Mozambique: an idyll awakes from its slumber

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Mozambique's Ibo island, home to crumbling forts and mansions, could soon be back on the tourist map. Chris Leadbeater explores its faded charms

Rua da Republica must have looked splendid in its heyday. Laden carts must have rolled along its easy width. Well-dressed ladies must have strolled its pavements. The sound of laughter and conversation must have ebbed from between the doors of its elegant houses.

But no more. My only obvious companion as I cross the defunct doorstep of one such mansion is a tiny grey lizard. Startled by my arrival, it skitters over the broken tiles of what was the hall, and hides under a bush that is growing in the corner.

Two centuries ago, this was the residence of a wealthy merchant. Now it is a shell, eaten by neglect and sea salt. The roof is a memory, the walls fatally wounded, holes in their fabric gaping to reveal the Indian Ocean behind. And while there are traces of former magnificence – not least the red and white patterns on what is left of the plaster – their only observers are the grasshoppers that skip blithely over the faded lines and loops.

Nor is this a lone example. Rua da Republica's once prosperous smile is now a down-turned mouth of cracked teeth and forlorn gaps, all dust, dirt and decay – a stark reminder of what happened when the tide of history turned in the 20th century, and the furthest extremities of European imperialism were left marooned in distant countries.

This is Ibo. Nowadays it is a small outpost off the coast of northern Mozambique, one of more than 30 islands that make up the Quirimbas Archipelago. But at its height, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was one of Portugal's key bases in south-east Africa. And although never as important as its sister island Ilha de Mocambique – the European power's nerve centre in the Indian Ocean 200 miles to the south – it was a hotspot of cash and influence, home to 37,000 – an enclave built on gold, ivory and the unslakable thirst of the slave trade.

My first glimpse of Ibo is the rudimentary grass airstrip on which I land, with something of a thud, after a 20-minute flight from the mainland city of Pemba. But its dilapidated beauty is instantly apparent: the whitewashed flanks of the church of Sao Joao Baptista; the smooth curve of a forgotten promenade on the west edge of the old town, where circular cavities in the walkway mourn the flowerpots they once held; and the streets, which have names such as Rua do Matadouro and Rua da Fortaleza, out of synch and out of time in this young African republic. Beyond lies the imposing bulk of the Forte de Sao Joao, where Portuguese cannons still guard against Dutch incursion and a room off the main courtyard is stuffed with torn folders of administrative records – groaning shelves of council minutes and school appointments, dumped here after the collapse of colonial rule.

Portugal held sway on this stretch of the globe for five centuries, almost from the moment Vasco Da Gama passed the Cape of Good Hope on his world-changing voyage of 1497-98. But this lost library is proof that, when the end came for colonial Ibo, it came quickly. In April 1974, the Carnation Revolution in Lisbon overthrew the dictatorship that had run Portugal since 1926. The new government promptly relaxed its grip on the country's overseas "possessions". Within 14 months, Mozambique was independent – and expats fled for Europe, including those who had dwelled in comfort on Ibo.

Yet the island is no deserted Marie Celeste. On my first morning, I stand on the ramparts of Fortim de Sao Jose, Ibo's second, lesser fort, and watch children performing back-flips on the beach. Giggling and guffawing, they are having fun – mainly because they are playing truant. They should be at school in the village that spreads out north of the old town, where Ibo's indigenous population ekes out an existence from fishing.

But, while the locals go about their business amid the ruins – the main jetty is still behind Rua da Republica – there is no curiosity about these structures, symbols of a regime that once dominated and subordinated. People are busy here, and Mozambique one of the poorest nations on the planet. The fate of a few colonial buildings is of no note.

In fact, for all the length of Portugal's stay in Mozambique, it is another culture whose imprint is discernible on Ibo's modern inhabitants. When Da Gama reached the region, he found that Omani traders, sailing south, had already made their mark. It is still there – in the salwar kameez (albeit a beaded, African version) worn by many Ibo men; in the eight mosques – squat, basic, but sites of worship nonetheless – in the village; in the local language Kimwani, which, though indebted to Swahili, has Arabic in its DNA. I soon discover that the predominant greeting is not, as had I expected, the Portuguese bom dia, but salama – a sibling of the Arabic as-salam alaykum ("peace be with you").

Perhaps it is this cultural chasm that explains the state of Ibo's most desolate landmark. On the road in from the airstrip, on a patch of rocky ground, lies a cemetery. Crumbling and abandoned, its walls curled over, its chapel of rest open to the sky, it is a place of death in every sense. Insects click and flutter on the baked headstones.

Yet not all of colonial Ibo is being left to rot. The island is under consideration for Unesco status, while tourist interest is increasing as Mozambique – for so long a no-go zone due to the civil war that tore it apart from 1977 to 1992 – begins to appear on the travel radar. And, slowly and sporadically, restoration work is under way – an effort that has seen a clutch of buildings repaired to something approaching their original condition.

One of these is the Ibo Island Lodge, a hotel that has been slotted into what was the home of the governor of the Nyassa Company, an Anglo-French trade group that controlled the Quirimbas, under Portuguese charter, between 1891 and 1929. With pink bougainvillea swarming over its fence, there are still echoes of colonial pomp to its wood beams, high ceilings, long veranda – and west-facing roof-terrace restaurant. Here, on three warm evenings, I enjoy the embers of the day over a cocktail and ponder that, just as the sun will set again tomorrow, so this coralstone Pompeii will surely rise as a destination.


Travel essentials

Getting there

You can fly to Pemba, via Johannesburg on South African Airways, or via Nairobi on Kenya Airways. British passport-holders require a visa, which can be purchased on arrival (US$80) or in advance from the Mozambique High Commission in London for £40 (


Staying there

Double rooms at Ibo Island Lodge (00 258 269 60549; start at US$670 (£447) full board, including a guided tour of the old town.


Touring there

Steppes Travel (01285 880 980; can arrange specialist tours of Mozambique. A seven-night package, including three nights at Ibo Island Lodge and four nights on safari at Gorongosa National Park, costs from £3,750 per person, including all international and regional flights, transfers, game drives. and accommodation.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Joan Rivers has reportedly been hospitalised after she stopped breathing during surgery
people81-year-old 'stopped breathing' during vocal chord surgery
Life and Style
Chen Mao recovers in BK Hospital, Seoul
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
One in six drivers cannot identify a single one of the main components found under the bonnet of an average car
motoringOne in six drivers can't carry out basic under-bonnet checks
Fungi pose the biggest threat globally and in the UK, where they threaten the country’s wheat and potato harvests
environmentCrop pests are 'grave threat to global food security'
Pupils educated at schools like Eton (pictured) are far more likely to succeed in politics and the judiciary, the report found
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash
tvSimon Cowell blasts BBC for breaking 'gentlemen's agreement' in scheduling war
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Shady character: Jon Hamm as sports agent JB Bernstein in Million Dollar Arm
filmReview: Jon Hamm finally finds the right role on the big screen in Million Dollar Arm
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
footballAnd Liverpool are happy despite drawing European champions
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone