Travel: How do you dhow?

Kate Oppenheim visits Mozambique's Bazaruto Archipelago and savours the delights of sea, sun, sand and sumptuous cooking while Larry Buttrose follows a long line of travellers gripped by the mystique of Timbuktu and heads off to Mali
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The Independent Culture
The busy market streets in Vilankulo are lined with colourful stalls selling coconuts, sweet oranges, doughnuts and bright African- style cotton wraps. Yet despite its lively atmosphere and long, empty beaches, this small town in Mozambique is little more than a gateway to the Bazaruto Archipelago, 10km off the south-eastern coast of Mozambique. Most visitors stay here for only a few days to arrange their short trip across the Indian Ocean to the islands.

The five islands are a castaway's playground of wonderful white sandy beaches, littered with brightly coloured shells and sand dunes. The nearest to the mainland is Magaruque, 20 minutes by motor boat. The other three main islands are Santa Carolina, Benguerra and Bazaruto; Banque, smaller and less visited, lies to the south.

Mozambique's mainland caters for both the luxury and the backpacker-ends of the visitor scale, but life in the Bazaruto Archipelago is more basic. Showers may be cold, warm or non-existent; toilets are long-drop; cooking is over open fires; and nights are usually spent under canvas or in thatched huts. Electricity was turned on in Vilankulo only a year ago. Oil lamps or torches are necessities on all the islands.

I opted to tour the islands by dhow (the wooden, old-style Arab sailing ships) and booked myself on a five-day all-inclusive trip that included transport and all soft drinks and food.Much of the cooking is done on board the dhow over a charcoal fire (safely secured in a large sand-filled tray); as we set sail from Vilankulo, Afonso, the cook, was boiling up some freshly caught crabs for lunch.

After a slow start we arrived at the first and smallest island, Magaruque, and scurried off to explore. The white sands squeak when you walk on them and the fantastic number of shells means that youlearn to limit yourself to the more precious finds or risk sinking the dhow with your loot.

White sand spits gather height as they head inland, creating dramatic sand dunes. Scrambling up these, you get the first glimpse of the archipelago. Trees and spiky shrubs cover the island's centre. In two hours of following goat tracks, we saw no one, apart from a local fisherman.

By the time we got back to the dhow, the crabs were cooked. The quality and quantity of the food during the trip was staggering: despite limited facilities, Afonso managed to produce one good meal after another - and spent the rest of the time plying us with "coco-dos" (a Mozambican version of coconut ice).

Our first night was spent on Benguerra, a long and choppy journey away. Under darkness, we put our tents up at Gabriel's Camp while Afonso cooked up spaghetti and matapa (a local dish of pine nuts and cassava leaves).

The next day, we strolled along the wide beach while waiting for the wind to drop before setting sail. Bazaruto, with its shimmering sand dunes, was visible across the sea, and we soon arrived at Zenguelmo Camp. That evening the sun sank into the neighbouring island of Santa Carolina (the oldest and most exclusive island) casting an orange glow across sky and water.

We got up to find Afonso at the fire, preparing banana and papaya, cheese omelettes (which became our morning mantra), toast and jam, tea, coffee, and biscuits. We then set off on a guided walk to the fresh-water lagoon on the other side of the island. An impressive wall of sand rises from the water right up the far bank, but you cannot swim here, due to the resident crocs.

It is a tough climb up the almost vertical sand dunes. Once near the top, you walk a sandy tightrope as the dunes fall away steeply on either side. But at the top you can see to the left, the lagoon and beyond, the sea; and to the right, waves breaking on the two-mile reef.

Swimming, sunbathing, walking, eating and sailing are all you have to do on the islands. Tide and wind didn't allow us a visit to Santa Carolina, so we returned to Benguerra for our final night. Right on cue as we headed home, the seas parted (thanks to the huge spring tides) and we were presented with our very own virgin island for lunch.

The most straightforward journey to the capital of Mozambique, Maputo, is via Lisbon on Air Portugal or Linhas Aereas de Mocambique (LAM). It is likely to be cheaper (around pounds 450 return) to travel to South Africa or Zimbabwe and on to Mozambique from there. Kate Oppenheim paid pounds 539 for a return flight on KLM from London Heathrow to Harare in Zimbabwe through Trailfinders (0171-938 3366).

From Harare to Vilankulo the bus takes more than 24 hours or book a connecting flight (around pounds 190 return). Tours of the Bazaruto archipelago ($4 per day entrance) can be organised locally. Kate Oppenheim paid US$158 (around pounds 100) for an all-inclusive trip with Sail Away. For information write to David and Ema, Sail Away (nr the Dona Ana Hotel), Vilankulo, Mozambique.