One really must page through the bowels of the Mozambican edition of Lonely Planet to find any commentary on visiting Ibo Island. Like most locations in the country’s northern reaches, this little oceanic retreat does not find its way onto the territory’s most-visited list – and with good reason. Only those privileged enough to make use of light aircraft can reach the island with any sort of ease. For the rest, gaining its shallow shores requires an unreserved commitment to exploration as well as a little faith in humanity.
Ibo is found in the Quirimbas Archipelago which lies in the Cabo Delgado Province of Mozambique. Visitors to the region mainly fall into two camps – those who have discovered the outstanding natural beauty of the area through significant research into northern Mozambique, and those who stumble upon it as the result of their affiliation with gas companies.
Simply put, infrastructure in the upper reaches of Mozambique has, for many years, been an immense barrier to trade and tourism. It is only in recent times, after bridges across the Zambezi and Ruvuma Rivers were completed, that the northern provinces have become truly open to travellers. Before, the only people frequenting the area were those linked to the gas companies that tap the immense natural gas reserves found just off the coast.
In fact, given its size, the tract of land bound by Beira in the south, Dar es Salaam to the north and Blantyre in the west still sees relatively few tourists. The primary reason for this, even today, is access and infrastructure. The territory has a tremendous amount to offer visitors, and yet, despite this, the great distances between the potential tourist hotspots and towns that offer meaningful emergency support have resulted in the popularity of the area languishing behind its more southerly contemporaries.
However, for the intrepid few who do make the effort and see beyond any risk, Ibo Island offers up a particularly Caribbean feeling. This is not to say that the beaches on Ibo can in any way compete with those of Trinidad and Tobago. But, just like its Atlantic analogue, Ibo is one of those places where a colonial past collides with present-day poverty, at the same time drawing distinctly wealthy tourists.
The history of Ibo Island can be traced back to the seventh century, when Arab traders started using the island as a centre for the distribution of gold, ivory and slaves. From this point forward, the precise narrative has been somewhat obscured by time. What is known for certain is that control of the island flip-flopped repeatedly between Arab and Portuguese rule, with the motives of both nationalities fundamentally propelled by the same desire – to control the trade in African resources. Ultimately, it was the Portuguese who came to dominate Ibo – along with the balance of Mozambique – eventually only relinquishing power in 1975.
This turbulent past has left Ibo Island with a collection of derelict and, in some cases, dilapidated buildings that draw their architectural influence from both of the previous governing regimes. Construction of the only village on Ibo was restricted to an area surrounding the small harbour on the south-east shore and, to this day, everyone on the island still resides in the same little corner. The present inhabitants have erected a small number of newer buildings on the outskirts of the old town while a few of the original dwellings have been renovated to become tourist accommodation. Interestingly, even these lodges and inns tend to fall on the periphery of the settlement, leaving its centre – the oldest part – essentially abandoned, and this has significant impact on those arriving on the island. Almost remarkably, Ibo island is without cars and the absence of vehicles means that to reach their quarters, even the most affluent traveller is forced to make a pilgrimage, on foot, through the sandy streets of downtown Ibo.
Now, perhaps it is the initial trek which forces everyone to prostrate themselves before the reality of life on Ibo, or maybe it is simply the fact that everyone on Ibo is confined to the same tiny piece of sand, but there is a certain peacefulness which pervades the whole place. Everyone, regardless of privilege or background, seems content to be there and this breeds an unusually harmonious co-existence between the more and less fortunate.
This harmony is an important aspect of life on Ibo since there is not much to do on the island itself. The old buildings are deserving of some time spent nosing about and visitors can also walk across the island to mangroves and a beach on the north-eastern edge. Other than that, however, all other forms of entertainment take place offshore, at one of the surrounding reefs, wrecks or islets. It is safe to say that time spent on Ibo itself is all about the charm of its inhabitants and the bohemian atmosphere that they bring to the village.
So, what does it take to visit Ibo Island? Well, most journeys begin from the town of Pemba, a focal point for residents of the region which, despite its relative isolation, boasts a modern port as well as a booming local tourist industry. Notably, tourism in Pemba is focused on hosting well-heeled fly-in guests in what is, without question, one of the most developed towns along the entire Mozambican seaboard and one that is worth a visit in its own right.
From Pemba, a dirt road leads north through a set of tidal flatlands, carving a crescent as it drifts substantially far inland before making its way back towards the coast. Finding your way along the track is quite straightforward but it is worth noting that turning points are calculated based on the distance travelled from Pemba and are indicated by landmarks rather than signboards.
One of the most important landmarks is the baobab tree which indicates the point from where local boats depart for Ibo Island. Using a baobab tree as a gathering point is about as African as goats tied to the top of a bus, and given that this particular tree was a departure point for boats, it is easy to imagine why we thought it would be all but unmissable. It almost goes without saying, then, that on our way to Ibo we managed to miss the tree altogether. We only realised our error once we found ourselves driving around amongst seafaring vessels that had been marooned by the low tide. Apparently, the area surrounding the baobab is so flat that, at low tide, the sea retreats beyond the horizon. The people gathered under the tree waiting for the ferry might as well have been waiting for a bus. With the sea gone, there was absolutely no obvious evidence to suggest that a boat could ever reach that far onto dry land.
But, having grasped our mistake and locating the baobab tree, the obvious question was what to do with your vehicle when you depart for the island. You are quite literally in the middle of nowhere and far away from any established tourist infrastructure. The solution, we discovered, is to leave your vehicle in the garden of the old man who lives adjacent to the baobab. For a small daily fee, he lets you park your car next to the chicken coups under some mango trees. By all accounts, this is a well-established service that he offers to those visiting the island. I would be lying, though, if I didn’t own up to a little apprehension. The fence, which is little more than a symbolic gesture, would not hold cattle in, never mind keep thieves out.
Consequently, once high-tide arrived, stepping into the crowded dingy that would ferry us between the mangroves and out to the island took some faith. Not only was I concerned about the safety of our Land Rover and all the equipment in it but, to make matters worse, the boat itself looked like it had been built in the 1500s.
With all the people and supplies loaded, the sides of the old craft only just cleared the waves. If any of the locals were concerned by the seaworthiness of the boat, they hid their fears very well. The tiny and equally-vintage outboard motor screamed as it forced the almost-submarining boat through the shallows. After an eternity – which was, in fact, only about forty-five minutes – Ibo Island appeared on the horizon and, before long, we embarked on a pilgrimage of our own.