The Essence of Ibo Island
Ibo Island feels like an heirloom, passed from culture to culture through the ages. The Swahili, Arabs, Indians, Dutch, Malagasy, British, French and Portuguese have all left their imprint on the island. Some are harsh colonial scratches on its soul, while others are picturesque like the Swahili sails on the fisherman’s dhows.
Historically, Ibo Island has played an important role as a trading post along the East African coast. It was so strategic that the Portuguese built an iconic star-shaped fort there in 1760, and in the 19th century, Ibo Island served as the capital of northern Mozambique.
However, despite its historical pedigree, Ibo Island is quiet now. Its isolated location, far from any urban development, is now what defines it. It is the center of Quirimbas National Park, where dolphins hunt in the shallows offshore, schools of fish shelter in shipwrecks, and the reefs are watercolored with coral rainbows. It is one of the most pristine marine ecosystems on the East African mainland.
An Authentic Travel Destination
Despite this, travelers seldom reach the shores of Ibo. There are a couple of lodges and plenty of activities, but the difficulty of getting there likely dismays most people. Ironically, this creates the authentic traveler’s experience many are seeking.
Local families open their homes as informal restaurants and offer what they caught that day for dinner. Guides are fishermen taking the day-off to show you around, and the old administrative buildings left by the Portuguese lay open for exploration along the coastline.
In the mornings the young women make mussiro masks by rubbing a white paste on their faces, and men tinker with fishing nets. The people of Ibo Island farm when it rains, fish when the tide is high and hunt mangrove crabs when it recedes. Everyone plans their day around the cadence of the tides.
High tide floods the vast mangrove forest, leaving less than a third of the island above the waterline, but it also allows boats to dock and depart from the shores. At low tide, shipwrecks surrounding the island jut above the ocean, and the exposed sandy shoals and muddy mangrove forests create an impenetrable land moat for boats.
During the new and full moons, the low tides are so extreme, they uncover a land bridge of sand and petrified coral to the neighboring island of Quirimba. Those seeking a little adventure can cross the exposed sea floor, navigate the mangrove forests, and emerge on another island – by foot. It is quite a unique experience.
Walking on Water Between Ibo and Quirimba Islands
We left Ibo Island at high tide in a small fiberglass boat with an outboard motor, navigating through the mangroves and across a large channel. About an hour later we hopped over the side of the boat and explored the village on Quirimba Island. The village is small and caught slightly farther back in time than the town on Ibo.
I watched a father and son lash mangrove and bamboo together into a lattice to frame the side of a new house. Another man crushed petrified coral into a paste, which would be used to waterproof the exterior walls. I walked along the length of the beach stepping over palm tree trunks that had fallen as the island’s shores have begun eroding.
I sat and chatted with a fisherman who told me Chinese men were paying the locals to collect sea cucumbers in the Quirimbas National Park, and how finding fish had become more difficult over his lifetime. I ate coconut fish on the beach and fishermen launched casquinhas (local wooden canoes) out to sea.
Then the small coral island just offshore became a rock formation on the beach. The boats anchored around it were lowered gently onto the sandy bottom by the outgoing tide, and came to a rest tilted on their sides. It was time to start our trek.
The walk back takes about three hours, if you stop for the sights. The first part of the walk is over the ancient coral shoal, covered in white sand that is ridged in fractals from the water’s retreat. There is no cover from the Mozambican sun, but you are cooled by the streaming channels you cross heading to the mangrove forest.
The mangrove roots stand like crab legs out of the water, creating a marine forest melody as the water rushes through them. The muddy sea water stands from ankle to shin deep on the path. The roots of the mangroves are about waist high, and the sun and sky are blocked from above by the dense mangrove canopy. The whole world in there is glowing green above and dirty brown below, until the thousands of hyper colored fiddler crabs emerge from their holes.
Reflections on the Future of Quirimbas
The experience is not only unique because you get to walk to an island and inspect the ocean floor, but also for allowing you to peak into the world that is otherwise covered by mangroves. It is hard walking through the water and mud, and the mangroves are full of mosquitoes, so you are relieved when you reach the town again on Ibo Island.
After the trudge, tin roofs and sand roads of town are welcomed civilization. The tide rises behind you, separating the two islands again and concealing any little imprint you had made on the trek over. This thought makes me smile. Because while the cultural history of Ibo Island gives it character, protecting its pristine ecosystem from future human impact will determine its future as a national park. A future all cultures should want to see flourish.
Notes for Nomads:
I stayed at Baobibo Guesthouse on Ibo Island and loved it. Lucie is the owner, and helped me arrange travel to the island, meals with families while I stayed there, and all my activities. She is wonderfully kind, very organized and I highly recommend you stay with her.
Overlanders repetitively told me not to try driving my car to northern Mozambique from Tanzania, although it may be possible in the dry season. One traveler I met said he took a Tanzanian bus (matatu) to the border, which is just a river. Then everyone put their bags on their head and waded across where another matatu was waiting. I flew from Maputo to Pemba, then took a truck to a boat to get there and flew back from Ibo to Pemba when I left in a light aircraft.
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.