Mozambique - Falando Portuguese with the Ghosts of Empire

With its long sandy beaches and many offshore islands, the beautiful coastline of Mozambique in East Africa has long been something of a mystery to surfers.

With its long sandy beaches and many offshore islands, the beautiful coastline of Mozambique in East Africa has long been something of a mystery to surfers.

The marvellous atmosphere of the Ilha de Moçambique, with centuries of history on display

With a history of war dating from the independence conflict with Portugal in the 1960’s to the civil war that followed the departure of the Portuguese from all their African colonies in 1975, most of the country was inaccessible to casual visitors until a peace agreement was signed in 1992.

On the sandy streets of Stone Town, some buildings are fully restored and functional while many are not, in disrepair after being abandoned in 1975 with the departure of the Portuguese.

With the end of the fighting and a liberal visa policy for South Africans, many wave discoveries have since been made. Most have been in the southern half of the country by South African surfers driving north from the border on large winter groundswells moving up the coast and filling in the many right points between the border and Maputo, the capital.

The right-hander on the Ilha de Goa works on the prevailing southeast wind

Less well-known are the many offshore islands and little is known about the northern part of the country in a surfing context. It is a long drive from the South African border, and who wants to drive thousands of kilometers past perfect waves to see what might be there?

The Ilha de Goa is a short boat trip from Mozambique Island by sailing dhow and is easily arranged

Our surfEXPLORE project focused on the historic Ilha de Moçambique, a fascinating destination and a UNESCO World Heritage site in the province of Nampula. Where the Ilha de Moçambique was once an island, it is now connected to the mainland by a three-kilometer long causeway built in the mid 1960’s.

The extraordinary Ilha de Moçambique is not overcrowded with tourists, to say the least

The Portuguese visited the island on Vasco da Gama’s first voyage to India in 1498, when it was already a thriving settlement of Swahili-speaking Muslims, with boat-building and slave-trading the main industries.
The Portuguese had gained control of the island and built a fort by 1507 and a catholic chapel by 1522, which is still standing and is considered to be the oldest European building in southern Africa.

The Church of Santo António and The Sea on the Ilha de Moçambique

The Ilha was the capital of Portuguese East Africa up until 1898. Walking the sandy streets of Stone Town, there is incredible history in the buildings and streets that are still in use today.

Sailing in a dhow past the San Sebastião fortress on the northern tip of the Ilha de Moçambique

While many of the buildings on the island, particularly in the northern half of Stone Town; the Portuguese area of settlement, are clearly run down and unoccupied for decades there are enough restored buildings, many of them by young and enthusiastic Europeans starting guesthouses and restaurants, to have the lively and optimistic atmosphere of an up and coming travel destination.

The Island of Mozambique is connected to the mainland by a causeway and is considered to be one of the fastest-growing tourism destinations in southern Africa

There are several offshore islands in front of the Ilha, open to long-period winter groundswell from the Indian Ocean and numerous right point setups on the mainland to the north and the south.

Activities, people and locations in Nampula Province Mozambique, in east Africa

One of these islands is the Ilha do Goa, so named as the imposing red and white striped lighthouse was the last sign of land leaving Mozambique in east Africa and sailing across the Indian ocean on the annual southwest monsoon to the Portuguese colony of Goa in India. It is quite easy to hire a boat on the Island and sail out to the Ilha do Goa, where there is the historic lighthouse and a clean right reef wave, surfable on the prevailing offshore southeast wind of the winter wave season.

Banana-seller on the Ilha de Moçambique, fishing boat on the Ilha de Angoche and the lighthouse on the Ilha de Goa

With the Mozambique Channel nearby, we learned quickly that tides are a big factor in this area. With a daily swing of up to four meters between high and low tides, a good right point at peak low tide would cease to exist at peak high tide. A good tide chart and awareness of the tide cycle were critical. The beachbreaks were much better on an incoming tidal push, so the general plan was to hit the points at peak low and then move to one of the beachbreaks as the tide pushed in.

Waiting for the tide to give the beach break waves an extra punch. Just remember to move the truck before the tide gets too high to drive.

