/ 10 December 2015

Maputo is where it is happening

Cruise the coast: The many fisherman in their small boats ensure that there is always fresh fish available in the restaurants and bars of Maputo.
Cruise the coast: The many fisherman in their small boats ensure that there is always fresh fish available in the restaurants and bars of Maputo.

When you think of a Mozambican holiday, you often think of popular places such as Xai-Xai and Inhambane. Maputo itself is seldom on the radar of places to explore, but the capital and surrounding areas are packed with great spots for a holiday or a weekend.

Maputo has an eclectic night life, with its high-quality nightclubs, jazz bars, art galleries and restaurants, which seldom leave you bored. There are also nearby lodges for people looking for a relaxed day or time away.

A flight from Johannesburg to Maputo takes less than an hour, and it’s an easy drive from Richard’s Bay, Durban, Pretoria or Johannesburg, and only takes a few hours. There are also many buses that travel between South Africa’s major cities and the Mozambican capital, which offer quick and painless overnight rides.

On arrival, I don’t even put my bags down as my guide Phil puts me on a bus to a ferry in Marracuene, which takes us to boats going to Macaneta Island. I find out that Macaneta isn’t really an island but a strip of land near the coast that is mostly separated by the Nkomati River from mainland Mozambique.

We take a new road, which I am told is being built by a Chinese company, and keep to the 60km/h speed limit. It takes about 20 minutes – only to find that the ferry has broken down. But there are small, wobbly boats used by local fishermen who are ready to give us a ride across.

We hop on one and I soon realise that it’s taking in water. I notice that some of the other operators use buckets to remove water. The only explanation for this is that many boats have small holes.

Phil drops his phone and our operator panics; he worries that it will get wet and stop working. Once he has picked it up, the panic ends and the journey takes us about 10 minutes.

Everyone here is talking about a bridge that is being built, which will make travelling easier than it is, although I found the trip painless and filled with adventure. I think the bridge will remove some of the authentic local character of the trip.

Phil tells me that he heard that it will be ready before the end of 2015 and will allow cars and minibuses to move across easily.

“Once the bridge has been completed, the people that come across will be lots and it’s going to be unbelievable,” a barman in one of the lodges tells me.

On the other side, as we wait for our transport to take us to the Praia de Peixe lodge, it is evident that Macaneta, which is only about half an hour from Maputo’s city centre, moves to a beat that is much slower than one finds in the city. Macaneta is rural and many of the locals’ homes are made out of reeds.

To my surprise, the Praia de Peixe driver is fluent in isiZulu, Afrikaans, English, Tsonga and Portuguese. He tells me he lived in Johannesburg for 15 years and moved back to Mozambique when his employer died a few years ago.

The fluency in isiZulu is repeated throughout Macaneta and in central Maputo, with some of the people I meet saying they had lived in South Africa and this made getting jobs in the tourism and hospitality industry a little easier than for most people.

The beaches in Macaneta have spectacular white sand, there is not a shred of litter, and the ocean is a pristine blue. Johannesburg, which

I left only two hours ago, seems so far away. I see fishermen on each of the few trips I make to the beach. What they catch will end up in the fish markets, homes and some of the lodges in Macaneta.

While I was on a beach walk­about, the ocean had massive waves, which made it difficult to swim, and I thought that it could be angry or possessed by the spirit of the dead sangoma who I heard had possessed a shark that had apparently killed people further north up the coast.

I chatted to an employee in one of the lodges about the shark, and he reminded me about the country’s long civil war that ended in 1992 and about the political instability that almost happened in 2014.

“People up north have killed each other for no reason and the angry spirits of the people they have killed must stay up north and not possess anything down here,” he tells me.

People here are incredibly friendly and, at most times, except for early in the morning, as is the case in most places, the ocean is peaceful and it didn’t seem as if there was an angry dead sangoma’s spirit roaming around anywhere.

It’s a place where rooms in lodges stay unlocked. Barry, the manager of Praia de Peixe, says: “This place has been operational for six years and the doors haven’t really been locked for more than six years, unless they’re locked by guests when they’re inside.”

