Apparently it moves, constantly shifting before the Indian Ocean winds that sculpt Mozambique's shores, but, as I peer downwards, it feels pretty solid beneath my feet — or, should I say, my board. One shove and I'll be flying down this hot powdery slope balanced precariously on a snowboard and shrieking with pleasure.
Dune-boarding is just one of several firsts I try at Indigo Bay resort on Bazaruto Island, the largest of the eponymous archipelago that lies a quarter of the way up the Mozambican coast. At dawn I'd been cantering along the beach, even though I can't ride — which wasn't frightening, thanks to Gustav, the Afrikaans horse whisperer in charge of the stables, who possesses equine powers of communication and makes my mount stop simply by saying 'ssshhh'.
Later we dived the Potholes, a series of giant fish-filled coral bowls like no site I'd ever dived before. The Bazaruto Archipelago certainly is Mozambique's playground. It's also the country's most important national park and has been welcoming tourists for decades - even during the civil war, thanks to direct flights from South Africa and game fishermen who wouldn't be put off.
Nowadays, an ever-increasing host of lodges and small hotels jostles for position at Vilanculos, the mainland hopping-off point for the islands. Bazaruto and Benguerra, the two largest (large being relative: Bazaruto is 35x7km), host a handful of upmarket properties, including Indigo Bay, a small luxurious hotel with open-air bars and lounges, air-conditioned bungalows and tranquillising views of dune and sea.
Although Bazaruto is just 600km up Mozambique's 2500km coast, it represents an invisible north-south divide, as far as tourism goes.
Above the Bazaruto barrier lies a largely undeveloped Swahili-flavoured shore, serviced by a sparse infrastructure and studded with historical treasures from Portugal's colonial days. The region is a palimpsest of African origin, with Arabic, imperial Portuguese and outlines of modern western script layered upon one another.
With its healthy infrastructure and a coastal tourist industry that has burgeoned since 1992's ceasefire, the south is almost another country, sheltering beneath the umbrella of the capital, Maputo, in itself suckled by the regional giant Johannesburg. South African accents ring through the five-star hotel bars of the sensitively refurbished Polana or the slick new Avenida.
One curio seller I haggle with pulls out his mobile phone. In common, north and south share a sensuous laid-back ambience born of Africa having met the Mediterranean. At Costa do Sol, a shore-side Maputo institution that has been serving spicy piri-piri prawns to the city's well-heeled since 1938, the flavours of garlic and Portuguese wine mingle with the sounds of African hip-hop from the car stereos of boys selling drinks by the beach.
A short walk from the Mercado Central, throbbing with vegetable colour and piscine smells, is the icy elegance of the mint-green and cream railway station, a colonial confection built to link then-Lourenço Marques to the gold-rich Rand. Near the gothic frills of the Natural History Museum, displaying an extraordinary moth-eaten collection of taxidermal drama and elephant foetuses, is the Nucleo de Arte, with its casual exhibition of sculptures made from civil war weapons.
Here's a memorial to Afrikanerdom's Great Trek leader, Louis Trichardt, who allegedly died in the city from malaria; there's the mansion shared by Africa's first couple, Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel. I contemplate Maputo's wonderful contradictions in the most European of ways, over espresso at a pavement café, while those most African of characters, the curio sellers, parade ingenious wares before me.
This city is easy on its visitors, letting them choose its identity: South African burgers and M-Net TV in a sports bar, or fabulous crab curry under neon lights with multi-hued Maputans at the Feira Popular. The further north you venture, the more you must take Mozambique as you find it. Above Vilanculos's metaphorical dividing line lies the ultimate physical barrier: the mature Zambezi, fat and voluminous, well fed by tributaries and sliding towards its gaping estuary.
Historically, it kept north and south separate; even today, only a car ferry links the two at Caia, where the coast road crosses the river. Above the Zambezi, roads crumble and distances are huge. Tourists with time considerations are best advised to fly to Nampula or Pemba to access this extraordinary region.
From Nampula, a couple of hours' drive on bumpy tar brings you to one of Africa's — of the world's — most surreal places, Ilha do Moçambique. UNESCO acknowledged its uniqueness in 1992, awarding the former Portuguese capital World Heritage status.
I'm careful not to trip over loose 16th-century cannon balls while strolling the weedy ramparts of São Sebastão Fortress in disbelieving solitude. Just 2.5km long, this film set of an island has a palace stashed with intricate Goan and European furniture, a disproportionate number of churches, streets of ruined villas and a vast decrepit hospital.
Its thriving reed-hut village supports 7000 people, who frequent the pretty mosque and sell fish and coconuts with careless grins. This end of Mozambique definitely doesn't let you choose, but accept it for what it is and it's intoxicating. At Pemba, Portugal takes a back seat to unsullied Africa.
