From the beach off the fishermen’s village part of Pemba, Mozambique, the six of us caught the boat taxi to Ibo Island. It was just that; a coaster, rather than a ferry. It was mid-summer, blazing hot and the glare off the sea was an added sunburn factor, but we chose to find ourselves a perch in the open on the small deck roof of the wheelhouse amongst the goats, chickens and bicycles, rather than in the crowded, smelly, below-decks.
Sheila and her two boys, Nicholas and Timothy Simkin, my daughter Nicci and son Ryan Earle endured the five hour trip under cloth and sunscreen; a physically demanding, but mentally stimulating zigzag up the archipelago from island to island, dropping off and picking up post and passengers.
If anything, Ibo was more dilapidated and more heavily populated than when I had been here last in 1974. The building that had been on its way to restoration as a museum was once again a ruin. Search as I did, I could not find the neat home of the Customs Officer with whom we had stayed. Although it had no bullet-holed walls as tokens of the war between Frelimo and Renamo, it had been over-run with refugees fleeing from the mainland of Cabo Delgado Province. Plastic and corrugated structures were supported by the coral stone ruined walls of bygone homes.
It was difficult to find a spot to camp that had any privacy. Eventually we plumped for a spot in a cashew tree grove which had to be packed up each day to avoid the contents disappearing into the village. There was not a single bed that catered for tourists, never mind a guest house or hotel. While sitting around the campfire one evening, Nicci’s tent was surreptitiously cut open and a small bag containing her toiletries and her bikini were stolen. Sheila fashioned for her another bikini from her neck scarves.
It was mango season, so the fruit was a large part of the local diet. At low tide, the damaged coral beach rocks were littered with squatting residents who left behind bright orange mango motions on which the local pigs fed hastily before the incoming ocean swept the harvest away for the fish.
We explored the island on foot. I found the fish-factory where four of us of Loxton Hunting & Associates had spent a couple of days and nights in 1973, but it was no longer operating. Residents fished for local trade only, and their own survival. Boats lay on the beach, in various stages of ruin or attempted repair.
One of our sorties was to hire a dhow with the purpose of reaching a reef to dive onto, but the skipper, pretending knowledge of just the very place, went all vague on us when we got out into the bay. Eventually we gave up and crossed the bay to a mangrove swamp which we set off to explore. Sheila cut her leg on some hidden glass. (The wound later ulcerated badly and took ages to heal; not surprisingly, seeing as to the filth in the sea. Ryan also contracted a skin disease that defied definition by doctors for a long while.)
Our meagre food supplies were augmented by a scrawny chicken bought locally, as well as eggs, veggies and, of course, mangoes. When we ran out of beer, there was that gut-perisher, aguardente, best diluted with fruit juice.
On the day we were to return to Pemba, the boat arrived late and the captain refused to leave due to the fact that part of the journey would be in the dark. This was not made clear until nightfall, so we had spent the whole day on the stone pier, expecting to leave at any moment. We slept on a nearby veranda concrete floor in our sleeping bags. While the youngsters were sitting chatting, I was verging on sleep, when something made me open my eyes to see a stealthy figure reaching for my rucksack.
With a wild yell I leapt at him before he could take it and the boys helped me give chase, but he disappeared into the dark alleys.
When the boat finally left in mid-morning, it started raining. At least we did not have the heat to contend with, but we lay in a row under a flat tent, soaked through from beneath as rainwater sloshed back and forth across the open deck, bringing chicken shit from the adjacent cages with it. Then some of our number started farting, so faces previously hidden under the tent, abruptly reappeared.
There was nothing else for it, but to laugh. Unforgettable.