Imagine the ends of the earth: a flat horizon of boundless ocean, a perfectly binary world of sea and sky. You’ll confront this world if you ask the staff at Ibo Island Lodge to take you out for lunch. They’ll wait for the outgoing morning tide to float their wooden dhow, then lift off from the estuary bank and sail west, out from the Quirimbas and into the open ocean.
It’s a slightly nervous sensation, to be leaving all land behind with just a narrow prow ahead of you pointing straight at a featureless future. Then after an hour or so, you’ll see a murmur in the water ahead, like thin sheets folding over each other, which part to reveal a small golden egg, then a golden mound, which becomes a dune, that opens an arm that extends into a spit — so that as you arrive, you step out onto a virgin sand island that has appeared out of the deep blue. The water’s edges are sprinkled with cowrie shells and the shallows are a coral garden in which turtles and parrotfish play. On the highest part of the island, the staff set a table on the sand, anchor it with an umbrella, and decorate it with a cold lobster and iced white wine. Lunch at world’s end, it turns out, is worth the risk of eternal oblivion.
Ibo Island Lodge sits on the northern end of Ibo Island, which itself sits in the middle of the Quirimbas archipelago off the coast of northern Mozambique. A number of the other Quirimbas islands are single hotel resorts and some are even privately owned. But Ibo is unique among them, being an old Arab trading town, the most southern of a Swahili coast that takes in Lamu, Malindi, Mombasa and Zanzibar. The Lodge, along with a handful of other hotels, bars and sleepy restaurants, is tucked into what is a largely deserted,
grand old city.
Once 40,000 people lived here. Today, there’s a tenth of that number. Many of the townhouses, their grand entrances shaded by great colonnades, are in ruins, with trees growing through their red-tiled roofs. The ghostly feel adds to Ibo’s otherworldliness. There are forgotten centuries here. Wander and you’ll find the main praça (square), a decrepit Indian’s merchant’s house and a Portuguese fort.
In a back street is a small house covered with tens of thousands of cowries — the work, so Ibo legend goes, of the wife of a Portuguese trader who counted the years her husband was gone seeking his fortune in Africa by sticking a shell on the side of her house for every day without him. When, after several years, he eventually came back to her dying of fever, she lost her mind and continued taking food to him on his deathbed for weeks after he passed away.
The days in Ibo are spent wandering the town, chatting to silversmiths and the local historian, Joao Baptista, and taking trips to other islands, maybe to spot a dolphin or a whale shark or a dugong. The evenings are for seafood and perhaps a late night rum cocktail or two. But, to visit Ibo, like no other place on earth, with its expansive horizons and deep history of lost empires and merged cultures, is to take yourself somewhere to pause and reflect. It’s the place to write a book or plan a life. For my wife and I, it was where we went after a decade in which we’d moved from London to Hong Kong to New Delhi to Cape Town while accumulating three children and during which, at one point, she found herself writing television news scripts about a war, Afghanistan, in which I’d gone briefly missing.
Ibo’s where you go to rediscover your perspective. It was Ibo, too, that got me thinking about Africa’s foreign visitors. Arabs had been coming to Ibo for more than 1,000 years. The Chinese had visited almost a century before Vasco da Gama sailed by on his way to India. The 500 years following that voyage were dominated by the European idea of a continent forgotten by time and civilisation where it was the white man’s duty to bring progress to the heathen. One look at today’s aid campaigns, demanding we save starving Africans from themselves, is enough to tell you how little distance we’ve really come since. Yet here in Ibo was a history of a humbler meeting of peoples that pre-dated our Age of Discovery. It made you wonder. What else in Africa had we got wrong?
Alex Perry was a foreign correspondent based in Africa for most of the last decade, writing for TIME and Newsweek among others. His latest book, The Rift: a New Africa Breaks Free is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, RRP: £14.99.
Published in the March 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)