By Françoise Botha
Just 95km from the South African border, Maputo is something of an anachronism, borrowing from both its African and Portuguese heritage. After having independence thrust upon it somewhat unexpectedly following a coup in Portugal in 1975, the Frelimo (Front for the Liberation of Mozambique) guerrilla movement found itself the de facto government, with one-time hospital orderly Samora Machel as the country’s president. Many of the Portuguese left at that time, and the government’s subsequent embracement of Marxism has left several deteriorating, unfinished buildings as well as monolithic, high-rise, Russian-funded complexes dotting the skyline. These are not things of beauty, but remain a striking part of Maputo today. Governments change and policies change, and now the country has embraced tourism and set its sights on a commercial and democratic future.
Rated as the world’s poorest country in the late 1980s, Mozambique is now one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Maputo positively hums with activity and entrepreneurial spirit, drawing from its Lourenço Marques heyday of vinho verde and peri-peri prawns at sidewalk cafes, while relishing its African-ness with curio sellers plying their wares to the sounds of a distant marimba.
Of course, the old “LM” was famous for its prawns, and today perhaps the high temple of prawns in Maputo is a family-owned restaurant called Costa do Sol. Situated in a very modest spot, it is internationally known for some of the best seafood in the world. The blue and white-coated building harks back to the art deco era, with little evidence of change since. Fronted by a broad patio with views of the bay, this venue has become a Mecca for those keen on authentic food. To say one lunches al fresco here would put too much of a grand spin on it. There is rather an eclectic gathering of local and foreign foodies who group on the stoep, sharing locally brewed beers or cerveja, such as the pale Laurentina, or a bottle of Portuguese wine, peri-peri prawns, each the size of a small banana, calamari, crayfish, and other fresh catches of the day. Lunches seem to stretch as the wine flows and the stories become more exaggerated.
In 1992, when after 17 years the civil war between Frelimo and Renamo came to an end, Maputo found itself embracing commerce with a new-found vigour, and becoming a centre for great food, particularly. Its culinary prowess pays tribute mostly to Portuguese-influenced dishes, but there are also hints of its Chinese, Muslim, and Arabian forebears, who all used Mozambique as a trading base.
The local markets are an interesting way to discover the country’s culinary ingredients. Although all red meat is imported and best enjoyed in restaurants and hotels, a trip to the cacophonous fish market is a treat. The fishmongers broadcast their catches in a mix of Tsonga and Portuguese while going out of their way to cajole you into buying. This is a great place to get the best fish for a picnic or simply to take your selection to any of the open-air cafés lining the market’s west end, where they will grill it for you and sell you a beer and some freshly-roasted cashews as a snack.
Several excellent beaches surround Maputo, as well as the Tunduru Botanical Gardens—with their view of the gleaming white cathedral on Independence Square—and all offer excellent places for a picnic. But this requires a trip downtown first, to the mercado municipal (the municipal market). For dedicated foodies, or for those just curious about local shopping, a visit is an eye-opener. Completed in 1903, it is a tribute, rather unexpectedly, to Anglo-Saxon architecture, and is believed to be a copy of Aster Hall in Hamburg. Apart from a dizzying selection of things fishy, the market overflows with fresh fruit and vegetables, and an assortment of local atchars to spice up any meal. You can even buy a basket into which to pack your picnic lunch. Not to be missed is the freshly-baked white bread called pão. As in any African market, you may be alarmed that certain animals are also for sale, from birds to monkeys, and even lengths of real hair may be found there.
Of course, no visit to Mozambique is complete without a visit to one of her tropical islands. Just a short 45-minute flight from Maputo is Vilankulo. A further 8 minutes by helicopter takes you to a tiny island gem, Benguerra, which is environmentally pristine and has a history that harks back to the Phoenicians’ search for pearls.
Benguerra was declared part of a National Park in 1971 and is limited to only three lodges—Marlin Lodge with its wood and thatched bungalows right on the beach; Benguerra Lodge with its collection of chalets, each with its own private garden and swimming pool; and the latest addition, the Azura eco-boutique hotel, with its airy and spacious designer villas. Each offers a different flavour of that “get your toes in the sand”-feeling, right on your doorstep.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Benguerra is the landscape; rich red earth on the hillsides rolls down to meet the crispest, finest, white beach sand. This creates a striking contrast between the inner-island forests, wetlands and savannah and the seamless beaches with their filigreed palms. It is this interior rich with freshwater lakes and wetlands that provides a home to rare fish and bird species and several families of crocodiles, making it a nature-lover’s paradise.
As a scuba diver, I am most drawn by the stories I have heard about the excellent diving, rich with Manta rays, barracuda, stingrays, potato bass, Moray eel, turtles, and no end of Zambezi and tiger sharks. But it is the endangered dugong I most want to see, and I am not disappointed. What a funny looking animal! About the size of a large dolphin, this herbivore has a larger and less elegant head, with the tiniest of eyes that always seem to be smiling. It’s a bit like a pot-bellied, teddy-bear version of a dolphin, and one can’t help thinking of a wise old rabbi when looking at it. The clarity of the water, the richness of marine life and the sheer radiance of colours make this an unparalleled diving area.
The tidal difference here is 10m—equivalent to the height of a three-storey building—and produces large sand banks. It also helps paint swathes of oceanic blues. It’s a type of utopia, and food for the soul.