Travel: Dinner by candlelight, bathwater from a well

Mozambique Island, just off the mainland, is war-scarred but fascinatin g. Matt Fletcher checked into its only hotel

A HOLIDAY in Mozambique is not everybody's idea of a good time. The country was a war zone five years ago and has yet to recover from the bad PR. Bob Dylan may have sung about the country, but the civil war lasted 17 years, cost 1 million lives and displaced a further 5 million.

The government's conversion to free market economics in the late Eighties ensured that aid would come flooding in after the war, but the country is still in the process of recovery. Forsake your little luxuries, though, and you will get the chance to explore a rich cultural and historical heritage coupled with some of the best coastline in the world.

I visited Ilha de Mozambique (Mozambique Island), which lies 3km from the mainland in the warm, turquoise Indian Ocean. The only accommodation on the island is the Hotel Pousada do Mozambique, a crumbling modernist affair with great views over the Indian Ocean. Its redeeming feature is its restaurant. We dined in a tall, grand room, that was rather dingy - the oversized light fittings didn't work - and ate by candlelight. Each table was covered with a thick, bright white cloth and the food, though there wasn't a huge selection, was always excellent. I dined on lobster, squid and huge tuna steaks, all cooked to perfection, and served with rice cooked in coconut milk. Guests were frequently outnumbered by staff in the huge room, and careless hand gestures were invariably interpreted as requests. Coffee could be taken on the veranda in full view of the nearby fort and with the sound of the waves crashing against the shore, which was a fitting end for every meal.

My room had a spartan, fresh feel to it, and the full benefit of a sea breeze. I was impressed with the parquet floor, but less so with the en-suite bathroom. Water did not seem to have passed through the taps for years. I had to wash from a bucket filled with water drawn from a well.

The hotel lacked many things (locks, light bulbs, window panes etc) but not staff, who were adaptable, friendly and optimistic. Their continued employment defied the laws of capitalist economics, but they maintained that business had improved since the end of the war.

In 1498 when Ilha was already an important Arab and Indian trading port, Vasco da Gama made a reconnoitre of the island. He liked what he saw and the Portuguese returned in 1507 to turn it into their sales and distribution centre for south-east Africa. It soon became fabulously wealthy and a district of grand if dilapidated limestone buildings ("Barrio Museu") still stands as testament to that glorious era - an area that was declared a World Heritage site in 1992.

Blood money from the slave trade (which wasn't outlawed by the Portuguese until 1860) made the merchants of Ilha rich, which in turn led to the construction of the Barrio Museu, but this area of World Heritage has seen better days. Parts of it look like a war zone. Rubble and assorted building materials lie strewn about the streets and there are gaping holes in many houses. Other dwellings, paint peeling from every surface, lack windows, roofs, floors, walls. Some are deserted, some remain inhabited. The state of the district is not due to direct acts of war (Ilha was easy to defend and so never attacked), but to years of neglect as a consequence of war. Hurricane Nadia in 1993 didn't help either.

Many cultural attractions remain, and I wandered around the Barrio Museu on my own quite happily, occasionally stumbling upon some small piece of history. The customs house still retains its ancient light fittings not used since the causeway, built in the Sixties, made the harbour redundant. Many historical artefacts, including a collection of Portuguese and Indo- Portuguese art, are housed in the Palacio de Sao Paulo and Capela de Sao Paulo. The hospital is an excellent example of Portuguese colonial architecture, though I wouldn't recommend a prolonged stay.

This is unsanitised tourism, and nothing illustrates it better than the Fortaleza Sao Sebastido. A local guide is charged with taking tourists around the neglected fort, but I met a group of small boys selling coins and turtle shells and a couple of them volunteered to act as guides. This was fine until we got into the Capela de Nossa Senhora do Balnorte, built in 1507 and the oldest remaining building constructed by European colonists south of the equator. I was led to a wooden box in the corner. In it lay the bones of an old saint, one of which the boy removed and waved around for my benefit.

