As we reach and seamlessly pass through the opening to the mangrove, a hush falls over the group which up until that moment had been preoccupied with the excited navigation of the mudflats.
I am no stranger to mud, but for the others – Californian honeymooners and a couple from Brazil, it is a novelty.
“Can I take off my shoes?” someone asks, gripped with that wholly universal desire to feel the squidge of mud between their toes.
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” says our guide, a young guy with that instantly likeable quality of saying exactly what he is thinking, called Muhammed. “You won’t have much sole left by the time you get to the other side.”
Sure enough, it quickly becomes apparent that buried just beneath the surface of what, from the island, appears to be a great expanse of white sand but which is in fact chalky clay, are the razor sharp rocks of a fossilized reef. The mud is deceptively slippery underfoot, and it feels like we are treading on bars of soap.
We are walking to Quirimba, the nearest island to Ibo and the second largest in the archipelago. Prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, Quirimba was the most important trading outpost in this chain of islands, and today it boasts a population of four thousand people who sustain themselves as subsistence fishermen and coconut farmers.
A group of children have followed us from the village and they hand us tiny blue crabs which scuttle too quickly over our hands and through our fingers before dropping to the ground. I look back towards the beach and see the bleached ruins of the Catholic graveyard, the stone cross on the roof of the chapel, a white finger pointing defiantly skyward.
But the laughter dies away as we enter the mangrove and a wary silence follows in its stead, as we contemplate our new surroundings. The waist high shrubbery which presses round us is surprisingly dense and grows taller as we wade along the path, knee-deep in warm water. Here and there we pass older trees with thick trunks which cast long shadows over the rest. I look back towards the shore, for the last time. The chapel is obscured now and all I can see of land is the vast form of the baobab where we spotted the two lilac breasted rollers a few mornings before. I think the sight of this sacred tree far more stirring than that pallid chapel.
There is an unsettling uniformity to the mangrove which distinguishes it from a land-forest. Where a wood resembles a gathering of friends, each tree with its own quirks and characteristics, a mangrove is a conglomeration of clones, so closely intertwined with their neighbours it becomes impossible to distinguish individuals amongst the green throng.
As we move deeper into the belly of the mangrove, the density of the undergrowth forces our gazes downwards, so that our vision is wholly occupied with the extraordinary micro-world of the mangrove floor; where the water falls away, the peculiar architecture of hidden crustaceans is exposed, a volcanic geography of conical mounds topped with spouting craters. The same crabs which I had seen in the mangrove at the other end of the island, sporting one grotesquely large claw, vanish into burrows as we pass. The path is thickly reeded on both sides by what I assume are young mangrove plants, but which I later read are pneumatophores, aerial roots or breathing tubes which bulge intestinally at the base of the stem before tapering to a sharp point.
These roots look like dark-brown stalagmites in the green cave of the mangrove. Indeed, it strikes me that our quietness is not dissimilar to the hush which tends to descend over people who venture underground into cave systems and caverns. It has the same expectant quality to it, as if we were trespassers in prehistory waiting to be caught out.
The narrow path joins a wider channel which our guide explains was cut by the Portuguese when they first arrived on the island so as to better transport goods to and from the islands. I ask who made the other path we had been following.
“I don’t know. Those paths were made a long time ago,” he says.
A long time ago. I look back. The narrow path is revealed in the parting of a green sea; however old these ways may be, unused they will close up again with the turning of the tide and keen lancing of the seedlings which stand like arrows in the mud, the leaves of their fletchings rustling in the wind. The mangrove likes to remind us that humans – hot-blooded, earth-bound mammals, are only temporary upon the earth.
As we wade along the channel, we spy other evidence of human activity; a shattered pile of spiral shells, where a fisherman has collected his bait; a section of the mangrove which has been cut back so that nets may be dropped to catch the fat prawns which coming racing in like whiskered bullets on the incoming tide.
We are now walking along a fossilized reef, worn smooth by time. Brown fish dart about like tricks of the light around our ankles.
Muhammed explains that when the tide is high, these paths and channels become dolphin highways as they come to hunt fish along them. How funny that the islanders should share the mental map of the mangrove with these other mammals, our mirror image in this amphibious realm. I wonder if the dolphins also live in fear of the turning of the tide, of losing themselves in this green labyrinth, only to become stranded with the tides ebbing. Do they too feel themselves at the mercy of this strange, prehistoric place, arrested at the point of its evolution when it was crawling out of the sea and onto land?
