Paddling Mozambique: African Adventure

Paddling off the shores of southern Mozambique, viewing the country from a different perspective.
Paddling off the shores of southern Mozambique, viewing the country from a different perspective.

For this trip paddling was on the cards. Not the type you do with a bathing suit and water wings, but the kind that needs a 12-foot (3.6 m) kayak and a roof rack. Mozambique is South Africa’s Northeastern neighbor. With a 1,500-mile (2,400 km) coastline dipping into the Indian Ocean, it is a tropical getaway. The national road runs right along the coast, a promising prospect for sea-kayak enthusiasts.

Portuguese is the official language of Mozambique, although English is widely spoken in the south. As one progresses north the amenities, infrastructure and levels of comfortable travel decrease exponentially. For some visitors this is discouraging. Others who seek a more African experience will probably find the north more typical of much of the continent. The climate is humid and subtropical, with January temperatures climbing well into the 80sF (around 26C), while July is much cooler. US dollars are widely accepted in the south of the country, as well as the South African Rand.

After a difficult transformation from Portuguese colony to democracy, it is really only in the last five years that Mozambique has begun to regain its reputation as a holiday destination. In the early 1970’s about 300,000 people would flock to Mozambique annually. The country became independent in 1975. A 16-year long civil war between the left wing FRELIMO party (the former main nationalist movement) and the National Resistance Movement (backed by apartheid South Africa and set up by the white Rhodesian government) followed, littering the country with landmines and wrecking its infrastructure. A ceasefire agreement was finally brokered in early 1992 bringing the fighting to an end. There have been considerable setbacks but the government has made steady progress since in tackling the task of economic and social reconstruction.

Today boom time has arrived in Mozambique. Lodges are dotted right up the coast from the Ponta d’ Ouro in the South to Beira in the North. Everyone is building. The capital, Maputo, is one huge construction site, with foreign hotel chains springing up faster than you can say uma cerveja, por favor (one beer, please). As with most new destinations the people are flooding in, so get there soon.

However, our mission was not to assess the economic buoyancy of the country. We wanted flat water and deserted beaches! With our red kayak strapped to the roof, a scarlet rag fluttering from the tail, we were looking for the best flat-water paddling in Southern Mozambique.

Fifty miles (about 80 km) north of Maputo is Bilene. This small village is nestled between several freshwater lakes and the open-mouthed Uembje lagoon. On one misty early morning paddle, we saw a long-crested eagle, an African marsh harrier, and heard countless fish eagles. In the middle of the lagoon a yellow buoy marks a shallow sunken boat trailer and, bizarrely, a refrigerator. It’s a kind of poor man’s wreck dive. Fish of all descriptions feed there, from angelfish to pipefish to moray eels. The dive is, well, as simple as falling off a boat.

Bilene is a great paddling destination for the non-action hungry visitor. As the nearest resort to the capital, it can get pretty crowded at weekends. During the week, however, the streets are deserted. There is plenty of accommodation along the shoreline, and half a dozen restaurant options. In Bilene, prawns are big. Cashew nuts are big. Shady spots are big. Reading is big. You can paddle across the lagoon and settle — uninterrupted — under a palm tree with nothing but a gecko for company. The secret is to paddle out as early as mid-morning in the summer; this time of day usually heralds the onshore wind.

About 280 miles (450 km) up the national — and only tarred — road lies the coastal town of Inhambane. The drive is between six and eight hours, depending on the mood and proliferation of corrupt traffic police, so be warned! Inhambane is probably the most beautiful city in Mozambique. The capital of Inhambane province lies at the mouth of the Matumba River, sheltered from the Indian Ocean by a peninsula, so the water is calm. It’s the perfect place to launch a kayak.

Inhambane is closer by water than by road to its neighboring town, Maxixe. This means a flourishing dhow-taxi business exists between the towns. As we paddled from the jetty, a fully loaded dhow cut silently across our bow. About 20 passengers grasping chickens, baskets and even the odd goat, stared mutely at us in our bright red vessel. Someone passed a comment, and the whole dhow erupted in smiles and laughter; probably something like “You forgot your sail, white boy.”

Inhambane is best paddled at high tide, a lesson we learned the hard way. At low tide the sand banks stretch out into the main channel, playing host to thousands of tiny crabs, which scuttle out sideways from beneath your feet in enormous herds. These sand banks mean that the fishermen can wade deep into the water and cast their lines. One of the principle methods of fishing, and most spectacular, is the fish trap. It works a lot like a game capture.

The fishermen build two long fences of reeds, in a funnel shape. Each funnel can be up to 300 feet (91 m) long, with just the tip of the reeds visible above the water. At the neck of the funnel is a small maze-like basket, which is presumably easy to swim into, but tricky to escape from if you are a fish. While the fishermen spend the day nearby with a hand line or a net, the fish trap doubles their chances of taking home a decent dinner.

The route we were paddling followed the same path thousands of slaves had taken in the 18th century, to serve the whims of their colonial masters. Mozambique was a major centre for the slave trade, which continued to thrive for decades. Inhambane was the ideal harbor for slave ships heading as far away as the Americas and even Brazil . As ivory exports declined, so slavery grew. In 1858, Inhambane’s population reached 4,000. About 75 percent were slaves awaiting passage. It is estimated that more than a million slaves were shipped from Mozambican ports until its official banning in 1836.

Inhambane is as elegant from the water as it is from the land. The two story colonial buildings along the northern shore nestle between weeping pines, casuarina trees and palms. On the western bank, the turret of an 18th century church, right alongside the less appealing new church, dominates the skyline. To our dismay, we discovered that the old church contains nothing more than a fishing boat. Not even a pew.

Six miles (9.6 km) north of Inhambane is Barra, our next paddling stop. Barra is the peninsula that has protected the Inhambane harbor for centuries. Lodges of all descriptions and price ranges are sprinkled along the strip of land. We launched our kayak at the point, and paddled back towards the mangroves that line the edge of the river. Remarkably, the water was completely clear, and had there been any fish below our boat, we would have seen them.

The river mouth is open to the ocean, supporting the salt-hungry mangroves. I was surprised to see thick clusters of barnacles, distant relatives to crabs and lobsters, growing way up the mangrove trunks. I had never seen barnacles growing on a living tree. The mangroves are a complex maze of shallow corridors. Just as you think you’re charting deep and un-traveled waters, a fisherman wades past in his underpants and disappears up another mangrove alley!

The mangroves may be spectacular to paddle, but the coup de grace has to be the sundowner to end all sundowners. In an abandoned campsite, right on the point of the peninsula, sits a bar. Just a bar. Nothing else. We ordered two beers from the man in the reed hut, and settled into a spectacular sunset, accompanied only by the sound of the fluorescent bug-zapping machine above our heads.

Southern Mozambique is a great sea-kayaking destination, offering calm inland waters and plenty of seafood. The beaches are exposed, making surf launches fairly tricky. Just seeing part of the country from another perspective, albeit a wet one was a privilege.

If You Go

Republic of Mozambique www.mozambique.mz

African Safari & Travel www.go2africa.com/mozambique

Mozambique News www.mozambiquenews.com

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