Sunday, November 16, 2008

Baia Dos Cocos

A wide bay fringed by palm tree forest and sizeable dunes, pummelled by the Indian Ocean. Within its curvature a veritable theatre of wildlife plays out its show. The greatest variety of show-stopping sea creatures I've ever encounteredAt the crack of dawn a packed chapas to Inhambane, buying peanut butter and pineapples at the local market and then squeezing into all parts of Ian's 4x4 and driving out of town and along dirt roads to our destination - Baia dos Cocos (Coconut Bay).

Ian was born in Blighty, moved out to South Africa as a younger man and now in his fifties is living the dream with his oh so zany wife, Kay, who has also followed the path from the little island up north. Together they set up Centro de Mergulho, my favourite dive shop (contact details to be inserted once I find them). Sheltered behind the dunes, surrounded by palms and protected by the cutest couple of rottweiler's (not a joke, even Dingo was comfortable with them and dog's haunt his nightmares - one of them is even called "Potato").

From the first time we came over the lip of the hill and beheld the bay, we knew the place was special. Not a soul could be seen on this vast expanse of shimmering sand. And then on the horizon…….breach….splash….a humpback whale launched itself into the sky. Gob smacked.
A first dive down on Kingfisher reef. A huge variety of fish. Colossal honey-combed morays, giant wrasse and potato cod. A swim-through some 30m down blocked by a lionfish. Out of nowhere a manta ray glided past. The first I had ever beheld, barely a glimpse before it flew off into the gloom. Some background

Divers like everyone else have "must do before I die's". The one of these you hear most often is to see a whale shark. The biggest fish in the sea. A giant shark that skims the surface of the open ocean for small specimen and can grow up to 12m (40ft) long. This strip of Mozambiquan coast is one of the best places in the world to see these creatures and I was darned if I was going to leave without coming up close to one of them.


Kay at the helm and Ian preparing his gear!

While we were on our first dive, the guys at the surface saw one….bugger…maybe next time…
Before we knew it, we (being Robbo, Ian, Kay, Paul, his wife, Ashari, Guy and me) were back in the big semi-inflatable shooting out from the shore and over some serious waves to the Mecca of Mozambiquan diving - Manta Reef. Discovered in the '60's, a manta ray cleaning station which is the ideal place to encounter these big ocean wanderers.

Serious rip currents and poor visibility impeded our dive, but we had plenty more time.
Afterwards the (to become) traditional removal of jelly tots from dodgy local spirits and then the long trip back up the coast to Tofu.


Dave and some jelly tots!

Day after Day

A day just for dives, others for ocean safaris. The David's came and joined, Esthi and Maria, the comedy Israelis and others.
Snorkelling with dolphins, cruising along with humpbacks, spotting (and nearly accidently jumping in with) a 3-4m tiger shark and watching devil rays summer-saulting out of the water.
Then more chilling on the beach, drinking with Ian and ……. and munching on whole pinapples and peanut butter and banana sandwiches.



On a particularly stormy day not seeing much, but getting kicks from riding 6ft crunching waves all the way into the beach. People slowly emerged bruised, battered and missing equipment, but vitally, apart from one of the Israelis and a mildly concussed Spaniard, with huge smiles on our faces.
Then the perfect dive. A return to Manta Reef, back-roll into a negative descent and drop right on top of a 5m plus giant manta ray. The best part of an hour floating in the cold underwater currents as 7 mantas glided all round us. Everywhere you looked were these astounding creatures, circling round and round the reef as tiny striped fish pecked them clean. Usually dispersed amongst the unimaginable expanse of the world's oceans, here they congregate and come so close you can tickle their underbellies.

Check this out....
video
We went back to the reef on another three days and each time I saw these other-worldy beings. Their accompaniment was not bead either, a huge variety of sea life including large showls of blue and yellow-fin tuna, numerous moray, pipe fish, rock fish, lion fish, numerous giant varieties of grouper and wee nuddibranches.

FINAL NIGHT AND THE SHARKS

Kay and Ian, being as nice as they are, invited us to stay over on our final night. So we pitched up some tents, cracked open the brandy, beer and cigars (and whisky and gin and…) and played a particularly dangerous game of monopoly. Waking up in the morning with a slightly jaded cranium we prepared for our final day out in the bay. After a week of searching, this was our final chance to see a whale shark in the flesh. My fingers were firmly crossed as the sun came out heralding beneficial conditions.


