Planning a Snorkeling and Camping Trip to Quirimbas National Park
The Quirimbas archipelago is comprised of 32 islands off the most northern coast of Mozambique — just south of the Tanzanian border. Accessing them from Tanzania involves crossing the “sometimes fordable with a good 4-wheel drive” Ruvuma river in the dry season. In the wet season it is impassible. From the south, Quirimbas National Park is a four to five-day drive from Maputo.
This isolation combined with the unique geography of an archipelago on the East African coast really piqued my interest. I envisioned sailing between some of the islands with a snorkel and a fishing line, and exploring the marine ecosystem.
The main island in the Quirimbas archipelago is Ibo Island, from which it made sense to launch such an adventure. Lucie, the owner of Baobibo Guesthouse on Ibo, made it easy. She connected me with some local fishermen who had a dhow (traditional wooden Swahili sailing boat), and were happy to guide me on sailing and snorkeling safari to the neighboring islands.
Lucie had a palm frond shelter on Matemo Island to the north, under which I could set up camp. From there we could sail to the next island, which was Rolas Island. It is known for great diving and snorkeling because of the schools of fish that shelter in the coral bommies around the island. The only inhabitants of Rolas Island are coconut crabs, so this sounded exactly like the remote marine ecosystem I was seeking.
The catch was Lucie could not guarantee the trip. It was the rainy season and storms and wind conditions were already unpredictable. I had to roll the traveler’s dice and get myself to Ibo Island with the biggest window of time possible and wait for conditions to allow for an adventure.
Sailing to, Snorkeling around and Camping on Rolas Island
I bought plane flights to the north from Maputo and decided I would spend nine days out in the archipelago. Sure enough, the winds were stormy the first three days I was there. However, on the fourth day, the sun emerged, and the forecast was supposed to be clear for the next couple days. So, we loaded a dhow with some essential camping gear and set sail to the north for Matemo Island.
We zig zagged with the winds, stopping at a shipwreck in the channel between Ibo and Matemo islands for a snorkel. Then we sailed several hours to Matemo and found some snorkeling spots offshore. The snorkeling was fun, but it was the beach that was most impressive. There was a fancy looking lodge on the island, which was shut for the season. So we had a private beach with the great apocalypse feeling that an empty lodge conveys. We found Lucie’s little palm shelter on the other side of the island and set up camp.
We stayed for three nights on Matemo Island. Each morning launching the dhow when the tide was high enough, and crossing a small channel to Rolas Island. Occasionally, we would see other dhows, their pointy sails like shark’s teeth floating in the distance. Otherwise, we not only had Rolas Island to ourselves, but the entire ocean around it.
The Epic Snorkeling at Rolas Island
I would sit on the front of the dhow, scoping coral bommies as we glided over them. The water is clear enough that you can see the colors of the soft coral and get an idea of the life on the bommie. I wanted to explore them all, but there were so many I had to choose. We just spent the days bouncing between bommies, and then exploring the coastline of Rolas at high tide.
The snorkeling was fantastic. I saw beaded anemones, hinge-beaked shrimp, and conche and cowries on the bottom. I found raggy and yellow spotted scorpionfish hiding in the reef. There were blue spotted ribbontail rays and lobsters sheltered in the shadows. I followed a cryptic sponge crab through the shallows and heard dolphin calls underwater.
The highlight were the tens of thousands of small fish schooling around the bommies. When it was calm, they would let me glide through them, parting just in front of my face, and reuniting like little magnates behind my fins. Other times they would be hunted by bigger fish coming up from the bottom. When attacked, they would shoot past me like a thousand shards of glass.
I snorkeled six to eight hours a day. I just could not get enough. For those looking for some beautifully remote reefs to explore East Africa underwater, Rolas Island is the best place I have been besides the Seychelles. I highly recommend you organize a trip.
Notes for Nomads:
I recommend launching the trip from Ibo Island. I stayed at Baobibo Guesthouse there and loved it. Lucie is the owner and helped me arrange everything. She is wonderfully kind, very organized and I highly recommend you stay with her.
I brought a tent, which was great for the rain and mosquitoes. Otherwise, plenty of sun protection and camera batteries. I had extra batteries, but they do not last long with underwater photography. Lucie’s friend on Matemo Island did help me charge them with a car battery, but that is not a reliable solution.
The rainy season is from January to May and it is hottest in January and February, so plan your trip accordingly. From June to November the humpbacks migrate past, which would be amazing to try and see. Ibo Island Lodge has a scuba diving operation called Dive Quirimbas, but the divemaster is not there in the off-season, so I was out of luck. There is supposed to be a good macro dive up there.