I got my first sense of this the night before in Vilankulo, a coastal town that serves as the gateway to Magaruque and the four other barrier islands of the Bazaruto Archipelago. I was supposed to head across to Magaruque that day, but a thunderstorm had delayed my flight into Vilankulo until after dark, when a boat ride to the island would likely have ended badly on a sandbar. Marooned for the night, I was put up at the Hotel Dona Ana, a recently refurbished Art Deco property on the water’s edge. And that’s where I met Track Armor.
A lean, graying man with wire-framed spectacles and proper Queen’s English, Armor invited me for dinner at the hotel’s pool bar, plying me with fiery piri-piri chicken and chips as the storm winds clattered palm fronds overhead like bowling pins. He told me he had grown up in neighboring Zimbabwe when it was still Rhodesia and lived through that country’s meltdown. Now he travels throughout southern Africa setting up lodges like Magaruque for Bredenkamp, his boss. Also at our table was a fixer of Armor’s, John Mellet, whose sharp, clean demeanor marked him as a retired soldier —he’d fought for Britain’s Special Air Service in the Rhodesian Bush War.
The fact that shrewd, old Africa hands like these—and not a bunch of suits from global hotel chains—are driving the local travel industry speaks to the country’s place on the front line of tourism. This is not your well-established safari destination, after all. It’s a nation on the rebound. As my dinner companions explained, Mozambique was devastated by a three-decades-long war that erupted in the early 1960s with the fight for independence from Portugal. That struggle bled into a civil war that took a million lives, reduced the country to rubble, and turned wildlife to bones and ghosts. Even now, after two decades of peace, low-grade insurgencies occasionally flare up in the north, and wildlife stocks have yet to recover.
“In many ways, Mozambique is a country of broken dreams and promises,” Armor said. “On the other hand, there’s still so much free space, so much potential. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can still realize something beautiful.”
And much of what is beautiful here lies offshore, where the conflict never reached. The country’s waters are prolific with healthy reefs, massive shoals of fish, and migratory whales and sharks that pass through the Mozambique Channel on the warm Agulhas Current. The Bazaruto Archipelago itself has been protected as a national park since 1971 and is widely considered to be the finest spot on the entire, lengthy Mozambican coast. Home to some 1,500 people, the island chain also harbors a trio of sophisticated lodges aside from Magaruque, which is why the whole country is watching to see how the coast fares in the global tourism market.
“This,” Armor said, motioning out toward the dark sea, “is the future of Mozambique.”
All I had to do was get there.