Makua women sport skin-softening facemasks of white paste. Makonde carvers work chunks of liquorice-like ebony — pale on the outside, dark within — into powerful human forms. A brightly-coloured crowd of women and children sits peacefully below majestic mango trees, marking the day when the community's sons go to the bush for initiation into manhood.
The mothers have shaved their heads for the occasion. We watch children playing between beached dhows at sunset, boys showing off with backflips, girls parading with garlands of curly seaweed round their heads and hips, Polynesian-style. Leaving the Swahili-tinted comfort of the new Pemba Beach Hotel, we board a tiny old plane heading north over a shore where sea meets bush and nothing is man-made.
The north's staggering emptiness hits home. We overfly a string of islands and land in a coconut plantation, before transferring by boat to the tiny private-island resort of Quilalea. In airy chalets with interiors of rich wood and billowing white muslin, we live in barefoot luxury that could hold its own in any ocean.
A gleaming speedboat takes us game fishing en route to Ibo Island, where we abandon sybaritic indulgence for historical fantasy among the shells of 18th-century houses that people in Europe would pay millions for just to restore. In the old slave fortress silversmiths produce impossibly intricate jewellery from old molten coins.
We rush back to Quilalea before the tide cuts us off, to dive in the surrounding marine sanctuary. At sunset we sip iced beers beneath the squeaking rig of a dhow in a sea of molten bronze. Maputo seems a world away; even Bazaruto, with its air links to Johannesburg.
Britain may fret about its north-south divide, but Mozambique should take pride in its dual identity: it makes travel in this beguiling country doubly rewarding. Time will erode the logistical contrasts, but in personality Mozambique will always be split.
In the far south are endless dune-backed sands at Ponta do Ouro and Ponta Malongane, beloved by South African fishermen and divers. Outstanding palm-fringed beaches occur throughout Inhambane Province, especially within 30km of Inhambane town.
To the north are Tofo and Barra beaches; to the secluded south, Jangamo and Paindane Beaches and Coconut Bay. Consisting of sand dunes, the Bazaruto Islands are all fringed by kilometres of unbroken, untouched beach. Wimbe, outside Pemba, is a long strip of white sand with bars and a dive centre. The Quirimbas, 27 offshore islands of fossil coral rock in the far north, harbour innumerable intimate castaway beaches.
Mozambique's best-known national park has no safari game: Bazaruto NP is a marine reserve, home to the endangered dugong and many coral and fish species. Humpback whales visit between September and November, heading north with newborn calves, and can also be seen in Pemba Bay in July-August. Sadly, many of Mozambique's other NPs don't have much game either.
Protected land forms 11% of the country, but war and poaching have taken a tragic toll on erstwhile rich wildlife populations, and park infrastructure remains sparse. Gorongosa NP, a large area of brachystegia woodland above the Beira Corridor, was once Mozambique's flagship, with 12,000 annual visitors and more game than Kruger, but few animals survived the war.
Rehabilitation has included de-mining, bridge building and lodge repair. Wildlife - including lion, buffalo, sable and elephant - is drifting back slowly. In the remote north, game is more prolific. New tourism ventures are penetrating the diverse Niassa Game Reserve, bordering Tanzania, where the 2002 aerial census put the elephant population at 12,000.
Overall the situation is slowly improving due to restocking, natural regeneration and transfrontier Peace Parks projects. Mozambique's government is investing R109m in restocking and upgrading Limpopo NP, which will be linked with South Africa's Kruger and Zimbabwe's Gona-re-Zhou, forming the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park. The planned Lubombo Transfrontier Park will join the Maputo Elephant reserve with protected areas in South Africa and Swaziland.
With 30 species that are endemic or have their main populations here, including the Madagascar squacco heron, Palmnut vulture and Boehm's bee-eater, Mozambique is important for Southern African avifauna.
Mount Gorongosa's montane forest is excellent for birding, the diverse Niassa Reserve supports outstanding avian life, and migrating species frequent the coast. The north hosts several species absent from the south, including the Pale-billed hornbill and White-tailed blue flycatcher, and with large areas still unexplored, it's expected that the list will grow.
Mozambique's people are 98% African, the remainder being European, Indian, and mestiços (mixed race). Historically the Zambezi divides matrilineal agriculturalists from the north-west from patrilineal pastoralists who once fled the violent Zulu kingdom to the south.
Around 50% of Mozambicans still follow traditional African religions; 28% (mainly urban) are Christian and 22% Muslim (mostly in the north). Simple rules of respect apply when meeting Mozambicans: ask permission before wandering through villages or photographing people or places of worship. Haggle only within reason - remember your relative wealth compared to those you're buying from.
Mozambican's historical stars are the north's Portuguese colonial relics. Ilha do Moçambique, the country's 19th century capital, has UNESCO World Heritage status for its extraordinary 16th century fortress (containing the Church of Senhora Baluarte, the southern hemisphere's oldest extant European building), palace, cathedrals, ruined hospital and collection of crumbling villas.
