independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Quirimbas Archipelago: Paradise found

The villas on Vamizi

The little-known Quirimbas Archipelago is beginning to reveal its glamorous secrets. Fiona Duncan explores its natural beauty

A tense start at Dar es Salaam airport in Tanzania. A combination of infuriating bureaucracy, confused directives and sudden situation-saving kindness gave us just seconds to catch our connecting flight to Pemba in Mozambique, though we had arrived at the airport from Heathrow three hours earlier.

"Immigration made you buy a visa when you were in transit?" asked our Italian pilot Paolo, laughing loudly.

"That's a new one. I tell you, if you haven't parted with all your money, lost your luggage, got arrested or been turned into an elephant by a witch doctor, you've won the race."

"How long have you lived here?" I enquired.

"Thirty-five years," he said. "I've loved all of it."

We needed to calm down, and the remedy lay in Paolo's plane revving up in front of us.

Once aboard the Cessna Caravan, we soon relaxed as we flew south above the wild, tropical Indian Ocean coast.

Next came the almost unbroken chain of just-offshore coral islands (32 in all) -- islets, reefs, baixos (sunken islands) and tiny shards of white-hot sand that make up the little-known, untrammelled Quirimbas Archipelago.

Seen from 4,000ft, the shapes and colours were mesmerising. Knots of land, thick with mangroves and ringed by white sand, spread their coral skirts beneath water so clear that you can almost see the turtles, Napoleon wrasse, moray, puffer fish, nudibranch and Bumphead parrotfish that help to make the Quirimbas one of the world's top diving destinations.

But if you can't quite see the fish from the sky, you can certainly see the fishermen, poised like herons with their nets and hand lines, scattered across these vast shallow coral reefs.

They work by day and return to their villages on the mainland, or camp on the islands, by night. Sprinkled across the sun-splattered water are their dugouts and pointed dhows, each with a billowing makeshift sail.

Their sight is a reminder of the story of the Quirimbas, occupied by Arabs from the 10th century, later controlled by the Portuguese, from whom Mozambique gained independence in 1975.

Some of the islands are permanently inhabited; others are simply bases for fishermen. Most are simple in the extreme. A few have a natural water supply, and some are beginning to offer places to stay, as are places on the mainland, close by.

Time to cease hovering between heaven and earthly paradise, and to explore.

The creation of a young English couple, Amy and Neal Carter-James, Guludo Beach Lodge lies on a wonderful, untamed, eight-mile-long mainland beach within the Quirimbas National Park, the largest marine protected area in Africa.

The park incorporates the southern islands and also a sizeable chunk of mainland coast and hinterland.

Guludo, reached by speedboat or an adventurous 4WD ride, stands as a beacon of socially responsible tourism.

Local villagers constructed the whole place, including the nine very attractive guest bandas, using natural materials.

Locals make up the majority of the staff, some of whom are the beneficiaries of a scholarship programme begun by Nema, Guludo's associated charity, which has made major, visible improvements in education and health for these poorest of people.

With paraffin lamps instead of electric lights and water in bottles instead of taps, we lacked for nothing in this eco-paradise. Everything, sometimes on a wing and a prayer, worked. The food was delicious and the beds were comfortable.

We snorkelled and picnicked on uninhabited Rolas Island, watched for game from a lookout across a textbook African landscape, and toured Guludo village and its new school (courtesy of Nema) surrounded by giggling, bouncing children.

Only four Quirimbas islands were permanently inhabited before 1975, the most important of which was Ibo. Here, the Portuguese, as well as many Indian traders, held sway.

There were three forts, the largest of which, star-shaped Sao Baptista, was the heart of darkness both during the boom years of the slave trade and the much more recent fight for independence, when the Mozambique secret police, PIDE, serially imprisoned, tortured and executed within these walls.

Post-independence, the island instantly lost its status, reverting to the fishing community it once was, and gradually became the easy-going, crime-free place it is today.

Traditional silversmiths occupy shady corners of Sao Baptista, foreign benefactors and enthusiasts are restoring buildings, and attractive guesthouses have opened up.

First to arrive was Ibo Island Lodge, set in three fine high-ceilinged mansions and furnished with antiques. The manager, Rob McKenzie, takes interested guests on an absorbing historical tour of the old town.

Each island is different, which makes travelling their length so rewarding. There's no history on Quilalea, a tiny dot of an island, but plenty of nature-- delicate frangipani and massive baobab trees, exotic birds and tropical fish.

Superb snorkelling is right in front of you at Azura, the island's only habitation, with nine luxurious individual villas for guests.

Opened a year ago, it's a stylish, carefully orchestrated place (South African, not Italian, as I first thought) where guests are moved to different spots each time they eat.

Lunch one day was at a table set for us on lovely Turtle Beach, which we had to ourselves, apart from the fish eagles and the turtle nests, before walking home.

If Quilalea is jewel-like, Vamizi, seven miles long and half-a-mile wide, offers beach life on a much more sweeping scale, with an army of staff, secreted in the forest behind the lodge, bent on creating an unforgettable experience for its bewitched guests.

There's more than a whiff of glamour about the elegant, elevated, open-deck drawing room and the 13 romantic guest villas, spread along a spectacular beach. Each one is as big as my house, with huge beds swathed in billowing nets, dreamily facing the ocean.

You'll put away your shoes on Vamizi, but you'll dig out your lipstick before joining your (not infrequently famous) fellow guests at the bar and, much later, at candlelit tables on the sand.

Our days on Vamizi were orchestrated with the lightest of touches: lazing for hours in the perfect temperature; humpback whale watching; thrilling game fishing for him; a healing treatment on our veranda for me; solitary picnics at white-clothed tables in astonishing beach locations -- just us, a cool box of drinks and a lobster salad, and nothing else but coral, water and icing-sugar sand.

One day, we paddled kayaks along a beautiful silent estuary, on water so clear that it felt as if transparent film had been stretched between the mangroves to encase the tropical fish gliding beneath.

Another morning, the sea turned red: the region's healthy coral was spawning, a sight that much of the world no longer witnesses.

Like Guludo and Quilalea, Vamizi has been leased from the Mozambique government, in this case to a group of British and European shareholders.

We made an instructive and impressive tour around its villages with Anne, a social anthropologist charged with developing charitable, cultural and social responsibility in an effective, non-invasive way (alongside Maluane, Vamizi's ongoing marine ecology project).

But it's a fine line that's being trod in this hitherto innocent paradise.

The wealth that's beginning to seep into the archipelago is undoubtedly beneficial, but the wealthy don't always tread lightly.

In Vamizi's case, the 20 or so private luxury villas that are being built will have to be strictly regulated, hopefully with minimal Western-style trappings of luxury.

The true luxury of the Quirimbas Archipelago is its fragile beauty and the unspoilt charm and dignity of its inhabitants.

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