How an FT writer built his seaside holiday home — in Mozambique

Paul Murphy chose an up-and-coming, if unconventional, place to build a beach pad
The view from 'Umbila’ overlooking Praia de Barra © Paul Murphy

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The plan is to build a high-end boutique lodge, overlooking the warm waters of the Indian Ocean that serves as a family getaway and — when we are not there — a thriving business for our local partners. But first, let’s tackle the question everyone asks: how the hell, what, Mozambique?

A little over a decade ago, during a sabbatical from work, we backpacked, as a family, up and down this particular Indian Ocean coast. We wanted to go somewhere we could afford, somewhere without religious issues (this was just after 9/11) and somewhere with guaranteed sun. We had never been to the Indian Ocean coast before, let alone Mozambique, and we had no connections there, but it ticked the boxes.

Mozambique remains a poor country, but it was even poorer back then, still slowly pulling itself together after more than 25 years of colonial and civil war. Yet the people were fun, optimistic, and overwhelmingly friendly. The land was beautiful. It was a great, exhilarating trip — with my wife, Kate, and three daughters, aged from seven to 13.

With 2,500km of coastline, “Moz” has a lot of beach, and we swam and played on some spectacular stretches of sand during that holiday. But one beach stood out: a 5km-long, north-facing stretch on the Barra peninsula, about 470km north-east of the capital, Maputo.

Paul Murphy of FT Alphaville © Paul Murphy

It was here, lying in the warm surf, watching flying fish dance by, with my children and wife doing handstands a few paces away, that I began to wonder why there was so little development around me — just a couple of basic self-catering lodges, one or two beach bars and a smattering of holiday homes, built in the local traditional materials of reed and palm.

Mozambique might still conjure images of danger but, apart from malaria, our area is clean, dry and perfectly safe. Our kids walk around by themselves without problems.

I became a bit obsessed. Despite its world-class status, Barra and other beautiful stretches of the Moz coast hadn’t been developed because the country had been torn to shreds, caught between superpower politics, apartheid’s pretensions to survival in nearby South Africa and some pretty extreme weather: the enduring international image of the country was of a starving local woman, giving birth in a tree as floodwaters swept below. But this is a young nation, eager to get ahead and grow, having been cut off from the modern world for far too long.

It was time for the Murphy clan to invest. Being a journalist, with poor financial husbandry, I’d never contemplated owning a holiday property. Yet Moz seemed affordable, even if it was 8,000 miles away — and it was pretty much untouched.

The couple’s three daughters, Lili, Lotte and Mary © Paul Murphy

Some compulsive googling led us to Francois, a South African currency trader who had built a holiday house at Barra a few years previously but now needed cash and wanted to sell up. Several months and £30,000 later we were the owners of a reed-walled, palm-roofed holiday home that we called “Kaya MJ”, kaya being local lingo for “home” and MJ referring to the double-barrelled “Murphy-Johnson” installed on our children.

That was 2006 and just about where our current building project really began. We fell in love with the place and the people, returning at least once a year every year since. Our local manager, Artur Macie, and his wife, Angelica, became good friends and, subsequently, business partners. Mozambique has developed at breakneck speed since our initial foray, fuelled by the promised development of vast gas and coalfields in the country and offshore. With this has come investment in infrastructure, such as new airports, roads without potholes and a growing tourism industry.

Having struck a 50/50 partnership 18 months ago, Artur and I were able to secure building rights for a prime three-acre spot high on a sand dune overlooking the length of Praia de Barra. The site previously had a dilapidated holiday home, abandoned by an earlier South African investor. Through Artur, I knew that if you are granted development rights as a foreign investor in Mozambique you have to do the actual investment, since the country has an economy to develop and wants to create jobs. Our fresh building plans were subsequently signed off by the mayor’s office in Inhambane, the sleepy local town that was visited in the late 15th century by Vasco da Gama, who named the place Terra de Boa Gente, or Land of the Good People, as a first step towards Portuguese colonial rule.

Our deal with Artur, meanwhile, was more modern: we’d supply the capital, while Artur and his family supplied the local knowledge and oversight in building what promises to be a magnificent six-bedroom villa, perfectly fronting the Indian Ocean. We’re calling the place Umbila Lodge.

Artur Macie, business partner © Mario Macilau

The design is very simple. Bedrooms and reception room are arranged on one level around a large courtyard, featuring a 12-metre pool. There is also an outside decked area for those sea views and an observation deck for the stunning southern night sky you get in a remote part of Africa like this. The outer skin of the property is brick — hand-formed, partly from ground coral (the local aggregate) and baked in the sun. Structural beams come from simbiri, or “ironwood”, which grows thin and straight locally, while the roof covering is palm and dried swamp grass.

The flooring, which will make the place and should be going down as you read this, is a rich, reddish hardwood known as umbila, or “wild teak”. It is quite common in southern Africa and if you consult Wikipedia, you’ll find that the wood is highly valued: “It has been recorded to treat ringworm, eye problems, blackwater fever, stabbing pains, malaria, and to increase the supply of breast milk. The resemblance of the sap to blood has led to the belief in supposed magical healing powers concerning the blood. Because of all these reasons and that it is also fire resistant, [umbila] is sometimes planted around the chief’s enclosure to make a living fence.”

The plan is for the pool to have a mosaic depiction of an image associated with Josina Machel, a partner of Mozambique’s first president, Samora Machel, who was born in Inhambane but died when she was 25, before the country won liberation. It is the outline of a woman waving a hockey stick — a counterpoint to the AK-47 that (famously) adorns Mozambique’s revolutionary national flag.

So here is a date for your diary: National Women’s Day, when Mozambicans honour Josina, is April 7. Umbila Lodge will not be finished by then, but not too long thereafter. All being well.

Build facts

Where Praia de Barra, Inhambane, Mozambique

Date of build We acquired a 50-year lease on the land in August 2014, the plans were passed by the local authority in December 2014 and proper building work began in March 2015

Cost The land initially cost £10,000 and the basic build, including a pool, will add up to about £40,000, which includes all fees etc. Kitting out the property will cost in the region of £20,000

Size of build 1,000 sq metres

Worst moment Learning, recently, that there had been a fatal shark attack in the nearby bay (but we haven’t told the children yet)

Architect Own design, produced using SketchUp 3D software

Best tip Be ambitious

Paul Murphy is editor of FT Alphaville

Photographs: Paul Murphy; Mario Macilau

This article has been amended since publication to reflect the fact that the Barra peninsula is about 470km north-east of the capital, Maputo, rather than north-west.

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