Further north and equally atmospheric, Ibo Island has a smaller slave-trading fortress and tumbleweed streets of overgrown houses, gradually being restored by enterprising investors. In the south, Inhambane town is the best example of Iberian old-world charm.
Outside Tete, Baroma Mission has a distinctive Portuguese church and attractive buildings (now housing a school) overlooking the Zambezi. Mozambique also nurtures a rich African artistic vein. Its painters' distinctive and powerful cartoon-like style is most evident in Maputo's outsized street murals.
Many were painted spontaneously post-independence, often with revolutionary themes. Among the best is a 95-metre example by the Praça dos Heróis. Downtown, the Museu Nacional des Artes has excellent contemporary and war art, often starkly revealing of Mozambicans' anguish during the conflict.
The Nucleo de Arte exhibits local artists in an informal workshop environment - look out for extraordinarily clever, if disturbing, sculptures made from AK47s and handguns from the war. Curio sellers on Avenida 24 de Julho and near the Polana peddle unusual work, typically of high quality - alongside carvings of people and animals are superb model cars, elegant colourful abstract bird carvings, elaborate picture frames and boxes inlaid with wood and bone.
Northern Mozambique is famous for Makonde carvings in sandalwood, rosewood and ebony: beautiful depictions of family groups, towers of linked figures, people undertaking daily tasks and mischievous long-eared devils. Nampula's Museu Nacional de Entologica has a dusty, intriguing ethnographic collection of extraordinary masks and old musical instruments. Behind the museum, the Makonde carvers' collective is a good place to shop and watch working craftsmen, as is the cooperative on Pemba's Wimbe road.
A Portuguese influence rich in garlic and olive oil pervades Mozambican cuisine. The country's signature dishes are piri-piri chicken or large prawns, served with a hot red chilli sauce and rice or chips. Fish and calamari are ubiquitous along the coast. Steak rolls, choriço or cheese sandwiches are typical snacks.
Traditional African ingredients include coconut, cassava, pumpkin, peanuts and nçima (stiff maize-meal porridge). Better restaurants serve Portuguese wines and port. Manica and 2M (pronounced 'dosh M') are the local beers. Bottled water is widely available - check the seals.
Water-based activities are Mozambique's forte, with world-class diving and snorkelling from Ponta D'Ouro to the Quirimbas. The Bazaruto Archipelago is the most developed playground, with diving, sailing, dhow and deep-sea fishing excursions from the islands and Vilanculos. Further north, the St Lazarus Banks off Pemba are a game fisherman's Holy Grail.
On dry land, Indigo Bay on Bazaruto offers horse riding and dune-boarding. The archipelago is good for walking as it's free from landmines. On the mainland never stray into dunes or bush without checking first that the area has been officially cleared. Ugezi Tiger Lodge on Lake Cahora Bassa offers rewarding bream and tiger fishing in a wild setting and also arranges visits to the impressive dam wall.
Mozambique's warm tropical climate varies with altitude and latitude, the north-east coastal regions generally being hotter and more humid than the south. The cooler dry season from April-September is the best time to travel.
October to April is the hotter rainy season, when risks of malaria and washed-out roads are greater (though the south receives far less rain than the north). Beware South African school holidays, when southern Mozambique (up to Vilanculos) is often fully booked. Holiday dates vary but are based around three weeks (late March-mid-April); a month (late-June-late July); a fortnight (late September) and six weeks (early December-mid January).
The unit of currency is the metical (MT), plural: meticais (roughly MT23,000 per US$). US Dollars and South African Rand are easiest to change, sterling less so, especially away from major centres. Bank notes come in large denominations (up to MT100,000) so it's useful to keep smaller notes with you as vendors often don't have change.
Portuguese, the official language, is spoken by only the quarter of the population who went to school. Roughly 60 distinct Bantu languages and dialects are also spoken, including KiSwahili along the northern coast. English is understood in the Tete Corridor between Zimbabwe and Malawi, and in the far south, reflecting close links with Johannesburg. It's worth learning basic Portuguese phrases, if only for courtesy.
TAP Air Portugal and LAM, Mozambique's airline, fly direct from Lisbon to Maputo; TAP has London-Lisbon connections. Alternatively, fly to Johannesburg and catch connecting flights to Maputo with South African Airways or LAM, or to Pemba with SAA.
Lodges in the Bazaruto Archipelago will arrange direct flights from South Africa for their clients. Pelican Air and Charlan Air fly from Kruger-Mpumalanga airport to Vilanculos. Numerous local bus services enter Mozambique from neighbouring countries but the easiest overland option for tourists is the daily Panthero Azul luxury coach from Johannesburg or Durban.
