A traditional local greeting in Northern Mozambique’s coastal Quirimba region is to smile, say “Como vai? (How are you?)” and then proffer up some sort of deceased marine organism (be it a fish, some tentacles or a large and turgid sea cucumber) The polite thing to do as a tourist, I suppose, would be to respond in kind and then purchase the thing. However, I soon found it prudent to respectfully refuse lest I find myself quickly buried beneath a pile of prawns, crabs, fish, sharks, mollusks, dugongs and perhaps a turtle or two.
Everyone, it seems, in northern Mozambique is a fisherman. That or else a coconut farmer. Usually both.
I was sitting upon the snow white sands of the tiny Mugundula island after having traveled by traditional sailing dhow from nearby Ibo when the umpteenth fisherman of the day glided up through turquoise waters in his mokorro and waved something smelly at me. It wasn’t the lobster I had been so craving (and for which the region is rightfully famous) but rather a bag full of teensy weensy little fishies, the kind of which neither my western sensibilities nor digestive tract were willing to accept.
It was only the first day of a five day cruise around the Quirimbas, and despite my absolute love of sea food (an advantage when traveling this archipelago of some 30 plus islands) I wasn’t prepared to eat a pile if insect sized fish (eyes and spines and scales included).
The man (who was clad in a ladies bathing costume for some unfathomable reason) smiled at me with a one toothed grin and sauntered off up to the middle of this postage stamp sized island to see if Harris (my guide) and his team of camp chefs and dhow crew might be interested in his catch.
I watched him vanish into the shrubbery, tripping on a large hermit crab as he went, and then I went back to observing a motley crew of fishermen who were hard at work in the water.
Some of them were bobbing around in the shallows placing a buoyed net whilst on shore, their Speedo wearing accomplices heaved upon ropes, tug-o-war style, until it was pulled shut and then dragged up onto the beach.
It was a meager catch for the effort, or so it seemed to me; a handful of little silver fish, a couple of squid and a few kilograms of jellyfish which I assumed they wouldn’t be wanting, but the men all seemed happy enough.
“Lagosta?” I asked them hopefully
“No Senhor Burro, no possible catching in net. Using spear only”
Shame. I really did so want a lobster
The Quirimbas are a chain of near shore coral islands and atolls that stretch from the city of Pemba in Northern Mozambique some 320 kilometers to the mouth of the Rovuma River (which is also the border to Tanzania) It’s a region characterized by turquoise and emerald coloured waters, palm studded islands, coral reefs, mangrove forests and balmy temperatures that would be oppressive were it not for the regular winds that blow through.
As such, the place has been dubbed by some as the Caribbean of Africa, and although there are indeed some parallels, I think its fair to say that Northern Mozambique is rather like Northern Mozambique. In other words; Its really quite unique. The people and their culture are a blend of African, Arabian and Portuguese influences, most are Muslims (albeit moderate ones judging by the amount of gin swigging I saw) and the majority of them make ends meet via a line, a hook, or a net.
Unlike most Africans I know of, ‘Quirimbians’ are very good at floating, swimming diving and holding their breaths under the water.
Of course, they are also very fond of tourists.
“Tourism is good for the area” Harris had told me earlier as we ploughed through waters so brilliantly blue as to beggar belief. A giant white sail; the hallmark of a traditional dhow; loomed above us like a huge curled curtain.
“This section though which we are traveling is a National Park, but it was only declared in 2002 and was done so at the request of the local population”
Apparently, some 60000 people live within or near to the borders of Quirimbas National Park (which includes 11 islands, more than 100kms of coast and a sizable chunk of the mainland). Most of theme are subsistence fisher folk. The old adage that there are plenty more fish in the sea just doesn’t ring true anymore, especially when mechanized foreign fishing fleets began trawling the Quirimbas, so, in an act of desperation, the local people teemed up with WWF and the Mozambican government in order to get the place protected.
