A sultry afternoon in Mozambique: conditions conducive to a post-prandial nap. I can be forgiven for taking a while to register the acrid smell gusting up from the beach below. Only after a succession of anxious faces, with tight voices, scurry round the edge of the hotel pool, peer into the bush and jabber something too emotion-laden for my limited Portuguese, I begin to realize that something is amiss: there is a fire. It hasn‘t rained. It never rains much in Vilankulo, the rotund and cheery bus driver had told us on arrival, but this year has been particularly sparse.
The hotel manager arrives to check the situation – her flustered demeanour belies a toughness I don’t underestimate – she is Zimbabwean and hence I credit her with the can-do-capability that I have rarely found outside the nation with the biggest bounce-back in Southern Africa. We can’t yet see flames or hear a tell-tale crackle through the rising fog, but she explains to us that there is no fire brigade in Vilankulo, so it’s really every man for his own bit of bush (isn’t it always?) My husband has already disappeared down the steep pathway to check it out for himself. He returns with a curt field report that betrays his Britannic roots: the bush is definitely burning; it’s too far for the sprinklers to reach, but near enough to the sea for a handful of buckets to sort out – as long as a sense of urgency and leadership is applied.
He offers to help if the lady of the house can furnish him with a bucket, but she insists that will not be necessary – the staff have been dispatched. I wonder if I should empty the room-safe now and bundle all the significant data of my life into a backpack – just in case – then I decide it’s probably not necessary and turn back languidly to my Kindle.
After the smoky afternoon spent by the pool we decide that a day on the high seas is obviously the safer bet for holiday relaxation. We sign up for a Dhow cruise to a nearby island. The proprietor has asked us to be at the office by 8 am (though the notice on the board clearly says we are only due to leave at 9.) Being dutiful to keep “horario Britanico” we are there on time, with our own masks and snorkels and can’t fathom why we have to be there so early. Then the tour party of 20 Germans arrives. They all need to be kitted out with masks, snorkels and little rubber bootees, which is difficult as they (the Germans) come in a variety of sizes and the bootees are mostly size 8.
No matter, we are soon pushing off from shore. It perturbs me slightly that the first thing the crew does is to light a fire in the middle of the wooden boat (surely this thing is not steam-powered?) I am relieved to discover that the fire is needed to boil the kettle (obviously!) and all the Europeans appreciate a cup of tea as a rather civilized start to our endeavour. The day progresses well with a sighting of dolphins (no dugongs sadly) and by mid-morning we are moored off an idyllic sandy bay and the Germans are happily tiptoe-ing across the reef in their bootees. As the tide gets too high to see the reef we wade on shore. A slap-up fish barbeque has been prepared by the crew who are still stoking their fire pit in the middle of the boat.
After lunch the Gringos snooze and swim some more. The crew find a mast and sail from somewhere in the bowels of the boat and hoist it for the homeward journey. Skimming along the waves at a great rate of knots, another round of tea is served with freshly made popcorn (is there no end to the uses of a bonfire on a boat?) I am beginning to be seriously impressed with our Mozambican sailors and wonder if they couldn’t be tempted to accept a job in Woolwich catering corporate weekends?