by Janice and George Mucalov

Snorkeling with dolphins in the wild. A UNESCO-nominated island full of colonial Portugese ruins. Millionaire hideaways. Northern Mozambique is as far off-the-grid as you can get and perfect for a post-safari idyll.

Ibo Island LodgeIbo Island Lodge offers snorkeling and lunch under an open-air Bedouin tent on a sand bar - courtesy Roger De La Harpe

In the sun-dappled water, we see them clearly through our snorkel masks. First one, then five, then a whole pod of more than 30 sleek gray bottlenose dolphins glide past, directly below us. The calves snuggle up close to their moms, tails swishing back and forth twice as fast to keep up. One dolphin hangs back. Turning around, he (she?) digs up a sand dollar with its nose from the sandy bottom and flips it at us, as if to say “Wanna play?”

We’re snorkeling with wild dolphins in northern Mozambique’s untrammeled Quirimbas Archipelago. Picture translucent turquoise waters, sprinkled with 32 stunning coral islands (most uninhabited) and say “hello” to the Quirimbas! To see the dolphins, we took a 20-minute speedboat ride from Ibo Island in the archipelago to a spot known locally as a natural dolphin breeding area and nursery.

DolphinsCourtesy Aristotoo / iStock

It seems surreal to be hanging out up-close-and-personal with these free and wondrous creatures. We’ve swum with other dolphins in the ocean before, but this feels different – more raw, more intimate. Except for the dolphins, we’re alone out here – just the two of us, our guide Causemore and our boat captain above. The only other humans in sight are a couple of fisherman sailing tiny dhows, just dots in the distance. We simply drift on our bellies, kicking a little every so often, and let the dolphins swim up to check us out. Occasionally, Causemore, who’s like a fish himself, free dives down the 20 odd feet to fin alongside them.

In how many places in the world can you swim in the wild, alone, with dolphins that come within touching distance?

It’s experiences like this – unique, authentic and totally non-touristy – that make northern Mozambique special. Tourism has barely opened up in this part of the world, and visitors are few and far between. Those who do come usually make their way to the handful of mostly exclusive, small and off-the-grid resorts.

Many seek a luxury beach break after an African safari. Blessed with secluded white sand beaches, unspoilt snorkeling reefs and prolific marine life, northern Mozambique is ideal for exactly this, but it offers a big dollop of culture too. Ibo Island, for one, is nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status. It’s steeped in a rich tapestry of history – wander its haunting colonial ruins, observe the local traditions, and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped through a portal into a bygone world.

Mequfi BayMequfi Bay - courtesy Diamonds Mequfi Beach Resort

We start our northern Mozambique journey on the mainland at Pemba, the gateway to this part of the country. From the small airport, a one-hour drive on a sunbaked red-dirt track – past women in colorful sarongs, babies strapped to their backs or with buckets of water on their heads – delivers us to an enormous white-walled property. Inside sprawls the luxurious Diamonds Mequfi Beach Resort.

One activity that catches our eye here is horseback riding. The resort has its own spacious air-conditioned stable, housing seven much-pampered horses. Mequfi Bay’s endless white sand beach – with not another dwelling in sight – is tailor-made for horseback riding. If you know how to ride, you can canter freely along the water’s edge for miles. We opt instead for a gentle ride late one afternoon. Happy to be led by a rope, our horses plod slowly along as we take in the colors of the sunset turning from blazing neon orange to soft pink.

Horseback ridingHorseback riding on Mequfi Bay - courtesy Diamonds Mequfi Beach Resort

“Perhaps you also want to try wind-karting?” offers the general manager. “It’s a Formula One adrenalin high.” Somewhat dubious about this fast-growing new sport in France, one of us (that would be George) gives it a spin the next morning. Wearing a helmet, he tries to steer a fat-wheeled tricycle attached to a huge triangular sail, as the wind whips him along the sand dunes. Ego bruised when the wind-kart heads for the water, splashing him mightily, he gives up, envious of the expert kite surfer playfully skipping along the waves nearby.

We go bicycling by the full moon and paddle kayaks up a mangrove-lined river, but for the most part, our time is spent relaxing, replenishing our safari-sapped energy reserves. After a few blissful days, we’re ready to venture to the Quirimbas.

