Thursday, 12 December 2013

Explosive secret on mistery island.

Opposite the northern tip of the city of Maputo, on the African East Coast, there lies a small island some five kilometres offshore.
It is shrouded in mystery and strictly a no-go, forbidden area.  The locals refer to it as 'Jail Island' or 'Hell Island.'  Nobody could ever tell me anything about it.
The dark secrecy fascinated me, and I always wanted to go there.  The only information I ever managed to unearth was the island's name: 'Ilha Xefina Grande'.  (These days one can look it up on Google Earth - check out the naval gun emplacements on the north-eastern shoreline.)

Then, one day, opportunity came knocking in the form of Rui Mattias.

Rui was about as secretive as the island itself.  At the time when we were trying to renovate the zoo (see earlier postings), Maputo was the poorest city in the world.  Civil war was raging, and conditions were precarious.  Amidst all this, Rui was living like a king.  How he did it, and why he chose to befriend me, remains a mystery.

Rui had the means, and I had the obsession.  I eventually managed to convince him that the war would be keeping the authorities way too busy to be keeping an eye on a deserted island.  It was before the advent of mobile phones, but Rui had a radio telephone in his new Range Rover.

Within an hour of contacting his pilot, we were buzzing the island with his King Air, looking for any sign of human presence.  There was no sign of present habitation, and the sight of ruins and half submerged gun emplacements got us really fired up.

Another hour later we were on his boat, heading for the island.  From what we could see from the air, the shore on the seaward side had been eroded to the extent that some gun emplacements were semi-submerged, and concrete pillboxes had been undermined and had rolled out into the sea.
Dropping anchor on the leeward side we started exploring the extensive ruins - what appeared to have been army barracks, and a jail.  Definitely a jail, and a pretty horrible one at that.  The cells were windowless 1 x 2 metre cubicles behind serious bars. The roofs being long-gone, all the floors were covered in a foot of stinking water.  We did not linger.

The naval guns were monstrous.  The great rusted hulks resembled Saddam Hussein's gigantic cannon.
The emplacements had huge steel doors at the back, mostly buried in sand.  I found one that appeared to be ever so slightly ajar, and started digging.

What I found nearly gave me a heart attack.

Thousands upon thousands of them, all oozing some gooey stuff.  All of this, unguarded, in a country in the middle of a fifteen year civil war!  I was convinced that the stuff was highly unstable and a loud noise might set it off, blowing the island and half the city out of existence.

Time to get out smartly.  The skipper had remained on the boat, so only Rui and I knew about this.  We decided to keep it that way.
I'm sure the skipper was convinced we had seen the devil himself on the island, but he never enquired about the frantic departure.

Now that the story is out after more than 20 years, I cannot help but wonder if there is someone out there who would care to follow it up.  Maybe my good friend Irma Green might be tempted to send over an investigative journalist?  Someone with a big, brass pair....

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