After exploring the streets of bustling Maputo, Emma Thomson finds solace on a desert island off the coast of Mozambique.
The setting sun turns the sea copper and the black silhouettes of palm trees are stamped against a violet sky. But we're not on our castaway island yet: we're speeding around Maputo – the Mozambican capital – huddled in the back of a chopela, a local three-wheel motorbike with a red ladybird-like shell.
Maputo is one of Africa's most elegant capitals: a leafy port city famed for its relaxed Mediterranean vibe – left over from 400 years under Portuguese rule – and its elegant early nineteenth-century architecture, such as the century-old train station, Hotel Polana Serena and Praça da Independência.
After getting a bite to eat inside the walled Feira Popular compound we board our six-seater plane, which coasts like a white heron over the lip of the mainland and glides out over the cerulean coloured sea. I stretch my neck to peer out the tiny round window and see the first sand-and-palm tree island – one of 32 – that make up northern the Quirimbas Archipelago.
Mozambique’s island getaways are currently the ideal antidote to travel on the mainland. The northern and southern provinces are safe and the skyline of Maputo grows higher daily as business investments pour in, but the central Sofala province is fragile. Tensions between Mozambique’s two main political parties, the ruling Frelimo and opposition Renamo – the same parties responsible for the civil war that raged from 1977 to 1992 – flared up in late 2013 after government forces stormed the bush camp of Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama who then declared they had broken the terms of the peace deal. Negotiations have reached an impasse and hostilities are likely to continue until elections in October.
But, rightly or wrongly, all that seems a world away as I gaze out of the window of the plane and, one after the other, the islands string out into the Indian Ocean and we putter through the air, spying on the lives of those below, until our young Portuguese pilot, Jorge, points through the slit of windscreen and exclaims: “There she is!”
‘She’ is Medjumbe, a pristine private island just one kilometre long with 13 thatched-roof wooden chalets. She’s a castaway fantasy come true and I’d come to maroon myself on her flaxen shores for a few days – Robinson Crusoe with style, if you will.
I beam excitedly at Jorge, but he looks nervous. “It’s the second shortest runway in Africa – only 580 metres long,” he explains, raising a shaky smile. And I realize what he’s actually saying is: “there’s no room for mistakes” and suddenly our exotic escape turns into an adventure.
After a safe but bumpy landing, I finally get to shimmy my toes through Medjumbe’s sand as white and fine as flour. Separated from fast internet, frenetic traffic and lots of people, life shrinks to the fundamentals and all the clichés about island life come true. I shed my shoes, wear fewer clothes and even give up using my chalet key; there seems no need when no one can escape and they know me by name when I order drinks at the ocean-view bar.
All of a sudden nature is dictating my daily schedule. “The wind is too strong, so I’m afraid you can’t go diving or snorkelling,” laments Anli, our island activities manager. “But we can take you to Quissanga, over there. It means ‘lots of sand’ in the local dialect,” he says, pointing to a perfectly round island. “It’s uninhabited,” he adds to seal the deal.
So we power through the waves and land on a deserted beach sprinkled with clam shells and conches the size of rugby balls. Purple flowers spring from the vines that are attempting to creep towards the waterline.
Anli sunbathes on the deck of the boat, so I lie back on the sand and listen to the lapping waves. Just as I’m drifting off, I hear the muted echo of voices. I sit up and see a traditional wooden dhow sailing towards us, the grubby white sail fat with wind.
I’ve only been a lone islander for half an hour, but I leap to my feet and instinctively start waving. The dhow weaves closer until I can see the grinning faces of a group of teenage fishermen; the hull is full of silvery fish and crustaceans. They wave shyly in return, swing the boat around so it sails right in front of me and then they’re off – a speck of white against the swathe of blue.
We haul up the anchor and head back to Medjumbe for a lunch of locally caught fist-sized prawns with papaya and homemade Amarula ice cream. In the open-air dining room I come across Sarah and Joe, a New York power couple on honeymoon. They had been more adventurous and gone deep-sea fishing. “We caught a mammoth mackerel and a snapper!” Joe boasts proudly. “Shorty, our skipper, said we could keep one for dinner.” I may not have tested my survival skills on this island getaway, but looking at Joe’s shining eyes, I could see he had reconnected with his inner Crusoe.
Medjumbe can only be reached via a 45-minute light-aircraft transfer from Pemba on the Mozambican mainland. Reservations and flights can be booked via Found Travel’s (www.found.travel) Mozambique Route Planner. TAP operates flights from London Heathrow to Maputo via Lisbon, while LAM fly from Maputo to Pemba.