On a trip to see Mozambique's community tourism projects MANCHÁN MAGANfound a quiet paradise largely untouched by tourism
In five decades of epoque-changing writing Bob Dylan has offered only one piece of travel advice: “I like to spend some time in Mozambique/ The sunny sky is aqua blue/ And all the couples dancing cheek to cheek/ It’s very nice to stay a week or two.”
If Dylan’s imprimatur is not reason enough to visit the country, what about the 2,500km of white sandy coastline that appears regularly on lists of best beaches? Or the blend of African, Arab and Portuguese influences that make its culture feel as much Mediterranean as African? Or the diet of crayfish, cashew nuts, coconut and giant prawns? Or the coral reefs and palm islands that offer some of the best diving and big-game fishing in the Indian Ocean?
It was my search for affordable community tourism projects, where a family can holiday in beautiful surroundings immersed in local culture for about €35 each a day at lodges or camps from which the local community benefit in an equitable and significant way, that took me to Mozambique.
In previous features for Go, I’ve visited projects in Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania. This time I went to several community tourism projects across southern Mozambique though, while some offered great potential, none were ready to be recommended to readers of The Irish Times. So, I’ll focus on conventional tourism, as a critical mass of general tourists are needed before community tourism can succeed.
It’s worth looking at why the country has so few tourists, considering its heart-stopping beauty. Predictably enough for Africa, the reason is war. Mozambique began its struggle for independence from Portugal in the 1960s, but only in 1974 did the colonisers eventually flee, leaving the place stripped bare, destitute and without an educated class fit to govern.
South Africa’s apartheid government spotted Mozambique’s weakness as its opportunity and funded a right-wing guerrilla movement which sparked 20 years of civil war, killing hundreds of thousands of Mozambicans, destroying infrastructure and wiping out wildlife stocks. Only in 1992 was peace declared. Progress since then has been fast and the country is now one of Africa’s rising stars.
The capital, Maputo, is a quaint, dilapidated place that travellers tend to skirt on their way to beaches farther north. The nearest beauty spot with good tourist facilities is Tofo, about seven hours by bus north of Maputo on a wonderfully exciting road. (One can fly, but it’s far less fun.)
Tofo is simply a vast arc of silver sand, lined with dunes, coconut palms and a hotchpotch of beach cafes, campsites, guesthouses. It has excellent diving and snorkelling facilities and there’s great surfing nearby at Barra and Tofinho. During official holidays the place becomes raucous with South African revellers, but one can always find peace by heading a little farther north or south along the glistening crescent and azure waters that stretch for miles. There are numerous beachside budget accommodation options: cabins, bungalows, guesthouses, from €10 a night. The nearest transport hub is Inhambane, a sleepy colonial seaside town, which is the headquarters for many global aid organisations operating in Mozambique, including Irish Aid. Convoys of air-conditioned white Toyota Land Cruisers jam the main street.
If you fancy a few hours on a bus, knowing you will have to repeat them to get back to Maputo, it’s worth heading five hours farther north to the town of Vilankulo from where you can catch a boat out to the Bazaruto Archipelago – a tropical paradise teeming with dolphins, fish eagles, pink flamingos, turtles and bushbucks.
A bus ride is often the highlight of an African trip – operatic tragicomedies that offer a rare glimpse of local life. No matter how hot, cramped, famished or parched you get, it always seems worth it looking back, beer in hand, at the end of the day. A bus ride should not stand in the way of your experiencing this. If it does, then fly.
The diving off the Bazaruto Archipelago is spectacular, with excellently preserved coral gardens, turtles as big as paddling pools, sharks, barracudas, devil rays and scorpion fish. Accommodation is mostly in luxury lodges. The only budget option is on the mainland at Vilankulo where there’s a wonderful backpackers’ place called Zombie Cucumber with chalets and camping. Sailaway offers dhow safaris to the islands with overnight camping on the mainland for €90 a day, which covers all food, accommodation, picnics on the islands and snorkelling on the reefs.
The highlight of any trip to Mozambique is the Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique island), a hauntingly beautiful ghost town of cobbled colonial-era streets. It once rivalled Zanzibar and Lamu islands in affluence and style. It’s so far up the coast it would take at least three days by bus to reach it; better to fly to nearby Nampula.
Finally, a word on the two most promising community tourism projects I visited. Tsakane ka Madjadjane offers community walks and tours of local village life, with accommodation in well-built thatch cottages, in the heart of Reserva Especial de Maputo, a vast elephant reserve on a stretch of coastal wilderness two hours south of Maputo.
The project was established by a Dutch NGO, but has failed to thrive due to a lack of visitors. That said, I savoured the whole lost-in-translation experience of being brought for miles along dusty tracks through dense bush in a crumbling pick-up, served unrecognisable food and told unintelligible stories. The village matriarch cried when I arrived – delighted that their dream of tourist income hadn’t fully withered. They charged me €10 for accommodation, food, guiding and transport, but after much persuasion agreed to accept €24. If you find yourself stuck in Maputo and want to throw yourself into a one-day adventure, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The second offering is Covane Community Lodge on Mozambique’s sweltering, arid western border with South Africa. It was established by the Swiss agency Helvetas to support the local tribe and offers beautiful chalets amidst savannah scrub above an enormous river overlooking Limpopo National Park.
They provide game-watching in the national park, traditional Shangaan dances, fishing trips with tribal fishermen, herb collecting trips with healers and cultural tours – but again, a lack of tourists has caused atrophy. The lodge is now being run by Barra Resorts, which may be for the best.
If you wish to support them, take an eight-hour bus ride from Maputo to the frontier town of Massingir where someone will fetch you and take you out to the remote lodge.
This article was supported with a grant from Irish Aid’s Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund. For more community tourism projects, see manchan.com
MOZAMBIQUE: ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW:
HOW TO GET THERE
Dublin to Mozambique via London and Nairobi, Johannesburg or Addis Ababa from €880; Ethiopianairlines.com(or Ethiopian Airlines Irish agent: email@example.com; tel: 01-663 3938), kenya-airways.com, flysaa.com. Flights to Inhambane (near Tofo) from Maputo or Johannesburg available from LAM (Mozambique Airlines), lam.co.mz/en.
WHERE TO STAY
Base Backpackers, 545 Avenue Patrice Lumumba, Maputo, tel: 0025-821302723, firstname.lastname@example.org. Cheap, friendly Maputo guesthouse/hostel. For luxury, try Hotel Cardoso, hotelcardoso.co.mz.
Zombie Cucumber Backpackers, Vilankulo offers excellent chalets in a lush setting, €20 for visit to Bazaruto Archipelago ( zombiecucumber.com). Bamboozi, Tofo, €50 for a beachside bungalow, €20 beach hut. Full diving facilities available. ( bamboozibeachlodge.com)
WHERE TO GO
Covane Community Lodge: A community tourism project near Limpopo National Park, managed by Barra Resorts ( barraresorts.com/barraresorts-covane-community-project). Tsakane ka Madjadjane, community tourism project in Reserva Especial de Maputo. Dana Tours can organise a trip ( danatours.com; tel: 00258-21-497483) Sailaway Dhow Safaris offer dhow safaris to Bazaruto Archipelago National Park with snorkelling/diving. €85 a day including food and camping ( sailaway.co.mz).