The water suddenly becomes thigh-deep, as we join another narrower path. We stop at a tall tree.
“Some time ago, some women from the village were fishing for crabs here,” our guide explains. “They were over there where the water is shallower, and when they decided to head back to the island, they found the water was already up to their necks. They couldn’t go back so they had to climb this tree and wait here all night for the tide to go out again. They were bitten by mosquitoes and they nearly died twice, once by drowning and then of the malaria fever.”
We stare up into the tree. It waves its leaves innocently at us. I imagine the terrified women, half-submerged in sea-water, blindly clinging onto the crown of the tree with their toes as the currents softly try to prize them away from their one hope of survival. Had they heard the rushing of dorsal fins in the dark? Felt dark shapes brush against their bodies? And what of the spirits they say wander the mangroves at night?
We wade on and join another wider channel and it is a jolt to see other people. A group of boys wearing only their boxer shorts, and, further on, a woman with a baby on her back and a suitcase on her head. Muhammed grins at us.
“That,” he says, pointing to the woman who looks back accusingly. “Is a divorce. She is angry that her husband has got a new wife and is going back to her village. He will have to build her a house for her if he wants her back.”
We climb out of the channel and onto the muddy bank. A familiar face appears through the trees. It is Cadria’s sister. We greet each other, surprised and pleased, and I notice she is wearing a small purse around her neck. No doubt to keep something precious safe from the water below.
We move on through the trees, their roots forming a wickerwork around us. The mud is deep and sucks at our neoprene shoes which we are forced to remove. The smell is metallic and sulphurous. We feel for the roots of the trees with our feet and use them as stepping stones. That is what being in a mangrove is: all senses but no sight. It is blindly feeling, tasting and smelling our way through this anonymous green maze with no apparent way back to dry land.
We approach a stump, a rare landmark.
“Someone has collected honey here,” Muhammed informs us. “Look, you can see the soot where he has driven the bees out with smoke. That guy learnt to collect honey on the mainland. No one saw him do it, everyone would stay well back and away from the bees. We all thought he was a witch, that he could transform himself into a bee because when he drove them out with smoke, they would swarm all over him, up his arms and over his face, but they never stung him. Not once. He knew magic that guy.”
I translate for the Californian couple who stare at him with curiosity. As we move on, I ask Muhammed about witches.
“When someone has a bad harvest, the witches will transform themselves into lions and will come and scare the people who have a good harvest away from their machamba. When they return, all their food has gone, stolen by the witches,” he explains, passionately.
“Feitiçeiros are bad people. They make you sick, they put a curse on you and you die. People will go to them, and pay for that. There was one guy here on the island, he a famous witch, covered in tattoos, even on his face. Lots of people knew him across Africa. Well, for a time, during the Civil War, they employed him in the army to help defeat Renamo. He performed magic on their guns so that they would be able to defeat the rebels.”
“But it’s the Muslims, here on the islands who have the strongest magic. They do really bad magic. I can’t tell you who they are though – it’s a secret. When they do magic, they don’t use plants like most people do. They use blood and the Koran.”
He does an impression: a sudden stream of Arabic, as he waves an arm up and down in the air in front of him, like a priest flicking holy water on to his congregation. Under normal circumstances it would be comical, but there is something in the certainty of his belief which disdains laughter.
“You know, I have a friend who knows magic. But he’s a good guy, he would never use magic to kill someone. You saw that pouch your friend was wearing round her neck.”
I feel a jolt of shock. Of course.
“That was magic. She wears that so that her husband only looks at her, not at any other women.”
Suddenly, I see the village in a different light. I look at the water, the mangrove, the mud – comforting, tangible things, and am filled with a unsettling sense of being confronted with something utterly incomprehensible, another world.
We leave the mangrove, as suddenly and silently as we came into it, and find ourselves facing a vast and featureless desert. On the horizon to our left, is a blue pencil line dotted with white, the sea. And ahead of us, lies the low, grey bulk of Quirimba.
We commence the crossing. Muhammed points out what looks like a long fence in the distance, strung out across the sand. It is a net used by older people who no longer have the strength to haul and drag.
We spy a lone figure, punting a canoe down a channel not yet visible to us. Out to sea. Out to find big fish.
Half-way across the plain, I turn three-hundred and sixty degrees, and think I see the curvature of the earth, though I have heard that is merely an illusion from this height. Much is illusion in this landscape, I realise. The mangroves behind me and to my right, a siren’s-song for land-sick sailors, a pelagic mirage. And the plain itself, covered in the hole-punch marks of puddles, as if one could walk right up to them and fall through the flat sheet of the world into the blue sky below.
