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Mozambique: Ilha de Moçambique

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Ilha de Moçambique | Mozambique | Africa

[Visited: September 2015]

The ride had taken longer than expected, and it is already dark when we approach the coast. After suffering on a heavily overloaded minibus, our first chapa ride in Mozambique, for four hours from Nampula, we are very happy to see a straight line of lights reflected in the water: this is the bridge that connects Ilha de Moçambique to the mainland, technically making it an annex of the mainland instead of the veritable island it once was. We walk the sandy streets in search of a place to eat, and are all excited to get up early the next morning to finally see the famous town. Vasco da Gama arrived on this island in 1498, when it was used by Arabs for trading and boat building. The Portuguese established themselves in the northern part of the island, now called Stone Town, and the name of the sultan, Ali Musa Mbiki, lived on in the new name for the island, and eventually for the hinterland that we now know as Mozambique. The small island declined in importance over time, and in 1898, four hundred years after the first Portuguese arrived, the fate of Ilha de Moçambique was sealed, and the capital moved to Lourenço Marques, present-day Maputo. We walk the sandy alleys, past centuries-old houses painted in bright colours, past a statue of Camoes, a famous Portuguese poet who once lived on the island, to reach the boulevard. We walk towards the north, and reach the big fortress on the tip of the island: the Fortaleza de São Sebastião. The low tide allows us to walk around the northern tip of the island, which offers dramatic views of the impressive walls. At the northeastern tip, we see the Capela de Nossa Senhora do Baluarte seemingly rising out of the sea above the rocky base on which it is built. This small church was built in 1522 and is the oldest still standing European building in the Southern Hemisphere.

Picture of Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique): View of the Capela de Nossa Senhora do Baluarte and the São Sebastião fortress at low tide

In the afternoon, we walk the other way and head south. First, we explore the old hospital complex, once the largest hospital in Africa, but now in need of serious repairs - it is still functional, and we find people sitting in the shade outside waiting for treatment. From here, we continue south, through the macuti, or reed hut, part of Ilha de Moçambique. It is more lively, quite simply because it is where most people currently live. We find a catholic and a muslim cemetery, and at the far southern tip, see an islet just off the coast, almost entirely occupied by a small fort. Close to the southern tip is the start of the bridge to the mainland. We walk back on the western side of the island, see boats arriving at the beach and women waiting for the catch of the day. When we enter stone town again, there are more impressive buildings, all reminders of the days when Ilha de Moçambique was the most prominent place of the big colony. We walk all the way to the fort again, and watch sunset from the beach, but the sun suddenly disappears in what seems to be a haze on the horizon. It is time to retreat to the rooftop of our guesthouse from where we see an almost full moon in the sky. Night falls early in Mozambique, and days start very early, too, and we are up early the next morning. I walk to the southern tip again, and pass the church of Santo António, built on a tip on the eastern part of the island.

Picture of Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique): Warm colours on this colonial building on Ilha de Moçambique

From here, it is not far to the end, and I sit on a rock, waiting for the tide to fall a little more, before I cross the narrow strait to the Ilha-Fortim de São Lourenço. The walk through the shallow waters is interesting enough with a lot of life in the form of urchins, sea stars, and all kinds of other creatures surviving the hours of low tide until the waters come in again. I climb up a rocky part on the backside of the islet to explore the ruins of this small fortress where cannons are strewn across the floor. Later that morning, we explore the Palace Museum with a witty guide who has a fun way to explain the story of this impressive building that was still used as a palace by the late independence hero Samora Machel, and that houses an incredible collection of luxury goods made overseas. Next stop is the fortress, which was supposed to be restored years before. Unfortunately, the money earmarked for the restoration disappeared in the wrong pockets, and the result is a sorry sight: even the maquette of the fort lies in ruins. We walk the rooftop which offers views of the fort and surroundings, and walk to the Capela de Nossa Senhora da Baluarte, the small church we have seen the morning before during low tide. It is high tide now, and when we look down at the rough waves crashing on the rocky shoreline, we almost cannot believe that we walked right there. This big fort was attacked for months on end twice by the Dutch in 1607 and 1608, but they never succeeded in conquering it, effectively ensuring that Mozambique would remain Portuguese until its independence in 1975. Passing the old mosque, we reach the pier on the western side of the island which is another great place to watch sunset. The next morning, we are up very early to be driven around for an hour in an almost empty minivan before our journey back to the mainland really starts. After the relaxed atmosphere and historic attractions of Ilha de Moçambique, we are off to new adventures!

Picture of Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique): Street with palmtree on the westside of Ilha de Moçambique
Picture of Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique): Flower details carved out on a wooden door on Ilha de Moçambique
Picture of Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique): One of the best spots to watch sunset on Ilha de Moçambique, the pier is decorated in typical Portuguese style
Picture of Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique): The Fortim-Igreja de Santo António reflected in the waters of Ilha de Moçambique
Picture of Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique): Many houses on Ilha de Moçambique are painted in bright colours
Picture of Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique): The coastline of Ilha de Moçambique with houses and boat
Picture of Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique): Arched walkway on one of the main street of the old part of Ilha de Moçambique
Picture of Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique): Courtyard of the Palace Museum of Ilha de Moçambique
Picture of Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique): This islet south of Ilha de Moçambique holds the Fortim de  São Lourenço
Picture of Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique): Trees lining an alley in the hospital area of Ilha de Moçambique
Picture of Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique): Afternoon sunlight falling on the Misericordia church on Ilha de Moçambique
Picture of Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique): The Capela de Nossa Senhora de Baluarte; a church built in 1522 and the oldest standing European building in the southern hemisphere
Picture of Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique): The inner part of the Fortaleza de São Sebastião seen from the rampart

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