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The Secret Islands of Mozambique

The Secret Islands of Mozambique

Jan 2016

Words Franki Black, Pics Franki Black and supplied

Medjumbe Island appeared to grow smaller and smaller, as a turquoise ocean current whisked me away from the shoreline. I was precariously balanced on a Stand-Up-Paddle board and optimistically keeping an eye out for a passing pod of dolphins.  Feeling completely exhilarated, I paddled my way around Medjumbe Island, one of 32 islands that form part of what is arguably Mozambique’s best-kept secret: the Quirimbas Archipelago. 

Pit Stop in Pemba

Just a day prior, we journeyed from Johannesburg to Pemba, a bustling port city situated in northern Mozambique. The plan was to spend the night in Pemba, before continuing onto Medjumbe Island (situated just off Pemba’s coast) for a two-night stay. 

As soon as I stepped off the plane, I knew I was in deep Africa. Airport officials investigated our luggage and once they were satisfied that we were Ebola-free, they welcomed us to their town. Dusty, baobab-lined roads were abuzz with brightly-dressed locals selling everything from eggs to electronics, fishermen congregated around battered wooden dhows and most shops were run from the back of private homes.  Pemba’s colonial past lends it a distinctly Portuguese flavour evident in architecture and food. Its people are largely Muslim, so streetwear comes in the form of vibrant fabrics combined with Islamic caps and scarves.

In recent years, significant discoveries of offshore gas have resulted in American, Italian and Chinese companies flocking to Pemba’s shores. These outside influences have contributed to gradual growth in and around Pemba. Infrastructure has improved, the hospitality industry has boomed and eager locals have been introduced to the joys of motorbikes, brought in by the Chinese. Pemba is a fascinating melting-pot of culture, but our final destination was calling. 

Island Style

Early the next morning, we took off on a 6-seater plane and watched as views of the Quirimbas unfolded below us. This elaborate string of islands stretches over an area of 200 kilometres and, miraculously, most of the islands remain almost untouched.  From above, we gazed down at snaking rivers, mangroves, a kaleidoscope of blues, and shallow coral reefs. We flew over Ibo Island, one of the oldest establishments in Mozambique. Its history dates back to AD600 and its architecture can be traced to the 16th Century. The Island’s past is sprinkled with tales of pirates, prisoners and silver. During the 18th and 19th Centuries it was known as a thriving slave trading centre and today the ruins of slave trading houses can be seen along its coast. 

Views of our final destination, Medjumbe Island, finally came into sight. From above, this tiny island (1 kilometre by 300 metres) shimmered like a pearl lost in a huge pool of light blue. The only sign of human life on Medjumbe Island is the discreet Anantara Medjumbe Island Resort & Spa, our home for the next two nights. On arrival, we were welcomed by Anantara’s warmhearted staff members. They led the way to our respective luxury villas.  Mine was situated a few sand grains away from the lukewarm sea and came complete with a king-sized bed, a double bathroom, a patio, a splash pool, a hammock and an outdoor shower. This was island living at its best. 

I ventured out for a walk around the island. On its northern side, a sand bank narrowly slivered into the sea and on the other side stood a weather-worn lighthouse dating back to the 1930’s. Pink crabs scampered into holes as I walked past and a variety of birds surveyed the ocean from above.  The bird enthusiasts in my group were especially excited about the birdlife on the island, as the Quirimbas Archipelago is said to be one of the top bird-watching spots in Mozambique. My walk ended at the Jahazi restaurant where lobster kebabs marinated in peri-peri sauce were served for lunch.

Eat, Paddle, Swim

Next up was snorkelling over Medjumbe’s exquisite coral reefs. Listed, in part, as a protected marine park, the Quirimbas Archipelago is considered one of the globe’s most valuable regions for marine biodiversity. Its coral reefs are robust and its waters serve as an important feeding ground for turtles, crab plovers and migratory birds. It is also a nursery area for bottlenose and humpback dolphins, and whales. I swam to a collection of pastel-coloured reefs situated a few hundred metres from where I had lunch. Transparent jellyfish and a variety of luminous reef fish were some of the creatures swimming around me. To my surprise, a tiny yellow tropical fish positioned itself one centimetre in front of my nose and accompanied me for half an hour. I was astonished and delighted to have my very own fish guardian.

Water sports are readily available at the resort’s activity centre. Everything from wind-surfing boards to kayaks is on offer to guests and the best part is that Anantara’s friendly staff will set it all up for you! This is where I tried out the Stand-Up-Paddle board. It was surprisingly easy, going out to sea, but on the way back the wind proved to be a challenge. My friend Theresa, however, rejoiced at the balmy breeze, as she skillfully mastered the wind-surf. We ended the day’s action with a paddling mission along the island’s shoreline. 

By the time dinner rolled by, we were starving. Most guests ordered the flame-grilled lobster, but I opted for seared tuna caught earlier that same the day. We were overwhelmed by Anantara’s 5-star food and service, considering that it sits on an isolated island in the middle of the ocean. Bentos, our waiter, never failed to meet our every need with gracious warmth and admirable attention to detail. The same can be said for the barmen who enthusiastically served up fresh Pina Coladas and Caipirinhas throughout the day.

Hands-On Relaxation

I saved the best for the last day: a deep-tissue back massage with Anantara’s in-house massage therapist and holistic healer.   She started my treatment off by placing hot stones all along my back and massaging my head using Shiatsu techniques. From there, she worked her healing hands along my spine and massaged the power points on my back. By the end of my massage session, I felt positively enlightened. 

Gourmet Castaways

One of Anantara’s most romantic offerings is a gourmet picnic prepared on Medjumbe’s neighbouring island, Quissanga. It is smaller than Medjumbe, completely untouched and home to the biggest clam and conch shells I’ve ever seen. Here you can spend 3-4 hours in luxurious privacy, whilst feeling and acting like a castaway. It’s a mere 15-minute ride via speed boat from Medjumbe to Quissanga Island and on the way there you can choose to snorkel over some of Mozambique’s most impressive coral reefs. 

We were carted across the water for a short introduction of Quissanga Island, but returned to Medjumbe just in time for the day’s biggest event: sunset. As the sun started to dip, big and small crabs frantically shuffled across the rocks, whilst thousands of birds dramatically took to the sky. We walked around Medjumbe Island one last time and found comfort in the fact that this island paradise is a short flight away from home.

Make it Happen!

Getting There:  

Airlink – the Regional Feeder Airline, offers a wide network of regional and domestic flights within southern Africa and operates as a franchisee to SAA.
Route Specific Information: Direct scheduled flights between Johannesburg and Pemba, Northern Mozambique.
Connectivity: Through Airlink's alliance with SAA travellers connect conveniently with SAA, their Partner airlines and other carriers throughout Southern Africa and the world.
Frequent Flyer Programme: Airlink is a member of South African Airways Loyalty programme - Voyager.
Flight Bookings: Online, booking agent or SAA Central Reservations on +27 11 978 1111.

Where to Stay:

The Anantara Medjumbe Island Resort & Spa: Stay in a luxury beachfront villa complete with full-board dining and beverages, non-motorised water sports and in-room mini bar treats.
Contact: +27 (0) 10 003 8979 and +258 86 617 9167 (reservations) 

AVANI Pemba Beach Hotel & Spa is the ideal base from which you can explore nearby islands and embark on safari adventures.  AVANI Pemba Beach Hotel & Spa is an ocean-facing resort that combines African style with Arabian architecture.  A range of accommodation options are available for both business and leisure-focused travellers. Pool, spa and restaurant facilities are on offer.
Contact: +258 27 221770 

Source: Travel Ideas

Travel Ideas