Esthi getting pysched for the sharks


Back in the boat and bouncing over the waves. Eyes peeled. Searching for a fin…. a shadow…. a shape. Then, so close…. We met a group of divers who, though they tried to hide it (sneaky people paying more from Tofu), had obviously just encountered a whale shark, but look as we may it was gone. This just was not going to be our time.

But then, a shout, a fin. "Get ready!!". Fins and masks on and at the next shout straight into the water and after the dark shape that had emerged to our right. I kicked away from the boat and there it was in all it's glory –the biggest fish in the sea. A moment of utter elation, but then, before I could take any of it in, shock! Just below the whale shark was another fish, another shark. I pulled back and hesitated as my mind processed. Playing the moment back, what I saw was a roughly 1.5m grey coloured shark. This was dismissed as a type of scavenger fish that often follow whale sharks, until I saw one of those on the last dive and was almost certain of the distinction. The most likely candidate is a black tip reef shark. Whatever it was, it gave me one of those "WITF" moments which are part of the thrill of exploring the natural world. It took one look at me and the others jumping into the ocean behind and, in a flash, dived down to the deep.
My mind readjusted and after the whale shark I went. A huge grey/blue fish some 5-6m long, covered in sparkling white spots which combined with the ripple effect from the refraction of sunlight on the waves to produce a mythical illusion. As I caught up he expunged a unsurprisingly large amount of reddy-brown gunk in my direction. Unpleasant in one respect, but also remarkable, for I understand these creatures usually defecate deep down and this behaviour has only just been caught on camera for the first time by BBC wildlife. Then swimming alongside and diving down to move in parallel. It glided through the water at quite a pace with the lightest of shrugs of his powerful tale. I managed to manoeuvre myself to his front. I could literally look him in the eye and stare into his wide gaping mouth, filtering the water for wee beasties.
The most phenomenal experience, and what made it more remarkable was, after searching for days and finding none, as soon as we hauled ourselves back in the boat we found another whale shark. This time a adolescent. Then after snorkelling with that one we found another, a 7-8m adult, complete with scars with brushes with sea-goers unknown. To finish it all off we even saw a fourth. We could not believe our luck. The conditions had finally turned ideal and patience had paid off.

As we headed back into shore the feeling of shared delight was palpable. Smiles all round! Just time for one final dive with the mantas, sad goodbyes to Kay and Ian who had shown us such a great time and been so hospitable and on we had to go.

As the sun went down we were back in the 4x4 winging our way out of the palms of Baia dos Cocos and back for a final night of fiesta. A long road to the cape lay ahead.


Whale Shark and me!!!


And finally, thanks to Robbo - below - for providing the underwater photos!!

Klaus Kleiner Welt Atlas

The Klaus Kleiner Welt Atlas with holders past, present and most importantly future.

This simply beautiful piece of German publication means a lot to me, but it is now gone!

The book was bestowed on me 3 long years ago in Medillin, Colombia, by the uniquely eccentric German electrician Sebastian (see early blogs including http://walter82.blogspot.com/2005/11/feliz-sebastian.html). Sebastian was coming to the end of his travels and passed on to me this compendium of facts, figures and maps with the promise that, at the end of my travels I should find someone I thought worthy and pass it on.

Keeping up with my promise, almost a year later, after escorting the atlas down the spine of South America, to the bright lights of New York, around India, Burma, Laos and Thailand, I downed my last drink on the Khao San road and almost missed a plane to get the atlas to Dingo (http://walter82.blogspot.com/2006_08_01_archive.html). I had passed it to a worthy recipient.

Just a month later Dingo returned with the atlas in hand. To his distress he had not found someone he thought fit to continue the trail and so the Klaus Kleiner found its way back into my hands.

Over the proceeding 2 years the book lead me to Cuba, Israel, Jordan, Japan, Hong Kong, along the Trans Siberian and to various places on the continent. As each small trip passed I felt the burden of my promise to Sebastian grow and grow.

