Four generations of my family have owned and run country hotels. The hospitality trade, filled with the comings and goings of people – the liveliness of the pub, where my father inherited the name Jokie, after all his storytelling to captivated listeners hugging their lagers, to all the mouths to feed in the dinning room – all of this is part of us. It’s in our blood.
It is not surprising then that when the holidays where over and everyone returned to work in the cities, that my family would choose the loneliest places on earth and our ideal holiday destination.
“Away from the maddening crowd” my dad would say and he’d whisk his girls (he only had daughters) off to a small speck of beach down some forgotten road that cars had long since stopped using. And here, after hours of being pulled and pushed around by potholes and overgrown bush, we would arrive to – nothing!
Water always had to be nearby – my dad loves fishing and we liked playing mermaids in amongst the rock pools. This was always coupled with a massive expanse of wilderness, untouched and feral-like and just waiting to be explored and conquered by three prima donnas in bikinis armed with a bucket and spade.
I imagine my dad used this time to let his mind wander and to relish how simple things, like just being yourself with the sand beneath your toes and the spray of the waves on your skin can yield such pleasure. Some things money can’t buy…
It is this trait that I’d like to think he has passed onto me. Bear in mind, it is not the type of holiday for everyone. It requires a certain kind of strength, both externally and internally. Externally, one has to battle the elements – the sun, the wind, the rain, the bugs and lack of resources. And internally, one has to deal with the calm. The lack of external distractions can sometimes be a little unsettling. As if one’s ego decided to have a little afternoon snooze.
But don’t misread this as proof of having nothing to do. There’s loads of activities from swimming, fishing, walking, eating, exploring and snorkeling but all of this is done with the understanding that you are alone in the universe making your little journey through life.
Most of these sorts of trips were spent on the Wild Coast, which when I was younger was still remote enough to feel wild. But over the years, the tarring of roads has made it accessible to the outside world. Today, Mozambique is like the Wild Coast of yesteryears. And it’s right on South Africa’s doorstep. Furthermore, the years of civil unrest that plagued the country until 1994 has left many undiscovered treasures at the end of a zigzag of dirt tracks.
And now I am going to spill the beans…
650 kms north of Maputo, past the Barra’s and Tofo’s and Ponto’s, lies Pomene, in the Macachula province. After Massinga, one turns onto a dirt road of red sand that disappears into the bush. Very quickly this turns into a treacherous and slow moving journey, the road punctuated with the remnants of what was a concrete-surfaced road many years ago, now only craters and rocky ledges. Eventually this even disintegrates into nothing but beach sand and faint tyre marks leading the way. In short, you have to have a 4×4.
On our way, we came upon a truck filled with ladies on their way to Massinga. They had blocked the narrow road after getting stuck. A few cars could not pass and they now waited patiently for someone who could help. They had all been waiting for quite some time when we arrived. So a tow rope is a good idea too.
Our host for our stay, Dale, was also the navigator and without him, we would have been totally lost. There aren’t any signs and not many locals around either.
Dale’s family have been coming to Pomene for many years. They are now in the final stages of building their own little place on the waters edge. Dale has many stories to tell about the mammoth task of building his dad’s dream home and retirement plan. Its taken well over 3 years to complete – from a camping spot to 4 fully functional free-standing bedrooms with bathroom en suite all connected by a wooden walkway that leads to a main kitchen/dinning area. Sadly, his dad died of cancer earlier this year and was not able to see the project’s completion. But, perhaps his job was just to have the vision…
After two hours of driving, you suddenly rise up onto a ridge and the earth in front of you drops away to reveal aqua blues to the left and a marshy green to the right. The North bank in Pomene is sheltered from the sea by an estuary that stretches out like a never-ending swimming pool, completely protected. It’s like a harbour for small boats.
Three bodies of water mark the terrain of the North bank – sea, estuary and swamp. The majority of the locals live up on the top of the ridge overlooking this vista. But for those staying below along the waters edge you begin to familiarise yourself with the unique challenges and charming mystique of this idyllic paradise.
Firstly, like so many other places in Southern Mozambique, the tide plays a pivotal role in shaping the landscape and prohibiting or aiding movement. Islands appear or are swallowed up with the approaching tide whilst boats lie marooned on the sand at low tide.
The swamp is mosquito heaven and February is the worst month. Thankfully, I arrive in July and do not spot even one! The sand flies are the next culprits, or “no-see-ems” as my dad calls them. They are so small that you cant see ‘em but in the summer months, unless you are prepared with Dettol and Savlon, big angry welts begin appearing on your ankles and knees. It’s as itchy as all hell and takes a few days to settle.
Everything in Pomene has to be bought in. Absolutely everything. Food, water, diesel and all your garbage has to go back out with you. There is no power, so unless you have a generator or have installed solar, there is no running water or electricity.
But none of this seems to matter as we arrive and are greeted by a beautiful wooden floor with thick beams rising up to support a low-slung thatch roof. Like a dog with shaggy hair, the thatch hangs down over the sides of the building, acting as a sort of wall blocking out the wind but not stopping the breeze. I marvel at the workmanship and different textures.
None of this would be possible without the help of Sergio – our right-hand-make-any-plan man. A local to the area he has amazingly learnt Fanagalor. I watch amused as the boys I have arrived with banter in Zulu and English and Sergio chats back to them. The relationship between Dale and Sergio is most interesting because it relies on a fundamental understanding of respect. There is a mutual need that exists between this white man from another country and the Mozambican who lives with paradise on his doorstep. They both cannot exist in this landscape in their current form without each other, both having different skills they bring to the table.
We spend days just soaking it all in. The smells, the warm balmy air, the food – Matapa and coconut rice prepared in the kitchen so we can all watch how its done. A very lengthy and time consuming process for Mozambican women, our chef makes grinding cassava leaves look like a piece of cake. I marvel at all the boys in our group (I am the only woman) sampling the local flavours and experiencing the different cultures. It is an experience, which sadly many South Africans miss out on when they come to Mozambique.
We walk along the beach discovering treasures on the ocean floor once the tide is out – starfish, cucumbers, puffer fish, shells and crabs. I begin to feel like Wendy in Peter Pan, mothering her lost boys.
On my last morning, I awake before sunrise and shuffle everyone out of their safe mosquito net cocoons. I am in search of flamingos. We jump into the boat and head towards the mouth of the estuary – a bubbling cauldron of currents and churning water. The water is so clear you can see the bottom metres below. Finally, just as the sun is peeking through the clouds we find a flamboyance of flamingos wading in the shallow waters. They always remind me of liquid eyeliner. Their dainty pink legs and shocking pink plumage alongside a very definite bold line of charcoal black – the femme fatale of the sky.
Packing up later, I take a few minutes to watch the world around me, taking in its imprint so I can carry it around inside of me everywhere. My boyfriend and I stew on the idea of getting married here… (He still has to ask me though!)
Dale’s family are on their way from South Africa. They plan to scatter their father’s ashes in the place he loved the most. They have named their place Drift Sands – a little piece of heaven on the sand. Sounds like the right place to spend eternity.