A load of boules

The seas around Ibo may be short of fish, but the coral is fun to play with – and there’s Rhino

We were having a little trouble with the man. In his early 20s, he sported an unlikely red T-shirt, emblazoned with the name of the faraway CAFÉ DE PARIS ANNECY, and he’d obviously been at the local Rhino Gin with some enthusiasm.

Rhino, it says on the bottle, is ‘suave and smooth’ but it seems to render its Mozambiquan imbiber the very opposite of those two adjectives.

Somewhat rattled and edgy, therefore, our would-be car-guard was showing a mild tendency towards aggression, which would have been alarming had he not been unarmed and incapable of standing up unassisted.

He had scraped, unasked, all the mud off the bakkie’s running boards and was demanding payment for the task. It had, we pointed out, taken us many thousands of kilometres and not a little patience to accumulate the vehicle’s crusty coating of dust, much of it on the treacherous and most recent almost-underwater stretch to this dhow launch spot for Ibo Island, and we asked him politely to put it back.

Now he saw the funny side. But you’d see the funny side of anything after large glass – or a crash, maybe? – of Rhino.

Charity was our negotiator. A pretty Zimbabwean with a smattering of Portuguese and Kiswahili and a father on the island whom she was keen to see, she found us a reasonably-priced dhow for which we inevitably paid double the agreed amount and which promptly filled up with non-paying locals.

Teetering through the mangroves on the slimy shore, Rhino man helped carry our kit to the boat, which the Captain then steered across the strait to the island, the motor giving way to a pole in the shallower channels.

Next morning, strolling along the beach in search of intact cowries, we had soon to concede that the place was a marine graveyard despite its National Park status. The reef had smashed every shell into shards; passing speargun-toting fishermen held aloft substantial catches of rock cod. Nothing un-human moved.

In search of something whole or alive, we commandeered Captain and dhow to take us snorkelling on the sandbar. The craft was soon predictably crammed with freeloading would-be fishermen and we set sail for the open sea.

Reaching the cay, we donned masks and fins, but goggling not a single fish and only a small smattering of conches, with the only cowrie the size of a fingernail, we turned exasperated to alternative sandbar entertainment.

We launched a boules competition.

The jack was a sea-potato and a range of variously-sized and -shaped lumps of coral passed for balls. Such were our enthusiastic yells and flipper-tripping leaps up and down that the crew soon abandoned the dhow and their limp untouched lines to join in.

And thus was France’s national game introduced to the Quirimbas, although to our dismay, the Captain won the tournament on a tie-breaker.

When we tried to present him with the unblemished cowrie as the trophy – the shells were once used as currency here, after all – he looked unimpressed. Maybe it was the latent conservationist in him. Instead, in addition to the $65 we had already paid him to subsidise this unsuccessful fishing charter, we ended up shelling out an additional cash prize of 200 meticais.

The mud had not been re-plastered onto the vehicle on our return to the mainland, but Rhino man was cheerfully waiting and we gave him a chunk of our meagre budget for his troubles. We couldn’t afford much but it would have bought him a decent Russian vodka at the Café de Paris, if he could find a subsidised dhow to carry him there.