And then to Africa, via the UAE to Zambia, Malawi and finally Mozambique. It was half way down the coast in Tofu that I had the privilege of meeting Paul (above, holding Klaus). At the start of a trip around the world with his wife, we spent a glorious day diving and then drinking. Such an intelligent opened minded guy with a streak of adventure. So much fun retelling tales of old adventures. Someone who on his lonesome cycled the Karakoram pass was more than worthy of the guide…..I had no doubt in my mind that Sebastian would have passed the book to him….

….and so it was, fuelled by rum, with man hugs and a hint of a tear in the eye, Dingo and I passed on the Klaus Kleiner Welt Atlas to it's new carrier with the promise that he too would pass it on at the end of his travels.

After leading me through 5 continents, over 20 countries and countless intrigues, the only mark we left on its ageing pages was to dedicate it to my good friend Thilo.

Long may the THILO MATTHIAS FRITZ GEORG BORGISLAV KANNENBURG KLAUS KLEINER WELT ATLAS* circumnavigate the globe and bring joy and knowledge as it goes. I am both sad and relieved to see it go!

* NB not to be reduced to an anocronym due to partial similarities with a particularly nasty organisation popular in certain old confederate states.

TOFU... fiesta and a cartel!

A day's travel from the north on a beautiful road. Many thoughts, sights and palm trees as far as the eye could see. Then, as the sun rolled in, we crossed the water to Inhambane.
A charming town with a thriving market part of crumbling but grand colonial architecture. A hub for transport. A place I would pass through numerous times over the next week and that really took me in. The cool street kids who accompanied you around . The old Indian lady who smiled and offered peanuts when you entered her shop. The best blue-cheese steak sandwich this side of nowhere.... complemented with a beer on the promenade.A walk, a wait and another hour on a bus. We arrived at our destination.

Tofu's a place people come to party and dive. Established both on the backpacker scene and as a holiday destination for young South Africans with their big 4x4's. A bunch of bars, huts, restaurants and campsites set back on the dune behind a golden beach and a pretty bay. A small town at one end, with dive-shops, liquor sellers and a tat market. This is the place recommended by people all over.

To the fiesta. We were ready to let our hair down after a month on the road. We frequented the main hangouts – from Fatima’s to Dino’s and Bamboozie. All in all I’d describe it as fun, but except for a fantastic night at the latter establishment dancing to impromptu jazz-type-stuff, not quite as raucous as I had been led to believe.

Dave has less memory of said good night...
Beyond the quite frankly annoying 19 year old overland crowd, the great thing about the place were the people we met. From Esti and the Maria, via a number of cool Mozambiquns who spend their lives chilling out round the bars, to more than slightly loco South Africans. A nice crowd with a far more relaxed and intermingled atmosphere than up in Vilankulos.

To diving....or more accurately not diving. The second we entered town, luck bit me in the asse. As we entered the first bar, who was there, but guys (one of whose names happens coincidently to be Guy) we had safaried with up in Zambia. What more, they invited me to join them, Robbo, Paul et al, in their mononpoly smashing enterprise....

Basically, Tofu is a little cartel of very good, but rather greedy dive shops who all agree their prices and rip off passers through. A couple of bays down the coast lie another dive shop, closer to the most famous dive sites and.....wait....charging half the price. I needed little more invitation on my budget and set off at the crack of dawn the next day on a standardly squeezed chapas.
What I found was wonderful people and the best diving of my life. Something to publicise and over the next week that is just what I did. In collecting other divers and whale shark searchers I reckon I lost the “cartel” well over $1,000. Add to that considerably more business drawn away by Robbo (Aussie dive master) and people would start to be annoyed. Let’s just say when a random came up to me and said “are you James” in relation to the cheap diving I guessed it was time to leave.

So to Baya dos Cocos and being eye to eye with creatures like this...
....more soon...but I have to leave with an image of true productivity. While I explored the depths, the Dave’s excelled in faff:

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Vilankulos

In many ways, that picture says it all. We spent the best part of a week in this astoundingly beautiful place. About half way up the Mozambiquan coast nestle a few pristine islands, cupped by the Bayo de San Sebastian and cosseted by large sand banks that expose themselves at low tide.We walked for miles along beaches fringed by palms. Tides like no where I have seen outside of Europe exposed mangrove and beached rotting wooden fishing boats. Fisherman dragging their nets through the channels in the sand, which rise and shrink with the tide.It was by one such ancient channel (reportedly used by the Arabs during slave raids) that we stumbled on the most gorgeous restaurant. Perched atop a dune, with magnificent vistas of the sea and run by some charming Zimbabweans. Top sea-food and a G&T.