Emiliano Cataldi, surfing in the Indian ocean on the incoming tidal push

The beach breaks were the better choice on the incoming tide - Marco Giorgi from Uruguay

After exploring some of the setups in the vicinity of the Ilha de Moçambique, we moved south to the formerly bustling port town of Angoche, which to be honest, was one of the strangest places we have ever been on a surfEXPLORE project.

Walking the empty streets of Angoche - a surreal atmosphere of zero traffic and very few people at all.

Whereas the Ilha to the north has many new residents from various European countries and many returned people from Portugal, people who were born in Mozambique, left the country during the civil wars for more than thirty years and have now returned, Angoche had the atmosphere of a deserted city, even decades after the departure of the Portuguese in 1975.

The point on Angoche Island would start to work as the tide rushed in from the Indian ocean

Marco Giorgi from Uruguay, surfing on the Ilha de Angoche

Exceptional architecture of a catholic church in Angoche

Buildings in the center of town have jagged broken windows and charred walls from the looting decades ago and are completely empty, with the faded lettering for “Supermercado” still visible on the façade. Few buildings have been restored or are in use in the central part of Angoche and from the giant four-lane streets leading into town and out, Angoche was clearly built for bigger things.
Hang around at one of the cafes still open with a coffee, and a single motorcycle or person on a bicycle might drive by in twenty minutes. Many of the houses, built in concrete with wonderful art deco curves lie empty, abandoned in 1975 and never re-occupied.

The Point on Angoche Island provided fun waves with many of the local village kids coming out to watch

Portuguese is the language of Mozambique - few people speak anything else

The peculiarity of Angoche is, as deserted and melancholy as the town itself may be, the countryside is absolutely thriving, with tens of  thousands of Muslim locals living in villages on Angoche Island. These locals are farming and fishing outside of the abandoned urban area, leading traditional African lifestyles with little need for or concern with what the Portuguese built in the last decades of their colonial occupation.
As there are no local surfers at all in the Ilha de Moçambique or Angoche areas, we had to write our script as we went along, looking at every possible setup. There are no surf maps or surf guides in this area.

Taylor Claire Miller from Australia, using the incoming tide and clean moving conditions

We had to figure out where the waves were on Angoche Island and the ideal tides for the best conditions - there are no surf guides in this part of the world.

As the roads on the Ilha de Angoche are in a dismal state of disrepair, we did what the locals do and drove on the beach. At low tide, the sand is perfectly firm and all manner of transport uses the beach - people walking, the occasional vehicle and dozens of bicycles and motorbikes of every description.
Driving on the beach seemed like a good idea and it was, up to a point. That point was reached one evening, when on a rapidly rising tide, we got stuck in soft sand trying to drive off the beach and onto the road. With the light fast-fading from the sky, the tide coming up to the rear tires and with the truck going into the Indian Ocean, we all got out and dug like crazy with our bare hands in the soft sand.

Marco Giorgi is a professional surfer from Uruguay, who lives in southern Brasil and surfs with Latin flair

With tidal fluctuations of up to four meters (12 feet) between high and low tides, the water level is constantly changing, leaving bizarre limestone rock formations

We eventually made a trench for each back tire and after lowering the tire pressure to get more rubber on the sand, with a little rocking back and forth and some skilled sand driving from Emiliano Cataldi, we got the truck out of the soft sand and onto the road just in time.
In between surfing the clean beachbreaks of Angoche island, on one low tide afternoon north of Angoche, we timed our approach to an offshore right point carefully. As it would take approximately one hour to walk on the sand at low tide to the waves, we left the beach thirty minutes before peak low tide. Sure enough, after one hour of walking on the exposed white sand of the bay, the tide had already turned and was now incoming, each surge rapidly filling the bay with water from the Indian ocean. The wave we had come to surf started to work, a fun righthand point break, offshore on the constant southeast wind.

Emiliano Cataldi advantages the incoming tide at the point

Walking on the exposed white sand at peak low tide, to the point in the distance

Local Muslim villagers gathered in numbers at the tip of the point, to see what the foreigners were doing so far from the beach. They cheered wildly as first Emiliano, then Marco and finally Taylor caught their first waves, probably the first waves ever ridden in this area. They said they have never seen surfers before in their lives, so we knew we were in the right place.

Local villagers cheered every wave, having never seen surfers before in their lives

Text © John Seaton Callahan/surfEXPLORE Images © John Seaton Callahan/surfEXPLORE

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