There are few travel pleasures more perfect than discovering a secret patch of paradise. I found mine on a remote stretch of beach, north of the town of Inhambane in Mozambique.
Sloping gently down to a rich azure sea, sparkling with boiling white surf, the golden sand glistened. The beach was nameless, entirely empty of other visitors and tropically gorgeous under a navy blue sky. I stood there, my face glowing in the warm morning sun, and relished the massage of sand crunching between my toes. For a few minutes I had the beach completely to myself. It was a moment to remember.
I was travelling up through Mozambique on a journey around the coast of the Indian Ocean, the third largest on the planet and unquestionably the most beautiful. Accompanied by a BBC film crew for a new six-part TV travel series of the same name, my journey began in South Africa down on the coast near Cape Town. I had followed the ocean to the port city of Durban, then hopped on an Italian cargo ship to the Mozambican capital, Maputo. Ahead lay a further 14 countries, as I travelled up the east coast of Africa to Oman, round the coast of India to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, then back down the west coast of Indonesia to my finishing line in south-west Australia.
It was a journey that took me from the extremes of frontline battle in Mogadishu in Somalia — perhaps the most dangerous place on the planet — to the beautiful Maldives and Mauritius. Along the way I went spear-fishing off the coast of Madagascar with the local Vezo people, met a Yorkshireman on his Seychelles island home, learnt to surf in Bangladesh, harvested seaweed off Bali and packed-away a lifetime of adventures and memories.
Every country I visited offered astonishing sights and taught me about life around the ocean. But Mozambique made an impression that really lingers. Recent decades have been cruel, and the country has endured war, famine and floods, and still suffers from a poor reputation.
Yet beautiful beaches, fresh seafood and Mozambique’s laid-back Latino vibe — befitting a former Portuguese colony — once attracted more visitors than neighbouring South Africa and Zimbabwe combined. Slowly visitors are returning to a country whose spicy food and culture make neighbouring countries seem a little staid. It’s Cuba in Africa.
The capital Maputo is beguiling, with a deserved reputation for being both safe and sexy. Jazz clubs never seem to close, and the energetic can dance till they drop every night of the week.
But nobody should visit just to get stuck in the city. The area around Inhambane has a world-class reputation for surf and relaxation, drawing surf dudes and beach bums. Head further north and there are long, isolated, empty stretches of coast dotted with the occasional beach resort. Luxury lies just offshore still further north, on the Bazaruto Archipelago, a sprinkling of Indian Ocean islands. A 540sq mile national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the five small Bazaruto islands offer some of the finest diving on Africa’s east coast with the full spectrum of marine life: sharks, dolphins, whales, huge manta rays and whale sharks.
While Mozambique has an incredible 1,500-mile Indian Ocean coastline, the interior isn’t short on adventure. On a previous journey around the Tropic of Capricorn, the line marking the southern border of Earth’s tropical zone, I travelled from South Africa’s Kruger National Park across the border into the wilderness of Mozambique’s Parque Nacional do Limpopo, stayed at the remote and secluded Machampane tented forest camp and went lion-tracking on foot at dawn. It ranks up there with some of the great wildlife encounters of my life.
Back on the Indian Ocean journey, I left Inhambane and my nameless beach, and hopped north to Beira, Mozambique’s second city, to visit the oceanside Grande Hotel, once one of the most luxurious on the continent. Built in 1952 with several hundred rooms, a swimming pool and a cinema, the hotel has long since become a ruin, but it is far from empty. A local guide took me into what is now something of a well-run little town, packed with hundreds of families who originally took refuge in the building during Mozambique’s civil war, and have stayed on during peacetime. Residents have set up a system of local government with elected leaders and hygiene and security committees. It was poor and crowded, but also inspiring.
I was just beginning my Indian Ocean travels, on a journey that ultimately took me more than six months to complete. But Mozambique showed me there’s so much more to the Indian Ocean than just gorgeous holiday islands. Along its coast and beyond, the Indian Ocean is a vast, tantalising and extraordinary area of our world.
Simon Reeve is the presenter of the new BBC series Indian Ocean. He has travelled extensively in more than 110 countries and been around the world three times for the BBC series Equator, Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer. www.simonreeve.co.uk
Published in the May/June 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)