Each lodge in this little village has its own character, like the self-catering Praia de Peixe, which has a bit of a Bohemian feel with massive green lawns. Its most popular features are a fully kitted-out bar and clean and clear swimming pool, where I spent most of my time. There is also a restaurant for those who aren’t interested in cooking for themselves in their rooms.

El Paso lodge has a completely different character to any other place – it has an American western theme and offers horse rides on the white, sandy beaches. Owners Carla and Kestell Heyneke have also added a pig, which thinks it is a dog, a few ducks and real dogs to the list of animals that run around in their lodge. It is surreal because it definitely appears as though one has left Africa, especially when at the pub. It is like entering into an American western.

The reminder of rural Africa isn’t too far off, though; it reappears just outside the lodge’s gate.

“We never planned the western theme. Our daughter wanted a horse, so we bought two. Then people staying in other lodges asked if they could ride them and so we ended up buying more. We ended up building this western-style American lodge,” explains Kestell.

When you are ready to up the ante, then central Maputo and places closer to it are the best for a night out clubbing and exploring local music and urban culture.

The Southern Sun Maputo also assists guests with suggestions for this and even partners with some of the night spots in town so it’s easy for visitors to explore.

The start for a good night out is probably Clube Madjedje de Maputo, where there’s a mix of music – Brazilian, Angolan, South African – and the usual American pop, which can be heard all over the world. Any dance goes in Madjedje because of the mixture of genres.

It is the place’s relaxed nature that many locals love; there is no dress code and no entrance fee if one gets to the club before 10pm. Madjedje stays open until about 5am and the bar gets packed, with drinking continuing until the club closes.

If one is looking for a more upmarket vibe, then the newly reopened Coconuts may offer that. That’s where Mozambique’s trendy young people with deeper pockets go to spend their second-generation wealth – there is a cover charge of about R100. Coconuts is not cheap and its clientele dresses up for a night in this club.

Hotel bars and restaurants are ­surprisingly popular spots for a meal and a drink. They’re not cheap, but one that’s recommended by many locals is the Southern Sun, which offers a sea-food platter served in a restaurant with a sea view.

What’s brilliant about sea food in Maputo is that it is freshly caught by fishermen who work throughout the day and aren’t harassed by officials reserving the catch for big fishing companies.

The Southern Sun is the only hotel in the capital that is right on the beach, so you can enjoy a drink or a meal and look at the views of the Indian Ocean. Young people with a bit of cash to spend love visiting the hotel’s bars to watch European football matches on the screen.

Although it offers a five-star experience, the fact that it is frequented by locals coming for a meal means you are always in touch with people who are from here and enjoy the food that they enjoy.

One can also walk on the beach and play football on a Sunday morning with locals, and chat to craftsmen selling their goods outside the hotel.

The Diogo’s Restaurant and Beach Bar is across the sea in Catembe. It is on a more rustic beach and is thoroughly loved by locals. You catch a ferry that transports cars going to and from KwaZulu-Natal to get there.

The menu at Diogo’s offers a catch of the day but its lemon and herb chicken is also extremely popular. It is a place where locals go when they want to swim.

Sunday morning is always good for a tuk-tuk ride (or tchopela, as it is called here) around the city to get a clearer picture of Maputo. Mine took me to the Maputo central market, which sells everything from crafts indigenous to the area to spices and fish caught in the morning. Prices for everything that’s sold here are negotiable and the brilliant part of it all is that there is no haggling.

As the ride continued, we passed the Natural History Museum. I couldn’t visit it on a Sunday because it was closed, but it offers a variety of the natural history of this country, from sea life to life on land.

I then ended up at the house of one of the most well-known Mozambicans, artist Gonçalo Mabunda. Some of his pieces are on display in the yard of his home. He travels the world exhibiting his artworks made out of weapons used during Mozambique’s civil war.

Although in the past his art was on education about the war, Mabunda also deals with current social problems in his work.

Maputo’s close proximity to major South African cities and its culture make this seaside city a perfect getaway that can be relaxed and slow or fast-paced, with loads of partying and clubbing.