“Since the park’s formation, locals continue more or less as they always have” Harris told me “They catch their fish and they live in their villages, but large scale commercial harvesting is not permitted nor is the killing of protected species such as dugongs and turtles”
Whether or not these rules are being effectively enforced is another matter, but at least the rules are there, and what’s more, with an ever growing trend in tourism to the region more money is trickling down and more jobs in the hospitality business are being created.
“There are incredible dive and snorkel sites in the Quirimbas” Harris told me, and there are also more and more lodges opening up as demand for ecotourism grows” It all sounded positive to me.
That evening, Harris served me up a starter of tiny little fish, deep fried in chili and garlic (complete with eyes, spines and scales) and despite my initial reservations, they were absolutely delicious. I silently thanked the cross dressing fisherman who had caught them, and then I proceeded with a main course of kingfish cooked over an open fire with the sound of waves gently lapping against the shore.
It was delightful (both the food and the location)…But it wasn’t the lobster Id so wanted.
The following morn, after a comfortable night in a airy domed tent I took a quick kayak trip around the little island and waved hello to a small fleet of fishermen who were speeding along in their miniature dhows. The boat design (Arabic in origin) has remained little changed in over a thousand years except for the sail which is now made from anything that will suffice; towels; hessian sacks; tarpaulins. I even saw one that was made from garden refuse bags taped together but how it managed to stand up against the ravages of the wind was quite beyond my comprehension.
During the afternoon, we sailed once again out into the crystal blue waters and dropped anchor off the quaint little island of Rolas, where I donned my mask and snorkel and jumped in to see what all the underwater fuss was about. The literature describes the Quirimbas as one of the most biodiverse marine ecosystems on the planet. It boasts hundreds upon hundreds of colorful tropical fish species, five kinds of sea turtle, shed loads of marine birds and more unique crustaceans than you could care to shake a salt cellar at.
And of course, indeed it was lovely.
The water was balmy, the visibility superb and the fish life and corals as colorful as one could hope for. I saw Nemos in their anemones, mace like urchins bristling with apparent malcontent, eels and lion fish and big bulbous things that looked like a brain. I even saw a lobster, but I think it picked up on my body language and quickly scuttled into a crevice before I could send the crew down after it.
The rest of the trip was of the same theme. We traveled by dhow to locations of our choosing and we set up tents beneath palms and on the edges of mangrove forests and beaches. I went bird spotting and saw egrets and herons and other beaked wonders with long skinny legs, and I also spied a great flock of rare crab plovers which, according to Harris, would have given a genuine birder an aneurism.
I also tried my hand at fishing (and caught absolutely nothing but for a straggly bit of sea weed)
We met with locals who sold us fish and crabs (but no lobsters), and we ordered fresh coconuts that were evicted from their trees by men whose legs must have been made from steel. I tried to emulate their palm climbing skills and gave myself groin strain in the process. All in all, it was an idyllic cast away island safari, the kind of trip that burns post card images of tropical bliss into ones mind forever. If I had traveled with my wife, it would have been even more romantic, what with all the secret white sanded beaches, balmy full moon nights and gently swaying palm trees. But she was at home doing the dishes.
The tour has a level of flexibility about it which is great. A guest can decide which islands, reefs and mainland destinations are visited (depending on tides, distance and conditions) and the activities are also very flexible. If one wants to sail, one can sail and if one wants to snorkel, then that’s possible too. Cultural village visits, mangrove kayaking, bird spotting, fishing and (if with appropriate company) tropical nookie, are all at ones own discretion. You just need to inform your guide and crew. The one totally predictable thing is that the tour always starts and ends with an evening spent in the colonial style and aptly named Ibo Island lodge, where canvas is substituted with sumptuous rooms with enormous curtained beds.
Here, I spent my last evening on the roof top deck watching tropical storms drift over a night time ocean sipping on fine wines and regretting that the trip was now at an end.
“Are you ready for Dinner?” asked the waiter, snapping me out of my reverence.
“I hope you like lobster. If not we have mince…”
For more information on sailing the Quirimbas by Dhow visit: www.iboisland.com 0r email firstname.lastname@example.org