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Battle of the stone towns: does Mozambique Island out Zanzibar Zanzibar?

The colonial Portuguese architecture set against the background of sand and sett

The colonial Portuguese architecture set against the background of sand and setting sun makes Mozambique Island a bewitching place.

One you’ve almost certainly heard of, the other you may have, or at least think you have. Both flaunt impossibly white beaches of implausible splendor; both deliver consistently dhow-specked crimson sunsets that repeatedly dare you to phone your boss to creatively tell him/her that you no longer need their services because you are going to spend the remainder of your life fossicking for sea glass to make bracelets to sell at local markets – oh, and by the way, you’ve converted to Rastafarianism.

One, Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, arguably, has let its popularity go to its pretty little head.

The other, Mozambique Island, 2,000 very long kilometres north of Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, perhaps because of its sheer isolation and a sprinkle of anonymity, is in serious danger of out Zanzibaring Zanzibar.

If you’ve backpacked through Africa (or know someone who has), have a passing interest in history, or are a fan of the band Queen, you will know something of the ‘spice island’ Zanzibar.

The birth place of Freddie Mercury is undoubtedly the most popular location in east Africa to grab some tropical island time.

It’s conveniently close to Tanzania’s capital Dar es Salaam: just over three hours by ferry (several options daily) and at least a couple of local airlines are now consistently spewing package holidaymakers onto the island.

Hotels and backpackers’ joints are breeding; the crowds, particularly in European and north American summer holidays, mean you struggle for some ‘me’ time. The touts, hawkers and unofficial guides are becoming too practiced at fleecing the wide-eyed masses and generally excelling at annoying the calm out of you.  

The island still has ocean-loads of physical charm outside the hot spots, and of course the famed, historic ‘stone town’ is worth the trip alone, but arguably Zanzibar’s chilled desert-island vibe is hanging by a frayed piece of seaweed.

Meanwhile, its little foreign pen pal of an island far, far down south lazily wonders where all the tourists are.

Mozambique Island (Ilha de Moçambique to the locals) shares much of Zanzibar’s flamboyant history and a few of its guilty secrets including being centres of the slave and ivory trades and the repression of local populations by invading and trading hoards.

Indeed both were at the centre of frenetic Arab commerce routes between the Orient and Europe, from at least the eighth century, where Persians, Turkish, Indians and Chinese would gather to trade in never-before-seen goods and ideas and make and squander fortunes.

Until 1898 Mozambique Island was the capital of Portuguese Africa, so strategically important that at various times the Dutch, French and English decided it was worth all out attacks for a bite of this spicy paradise – all ultimately thwarted.  

In the 21stcentury, the island is replete with anomalies, surprises and contradictions, making it difficult to visualise its strategic significance, particularly as you approach it from the underdeveloped northern Mozambique mainland.

A single-lane, three-kilometre bridge over a causeway of tidal extremes seems initially only to lead to a tiny sandy spec on the azure horizon.

No car? Hop in the tray of a crowded truck for the crossing, cuddling tight to thirty locals, for the equivalent of about thirty US cents.

Over the bridge is the Tetris-like ‘macuti’ (palm leaves) town, a tight-packed village of shanty reed houses dissected by a raised road, which reveals only vague insinuations of the island’s colonial past.

The settlement on this side of the island exudes the east African aura of ‘temporary and recently’, as indeed most of it is. The bulk of the Makhuwa people on the island only resettled here as they fled Mozambique’s hideous civil war in the eighties.

On the main streets, casurina, wild Indian fig and flame trees, along with the obligatory coconut trees, help the tropical clichés sprout, roots bubbling through cracked pavements.

Less than half way along the 3.5-kilometre (500-metre wide) island, it sudden appears as though a Portuguese city from a few centuries before has been parachuted onto the sand.

The brutal and obvious historical dividing line, effectively between black Africa and the various traders culminating with the Portuguese invaders, is marked by an impressive (although crumbling) hospital, which covers about the same amount of land as probably 200 huts in the macuti town.