First island stop: Ibo (where we swim with the dolphins). Arab, Indian and Chinese gold traders and slavers all dropped anchor at Ibo. The Portuguese then arrived in the early 1500s, building forts, slave quarters and colonial mansions. The remnants remain today, whispering tales of both grandeur and the cruel peddling of human flesh. 

On a walk of Ibo town, we soak up the atmosphere. Much of it seems stuck in the past (electricity only came in 2012). There are no paved roads, just sandy paths on which islanders walk or ride rusty bicycles. Sunlight streams through open arches of empty white stone buildings. Graceful Romanesque-style columns stand proud and tall amid piles of coral rubble. Goats scramble around palm trees sprouting up through crumbling church ruins; monkeys hop on chipped red-tile roofs.

Azura QuilaleaGuests of Azura Quilalea enjoy a cruise aboard a traditional dhow - courtesy Azura Quilalea

A house covered with cowrie shells is intriguing. “The owner was a trader who was often away,” explains Causemore (he does double duty – guiding us on this cultural tour as well as on our dolphin swim). “Every day he was at sea, his wife would walk the island and collect one shell, which she’d glue to the outside wall.”

We pass by a dig on which a couple of Italian archaeologists have been working. Causemore tells us he often finds centuries-old objects lying about. We pick up pieces of blue-and-ivory china by the water’s edge at low tide – did they come from the dinner set of a wealthy Portuguese manor wife? At the well-preserved Sao Joao Batista Fort, built in 1791 in the shape of a star, we admire intricate silver bracelets and necklaces hand-crafted by the island’s aged silversmiths.

Women of IboThe women of Ibo Island decorate their faces with mussiro (a white paste made from tree sap), protecting their skin from the sun - courtesy George Mucalov

The people are exotic to us Westerners. The island is over 90 percent Muslim, and the sound of the Muezzin wafts through the fragrant warm air throughout the day. The women decorate their faces with mussiro (a white paste made from tree sap), protecting their skin from the sun. Many people live pretty much as they have for centuries – carrying water from the well, pounding peanuts in wooden bowls, which they stew with cassava leaves and coconut to make matapa (delicious!), weighing market items on old-fashioned scales.

Change, though, is coming. Historic old houses are slowly being restored. A new Spanish-owned bungalow resort (rumoured to be five-star) is nearing completion, and we check out a boutique B&B that has just opened. “Ibo is on the verge of being discovered,” Causemore muses.

Kayak safariRelaxing after a kayak safari - courtesy Ibo Island Lodge

We still have more of the Quirimbas to discover for ourselves, and Quilalea Island, our final destination, beckons. Like a couple of other small Quirimbas islands, Quilalea is a private island (home to Azura Quilalea resort). Think uber-luxe – but in a carefree, barefoot kind of way. Before Pippa Middleton married recently, Vogue touted Azura Quilalea as a perfect paparazzi-free destination for her honeymoon.

Quilalea has what Ibo Island lacks – beautiful, soft, white sand beaches. You come here to chill, perhaps snorkel and dive, and forget about the outside world for a few days. We loll about in our beach chairs, rising every so often for a dip in the calm water. Sometimes we take out stand-up paddleboards for some light paddling. At dusk when it’s cool, we walk the twisting, shady path around the island, gaping up at ancient Baobab trees and drinking in the wild coastal vistas.

We dive Quilalea’s house reef. Quirimbas National Park is a marine and land park stretching for 70 miles along the northeast coast of Mozambique; it protects the fertile coral reefs around 11 of the islands in the Quirimbas, including Quilalea. Sea turtles, moray and garden eels, stingrays, big-lipped potato bass and huge schools of brilliant red wrasse patrol these waters. Our dive whets our appetite to blow bubbles underwater again. Now we want to dive the deep channel that curls in behind Quilalea where white-tipped reef sharks hang out! Our impending onward flight, alas, prevents this.

Still, we’ve set foot in more of northern Mozambique than we ever imagined. We’ve seen it in all its natural untouched beauty, before tourism has had a chance to change the landscape – and that is a gift.

Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles Fall/Winter 2017 issue

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