By Douglas Rogers; Photographs by Massimo Bassano
“Want to take her for a swim?” Pat Retzlaff, expert horseman and guide, asks me.
“Sure,” I reply. I’m astride Holly, a chestnut mare that belongs to Retzlaff’s stable of safari horses. I’m expecting a gentle trot through the shallow waters of the Indian Ocean on our way back to my beach lodge on the coast of Mozambique.
Retzlaff has other ideas.
He begins to ride his gray mare, Jade, straight out into the aquamarine ocean.
I’m no rider—I’ve barely managed to stay in the saddle the past hour—but the only option is to follow. Certainly, Holly is eager to do so. We head deeper and deeper into the water. I keep expecting Retzlaff to turn back, but on he goes, and soon our horses are shoulder deep. The Indian Ocean laps at my hips. Just ahead, the water turns from the translucent green of the shallows to the cobalt blue of the deep.
Thankfully, Holly stops on the safety of a sandbar, as if on the edge of the continent. One more step and she’d be underwater. Suddenly, she lunges forward with a giant leap—of faith or courage, I can’t be sure—and begins to swim. I feel the surge of current at my feet as her neck arches forward and her legs churn the water. My heart racing, I shout, elated, as we move in glorious circles. Retzlaff calmly watches from the sandbar as if he’s seen it all before.
I’ve come to Mozambique to test the waters of this rapidly changing African nation.
Only 40 years ago it declared independence after almost five centuries as a Portuguese colony. Twenty years ago, ravaged by years of Marxist misrule and a brutal civil war between anticommunist fighters and forces funded by the Soviet Union that claimed thousands of lives, it was one of the poorest lands on Earth.
Today it tends one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and is framing itself as southern Africa’s beach destination. Mozambique’s shoreline, at 1,540 miles, is about the length of the U.S. west coast.
I want to experience the southern part of the coast, known for the seaside town of Vilankulo and the five islands that form Bazaruto Archipelago National Park, recognized by the World Wildlife Fund as a “Gift to the Earth.” Until recently a crumbling port, Vilankulo now is popular for its seafood eateries, budget lodgings, diving, and dhow safaris to the archipelago, where three of the islands—Magaruque, Benguerra, and Bazaruto—have seen a slate of resorts and hotels open.
But it’s the small jewel of an island named Santa Carolina that holds particular allure for me. Santa Carolina is where my parents honeymooned, back when it was known as Paradise Island, at the Hotel Santa Carolina—and where a young Bob Dylan is said to have stayed in the 1970s, inspiring his song “Mozambique.”
Most visitors fly to Vilankulo from Johannesburg. I drive from my parents’ home in Zimbabwe, 350 miles to the west, where I was born. A decade ago the drive took 24 hours. Now I do it in seven, on mostly smooth roads.
Enormous trucks piled high with coal, cotton, and lumber—commodities that have helped fuel Mozambique’s economic boom—thunder by in both directions, through roadside villages where kids sell cashews, mangoes, bananas, and pineapples. I buy several pineapples; you never know when you may need a piña colada.
I reach Vilankulo at dusk and check into a beach resort called Archipelago. Finding my way to one of its 18 teak-and-thatch “casas,” scattered on a landscaped cliff overlooking Vilankulo bay, I gaze out on the islands of the Bazaruto Archipelago, shimmering in the twilight, then turn in early.
The following morning I awake at dawn to an ancient sight: Fishermen in dhows—traditional wooden vessels powered by billowing cloth sails—and rugged canoes are rowing out to cast nets into the silvery water, their oars slapping the silence. Arab traders sailed dhows to these shores more than a thousand years ago, as they trafficked in slaves, pearls, and ivory.
In fact, Mozambique is said to be named for an Arab trader and ruler, Moussa ben Mbiki, who settled here in the 1400s. I find the ruins of a trading post from that time, along with scatterings of pot sherds, a short walk south of Vilankulo. I try to imagine the sea filled with the vessels, bringing textiles and other wares.
These days dhows ferry visitors to the islands. It’s how I’m planning to reach them.
“Mr. E? Mr. E?”
I’m in a dusty yard of bougainvillea, palm trees, and reed huts just off the town’s main beach, looking for my former elementary school teacher. His name is Richard Eatwell, and the last time I saw him was 1980, when I was a 12-year-old kid and he a 20-something Englishman drawn to a newly independent Zimbabwe. Like thousands of Zimbabweans, he’d recently landed in Mozambique.
“Douglas, that you?” comes an English accent, and I spot him, smoking and sipping tea in the shade of the main hut. He looks like a pirate—bronze, weathered face, gap teeth. A half-eaten coconut sits on the table; an astronomical map covers a wall. All that’s missing is a parrot.