Beyond this, Mozambique Island’s very own stone town (Cidade de Pedra e Cal) arises, guarded through the centuries by the sturdy San Sebastião fortress, its sea-rusted guns still pointing out into the aqua infinity of the Indian Ocean.

Stone town is a giant’s maze of opulence; high-ceilinged, rendered coralstone, limestone and concrete structures in various age-rendered states of artful decay; grand statements not quite rescinded. But it’s not all dilapidation; many buildings have been tastefully maintained or restored into residences, pensions and restaurants.

Chunky and hoary ornate wooden doors are stained with the tears of rusty bolts and knockers. Moody whitewashed single-story buildings sit next to those hued in subtle pastels that love playing in the plentiful light: shades of powder blue, egg yolk and plasma purple.

Streets and lanes dawdle at incongruous angles into un-square squares; jutting balconies and long covered walkways with high arches raised like eyebrows in permanent surprise.   

The stone and macuti towns are pretty much deserted during the sizzle of the day, in a way that only desert islands can really be. It’s siesta time; the town’s eyes close, the shutters shut and so do the restaurant and shops. The overbearing heat radiates off the buildings – hide, rest.

But when the sun sinks, the island’s eyes slowly unglue and it rolls over.

Makhuwa families that live in the ruined buildings begin to wake to life, generations sprawled throughout some of the colonial skeletons, their deep black skin in utter contrast to the whitewashed remains. Boarded up mansions with open fires, open to the elements through crumbled walls or missing roofs, spark to life in the slow lane.

Unlike Zanzibar you have to play a game of hide and seek for accommodation and sustenance here. First you have to finds the diminutive sign subtly placed on a wall above your eye line. Next you have to hope someone is home; knock on the door, wait a while, maybe come back later.

The island’s relatively few restaurants reflect the lack of tourist traffic – you won’t eat cheaply, in fact, nothing here is cheap – but luckily impeccably fresh formerly sea-faring fare will be probably the cheapest items on the menu (the fresh calamari is worth pawning an organ for).

Not a seafood fanatic? Munch on matapa, a peanut and cassava leaf stew and use the local piri-piri (chili sauce) at your peril; it’s empire-destroyingly hot. The accompanying bread roll will be ‘Continental’ quality.

The locals, both Africans and ex-pat business owners, are as friendly as you’ll find anywhere – without the obvious financial pressures that places like Zanzibar place on every human interaction. A hello generally means just that.

Affably sweet children are happy for you to take a ridiculously picturesque photo of them just for the experience. They may want to sell you a cake or some fresh nuts, but happily take ‘no’ for an answer.

Only three kilometres from shore but miles away from the bustle of Africa, Mozambique Island offers a sense of remote calm that perhaps Zanzibar could have done 30 years ago, before the package holiday travel agents had it in their sites.

There is an airport three hours away in Nampula but if you’re a budget traveller don’t expect an easy ride: the island is more than two thousand kilometres by road from the capital Maputo, on buses that go too fast but still take too long.

And it’s certainly no secret; UNESCO recognised its beauty and history back in 1993. The island has a high season, but according to the local business owners that is limited to August (mainly Italian tourists strangely) but it’s not a high season in comparison with just about anywhere else in east Africa.

You’ll get more action for your shilling on Zanzibar: far more energetic nightlife; beaches properly set up for swimming and water sports; better value hotels and cheaper food. If these are your desires, or if you’re time poor, Zanzibar has won the battle for you.

But if you’re after a slower pace of life, something more vaguely personal than the commercialism of Zanzibar, an interaction with history without the condescension, and don’t mind an adventurous journey with a premium then Mozambique should be your island.

Does it out Zanzibar Zanzibar? No, it’s clearly a different pile of sand and vibe altogether, barely discovered by the two-week holidaymakers and lip-licking travel agents.

Let’s keep it that way, huh? Shhhh.


Steve Madgwick