Unless you have limitless time, internal flights are the best way to negotiate Mozambique's great distances. LAM operates between all the main hubs. Reliable bus services link cities, especially in the south, although the area between Beira and Nampula remains a public transport black hole.
Safety: Mozambique is as safe as any African country. Common-sense rules apply: don't wear expensive jewellery, carry bundles of cash or flaunt your wealth, and don't walk alone at night.
Info: Mozambique, The Bradt Travel Guide, by Philip Briggs and Ross Velton
Cucumbers: Travels in Mozambique by Nick Middleton (Phoenix, 1994) - excellent travelogue with insightful background.
With 292,000 tourists in 1972 - more than South Africa and (then) Rhodesia combined - pre-independence Mozambique was among Southern Africa's premier destinations. Although independence and war slashed arrivals figures to a paltry 1000 by 1981, subsequent stability brought so many visitors that in 1999, the post of Minister of Tourism was created to manage the economy's fastest growing sector.
Such rapid growth is good news for a country that emerged from civil war the poorest on earth, yet it raises serious questions. Sustainability is tourism's buzzword, but the temptation is to get rich quick, especially as ordinary people who need hospitals and schools understandably resent money spent conserving historical sites for tourists if they don't benefit themselves.
The government's stated primary goal of poverty reduction is surely an imperative for mass-market, income-generating tourism? Not so, argues Zacharius Sumbana of the Tourism Ministry. Determined to learn from other African and developing countries' experiences, the government has adopted a long-term strategy to develop low-volume high-price tourism - following Botswana's successful example.
But despite world-class beaches, given its recent history, how capable is Mozambique of delivering a five-star product? Sumbana admits that training local staff is a challenge. 'Management go abroad to train, service staff train here. There's a tough path ahead, but this is a long-term strategy. Some say we should go mass market for quick income, like Kenya tried, but we think about sustainability - both of the industry and our natural resources.
For conservation and income, we must be upmarket.' High-end investment is certainly pouring in. Rani Resorts will open two luxurious Quirimba island retreats this year alongside its two existing Mozambican properties. In the north, the Cabo Delgado Biodiversity and Tourism Project plans several game and island eco-lodges, with community involvement, while Britain's Twinspot Travel is Niassa Reserve's first operator.
Some South African lodges hope to build sister properties near Vilanculos to exploit new air links with Kruger. All will appeal to exclusive, tailor-made operators such as Steppes Africa, whose clients have long followed safaris in neighbouring countries with a beach-stay in the Bazaruto Archipelago. But logistics remain a challenge.
Albee Yeend, Steppes' PR Marketing Director, says that despite the north's new high-class properties, expensive irregular flights to the area - often awkwardly routed via Maputo or Johannesburg - mean it's easier to send clients who've been on safari in Southern Africa to Bazaruto.
The north is more easily accessed from Dar es Salaam. Logistics affect the other end of the market too. Despite official tourism policy, small investors are opening charming guest houses such as Mozaika in Maputo or Ibo Island's Bella Vista, attracting companies like Explore which offer small group trips.
Although the company currently covers only Maputo and Bazaruto, as the final part of an itinerary including a Kruger safari and an overland journey through Swaziland, African Product Manager Simon Grove is excited by Mozambique's north and plans a separate itinerary based on the region's colonial past and indigenous culture next year. But like Steppes, Explore won't link north and south.
'Logistically and thematically, it makes sense to keep them separate,' says Simon. 'For our market, the south is beaches and watersports, the north culture and adventure. Our northern groups will probably travel by truck from Tanzania. The roads are too bad and distances too far to link north and south overland.'
In its favour, both Simon and Albee agree the country has serious kudos. 'It's the ultimate 'I've just been to' dinner party destination,' says Albee, while Simon acknowledges that some visitors 'go for the cool-factor, because it's off the beaten track.' By the time this fades, the country's tourism infrastructure should be well enough established to attract visitors in its own right.
'People love the private island idea which Mozambique is increasingly offering,' says Albee. 'The north will open up with time.' Mozambique's ability to resist mass-market foreign investment and stick to sustainable development will be crucial to its long-term success.
Despite government indifference, Africa's lucrative backpacker and adventure market could also be key: backpackers are usually responsible travellers who spend money directly with the people and often return as high earners in later years. The country could also benefit from visitors' increased concerns about terrorism and crime in neighbouring Tanzania and Kenya.
Time will tell whether Mozambique rises to tourism's challenges - and soon, according to Quilalea's Marjolaine Hewletts. 'Not much will be untouched in 50 years,' she says. 'Most ruins on Ibo have been sold by the government for renovation. Everyone has their eye on Pemba. There are rumours of runways and golf courses. You won't recognise the place in five years' time.'
© Travel Africa Magazine 2004. This article may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
By Stephanie Debere.