Eatwell smiles as I approach, his gray eyes twinkling.
“Welcome to my office,” he says. “Beats a classroom, doesn’t it?” Yes, it does. “Mozambique—it’s the Wild West out here,” he exclaims. “But I love it. The ocean, the people, the food …”
I tell him I’m looking for a dhow to sail me to Santa Carolina. His eyes take on a gleam.
“Ah, Santa Carolina, my favorite,” he declares, then suggests Sailaway Dhow Safaris, a company that runs trips to the archipelago and surrounding marine national park. Since there is nowhere to stay on Santa Carolina, he recommends sailing to Benguerra Island the following morning and spending the night in one of its lodges.
This suddenly frees up my afternoon, so I head to town. Docking dhows are busily disgorging fish and commuting islanders near pleasure yachts dancing on the waves. Tuk-tuks, motorized rickshaws, buzz passengers down narrow streets shaded by casuarina trees.
Then I spot the Dona Ana, an art deco hotel done in creams and pinks, overlooking Vilankulo’s harbor. The town belle in its 1960s heyday, it was reduced to a dilapidated wreck during the civil war. A multimillion-dollar face-lift now has it resembling something from Miami’s South Beach.
Just to the north of it, along a beach, I find Casa Rex, a boutique hotel owned by a fellow Zimbabwean. I enter the hacienda-style lodge, centered around a cozy lobby opening onto green lawns. Between gaps in the frangipani bushes I make out kiteboarders leaping the waves on the bay below.
I’ve settled in on the hotel terrace for a lunch of grilled prawns cooked with a piri-piri, or pepper, sauce—Mozambique’s most celebrated dish—when Susana Vidal, a native of Portugal, asks to join me. I comment that she’s far from home, and she nods.
“I moved here after Portugal’s 2008 financial crash, when I was unable to find work. I applied for jobs in former Portuguese colonies; Mozambique was the first to get back to me.”
It’s a drizzly, windswept morning, and I am one of two passengers on Sailaway Dhow Safaris’ Adriana. The vessel is a piece of work, made with three types of wood and painted in tropical greens and purples. Seating is on benches under an angled boom. Adriana is not built for comfort, and she smells of diesel, fish, and sea salt, but she is sturdy as an ocean liner. I love every second of our four-hour sail to Benguerra Lodge.
Captain Mattheus Marrovissane knows these waters intimately; he has navigated the ever shifting sandbars many times, carefully avoiding the “washing machine,” a powerful riptide between Magaruque and Benguerra that I see churning ahead. Also on board is guide Duma Mufume, the son of a shipwright. Although only two years older than I, Mufume vividly recalls colonial Mozambique’s tourism high point, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“We had so many visitors. People would stay at the Dona Ana, built by Portuguese businessman Joaquim Alves and named after his wife, Ana, a mulatto from Mambone, then take a ferry to Santa Carolina, where Senhor Alves owned the Hotel Santa Carolina.”
My face lights up. “Did you go there?”
“Many times! I was only a boy, but my uncle worked there. Tourists would come from all over—Rhodesians, Americans, Europeans. We had ballrooms, restaurants, a piano …”
Then, in the late 1970s, the civil war worsened.
“There was so much fighting in the countryside that people escaped here to Vilankulo. Many moved even farther, to the islands, to be safe. For a long time there were no tourists at all.”
Inevitably, he notes, the hotels were abandoned. Only in 1992, when a fragile peace treaty was signed (it’s still being tested today), did a slow recovery begin. Mufume smiles: “Although we still have a way to go, Mozambique is coming back.”
By midmorning, the drizzle has stopped, we’re in open water, the cloth sail is unfurled, and charcoal burns in a box stove—a crab curry is cooking. Around noon, we drop anchor, and I leap overboard to snorkel a reef just off Benguerra beach. The water is so clear I spot sea stars smudged pink on the white-sand bottom and catch the flash of a ray between corals. Little angelfish nibble at my fingertips.
The Bazaruto Archipelago was declared a 550-square-mile marine reserve in 1971 and today is home to many rare species, including the last viable population of manatee-like dugongs in East Africa. These draw visitors to locally flavored resorts, such as &Beyond’s Benguerra Lodge, where I’m staying on Benguerra Island.
My casinha, really a villa, comes with a king-size canopy bed and a wood deck, from which I can make out the lodge’s private catamaran bobbing in the bay. The nearby beach tempts me, but local developer and guide Billy Landrey wants to show me around.
I expect a tropical paradise of sand, palm trees, and coconuts. Instead, the interior reminds me of inland savanna, a landscape of grasses and freshwater lakes filled with Nile crocodiles.
