Travel Journal: Easing Into Southern Mozambique

Beach Wedding Ponta Mamoli, Mozambique

Gary and I both have a close connection to Mozambique although our reasons may differ slightly. My dad established the first dive operation in Ponta Do Ouro when the border reopened after the civil war and as such I grew up snorkelling and subsequently diving the reefs in this area from the age of five. Gary’s affection for Mozambique came later in life and stems from numerous vacation trips with varsity mates where the main objectives were fishing and consuming copious amounts of R&R, a mixture of rum and raspberry juice that you will find on every menu south of Xai Xai. It was therefore through our shared love of the country that we decided that Mozambique would be the first destination on our travel sabbatical and the location of our wedding.

Getting Hitched on the Beach in Mozambique

The two weeks leading up to our wedding were spent in Santa Maria with friends. Driving up and through the Maputo Elephant Sanctuary was to be our Suzuki Jimny’s first experience of deep sand roads and our hearts swelled with pride at his performance. On the drive we were fortunate to come across a large herd of elephants which are slowly being reintroduced into the area after being shot out during the civil war. If you are keen on visiting Santa Maria another option is to catch a ferry across from Maputo. There is a beach lodge near to the village, home to a great bar carved out of a dhow serving 2M and the compulsory R&R on tap. Another accommodation option is to rent one of the privately owned beach front holiday houses that can accommodate up to ten people. Fortunately for us one of these houses is owned by friends of friends and we were treated to a discounted price. Our days were spent fishing off of the boat, snorkelling around Inhaca Island and restocking supplies at the village where you can find vegetables, prawns and fresh bread referred to as “pão” in Portuguese. Beware of Mozambican pão, fresh out of the oven with a splash of butter this bread is irresistible. That being said, within a few hours this bread could also possibly be used as building material. With the looming fear that I would no longer fit into my wedding dress and Gary’s suit would prove to be a bit snug, we were forced to cut back on our pão consumption, but surrounded by good friends and an ample supply of booze, weathered the last of the usual pre-wedding complications which quite unexpectedly included the passing of a tropical cyclone despite it being the dry season.

Unfortunately Ponta Do Ouro has grown exponentially over the years and is often overrun with South Africans on quad bikes especially during the school holidays. While we wouldn’t recommend it as a quiet holiday destination, it did provide a great location for a gathering of the mates and a rather raucous bachelor and bachelorette party. Rounding up the hooligans who had by this stage sufficiently recovered, everyone headed to the White Pearl Resort in Ponta Mamoli to continue the wedding celebrations. My first experience of Ponta Mamoli was as a kid when my dad used to let me practice my driving along the pothole riddled tarmac road that led to a derelict hotel abandoned during the war. While the tarmac road remains in much the same condition, the area has been transformed. Although we had spent the months leading up to the wedding repeatedly watching a clip of the resort on YouTube in excited anticipation, one cannot help feeling overawed when first arriving at the venue which emanates grandeur in an elegant and understated way complimenting the beauty of its natural surroundings. On our special day and against all odds, the sun broke through a sky heavy-laden with grey clouds and the weather cleared to give us a spectacular and sunny beach wedding. If you are in the area and have some extra dosh to spend, treat yourself and a loved one to a few nights at the resort where the friendly and professional service of the staff is unsurpassed. Indulge in the culinary bliss created by chef Ananais, a man who clearly partakes in the enjoyment of his own food and spend the rest of your time taking walks along the beach, snoozing on a lounger, making use of the spa or cooling off with a drink at one of the trendy bars.

Having been waved off by friends and family we set a course for our next destination, Praia do Tofo, stopping in briefly for a few days to take a breather and recover from the wedding excitement at Tartaruga Camp in Ponta Malongane, little brother to Ponta Do Ouro, and Beach Camp in Bilene.

Praia do Tofo

Given the uniqueness of Tofo it can best be described as a hybrid of local Mozambique flavour with a strong European influence. If you are not keen on the long drive, Tofo is accessible by flying into Inhambane from Maputo and organising a transfer. Accommodation in this area ranges from Fatima’s backpackers to five star beach resorts, however, regardless of where you are staying everyone seems to gravitate towards the central market area where locals, resident ex-pats and travellers intermingle and socialise. Overwhelm your senses with a walk down the main street where local music can be heard at all hours of the day and the aroma of fresh fish and chicken kebabs cooking on the fire fills the air. Occupied by numerous stalls offering curios, bright and colourful clothes, fresh produce and beer, this is a great place to practise your Portuguese and negotiation skills while purchasing a pair of “happy pants”, the vibrant uniform of all travellers in the area. Parallel to this is a road boasting a wide variety of restaurants catering anything from traditional Mozambican dishes to pizza, pasta, smoothies and cocktails. If you have reached saturation point in your consumption of 2M, a Manica, Laurentina or Impala will go down just as smoothly.