MOZAMBIQUE HORSE SAFARIS
This area is full of dislodged people, white and black, who have fled the chaos of a neighbouring country. Stories abound of mistreatment and gross mismanagement. A tragedy and an incredible waste.
Adversity can though lead people to do amazing things. Perhaps the story which struck me the most is that of Mandy (http://www.mozambiquehorsesafari.com/). Introduced by the guys at the restaurant, this exceedingly nice and seriously quirky lady arranged for Dingo and I to do a sunset ride across the dunes and through the mangroves (very romantic I know). Over the ride and beers that followed, she recalled how on being chucked off her farm in the first waves of Mugabe's purges (a particularly threatening and frightening experience on her part), she refused to leave behind the horses which she loved. One thing led to another and before long she was crossing the border with not just her horses, but those from several other farms in the same predicament. All in all she crossed with some 90 odd horses into Mozambique (ball park figures). After a troubled enterprise setting up a new farm in central Mozambique, her and her husband (and the herd of horses) finally ended up on this part of the Mozambiquan coast.
These guy were not young. Nearly everything they had owned and worked so hard for had been stolen on racial grounds. To this day they still employ a couple of the Zimbabweans who fled with them. In the past they employed many, produced goods and aided the economy. Now people are starving. These are not simple matters, but this equation does not add up and Mugabe should answer for it.

Despite all this they had the goodness of heart and courage to save these animals. The money they make from these tours goes towards the upkeep of the 70 odd remaining horses (20 or so have been the victim of local diseases etc). To top it all off, she does all this with the most witty inane sense of humour. Simply lovely people that should be supported.

ISLANDS OF PARADISE

We spent a couple of days shooting out to the islands which rich Europeans pay so many thousands to come visit.
One day by dhow (local sailing boat): Lying back as the sun burned and the wind blew us gently to our destination. Learning a bit of Portuguese from the captain, smoking and drinking tea. Trekking round the soft sands of Magaruque and hunting for crabs. With sincere guilt I admit that I killed a crab with my sandal. In my defence, I disabled it with my first throw from 6ft. I did not expect to hit it, but still take the blame. As for Dingo, who chased the thing and repeatedly chucked his sandals at it until he finally killed it from less than a yard….. he deserves far more ridicule….
Another day by semi-inflatable speed-boat: Dropping off on the pristine sands of Benguerua, before diving on "2-mile" reef, which shields the island from the full force of the ocean. Serious currents and some big fish. Then the highlight. Climbing the huge dunes of Bazaruto. Staring at the sands which swirl between the idyllically turquoise water. A view that has to be seen to be believed. Then jumping and rolling head first down the almost vertical back edge of the dune. The sand burned, but my word it was fun!
A MIXED ATMOSPHERE

Back on the mainland we chilled on veranda, rocked back in hammocks and generally ignored the worries of the world. While I thought there was a certain charm to the little town with its tat markets and bars, occasional Portuguese old buildings and beach front palms, it was not without negativity. There was an undeniable air of something a bit nasty. Too many warnings, too many slightly odd looks. It was just this feeling (along with the laziest bar man I have ever met), that led us to jump ship from the once "in" Baobab hostel to the oh so cozy Zombie Cucumber. While nearly everyone I met was amiable, it was clear that there were bad people here. Tales of theft and whisperings of murder. A tourist joint that has taken a wrong turn.
Zombie Cucumber

OFF AND AWAY

Another Chapas, another day on the road south. Many more villages, palm trees, people and thatched roofs. To the town of Maxixe. Onto a little rickety boat with a ton of people and across the harbour as the sun set on the horizon. It was time to do some serious diving!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Truckin' Down Mozambique

When on the road you hear a constant stream of news, gossip and stories about far flung places and some such places keep on popping their head above the proverbial parapet. For me this is in large part a temporal thing. It is not necessarily linked to how inherently "wonderful" a place is, but more that right here, right now it a place to be. Often these are places that have turned or are turning a corner from difficult times.

