Mozambique: Peace pays off in southeast Africa

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War, as the bumper sticker says, is not healthy for children and other living things. It can, however, preserve gorgeous beaches from over-development, and thats just what happened in Mozambique: There are miles and miles of wide, unspoiled seascapes strung along the deep blue Indian Ocean.

Landmines, or at least rumors of their existence, tend to discourage the developers and sun worshippers.

Mozambique, in southeast Africa, convulsed for decades as one of the worlds most vicious war zones -- first in the battle for independence from Portugal, then in a harrowing civil war fueled in part by the old apartheid regime in South Africa.

But peace was reached in the early 1990s, and today Mozambique is politically stable, democratic, open and welcoming. And its people appear intent on pampering international tourists, putting the past behind and building their nations economy.

The landmines? Long cleared from the tourist zones. (And, Im told, the beaches were never mined.)

The nations primary attraction is its coastline. Porpoises dance in schools over the waves, and the coral reefs are healthy, vivid and rife with sealife. Lovers can spend entire days on the golden sands and see no one. And chances are good that no one will see them.

After decades on the no-go list, Mozambique is hot. A few months ago, The New York Times led off its Sunday travel section with a piece on Mozambique headlined, Africas Rising Star. Among the jaded, deep-pocketed, been-there-done-that travelers for whom the planet is not nearly lonely enough, Mozambique is emerging as the next brag-worthy place to check off their lists.

The beaches may be mostly undeveloped, but there are some wonderful places to stay, including ultra-expensive, world-class island resorts that count Saudi princes, African presidents and the likes of Paul McCartney and Virgin CEO Richard Branson among their guests.

Most travelers jet into the capital, Maputo, in Mozambiques south, then transfer to smaller planes to fly up the coast to Vilanculos, Beira and Pemba.

I went a different way, one of a small group of journalists who were driven into Mozambique from South Africas Kwazulu-Natal Province.

The contrast between relatively prosperous South Africa and struggling Mozambique was drawn starkly at the border, where a nicely paved highway suddenly morphed into a sketchy track of blond sand amid dunes and tall grasses. We walked past South Africas brick border station and into Mozambiques corrugated border shack before bounding north into the wild country.

To our right, along the ocean, was the Maputo Elephant Reserve. I felt sure wed be stopping there, but we didnt. A British resort proprietor later told me the elephant population has been severely decimated in Mozambique, and many of the remaining herd are riddled with scars from bullet wounds. During the wars, food became so scarce that elephants and other large wildlife were slaughtered for sustenance, sometimes with machine guns fired from helicopters. Now fearing humans more than ever, the elephants cower in the bushes.

Spotting a shy pachyderm isnt out of the question, and its possible youll see other wildlife, but -- especially compared with South Africa -- this is not a game-viewing destination. That said, the country has begun restocking its game parks. Botswana donated 500 elephants to Gorongosa National Park, in the central part of Mozambique. And throughout the country, the bird life is impressive, including brilliant flocks of pink flamingos.

After a couple hours drive, we pulled into the little beach town of Ponto do Ouro, where we climbed some wooden steps to the balcony of a local restaurant. Like most beachside seafood eateries in Mozambique, it serves giant tiger prawns that can reach nearly a foot in length. I went with the smaller king prawns, of less impressive length and girth but more tasty. The prawns, served with their heads on (thats where the tastiest juices reside), make the headless version most Americans are used to seem tasteless and rubbery by comparison. 

Odd as it may sound, the prawns go very well with brew, the national beverage made of equal portions beer and Sprite.

War isnt good for tourism, declared Luis Esteves, a South African of Portuguese descent who owns the Kaya Kweru Lodge, also in Ponto do Ouro. But Mozambique is pristine.

An entrepreneur who sold vegetables during the war, Esteves sees a great future for Mozambique tourism. His hotel, just opened, pays 10% base commission and will be part of a multi-hotel complex now under construction. He expects it will primarily serve South Africans who drive into Mozambique.

Esteves took us out on a boat to see dolphins, after which we motored some of his 4x4 quad bikes to nearby dunes, giant, rolling, endless, unspoiled. It was great fun, but as we sped by locals walking home we wondered how they were weighing all the changes: more money and jobs, yes, but a lot more visitors making big noises.

Setting off again in the 4x4s, we drove north on sand roads, dirt roads, chunky potholed roads and stretches of no road at all. Eventually, we found ourselves at a wonderful little ocean retreat called Ponta Mamoli.

No quad bikes here -- just horseback riding. The resort was more like a Zen retreat, isolated and still. Theres a swimming pool with a view of the sea, but nothing more, other than the soothing sound of surf and breezes through palms. Accommodations are in small, wooden chalets nestled among the trees, facing the beach. The paths connecting the main building with the cabins and the beach are planked with smooth, wooden walkways to protect the sands and plants underneath. Inside the cabins, simple but tasteful interiors are dominated by bright white gossamer nets over the beds, whose practical purpose is to keep mosquitoes out but whose aesthetic effect is to transform the bed into a lovely private retreat. Commission is 15%.

The diving nearby is world class, and visitors can take bird walks that might include hippo or crocodile sightings.

Too soon, we drove off and eventually ended up at an industrial bay, where an auto ferry carried us across to Maputo, Mozambiques capital and economic center. Maputo is not a beautiful city. We stayed at the five-star Hotel Polana, built in an elegant, Old World style, rich with gardens. Also on the grounds was a jewel of a swimming pool, and there are breathtaking views of the sea.

The only jewel I discovered in Maputo itself was its pale-green beaux arts train station, nearly 100 years old and recently restored.

   

It makes most sense to fly out of Maputo. The alternative is a harrowing 13-hour car trip filled with death-kissing moments. (Then again, perhaps your driver, unlike mine, wont swerve from oncoming traffic, drop two wheels off the edge of the six-inch shoulder, furiously rub his eyes and shout, Cant see jack! Cant see jack!)

My advice: Take the plane.

It turned out that our driver, Benedito, was not only the son of a general but the head of marketing for the governments tourism authority. During a calmer portion of the journey, on a newly paved stretch of roadway, I asked him whether he felt the nations flag, which prominently features a Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic rifle, got in the way of his marketing campaigns.

He nodded with understanding but launched into a long story about the nations brave fight against the Portuguese and what the gun represented, noting that the flag also includes a hoe and a book. The fight against the Portuguese, he suggested, was a unifying force that brought together Mozambiques many ethnic groups and tribes.

We are proud of that flag, he said.

Clearly, I realized, it was more likely that the governor of South Carolina would climb atop the state capital dome and set the Confederate stars and bars aflame than it was that Mozambique would take that gun off its flag.

Eventually, we reach Vilanculos, which sits on a lovely bay within site of Bazaruto Archipelago, a group of mostly undeveloped islands ringed with sandy beaches. 

The few developments there tend to be fancy indeed, such as the Indigo Bay, owned by a Saudi businessman who made his personal fortune in juice. Its elegant but perhaps more expensive than youd expect to find in Mozambique: Rooms go for around $600 a night. To put this in perspective, thats nearly twice the annual income of the typical rural Mozambiquan.

For the less well-off, the Vilanculos Beach Lodge, a cluster of thatch-roof cabins, is a wonderful and far less expensive alternative, and agents get 20% off the rack rate.

Mozambique is not for everyone. But for those with a sense of adventure, the early developmental stages of the countrys tourist trade promise rich rewards. In fact, for some, part of its appeal will be arriving before the big planned resorts are finished. The early-adopters still have a few years but probably not much more than that.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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