How We Managed the Quirimbas Archipelago

DSC01017.jpgOut of all the possible destinations to visit on our overland trip, the Quirimbas was at the very top of my wish list from the start. It’s a pretty remote locale (even for people living in Mozambique) so it was just by chance that I had ever even heard about it. A couple years ago, I saw a random ad in an airline magazine which piqued my interest and lead to some googling. It was love at first site when I saw images of this amazing collection of pristine islands off northern Mozambique. I was quite naïve at first. I thought we could just plan a weekend trip there from Botswana! I looked into the accommodation options and got some of the most insane price quotes I have ever seen. Like $5000 for a 3 day trip excluding flights! I couldn’t believe it! How could it be so unattainably expensive to reach this paradise! I resolved that I would find some way to make it possible on our budget.

Our Africa overland trip became the opportunity I had been waiting for to get us to the Quirimbas. But it was still not an easy feat. Getting to the archipelago became a major point of contention with Garrett. I wanted to spend a big chunk of time driving the whole coast up to the northern border of Mozambique to reach the Quirimbas. This meant 30+ hours of driving through bad roads and potentially dangerous areas of inland Mozambiqe which Garret was naturally not excited about. He just wanted to leave our car in Inhambe and fly in and out of Pemba, but I was persistent. I wanted the experience of driving the whole country! An of course, he eventually he gave in.

Even after doing a ton of research and talking to a lot of locals – getting info on details and logistics of visiting the Quirimbas was still pretty patchy. We got a lot of conflicting and outdated info. What we could piece together is that there are two options. You can pay a ton of money to do a fly in fly out barefoot bespoke beach experience. This would take you to the remote northern islands of the Quirimbas that look like something out of a dream. There, you stay at over the top 5 star resorts and can dive to your hearts content on reefs that are full of life because they are far from local fishermen. By all accounts it sounded like utter paradise that MIGHT just be worth the money. We spent a long time thinking about if maybe we should just bite the bullet and do it. Luckily we didn’t lose are minds and take the bait.

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the “parking lot” under a tree

The other option is to drive yourself to the closest mainland town of Quissanga. At the Tandanhangue bridge pier, you leave your car in a “parking lot” and pay some local boys to guard it while you are on the islands. Then you get a local captain to ferry you across the channel. You arrive on Ibo Island which is the gateway to the Quirimbas. You can then arrange a dhow “safari” to take you to other further afield islands where you can do rustic camping. However, to get to the really far islands you need at least a week on a dhow (and still not a great idea) or a motored catamaran.

There are budget options for accommodation on Ibo but there is only one dive center. Dive Quirimbas is connected to Ibo Island Lodge which is upscale and very overpriced. You aren’t guaranteed to be able to dive as an outside guest which means you could get regularly bumped in the high season . Multiple people also told us that the dive center was closed in Feb/March which really struck fear in our hearts!

IMG_20180318_220322_245.jpgDespite all the potential unknowns in the equation, we decided to just get ourselves out to Ibo and play it by ear from there. We booked two nights at a lodge called Cinco Portas to get us started. Cinco Portas was amazing, and in my option the best on the island for the value. Our ferry dropped us off directly at the front porch where we were greeted by the manager, Chris who was incredibly friendly and helpful. He upgraded us to a terrace room with AC and hot water (which are not included in the budget rooms). He is also the chef of their restaurant, which is rated one of the top in Moz! The lodge is very cozy, has beautiful grounds, excellent staff, great ocean views and of course excellent food. We felt very well taken care of and enjoyed being one of only a handful of guests.

We didn’t have to look far to get our diving arranged. The main dive guide, Kissinger, was having a drink at our hotel when we arrived. What luck! He was able to set up our diving immediately, which really eased our fears about the center being closed. For our first day of diving we went to a reef off Matemo island south and then did the Lighthouse off Ibo. The first dive was spectacular. The coral was out of this world. Swirls of bright pink, purple, blue, lavender soft corals as far as you could see. Plenty of fish and a diversity of landscapes – coral walls, mounds, and sandy bottoms. This easily ranks as some of the best corals we have seen (not a good but close to Palau and the Red Sea ).

The second dive at Lighthouse was more of the same amazing coral but even more spectacular because of the visibility. Our dive guide Wilfred is a Zimbabwean who only learned to dive 5 years ago. He used to be a safari guide in Hwange and Mana Pools but took a chance on a job with Ibo Island Lodge where he eventually got enticed to learn to dive. You really don’t run into many local Africans that dive. I am always quite excited when I find a local dive guide because it is so important for locals to benefit from the diving industry. If people could switch from making their living off diving instead of fishing, our oceans would be in much better shape. Wilfred was a safety conscious guide but definitely still a beginner. I’ve never met a dive guide who didn’t know how to make symbols underwater to indicate when they’ve spotted something. He would start freaking out waving and pointing frantically making you think he has seen a whale shark or something….then you realize he is just trying to point out a grouper! We felt like there must be endless amazing creatures in these plentiful reefs that we were missing because our guide just wasn’t knowledgeable. Really a bummer. We did find stuff on our own but you just can’t beat a good guide to find the most interesting creatures. There is a channel in between the islands where dolphins hang out and we were able to see them on our way to the second dive site. You can also do a day trip to the area when the tide is low to snorkel with them. Other guests raved about this experience.

