Mozambique is an African hope fulfilled: recovered from a civil war and balancing the conservation of great natural beauty with sophisticated resorts. Ondine Cohane explores an Indian Ocean renaissance
My view, framed in the windshield of a pickup truck traveling from Beira to Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique's interior, is like watching someone—the driver—play a particularly challenging video game. The truck lurches around craterlike potholes while dodging pedestrians wandering from one side of the road to the other, who are seemingly surprised that an actual vehicle is traversing the road. But from the side windows, the perspective is a little less frightening and offers a quick documentary on daily life. Clustered on the dirt shoulder are small twig huts where those on foot can buy fruit and almonds. Children trudge along with siblings strapped across their chests, toddlers by the hand, and often buckets balanced on their heads. Reluctant goats are tugged to their next destination. In the cool afternoon air, a group of men in team jerseys jog beside us and then turn off toward a dusty soccer pitch. There may not be many cars, but these roads are jammed with human traffic—with life.
After more than a decade of brutal warfare and now over ten years of peace, Mozambique is a country on the move. The action along the roadways is a sign that after years of stability, people can travel freely all over the country. The same is true for visitors: The word is getting out on locales that were until recently inaccessible, from uncharted islands, to wildlife reserves returning to their former glory, to spruced-up cosmopolitan cities that had their last flowering under Portuguese colonial rule. Wherever I go, I get the sense that Mozambique is making up for lost time.
During its heyday in the 1960s and early '70s, Mozambique attracted more visitors than South Africa and Rhodesia combined, from well-heeled Portuguese and American jet-setters to South African travelers looking for an exotic beach hideaway with Latin-influenced culture and food. But starting in 1977, in a story all too familiar in twentieth-century Africa, a civil war ravaged Mozambique for fifteen years. It was a typical and tragic example of a Cold War proxy battle, with the Soviet Union propping up the Marxist government while the United States fed arms and support to the rebel Renamo (Mozambique National Resistance). In 1988, a senior U.S. State Department official accused the American-backed rebels of "one of the most brutal holocausts against ordinary human beings since World War II." In 1989, a UN report estimated that 900,000 Mozambicans had died as a result of the war. By 1990, more than 3 million had been driven from their homes and 8 million faced starvation or severe malnutrition. With the Cold War over, the combatants finally signed a lasting peace accord in Rome in 1992; both sides were subsumed into the political parties that exist today.
In one of the best books on this history, A Complicated War (1993), William Finnegan described flying over the country as "a constant all-points assault of intense visual beauty, with Maxfield Parrish thunderheads rising around the plane like immense glowing marble pillars and, beneath us, glinting rivers running dark-green threads through a landscape out of Isak Dinesen. It was, in its wildness, ideal country for a guerrilla army." Now, everyone from the government to foreign investors is realizing that it's a wildness ideal for exploration. Mozambique is emerging as one of Africa's most beautiful and pristine tourism areas, using a high-end low-impact model taken from places like Botswana. The country has the bonus of a tourist ministry that, thus far, has strongly supported conservation.
Mozambique combines more than fifteen hundred miles of unsullied coastline with archipelagos that are just beginning to be developed and vast national parks—where wildlife was decimated during the war—that are slowly coming back to life, displaying a variety and density of habitat that's unusual even in Africa. The other draw is Maputo, the capital, which is experiencing its own renaissance, with some of East Africa's most exciting music.
I start my journey in the northern archipelago of Quirimbas, which is quickly becoming one of Mozambique's hottest destinations. Flying from the mainland, I look down on deserted islands and whale tails flicking just above the turquoise water. Resorts have opened here only in the past few years—Quilálea, Matemo, and Vamizi, among them—but all offer luxury with environmental and community-building initiatives, under the dual watchdogs of the national marine parks and the locals. The biodiversity is staggering. This is a huge breeding ground for turtles, whales, sharks, dolphins, and the dugong, a mammal that looks like a manatee and is said to be the inspiration for the mermaid (its shyness and tiny numbers are giving the dugong a mythic reputation in its own right). Dive sites throughout the archipelago are just being charted, but already more than 375 species of reef fish and close to 40 types of coral have been recorded.
On Matemo Island, I take a drive with Eliseu Rodrigues, a twenty-eight-year-old from nearby Ibo Island who speaks English quite well. Part of his role is to act as a liaison between the villages and the Matemo Island Resort, which overlooks a perfect crescent of white sand. Matemo's owner, Adel Aujan, has built a school, a mosque, and a community center on the island, and he pays for two employees to go on the hajj every year. (Like many East Africans along this former Islamic trading route, the island people are almost exclusively Muslim, with a seafaring culture historically linked to places such as Zanzibar and Yemen.) Our first stop is Palussanga, the closest village to the resort. A World Wildlife Fund display in the middle of town shows the shells of protected turtles and informs villagers which fish not to keep. Fishing and agriculture account for almost eighty percent of Mozambique's jobs, making it a challenge to protect reef diversity without jeopardizing islanders' income. We watch men mending their nets, and women and kids up to their thighs in the sea, picking up conchs and clams.
