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The mysteries of Mozambique

Frankie J Holden, Michelle Pettigrove and their daughter Georgia discover the enticing blend of culture and history in Mozambique.

When Frank suggests a trip to this southern African nation my mind conjures visions of white sand and swaying palms. We soon discover so many more unforgettable images, each intrinsically linked to the world of Mozambique.

Mozambique has a wildness that defies the orthodox constraints of tourism. It’s not a country for the ‘Disney-style’ traveller who likes to tick boxes and stick to schedules. The fact that there are very few tourists here adds to the exotic remoteness of this place. We have spent time in a number of African countries where the common language spoken (after African languages) is English. Here the second language is Portuguese, so we are doubly foreign. Street signs, maps and menus are a complete mystery.

Mozambique is actually quite a large country stretching along the south-eastern coast of Africa, bordering South Africa to the south and Tanzania to the north. We plan a thorough exploration of the capital Maputo that starts with a guided tour of the historical sites around town. If it’s history you’re into, Maputo sits deep in layers of ancient Arab trade, European colonisation – including over four centuries of Portuguese rule – and a civil war lasting from 1977 until 1992.

The streets are busy with walking vendors that spruik a fascinating combination of imported Chinese goods and homemade items. Man-powered trolleys overloaded with fresh tropical fruit pull up beside utes packed full of locals making the most of relaxed transport rules. Traffic inches along without a hint of road rage, and tuk tuks squeeze past dangerously close to hot exhaust pipes.

The buildings that make up the capital city range from the colonial European era to the elegantly curved deco style of the 20s and some modern high rises. One standout is a home designed by Gustave Eiffel that is built entirely from imported pressed metal (possibly not the smartest material as Mozambique’s average annual temperature is 28 degrees). The city train station and marketplace, both housed in gracious buildings over 100 years old, are not just beautiful photo opportunities for tourists; they are essential working facilities crowded with busy Mozambicans.

Image credit: Polana Serena Hotel

The Maputo state of mind
Most buildings in Maputo are slightly crumbly and in need of love, but the renovated opulence of the 1922 Polana Serena Hotel is undeniable. With views over the Indian Ocean this five-star grand dame of hotels is famous for its elegant service and style. Georgia (our 12-year-old) was most impressed at having the massive swimming pool and grounds completely to herself!

A real eye-opener in Maputo is a visit to Mafalala, the poorest and most historic of Mozambique’s neighbourhoods. Proceeds from these tours help support the overcrowded school and various projects designed to empower Mafalala residents. The Mafalala Walking Tour is professionally hosted by local guides who share their knowledge of the history and struggle of these people, some of whom have become high-profile singers, sports people, poets and politicians.

Our guide Ivan, a Mafalala local, leads us through the labyrinth of alleys and lanes, explaining the Apartheid-like restrictions on the poor inhabitants of Mozambique only a generation ago. These families are welcoming and their children smile shyly at us. A women’s dance troupe performs an extraordinary display based on old tribal skipping routines that would surely exhaust Aussie school kids!

Beach break
Hitting the road we make the journey to two popular beach towns, Xai Xai and Bilene, both resort destinations for holidaying locals. The town of Xai Xai lies 250 kilometres north of Maputo on the banks of the Limpopo River, buzzing with markets, bars and restaurants. The beach calls and we cruise the rugged coastline in our 4WD, stopping to watch the crabs scuttling through the waves. Deep-sea fishing and quad bikes are also fun options.

In Bilene we chat to locals and set up a snorkelling trip to the reef inside Bilene Lagoon. This turns into more of an adventure than we bargained for as our skipper detours towards an impressive population of pink flamingos! Just the photo opportunity I’d dreamed of.

The surprises continue as our intrepid captain beckons us up a series of steep sand dunes between the lagoon and ocean. At the top are views of the coastline, and sea turtles bobbing about in the azure Indian Ocean.

Mozambique is a true tropical paradise. Still raw in appeal, this is a country turning its back on previous political strife and embracing its remarkable potential for tourism. As its infrastructure increases and the international investments continue, it’s sure to blossom quickly. Watch this space!

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