Much of Mozambique's tourism infrastructure was abandoned during the civil war but the Bazaruto Archipelago is leading a resurgence in quality tourist facilities. The Bazaruto islands have become Southern Africa's prime beach destination.
Through cracked and broken windows, the ballroom overlooked a small cove of bleached-white sand. In one corner, beside the bar, stood an upright piano bereft of its ivory keys. The chandeliers had long gone. The floors clean but uneven. Yet Dylan's rasping lyrics haunted: "all the couples dancing cheek to cheek. It's very nice to stay a week or two, and maybe fall in love, just me and you."
I'd come to Mozambique out of curiosity. Bob Dylan's Mozambique (from the Desire album, of '75) had always conjured up a tropical idyll. I'd come to the Bazaruto Archipelago and, at the end of my trip, to the old, disintegrating Hotel Santa Carolina, where Dylan himself had stayed. Only a concrete shell remains. Yet a breeze from the ocean here, and an old, cracked mural there, hinted at something special, long gone.
It had been a classic place for an island retreat. Santa Carolina Island, is the smallest and the closest of the archipelago's four islands to the mainland. It is protected from the ocean by a ring of three coral reefs, and is just 40 minutes' walk in circumference.
In the Second World War it had been a prison colony, reputedly for Italian prisoners. A small fort can still be seen. But in the 1950s it was developed by Jochim Alves, a Portuguese trader. He built the Donna Anna Hotel on the mainland, but was captivated by the possibilities in the islands. Finally, in 1962, he built the Hotel Santa Carolina on the archipelago's closest island-known then as Paradise Island.
"It was a big hotel, but it was always full. Never empty", said Titos Mabote, who had been the hotel's head barman. He still works at one of the small lodges on the other islands, but remembered Santa Carolina with a wistful pride. "We had a piano and dancing. There were South Africans, Rhodesians, English and Americans." By the late 1960s, Santa Carolina became the place for wealthy Rhodesians and an increasingly mobile international glitterati.
Looking around, it was easy to see why. The archipelago bathes in a warm southerly current of the Indian Ocean, the Mozambique Stream. The shallows around the islands are dotted with pristine coral reefs, whilst deeper waters further out host some of the world's best big game fishing. At one stage, the world's heaviest marlin was caught off these islands-and divers still come from around the globe to scuba amongst the whale sharks that drift here.
Mozambique's economy had, in the past, been designed to serve its colonial master. By the early 1970’s Portugal had joined the Common Market and its preferential trade agreements with Mozambique ceased. Rhodesia was in the midst of a bloody liberation struggle, so few visitors could afford holidays here. Finally, in 1974 Jochim Alves died as Mozambique moved rapidly to independence. The Portuguese staff left swiftly, some at gunpoint, and the hotel was deserted.
"We used to come here in the '60s, as a big family group," she said. "It was so beautiful. There were crab and oysters every night, and parties. Of course the fishing was great too!" Shirley had seen the island's lows as well its heyday. "In '93 the people on the mainland would steal the clothes off your back as you left by boat-but Mozambique's better now." Shirley Swart
Clearly this was true. The old Santa Carolina has been left alone, to fade unheralded from derelict buildings into an historical site. But on the larger islands, slightly further from the coast, I discovered more sensitive development.
Bazaruto and Benguerra are the largest islands in the archipelago. Bazaruto is perhaps 40km long. Squeaky white sand beaches border both. Inland the islands have low, rolling hills covered in clumps of Ilala palms and sparse dry-forest vegetation. Occasional dunes dominate the landscape, while valleys contain small pans or lakes. Some connect to the sea and form salt-water marshes, a favourite haunt of flamingoes. The deeper ones are often fresh-water lakes.
Geologically, these islands have been isolated for millennia. They are thought to have been a peninsula that became separated from the mainland during the last 10,000 years. This relative isolation has been one of the islands' defining influences, helping preserve the ecosystems in pristine condition. Several endemic species of reptiles and amphibians, as well as one butterfly, have been identified, while the larger freshwater lakes contain isolated groups of crocodiles. The lack of human activity around the islands has helped to conserve East Africa's last viable population of dugongs (rare marine mammals, also known as sea-cows).
The isolation is a big attraction for the few small, upmarket lodges that do exist here. I'd spent the previous few days lazing on the deserted beaches of the larger islands and learning to scuba. It takes a week, so I'd forgone the attractions of big-game fishing, relaxing picnics and island excursions.
The waters were warm and clear; the diving instructors good. We'd progressed from walking from the beach out to small reefs, to diving from the boat, searching out tropical gardens and caves. Turtles have always been a favourite of mine, and we'd seen green turtles (several species use the island's beaches to breed). Dolphins and whales were spotted from the boats, whilst beneath the surface, rays, sharks and a kaleidoscope of iridescent fish had confirmed a belief that I should have started diving years ago.
So on my final day, I missed an afternoon's dive in my own tropical idyll to take a boat from Bazaruto, in search of Dylan's island. Then I found that shell of a hotel, an intriguing ruin, and wading to the boat through transparent waters, his lyrics rang around my head: "...and when it's time for leaving Mozambique... you turn around to take a final peek...magic in a magical land."