The air was brittle with cold as we left the Highveld on a frigid July morning. Father ran a tight ship, so at exactly 04h00, we would smooth the static out of our hair and settle down for the 2 day trek ahead. Mozambique lay 500 miles to the north-east but even then, we had further to travel.
Johannesburg would slide away behind us, as Laura and I settled in for that day’s trip to our overnight stop of Xai Xai. I loved the romance of the name and would whisper it to myself as we drove. As soon as we booked in, Father would request an 05h00 wake-up call. I knew the minute it was time to get up as the room would fill with the roasty, toasty smell of the thickest blackest coffee you can imagine. We called it Zambezi mud but would continue to take sips trying to outlast each other.
Soon, we would again be on the backseat, the cool dawn air poking its fingers through the open windows. The landscape would unfurl changing from dry scrubby veld to lush greenery, peppered with palms and sloppy groves of banana trees.
After an hour or two, we would pull up to a squat grey building, daylight leaking its way into the purple dawn sky. All appeared to be deserted, but within seconds the enticing smell of freshly baked bread would draw us inside. It was a small bakery, with a long counter, dented from decades of use. In basic Portuguese father would request “coffee and rolls” as Laura and I dragged chairs around one of 3 small round tables. The baker would appear with a woven basket covered with a faded but crisply clean cloth. A deep earthenware tub of salty butter would be plopped alongside. Slathering on great gobs of it, we would guzzle down the hot rolls, the melted butter dripping between our fingers. Laura and I would grin at each other, faces shiny from our feast.
Finally, at midday we would arrive in the port of Vilankulos. Emerging from the car, we stepped straight into the cacophony of the market. It was like walking into a birdcage, brimming with colors and scents. Women wrapped in dazzling colored cloth would stroll around, wide flat baskets balanced on their heads each bearing a towering display of mangoes, litchis and pawpaws. The clackety sounds of Swahili would swirl around us mixing with the hot smell of the spices.
Luggage would be stowed on the ferry and we would start the final four-hour leg of our journey. Our destination was Santa Carolina, but to all the holidaymakers, we simply called it Paradise Island. It sat 50miles off the coast of Mozambique, like a green jewel in the clear azure waters of the Indian Ocean. We would spill off the ferry onto the white powder soft beach, giddy with the joy. It was a minute island, so small that Father could easily walk around the entire perimeter in 45 minutes. But to my sister and me it was huge. We had named every beach and bay and would roam the island as though we owned it. The few other holiday makers tended to be older, mainly from Rhodesia, and they stuck to the deeply shaded verandahs off their cottages. For 2 weeks every July, we would rule this small kingdom. It was our own paradise. Little did we know it had been home to terrible suffering and cruelty. But we were mere children, unaware of anything except our own happiness.
We would quickly unpack which meant haphazardly shoving clothes in drawers, before dressing for dinner. Emerging freshly showered at 6pm, we would head to the main hotel. As the breezes sighed their way on shore, the air would fill with the fragrance of hundreds of tropical flowers. But it’s the giant snails that stick in my memory, huge things, bigger than a grown man’s fist, with shells intricately patterned in rich russets. In the early evening they would slide out from under the Flamboyant Trees and slime their way across the footpaths. Laura and I would shriek and cling to each other as we skipped our way around their silvery trails, lest we accidentally step on one of these monsters. Mother and Father would follow on behind, arms loosely linked, heads close together. The pathways were lined with hedges of bougainvillea drooping under the weight of flowers in magenta, cerise, purple. Hibiscus Trees demanded our admiration as they thrust forward lipstick red flowers, as big as dinner plates. The thick heat of the day would finally have given way and we would dance our way up to dinner completely content.
Our days revolved around the sea, a watery jewel-box crammed with dense shoals of glimmering fish and forests of coral. We were tanned the color of chestnuts, hair bleached bright blonde, faces sprinkled with freckles. And we were fearless. We dived off the catamarans, fished from glass-bottom boats, sailed the edge of the reef and attacked coconuts with bush knives. As long as we arrived freshly washed and dressed for meals in the formal dining-room, we were given free reign. Mother never ventured from under the shade, remaining pale and polished to read her books and sip hot tea.
By our third or fourth visit we became known by a Swahili name which translated roughly to “the girls with hair of gold”. We knew all the Mozambican staff who worked in the hotel, sailed the catamarans and managed the fishing boats. We thought we knew everything about the island, until one day we didn’t.
Over our usual breakfast of tropical fruits, we plotted that day’s adventure. We would walk to the old ruins that sat to one side of the island. It wasn’t a favorite area as the rocks there were jagged and no real beach existed, just a strip of sand strewn with shards of razor-sharp coral. This was the one area that had been out of bounds until this year when we were deemed old enough to explore it alone. The sun beat down on our heads but, with our towels tied around our shoulders like queenly capes, we were determined to reach our destination.
The main building was round and had once had high walls but now only one portion remained at its original height. The rest of the circle was a tumbled down collection of stones like broken bones white from the relentless heat. Alongside was a roofless building that we believed had been a fort of some sort but it too was reduced to a few shoulder-height walls. But for two small girls these sun bleached ruins were a wonderland. We imagined an ancient time when kings and queens had claimed this island as their own, building a toy-like kingdom safely surrounded by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.
We had been playing for hours when a fellow guest quietly appeared from under the palm trees. He was tall and very thin and engrossed in a small book he held in his hand. Silence descended on our game as abruptly as a radio suddenly switched off. For several minutes he studied the book oblivious to us. I nudged Laura and she politely said ‘good day’ in her speaking-to-adults voice. The book dropped from his hand and landed in the white sand with a soft plop. He smiled and raised his battered hat in greeting. Although he seemed ancient he quickly sat down beside us, dropping a battered leather tog bag on a flat stone.
“Oh so you are also exploring the old colony?” he asked. “Quite dreadful what went on here, isn’t it?”
We nodded in unison although neither of us had any idea what he was talking about.
Shaking the sand from the pages of his book, he carefully turned to a black and white photo. And there it was, the old ruin as it had been, walls intact, roofs made of woven palm fronds.
“It was a leper colony you know. They dumped them all here without a second thought. Totally forgotten by everyone. Ghastly time it was. And the round building, that was a sort of prison for the ones who tried to escape. You can still see some of the iron bolts where they were chained to the wall. Quite terrible really as they all perished in the end, brutal deaths.”
We listened attentively, completely clueless as to what he was talking about, but we were polite girls and he was an adult. Minutes passed with only the sound of the waves scratching at the broken coral before he produced a pineapple and expertly sliced it up for us to share. We sat in companionable silence until Laura announced that we had to get back for lunch. Sticky with juice, we trotted back to our beach cottage already working on the next days’ adventure.