"Don't go there" we were warned on an overland trip through Mozambique more than a decade ago. "There is voodoo on that island.” People on the mainland were terrified of the place.
They could hear the frenzied drumming on some nights, we were told: There might be an element of truth in that, but then people tend to be afraid of things they do not know. Even a country whose seaward side is defined by sandbars and coral islands, Ibo Island has always been something of a world apart.
On finally arriving there, Ibo Island far exceeded my expectations in every way. Mozambique is a country consisting of a wide jade green coastal plain, sub-tropical savanna and very few remarkable topographical features. The essence and spirit of the country is its fabulous, vivid white an achingly blue coastline. "But why Ibo?" we were asked when I said it was going to be one of our icons. "It doesn't.even have a beach."
Fair question, because a long coral-white beach is an image most people have of the Indian Ocean islands. The problem for me is, that at those places with dazzling strips of white sand and azure sea, there is seldom much more to be revealed beyond the beach. Ibo, on the other hand, overs an ever-unfolding adventure.
You wake in tropical balminess and look out past palm fronds sashaying in the breeze. A dhow glides through your window frame, seeming to float slowly on a dappled velvet blue sea, its lateen sail glowing with the soft glow of first light. Through the thickly scented tropical air the sound of the muezzin wafts, "Allahu Akbar", God is great, while the shrill ringing of a mangrove kingfisher urges a more insistent wake-up call. This is Indian Ocean island life.
"I think I'm getting photographic overload," Roger said around day three or four, with a huge grin.
From Maputo in the far south to Pemba in the far north the shoreline is a confusion of twisting rivers, lakes and lagoons, white beaches and fringing reefs, and island after island all the way. Just about everyone has at least one beach, except for Ibo.
That was of little concern for the Arab, Chinese, Indian, Portuguese, French and other traders and slavers who dropped anchor here. Far more important to them was the fresh water and safe anchorage in the wide bay that was all set about with strange trees, which are at home in the shallow intertidal zone and either covered by seawater, open to the salt-laden air, or lashed by the tropical sun.
The entire coastline of Mozambique is 6,942 kilometres long, but that figure does not reveal the entire story. The length of a coastline is dependent on the scale used - each level of scale will reveal more detail, practically all the way to infinity. So this is the figure given, using the World Vector Shoreline system.
But Mozambique also has a series of islands and archipelagos all the way from its capital Maputo to the Tanzanian border, creating a rock and coral cordon very much like the barrier islands off the eastern United States seaboard - just much more picturesque. If you added up the coastline figure with the measure of all the islands, the figure for Mozambique would be very much greater.
A strong ocean stream, called the Mozambique Current, runs down the coast and then all the way to the Cape, at the southern tip of Africa. This determines the entire marine ecosystem and the amazing abundance of life therein, which makes it one of the best scuba diving destinations in the world.
The mangroves around Ibo Island and the adjoining mainland are the largest off the East African coast and an important ecosystem in themselves they are something of a paranormal biological realm that is sometimes sea and sometimes land. There are fish that can climb trees and breathe air, crabs with one outsize fighting claw, like a black and red boxing glove, and a species of bird that is neither fish nor fowl, so to say.
The dimorphic herons (or egrets) that nest in the mangroves and fly back and form across the tidal flats seem to be infected by some kind of magic spell. They can be black, or white, depending. Depending on what is a good question.
Nobody is sure, but it might have something to do with the temperature at which each egg incubates. In crocodiles and some other reptiles, the temperature of the egg while incubating will determine the gender of the hatchling. Since birds are the evolutionary descendants of reptiles, there might be something in this.
Ibo is a smallish island within the Quirimbas Archipelago in the far north of Mozambique. It is washed by the warm, coral-bejewelled Mozambique· current and cooled by the Kusi and Kiskazi the monsoon trade winds that have driven trading dhows around the Indian Ocean for more than 1,000 years. It will take you only a few hours to walk around, it is that small, but its story could fill volumes.
Years of economic decline, combined with the ravages of civil war, have left this corner of Africa direly impoverished. Many of the inhabitants are driven to collect their daily food from rocks in the intertidal zone, so that today it is not very common to come across a cowrie the size of which you will see decorating the trader's house. In fact, if it were not for the existence of Ibo Lodge, the plight of the islanders would be awful indeed.