The enigmatic waters and laid-back islands of the Bazaruto Archipelago keep Richard Holmes coming back for more
Ninety metres below me, the dhow tacks hard against the kusi, the brisk south-easterly trade wind that blows all through winter and spring along the coast of Mozambique.
The lateen sail lashed hard, a dark slash against the translucent blue waters, it is a scene little changed for centuries. In the 1500s, that trade wind would have blown dhows – laden with gold, ivory and slaves – between Africa and Arabia. Today, though, it is only the fishermen from Bazaruto Island heading to the deep in search of better catches.
From my helicopter seat, the Bazaruto Archipelago stretches out below me in a tapestry of blues. A filigree of deep channels drains water off the white sandbanks like the veins of a leaf, the tides ebbing towards the Mozambique Channel. The water here is remarkable – myriad shades in a patchwork of sand and saturated blues.
The fishermen are just going about their daily business, but it is these waters that bring most tourists to this corner of central Mozambique. The warm seas lapping the islands lure beach bums in search of sun-loungers, while the deep channels and offshore reefs draw fishermen and scuba divers from across the world.
Six islands – Bazaruto, Benguerra, Banque, Magaruque, Santa Carolina (also known as Paradise Island) and Shell – make up this proclaimed national park, and, while the mainland boasts a wider array of lodges and resorts, the real magic of the archipelago is found out at sea.
Shortly after landing at the Vilankulo airport, just a 90-minute flight from Joburg, I find myself on a speedboat transfer bouncing across a wind-chopped sea. The warm spray drenches my shirt as the blue shallows give way to the enigmatic greens of deeper water.
I’m staying at Anantara Bazaruto Island Resort, easily the finest hotel on the largest island in the archipelago. While it offers all the usual trappings of a luxurious island getaway, I’m not here in search of a spot by the pool and a cold 2M beer. There’s far too much to explore.
While some travellers may see an island holiday as simply about soaking up sun, sea and sloth, Bazaruto is different. Sure, there are plenty of beachfront restaurants and a gorgeous hilltop spa to indulge in, but the real magic lies in leaving your sun-lounger behind.
My first foray away from the beach?
We saddle up and head out.
Horse riding has become a popular pastime in the archipelago, and most reputable lodges offer excursions catering for all levels of experience. While cantering along the high-water mark offers plenty of thrills for skilled riders, for beginners such as myself, a sedate clip-clop through the villages surrounding the resort is just as entertaining. A peek into village life shows a different side to island living.
As does a 4×4 excursion into the heart of Bazaruto. ‘The island was once part of the mainland, this is why we have these freshwater lakes on Bazaruto,’ explains my guide, Lourenço, who grew up here on the island.
Bazaruto is home to more than 180 bird species. As a flock of greater flamingos sifts through the shallows of Lake Lengwe, I spy dark shapes near the reed beds.
‘Nile crocodiles!’ smiles Lourenço. ‘There used to be hippos in these lakes too, but they were all hunted out.’
Running down to the distant lake shore, towering white sand dunes offer yet more opportunity for adventure: sandboarding trips that take the fit and adventurous flying down the slopes.
But there’s no time. The next morning a helicopter drifts down out of the blue sky, and within minutes we are skimming low along the east coast of the island. Dolphins burst from the waves below, as we scan for a sighting of the rare dugongs that call the archipelago home. Slow-moving and docile, these herbivorous mammals are the marine celebrities of Bazaruto; yet, sadly, historical overfishing and ongoing habitat loss mean they are few and far between.
Chris, the chopper pilot, crackles over the headphones, ‘No, no, they’re here. We saw one on the way to fetch you.’
No luck today though. Instead, my gaze wanders over the dhows and bright blue channels, then down to a ‘castaway’ picnic set up on a deserted sandbank. A blue tent for shade, a table laid for lunch, and a private stretch of beach to call your own.
These picnics are one of the highlights of a stay at &Beyond’s Benguerra Island Lodge, a slice of five-star Robinson Crusoe living in which private butlers cater to your every whim. With private splash pools and sunbeds, it’d be tempting to spend most of your time here horizontal; but, again, there’s too much to see.
First, simply take a walk.
Fishing communities – along with tourism – remain the lifeblood of these islands and, as the tides ebb and flow, the beach is a hive of activity. Fishermen repair their nets and prepare their dhows, while the women search the shallows for sand oysters. At low tide, kids kick a deflated ball about the mud flats in an energetic game of soccer.
Back at the lodge, the roster of activities ranges from morning snorkelling trips to horse rides along the beach. The diving here is superb, with daily excursions out to Two Mile Reef. The full-day catamaran cruise to Paradise Island is popular too, with the chance to spot dolphins and rays while en route to some of the best snorkelling in the archipelago.
If you fancy casting your line into the deep blue, you’ve come to the right place: fishing excursions with laid-back skipper Dean Taylor target both deep-sea game fish and in-shore species on light tackle. Ever wanted to catch a marlin on fly? Now’s your chance.
This is a destination that really revolves around the sea – whether you’re trotting through the shallows on horseback or tucking into fresh local lobster on the beach. And as our chopper rises up into the soft humid air, making it’s way back to the airport, a familiar carpet of blue rolls out beneath us. The dhows are there, dancing to the kusi while the sandbanks shimmer on the low tide. Bazaruto, I’ll be back.
Photography: Gallo/GettyImages, iStockphoto, Courtesy images