Shipwrecked on Ibo Island

‘One of the most adventurous border crossings in Africa’. I think that’s how it began. Reading these words describing the border crossing from Tanzania into Mozambique, I felt the restless stirrings of adventure. The guitar strings of my soul started to twang away.

And so I found myself in Mtwara in southern Tanzania looking for transport to the Mozambican border. I was dropped off on the side of a road with no vehicle in sight except for a battered old pickup truck with smooth tyres. It was push-started and we were on our way, bumping over the ruts and holes in the dirt road. Every few kilometres, the driver stopped and jumped out to refill the engine with oil and water. When the only other English speaking passenger climbed down at a small village, I realised there was no turning back.

As we bounced along, my calm returned as I changed my perceptions and first world expectations and relaxed into yet another unusual and interesting African adventure. By the time I climbed aboard a thin long boat to cross the legendary Ruvuma River into Mozambique, I was smiling. Across the water another pickup truck was being loaded with a maize-milling machine, boxes, luggage, packages and passengers. We squeezed in, jigsaw-puzzle style, for the ride to the border post, a small wooden office opposite a tiny village shop, and then continued south. The driver accumulated shopping of dried fish, bananas and cassava which he piled on top of the load and secured to the side of the vehicle while everyone hung on for their lives. Six long dusty hours later we arrived in the small town of Moçimboa da Praia, a simple stop en-route to Pemba and destination Ibo Island in the Querimba Archipelago, a Portuguese trading post of old.

After a four-thirty start and another excruciating six hour journey, I was finally aboard a dhow to the island. The captain poled to deeper water and unfurled the lateen sail, skilfully adjusting the necessary ropes and balancing the weight inside with sandbags. We passed mangrove trees along the coast and sailed out into the archipelago and blue sea. The old worn wood of the boat felt old-friend comfortable and I revelled in being aboard a vessel that had survived in design for hundreds of years and had been responsible for the trade and travel in the Indian Ocean.

I was lost in romantic reverie when Ibo appeared in the distance and the captain turned to enter its waters. To balance the dhow we were instructed to move from one side to the other as the sail swopped sides with each tack, but the boat stubbornly heaved to the left and continued to lean, until, unexpectedly, it capsized. Suddenly we were treading water while trying to catch shoes and bags that were floating off or sinking out of sight. Realizing with relief that we could touch the sea floor, we started to walk towards the shore visible in the distance. I felt the spine of a sea urchin pierce my foot and bent down to pull it out. Making our way over coral, amongst bristlestars and sea snakes, all of which I began to see as the water became shallower, we eventually reached the island. My soaked pack weighed a ton, my foot throbbed and my cold soon turned into full-blown tonsillitis. Island children hopped and skipped around me, delightedly demobilizing crabs by pulling off their pincers and legs. When we found accommodation, I set up my tent on a sandy patch, draping every sodden article (including cameras) over bushes and tent ropes to dry.

The next day, with my throat and foot throbbing, I managed to wash salty clothes with water drawn from the well and explored the island. I followed a procession of dancing women to the old fort, watched the silversmiths making delicate jewellery by hand and hobbled around to see the crumbling old buildings being reclaimed by nature.

Lamenting my ruined camera equipment, I began taking photographs in my mind’s eye, which I continued to do throughout my journey down Mozambique: colourful washing hanging on old buildings, traders selling sparkling glass beads and old coins, coconut palms blowing in the wind, forts glowing golden in the afternoon light and dhows on the wild blue sea.

It was all part of adventurous African travel, exciting, alluring and always unpredictable.

R Swilling

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