Polygamy is common here, Rodrigues tells me, with some men having up to four wives and many children, a family structure that compounds the growing HIV problem. We visit a school that educates children only through the fifth grade. Thirty-two are registered, but only a few turn up. "Families still need them to fish," the beleaguered teacher explains. The war created a generation without education or elders (because of the toll taken by AIDS, malaria, and the war, I rarely saw anyone over forty), and they are now trying to navigate a new world of challenges and—thanks to recent tourism developments—opportunities.
When I turn up at the landing strip to fly from Matemo to Vamizi, I am the only passenger on the candy-colored prop plane. Once at cruising altitude above the turquoise water, the pilot asks me if I want to take the controls. He reads the alarmed widening of my eyes as a yes, and suddenly I am experiencing an adrenaline rush beyond description as I bank first right and then left, dipping up and down. After about ten minutes, I am actually enjoying this impromptu lesson over the string of islands. We descend toward Vamizi a few minutes later, where the landing strip is more a broad paved road. I get in a jeep, and we trundle along the one new road—a lone Samango monkey watching us with interest.
Vamizi, the latest luxury lodge to open in the Quirimbas, is part of Maluane (a joint project of the Zoological Society of London, private international investors, and Mozambican conservation groups), and one of five lodges planned for the 100,000-plus acres in the organization's concession. After checking in, I am taken to a spectacular open-air villa just steps from the clear aqua water and a white sand beach scattered with delicate shells. The decor mixes East African elements with luxurious touches; there are no doors, but lattice-wood shutters let in a cool breeze, while bamboo screens keep out any curious wildlife. After lunch, I nap under a casuarina tree on a plump daybed and don't see a single soul all afternoon.
The next morning, I go diving with Serena, the resort's Irish dive master and a longtime Africa resident. She tells me that the resort has identified several sites but that there are many more in the surrounding reefs. We descend into the most incredible coral I have ever seen: forests of staghorn with sparkling-blue fluorescent tips; mushroom, flower, and table coral so colorful that they distract me from the fish. But only briefly. Meyer's butterfly fish race by, with moorish idols in their wake; we see a rare bumphead parrot fish (a "species of concern" because of overfishing); regal angelfish are an amazing canvas of yellows and blues; and Spanish dancers seem to perform a flamenco in front of our eyes. Giant clams litter the floor.
When we surface, Serena tells me that the reef's diversity is due in part to a convergence of currents that brings fish from South Africa, Tanzania, and the Seychelles into a relatively small area. But it's the coral that remain in my mind. The vibrant colors are courtesy of deep shelves of cold water, which can avoid the warming and harmful effects of El Niño, and the small number of divers. Opportunities to see such healthy coral are increasingly unusual.
After an adventurous drive from Beira, we turn off the main road and approach the camp at Gorongosa National Park. The sun has started to set. Baboons call out from the trees, and a bizarre three-legged warthog (injured by a poacher's snare) snuffles out of the brush. As we sit down to dinner, Mike McNamara, the camp's director of tourism, gets a call that a pride of lions has been spotted a few miles away. Mike, one other guest, and I pile into the truck. As we move along the dark roads, no one speaks.
We suddenly come upon two females lounging in the road in front of us. A few minutes later, adolescent cubs begin emerging out of the brush on either side. Soon, seven cubs are playing in the dirt, their oversized paws boxing one another's ears. Then they head back into the darkness—to test their hunting skills, Mike says.
Just a few years ago, this would have been a very rare sighting. It's reminiscent of the abundance of game before the civil war—a period that comes alive in a recently rediscovered 1963 home video of the park, which we are shown back at camp. It was shot by a man named Philip Waugh, who documented his holiday here with his wife. The footage reveals richly stocked safari grounds: large numbers of buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, and elephants wander the savanna; prides of lions laze in the sun and in the long grass; huge pods of hippos soak in a lake, only their ears and eyes visible above the mossy water, while the camera-wielding couple sip beer among other affluent travelers. The camp itself looks manicured and posh. In the 1960s, this park was arguably more important than South Africa's Kruger: John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Al Green, not to mention some of the astronauts who had just returned from space, were among the visiting celebrities. But by the end of the war, up to ninety-five percent of the park's wildlife had been lost (much of it became bush meat for the struggling soldiers); neighboring villages had been plunged into poverty—and suffered countless fatalities; and the camp facilities, from tourist lodges to bridges, lay abandoned, riddled with bullet holes. Where 3,000 hippos had once lived, 50 remained; out of a population of 3,500 elephants, just 350 survived; of 3,500 zebra, only 9. This one-million-acre icon was a shadow of its former self, and the vacation video—once shown over martinis back home—was a nostalgic historical archive.
For American multimillionaire Greg Carr, though, the video was proof of what Gorongosa could become again. After a trip here in 2004, the former chairman of online pioneer Prodigy—who had already established the Carr Center, a foundation dedicated to overcoming human rights challenges—pledged up to forty million dollars of his own money over the next thirty years to restore the park in partnership with the Mozambican government.
