Mozambique – a coastal, self-drive holiday

Mozambique tweaks its tourism act a little every year. Getaway went on a self-drive 4×4 expedition from Bilene to Vilanculos to ferret out the best of old and new for a beach holiday.

Words and photographs by Catherine Hofmeyr

Margaruque has no overnight accommodation, and is the closest of the Bazaruto Archipelago’s four islands to Vilanculos, making it a perfect day trip on a Sailaway Dhow Safari. Image: Catherine Hofmeyr.

‘I found it,’ I texted my son in his wintry boarding house in Cape Town. Bemused by why I didn’t let him skip the end of mid-year exams and join me on a 12-day trip  to Mozambique, Tom had issued this parting instruction: ‘Well then, Mom, find us a perfect place for our next family holiday, near a surf break with lots of space for friends.’

I was standing on the balcony of Casa Malcampo’s  main house when I sent the message. A balmy evening breeze rustled the palms, while I looked over a headland to the beach. Renowned Tofinho surf point lay just around the corner. It was the perfect spot for a frosty Dois M after a long drive.   

There are few short road hops in Mozambique. Long ones become very long ones due to crawling traffic in towns and getting lost among stately palms on seaward tracks. Our long hop had started two days earlier in Joburg, when Getaway colleague Gabby Jacobs and I had piled our sarongs, snorkelling gear and mozzie repellent into an Isuzu D-Max crew cab and set the on-board sat-nav for Komatipoort.

I was last in Mozambique 12 years ago, and plenty has changed. Our eastern neighbour is now red – not communist-hangover or even Coke red, but Vodacom red, on virtually every village building. And the feared transitos (traffic police) smiled and waved our bakkie through every checkpoint.

There’s lots to do at the Bilene Club Lodge, a favourite coastal getaway for city-dwellers in Maputo. Image: Catherine Hofmeyr.

First stop was Bilene, on the shores of Uembje Lagoon, separated from the sea by a narrow strip of coastal dunes. ‘It’s the first blue water north of Maputo, so Bilene is very popular as a weekend getaway from the city,’ said general manager Jacques de Wet, welcoming us to Bilene Club Lodge. There’s a new road being built, direct from Maputo, which will cut the trip to around an hour. The lodge is right on the lagoon, with green lawns, a communal Saturday braai at a beachside pool and mooring for boats out front.

Jacques’ son JJ runs the activities centre and soon had us aboard his boat for a trip to Turtle Rock. We anchored near the lagoon mouth and crossed the beach to where sand cliffs culminated in Turtle Rock. For some reason, these critters hang out here and you’re almost guaranteed a sighting. From the top we spotted three. The views of a wild coastline disappearing northwards were just as exhilarating.

‘You’ll need six hours to get to Inhambane,’ Jacques advised (it’s 270 kilometres). It proved a slow-going six-and-a-half, crossing the Limpopo at bustling Xai-Xai and on past the beautiful lake-lands around Quissico. Vasco da Gama called the area around Inhambane Terra da boa Gente (Land of Good People). Five centuries on, there are still some fine humans around. Our host, Eddie Grujon, and his manager, Luis Combi, at Casa Malcampo were two of them. They treated us to a cuta (king mackerel) braai at the pool with side helpings of local casquinas (stuffed crab), prawn rissóis and coconut rice. For action and activities in the area, we just asked Eddie.

Team Duzentos, surf competitions and lifesavers are new additions to Tofo Beach, thanks to The Surf Shack. Image: Catherine Hofmeyr.

On Tofinho Point next morning at sunrise we met Allison Levin and Dave Rupping, aka the good people of The Surf Shack, having a coffee. The ‘shack’ was opened in a back alley of Tofo by a Hollander a few years ago. Allison and Dave bought it in December last year and have transformed it into an organised beachfront shop. They’ve also taken a few local lads under their wing, providing boards and coaching. Team Duzentos were delighted to shred Tofo beach break while I clicked away. 

