Jun 162014
 

On Ibo Island the dark art of silver smithing, mixing a history of voodoo (or rumours of it), with slave trading, alchemy and metallurgy – and not a little chicanery it is said, coalesce. The smiths are a tight guild who are virtually the island mafia, controlling things through the mysterious knowledge and economic links.

Ibo Island Silversmith

Ibo Island Silversmith

Since the fall of the Portuguese empire they have set up shop in the old fort, Forteleza de São Baptista. The fort was built in the mid-1700s for the newly arrived Portuguese masters to suppress the wealthy Arab, Indian and French traders who had set up shop on Ibo. The smiths’ bullion comes in the form of old coins, which they melt into silver wire and then tease that into filigree.

Watching the silversmiths at work is a window into the past. However the supply of genuine silver coins has long since been spent and today you are as likely to find an 1889 Chinese or Portuguese coin as a 1968 South African 20 cent piece among the raw materials. But the fine quality of the work is beyond doubting, or the value of the precious jewelry they conjure.

Ibo Island Fort

Ibo Island Fort

David Bristow

Jun 132014
 

Ibo Island

On a road trip through Mozambique some years ago we were warned, “don’t go there”. There was a voodoo thing going down on Ibo Island they said, among the Quirimbas archipelago of northern Mozambique and the mainlanders avoided the place like the plague. One slogan from the past apparently welcomed you: you arrive alive but you leave dead. That past is a mostly sad narrative including slave trading, colonial oppression and civil war atrocities where myth, legend and collective memory intertwine.

Ibo Island, the dock

Ibo Island, the dock

So it was that we arrived on the island as the guests of Kevin and Fiona Record apprehensive of what we might find – two people gone native and like Kurtz, living out their own tropical island nightmare. Or some uptight ex-colonials who make us dress up for dinner and watch our Ps and Qs.

What we did find was something you dream of when you close your eyes and imagine the perfect tropical island getaway. It might not be exactly paradise – that would be too extreme an exaggeration. But it is as close to my dream of island perfection as anything I have seen in 40 years of travelling this continent.

Ibo Island, paradise view

Ibo Island, paradise view

“How the hell am I going to capture all this, bugger,” were Roger’s words to me when we climbed out of the very characterful transfer vehicle (that’s another story, there are lots of stories, and I do wonder how I am going to be able to tell them all in just 1,200 words in the book).

I don’t know why he calls me that, but I told him that if he didn’t do the place justice, I would fire him. Words ensued.

Ibo is real enough to make you feel like a genuine traveller, but stylish enough to make you want to return with someone special. The lodge is really a villa hotel, where three dilapidated buildings on the Avenue Bella Vista (and it is!) have been renovated with taste and a keen appreciation for the cultural environment.

Unlike most other islands of the Afri-Shirazi coast, which show a mostly Arabian influence, Ibo was more closely connected to India. So when the Records went shopping to furnish the place it was to Jaipur and Mumbai they went clutching.

The renovations are authentic, down to using coral rag blocks and lime mortar, and using the local islanders for most the skilled and all the unskilled work. That opportunity was used to introduce adult education as well as generally upskill the workforce, and most of them now work for the lodge.

“They could have gone Bali on the place,” observed Pat. I picked up that was not a good thing. Or they could have gone native, I observed. What they have done instead is recreated the look and feel of the colonial past, but with the soul of the present and looking after the island’s future. You feel the eye of Fiona has been the driving force for the small beach hotel’s ambiance. As John Steinbeck once put it: it takes a man to make a camp, but it takes a woman to make a home. I’m afraid to imply that Kevin is the “brawn” because he is substantially bigger than I.

Ibo Island, stylish

Ibo Island, stylish enough to make you want to return with someone special

The place appears really super casual and the clientele is markedly younger than you meet at most game lodges, but you know it has been achieved only through very hard work and not a small investment. You also feel, however, that everything has been done with heart, and on good faith.  Like the way Kevin had two dhows built on Zanzibar on a handshake and a hefty deposit.

Fiona probably went ballistic on him, but Kevin said it felt so right. Three months later he had two spanking new, beautiful dhows. They use them for dhow safaris through the Quirimbas islands, which are extremely popular and they run up to 50 a year.

Now I cannot wait to explore the historic sites, including the legendary silver smiths of Ibo, the old fort, go snorkeling with dolphins (hump-backed and bottle-nose), sea kayaking through the mangrove channels, scuba diving (apparently the sites are as legendary as the tales of voodoo) and dhow sailing to a sand bar at low tide for a picnic. After that maybe I’ll just sit on the dock of the bay and watch the tide come in, and then go out.

I’ll put up a mental sign “gone fishing” and dream of owning my own island hideaway one day.

“Life here is not all a carnival,” Fiona might tell you. But right now it certainly feels like it is.

David Bristow

Ibo island, the old

Ibo island, the old