Up on the battlements ancient cannon still point out to sea and a pile of cannon balls were stacked in the southernmost corner. On the eastern side, next to a steel ring that had been hammered into the stone, was a series of small holes. These holes, I was enthusiastically told, marked the spot where a spy had been executed by firing squad. The boys re-enacted the event with great gusto.

For many local residents, the fort's well and giant cisterns provide their only permanent source of water, so there is free access. After the children had gone I too was able to wander about the fort pretty much as I liked. Around the edges of the central compound other evidence of a colonial past loomed large. An old barber's chair, the ornate balustrades, gun carriages, pot plants and Portuguese graffiti. It was fascinating, and falling apart.

Later on, I retreated to the cafe/restaurante Ancora D'Ouro for a chicory coffee with extra chicory. It was my favourite cafe on the island, but I kept forgetting to order my lunch half a day in advance, so consequently never ate there.

Renovation of the Barrio Museu, while always the intention of the powers that be, is not exactly racing along. A lot of what has been done is only cosmetic. Some of the exterior walls of the Palacio de Sao Paulo have been painted, as have some of the statues in the adjacent square. However, the green paint ran out early and one figure remains only coated.

The Assiacao dos amigos da llha (Association of friends of the island) are convinced that, with investment, the island could be the biggest tourist attraction in Mozambique. UNESCO also has big plans for the place - to the tune of $11m. They and other UN agencies have so far pledged 10 per cent of the overall cost for a training programme, infrastructure improvements, renovation and development. The main donor countries are currently being approached for the remainder. The plan, written in consultation with Associacao dos amigos da Ilha is based on the assumption that at its peak it could handle 1,500 visitors a day, some from passing cruise ships, with capacity for 300-400 staying overnight.

I suspect this news would come as quite a shock to the staff of the Hotel Pousada.

mozambique fact file

Getting There

Trailfinders (0171 938 3939) offers return flights to Maputo with South African Airways for as little as pounds 527. Air France (0181 742 6600) and Air Portugal (0171 828 0262) also fly there. Internal flights to Nampula with Mozambique's national airline, LAM (351 1 343 0992/6) costs around pounds 268 return. These can be arranged in the UK. From Nampula, Ilha de Mozambique is 175km east by pot-holed road. It may also be possible to join a charter flight to Lumbo, 5km from the island, which was Mozambique's first international airport. It is possible to get to Ilha de Mozambique overland from South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Tanzania, but expect some hard travelling - Malawi is the closest.

Getting Around

The easiest way to get around Mozambique is to use the comprehensive internal air network. Chapas, a broad term for any passenger-carrying vehicle from converted lorry to a pick-up truck, link most settlements and run to no set time-table. It is advisable get up at dawn if you have a long journey ahead. Chapas stops are also good points to hitch from. If you are travelling close to the ocean arrange a ride on a local dhow. These open-decked sailing boats are used extensively to transport people and cargo up and down the coast.

When to go

The best time is between May and August when the weather on Ilha is drier, less humid and cooler. Correspondingly temperatures are highest from November to March. The hurricane season is from November to April. Ilha island is 2.5km long and 600m wide, linked to the mainland by a 3km-long concrete causeway. A satellite telephone system connects the island to the rest of the world. The Pousada do Mozambique is the island's only hotel, offering en-suite double rooms for $12 and singles for $7. The restaurant serves excellent sea food ($3 per person). It is also possible to rent flats and houses for longer stays.

Visas

Visas are required by all nationalities. A single-entry tourist visa costs pounds 20, and a multiple-entry visa pounds 40. Both take five days and require one passport photograph. Contact the Mozambique Embassy at 21 Fitzroy Square, London W1P 5HJ (0171 383 3800).

Further reading

"Guide to Mozambique" by Bernard Skrodzki (Bradt Publications), "Guide to Mozambique" by Mike Slater (Struik Publications) and "Malawi, Mozambique & Zambia" by David Else (Lonely Planet). For background reading try "Kalashnikovs and Zombie Cucumbers" by Nick Middleton (Sinclair-Stevenson) and "A History of Mozambique" by Malyn Newitt (Hurst & Company).

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