The coast from Barra to Tofinho is a hub of scuba diving and surfing activity and the hot – literally – newcomer on the block is Peri-Peri Divers. Steve Counsel grew up on a council estate in Manchester. In his late teens he washed up in Cape Town, then decided to drive home. He got as far as Tofo, tried diving and 17 years later, together with Nicholas Bateman, has built one of the finest dive centres I’ve ever seen – with Wi-Fi and complimentary popcorn to boot. Their three, semi-rigid inflatables are all named after chillies, and for your forays underwater you can choose your degree of ‘heat’. Having not dived for a few years I opted for Fingers, definitely in the lemon-and-herb league (expect currents and toothy critters on a ‘hot’ dive) but it provided excellent sightings of a mantis shrimp, honeycomb eel, blue-spotted ray and a lizard fish chomping something small and orange – medium-hot by the look of it.

Peri-Peri Divers in Tofo makes learning scuba diving easy in the five-metre-deep pool on site. Image: Catherine Hofmeyr.

Back at Malcampo, Eddie had an old Safari surfboard and lots of advice, but the swell remained tiny until just before we had to leave. Cursing Murphy, Poseidon and other spoilers of that ilk, I bounced reluctantly out of Tofinho, vowing to be back.

‘How far can we ride along this beach? I asked Ben Gericke, straddling my dikwiel bike. ‘Aaah, about 2,500 kilometres,’ he said, looking at me quizzically. It was a day later and we were on the flat highway of beach fronting Travessia Lodge at low tide. Several kays down we’d passed fishermen tending their nets but no other signs of civilisation.

If you had to pin Travessia down geographically, it’s in the Morrumbene area. At the end of a sand track through cashew trees and palms, we came to the off-grid eco-lodge, a hilltop collection of sea-view chalets linked by boardwalks.

Travessia is a barefoot luxury lodge designed for chilling – but the lodge dogs, Essie and TK, much preferred Gabby Jacobs cycling down the beach at low tide, than reading in her porch hammock. Images: Catherine Hofmeyr.

‘Dinner tonight will be in the palm grove,’ announced Adel, our delightful co-host with Ben. And what a dinner it was, with braaied rock cod and a crayfish too big for the plate. Lanterns flickered, the fire burned low… I’m not saying anything more, except get to Travessia, if it’s the only place you go in Moz.

Traditionally, Vilanculos was a launch pad for visitors to the upmarket island lodges of the Bazaruto Archipelago, but these days the seafront town has plenty to offer landlubbers. While I met up with Kerry Butler of Sailaway Dhow Safaris at their mainland camp, Gabby spent two nights at Archipelago Resort, a long-time family favourite with a dive centre, south of town. From the veranda of each thatched casa, there are magnificent views of the sandbanks and turquoise channels as the tide ebbs and flows around the islands. 

‘With Mozambique Horse Safaris, I befriended a gentle furry giant named Bazan, and we horsed around on the beach in the sunset as colourful dhows pulled in and eager fishermen enticed me with the catch of the day – fresh lulas (squid),’ said Gabby. ‘The next morning I set out in a kayak from Dive Bazaruto, visiting mangrove forests and hopping from one sandbank to another.’

It was Gabby Jacobs’s first time on a horse with Mozambique Horse Safaris at Archipelago Resort near Vilanculos; they also ride on Benguerra Island. Image: Elizabeth Broomhall.

Dhows in Vilanculos are almost as ancient as the islands themselves. Chatting to Kerry rekindled fond memories of a long-ago family trip to the island of Margaruque, so next day I joined fellow guests Alexis and Martin aboard the Dona Teresa.

‘Dugong!’ shouted guide Alfonso Mhaca as we neared the island. It was just a glimpse, then it dived out of sight. There are only a handful of these mythical creatures left in the Bazaruto National Park. As we sailed into the reef-sheltered cove, memories from 12 years ago came flooding back. What’s changed since then? Blissfully nothing – the water was still translucent aquamarine and the snorkelling sublime.

