The trip to Matemo island was nearly rained off. A group of us ate a chilly breakfast together, watching and waiting for the break in the blanket of clouds which would signal our departure.

Despite having been on Ibo for two weeks, I hadn’t yet been on any of the Dhow trips and tours which are the main activities for tourists on the island and so, feeling I ought to see more of the archipelago before I left, I signed up for a trip with the Californian couple and two French doctors from Bordeaux. I was looking forward to getting out on the water (even if the sails would be furled the whole way).

As we chugged out of the little harbour which was choked with seaweed and plastic, the pale grey sea was as calm and featureless as the sky above it, and in the watery light, the island seemed washed out, like a half-finished painting. As we passed the pontoon where the cargo dhows dock, a barefoot man improbably dressed in a full dinner jacket suit, waved us off.

The Californians were not sailors; he was silent the whole way, eyes fixed on the horizon, and we were told later he suffered from terrible seasickness, whilst she became rather nervous when the one crew member began bailing out a small quantity of water from the bottom of the boat, and asked whether there were life jackets? There weren’t of course.

Dhow

It was a fun day, even if it did qualify as ‘Organised Fun’: we motored out to a point just behind a reef where a large pod of dolphins were feeding and enjoyed watching them jump and play around the boat, and hearing them exhale as they  came up for air. Then we were taken to the site of an old wreck where we were armed with snorkels and told to jump in. This was less successful as the current was so strong that it took a good five minutes of hard swimming just to get back to the boat twenty metres away, but the water was crystal clear and as warm as a bath. The weather gradually improved so that by the time we reached the Sand Bank, a long hump of white sand which looked like it had fallen straight out of treasure island, we were able to enjoy our sandwiches in what is perhaps the most idyllic spot for a picnic in the world. Some serious beach combing ensued before we all had to pile back onto the boat again, so that I could be dropped off at Matemo.

boat sandbank

Matemo, or Matemwe, as it is locally known, is the second-largest island in the archipelago. It was thought to have been settled by the time the Portuguese arrived in the area, and supposedly was a refuge for a Muslim community of cloth makers who were driven there from the mainland by the Zimba raids of the 16th century. Today, Matemo remains stubbornly underdeveloped; there are only two villages on the island, no electricity and very little tourism, albeit for the odd passer-by. Matemo is a cliché; achingly beautiful, there is an Edenic quality to its great sweeping beaches, the lush vegetation and the sighing coconut groves. Life here has not changed much in the intervening centuries.

We waded the hundred metres to the beach where I was to be dropped through aquamarine water which came up to our thighs. On the rocky bottom, we could see the dark stains of sea-urchin colonies, like patches of moss growing in crevices and up the sides of gullies. Needless to say, we trod carefully. I bid goodbye to the others on the beach, before getting a lift on Dade’s son’s motorbike (Dade is the owner of the only place to stay on the island – a collection of 5 lean-to’s on the beach) to the other side of the island. The ride was an exhilarating dash along five kilometres of white sand, still damp from the ebbing tide and along dirt tracks through the string of settlements which line the “main road”.

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I was shown to my lean-to which was draped artfully in capulanas and very much mosquito proof. I discovered the only other guest at Dade’s place that night was an exceedingly tall Spanish psychologist who towered at least 3 foot over the tallest of the locals. He’d been living on the island for three months, conducting research into the cultural relativity of facial expressions and spoke with the kind of garbling breathlessness which suggested he had not spoken to many people for a while. He seemed pleased to welcome a fresh face to the island, though he was deeply offended when I told him I would only be staying one night.

“People only ever come for a night or two! They miss so much! This is a really special place!”

He was the sort of person incapable of giving a short answer and a relatively simple question would elicit an answer of considerable length and irrelevance. However, I was impressed with his Kimwani which he spoke with a smattering of Portugnol.

After an enormous dinner which I scoffed quickly in the fading light, I went and sat on the beach, relishing in the strange sensation of not having any electricity. My phone had also died and it was a revelation to suddenly be so disconnected. How peaceful it was! The sliver of a new moon was a filament in the sky and I watched and listened to the sounds of children round the orange glow of a fire further up the beach. Out to sea, a few weak points of light, battery-run torches at the base of a mast perhaps. Save that, all was comforting, amniotic darkness and I slept deeply in my little shelter, listening to the sound of the tide and the nighttime orchestrations of birds and insects.

The psychologist had been right: one night was not enough.

matemo beach sunset