Diving Tofo

Our plan was to spend a few months of our travel sabbatical diving Tofo and working at Tofo Scuba where we would complete our Rescue Diver and Dive Master internships. As such we were in the market for a long term rental and came across a few options. A room in one of the houses in town goes for a monthly rental of about MT5000 but being a newly married couple we opted for a self-contained cottage or “cassita” located in Tofinho which cost MT12,000/month. Diving Tofo, there are four dive operators to choose from and we were thrilled with our choice in Tofo Scuba. Situated on the beach and complete with a restaurant overlooking the ocean where you can relax and grab a snack between dives, the owners, instructors and staff run a first class establishment. Used to the corporate work environment which only commences at 8:30am in Cape Town, reporting for work at 6:30am at the dive school was a shock to the system! Having slightly underestimated how labour intensive the job would be, our days were spent carrying around cylinders, loading heavy dive equipment into the boats and cleaning gear. After one month, with rescue diver under my belt and having carried one too many kitted cylinders inevitably belonging to an overweight European diver who was packing an extra ten kilograms in their integrated BCD, I overheard an instructor tell Gary that he was going to “ride his nuts” and decided that I was content to be a rescue diver for the time being and took to spending my days on the beach.  My husband however is Scuba Steve personified and after excelling at his dive master course he stayed on to work for Tofo Scuba. One of the challenges that you face as a dive master is taking on the responsibility for all the divers on your boat which effectively means an end to your enjoyment of recreational diving. Given the harsh diving conditions of Tofo, dives tend to become quite eventful which, much to my amusement, Gary would recall in the evenings over a cold beer.

Whale Shark Worries

We had dived with giant mantas in Indonesia a few years back but by far the greatest high-light of our time diving Tofo was that we were both fortunate enough to see mantas again, witness the arrival of the first humpback whales and swim with whale sharks while returning from dives. Swimming alongside these gentle giants is a privilege and most memorable experience. However, Gary noted a marked decline in the number of sightings since his last visit to Tofo in 2009. This was confirmed by the Marine Mega Fauna Foundation (MMFF) an NGO conducting research in the area and compiling data on whale sharks, mantas and turtles.  Since 2008 they have recorded a devastating 67% decline in the whale shark numbers, which population in the area comprises predominantly of adolescents measuring an average of eight meters in length. One probability is that the decline can be attributed to the illegal Chinese fishing trawlers operating off of the Mozambican coast. Nothing is able to escape their nets and despite much awareness being raised over this problem, the Mozambican government choose to turn a blind eye due to the arrangements that they have entered into with the Chinese apropos cheap debt and road infrastructure, now that the Portuguese have pulled the plug on funding. Another possibility and one which we can only hope is in fact the cause of the decline is that the whale sharks have simply found better prospects elsewhere. MMFF hosts informative talks at Casa Barry Lodge during weekday evenings including Manta Monday, Whale shark Wednesday and Fishy Friday if you are keen on learning more about ocean life in the area.

Not a Diver or You’ve Spent Too Much Time in the Water?

Aside from feasting on local pão and bathing in the sun on one of the beaches, Tofo has a lot to offer other than diving. Turtle Cove, a hotel in Tofinho, is home to a serene yoga studio which offers classes in the mornings and evenings. The Surf Shack located on Tofo main beach rents out boards and the waves in front of the surf school are ideal for learning to surf. After falling down a few times and swallowing a little too much salt water, head over to Tofinho point with a sundowner for the humbling experience of watching the pro surfers brave the more intense waves while making it look effortless. If you are up for a razzle, make your way over to Hotel do Mar for Friday night live music as a warm up before heading to Mozambeats hotel for an all-nighter.

Mozzies

When the South African government clamped down on Mozambicans crossing our borders, the Mozambique government returned the favour by only issuing South African tourists a thirty day visa. Unable to extend our visa in Inhambane, every month we would have to make the eleven hour (one-way) border run to renew our passport stamp. These trips provided the opportunity for us to become familiar with three challenges that you will face on the roads in Mozambique; traffic officers, other drivers and livestock.

