Walking along the streets of Ibo Island is an eerie, almost unreal experience. The town casts shadows of its wealthy past; tall houses with elaborate ornaments that once were homes to rich merchants now stand empty and ruined. The strangler figs have taken over many buildings with its relentlessly spreading roots, but a few have been restored to their former glory adding a stark contrast to the many ruins.
Once the second most important island in the region, Ibo (the name means well organised; Ilha Bem Organizada) was a Muslim trading port and later a Portuguese slave port. Arab traders are documented to have established contact with the island as early a 600AD, and Vasco da Gama rested here in 1502. The island was also visited by many other seafarers, who have all left their mark on this tiny island off the northern coast of Mozambique. Ibo was abandoned during the devastating civil war that raged from 1977-1992, leading to much of its build heritage falling into ruin. But as you walk through the streets, the memories of days gone by are palpable and it is not hard to imagine ladies in their finest gowns going for a stroll as the merchants peddle everything from the finest silk and spices to ivory and gold. But the island’s forts, in particular the Portuguese Fort of São João, also serve as a stark reminder of the terrible crimes that were committed here by the colonial slave traders.
These days, Ibo has lost its significance and the population is mostly one of subsistence fishermen living a simple and traditional life. There is also a heritage of silversmithing on the island, using century-old techniques passed from father to son. The majority of the population is muslim, a heritage from the early Arab traders that once controlled these waters.
The island has a couple of hotels, but the best-known is Ibo Island Lodge. Housed in a carefully restored beachfront mansion filled with treasures from days gone past, this is a celebration to Ibo’s rich heritage. The views of the lagoon and the glorious sunsets from the restaurant deck and many of the guest rooms are unrivalled.
Ibo does not have a great beach for swimming, but this is no cause for concern. The hotel will whisk you away to a private sandbank, stopping for a spot of fabulous snorkelling on the way. On the sandbank, a awning will be erected for shade and while you are swimming or collecting beautiful shells the staff will prepare your lunch. And we’re not talking floppy sandwiches on a picnic blanket here. We’re talking seafood platters, freshly caught and fried fish, cold beers and proper tables and chairs. This is the Royal Treatment!
The best way to get to Ibo is to fly to Pemba, and then take either a boat or a small plane across to the island. Flying certainly is the most fun, and gives the best views (and the arrivals terminal is possibly the smallest in the world)!