Chris Harvie goes beyond Mozambique’s beach chaos and sports bars for a true ‘Robinson Crusoe” time
“Watch out – the mosquitoes come out early here,” warned manager Lloyd, squashing an example the size of a small bird between his fingers.
He was right. There was something of a plague in the early evening and they appeared immune to any lotions and potions we might apply. Having said that, they were the only blight on an otherwise perfect seaside camp.
The route from Bilene to Vilankulo is liberally smattered with “beach paradises” but whenever a new paradise is unearthed it is promptly rendered hellish by new developments, quad bikes and illegal bakkies stuck in the beach sand.
Between Vilankulo and the spectacular Save river bridge the road is admittedly in bad shape, as is the section of the EN6 between Inchope and Beira but they are gauntlets worth running for the pleasure of a beer in Beira, Mozambique’s gangster city, followed by a few nights up the coast at the spectacular Rio Savane camp.
The camp cannot be reached by road. Instead, when a vehicle pulls into the parking area, a flag is hoisted, bringing a motorised dhow scuttling across the creek to rescue arriving guests and ferry them and their belongings across the water.
By crossing the Savane river, you seem finally to escape the South African colonies of beach chaos and sports bars. The dhow ripples gently through the mangroves beset with one-pincered crabs and colourful birds. Safely deposited on the northern riverbank, this extraordinary hideaway then opens its face to the visitor with a broad swathe of palm-strewn level sands.
At the heart is a spacious campsite with shady pitches and generous-sized ablution blocks. On the perimeter stand a number of cabanas and machesas – reed-thatch huts with mosquito nets and shelving but no other furnishings. Bring your own camping kit and settle in. Outside, you are provided with a table, benches and a braai.
Along the riverfront are four rooms with a few more facilities although they are in different states of almost-charming dilapidation. This is, after all, definitely a camp, not a lodge, with the basics covered and the shortcomings more than made up for by the position.
The wind rustles through the swaying coconut palms and the sea crashes thunderously onto the dunes beyond the camp. It is so idyllic it almost a cliché.
A morning walk along the beach to the north of the peninsula allows a friendly glimpse into the local community and, on a good day, the fishermen will sell their catch for your evening braai.
The sea is invitingly warm with good surf for swimming and a lesser swell than the problematic pulls of the sea further down the coastline.
New managers, Lloyd and Debbie, have come in from Zimbabwe and are setting about an update of the property with gusto. They have, however, promised not to kill off its ineffable rustic charm by tarting it up too much.
There’s something marvellously relaxing about having to order your dinner in the restaurant by 5pm if you want to eat it by 7pm. The food is delicious and the beers are many and cold.
The menu consists of whatever is available. Our grouper steaks, for example, were small cuts off a very sizeable 25kg fish and served with chips and shredded cabbage. It was tender, tasty and ideal. On the second night, they rustled up a magnificent crab curry and some fine prawns.
Rio Savane’s charm is untouched by the depredations of human encroachment now endemic on almost every dune in Southern Mozambique.
It is still how you imagine a castaway’s desert island: you half-expect to hear drums in the interior and for a dusky maiden in a grass skirt to shimmy up with a rum and pineapple juice in a coconut shell.
They may have promised not to ruin it but don’t take any chances. If you are up for a remote and basic getaway with all the essentials provided, it’s only a short boat ride away from reality. Enjoy it while you still can.
IF YOU GO
Where it is: Across the Savane River to the 34km to the north of Beira in Mozambique
Why go there: For a Robinson Crusoe moment, with Man Friday already laid on for the cooking.
What it has: Camping, cabanas, machesas and four basic chalets. Carry all your equipment across the creek on the boat with you and don’t be shy. There’s plenty of space in the dhow and there are porters at both ends. You will regret leaving your extra comforts behind (although you can always go back and fetch them). The cabanas, machesas and campsites are unfurnished, so take your own campbeds, camping chairs and sleeping bags. Everything. And loads of mosquito repellent. There is a generator for lighting from 17.30 to 22.00. The water is drinkable and there is cold beer. You can keep your food in the camp’s fridges.
What there is to do: Boat trips up the river, birding (chestnut fronted helmet shrike, blue quail), sea and river fishing, swimming in the sea, long walks on the beach, rare blue and red duiker, bushpig and hippos. Take a day trip to Beira, Mozambique’s second city.
And the food: You can take it with you or rely on Simala, the chef, to come up with something interesting for you from the day’s catch. He will also cook your own food for you if you prefer not to do it yourself.
Rates: Camping $12 per adult and $6 per child. Cabanas and Machesas an additional $15 and $13 respectively. The fully-equipped (but basic) self-catering units sleep 4 from $120 with a charge of $12 for each additional person. No meals or activities included. Ice, firewood and coconuts for sale!
Getting there: Entering Beira on the EN1 from the East, take the Dondo turning, on the left, 1km before the airport exit. Marked by a rusted blue board in a busy market, this road leads to Rio Savane. Allow at least an hour for this hard and sometimes bumpy road to the car park where you leave your vehicle and continue by dhow. The vehicle is guarded and completely safe. 4×4 recommended but not necessarily essential in the dry season.