Two years ago, a friend and I booked flights to a continent we knew very little about, but had always dreamt of exploring. Our trip to Africa was organised on a complete whim, with the only plan being to start in Cairo and travel overland by whatever means of transport we could get to Cape Town. At around the half-way mark, we crossed the border into Malawi, with the intention of heading towards the coast of Mozambique. It was here, after four months of traveling, that the trip took an unexpected turn.
Shortly after we arrived, I started to notice symptoms of what felt like a terrible hangover. It wasn’t going away, and I wanted to be certain it wasn’t something more, so we made our way to a small hospital on the outskirts of Nkhotakota, Central Malawi. The patients there share a communal space with no curtains, no glass on the windows and swarms of mosquitos buzzing around the lights. A blood test showed that the illness was not linked to my intake of Carlsberg beer, but was actually cerebral malaria, a strain of neurological malaria causing swelling of the brain and death if left untreated. By the second day, I was delusional, dehydrated and suffering from violent nightmares. The days that followed are a blur; shifting to another hospital, being treated with a medication that made me partially deaf, before finally getting a flight to Johannesburg and being rushed to the ICU. It was a sudden and unfortunate string of events, and yet I could only think of one thing: I had bypassed a country I was desperate to see. Only a few days before we were meant to arrive on the coast of Mozambique, we had instead flown directly past it, leaving an unresolved conclusion to the continent in my mind.
My greatest interest in backpacking through Africa had been to understand its long and complex history; and ultimately the way this history has shaped the people you witness today. It is why I was always enticed by the Swahili Coast; an 1,800-mile stretch of white sand from Kenya to Mozambique. Over the last five centuries, this coastline acted as a trading port for empire builders, traders and slavers, and developed a rich and diverse culture centred on the fight for independence against Indian, Arab, Persian and European colonial powers. Travelling the stretch from northern Kenya to Tanzania, we were able to see how this particular region was quite unlike the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, as it brought together each individual influence in a single melting pot. The diversity of cultures was etched into the white-washed alleyways of ‘stone towns’ (old cities) in places like Lamu, Pate, Mombasa and Zanzibar; where a person’s origin was portrayed in the curved carvings of their wooden doorframe, in the colours of their headscarf, the design of a Henna tattoo, the spice used in their kitchen, their method of catching fish or their secondary language to Swahili. I was in awe each and every day, watching as the labyrinth of narrow streets came to life at dawn and dusk, almost empty and still in the heat of the day. It was the first time I had seen such a diverse mix of people shifting their lives according to the intensity of the sun in the sky, and the continuous ebb and flow of coastal tides. The Swahili coast became the most memorable place we visited on that trip, not only for its pristine beaches and sleepy port towns but because each and every corner of the region told a story of a rich and complex history. To miss the final leg of the coast in Mozambique felt like a I had left the trip incomplete.
When the opportunity arose to take a three-week break from my work in August this year, I decided I was ready to complete this section of Swahili coast alone. I knew that my experience in Mozambique would be far from a well-rested holiday, but it didn’t deter me. I arrived with no plans, just knew I wanted to reach Ilha de Moçambique, an island in the north and one of few remaining stone towns of Portuguese East Africa. I landed in Maputo and made my way north via buses, crowded chappas, in the back of trucks and by motorbike, stopping at various points on the 1,300-mile journey to see how life manifested on the coast. Travel was by far the hardest of anywhere I had been, mainly due to a lack of infrastructure for transport, my dismal ability to converse in Portuguese and a terribly corrupt police force throughout the country. I was squished into chappa minibuses sharing a single seat with three other people, or holding a passenger’s 20kg bag of potatoes, chickens or two children on my lap for six hours. I was arrested at police checkpoints continuously for doing nothing, and had to explain time and time again in broken English how corruption would stop tourists visiting the country. On my final stretch to Ilha, I underwent a gruelling 36-hour journey where the truck I hitched with broke down in the middle of nowhere, I then ran out of money because all ATMs blocked foreign cards, was arrested two more times at police checkpoints, stood in the aisle of a bus for nine hours because they had oversold tickets, and resisted the urge to eat, drink or go to the toilet for the entire journey because every time I asked someone, ‘How long will the bus stop for?’, they replied, ‘We’re leaving soon’.
At every trial and tribulation, the people I shared the journey with reminded me of one thing. Mozambicans refer to it as ‘estámos quase’, a term meaning ‘we are almost’ to describe the amount of time or distance left in any journey, regardless of how far away one actually is from the destination. Quite literally, it is any time; whether getting ready to leave or waiting for something to start. In this sense, Mozambique ignited an element that I had forgotten about travelling in Africa and also in my daily life; that ‘time’ is merely a construct we impose on ourselves.
Ilha de Moçambique was one of the most beautiful places I have ever photographed; it was an oasis for any traveller, an artefact for any historian, a masterpiece for any foodie, and the most incredible conclusion to a tiring journey. It was in fact, timeless. Connected to land by a three-kilometer bridge, the small crescent-shaped island felt a world away from anywhere. Wooden dhows and large white sails dotted every horizon, fresh lobsters sat on display in Mercado de peixe, windows and door of houses were left open to catch the coastal breeze, and on every corner were crumbling 15th-century Portuguese buildings painted in sky blues, pinks and yellows. Colour and textures were etched into every corner of Ilha, on street signs, in women’s headscarves, jewelery, windowsills, labels, bicycles, crockery; on every line of laundry. Music blasted on muffled speakers, and if men and women were not dancing as they walked, their feet or hips would always be tapping along to the rhythm.
Days on Ilha were spent waking at first light and stretched well into the early hours of the morning, as I navigated the small cobbled streets of Makuti Town, meeting more and more local people. For breakfast I would buy samosas and fresh papaya at the local market, before taking photographs at my favourite wall; a crumbling and washed aqua-coloured shopfront always bustling with activity. I carried a Polaroid camera to give people their own photograph as a souvenir, and I was often ushered from one house to the next so that different families could pose for their portraits. Different houses would play music, dance or share a beer or soda with me, without speaking a word of English but always welcoming me back or waving the next day when I walked by. In the heat of the day, I would venture to the white, sandy beaches surrounding Fortaleza de Sao Sabastiao, the oldest fort still standing in Sub-Saharan Africa. Here, kids spent their afternoons swimming, collecting seashells and occasionally finding treasures from Portuguese trading ships that had sunk off the coast hundreds of years ago. Under pink and orange skies at sunset, I played soccer barefoot outside the towering Portuguese Church of San Antonio and the tall palms on the eastern headland. By nightfall, the only local bar on the island, Copacabana, completely transformed; attracting swarms of people to dance in the streets while the DJ remixed Miley Cyrus with Mozambican pop. Each night I would climb under a mosquito net to sleep, completely bewildered at just how much I had seen in one day.
There was something truly special about my final stop on the Swahili coast, almost two years later and after great misfortune that stays in my mind. This special feeling wasn’t just from the beautiful sights, the overdrive of senses, the smiles of people every day or the endless supply of coconuts to drink. It was because I no longer felt that drive of ‘estámos quase’, as my journey along the Swahili coast finally felt complete.