Over the last few years Mozambique has been a regular in this travel chatter. Not too long ago it emerged from over quarter of a century of civil war as the poorest nation on earth. Just a few years later it is being lauded as that very rare thing – a success story in Africa. This is something I had to see for myself…

OUTWARDS AND ONWARDS

Saying goodbye to the officially nicest immigration people I have ever met (literally high-five's as our passports were stamped by the Malawian dudes) we entered Mozambique with a sense of real excitement. Surprised to find my poor Spanish working far better than expected we found ourselves in a chapas (Portuguese for death-trap mini-bus) heading to the city of Tete. I really did not know what to expect.

The light faded on a baked scenery of jutting hills and simple thatched villages. On the back seat, squeezed in like cows to the slaughterhouse, knees up to the chest, bags on top, we rolled on. The first thing I noticed, outside of encroaching cramp in the legs, was the lack of lights. All the villages we past on the road disappeared into the dusk – electricity was clearly scarce in these parts. Worryingly our chapas was also lacking in meaningful lights. How the guy missed most of the pot-holes goodness knows. I just kissed my St Christopher and all was fine ("Tudo Bom" is the local phrase).

Two recollections from the journey. First a roadside club pumping out latin vibes. Somehow threatening after the reserved people of Zambia and Malawi – the only noise or light for miles around. Second, a reunion with the Zambezi. Now a wide meandering river – the canyon-creating monster long gone.

Then, quite unexpectedly lights everywhere. A town turned into a small city, which in turn became a city more full of life then anything we had seen in the past 3 weeks. We had entered Tete!

TETE

My fore-knowledge of Tete would have fit on a particularly small post-card. On this card one could have read a repeated phrase collected from various people and the guide in the pocket – "Tete is seriously hot". I had not taken this warning too seriously. I mean, after crossing deserts on camels how hot could this place be? The answer was exceedingly.

We entered this sauna already parched. Rubbing ice drenched soft drink bottles across the forehead and the back of the neck for relief. A night in some of the nastiest accommodation I have ever seen did not add to the general feeling of discomfort. A piece of floor in a mud-hut would have been considerably more comfortable then squidged into the folds of a death-trap bed, blankets carefully positioned on each side to cover the 2 inch spikes sticking out of the mattress. Mozzies buzzing, a toilet that would not have looked out of place in rural India (flushing did not remove any of the general brown colouring) and always, the ever pervading heat. Goodness know if it was 40 degrees, 50... The figure does not matter. The reality is that it made us all decidedly irritable.

In fairness to Tete, I should say that besides what I've noted so far, it seemed a pretty decent place. Banks, shops full of goods, cleaned streets with brightly coloured murals - this was a place on the up. A clear sign of this was the lack of rooms in the better accommodation. I took the explanation for this to be the burgeoning trade in the area, though I can not fully disregard as a factor the way we looked and likely smelt after the 3 day journey from northern Malawi. The people we met were friendly, music poured from the bars and, all in all, I took a positive impression of the place.

Despite all this we were keen to move on. Just a day's journey from the Indian Ocean after all (or so we thought). The lack of buses on the immediate time horizon was proving a slight impediment so, following the advice of a local, we headed to the outskirts of town in the hope of hitching a lift in a truck. And so were the beginnings of an eventful journey…

A LONG HITCH

Some kindly persuasion from our taxi driver, a modicum of Spanish come Portuguese on my part and, most importantly, cash, secured our ride. A 24 wheeler lumber truck (don't quote me on the exact number of wheels… a lot). After a couple of hours in the searing midday heat watching some ridiculously strong locals pile up tons of tree onto a trailer (beyond the measure of my meagre physique), we piled into the cabin and with a hoot of the horn set off south. Just 600-700km to go.

Our accompaniment in the very few metres squared cabin was the driver, 3 ladies and another local guy. Add us 3 and you had 8. The guy had taken the one remaining front seat and the three women the majority of the small bed behind. We, being clueless foreigners, were left with respectively (i) the plastic top of a small cupboard (ii) the squeezed area on top of two of our bags in the far corner and (iii) the melting hot floor above the engine (though this was cushioned by one of our consequentially melting rucksacks). We were not complaining next to the three guys who were riding on top the lumber through the strength sapping day.

