Three hundred feet below me, the dhow tacks hard against the kusi, the brisk south-easterly trade wind that blows all through winter and spring along the coast of Mozambique.
The lateen sail lashed hard, a dark slash against the translucent blue waters, it is a scene little changed for centuries. In the 1500s those trade winds would have blown dhows – laden with gold, ivory and slaves – between Africa and Arabia. Today, though, it is only the local fishermen from Bazaruto Island heading to the deep in search of better catches.
From my helicopter seat, the Bazaruto Archipelago stretches out in a tapestry of blues. A filigree of deep channels drains water off the white sandbanks like the veins of a leaf, the tides ebbing towards the Mozambique Channel. The water here is remarkable; a myriad shades in a patchwork of sand and saturated blues.
The fishermen are just going about their daily business, but it’s these waters that bring most tourists to this corner of central Mozambique. The warm seas lapping the islands lure beach bums in search of a sun lounger, while the deep channels and offshore reefs draw fishermen and scuba divers from across the world.
Six islands – Bazaruto, Pansy Shell Island, Benguerra, Magaruque, Banque and Santa Carolina – make up this proclaimed national park, and while the mainland boasts a wider array of lodges and resorts, the real magic of the archipelago is found out at sea.
An hour after landing at Vilanculos airport, just a 90-minute flight from Johannesburg, I find myself on a speedboat transfer bouncing across a wind-chopped sea. The warm spray drenches my shirt as the blue shallows give way to the enigmatic greens of deeper water.
I’m staying at Anantara Bazaruto Island Lodge, easily the finest hotel on the archipelago’s largest island. While it offers all the usual trappings of a luxurious island resort, I’m not here in search of a sun lounger and a cold 2M beer. There’s far too much to explore.
While travellers may see an island holiday as simply about soaking up sun, sea and sloth, Bazaruto is different. Sure, there are beachfront restaurants and a gorgeous hilltop spa to indulge in, but the real magic lies in leaving your sun lounger behind.
My first foray away from the beach? We saddle up and head out.
Horse riding has become a popular pastime in the archipelago, and most reputable lodges offer excursions catering for all levels of experience. While cantering along the high-water mark offers plenty of thrills for skilled riders, for beginners like myself a sedate clip-clop through the villages surrounding the resort is just as entertaining. A peek into village life, in the company of my guide Afonso shows a different side to island living.
As does a 4x4 excursion into the heart of Bazaruto.
“The island was once part of the mainland, this is why we have these freshwater lakes on Bazaruto,” explains my guide Lourenço, who grew up on the island. Bazaruto is home to more than 180 bird species through the year, and as a flock of greater flamingos sift through the shallows of Lengwe Lake I spy dark shapes near the reed beds.
“Nile crocodiles!” smiles Lourenço. “There used to be hippopotamus in these lakes too, but they were all hunted out.”
Running down to the distant lake shore, towering sand dunes offer yet more adventure: sand-boarding trips which take the fit and adventurous flying down the slopes.
But there’s no time. The next morning a helicopter drifts down out of the blue sky, and within minutes we’re skimming low along the east coast of the island. Dolphins burst from the waves below, as we scan for the rare dugongs that call the Archipelago home. Slow moving and docile, these herbivorous mammals are the marine celebrities of Bazaruto, yet historic overfishing and ongoing habitat loss mean they’re few and far between.
Chris, the chopper pilot, crackles through the headphones. “No, no, they’re here. We saw one on the way to fetch you.”
No luck today though. Instead my gaze wanders over dhows and bright blue channels, then down to a castaway picnic set up on a deserted sandbank. A blue tent for shade, a table laid for lunch, and a private stretch of beach to call your own.
These castaway picnics are one of the highlights of a stay at &Beyond’s new Benguerra Island Lodge, a slice of five-star Robinson Crusoe living where private butlers cater to your every whim. With private splash pools and sun loungers it’d be tempting to spend most of your time here horizontal, but again there’s too much to see.
First, simply take a walk.
Fishing communities, along with tourism, remain the lifeblood of these islands and as the tides ebb and flow the beach is a hive of activity. Fishermen repair their nets and prepare their dhows, while women search the shallows for sand oysters. At low tide kids kick a deflated ball about the mud flats in an energetic game of soccer.
Back at the lodge, the roster of activities ranges from morning snorkelling trips to horse rides along the beach. The diving here is superb, with daily excursions to Two Mile Reef. The full-day catamaran cruise to Paradise Island is another popular option, with the chance to spot dolphins and rays en route to some of the best snorkelling in the archipelago.
If you fancy casting a line into the deep blue, you’ve come to the right place: fishing excursions with laid-back skipper Dean Taylor target both deep-sea game fish and in-shore species on light tackle. Ever caught a marlin on fly? Now’s your chance.
It’s a destination that revolves around the sea, whether you’re trotting through the shallows on horseback or tucking into fresh local lobster on the beach. As our chopper rises up into the soft humid air on our way back to the airport, the carpet of blue rolls out beneath us again. The dhows are still there, dancing with the kusi, and the sandbanks shimmer on the low tide. Bazaruto; I’ll be back.
Where to stay
&Beyond Benguerra Island Lodge
&Beyond poured upwards of $5-million into refurbishing Benguerra Island Lodge, and the results are impressive. With just a dozen casinhas, and a three-bedroom Casa de Familia, the lodge is an intimate space where your private butler will soon learn precisely how you prefer your evening G&T. Décor in the airy thatched rooms blends Portuguese, Arab and Mozambican influences. Wooden decks spilling onto the beach, private plunge pools, and a day bed swinging lazily in the breeze complete the picture. Although kids will enjoy the spacious beach and array of activities, this is really a lodge for romantics. Come here on honeymoon, or bring your beloved for a special occasion.
Anantara Bazaruto Island Resort
Blending the facilities and service of a Mauritian-style resort, with the charm of a boutique escape, the 44-room Anantara Bazaruto Island Resort offers a range of villa options. The Beach Villas are far and away the standout, boasting private balconies just metres from the sands. Four unique dining options keep long-stay guests happy, with bespoke dining experiences on the beach ideal for romantic nights à deux. Got the youngsters with you? A well-equipped kids’ club will keep them busy while you indulge at the remarkable hilltop spa. There’s no shortage of activities on offer either, from deep-sea fishing to island excursions.