From this vantage point on the flats, the heavens stretch out like a dome above us, and I have the curious sensation of being something under glass. A tiny specimen in the vast universe.
Muhammed appears on my right.
“When I was younger, I never used to believe it,” he says.
“What I ask?” I have lost the thread of the conversation in the huge sky.
“Magic. It doesn’t exist – I use to say. But then, I had a girlfriend who put a curse on me. She made me sick with headaches because she was jealous. So I went to my friend who made me a protection spell. A red cloth full with sixteen needles. He said, at seven o’clock tonight, she will feel what she has done to you. And sure enough, that night my headache disappeared and she got it instead. I dumped her after that,” he adds.
“I have my protection here, actually. It’s a secret so don’t tell anyone. Do you want to see it?”
Before I can say no, he has thrust a tiny square thing wrapped, rather anti-climatically, in a bit of blue plastic, under my nose.
“Smells like incense, doesn’t it? Don’t worry. It won’t hurt you. It’s a protection spell and besides, the tradition doesn’t work on white people.”
I ask him why.
“Your spirits are different from ours,” he says simply. “The spells don’t stick to your pale skin.”
I mull that one over.
“How do you know when you’ve been cursed and when it’s just coincidence?”
“I get spots all over my arms,” he says. “That’s the protection working. The spots appear, loads of them, and then they disappear in a couple of hours. That is someone trying to curse you. Then I go to the witchdoctor to make another protection, just in case. It won’t last for five years you know, you have to keep replacing it or it runs out.”
“Like a battery?” I ask.
We have lunch on Quirimba, in a small house made of clay and reeds which we are led to through crowds of children who cry ‘Muzungo’ and try to touch our hair. It is simple food – coconut rice and grilled fish, and is welcome after the long walk.
We walk over to another beach whilst Muhammed readies the boat. There is an encampment of tents bearing the logo of Ibo Island Lodge – accommodation for the guests on Dhow safari, and tied to the tree with a red thread, a bottle of medicine. Is this evidence of the tradition in action? A protection spell for the camp? Or something more sinister?
The beach is long and empty, a true paradise, and soon the turquoise waters of the incoming tide are lapping at the shore. I follow the tide-line, a frosting of pastel shells which remind me of the pill-shaped sweets which came in purple wrappers which we used to buy at Walden’s, looking for shells.
Too soon it is time to head for the boat. Under the setting sun, the sun-bleached beach and coconut grove and the pale blue sea are drenched in pale hues of pink and blue, and we stop frequently to take photos, each of us anxious to capture the some of the opaline beauty of the land and sky.
Our return to Ibo is accompanied by the fading of the light and the changing colour of the sea which mutates from milky-jade, to the blue-green of a shag’s wing sheen, to a dark teal and finally, as we reach the mangroves, to the colour of ash. The sky is grey and crossed with fissures of vermilion.
The mangroves hiss as we pass them. Though the greater part of them is now submerged in water, they still reach far over our heads and I am suddenly reminded of icebergs, of undisclosed places, quiet with menace.
The channel we are travelling along gradually narrows so that we occasionally have to duck to avoid a stray branch catching us around the neck and pulling us from the safety of the boat. I stare into the mangroves and have the strange sense of looking into a kaleidoscope but one which is miles-deep. Where the remaining light filters down and illuminates a section of trunk or a twisted route, strange, hallucinogenic patterns emerge.
I think of the traffic of dolphins in the dark water below us, hunting silvery things between the tangled roots and in the mud.
We whoosh past the dark mouths of smaller channels or false openings, until soon the darkness is absolute. The mangroves are a dense, black mass all around us, and their constant movement makes us feel as though we are motoring through the giant, pulsating tentacles of some dormant sea-creature.
Every time we round a corner I think we must be nearly at the edge, but it is a good fifteen minutes until we finally break free, and as if to greet us: a sail, only a few shades lighter than the darkness itself, and closer than feels possible. Perhaps it was only metres away all this time, following a different channel, but we never noticed it. Unlit, dark, silent, it could be a ghost.
As we move out into open water we over-take the dhow. The glow of a cigarette, the only evidence of human life.
Above us, hang Jupiter and Venus, unblinking eyes in the dark heavens.
I see a glittering in the waves and for a moment wonder if it’s phosphorescence, before realising it is the light of the moon, only two days old, fractured and scattered over the lapping waves.