Quelimane (pronounced ‘Kelimani’) is one of Africa’s few good river ports. It lies on the Rio dos Bons Sinais (River of Good Omens), a name given to the mangrove-lined estuary by Vasco da Gama when he anchored there in 1498 on a mission to find a sea route to India. A padrão (stone pillar), erected at the river mouth to commemorate this landing, was claimed by the sea over 50 years ago. The river could also have been named Rio dos Sepulturas (River of Graves) as the first two Europeans to die in southern Africa were buried here, having succumbed to the combined ravages of scurvy and malaria. Today over 200,000 people live in Quelimane, capital of Zambézia province, making it Mozambique’s fourth-largest town. Tea estates, coconut and cashew farms on the coastal flats are the main providers of rural employment, while city dwellers manage to exist by trading, manufacturing and working in ventures that have survived decades of isolation. Most people live in the lively, colourful bairros that stretch for some distance out into the coconut plantations.
Main tribal groups are the Lómwè, Chuabo, Marende and Sena. Similar to the Tsonga and Shangaan of southern Mozambique (refugees from King Shaka’s reign of terror nearly two centuries ago), the Chuabo people clustered deep in the fever-ridden mangrove swamps around Quelimane for protection against the Mwenu Mutapa.
Quelimane is the terminus of the 96km (60-mile) railway from Mocuba, which is not in operation at present. From the station, a narrow-gauge line runs to the two concrete-and-steel jetties (caias) where steam engines once shunted goods to and from the harbour. Here the Rio dos Bons Sinais is 1.6km (1 mile) wide, and its nine-knot current, treacherous shifting sandbanks and 3.5m (11ft) tidal range make Quelimane harbour difficult to navigate. A century and a half ago, the Royal Navy brigantine Dart, sent to pick up David Livingstone, sank on the sandbar lying across the river mouth, resulting in the loss of eight crew members. Today the river is constantly dredged to provide passage for the coasters seeking cargoes of copra, fish and rice. A new berth for fishing trawlers, as well as refrigeration facilities, have recently been completed 2km (11?4 miles) from Quelimane.
At the end of a tarmac road north from Quelimane, which runs through an endless forest of coconut trees, you will discover Zalala beach and enormous succulent prawns. Dragged in by the local fishermen, barracuda (Sphyraene barracuda), squid or bluefin kingfish (Caranx melampygus) may also appear in the nets. Praia de Zalala lies wide and flat and, because it is so isolated, resembles a lost runway for some forgotten aircraft. The beach is long and hard-packed enough to have been considered for one of Sir Malcolm Campbell’s attempts at breaking the world land speed record. Should you own a land yacht, bring it to Zalala and sail off into the sunset.
Zalala town consists of a small group of holiday houses and a basic restaurant with a bar and dance floor, and is flanked by little fishing villages.