“Thousands of years ago, Benguerra Island was part of the mainland,” Landrey explains. “Hippopotamuses lived in these lakes until the 1960s.”
Now a flock of pink flamingos has turned the water in one secluded cove a fluorescent red; around them, green-and-red Narina trogon birds dart among ironwood trees.
We drive on to the east side of the island, and soon Landrey parks at the foot of a sand dune large as a pyramid. We hike to the top—and the view that greets us stops me in my tracks. To the
east, on the open ocean side, waves pound a long barrier reef. To the north and south, green islands haloed by powdery white sand and turquoise waters glimmer. One looks as if it could be Santa Carolina. “No, Bazaruto,” Landrey corrects me. “Santa Carolina is to its north.”
At that moment, the island where my parents honeymooned, and my chances of ever seeing it, seem farther away than ever.
Thank goodness for Pat Retzlaff and his horses. I had heard them on my very first morning in Vilankulo, their hooves thumping loudly along the beach. When I’d wandered down to investigate, Pat and his wife, Mandy, fellow Zimbabweans and owners of Mozambique Horse Safari, introduced themselves. I booked a ride with Pat, a cowboy of a man, for the following morning—the excursion in which Holly the mare and I would share our swim.
That evening I’d joined the Retzlaffs and their son Jay for dinner at their home overlooking the ocean near Chibuene. I’d brought my pineapples and a bottle of tipo tinto, a potent local rum, and soon we were downing piña coladas while supping on prawns as a breeze rustled the baobabs.
Of all the “starting over” stories I have heard, that of the Retzlaffs has to be the most remarkable. In 2001 their farm in Zimbabwe was seized during a governmental redistribution of land. Looking to find a new home, they traveled for months, like modern-day nomads, with their horses. Along the way they ended up rescuing horses abandoned by their displaced owners, at one point caring for 250.
“But we never found a new home in Zimbabwe,” blue-eyed Mandy, who “has crested 60,” tells me. “So we came here, to Mozambique,” crossing the same border I had—with 104 horses in tow. It took them two years filled with obstacles to reach Vilankulo, an odyssey that Mandy recounts in her book, One Hundred and Four Horses.
Santa Carolina being now almost the only thing I can think about, I ask my new friends the best way to reach it. Jay makes some calls.
“A day-trip leaves crack of dawn tomorrow from Inhassôro,” he tells me. “That’s an hour north of here. You may want an early night.”
I wake before dawn and barrel north like a race-car driver to beat the sunrise. Reaching Inhassôro, I spot a band of burly South African travelers strapped into life jackets and piling into a pair of rubber dinghies. I join them, we gun the engines, and the blue waters of the Indian Ocean froth under us. The ride takes an hour, including a stop to buy an octopus from a fisherman who has rowed a boat the size of a bucket two miles out to sea. “Bait,” explain the Afrikaners.
As we approach Santa Carolina, there’s not a soul to be seen. We pull into a cove with sand so white, it hurts my eyes.
I blink, scan my surroundings, and head into the dense island scrub. Twenty minutes of walking on spiky casuarina cones brings me to a potholed airstrip. Just beyond, I push away some palm fronds and spot it: Hotel Santa Carolina, where my newlywed parents began their life together.
I feel as though I’ve stumbled on a lost city.
Following a crumbling sidewalk, grass shooting through its edges, I make my way to the sprawling concrete shell, which fronts the island’s eastern shore. Finding a flight of stairs, I climb up one flight, turn right, and step into a room. Hundreds of tiny pink tiles lie scattered across the floor. I pick a few up as mementos, then look out from the balcony toward a chapel, its roof swooping like some Palm Springs modern masterpiece, perched on nearby rocks.
I continue to the top floor, and into the ballroom. Its walls and windows long since shattered by waves and cyclones, the space is open to the elements. But in its middle is a spectacular sight: a pillar inlaid with thousands of tiny blue tiles painstakingly pieced together by artisans half a century ago. Even more unbelievable to me is a piano, leaning against the back wall, the ivories long since pilfered.
Did Bob Dylan compose his song “Mozambique” on it?
The lyrics come to me on the wind.
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…
I flash to one couple in particular. It’s 1963. My parents, full of youthful optimism, are dancing on this very floor.
I reach for my cellphone and make a call. My mother’s voice comes on the answering machine.
“Mom,” I say, “I’m here on Paradise Island, at the Santa Carolina Hotel. Tell Dad.”
I take a final look, snap some pictures, and head back to the waiting boat. I can’t wait until my parents pick up my message.
Douglas Rogers is the author of The Last Resort: A Memoir of Zimbabwe. He has written for Travel Africa magazine and the Guardian.
Italy-based photographer Massimo Bassano also serves as a traveling expert with National Geographic Expeditions.