I have just returned from an island paradise!
No, I am not talking about the Carribbean, The Maldives, Mauritius, Zanzibar, The Seychelles, or even Bazaruto.
I am talking about a hidden gem or more like a string of pearls, the Quirimbas Archipelago, in Northern Mozambique. A collection of 32 Indian Ocean islands located a few kilometres offshore on the edge of the warm Mozambique Channel. These islands stretch for about 200 kilometres from just North of Pemba in Mozambique, until just South of the Tanzanian border.
The area is an untouched island wonderland with beautiful warm azure water, white sandy beaches, warm air, abundant sea life, great food and excellent fishing, snorkelling, scuba diving and swimming.
Our dilemma: With 32 islands in the chain, which one were we going to choose to visit??
The solution: We decided to choose them all and go by boat!
We chartered a beautiful 47 foot Leopard catamaran (considered by many to be the Rolls Royce of cats) out of Pemba, with skipper and crew, for a full week with the intention of exploring this pristine string of islands at our own pace. It
was a family holiday with 8 in the group spanning 3 generations. The youngest being my 7 year old and the eldest, my father, about to turn 80. We wanted an island holiday that had something for everyone and one where you could be as
active or inactive as you wanted.The trip was in a word “magnificent” This destination is the epitome of a dream island vacation and our choice to go by boat was spot on. It was relaxing beyond belief. Everything was laid on, so we didn’t need to lift a finger unless we wanted to. The crew moved around the boat like little elves, cooking and cleaning, serving drinks, but always relaxed and friendly. Nothing was too much trouble. Even laundry was taken care of.
As a family vacation, it pushed all the right buttons. There was something for everyone and all of the time. At any point you could be:
Reading, sleeping ,eating, drinking, kayaking, fishing, sun tanning, swimming, snorkelling, scuba diving, waterskiing, watching a DVD, sailing, photographing, shell collecting, lying on a beach, visiting an island lodge, trading with local fisherman, checking out the stars, playing board games in the lounge or on the rear deck
Our plan was to follow a basic itinerary with a large amount of flexibility built in. John the skipper mapped out a basic course and gave us all the options. By all accounts, the further North from Pemba you go, the better it gets. We were prepared to go with the flow, see as much as we can and stop whenever we feel like it. We would generally island hop during the day and make sure that we were in a nice spot by nightfall so that we could anchor and spend the night in a calm and pretty area.
The islands range from permanently inhabited to completely uninhabited. Generally, the larger islands with access to fresh water would be permanently occupied while the smaller and more remote islands tend to be either uninhabited
or have small groups of fishermen who use the island as a base from which to fish. Some of the islands are privately owned or have beautiful lodges which are run as hotels where people can come and stay. Access to these lodges is
generally by small aircraft, anything from a 4 seater Cessna 206 to a 12 seater 208 Caravan. The lodges generally have there own boats that guest would charter to go fishing and or diving. Most lodges or resorts are run on a similar principle where your accommodation, meals and non-motorised water sports are included. Drinks, scuba diving, deep sea fishing you pay for. This is another advantage being on the boat i.e. the daily rate includes all motorised water sports, scuba diving, fishing and equipment and includes all meals and soft drinks. The only thing you pay for is your alcoholic beverage. And instead of paying a premium for drinks, you simply send a list of what you want on the boat
and John will purchase it and get it on board before you arrive and only charge a 10% fee on top of the cost of the drinks. That is a big saving right there.
As you head North from Pemba, away from the madding crowd, there is soon very little sign of human habitation and the only boats around are traditional dhows and dugout canoes. The coastline starts off as quite rugged with rocky cliff faces which are testament to the prevailing sea current and sharp drop of the continental shelf. There are many bays and peculiar rock formations but soon these give way to white sand and turquoise water as we approach the 1st islands of the Quirimbas. From here it just gets better and better.
The main reason why the Quirimbas is still pristine is that logistically (and financially) it is quite a challenge getting there. This will change pretty soon I am sure as the massive gas reserves that were recently found off shore in Mozambique are in this the Northern part of the country. There is massive oil extraction happening in the same area. So if you are
planning on going, my advice is to go soon, before it is discovered and by nature, exploited and commercialized by the masses. While we were in Pemba, we heard rumours that 500 US families would be moving there in the next few months.
