My Man in Africa: BA Highlife

'Guludo Beach Lodge, at the northern tip of Mozambique, is really something special.

'We reach it, my ten-year-old son and I, after a bone-crunching, three-and-a-half hour drive from Pemba, the nearest town. For miles and miles we drive past small villages full of women grinding cassava, men circled in deep discussion and children proffering bananas and bags of peas, coal and firewood, packets of biscuits and legs of roast chicken on woven platters. They wear no shoes and have soles as thick as tyres. My son, who has never been to Africa before, stares at them. "Don't people have shoes round here?" he wonders aloud.

'By the last hour of the journey, on the bumpiest dirt track I have ever encountered, he is almost silenced by his confusion. "Is that a monkey in the tree?" he asks. "Why has the road stopped? Is this actually a road or a river bed?" We finally pass through Guludo village, a neat and tidy collection of huts made from palm trees and wood, and the villagers come out to wave at us. Raymond waves back.

Then we turn down a sandy path and at the end, near bluest sea and the whitest sand I have ever seen, is the lodge.

'A man stands at the entrance holding glasses of fresh juice. We can hear the sound of the waves. We also smell something delicious on the stove. Raymond sights some chocolate brownies. He grabs one and sinks down onto the comfortable cushions in the sitting-room area. "This is more like it," he says and promptly falls asleep.

'I have always wanted to take Raymond to Africa. Some people thought me odd when I said we were going to Mozambique. But I felt that Raymond was at an age where we could appreciate the beauty of Africa, as well as try to understand its problems. I had lived in Kenya years before, as a teacher for a charity, and the experience had profoundly changed me. I have often talked to Raymond about it: how the animals wandered freely; how I once met a black mamba on a path; and how, desperate for a pee, I ended up crouching behind a giraffe's leg, believing it to be a tree. I have told him about the generosity of the African people, the endless cups of chai I drank, the grisly goat stew I ate, and the miles of walking I did just to get to a shop to buy sugar and maize. I wanted Raymond to experience this and perhaps gain some perspective on his own life. And I have always wanted to go to Mozambique. When I lived in Kenya and traveled through Uganda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, everyone told me how beautiful it was. They would talk about the country's magnificent coast, its clear, sparkling sea and its animals - and then sigh. But, until recently, it was impossible to come here.

'It was Portuguese colony until 1975 when, after years of sporadic warfare, it was granted independence. Samora Machel, who was head of the communist-backed Frelimo party, became leader of the new government. (His wife is now married to Nelson Mandela - Machel died in an air crash in 1986.) But Mozambique descended in civil war, with the Frelimo party battling the South African-backed Renamo guerillas. Vast areas of country were landmined, people starved to death and Mozambique fell off the tourist map. But, in 1992, a peace agreement was signed. Gradually, a few locals appeared, first on the islands off the mainland and now here, at Guludo, in the middle of the Quirimbas national park at the countryÍs northernmost tip.

'The national park is wild and barely explored, and the villagers and staff at the lodge tell us it is lion country. They also tell us it is snake, elephant, baboon, warthog, antelope and monkey country. And there are other creatures that we spot almost immediately. Huge dopey bees buzz around us. Crabs scuttle back and forth in a game with the sea. Fishermen haul in octopus, kingfish, jackfish and prawns. And it seems that there is no one here but us. It immediately feels very magical.

'The camp itself - it is not, strictly speaking a hotel - is the brainchild of a dynamic British couple. Amy Carter and former footballer Neal Allcock are amazingly fresh-faced and young, just 26 and 28 respectively. Guludo Beach Lodge has been there obsession for the past four years. "We've really done nothing else," Amy says. "We dreamed of creating a destination to protect a fragile environment and to help a poverty-stricken community, and this is it."

'She then shows Raymond, who has since woken up, how to work a paraffin lamp. "There's no electricity!" says Raymond in wonderment as the sun sinks like a stone at 5.30pm.

'But before the sudden darkness and the subsequent twinkling of myriad lamps and candles, Amy has shown me around.

 Unlike many hotels in Africa, which purport to be eco-friendly to attract tourists, but import their furniture, building materials and food, Guludo is the genuine article. 

Almost everything has been locally sourced. The showers are made from cane and coconut husks pierced with holes so the water can trickle through. The water comes from a borehole and is warned by the sun. There are no taps. Basins are made from gourds and the water drains away to be used on the land. All the furniture - the beds, tables and bar - is made in the lodge's workshop. The only exceptions are the ingenious South African 'enviro-loos', in which everything is, in one way or another, dehydrated or evaporated. And the tents are made of thick green mesh rather than local produce, but the idea is that they act as a giant protection against mosquitoes and other marauding insects and reptiles.

