MSC Melody cruise ship and local small craft as seen from Portuguese Island, Mozambique

Portuguese Island, Mozambique

Image: Portuguese Island, Mozambique After leaving Durban harbor on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, we steamed up South Africa's coast toward Mozambique. The next day, in the early morning hours, we anchored in the Bay of Maputo, off of tiny Portuguese Island. The island is an uninhabited nature reserve with pristine beaches, dense vegetation, pleasant lagoons, and small patches of mangrove. It is situated next to the larger Inhaca island which is actually a royal kingdom.

MSC has an agreement with the Mozambican government to use Portuguese Island for shore excursions during the summer season. Thus most passengers on the ship took high-speed zodiacs (rigid-hull inflatable rubber duckies) from the ship to the island for a day's worth of activities, feasting, and relaxing.

Arrival & Activities

Everyone received information about the activities and excursions available for the day at Portuguese Island the day before on the ship. The "animation crew" told us about opportunities for recreation on the island. The first option was to take a 2-3 hour walk around the island. The second was to take another zodiac trip across to Inhaca, which has some dining and shore facilities for tourists. Other more informal options were just to go swimming at the beach, relax under a tarp, buy souvenirs from Inhaca vendors who come to the island, or munch endlessly on the BBQ buffet.

We were keen to do as much as possible, so we booked for the early morning "Beachcomber's Walk" around the island and also for a trip to Inhaca. We had to pay beforehand for the tickets, which we had to produce anytime we took part in an excursion. Unfortunately, when we mustered for departure, we had to wait two hours as the Mozambican authorities wrapped up the necessary paperwork. This delay meant that we would not be able to do both the walk and the trip to Inhaca as we would return too late from the trek.

Marge and I joined the beachcomber walk and slowly moseyed around the island. The sand is fine white with lovely lagoons surrounding it. We stopped in where the nature reserve rangers have a simple thatched dwelling just off the beach in the trees. They were unsurprised to see us, as, apparently, tourists are the only ones who really venture here. We marched with about 30 others, some of which peeled off from the group for a swim in the lagoons. A much-appreciated breeze kept us from baking under the tropical sun. Maputo, a hazy skyline in the distance, promised more excitement the next day.

After circumambulating the island, we found a shady spot under the massive tarp and relaxed awhile. Hundreds of passengers, most of them speaking Afrikaans, were piled on the beach with us. Some frolicked in the placid bay, others worked on their tans, plenty haggled with local vendors, and even a few took helicopter rides. Meanwhile, the multinational ship staff were busy preparing the massive lunch, grilling meats, serving drinks, and prepping tables.

The Ship's Crew & The Inhaca Vendors

Not everyone on Portuguese Island was there for fun. Many were working very hard so that WE could all enjoy ourselves. Of the ship's 548 crewmembers, perhaps 150 of them were ashore handling food prep and service, dispensing drinks, staffing the zodiac launches in the water, maintaining the tarps, picking up trash, and selling $20 "Balinese Massages." This is one of the undeniable realities that is impossible to forget on a cruise: all of it is possible through the hard work and long hours of multinational crews.

But just as a cruise ship represents jobs and "travel" opportunities for workers around the world, so too does it signify a transient cash cow for cash-strapped Mozambicans. The fact that the ship's first stop is at an uninhabited island doesn't stop people from Inhaca coming over to sell their wares to the "rich" tourists. Upon our arrival at the beach, small boats were coming from Inhaca with traders who were selling cold drinks, carved statuary, touristy trinkets, colorful wraps, and assorted beaded arts. They formed a queue on the beach, politely calling out their sales: "Cold beer! Cold beer!"

Marge bought a couple of beautiful wraps (kangas) from some young guys who quickly brought down the initial asking price when she hesitated. They gladly accepted South African Rands or American Dollars, as well as Mozambican Meticals. It was hard say whether they were able to make much money off of the tourist trade, but it probably represents something of an economic boost considering that the island is not even connected to the mainland.

After the walk, some relaxation, haggling with the vendors, and a filling lunch, we took the zodiac back to the ship. We got soaked from high swells on the way. Such are the hazards of cruising.