“You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice. ”
Mozambique's Bazaruto Archipelago
We reached the top of the 300-foot-high sand dune that dominates the landscape on Bazaruto Island, stopping to let the warm Indian Ocean breeze wash over us and to take in stunning views of sapphire-blue water fanning out in every direction. Our horses stood still in the fading daylight, resting after a plodding ascent to the dune's summit. Toward the west, the dusty African continent scattered the sunlight into broad brushstrokes, dazzling shades of vermillion, lilac and pale magenta. To the east, rising over the ocean, the almost full moon offered a majestic backdrop to a wondrous panorama.
"Are you afraid of heights?" asked Domingos, our guide. He was leaning back in his saddle, the hint of a smile on his face. My wife and I said we weren't-though that wasn't really true, at least in my case. "Good," he said. "The ride up was long and winding. Going down will be much shorter, but it is steep."
After 10 days of guided tours throughout southern Africa, I was starting to realize that visitors are customarily kept in the dark about the particulars of a given excursion beforehand. We had experienced this phenomenon several times while on safari in South Africa's Sabi Sands game reserve, adjacent to Kruger National Park.
Our guide, Landon, drove fast through the bush in our Land Rover in response to every crackling game tip provided over the radio by other rangers. He would never say a word that might tip us off about what we were headed to see; he would simply drive until we were pulling alongside a pride of dozing lions or a den of playful baby hyenas, or perhaps staring down a male elephant in musk or, as we did twice, shadowing a pack of African wild dogs on the hunt. One evening while out in the bush, we reached a dead end where, to our delight, we and 50 other guests of the Lion Sands Private Game Reserve were treated to a gourmet dinner on white linens under a canopy of lighted oil lanterns hanging from the limbs of baobab trees.
The secrecy, we had come to realize, allowed us our own small thrill of discovery of wonderful moments such as these.
Now here we were on a remote island off the coast of Mozambique, on horseback, approaching the sharp edge of a giant sand dune. To me it looked like the sheer drop of a black-diamond ski run. Nobody had said anything about this when we'd booked our horseback riding tour. Wisps of sand danced across the dune and were carried over the edge. Far below us, a freshwater lake inhabited by giant crocodiles seemed an ominous warning sign.
"The most important thing," Domingos told us, "is to lean back." With that, he dug his heels into his stirrups and hunkered into his saddle. He and his horse stepped over the edge and vanished.
I was next. My horse, the aptly named "Rommel," took a hesitant half step forward, then another, and slid off the precipice nearly up to its haunches in the sand. I was looking straight down, leaning back as far as I could as the horse made deliberate, slow steps in the cascading sand. I worried that at any moment the tenuous ground around us would break loose and we would all be swept away by a turbid avalanche.
But the sand held. I kept trying to turn my horse sideways, the way a skier would tackle a steep slope, but Rommel stubbornly preferred to take the most direct route: straight down. The horse knew what it was doing, I supposed. Perhaps both of us would be best served by my willingness to simply go along for the ride.
The horses had, in fact, made this trip many times in their long lives-often twice a day, once at sunrise and again at sunset. What turned out to be the thrill of a lifetime for my wife and me was for the horses just another chance to stretch their legs away from the stables. When we finally reached the bottom of the dune, peering back up at the impressive wall of sand, our charges did nothing more momentous than lower their heads and begin tearing off clumps of the dry grass with their teeth. We would have preferred to climb down and kiss the ground.
Mozambique stretches 1,500 miles along Africa's southeast coast between Tanzania and South Africa. Dotting the Moçambician channel, opposite the town of Vilanculos on the mainland, lies the chain of five islands (Bazaruto, Benguerra, Maraque, Banque and Santa Carolina) that form the Bazaruto Archipelago. The largest is the 23-by-four-mile Bazaruto Island, which is about 10 miles from Mozambique. The west of the island is composed of savanna grassland and thicket, home to an amazing diversity of birdlife, whereas the east is occupied entirely by enormous sand dunes.
More than 160 species of birds inhabit the islands. The Nile crocodiles in Bazaruto's lakes measure up to 12 feet long, while the island's strange saltwater hippos represent East Africa's largest population of dugong or sea cow-a fascinating, lumbering animal closely related to the elephant.
The Bazaruto Archipelago is part of a government-funded conservation project whose primary objective is to maintain the ecological and social integrity of the Bazaruto National Park by encouraging sustainable use of scarce natural resources. Since gaining independence in 1975, Mozambique has evolved from a war-torn society to one of Africa's economic success stories. Miles of its pristine coastline are being fashioned into a tourist destination, with improvements to airports and roads giving the impetus for developers to build resorts that rival the world's top destinations.
High-end resorts with low-environmental impact are being built all along the Bazaruto Archipelago, home to staghorn coral reefs and crystal waters that offer some of the best diving anywhere. With dive sites 30 to 90 feet deep and visibility up to 120 feet, visitors discover an undersea oasis of protected reefs teeming with dolphin, hump-back whales, whale sharks, manta rays and five types of turtles. Snorkeling throughout the island chain is exceptional as well.
