Swimming with the Quirimbas Current

Tuesday, August 15, 2006 | Ibo, Mozambique

When they receded each day, the drastic tides around Ibo revealed a plethora of bizarre creatures.
So accustomed to rising early to take public transportation on Mozambique's bizarre schedule, I woke before dawn and, as the sun was rising, set out for a walk. I grabbed my camera and a banana, and slid into my flip-flops on my way out the hotel's crisply whitewashed gate, not realizing I wouldn't be back for six hours. I walked east, past the island's small Christian cemetery with its weathered grave markers.

A few minutes later, at the edge of the village I crossed a wide grass field, hacked out of the brush, that served as the island's airstrip. Further along, as I traipsed through a wide meadow soggy with the risen tide, sacred ibises rose and soared overhead in elegant formation.

By the time I reached the island's far eastern shore several miles further, the tide was rushing outward. Hoping to swim, I tossed aside my sandals and began walking through the muddy clay of
the coast toward the rapidly receding water. Egrets fished among the partially submerged mangrove trees all around me. As I continued, the tide's ebb revealed a series of flat rocky formations across the exposed ocean bed. The watery channels between them were filled with snails, shellfish, and minnows scurrying to keep pace with the rushing current.

Soon the sea was a distant glitter under the early morning sun, and I stood, hundreds of meters from water, but hundreds of meters from shore, in the midst of a seemingly endless plain of the low rocks, which squatted like a vast, craggy fungus on the empty ocean floor.

My bare feet tender from the sharp surface, I set about returning to shore, wincing as I hopped over the pools that separated the rocks. When I leaped over one, a pale milky eel nearly a meter long thrashed and then slithered away into hiding. I stopped to poke at some small sea snails that clung to the rock edges, and noticed a series of tentacle-like appendages protruding from some holes in one pool. A little prodding with a rock satisfied my (perhaps underdeveloped) sense of caution, and I reached out to tug at the long, fleshy arm, which quickly snapped back into its hole. After some practice, soon I had managed to yank one of the pale, gangly starfish from its refuge. After inspecting and photographing the creature, I dropped it back into the water, and watched in wonder as, with its spindly arms, the starfish adeptly walked back into a crevice in the rock.

* * *

After my long walk back to town, I scarfed down some canned beans I had brought along from the mainland, and collapsed for a nap. Later that afternoon I summoned my energy to venture to the Fort of São João Batista, Ibo's largest fort. Walking along the town's grassy streets, I passed a house whose wide surface was entirely composed of carefully arranged cowry shells, uniformly large and bleached white by the sun. A pair of local women passed me, their boisterous conversation halting completely as they did so, staring. I stared back, since both their faces were painted stark white, covered with the traditional skin-softening musiro. This indigenous beauty treatment is a paste made from water and the chalky extract of a local tree root, and a few of Ibo's women could always be seen wearing it like a ghostly mask.

The fort itself was impressive, albeit small, and its cannons jutted proudly toward the surrounding seas from atop the ramparts, now covered in thick lichens. What grandeur the squat structure may have exuded, however, was overshadowed by the skilled work of a small group of silversmiths who practiced their art in the fort's entryway. For several hours I sat and watched the men weld fine links of chain and assemble intricate silver necklaces and bracelets. The artisans chattered incessantly, and occasionally one would switch to kiSwahili to ask a question of this curious foreigner who squatted beside them, observing quietly. Some tried—and succeeded—to sell me the antique colonial-era coins they also kept handy in case tourists ventured by the fort. When I left them to head to dinner at the island's single restaurant, I carried several silver necklaces, glad to have done business with the hospitable smiths.

By moonlight, I stumbled to the restaurant and sat with a young Belgian couple, an overlanding Israeli my age whose gentle nature managed to overcome my initial distrust, and a group of holidaying middle-aged Portuguese women who let it be known that they were fully enjoying their husband-free vacation. A raucous crowd of local children and teens watched over us and socialized in the dark street beyond the restaurant yard, outside the range of its dim lighting. I called for Atouche, my enthusiastic and highly professional young guide during my first days on the island, and he instantly emerged from the darkness. "Coca-Cola," he intoned with characteristic concentration on his pronunciation when I asked if he'd like a drink. Soda in tow, the teeth of his smile and whites of his eyes the only parts I could make out in the darkness of the night, he faded back into the shadows.

* * *

Saturday morning I joined Stefan's and the other French scuba instructors' trip to a reef off the island's northern tip, and snorkeled among the brilliant fishes while they dove. On our way back to port, an exuberant school of fat, foot-long glistening silver fish accompanied our boat, leaping high out of the water and forcing the occupants of our motorboat to duck for cover from the wriggling missiles as they launched themselves skyward.

Joop and Rene arrived from Pemba that evening, and I gave them a tour of Ibo's town in the late afternoon light. While they unpacked at the hotel, I walked along the beach, collecting shells and bits of porcelain which the tide had carried to shore. Many of the porcelain fragments and beads that wash up along Mozambique's northern shore are relics of Portugal's great trade empire, which for hundreds of years brought goods from Arabia, India and China to Ibo and other East African outposts en route to Europe. The centuries-old cargo of many shipwrecks—these delicate blue and white porcelain shards in my hand included—continues to wash up along the coast frequently to this day.

* * *

I visited a modern shipwreck on Sunday, having gladly embarked again with the French divers for more snorkeling. We breakfasted on the long, arrow-straight beach of a nearby island, the sand of which was entirely obscured for as far as I could see by a carpet of brilliant green seaweed that squelched satisfyingly underfoot. We snorkeled along the edge of a wide sandbar which the low tide had revealed in the middle of the ocean, and I spotted menacing black sea urchins and brilliant red and white-studded starfish, among other creatures.

The wreck, our final destination, was a large tanker which had smashed against the shoal north of Ibo decades ago. The pounding of the waves had since wrent it into three large fragments, each of which listed heavily, the masts and towers of each section cocked in different directions as they struggled to resist the onslaught of the sea. The waves, calm elsewhere, crashed violently against the wreck and the reef that had developed around it, making snorkeling around the structure a perilous exercise in underwater maneuvering.

As the dive captain began steering our boat back, our snorkeling adventure over, I dug my camera out of my backpack to take a picture of the dramatic wreckage scene, and hopelessly tried to snap a photo as wave after wave washed over the poor device, nearly carrying away my only evidence—to myself and those back home—that my whole time on Ibo had been anything more than just another elaborate, mefloquine-induced hallucination.

1 comment:

Ibn Ibn Battuta said...

Well deserved publicity for the Quirimbas... http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/coastal-destinations-rated/mozambique-essay/

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