I will talk about Pemba a bit later. Pemba is currently the northern gateway to the Quirimbas. It is accessible by air but the options are limited.
By far the easiest way of getting to Pemba is with SA Airlink from Johannesburg non-stop, which is approximately 3 hours. They currently fly twice a week as in Wednesdays and Saturdays JNB POL SA 8204 at 11h00 arriving 14h00 and POL JNB SA 8205 14hh25 arr 17h30. but the price of the ticket is almost double that of flying with LAM, Mozambique Airlines. you can get to Maputo and then it is a further 2 hours 20 minutes on LAM (Mozambique Airlines) to Pemba. If you fly with LAM, the flight is from Johannesburg to Maputo where you change aircraft (sometimes) get off the aircraft, go into the airport terminal, clear customs and then get back onto the same aircraft or a different one (which was the case
with us) and then fly on to Pemba. LAM as an airline is fine, even though the joke still stands that LAM stands for “Late and Maybe or Lost Around Mozambique), we found them to be more than adequate even though there could have been a bit more communication at times. They use a brand new Embraer 190 or Boing 737 – 200 between Johannesburg and Maputo and then just the Boeing 737 between Maputo and Pemba. getting there is the via Maputo
Now let me say, that having 500 US families moving into Pemba may not be such a bad thing! Pemba is a town that is in drastic need of attention!! It is in a total state of disrepair! It might have been the most beautiful city in the world as its location on the edge of the world’s largest natural inland and tropical bay is an idyllic setting BUT, as is the case with
so many African cities, it is clear that: “It is broken” Nothing works, it is in a state of chaos, it is hot and oppressive, litter lines the potholed streets, spaza shops line the streets with all the muck just deposited on the road site.
Taxi’s look like they come straight out of demolition derby and it is just a very sad place to be!
Starting from the airport: The airport building is cute when you land, but very quickly turns into a stress filled and unpleasant experience. The international arrivals area is about the size of a shoe box. Everyone is crammed into this non
air-conditioned area. They want you off the tarmac for safety reasons, but there is no room in the terminal building. If you are lucky enough to get a trolley, you can barely manuvour it as the area is so small and jam packed with people. Then there is man in uniform controlling your exit from the terminal and once out they don’t want to let you back in, even if you were about to pass out due to the lack of fresh air, heat and claustrophobia. Another joke was that once you have manouvered your trolley to the exit door, a distance of about 3 metres, there were steps leading to the outside, so you had to take everything off the trolley and carry it down onto the sidewalk. When we arrived back at the airport 8 days later, this is what we found on the 23rd of December,
After we managed to extract our luggage (which all arrived, even with the aircraft swop in Maputo which we were impressed with), from the conveyer, we made it out into the warm yet fresh air of Pemba.
The trip from the airport down to where the yacht was moored takes about 15 minutes and takes you through the ramshackle streets of Pemba. Our driver really had to negotiate his way in some sections to avoid landing in one of the many large pot holes in the roads. Once down by the sea however, that all changes and we could see Pemba Bay stretching out for miles in a massive circle. John the skipper pointed to where we would be spending our first night, a small bay in the distance called Londo which is in a sheltered section with stunning Baobab trees and a wonderful coral garden. Perfect for snorkelling. Dandelion our beautiful floating hotel was majestically anchored and waiting for us a few 100 metres offshore. We were collected by Tuca, John’s deck hand in the tender, a rubber duck (Zodiac) with a 30hp Yamaha outboard and transported to the boat. Once on board we were welcomed by Isabella the hostess who had laid out some much appreciated ice cold drinks and some tasty homemade snacks.
We were shown to our cabins of which there are 3, plus the skippers cabin, all which are en-suite. The cabins are neatly laid out and functional. As they are situated in the pontoons of the catameran, there is little more than space for a double bed, some shelves and a bit of cupboard space. There is a step up onto the beds. The en suite bathroom has a hand shower basin and a toilet. More than adequate, as long as you are not a heavy person. There is an electronic bilge pump for flushing as well as for draining the shower after using it.
The room has a skylight / hatch that can be opened at night and which has a mosquito net if necessary, but it does restrict air flow. There are a number of portholes around the room.
There is also air conditioning throughout the boat, but it is a bit of a Catch 22 situation as you need to run the engines to run the air-con and then there is the noise factor to contend with. We chose to do without, but many also chose to sleep outside on the deck as it was very warm in the cabins and just so beautiful outside. There is no shortage of space on the boat.