Farther off the coast, in the deeper channels, the abundance of sailfish and marlin make Bazaruto one of the best fishing destinations in the Eastern Indian Ocean. The big game fishing season runs from September through January. The Bazaruto Archipelago also offers saltwater fly fishing for the much-sought-after bonefish, which can measure three and half feet long and weigh 22 pounds. Smaller game fish-such as king mackerel, bonito, travelli and queen mackerel-are available year round. "Tag and release" fishing is the usual policy.
The entire archipelago is an ecological treasure trove that scientists believe to have been separated from the mainland thousands of years ago by the tidal ocean currents. Difficult access to the islands helped preserve their natural beauty over the centuries, but today all but one of Bazaruto's five islands are inhabited, hosting first-class accommodations at large resorts and offering quieter recluse at remote beachfront hideaways.
We stayed at Indigo Bay, the largest resort on Bazaruto Island, and the only one with a private landing strip. A visit to Bazaruto is the perfect complement to a safari in South Africa, and for us it meant taking three short flights in a morning to reach Indigo Bay. The final leg of the journey is a 10-minute hop from the airport in Vilanculos to the resort "airport," which is just a thin strip of asphalt cut into the thicket a few hundred meters from the beach. Still, stretching more than 4,000 feet, the runway can accommodate lightly loaded business jets. Indeed, on our arrival to Indigo Bay, a Learjet 45 owned by a South African businessman was parked on the tarmac.
Built by a Saudi prince, Indigo Bay exudes the opulence of a world-class resort, yet manages to capture the simplicity of island living. Along the beach, 29 thatch-roofed chalets offer guests king beds, satellite TV, en suite bathrooms with indoor/outdoor shower and private verandas steps from the water. Situated on the hillside above these villas are 12 luxury chalets, each with two bedrooms and private "splash pool," as well as a presidential villa, offering the ultimate in five-star luxury with its own spa bath and swimming pool, lounge and bar, gated access and 24-hour security.
The resort's prices include meals, which are served at three exceptional restaurants, one of them with tables right on the beach and offering a buffet of gourmet dishes and desserts. Our favorites included filet mignon topped with avocado and melted halloum; and grilled springbok and ostrich tenderloin.
Indigo Bay has two swimming pools, one for adults that boasts a cozy swim-up bar and one for families that incorporates a rock grotto with several waterfalls. Indigo Bay is decidedly family-friendly, but because the resort can accommodate only 150 guests and is spread out over many acres you'll likely never feel overwhelmed by the pitter-patter of children running on the pool decks.
Other highlights of Indigo Bay are the traditional sailing dhow trips around the Bazaruto Archipelago and daily excursions to Benguerra, Maraque and Santa Carolina (Paradise) islands. The resort also offers wind surfing, water skiing, kayaking, a Hobiecat sailboat and dune boarding. Not to be missed is the world-class Sanctuary Spa. Situated high atop a bluff overlooking the resort, the spa offers massage treatments, a rasul mud bath, outdoor hot tubs and sun decks and sunrise and sunset yoga sessions.
TRAVELER FAST FACTS
What it is: The Bazaruto Archipelago is a chain of five islands situated within a protected national park in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Mozambique that in recent years has become home to five-star resorts offering world-class activities and amenities.
Climate: The Bazaruto Archipelago enjoys a warm, tropical climate year round. Evenings are seldom cold, except perhaps for a few nights in June and July. The region experiences less rainfall than areas farther south. In summer, temperatures can soar but the islands are less humid than the mainland.
Getting there: A trip to the Bazaruto Archipelago is the perfect add-on to a safari vacation in South Africa. Flights are available from Kruger National Park and Johannesburg to Velanculos, Mozambique, where visitors clear customs and pay a $50 entry visa. The Indigo Bay Resort and Spa on Bazaruto Island has its own 4,000-foot paved landing strip.
TRAVELER REPORT CARD
Accommodations (A): The world-class Indigo Bay Resort and Spa on Bazaruto Island offers 29 luxury beachfront villas, 12 private chalets with private decks and splash pools and a gated presidential villa that includes a 24-hour private security detail.
Food (A): The all-inclusive Indigo Bay Resort serves meals at three fine-dining locations. The highlight is the beach barbecue, where guests sit at tables on the beach and can choose from a buffet of gourmet meats, seafood, vegetables and deserts.
Quietude (A-): The Bazaruto Achipelago is exceptionally serene, although the daily flights to and from the landing strip at Indigo Bay must fly low over the beach and can interrupt your afternoon snooze by the pool.
Activities (A+): Visitors to the Bazaruto Archipelago-which is known for its world-class fishing and diving-will never run out of things to do or see. A trip to the pristine Santa Carolina (Paradise) Island is a must, as is a sunset horseback ride to the top of
the giant sand dunes on