Barefoot Bliss at Rio Azul
Barefoot rustic beach luxury accurately describes Rio Azul. It lacks some of the frills found at other camps on Mozambique’s coast, but with the slightest bit more attention to detail it will easily become the 4 stars that Hideaways want to position it as. To be honest the location, the experiences we had, the ultra-friendly staff, and particularly Mark Bennet’s leadership more than made up for the odd lack of trimmings. There is so much to do at Rio Azul. It is positioned facing west across the wide mouth of the Govuro River, so it is well sheltered and gets the very best sunsets at the end of each day. Ten minutes’ walk east, that involves climbing over a medium size dune for exercise and you are looking out at the expansive Indian ocean and flat hard sand that stretches north and south as far as the eye can see.
The local, makeshift-little-fishing boats every few hundred metres add a lot of charm to the scene, but there is definitely a feeling of being transported to a simpler and in many ways more inviting life. We managed to catch the sunrise from this spot, early on our second morning a Rio Azul – highly recommended. I also did my morning jogs along the beach – the sand is so firm and the sea air so fresh that it made me feel very good about myself, even though I didn’t run that far before I dived into the warm sea and wallowed in the waves before heading back for an enormous breakfast at the lodge.
The food at Rio Azul, was simple, but exceptional, the highlight being the different sea food dishes (all locally sourced, supporting the surrounding communities) served to us every night. On day one we started with huge prawns, day two served up the biggest crabs I have ever seen and day three saw us have no conversation at the table because we were utterly and completely indulged by the crayfish that melted in our mouths. We did all our own work to de-shell all our creatures every night and that made the experience extra awesome!
We went on three boat activity excursions on our two full days at Rio Azul all led by Mark and his brilliant activity team. All to-ing and fro-ing were done aboard the excellent speed boat with a deep hull and two large 4 stroke outboards. Mark was an expert captain and this combination meant we were in safe hands on what could definitely be described as relatively rough seas during some of the transfers. The first excursion was to Bartolomeu Dias “BD island” a tidal sand island only 20 minutes away from the lodge. The trip has to be timed right or the sea simply swallows the island up, but there are a few hours each day when it is absolutely perfect.
“BD” is flanked in the east by deep crystal clear dark blue waters, graduating more gently to the deep on the west with lighter shades of turquoise and blue – something you see in picture books. The island was totally private to us and the staff set up a gazebo for shade and stuck a few fishing rods in the sand next to us on the off chance that we may strike lucky. We swam till our hearts’ content and lapped up the perfect weather. Drinks and delicious food were of course free flowing. It seems that “BD” is a bit of a hidden secret, so I won’t say too much other than it was a gem of a spot fit for any party from young to old, couple to group.
Our second excursion was up the estuary of the Govuro river and that is when we realised the incredible contrast in landscapes that abound in the coastal areas of Mozambique. The part of the estuary closest to the sea is made up of very healthy, thick mangrove trees and as you go further up the river the salty component of the water thins and the fresh water starts to dominate, changing the vegetation into more typical riverine trees and shrubs, reminiscent of what I am used to along the Zambezi. The birding was fantastic and all the usual culprits of inland waters like bee-eaters, egrets and kingfishers were in plentiful supply. It was also fascinating to see the subsistence community settlements along the way.
One thing characteristic of the horizon on the Indian Ocean off Mozambique are the dhows and dug out canoes bravely manned sometimes far out to sea in all-weather types. Along the Govuro river we discovered the bases for many of these fishermen who use the tide to shunt them in and out of the sea from the estuary. They have also perfected the art of catching giant crabs (the ones we ate for dinner on day two) with uniquely styled cage-traps. Mozambique’s coastal population are hugely dependent on the sea for food and there are also a lot of nets around. This of course raises the question about over-fishing. The footprint on the environment does not only come from local communities, but tourism too.
An increase in human population, evolvement of fishing techniques (especially nets) and tourism development has taken some toll. It appears however that the Mozambique government, the tourism operators, the local communities, research outfits and organizations like Africa Parks are trying to strike a balance together to maintain the incredible marine ecosystem that is home to such a diverse array of wildlife, including the vulnerable dugong and five different turtle species.
Our third excursion took us into the Bazaruto National Park (BANP). We visited Ilha de Santa Carolina, also known to many as Paradise Island. There is a rather surreal setting on this island due to a movie like setting incorporating the ruined remains of an old resort that was abandoned in 1973. It is intriguing to walk around this expansive “ghost establishment” and imagine what life was like back then. It was here that Bob Dylan is said to have written his song “Mozambique”.
There are even the relatively intact remains of an old wide tarred runway – this place was visited by the rich and famous. The views from all sides of Ilha de Santa Carolina are strikingly beautiful and one can’t help but think that some form of very fine accommodation will rise from the ashes here in the not too distant future. The waters around the Island remain far from ruined. The snorkelling and diving here are without a doubt, second to none in the area and perhaps right up there with the best in the world. I was lucky to be spoilt by my parents who took me on a 3-week trip to the Seychelles when I was a teenager and I remember the snorkelling there was out of this world. Well my visit to Paradise Island, a name it certainly loved up to, was the first time since that trip to the Seychelles (and I have snorkelled in a few places around the world since then) that I found something truly comparable.
Rio Azul was such a special introduction to Mozambique beach life. Mark is an exceptional manager. He, Karen and the team really could not have done more for us. Likewise, Alex from Hideaways was the consummate chaperone for our group. Absolutely nothing was too much trouble for any of them. With such a great team steering the ship I have no doubt that this gem of a place is going to become a household name on the Mozambique circuit. We packed so much into our three days at the lodge, but still there was so much we didn’t do and so if you think going to this beach destination would be boring then think again!! After Rio Azul my next stop was Santorini, a Heavenly Touch of Greece in Africa, and I will talk about my experiences there in Chapter Three.