Travelling on the EN1, you will know you are approaching the provincial capital, Inhambane, when coconut palms begin to dominate the landscape. To reach the town, turn off at Lindela (unsignposted – watch for Quinta de St. António the) and then continue for 33km (20 miles).
In the early 15th century, Portuguese explorers established a permanent trading post here, making Inhambane one of the oldest European settlements in southern Africa. Lying on the eastern shore of the large sheltered Bay of Inhambane, the sleepy and neat town has about 50,000 inhabitants. There is an airport suitable for large aircraft and the town also has port facilities capable of accommodating ships with a displacement of up to 10,000 tonnes.
Hundreds of graceful dhows on the usually tranquil water are one of Inhambane’s most obvious features. The seamanship and boat-building skills of the marinheiros (sailors) and pescadores (fishermen) are legendary, and the town probably has the largest working fleet of dhows (around 200) on the East African coastline. Likely reasons for this statistic may be found in Inhambane’s calm location outside (usually) the cyclone belt, as well as in the recent past when roads were often impassable.
Until the mid-1960s, Inhambane was a very crowded little harbour. The cranes on the jetty were kept busy loading tons of copra (coconut flesh), peanuts, oil seed, cotton, rice, sugar and cashew nuts. Those were the days when over a million migrant mine-workers commuted regularly between Mozambique and South Africa’s gold-rich Witwatersrand (now Gauteng). A packet boat transported these men to the then Lourenço Marques from where they were taken to the mines by train. Although most of the area’s produce is now transported to Maputo harbour by road, coasters still call at Inhambane on an irregular basis to offload consumer goods and load copra and cashews.
The Inhambane district is notorious for the brewing of powerful illicit liquor from cashews, pineapples, mangoes and oranges; in short, any fruit available. Known as enhica, the highly intoxicating effect of this concoction on the locals is particularly noticeable during cashew season (from November to March).
When Mozambique was still a province of Portugal, Antonio Enes, a past governor general, referred to this moonshine as the ‘root of vice and ruin’. One of his reports reads: ‘In the season of this accursed fruit, when the atmosphere is poisoned by the resinous odours of the fat jugs displayed in the markets, and in the taverns, Native (sic) labourers leave their hoes, carriers abandon their loads, servants flee their masters, soldiers and sailors desert. Vagrancy and saturnalia continue so long as the supplies of drink last.’
An appealing pensão, a hotel, shops, markets, bus terminus and immigration office (in Maxixe across the bay) are all to be found in pleasant Inhambane. The dhows, fragrant spice and colourful cloth markets, mosques and little Indian-owned stores lend an exotic atmosphere to the streets. Inhambane Bay was the southernmost point down the Mozambique Channel to which Arab and Persian traders travelled. From about the 10th century until the mid-20th century, slaves, hardwoods, gold and other metals collected from the East African interior were exchanged for cloth, salt and beads.