'Yet we still spend the first night in thinly disguised terror. After our delicious dinner of pan-fried kingfish with rice and locally grown salad, Raymond and I depart for bed. It is only 8pm, but it is pitch black. Amy hands out torches and casually says that we should watch where we tread because of ïnocturnalÍ snakes. That does it. I toddle along like baby, taking tiny steps the whole way back to our tent. "Are you worried about something?" asks Raymond, suspiciously. "No," I say. Then, once in the tent, and having reassured Raymond that nothing short of cobra armed with flame-thrower could get in, I spot a huge rhino-beetle scuttling across the floor. Raymond and I scream and jump onto our beds, and are very thankful when a night watchman comes to shoo the poor thing out.

'We sleep bolt upright and take turns to shine our torches round the tent. "I heard a hiss," Raymond whispers at 2am. "Is that a roar?" he asks at 4am. Eventually we give up, and fall asleep. I dream that I am being chased by a nest of vipers and he dreams that a ferocious lion has come to our tent. "He came to eat you!" Raymond tells me upon waking the next morning, his eyes round with excitement. "But I ran in front of him and he ate me instead. I sacrificed myself for you!"

'"Oh, that's sweet of you," I say, watching a new side to my son unfold.

'Everything in Mozambique proves a revelation. It is obvious that Neal and Amy and their team of whale-watchers, coral monitors and diving instructors (three jobs done by the same people) are fully committed to what they are doing. I am constantly in awe of them. Neal and Amy raised the money privately to open the lodge. They had to overcome endless bureaucracy to set it up after gaining the consent of the village elders. Their aim is not just to run a hotel and open a new one in the bush next year. They want everything they do to directly benefit the local people.

'All 45 staff members are from the neighbouring villages, bar the cook who hails from Brighton and the three people who run the diving school and monitor the humpback whales that swim in the warm waters off the coast. As well as providing employment, Neal and Amy are tirelesssy running a variety of local charities. One is a malaria project that provides mosquito nets and shows locals how to use them and prevent the disease, which is a big problem. The average life expectancy here is 39 years; 29 per cent of babies will not live to see their first birthday.

'The couple is also raising money to open a school in Guludo, for which the government has promised to provide teachers. They are overseeing an agricultural project to encourage locals to grow more vegetables and helping to put up chilli wire to prevent elephants from trampling the crops.

'Yet Guludo Lodge is also the perfect place to relax. The tents are roomy and comfortable. Except for the sound of the waves crashing on the beach, it is peaceful and quiet. The service is good, the food is wonderful, and you can have a cocktail or two of an evening. A percentage of the money guests spend goes to help the village and, over the past four years, Amy and Neal have spent about £90,000 in the area. What is also special about Guludo is that these projects have been integrated into the holiday experience. One day, we go to the village.

Hundreds of children rush up to meet Raymond, dust flying from their feet as they charge towards him. He baulks a bit, but then relaxes and soon joins them in a football game. When we leave he says, "I love that village. The people are so friendly." The poverty doesn't seem to have registered with him.

'After a couple of days without a computer, Game Boy, crisps or chocolate, Raymond starts reading books. He asks me interesting questions. He becomes obsessed with sharks and makes Amy tell him stories about the sharks she has met. He eats a crab claw. Then, one night, a singing and dancing troupe from another local village performs for us. We sit under the stars in front of a fire made from palm fronds and watch the women and men ululate and wiggle. To my astonishment, Raymond gets up, trance-like, and jumps and wiggles along with them.

'But what he enjoys most is snorkeling. We set off in the speedy inflatable boat to look for whales. It's the right time of year but the sea is rough and we don't see any. We eat sandwiches on the nearby paradise island of Rolas, while fishermen show us the revered and absolutely huge coconut crab, which waves its massive antennae at us. Then we snorkel off the island and find three beautiful lionfish tucked under a ledge. After heading out to sea, we dive straight into the Indian Ocean. ItÍs sheer heaven.

'Another trip takes us to Ibo Island, which was once an important trading port for slaves and ivory. A most eerie place, the wide streets are lined with grand but dilapidated Portuguese villas, now home to rambling banana plants. The history of the island is one of death, humiliation and pestilence - apparently, so many slaves died here that the sea ran red with their blood. But it remains a historically fascinating, is somewhat macabre, place.

'We hate leaving. There is so much more to experience: a trip to the mangroves; waiting for elephants at the lily pond; looking for whales. But it has been a significant experience for us. The trip has taken me back to the Africa I remembered - the smell of open fires in the night air and the warmth and generosity of the people who have so little. I had almost forgotten that intense darkness of night, and the vague threat that comes from a natural world where everything is bigger and more deadly that at home.

'Raymond was very moved and inspired by what he saw. His generation is far more clued-up about the environment than we were as children, and at Guludo he saw how working together with the local people benefits everyone involved.

 Mozambique needs tourist dollars but, for its own future, responsible tourism, such as Guludo, is the only way forward. Neal and Amy are blazing a trail for others to follow, and I've vowed to return with my whole family. "I've got two more brothers!" Raymond told the children in the village triumphantly. They all cheered. "I've never been so popular," he beamed on his last day. His smile made my heart soar.' 

by Lucy Cavendish

Photography by Oliver Pilcher




British Airways High Life Magazine, January 2007