Sunday, May 17, 2015

Dhow Ride, Vilankoulos, Mozambique, 1999

Journal Entry, May 8th, 1999.

I’ve never been on a dhow. But here, off the coast of Vilankoulos they are plentiful, with their centuries-long tradition sailing the coastal islands off Mozambique. And further north following the seasonal monsoon winds back and forth across the Indian Ocean between ports in India, and back to the East African coast.  Will a dhow ride to one of the nearby islands be the perfect culmination of my road trip in Mozambique?

I sleep for a third night in my tent at Dodo’s Camp Site near the beach at Vilankoulos.  Michelle and Colin left yesterday, continuing their journey south toward Maputo, in their repaired VW Golf.
After a breakfast of orange juice, egg and chips at the campers’ café-cum-bar, I meet up again with Sebastian as we had arranged. He guides me south down
the beach to meet his friend Weston, who takes tourists and local passengers out-and-around Marguerita Island on his small dhow. Along the way I see another white woman with a backpack.  Like me, she is accompanied by a black guide. We stop and chat. She is Australian, and also travelling solo.   I suggest we team up for the dhow ride, but she says she’s read that it’s best not to take a dhow without a motor.  After we part, Sebastian gives me another reason.  “Her guide likes her,” he says. “He doesn’t want to let her go.” 
Her hesitation reinforces my own about travelling on my own in a dhow with a young black crew. Transferring my anxiety to the weather, I glance out to sea and toward the sky and clouds, licking my finger to the wind. Sebastian is encouraging. “It’s a beautiful day. Yes, there is a smart wind. But look - the other boats out on the water - the wind is not too strong for them.” He’s right, the dhows are not heeled over. My intuition tells me to take on the adventure.  He introduces me to his friend Weston, and the other crew member, Nelson. The two men are young, fit, and clad lightly in bermuda shorts and t-shirts.  I look over the dhow. It’s a solid wooden sailing boat with room for about six. I pay Weston the fee - M$150,000 - for a sail to Marguerita Island and back. Sebastian guides me briefly up the beach to a kiosk where I rent a snorkel and flippers. Then he helps me clamber ungraciously aboard the dhow over its stern, and waves goodbye.  
I move forward near the bow. Weston pushes off from the beach, jumps aboard and poles us out.  Nelson lowers the bulky rudder, hands it over to his captain before turning his attention to the mainsail. He pulls heavily on the rope attached to the huge triangular cloth. The sail grudgingly unfurls, tall and graceful, and quickly catches the wind. The boat picks up speed.  We sail well, mast gently heeled. I begin to relax and enjoy the sunshine, the view of the retreating coastline, and the sounds of the wind in the sail, its creaking boom. Indeed it seems magical.
After a while, I get my camera out of my small pack, and take photos all round. Nelson breaks a long stick of sugar cane and hands each of us a piece. 
We chew, and suck on the sweet sticks, and spit chewed bits into the sea. When the sun gets too hot, I duck into the shade of the sail.  Gradually the dhow approaches Marguerita Island. We enter a cove on its west shore and as Nelson throws over the anchor, I strip down to my bathing suit and get ready to go snorkeling.  Nelson assures me he’ll keep an eye out for sharks.  Hmmm! 
I’m also a bit worried about leaving my precious camera on board.  But it’s that or … no snorkeling. So I put on the flippers and with Weston’s help, let myself over the side of the boat into the cool water. I push off and swim further into the Island cove until I come to a coral reef. Face-mask down into the water, I marvel at the shapes and colors of the reef, the turquoise water flashing sunlight, and at the myriad of exquisite, tiny tropical fish of different patterns and colors, darting about the jagged coral pinnacles.  A paradise in miniature. 
            After a while, I swim back to the dhow and climb back aboard. Nelson tells me he and Weston will be staying on longer to fish, and I’m to return to the mainland by motorboat.  Not much choice for me …  I join the assigned boat - pack, camera and all - and the six passengers and crew return to Vilankoulos beach. 
            That evening, I feel rather alone and sad.  There’s no-one to share talking over the adventures of the day.  But I’d better get to sleep early.  The bus ,which is to begin my return journey, will pass through the local station at 3.00 a.m.  I’ll break camp at midnight, pack up and hike across town to the bus stop.
The dhow ride was indeed magical and for a short while I felt deeply connected to the centuries-long trade and adventure along the shores of East Africa.


  1. Another stunning story, Judith! I feel your sadness at the end of the day - one does so want to share experiences - so great that you've journalled and can share with others now!

  2. I thought I had commented on this when first read. Judith and I meet on my Sunday Zoom on occasion. She deserves more recognition. I true witness to our times.