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Under African Skies

Zubin Shroff The entrance to Pembo Beach Resort Hotel.

Photo: Zubin Shroff

The water below is so transparent that even from 2,000 feet, flying beneath low-lying clouds, I can make out the silvery flash of dolphins and sail?sh corkscrewing through the waves. Stretching to the horizon is an exquisite ribbon of palm- and mangrove-studded islands, each rimmed by a halo of ivory sand. To the west, plying a maze of tidal waterways, are dozens of creaking dhows, sails billowing, atavistic reminders that this was once a remote outpost of the Arab spice route and slave trade. Seen from my vantage point—an eight-seat Islander plane—the Quirimbas archipelago recalls the South Pacific. In fact, this 200-mile-long chain of coral islands—32 in all, only half of which are inhabited—lies off the northern coast of Mozambique. And if certain entrepreneurs and tastemakers are right, the Quirimbas may become Africa's answer to the Maldives.

For now, however, the islands remain blissfully off the map. Few Mozambicans, let alone foreign travelers, have ever set foot here. And though I come from neighboring Zimbabwe, I hadn't heard of the archipelago until two years ago. Even during Mozambique's brief tourism heyday—the swinging 1950's and 1960's, when rich white Africans and Europeans filled the cafés, nightclubs, and colonial hotels of Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) and the glittering Bazaruto Islands—the Quirimbas remained cut off, as if preserved in aspic.

By the mid 1970's, of course, most of Mozambique itself was off-limits. In 1964 the country was wracked by a violent Marxist revolution, culminating in the 1975 overthrow of Portuguese rule; this was followed by a brutal civil war that would claim an estimated 1 million lives before its end in 1992. "I like to spend some time in Mozambique," Bob Dylan sang on his 1976 album Desire, but in those days—and for the two decades that followed—no one else wanted to be anywhere near the place.

And yet, and yet.…It has now been 13 years since the civil conflict ended and, astonishing as it may seem, Mozambique has reinvented itself as the most seductive destination in East Africa. In Maputo, those Mediterranean-style cafés and boîtes that drew comparisons to Lisbon's are again bustling. No doubt you've heard that the Bazaruto Islands are thriving once more, with a slate of luxurious beach lodges and exclusive diving resorts. But the real frontier, and the greatest rewards for travelers, can be found up north.

My reason for visiting the Quirimbas is twofold: this remote corner of Mozambique could well become my parents' new home. As second-generation white Zimbabweans, they are essentially under siege by the increasingly deranged government of Robert Mugabe, which has designated their game farm in eastern Zimbabwe for "resettlement" (Mugabe's policy of seizing white-owned farms to relocate landless peasants). Their animals are being poached, and their tourist business, along with Zimbabwe's economy, has collapsed. It is now likely that they will have to flee the country. In anticipation of this, my sister, a London-based real estate dealer, recently bought—over the Internet, for a song—a five-acre plot of beachfront in Pemba, the mainland gateway to the Quirimbas. The plan is to make this the setting for a guesthouse, which my parents would help to build and to manage. Indeed, at the end of my journey through the islands, my father will be flying from Zimbabwe to join me in Pemba, where both of us will see the property for the first time.

The irony of this is not lost on us. When my sister and I were growing up in Zimbabwe, Mozambique was a forbidden zone, forever at war. My parents, however, had known the country in a different era, and would regale us with tales of louche Mozambique weekends of sun, sea, sand, and Portuguese wine. In 1962, they had actually spent their honeymoon on Bazaruto Island; they still have the grainy Super-8 footage to prove it. Zimbabwe's collapse, and Mozambique's coincident renaissance, speak volumes about the pain, the promise, and, above all, the unpredictability of Africa.

Less than a half-mile wide, the island of Quilálea is too small for an airstrip. It's too small for much of anything, in fact; its only tenant is the nine-room Quilálea Island Resort. Owned by a plummy white Kenyan colonial and his blond Belgian wife, this chic and intimate retreat, the first high-end hotel in the archipelago, has been the talk of South Africa's fashion set since it opened, in 2002. To reach it, you fly to the neighboring island of Quirimba, which gave its name to the archipelago, landing on a fairway-smooth swath of grass in the middle of a coconut forest; from there, it's a 20-minute speedboat ride to Quilálea.

Although I am the flight's only passenger, I still half expect to be greeted upon arrival by reed-skirted island girls proffering garlands and froufrou cocktails. Instead, I get a grizzled 75-year-old German in a battered truck carrying a .22 rifle. "I'm your lift to the boat," he mutters. "Put your bags in the back."

His name is Joachim Gessner, and the gun is "to shoot the monkeys that steal my coconuts." On the drive to the harbor I learn that Herr Gessner and his wife own a plantation on Quirimba, where he has quietly farmed coconuts since the 1940's. I ask what he did during the revolution of '74–'75, when many of Mozambique's white settlers fled in terror. He shrugs. "We listened to it on the radio," he replies. Herr Gessner tells me about the National Geographic journalist who came to write about this long-lost paradise. "When was that?" I ask. "Nineteen sixty-four," he says. "Nineteen sixty-four."

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