|In the main square of Ibo's only town, a woman wears a traditional facial mask of musiro, made from a local tree.|
In Pemba that afternoon, I made arrangements for a flight back to Dar es Salaam, my ambitious overland travel plans of several weeks ago having by now proven woefully over-optimistic.
At a basic local restaurant in Pemba, the Flor d'Avenida, I ate a quiet dinner of the most delicious fish filet I have ever tasted, then rested up for the big day ahead.
Thursday morning I hopped in a chapa at Pemba's main traffic circle, bound for the town of Quissanga and then the sea. Ten minutes into the trip, we turned off the paved highway and onto a dirt track. For the next six hours we wound through the crisp dawn mists that enshrouded the many villages along the way to Tandanhangue, the seaside jumping-off point for Ibo Island, a large island of the Quirimbas Archipelago.
The so-called "port" of Tandanhangue consisted of a small shack on the edge of a wide plain of mud, surrounded by thick mangrove forest. In the mud, several dhows sat askew, listing awkwardly to one side and, like us, impatiently waiting for the local region's extreme tides to bring the sea rushing back. There, I met Stefan, a French scuba instructor who made his living on the island and was returning from his monthly supply trip into town. After a few hours of waiting, we watched the water flow suddenly into the muddy harbor. I joined Stefan and a crowd of locals laden with their bags, sloshing anxiously out to the boats in preparation for departure.
In the strong wind, we plowed swiftly through the waves en route to Ibo, the breakers soaking all aboard in the process thanks to how low the overburdened dhow sat in the water. The young crew steered their hand-built craft through a maze of mangrove stands and forested islets, then across a final stretch of open water to Ibo's main beach. The island, a major Portuguese trading outpost for centuries—until they finally got fed up with the bizarre tides and left—has one main town in a single corner of the island, where all of the several thousand residents live.
Without much competition, the humble remains of the stone fort of São Jose, a Portuguese battlement built in 1760, managed to dominate the waterfront. Several dilapidated stone warehouses and other buildings stretched along the water's edge in greater disrepair. From the shell-covered beach a few local boys led me to one of the island's only two guest houses, following the town's main road.
Ibo, I soon realized as we walked, was very distinct from anywhere I had ever traveled. The island's single truck and handful of motorbikes being insufficient to beat it back, grass covered the main street and all the others in the town. It was tended carefully, however, by the local goats, who gambled about the ruins of the town, grazing over piles of rubble which were once stately Portuguese bungalows. A few of the homes remained standing and fewer still inhabited. The rest had long since been overrun by mosses and their stone walls devoured by the insidious tentacles of strangler fig trees. Some strangler figs sprouted horizontally from the walls and poked through the rust-red tile roofs.
In the town's main square, an old customs house, trimmed with intricate ironwork and its wide porch splashed with an ebullient pink and pastel blue paint job, served as the local government center. Next door towered the island's large church, its stately stone facade covered in moss and lichens. A fig tree poked irreverently skyward from a caved-in section of the church's roof. After just a few minutes of wandering the beautifully dilapidated island, I was not surprised when Atouche, a local boy with carefully enunciated schoolboy English, said of the crumbling church, "They still use it on a-Sundays."
Altogether, Ibo exuded the mystical aura of a secluded tropical backwater—which is exactly what it is. Few tourists ever visit the remote isle, and even its residents were at times nearly invisible. Passing the market, I spotted just two rows of run-down, peeling stalls, boarded up except for one, which was manned by a small crowd of children who sold only toothpaste, shoe polish, soap, and a few small loaves of stale bread. Even in the afternoon, no more than a handful of people, most of them children, were ambling the streets idly. As darkness descended on the crumbling, moss-cloaked ghost town, I wondered if I had not wandered unwittingly into a real-life Lord of the Flies.