When I head out for a game drive the following day, it's quickly evident that the park, located at the southern end of the Great Rift Valley, has tremendous topographical diversity. The landscape changes from traditional bush with palm and fever trees to lush savanna laced with full-flowing rivers. To the north of the park—accessible only by helicopter—are limestone gorges and caves and groves of lemon and lime trees. On the horizon, Gorongosa Mountain looms above the plains.
The mammal population—especially prey animals—is still scant, although I do see plenty of warthogs, impalas, and bushbuck. The number of elephants has increased substantially, but many have memories of the war and as a result have changed their habits to avoid humans, coming out to eat and drink at night and hiding during the day, a kind of elephant version of post-traumatic stress disorder.
I am at Gorongosa's Hippo House, an abandoned platform on cement stilts that was once a chic bar where Portuguese honeymooners would sip cocktails. Today it offers views of a lake lined with rich green grass. Despite the platform's name, I see no hippos—although many crocodiles laze along the banks. Eventually, development will mean luxury tented camps for wealthy visitors and, no doubt, a new generation of glamour. For now, there are campsites and less-expensive bungalows. Many of the parks in Africa have become prohibitively expensive for the locals, and Carr wants to make sure that Mozambicans have access to something that is, above all, their own national oasis. Meanwhile, the birdlife is already flourishing. In a few hours I see a Burchell's coucal, an African fish eagle, a black-headed heron, a yellow-billed stork, Egyptian geese, little bee-eaters, an African sacred ibis, and a grey crowned crane.
Before I head to Maputo, I want to hike up to the rain forest of Mount Gorongosa. The peak, at 6,109 feet, is in many respects the key to the whole ecosystem, but this very important water source (its trees provide most of the rainfall for the lakes and rivers here) is actually outside the park's confines. The prevalence of slash-and-burn agriculture is one of the most worrisome challenges for Carr's project. For now, the foundation is quickly trying to offer alternative sources of revenue so that the local communities don't have to chip away at the declining forest. Training mountain guides and teaching kids at the recently built school are some of the initiatives. We climb through banana, pineapple, and mango orchards, heading to the line where the rain forest begins. Along the way, smoldering stumps are a grim reminder of the pace of destructive farming. Tomorrow that line will move farther up the mountain.
Once we're into the trees, it's a completely different scene: a fragrant rain forest full of birdsong, including the call of the green-headed oriole, the holy grail of birders. (Mount Gorongosa is one of the few places in the world where you can see it.) I stand among wild orchids and ancient trees, listening.
We descend through wheat fields dotted with wildflowers and stop at a five-hundred-foot waterfall surrounded by a high canopy and hanging vines. The water is cool, and butterflies flit near the mist of the falls while little birds drink and bathe in small pools. I lie back on a rock and, with my binoculars, watch them come and go.
At dusk, Maputo is bustling and cheerful. Road names recall its Socialist phase—Engels, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin, and Salvador Allende. Between wide boulevards and dilapidated pastel-pink colonial buildings are Bauhaus-like apartment complexes and the city's main landmarks: the train station, designed by Gustave Eiffel; the newly restored park; and the white cathedral with its delicate details. At night, the town's renaissance becomes even more apparent. The lasting Latin influence gives the vibe a touch of Havana's faded sexiness transplanted to the shores of the Indian Ocean. Unlike many African capitals, the city remains safe after dark, and people pack the outdoor cafés and gather at fruit stands. At the most famous restaurant, the Costa do Sol, in an Art Deco building on the waterfront, people are still pouring in at 9:30 when I tuck into a meal of prawns grilled with piri-piri (a spicy chili sauce) and a cold beer.
My last stop in Mozambique is the southern archipelago of Bazaruto—the first place to open to visitors after the cease-fire. With the peace still fragile, travelers began flying direct from Johannesburg to Vilanculos, on the mainland, and from there came by boat to the islands. In many ways, Bazaruto's luxury properties served as the model for the resorts that later opened in the north. The interrelationship between ecotourism and community, which has become a countrywide standard, was forged here, with locals and conservationists hammering out where not to fish and which areas would be strictly off-limits for hunting. Benguerra Lodge, where I am staying, was one of the pioneers. It comprises fifteen bungalows scattered beachside on the northern end of Benguerra Island, part of Bazaruto National Park, which encompasses all five of the archipelago's islands.
Nearby, Two Mile Reef has some of Mozambique's best diving, and on my first morning I have the opportunity to swim next to a large but extremely elegant turtle and over a monumental manta ray glaring up at me from the sandy floor. The Aquarium, so named because of the enormous number of fish, has coral of the same vibrancy and variety that I saw up north.
Afterward, I have arranged for a private picnic, and the dive boat leaves me next to a tented canopy on a white beach facing a channel running into the Indian Ocean. A huge sand dune lies on the other side. It is the kind of place where you wish you could spend an afternoon at the end of every trip. Quiet, beautiful, it seems to inspire reflection after much activity. For company, I have a school of humpback dolphins frolicking as though conjured up for the afternoon's entertainment. Around a gentle bend, I can make out kids playing on the beach and a woman carrying a basket of mangoes on her head. Dhows move slowly along the coastline. Later, the wind slows to a whisper.
Published in December 2007. Prices and other information were accurate at press time, but are subject to change. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.