It’s a Friday evening in southern Mozambique not far from the border with South Africa. Four of us are hunkered down in what is known as the star pit, a protected spot near the top of a tall sand dune at Nkumbe Eco Wildlife Estate near the seaside village of Ponta Malongane with its al fresco eateries, small bustling market and brightly painted roadside bars.
We’re sipping chilled Casal Garcia, a vinho verde (a slightly bubbly young “green” wine) — from Portugal — and peering heaven-ward, each trying to be the first to spot the international space station that’s supposed to be passing overhead anytime now.
Far from any foreign light source, could there be any better observation location on this crisp, clear, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds night — no LSD needed?
“You see, there’s the Southern Cross; it’s pointers. And the Milky Way. And there’s the Magellanic Clouds. And Sagittarius, the archer.”
Graham, whose property we’re on, is impressing us with his Southern Hemisphere night-sky knowledge. We can hear the Indian Ocean surging a couple of hundred yards away as the crow flies. Also, a dull thump, thump, thump — bass-too-high music from the three-day beachfront trance fest that’s brought in hordes of what could be a San Francisco Haight Ashbury or Berkeley Telegraph Avenue spacey tie-die crowd.
Mozambique, with its more than 1,500 miles of coastline threaded with sandy beaches — home to many rural fishing communities as well as resorts specializing in diving and water sports — is one of Africa’s up-and-coming hotspots and recent success stories.
Culinary Travel Mozambique
What does Mozambique offer the culinary traveler? “Great seafood and a very unique fusion of Portuguese and African cuisine that is genuinely Mozambican. Eat camarão grelhado (grilled peri-peri prawns) wherever you can find them. Wash them down with an espresso, Portuguese wine — or again, chilled Laurentina (beer),” says John Aritho, who has lived and worked in Mozambique and escapes there any chance he has.
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For the culinary traveler into the café lifestyle, particularly those who relish seafood, and who want an African adventure that offers sea and sunshine, pristine island adventures, plus miles of idyllic sun-drenched mainland beaches for fishing, diving, kiting, kayaking and lazing in the sunshine plus the potential for excellent game viewing thrown in for good measure — the Gorongosa National Park is one of the wildest national parks in Africa and not too far north of Ponta Malongane is the Maputo Elephant Reserve — Mozambique is difficult to beat.
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Oh, and did I mention the city sophistication and interesting history?
Moz Then and Now
After gaining independence from Portugal in 1975, Mozambique descended into civil war and for some years had the ignominious distinction of being ranked the poorest country in the world.
The cease-fire was signed in 1992. By 1993 its transformation had begun — boosted more recently with the discovery of vast reserves of natural gas off the coast, seen by some as a mixed blessing.
Back to 1993, soon the markets were sprouting, the marimba music was playing through the nights, international aid organizations were making their mark and foreign business interests were targeting opportunities alongside locals.
In colonial times, the capital Maputo, then Lourenço Marques, was strongly European in flavor and flair.
After falling into a depressing state of disrepair, Maputo now more thriving a city than it ever was with a jumble of cranes paying testimony to development, new hotels, shops selling international fashion brands and even the return of many Portuguese. Portuguese is the official language.
Spend two nights there and explore the beachfront. If you want to splurge in a gracious setting book into the legendary Polana Hotel. As with most of Mozambique including the islands, the range spans high-end to B&Bs to backpacker lodges so you have options.
In Maputo, seek out the famous seafood market. Let them prepare you a meal while you sip a cold Laurentina (beer). Pay a visit to the Costa do Sol, a restaurant/hotel famous for its seafood and with a rich history and a great view.
Note: When in Maputo stroll Avenida Julius Nyerere for cafes and restaurants selling peri-peri chicken and seafood, spicy Thai, Indian cuisine, seafood restaurants, coffee shops, pizzerias, ice cream and pastry shops. Maputo is more of an after-dark than a daytime city for vacationers. Try Gil Vicente (Avenida Samora Machel) on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and Nucleo de Arte (Rua da Argelia) on Sundays. Other bars host live bands on the weekends.
Interesting fact: Graça Machel, Mozambique’s former Minister for Education and Culture, is the widow of both former South African president Nelson Mandela and Mozambican president Samora Machel.
She was married for 10 years and had two children with Machel, who led the country from independence until his untimely death in 1986 when his presidential plane crashed at night in mountainous terrain where the borders of Mozambique, Swaziland and South Africa converge. Official investigations blamed the Russian crew and pilot error but speculation continues that the accident was orchestrated by the then-apartheid government of South Africa.
The international advocate for women’s and children’s rights and Mandela were married in July 1998 on his 80th birthday. In July 2007 she, along with her husband and Archbishop Desmond Tutu convened The Elders, a group of “independent global leaders — elder statesmen — working together for peace and human rights.”
The Moz Lifestyle
Back to Mozambique as a vacation destination; its lifestyle appeal.
When I think of Mozambique, I think of fresh prawns bought from the market, camping holidays (it’s still ideal for this and has the whole range of accommodation from five-star luxury to backpackers lodges), eating buckets of cashew nuts, arriving on a ship that dropped anchor off Santa Carolina Island — known as Paradise Island — and being taken ashore on rubber duckies to explore; then there’s the beach resort living, colorful markets, friendly people, swimming and surfing lessons — and on my most recent trip we wandered among the zebra and star-gazed, as I say, from a sand dune in a wildlife estate.
Graham, our stargazing guru, has restocked this 620 acres of coastal forests and dunes with many of the animals that once roamed freely here but that had been lost to poaching during the civil war. The health of this eco-estate and the number of nyala, reedbuck, impala and zebra we see on our game viewing drive are in an obtuse way, a micro reflection of the country’s transformation.
Down South, where we are, there’s the option of diving with dolphins and whales, kiting, doing beach walks and eating at a plethora of casual eateries at the beach resort village of Ponta d’Ouro.
Travel north from Maputo for many that are more spectacular. The town of Vilanculos, gateway to the Bazaruto Archipelago, Africa’s biggest marine reserve, gives you five island destinations to choose from, including Bazaruto island with its luxury lodges favored by many Moz fans.
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And for miles of palm-lined beaches and fun times, it’s worth checking out Inhambane and the holiday resort town of Tofo, known as the whale-shark mecca of the world; the Barra Peninsula for excellent manta ray sightings and for swimming with whale sharks.
There’s lots more to Mozambique but you’ve got to start somewhere.