Back on the mainland, I discovered a very good reason to overnight in town: Casa Babi, with on-site Odyssea Divers. Arriving damp, salty and sunburnt from the island day trip, the fluffy towels, marula conditioner and Kalahari body lotion were just the pampering my body craved.   

Watch dhows unloading the night’s catch from Casa Babi in Vilanculos; snorkelling off Margaruque, you drift gently along with the tide, so there’s no need for fins while you tick off eels, lionfish, parrot fish and more of the 2,000-odd species of the Bazaruto National Park. Images: Catherine Hofmeyr.

My French hosts, Denis Dujardin and Sabrina Rocco, bought Odyssea back in 2007. And slowly Casa Babi rose out of cactus and sand on the plot next door into a boutique guest house in tropical foliage. The three-course dinner included crayfish with French flair. And from my bed the next morning, I watched dhow sails returning with the night’s catch. 

The diving in Vilanculos is legendary and I’d hoped to join Odyssea for a full-day expedition to São Sebastião (bull sharks are a possible sighting), but we needed to start the long hop south.

The drive from Inharrime to Dunes de Dovela via Lake Dongane is an attraction in itself, low-range diff-lock stuff on deep sand tracks winding through coastal forest with overhanging boughs of green monkey orange and dune jackalberry.

‘Is the forest so spectacular because of the lake?’ I asked host Thomas Bruneau as we pulled up under spreading pod mahoganies and white milkwoods.

‘The forest is here because it’s still here,’ he replied, referring to the extensive clearing of indigenous trees for cashew, cassava and palms. Building Dovela was a labour of love for Thomas and his partner, Alexandra Polleau, originally from France. An engineer by profession and a bird guide by passion, Thomas carted all the building material down the 4×4 track in a Toyota Hilux and an old Land Rover Defender.

‘We promote hiking,’ he filled me in about this nature-lovers’ destination. There are kilometres of marked trails throughout the Dovela concession and the bungalows and safari tents are all linked to a central bar/dining area by paths winding through the forest and down to the beach.

Cashew-tree fruit; drive through coastal forest to reach Dunes de Dovela via Lake Dongane. Images: Catherine Hofmeyr.

Thomas has personally ticked off 256 birds on the property. ‘But our biggest asset here is the humpback whales, which migrate past from July to October. You’re guaranteed a sighting,’ he added. The food is great too, with Alexandra using produce and seafood from local villagers in her creative cooking. ‘We make it all,’ she said, ‘the brioche, the pastry, the jams, the juices…’ 

The back roads from Dovela to Zavora presented  scenic Moz at its best – through villages and along lakes. In need of a lick of paint and a weed-eater in places, Zavora Lodge has nevertheless outlived several other operations in the area. There are two reasons, and they both start with P: position and price. Set on a very fine beach with safe swimming, an on-site dive centre and a mean reputation for deep-sea fishing, the lodge has it all.

Still prolific in the Zavora area, many coconut plantations were recently decimated by an insect-borne disease; sunrise surf check at Tofinho Point. Images: Catherine Hofmeyr.

Divers have myriad sites to choose from, including two wreck dives. I wanted to see a manta so I joined a trip to Witch’s Hat, a primary manta cleaning station. There were big old crayfish, colourful nudibranchs and a white-tipped reef shark, but no mantas winging out of the gloom. 

On the restaurant deck later, the Txilar (a new brew from Heineken) was ice cold, the peixe and batatas fritas served with fiery chilli sauce of the chef’s making, and the views were of endless beach and turquoise waves. You won’t find linen napkins at Zavora, but the camarão (prawns) are hot, there are Slapping Turtle cocktails and body boards cost R50 for a few hours of wave fun.

Tempting? Sorry, they’re fully booked for the December holidays. But, on the 500-kilometre coastal strip from Bilene to Vilanculos, the variety of stay-and-play options for a beach holiday is staggering these days. Go find your favourite.