The Dandelion is self sufficient, meaning that once at sea, she can generate her own power, has a de-salinator, so can make her own fresh water, an ice maker, fridge, freezer, washing machine and can run all electric appliances, laptops, charge batteries, etc. She has a sound system and music can be played throughout the boat and even has a 32 inch LCD TV with DVD player if you are bored. Not that that is likely, but if you have kids, it might be a nice novelty and also great to see pictures and movies that may have been taken during the day. John is also able to show the navigation maps, depth, fish finder and routing on the TV screen which is great so that everyone can see where they have been or are going.
On that note, the boat has state of the art navigation equipment and safety equipment and the Leopard Catameran is known to one of the safest ever made. It has a double fibreglass skin and has only a 1.2 metre draft. She also has replaceable keel strips, which is a really novel idea. She is also equipped with diving and fishing equipment, details of which will be contained in a spec sheet at the end of the article.
As the wind was light most of the time we spent most of our time motoring. When on occasion, the wind did pick up enough, John would hoist the sails and cut the engine. It was awesome to be under sail on the graceful Dandelion. We were however grateful that the wind was light as the sea conditions remained calm for pretty much the whole week, except of course when we planned to leave the lea of the islands and spend the day in deep water doing some serious fishing. Anyway, it was not to be, so we stayed closer to shore as we had a few on board including myself who don’t have the best sea legs .
Fishing off the Quirimbas:
Whenever we would travel, we would have 3 to 4 rods out the back with either feathers or Rapala’s trolling at various distances. All the boys and my 12 year old daughter are keen fisher folk, so it was great to have the opportunity to do this type of clean fishing while travelling and the rest of the party didn’t feel like they were being dragged on a fishing trip. It
wasn’t long after we left Pemba that we hooked our first fish. There was great excitement and it was all hands on deck as Sean, fought and landed a nice Wahoo (King Mackrell). It was about 8 kilograms and gave a great account of itself. We decided that this was to be our lunch. We picked up a few more fish of different size and species on this morning (which we let go), but eventually decided to bring the lines in as we weren’t making very good progress in getting to our destination as we kept on having to stop the boat to fight a fish. Not a bad complaint I must say. Over the next week we would fish in pretty much the same way. Not intense, but it was happening without us turning the trip into a fishing trip and everyone, even the non- fisherman had a chance to catch a nice size fish. Isabella filleted and prepared the Wahoo in two different ways. One fillet she prepared on the gas bar-b-cue at the back of the boat and the other fillet she did wrapped in foil and baked in the oven. Both were fantastic, but the one done on the bar-b-cue comes close to the best piece of fish I have ever tasted. That one fish fed everyone and there was plenty left over.
I was in the water within 5 minutes of arriving on the boat. The water temperature was magnificent! About 30 degrees C and maybe 5 degrees either side of that as we travelled. The water is very salty and this adds to the buoyancy factor. I found it great when snorkelling on the surface, but it was hard work when diving down to get a close look and some of the smaller reef fish. The water and the sea life were just so beautiful that you could not get enough of it. Also, during the day the temperature was in the mid 30’s (90 – 100 degrees F) and humidity high so we would cool off as often as possible. Getting into and out of the water is easy with the two pontoons running right down to water level and there is a
retractable step that is lowered into the water whenever we stopped. There is a hand shower as you get out of the sea, so we would rinse the sea water off before getting back onto the main deck. Although we brought deck shoes, we found
that bare feet gave the best feel and traction was not a problem
.The reefs vary in quality. As the locals rely on fishing for their survival, areas that are accessible by foot at low tide show signs of degradation on the inhabited islands. This is becoming more of an issue and will be the subject of another blog coming soon.
Things that we did not see:
Pirates, mosquitoes, dangerous sharks and jellyfish, pollution, crowds, sad faces
Animals we saw at sea: Turtles, dolphins, flying fish, reef fish, game fish, sea birds
Game fish we caught:
Wahoo, barracuda, King fish (various), Small eastern Tuna, Rainbow Warrier. We only kept 3 fish, all which we ate. Tuna made delicious sushi and the Wahoo we grilled on the bar-b-que and OMG was it good!!!
If you would like to hear more or would like to take such a trip, please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Until next time