The second day of diving we visited Quirimba which is one of the larger islands that has about 5000 inhabitants. It is mainly covered with coconut farms. We did two dives at a large stretch of coral reef south of the island. It was quite nice but not as impressive as our first day. We did see a number of turtles. We had lunch in between dives on the island at Ibo Island Lodge’s campsite. Their guests overnight in basic canvas tents for their dhow safari’s.

The island of Ibo is somewhat reminiscent of Mozambique Island, but I found it to be even more charming. It felt like a ghost town with so many random buildings in various stages of disuse and disrepair. There was a sense of sadness but also of hope. The kids seemed happy and content to live in the peaceful solitude of this isolated island. Everyone was friendly and inquisitive but not aggressive and intrusive like we have experienced elsewhere. I felt as if we were visiting an island lost in time. People seemed to be living on their own terms without need for modern technology. It felt like a window to an older simpler time. I absolutely loved it!

One important thing to note when staying on Ibo is that you have to be very careful about planning your meals. There are no walk in restaurants. Places only cook if you order in advance. So you have to decide your plans for the day in the morning and order all your meals. We had a few close calls where we almost forgot to get our order in!

We had dinner one night at a local family’s house. We got picked up by the chef and walked across the island in the dark to his house. He had a small table set up with twinkle lights – it was super cute. We were served crab curry and grilled kingfish. Both were amazing – but I was especially blown away by the crab curry. It was a wonderful experience that I would recommend to anyone visiting Ibo. The next two nights we ate at Cinco Portas. Some of the highlights included a clam chowder made from a locally sourced penrose clam. It is harvested exclusively by the young girls on the island. Each clam provides a tiny morsel of meat about the size of a penny. They sell for $2/kg and this is really the only source of income for these young girls. We also had prawn curry, grouper, marlin carpaccio and local lobsters. All fantastic.

We spent an afternoon with a local family learning how to make the mussiro face masks which are used by the women of the Makua tribe. As a dermatologist, I am fascinated by local skin care techniques. We’ve seen some pretty cool stuff in our travels, including a recurring theme of using the bark of local trees to make face masks to protect from the sun and soften the skin. I have seen this practice in areas of South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Comoros, Myanmar and Nepal. I cannot figure out if there is any relationship between the type of bark being used in each area but I hope to figure this out someday! I was so excited for the opportunity to hang out with the local women and get to make my own mask! It took about 10 minutes to prepare the paste from scraping the bark against a coral stone and then another 10 minutes to paint it on. I was told it should be baked on in the sun for full effect, however, it started getting really itchy when it dried so I washed it off pretty quick. I must say it did make my skin very soft!

We originally planned to just spend 1 night at Cinco Portas then arrange for a dhow safari to take us to other islands for a few nights of camping. I loved Cinco Portas and Ibo so much that we decided to stay 3 nights and just do one night of camping. It was a very good decision! Ibo has been one of my favorite stops on the whole trip and Cinco Portas my favorite lodge. I wish we could have stayed even longer!

We spent our last night in the archipelago visiting the northern edge of Matemo island. Cinco Portas arranged our transport and accommodation with a local family who had built a homestay called “Daddi’s place.” It took about an hour to get there, however the island has such a rocky coral edge that boats can only dock near the beach in certain locations.

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the walk to “Daddi’s Place”

We got dropped off at a beach in the middle of the island with all our bags at peak heat of the day. Although the beach was pretty, I am not a fan of just sitting in the blazing sun. There was no shade and it was so hot that the water felt like a hot tub. We couldn’t communicate at all with our boat captain so we couldn’t tell if this is where we were going to camp for the night or what we were supposed to do. We later found out that we were meant to hang out for a little bit on the beach and then lunch was supposed to be driven down by motor bike. We were supposed to walk to our beach hut on the other side of the island when it got cooloer. Well we got this all mixed up and ended up doing a 45 minute death march across the island on empty stomachs with all our bags at the hottest time of the day. It was pretty miserable. At least lunch was ready when we got to the beach huts. We were served grilled calamari, beans and rice. Also a watermelon type fruit that was unfortunately not ripe. The beans were good but otherwise a so-so meal.

Our little beach hut was very cute. It had a basic foam mattress with foam pillows, a felt comforter and a beaten up mosquito net. There was a simple outhouse with a squat toilet and a bucket shower. The beach in front of our hut was secluded but didn’t offer much to do aside from sitting in the sun. The whole area was so rocky that it was not possible to swim. We spent our afternoon reading and napping, a little unsure of what to do with ourselves. We searched through the tide pools for hermit crabs and shells. We flew the drone which drew in a crowd of enthralled locals. It was like magic to them. I love seeing people’s reactions to the drone – it is sometimes positive and sometimes negative but always a strong reaction!

