Thursday, August 11, 2011

Quirimbas Archipelago

I guess you would say that there was no real risk of drowning. Maybe. I mean, there we were, in a broken sailboat, out in the middle of the ocean, within viewing distance of submerged mangroves but certainly not swimming distance, no motor, no lifejackets. Are you getting the picture here? The creaky wooden dhow didn’t even have a working bucket for scooping out the water that was seeping and splashing into the bottom of the boat. Every time one of the boat captains scooped out some water, half of it would stream back into the boat through the holes in the bottom of the old plastic container used in such situations. And the oar used for emergencies? Yeah. They had to tie it back together with a bit of rope and it wasn’t strong enough to effectively paddle through a wading pool. Add in the fact that the tide was pulling us out further into the ocean while the wind pushed us the other way and needless to say, it was not an ideal situation. If the rudder hadn’t fallen off the boat ten minutes into our “romantic” sailing expedition, everything would have been literally smooth sailing. It wasn’t. 

Of course, it should be noted that I was probably the only one who was worried. Jeanette was very confident that our well-muscled captain would deliver us to the shore without a hitch. And, up to that point, our entire trip to the Quirimbas Archipelago off the coast of northern Mozambique had, in fact, gone off much more smoothly than anticipated. To get to the remote islands your main options are either fly directly from Pemba or take a six-hour-long ride in the back of a truck down a rutted road to a town with small boats that travel out to the islands. We planned on taking option two but instead scored a ride with an extraordinarily nice couple who were staying at our campsite and driving to the boat that they had already hired. We arrived on Ibo Island with extreme ease and luxury.

Ibo is the largest island in the archipelago and was once home to a large trading port that served as the capital of the Portuguese colony. The wide streets are lined with dilapidated mansions mixed with restored buildings serving as offices and a few hotels. We opted to stay in less expensive accommodations made of traditional building materials – a wooden framework with brick-sized holes between the poles that are filled with chunks of coral then sealed together with lime made from sea shells. Even after springing for the private bungalow with a bathroom, it was still cheaper than everywhere else we’ve stayed in Mozambique. Ibo has a more deserted feel than Ilhe de Mozambique, but in truth we never made it into the town center. Our time on Ibo itself ended up being somewhat limited as we packed our days with excursions to other islands.

Our first outing was a walk to Quirimba Island, and that’s where the trouble arose. During low tide Ibo is connected to Quirimba with a trail through mangroves and sandbanks. It’s used by people who live on both islands to travel back and forth, transport goods and firewood, and visit others. Only one channel is too deep to wade through, and a boat waits there to move people in both directions. We left at 6 am to trudge through water-filled trails and deep mud while trying to avoid the protruding mangrove roots before walking out onto a sunlit sandbar. The morning light glistened on the wet, rippling sand and illuminated an army of tiny white crabs that were fleeing from our footsteps. A bit further on we saw a little bitty crab with one disproportionately massive red pincher. It looked like it spent its whole evolutionary journey just doing bicep curls with that one arm.
Carrying firewood through the mangroves

Frankenstein Crab

When we reached Quirimba we hung out on a beautiful sandy beach and watched the tide roll in before wandering through the village. It’s the only village we’ve been to where no one stared at us strangely or asked us for anything. Many of the women covered their faces with a white face mask made of dried, pounded roots. The popular beauty treatment apparently makes your skin very soft and clear, but we never got the chance to use any. Among the rows of traditionally built houses were the ruins of a church. German missionaries who eventually started a coconut plantation on the island tried to introduce Christianity to the Muslim island in the 1800s. It didn’t take very well.
Within two hours of shooting this, the area was covered with water again

Mozambican beauty regime

After lunch it was time to return to Ibo. Since the tide had come in, we planned on sailing a dhow back to the other island. And that, after the calm, peaceful day, was where the trouble began. It took a while for our guide to find someone who wasn’t tired from fishing to sail us back. Once he found a captain, they asked someone else to borrow a small wooden boat equipped with a massive white sail. Things were wonderful for about five minutes before the rudder broke off and we were adrift in the leaking boat being push by strong winds. In retrospect I have to admit that we were obviously fine. It was annoying to be without a steering mechanism, but as Jeanette frequently reminded me, these guys dealt with these boats all of the time. Using the battered oar and a couple of long bamboo poles, they eventually got us back to the mangroves where the water was shallow enough to pole the boat like a gondola. The boat’s main captain thought it was hilarious that I was nervous and that I spoke Swahili and could understand when he teased me. He decided that I clearly should take him back to the States with me. Once he got the boat under control, though, we sat down and really discussed why living in the West isn’t the idyllic, money-laden experience it’s assumed to be. He seemed to accept that it just wasn’t going to happen.

Eventually our boat made it to shallow waters and we slogged through the muddy waters of the mangroves on foot for an hour before reaching Ibo. Our return trip was significantly less romantic than anticipated. Upon our return, we told our story to the owner of the nicer hotel where our new friends were staying. He nodded knowingly and remarked that most people had a great time getting to Quirimbas, it was getting back that was the problem. It didn’t inspire much confidence in me for the next scheduled adventure – a five hour sail to the island of the giant crabs then another hour to a nice beach campsite followed by yet another long trek to the mainland the next day.

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