By Kathy Malherbe
A dot in the Indian Ocean balances luxury and ecocredentials.
YOU NEED CHUTZPAH to create your own time zone when you are a mere blip in the Indian Ocean. Benguerra Island, 14km off mainland Mozambique, is 55km2 with a population of less than 2 000 people. The time dodge is to maximise daylight hours, according to Faizel Kara, front- of-house manager for luxury lodge Azura Benguerra and the manager of the CSI Rainbow Fund. Cheeky enough to tweak the Greenwich meridian, he is ‘waiting for the Mozambique mainland to get with the programme…’
Arriving at Azura Benguerra Island is like being a terribly privileged castaway. A 10-minute flip in a Eurocopter from Vilanculos deposits you gently on the island. The central area and the villas are designed for maximum privacy, with a fusion of indoor-outdoor living and ‘mullet’ cuts of the roof thatching designed to maximise the view but ensure you are screened from your neighbours. You need only share your infinity pool with a riotous palette of tiny exotic birds as they do their toilette in the fresh water at dusk. If birding is your thing, venture to the island’s only vlei, which is dotted with flamingos churning up the mud for delicacies with their feet in a kind of choreographed moonwalk.
Like any island, catering for guests on a luxury scale means ‘little somethings’ on demand. Here supplies are delivered late at night, the dhow landing softly on the beach and fresh goods being carried by the locals, balanced on their heads. The service at Benguerra is just as discreet. Each guest is assigned a butler who ensures that you want for nothing and yet are left in absolute privacy. From the cocktails and snacks delivered to your villa at sunset to breakfast and dinner, you, and only you, are his focus of attention. The service, the excellent local cuisine, including fresh local seafood and a selection of the owner’s wines, especially flown in from their chateau in the Loire Valley, is utterly seductive.
But the lure of the island and the available activities is incentive enough to get off your sun bed and take a tour. See the school that the Rainbow Fund has built, or the neat villages, or take the island’s signature excursion by boat to the reef and then Pansy Island for a private lunch on the beach. The dolphins are playful marshals as the boat heads out to sea.
It’s a small slip off the platform and you are snorkelling above the reef, just metres from the fish and turtles. Pansy Island is next and, considering the rarity of this sought-after shell, is a little like being overwhelmed by a well-stocked candy store. The shells lie half exposed on a small sandbank the size of a living room. Even though there are hundreds of them, you are told to admire and leave them in this marine national park (and tread very carefully).
The staff set up lunch on a private stretch of beach – the decor artfully sculpted in the form of 3D turtles and a border of small shells, while flowers adorn the table and umbrella. Replete with a chilled French white, fresh fish and fruit, all that remains is to enjoy the peace until you are nudged gently back onto the boat.
Set against the experience of the guests is the incredible work that is being done on the island by the community and the lodge. Azura Benguerra positions itself as the first luxury eco-boutique retreat in Mozambique. Everyone understands the working of an ecosystem with great clarity. In the unlikely event that a local or visitor doesn’t understand the importance of preserving this little gem in the Indian Ocean, ex-army personnel guard the small island – fiercely.
Because the island is isolated, every commodity is precious. Candles are recycled, the lodge bottles its own still and sparkling water (saving the 50 000 plastic bottles a year they might have used), they use grey water on the vegetable garden and refillable bottles for shampoo and shower gels in the villas. Kara says they are starting a chicken farm to produce the 8 000 eggs they use annually and the chicken manure will be used as fertiliser.
The 100 or so employees at the lodge are all from the local community, and Sujado, our guide round the island, believes the symbiotic relationship between the lodge and the local community is key to the longevity of both.