouds of dirt; the circle of spectators clapped and laughed; the whole gathering swayed like reeds.

The moment was fleeting; the poverty unavoidable. But sometimes a fleeting moment is all you need.

TRAVEL

Most flights from London to Mozambique, with South African Airways (flysaa.com) and Lufthansa (lufthansa.com) fly via Johannesburg. From Ireland, Africa Sky (068 56888; africasky.ie) lists seven nights in the Guludo Beach Lodge in the Quirimbas Archipelago from €2,239pp, and seven nights in Marlin Lodge on Flamingo Bay from €3,659pp.

WHERE TO STAY

In Maputo, Mozaika Guest House (mozaika.co.mz; rooms from €60) is a colourful digs set around a small pool and offering Wi-Fi and good coffee. Polana Hotel (serenahotels.com), the so-called ‘Grand Dame of Maputo’, has two nights’ B&B plus a buffet from $138/€98pp on special.

OTHER INFO

Irish citizens require a tourist visa to enter Mozambique. A normal, single-entry visa can be obtained from the High Commission in London (mozambiquehighcommission.org.uk)

SIGHTS

For postcard Mozambique, head for the Quirimbas and Bazaruto archipelagos in the Indian Ocean. Luxury lodges, western hospitality standards and idyllic beaches have made these into some of the most exclusive resorts in Africa. Elsewhere, the 4,000-square kilometre Gorongosa National Park (gorongosa.net) includes lions, elephant and giant crocs amongst its residents.

WHERE TO EAT

In Maputo, Costa del Sol (+258-1-450115; Av. Marginal, Bairro Triunfo) is one of Maputo’s best-known restaurants, specialising in seafood. 1908 (+258-1-424834; Av. Eduardo Mondlane 946) is a former doctors’ club — creaking fans complete the colonial feel.

WHERE TO SHOP

Shopping wouldn’t be Mozambique’s strong point, though most towns will have regular markets that can be a lot of fun to visit. Pay attention to your belongings, however.

More in this section

Lifestyle
Newsletter

The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up