Driving Mozambique: Ibo Island

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In the fourth episode of his extraordinary adventure, Niel Crafford finds himself in paradise

IMG_6026Anyone interested in the history of the Indian Ocean will know about Ilha do Ibo. Arab traders have been frequenting its shores for hundreds of years and the first Portuguese were amazed to find civilizations here, and at places such as Kilwa and Mombasa, who have been doing brisk business with the Far East for ages. The first fort on the island was built in 1760, followed by two others, all still in pretty good shape. The rows of buildings in the town of Ibo might not be as impressive or as well restored as those on Ilha do Moçambique, but have a charm all of their own.

And so it was that Elize and I had the privilege of visiting this magical place. We would be staying in Ibo Island Lodge, everyone’s dream destination. Owners Kevin and Fiona Record travelled the length of the African continent, setting out from London in an old Bedford truck with four friends in the early nineties. A year later – and twenty-two countries – they arrived at Ibo. They were told that this is Mozambique’s real paradise and they were not disappointed. They were taken across by a local dhow and fell in love with the place and its people.

After ending their travels in Cape Town, they started an overland touring company – first with the same old Bedford and later with a whole fleet of Land Cruisers – and put Ilha do Ibo, Selous, Dar es Salaam and numerous other African places on many peoples’ maps. Fiona hailed from Zimbabwe and they made Harare their base. Wonderful years, taking clients mostly from Europe to the wonders of Africa, never forgetting though that they really wanted to be on Ibo.

After the turn of the century, they started work on Ibo in all earnest. They wanted to make this a community project right from the start and managed to do so – many of the local island people who helped with the restoration work of the old buildings are now staff at the lodge. There was only one person on the island at that time who could speak English (self-taught), a man called Jose who welcomed the opportunity to improve his skills by attending evening classes available to all who were interested. The Ibo Island story reads like a storybook…

Elize and I parked the Cruiser at Tanganyang, in a carpark with men who look after your vehicle for MZN200 per day. We left it a little apprehensively, trusting that our freezer would still be at -12 upon our return, three days later. (We have two solar panels on the roof, which charges the two back-up batteries.)

Our transfer from Ibo arrived, complete with a takeaway lunch, as we were travelling to Mogundula Island first. Kevin and Fiona had entrusted the design of a number of upmarket villas on the island to me, and I had promised to inspect the units on site while on Ibo. It was a rough and uncomfortable crossing as a strong headwind whipped up the sea and made for an extremely bumpy ride. Nevertheless, we arrived safely and sunburnt an hour-and-a-half later.

Karleen Thornhill made us feel very much at home upon our arrival. She has been managing properties all over Africa and knows what guests want. Together with Kissinger (F&B manager), Harris (assistant manager) and Cosmo (‘guide extraordinaire’), they lead a team of dedicated staff and offer five-star service. Our first sundowners on the upstairs deck was magical, overlooking the mangroves in front of the lodge, which is home to a variety of birds.

Our first morning on Ibo was spent swimming with the dolphins. Cosmo knew exactly where to find them and took me into the water with goggles and flippers. What an amazing experience to get within metres of these intelligent animals! I was also spoilt by seeing a lone green turtle cruising by a few metres below me. On our way back, we spent half-an-hour or so snorkelling on a coral reef.

That afternoon we really spoilt ourselves by having a back massage and Mosuri mask. Felicity, who heads up the housekeeping at the lodge, also trained as a masseuse and soon had both of us in dreamland, gently easing the island crossing’s pain away. The Mosuri mask – a treatment used by people in the north of Mozambique – was applied by a local lady with great skill. The branch of a shrub is scrubbed into a fine powder that, when mixed with water, makes a white paste that dries on one’s face. Its healing properties are amazing – our sunburnt faces felt cool and cured afterwards, and Elize was convinced that it took all our wrinkles away as well!

Our early-morning birding excursion was rained off the following morning, but the change in weather (this was the first deluge we had experienced on our trip, except for a few drops in Chimanimani) made for ideal sightseeing on the island. Free guided walks are offered by the lodge and you can visit all three forts, a local silversmith shop and most of the historical buildings of old Ibo. As an architect, I marvelled at the wonderful Portuguese detailing.

We went birding with Cosmo on our final morning and ticked of 4 ‘lifers’: the gorgeous bush shrike being the most impressive one of the lot.

Surely a place that needs to be put on most people’s bucket list? One that we will never forget.

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If you are interested in following Elize and Niel’s progress, click on this link which will take you to the Tracks4Africa vehicle tracking site.

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