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Under African Skies

Zubin Shroff The entrance to Pembo Beach Resort Hotel.

Photo: Zubin Shroff

Most astonishing of all, Rissik informs me that although the mainland is easily visible from Matemo's beach, few islanders had ever set foot on it. Now, a luxury hotel has opened in their backyard. Suddenly those teething problems at the resort seem entirely forgivable: islanders who had literally never seen a knife and fork until a year ago are taking my dinner order, mixing me cocktails.

Compared with Matemo, whose residents have barely glimpsed the outside world, the island of Ibo seems positively cosmopolitan. This former Portuguese slave-trading post—just 30 minutes by boat from Matemo—is commonly known as a ghost island; in fact, it holds a thriving population of around 3,000, some of whom speak Portuguese and a few even English. True, most of Ibo's Old Town is in ruins or disrepair: goats graze beside a crumbling 1580's Catholic church, and the wrought-iron street lamps—not unlike those in the older barrios of Lisbon—have been left to rust in the salt air.

Yet Ibo also possesses a surreal beauty. At the star-shaped Fort of San João Baptista, built in 1791, cannons still sit in turrets facing the sea. In the shade of a fig tree in the courtyard, silversmiths craft intricate necklaces and bracelets from old Portuguese coins. During the revolt of the 1970's, the Portuguese turned this fort into a political prison; now it is a gathering place for artisans. From slave island to jail to jewelry market: here is progress!

Ibo's harborfront road is lined with three-story colonial mansions, all sorely in need of repair. Yet many are being bought up by pioneers from Cape Town, Lisbon, and London, to be transformed into guesthouses. As I gaze upon these grand fixer-uppers, it occurs to me that Ibo could someday be a thriving historical destination, the Zanzibar of the Quirimbas. This "ghost island" may well become a boomtown. Perhaps my sister should have invested here instead?

I meet my father back in Pemba. While it lacks the serene beauty of the islands—its industrial harbor is jammed with hulking fishing trawlers—Pemba does have a certain frontier-town energy. At beachfront bars, Portuguese returnees, white South Africans, Brits, and Scandinavians speak of the impending tourism boom, hatching plans for game-fishing charters and diving schools. Rumor has it that the Aga Khan visited Pemba recently, that Bill Gates is on his way. Yachts and catamarans bearing South African and Mediterranean registries float in the harbor. A casino has just opened beside the bay, and Wimbe Beach is now rimmed with trendy restaurants. None of those places, however, can compare in ambition to the Pemba Beach Resort Hotel. This luxurious hotel, owned by Rani Resorts' Adel Aujan, rises from the western edge of Wimbe Beach, its adobe arches and sweeping lawns reminiscent of an Arabian palace. In the terra-cotta–tiled lobby, birds sing in palm trees planted in urns. My father and I settle into wicker chairs on the veranda to sip gin and tonics alongside ruddy-faced Europeans, government officials, and ­foreign-aid workers who've made the hotel into something of a base camp.

Suddenly I feel a tap on my shoulder. It's the Middle Eastern gentleman I met on Matemo. Would we care to join him and his brother for a drink?His brother, it turns out, is Adel Aujan himself. I'd pictured a Svengali-like figure, but Aujan is more an Arab Gatsby: charming, soft-spoken, dressed in pressed beige flannels and an open-necked shirt. "I came to Africa on a hunting trip in the 1980's and fell in love with it," he explains. Drawn to the Arab history of the east coast, he became especially smitten with Mozambique. While Aujan's main business is a soft-drinks company back in Saudi Arabia, Rani Resorts and Mozambique itself remain his true passions. Besides the Pemba Beach, Matemo, and Medjumbe properties, Aujan also owns the Indigo Bay Island Resort on Bazaruto Island and the Lugenda Bush Camp in the far north of Mozambique. In 1998, he built the Stanley & Livingstone, a British colonial–themed hotel at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe; however, the political turmoil and collapse of tourism there have led him to focus on Mozambique instead. It seems my father and this Saudi tycoon have something in common.

The property my sister bought lies across Pemba Bay, on a peninsula called Londo. Just next door to our property is the peninsula's sole development to date: Londo Lodge, a soon-to-open boutique resort owned by a Dutch venture capitalist. We hire a boat to bring us across the bay; rounding the peninsula's southern tip, we glide into a tranquil cove. Even in its unfinished state, Londo Lodge strikes me as the most beautiful retreat of all. A dramatically curved stairway leads uphill to a ring of thatched villas, perched on high bluffs with an eagle's view over the water. A spectacular teakwood deck has been built beside the cliff. My father and I trade looks: These are some neighbors.

Accompanied by a local guide, we hike for a mile along a cliffside path, and I'm struck by how different the terrain is here, compared with the islands. The earth is redder; the vegetation is bush, not mangrove. Thick-trunked baobab trees, more common to the dry African savannah, loom everywhere. Soon we come upon a grassy clearing marked by a stone boundary. My dad recognizes the place instantly from the photos—this is it. The plot sits beside the water, fronted by 100 yards of beach and anchored by a giant baobab standing sturdy as a totem pole. My father darts about excitedly: he envisions a thatched villa poised on stilts above the beach, and a larger main house behind that. He has already spoken to contractors in Pemba to work out how to get a water supply connected, a generator set up. He will turn 70 next year, but today he has the energy and ambition of a young man.

We sit on the beach, open the bottles of cold beer we've been carrying, and watch as a wooden dhow appears and a fisherman casts his net directly in front of us. I notice that the plot itself faces west, back to Africa. As we watch a fireball sun sink into the horizon I realize that it is setting over Zimbabwe. But right here, right now, this small parcel of land feels like paradise, feels like new beginnings.

DOUGLAS ROGERS is a journalist and travel writer based in New York City.


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