IMG_20180318_104502_318.jpgThe sun set at around 5:30 so after dark we had even less options for what to do without electricity. Dinner was served around 6 and consisted of very rubbery grilled octopus and rice. I was not a fan and had only a few bites. We enjoyed the solitude and admired the spectacular canopy of stars above us. I think we went to bed around 8pm (which almost never happens!). We then awoke with the sunrise and were served a breakfast of onion omelets floating in grease with Portuguese rolls, tea and coffee. We packed up and made our 45 minute walk back to the other side of the island to catch our dhow back to the mainland.

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Milky Way over Matemo

This overnight trip cost about $200 including transport which is pretty pricey. In the past people have made it sound like dhow safaris could be booked readily and cheaply with local fisherman, but now everyone has standardized their rates so its difficult to find anything cheaper. I am glad we did our overnight on Matemo, to see what the island was like, support a local family and learn more about what life is like on these islands. But I am so grateful that we didn’t do a 5 night dhow camping safari like we originally planned! Camping on remote topical islands sounds like such a romantic adventure….but it is so easy to forget how difficult it is to have no fresh water, be covered in sand, sunscreen, baked in the sun, and swarmed with mosquitos for days!

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Quirimba Island

So how did the Quirimbas measure up to our expectations? Overall we really loved our trip. It was a perfect mix of natural beauty, history, local culture, some luxury and some roughing it. I would have spent a week just aimlessly wandering around Ibo and relaxing at Cinco Portas. The experience was much different than my expectations, but not in a bad way. Obviously the highlight was diving. The visibility of the water was excellent. The coral was spectacular but otherwise not much to keep our interest for more than a handful of dives. Instead of the coral atoll style islands I was expecting from the pictures – the Quirimbas are mangrove islands, which do not create the same kind of pristine beaches. There are huge 8ft swings in the tides so most of the day there is just a field of rocky mangroves flanking the mainland. There are only sand beaches in a few areas. From what I am told, the further away islands of Vamizi and Medjumbe are more picturesque but I would still be a little suspect that the reality might not live up to what is sold in the pictures.

Although our beach camping was not as exciting as we hoped – it was still a great experience. I love visiting places that feel “undiscovered” and this place definitely is one of the more off the beaten path places we have been. I would highly recommend it for those looking to fully explore Mozambique or anyone with a lot of money who is looking for a unique honeymoon location that combines history, culture, diving and beaches.

Practical info for a visit to the Quirimbas:

Getting there:

  • Fly into Pemba and take a Chapa bus to the ferry dock that crosses to Ibo.
  • Fly directly from Pemba to Ibo Island.
  • Driving:  Self drive from Pemba to ferry dock. Ferries can only cross at high tide which varies from day to day. Ferries wait for the Chapa bus to arrive so you won’t miss the chance to cross if you travel that route. But if you are self driving, you’ll need to be careful of drive time. It takes about 5 hours to drive from Pemba on the long route, which has a good tar road up until the last 75 kms. When you drive up to the pier you’ll see a large baobab tree with a bunch of local guys hanging out underneath it. They will direct you where to park. Agree on a price and number of days before you leave. It should be 200-250 meticals per day but they will most assuredly try to rip you off. – if you stay at any lodge on the island they will pre-arrange a boat to come pick you up.

Where to stay on Ibo:

  • We HIGHLY recommend Cinco Portas. This is one of our favorite place we’ve stayed thus far on the trip. It is also super affordable at ~$50 a night and they have free wifi.
  • Other main accommodation options include Miti Mwiri, Baobibo and Ibo Island Lodge. There are a few other spots that will soon be opening. Would not advise Ibo Island Lodge which is very overpriced for not that much different amenities compared to Cinco Portas. It is a beautiful place to visit and I would advise having sundowners on their rooftop deck.
  • If you are on a budget, you can talk to locals about homestay or camping options.

Where to stay on other islands:

  • There are a few places to rent a room on Quirimba island and Matemo island. The lodges on Ibo can help you get details to arrange. Going further than Matemo will require a larger boat. Lodges on Ibo can assist with helping you to arrange something like this. We also found a company that you can do a private charter with to include diving.

Diving:

  • Dive Quirimbas is on Ibo island. They do two dives a day via short boat trip. Dive sites are fairly shallow with little current. Very easy diving. $75 per dive. Guides have pretty basic training but are excellent on safety. They are in contact with other dive centers and can assist you with arranging diving on other islands. It is possible to dive with the centers on Medjumbe and Vamizi even if you aren’t staying at their resort, you would just need a boat to get there and it is expensive!

Things to Do on the Islands:

  • Ibo – city tour, snorkeling with dolphins, day trip to a sand bank, low tide walk through mangroves from Ibo to Quirimba, cultural activities with local families.
  • Matemo – not much to do except hang out on beach and swim when tide is high. Need a boat to take you out to reefs to snorkel

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