Jorge riding a wave at Tofo Beach. Catherine Hofmeyr.

SAFARI WITH A DIFFERENCE You don’t have to don a mask and blow bubbles from 10 metres down to see Mozambique’s ocean giants – whales, whale sharks and manta rays. Getaway’s Gabby Jacobs had never snorkelled until she joined a group of Brits on an ocean safari with Peri-Peri Divers. ‘I got to snorkel with two young giant manta rays,’ she enthused.

FOR THE BIRDERS With such a wide variety of habitats, Mozambique has 900 documented bird species, including the endemic green-headed oriole and Gunning’s robin. For a special birding experience, get Thomas from Dunes de Dovela to find you a plain-backed sunbird, Livingstone’s flycatcher, black-headed apalis or Woodwards’ batis, among others. 

ZAVORA’S MANTAS Zavora and Inhambane are reputed to be the only areas in the world where you can see both manta birostris and alfredo. The giant rays are commonly sighted from June to September. Marine Action Research (MAR) at the Zavora Marine Lab has been tracking mantas for the past 10 years, developing software to identify individual males and females according to each one’s unique spot pattern. MAR also runs environmental projects, including beach and ocean clean-ups (contact them for internships). zavoralab.com

On this trip, the Isuzu D-Max 300 4×4 crew cab cruised the highways comfortably and had the 4×4 power
to deal with thick sand without deflating tyres. From R521,500. isuzu.co.za. Image: Catherine Hofmeyr.

Plan your trip

Our trip was organised by Mozambique Connection, a one-stop shop for bookings, advice and border procedures. mozcon.com

Getting there

The Komatipoort border is a five-hour drive from Joburg on the N4 toll road. Airlink flies from Joburg to Vilanculos, from R3, 390 return (flyairlink.com), or LAM links Maputo and Inhambane, from R1 ,690 return (lam.co.mz).

Need to know

Documents SA citizens don’t need a visa. Take certified copies of your vehicle’s registration and licence papers and a letter of authorisation from the owner.  Buy third-party insurance (around R350 for 11 days) at the border or online from DriveMoz. iSureAfrica.com

Driving Never drive at night. If you speed you will be caught; signage is often absent or confusing. The EN1 is a bit potholed south of Inhambane, but good, new highway northwards. Most coastal tracks require 4×4, but all lodges offer a safe parking and pick-up service. Download the Zello two-way radio app and use the DriveMoz channels for any troubles on the road. Buy a starter pack for your cell phone in Moz – data is much cheaper than in SA.

Health Travel insurance with medical evac is essential – some dive operators require proof. This is a malaria area so take precautions.

Self-catering Buy fresh from local fishermen and produce markets. There are Shoprite, U-Save or Taurus supermarkets in bigger towns.

When to go May to October is cooler and the threat of malaria recedes. 

KOMATIPOORT

Stay here

Komati River Chalets is a good stopover before the border, with a restaurant. Self-catering from R560 pp sharing (SADC rate). komatiriverchalets.co.za

BILENE

Stay here

Bilene Club Lodge is a neat, well-maintained, self-catering complex with family units from R1, 200 (sleep four). There’s safe swimming, fishing and an on-site activity centre with kayaking, boat trips, snorkelling, turtle viewing and more. mozcon.com

Eat here

The Highlander Fishing Lodge has good seafood (4×4 needed), or walk to ‘in town’ eateries.