Against all odds, the day rolled on without total lack of comfort. Before us a patchwork road – when there is a pothole in a pothole in a pothole, and each is filled in turn, the road takes on a strangely fetching turtle-shell effect. Peering out the breather slits in the otherwise cacooned back section of the cabin, you occasionally caught a glimpse of the parched hilly lands giving way to marginally lusher ones. Every so often we topped up on basic sustenance from road-side hawkers in this town or that. Some music, a book, basic chatter with the locals (language barriers a barrier) and the resting of different parts of the posterior as we switched between out precarious positions. Generally good times. Even the incessant high pitched beeping from a broken break control hardly bothered me.

Then a break at sunset. As the light faded we turned the road into a makeshift cricket pitch. Bassett and I practicing what can only in the most generous sense be called spin-bowling. As night fell (and "fall" is a good verb to describe how the African night suddenly descends), the break did not end. After further investigation it seemed we had run out of petrol – yet another break down on African roads.

In short, we were in the arse-end of no where (by the way, as far as I could work out, that was approx an hour or so's drive from the nearest town and many more from our origin) with no food and about a litre's water between all of us. What made the situation all the more frustrating was that I had seen them test the petrol level on departure. They had stuck a stick into the tank, taken a measurement and, after a small amount of deliberation, headed off anyway. We were no where near the next petrol stop. They do this journey all the time and they had to know that we would be cutting it more than fine, but oh well, we'll try it anyway….grrrgh!

Differences in reaction to this situation are interesting. The locals simply found a place to crawl up and hibernate. No sense of annoyance or frustration. I suppose this is just what happens. As for the three of us, for a long time we take it in humour, but as the hours pass, water disappears and dehydration sets in (headaches et al in my case) we become less amused. Despite his generosity in sharing with us, I remember those last drops trickling into the mouth of the driver with envy.

We were only without water for a dozen or so hours (though admittedly from a dehydrated base and in crazy heat), but such privations can really bring things home. One of those moments you remember - in the middle of the night, lying atop the lumber pile with Dave, staring at the most beautiful sky, strewn with the odd shooting-star. Occasional batches of laughter at the situation, the mildest of hallucination. Thoughts were unerringly jaded by thirst. A comment of "God, this would be beautiful if we had some water" followed by strange laughter. Like when you have bad stomach problems, your thoughts are bent, only registering through the siv of your predicament.

When we awoke after a comatose couple of hours, the origination of the long prolonged wait came clear. Not only had they mis-judged the petrol, they were waiting for their boss to drive to them with fuel from more from 5 or 6 hours down the road, when there is fresh petrol just an hour away… The reason was cost. We festered without food or water to save them a couple of bucks – fair enough in this place I suppose….. but still frustrating.

A final comment on privation. If you want to find the heights of appreciation, the depths of privation are optimal preparation. No words can do justice to how that first ice-cold lemon twist tasted just a couple of hours later…. And the next few litres of similar stuff tasted pretty damn good too. A bit late, but we were back on our way and only 300km to go!

SPLASHING INTO THE SEA

As a bit of travel madness set in we eventually crossed the Tropic of Capricorn surrounded by palm trees as far as the eye-could see. As with most places, we passed women with delicately balanced goods on their heads, wobbly bikes, Chapas full beyond the rafters and an absurd amount of children. A couple of the ladies from our cabin dropped off at a small straw-hut settlement in the bhundu with polite smiles. Finally some leg room.

We poured on for most of the next day. Hurtling south on our juggernaut increasingly covered in sweat and grime….and then……the junction to Vilankulo – beach paradise awaited. Through the ever-persuasive force of money (we did not have any and needed to find a cash point before we could pay the guys) the truck took a detour off the main road and all the way into to town. On a good parting and with a final hoot of the horn each we took a pick up to the beach.
video
Under gloomy clouds, spots of rain and heavy wind it was finally before us….the mighty Indian Ocean. Without barely a breather we had taken a long road, 1000 odd km from northern Malawi. We were shattered, hungry and smelled pretty bad. But as we stripped off our clothes and dived head first into the churned up sea we were as happy as Larry. Time for some serious down time!