Strangler figs wrap their fingers around once-elegant doorways, lofty ceilings gape at the sky and ornamental balconies rust in the sun. The grand mansions of Vila do Ibo – the Stone Town of Ilha do Ibo, in northern Mozambique’s Quirimbas Archipelago – are earmarked for World Heritage status, but their coral-stone facades are in such an advanced state of disrepair that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s already too late to save them.
The remains of the town are highly atmospheric, nonetheless. Exploring on foot, you can almost picture the scene two or three hundred years ago, when the air was full of the scent of spices and the yells of visiting seafarers. Its setting is as beautiful as ever: a gently curving beach where lateen-rigged dhows, timeless symbols of the Swahili coast, glide by just as they have for centuries.
In medieval times, the South Equatorial Current brought ships carrying gold, ivory and spices to Ibo to stock up on fresh water before continuing their voyage to or from India. Muslim traders from the Arab world were the first adventurers to spot the island’s potential, settling here to peddle amber, ivory and turtle shell. Later, Portuguese slave traders made it their base: by the late eighteenth century, Vila do Ibo had become a prosperous and well-fortified provincial capital. Then, in the early twentieth century, everything changed; the traders and officials moved away to a new mainland settlement, Porto Amélia, now Pemba, abandoning Ibo to the rigours of cyclones and extreme humidity. Today, the forts which once defended the city serve only as workshops for local silversmiths, who melt down old coins to make jewellery to sell to visitors.
Another of Mozambique’s lost cities, Ilha de Moçambique in Nampula Province, has already made it onto the World Heritage list. It, too, was once an important Swahili trading post, but in the decades since independence it has decayed into a picturesque ruin. Its large sixteenth-century fort, Fortaleza de São Sebastião, still watches the coastline, but was badly battered by Cyclone Jokwe in 2008 – retribution, some might say, for the many crimes it disguised during the island’s days as a hub of the slave trade.
The most straightforward routes to Pemba (for Ibo) and Nampula (for Ilha de Moçambique) are via Maputo, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi or Johannesburg. Imagine Africa and Tribes Travel are two of the tour operators which offer trips here.
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