ZAVORA AREA

Stay here

Dunes de Dovela has three luxury double bungalows (R2, 800 pp, full board) and four safari tents (one family unit) with shared ablutions. Full board in tents is R1, 450 pp for adults and R800 for children (15% off for SADC residents). Guided hiking, village walks and snorkelling is included. dunesdedovela.com

Zavora Lodge is an extensive property with comfortable double rooms from R605; self-catering cottages from R850 (sleep four), beachfront camping from R190 pp and casitas and backpackers from R165 pp. zavoralodge.com

Do this
Surf, fish, snorkel, swim, walk, do sundowners at the Zavora Point lighthouse and explore the lakes. The lodge rents out surf and body boards, and the diving in the area is fantastic. Nearby Doxa Beach Hotel (from R550 pp) has beach horse- riding. doxabeachhotel.co.za 

Enjoy a frosty Dois M after a morning or afternoon spent at Tofinho Point, known as the most consistent surf break in Moz. Images: Catherine Hofmeyr.

TOFO/TOFINHO

Stay here

Casa Malcampo in Tofinho is self-catering (meals can be arranged) from R680 a unit (sleeps two) and from R3 ,650 for Casa de Baleia (sleeps 12). tofoaccommodation.info
Also check out Casa John next door (casajohn.co.za), Turtle Cove, which offers yoga retreats (turtlecovetofo.com), and Casa Barry at Tofo (casabarry.com).  

Eat here

There are plenty of bars and restaurants in Tofo. C-Mew has a great view and seafood, just a stumble from Casa Malcampo.
Mozambeat is the place for a good night-time vibe, music and cocktails (rooms from R700 pp). mozambeatmotel.com.

Do this

Surf Tofinho point, Dragons or Tofo Beach. The Surf Shack at Tofo gives lessons and hires out surf boards (long, short and soft top), body boards and SUPs. thesurfshacktofo.com
Make a donation to the new lifesavers at Tofo Beach – they desperately need funds. 

Peri-Peri Divers offers a full PADI menu, guided diving and kiteboarding. The special night-dive package includes a science talk, two dives and buffet dinner, R2 ,700 pp. A two-hour ocean safari with gear is R800 pp. peri-peridivers.com

MORRUMBENE

Stay here

Travessia Lodge has just five chalets, including one family unit. From R1 ,650 pp DBB (no restaurants nearby). The lodge has a pool, bikes for beach riding, kayaks and body boards, and offers guided village walks; ocean safaris, snorkelling or diving in Tofo can be booked on request. travessialodge.com

Manne don’t fear, the built-in braai’s right here at Casa Malcampo’s communal pool. Image: Catherine Hofmeyr.

VILANCULOS

Stay here

Casa Babi has four luxury rooms on the beachfront, R2 ,100 pp DBB. There’s also a self-catering unit from R2, 400 for two (sleeps five). Staff can arrange beach horse rides, town tours or a cooking course with the chef. casababi.com

Archipelago Resort has 18 sea-view casas on a large, shady  property, from R2,500 (sleeps six). There’s a pool, and the Sand Dollar bar/restaurant. archipelago-resort.com

Do this

Odyssea Diving (at Casa Babi) has diving, snorkelling and ocean safaris plus kiteboarding  lessons or hire. odysseadive.com
Dive Bazaruto at Archipelago Resort offers a full scuba-diving service, ocean-fishing charters and rents out kayaks. divebazaruto.com
Mozambique Horse Safaris offers beach rides from R860 pp (children under 12 half price)  and multi-day horse safaris.
mozambiquehorsesafari.com

Sailaway runs traditional dhow sailing trips to the Archipelago islands. Day trips out of Vilanculos from R1 ,230 pp; overnight dhow safaris, staying at the base camp north of town, from R3,630 pp. sailaway.co.za

Eat here

For finer dining try Vilanculos Beach Lodge, Bahia Mar or Casa Rex. Get casual meals at Zombie Cucumber and Baobab; feet-in-the-sand Casbah has good calamari; go to Sand Dollar for the view.

XAI-XAI

Stay Here

Honeypot, 12km south of Xai-Xai, is where Gautengers in the know overnight. It’s a pleasant resort with good security, family cottages, swimming pool, braai facilities and a restaurant. It put us within three hours’ drive of the Komatipoort border. Self-catering chalet from R460 (sleeps two), camping from R120 pp. honeypot-mozambique.co.za

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