Blue skies, wide sandy beaches, soaring palms and fishing boats bobbing in sparkling waters. This is Vilankulos, Mozambique’s paradise beach getaway. So far, Mozambique had not been comfortable on our self-drive. Sand and offroad, potholes and camping. It was time to relax with gin and tonics.
We entered Vilankulos around midday, and found the roads were roaring with 4x4s with South African number plates. Vilankulos and the Bazaruto Archipelago is a popular international getaway for South Africans with a long weekend or a small holiday to spend.
Local roads led straight to the beach, which curved around and followed the coastline. Bars, restaurants and luxury resorts were speckled along, with amazing ocean views. Wide sand flatsspread out at low tide, stranding fishing boats.
On the waterfront was the Zombie Cucumber, a backpackers hostel recommended by Lonely Planet. After all these weeks, this would be our first stay in an African backpackers hostel.
Zombie Cucumber in Mozambique
Zombie Cucumber was the best hostel name I’d ever heard, and I wanted to know what it meant. It was named after a hallucinogenic weed (datura stramonium) which is very toxic, and can put people in a coma-like state, even cause death.
It is rumoured that during the Mozambican civil war, in order to avoid persecution, it’s said that people would fake their deaths by consuming the weed; hallucinating and immobile and appearing dead, they earned the nickname zombie cucumbers.
Staying in Zombie Cucumber Hostel
The hostel was on a dirt path which skirted the coast, gnarled and in a state of disrepair. Parts of the road were falling into the sea, and even with a 4×4, some of it was impassable. We checked into the hostel at the main reception, a wooden shack with a grass roof, couches, beanbags, and a display of random foreign currency pinned to the wall (ah, typical backpacker stuff!).
There were private rooms with colourful, painted walls, double beds and mosquito nets, and outdoor showers. But – as penny-pinching budget travellers on a road trip, we wanted bare basic. We took three beds in the communal sleeping hut which housed 12 people. The beds were arranged in a circle around the room, like the hours on a clock, each one covered by a billowy mosquito net.
We took time to explore the hostel, which had a network of paths leading to cabins, a swimming pool, hammocks, and a big communal gazebo with the main reception, dining tables and upbeat music. Completing the setup was the obligatory photos, graffiti, foreign currencies and flags decorating all the walls.
It wasn’t a peaceful sleep. The next morning we woke up in the clock-shaped room. During my frequently-interrupted sleep, I heard people leaving at four, five, six in the morning and packing their bags, presumably to catch buses to the next destination.
We didn’t stay for long; lunch was more important. We found a nearby tourist bar, which at this time of the day was deserted. The walls were covered floor to ceiling with the scribbling of tourists in permanent marker.
In true African style, nothing was available on the menu. The menu stated that the chefs and are all working their hardest and are on Red Bull. But, every time we ordered something, the waiter would come back. “No chicken today“, he would say. OK then, a bacon sandwich. “No bacon today“. How about eggs? “No“. Fries and Ricoffy it was.
In the carpark of the bar was a hardcore offroad monster truck. Our 4WD named Hammond, already heightened with big offroad tyres, was dwarfed in comparison. The modified Hilux stood a good metre higher than Hammond, mostly because of the unbelievably massive monster truck wheels fitted to it’s modified chassis. They were easily double the size of Hammond’s, which looked like puny pram wheels in comparison. It had anti-roll bars and some sort of crude generator hooked up on the tray. The drivers were probably the kind of people who hunt boars and take whiskey shots for breakfast.
The Bazaruto Archipelago
One of the main attractions to Vilankulos is the chance to visit the Bazaruto Archipelago. It is made up of six islands off the coast of Mozambique, formed by sand deposits from the Save River, and reachable by boat.
The archipelago is classified as a protected marine park, for its amazing wildlife. The marine park is home to hundreds of species of birds, as well as marine life such as manta rays, sharks and whale sharks, dugongs, sea turtles and dolphins.
Beyond the hilly dunes and soaring palm trees of the islands, there are brilliantly coloured coral reefs, too. On the islands themselves, fishing villages are home to around 3000 people, who wake up early to skim across the turquoise water in their dhow sailboats in search of fishing spots.
The Bazaruto Archipelago has been protected from mass tourism (mainly due to the lack of infrastructure after the civil war), and has no large-scale commercial fishing nearby.
Tourists often take day trips to the archipelago by boat, for snorkelling at whale-watching. They can even stay; however at great cost (upwards of $700USD per night!).
Beyond the sandbars, an expansive mud flat glimmered in the sun. The mud stretched a few hundred meters to the sea, where moored ships bobbed lazily in the tide. Dozens more were stuck in the mud, leaning aside, anchored and chained to nothing.
They were photogenic, however, and we took some photos as they set sail to nowhere. Climbing the grassy slope leading back up the car, Wessel stepped into a wild garden of cacti, yelling and cursing as he pulled the cactus spines out of his feet.
We had one last thing to do before settling down for a relax at the hostel; procure gin and tonic. We found a nearby bottle shop and chose a bottle of gin, and bought every can of tonic in the place. We filled the boot with bottles of gin and cans of tonic, and went back to Zombie Cucumber to relax in the hammocks, swim in the pool, and enjoy the Mozambique sun.
A rare day without driving. We felt as though we were in need of a proper cooked meal, and had dinner at an expensive hotel restaurant, looking a bit like a country club. We ordered as much as we could and sat, eating and drinking, until we were the last to leave.
Hoping to take in some sun in the morning, we drove to a part of Vilankulos with a long, deserted beachfront. Overlooking the beach was a big hotel bar, where we parked. Soaring palm trees – stretching skyward like nothing I had ever seen – guarded the beach from their great heights.
The epic sandcastle
We started building a sandcastle. It started typically, as a misshapen lump with doors scooped out; a poorly-made castle.
Then came a moat.
We had a lot of time on our hands, so we dug the moat deep and created city walls. Then surrounding streets started to take shape, and smaller, square buildings too.
Hours passed and before we knew it, we had a pyramid, a sphinx, a skyscraper, low density housing with dodgy back alleys, a football stadium to host the World Cup, a red light district, a helipad, and tennis courts.
The sand city was a good five square metres, and we had attracted a big crowd of curious locals who watched with interest. After we smashed it like three Godzillas, we walked to the bar for some gin and tonics.
They were refreshing and we stayed for a couple more. Sitting still for the whole day somehow didn’t seem normal, and mid afternoon, we decided to drive on, see what else was out there in Mozambique.