Traffic officers in Mozambique have earned themselves the nickname “mozzies” due to the irritating, unrelenting characteristic that they have in common with the mosquito. In light of the fact that most Mozambican vehicles are barely road-worthy, it is easy for the mozzie to spot travellers driving rather shiny and conspicuous 4x4s complete with roof rack, jerry cans and gas cylinder. Mozzies can be found on the outskirts of the villages dotted along the coastal highway and are always eager to issue a “spot fine” more commonly known as a bribe. The speed limit in these villages is sixty kilometres an hour and while the local buses, trucks and taxis do not adhere to this rule, you need to slow down because mozzies have a tendency to pull you over even if you are travelling within the speed limit. After being pulled over half a dozen times the process can become infuriating but it is best to remain polite and to not lose your temper, something the attorney in me found very difficult to do especially when on one occasion an argument ensued after the speed trapper recorded that a tree on the other side of the road was moving at 10km/h.

While travelling in Mozambique you need to not only survive the potholes, but the other drivers sharing the single lane road. It is not uncommon to come across drivers either clocking excessive speeds or lumbering along at 30 km/h. Over-taking on a blind rise or corner seems to be a favourite manoeuvre as is turning into the road without checking if a vehicle is approaching. After some time on the road we were also able to decipher the intricate code pertaining to the use of indicators which appears to be much more complicated than merely signalling a left or right turn. Flashing headlights were either a tip-off that mozzies were lurking around the corner or simply a friendly hello to Jimny. It is also critical to keep in mind that the livestock grazing along the side of the road can be as unpredictable as the Mozambican drivers and have a tendency to cross the road at the most inopportune moments. Having redefined the definition of defensive driving, we are happy to report that our time in Mozambique has been incident free!

Vilankulo

As mom flew in and spent a wonderful week with us in Tofo, we were thrilled when my old man invited us to spend time with him and friends up in Vilankulo in their beautiful cliff-side holiday home. This area of Mozambique makes up the truly stunning Bazaruto Archipelago which we were able to gaze upon and appreciate while cooling off in the plunge pool. Having loaded the boat with supplies, we charted a course for Paradise Island and spent a day wandering through the ruins of an old hotel that had operated on the Island in full swing before civil war broke out. Gazing around the remnants of the old dining room one can easily imagine people dressed in dinner attire swinging to the rhythm of the band on the dance floor, making this quite an eerie experience. The island itself is strikingly beautiful and lives up to its name complete with white beaches stretching into clear turquoise water dotted with bright red starfish. It is however evident that tourism in the area has suffered a loss given that investors are hesitant to buy into the Mozambican property market and that Vilankulo was previously a popular coastal destination for the Rhodesians.  The town itself though is still bustling and there are numerous markets and beach front restaurants to choose from. However, in the company of three South African women who certainly know their way around a kitchen and could give Jamie Oliver a run for his money, we didn’t have to venture far for delicious home cooking.

During our last few days here Gary had shown signs of flu-like symptoms which we assumed he had caught from a few of the others who had arrived from Johannesburg with the flu. On the day that everyone was due to depart Gary was bed ridden with fever and he and I began to suspect Malaria. The self-test kit from our emergency medical kit, revealed a negative result but a day later Gary’s condition had worsened and not wanting to take any chances I started him on a course of Coartem. Self-medicating in this situation is not ideal as this medication is potent and should not be taken on a whim. Our decision to treat Gary for Malaria was later confirmed by a doctor who, upon listening to Gary’s symptoms, advised us that Malaria will often first present as a sore throat and that while the self-test kits will never show a false-positive result, they have been known to give false-negative results. Not a pleasant experience, but there could be worse places to recover from Malaria than the beautiful Vilankulo.

Our plan A at this point had been to keep going north up the coast of Mozambique, however Renamo’s hostile activities around the Save River were still on going. Travelling through the troubled area in an army convoy was an option but we suspected that this would only make our vehicle more of a target. We had also heard reports that even the great Kingsley Holgate had been held up and escorted by a group of rebels to the border. Plan B was to go into Zimbabwe, but the thought of struggling to find petrol and being pulled over and hassled by traffic officers every few kilometers  was unappealing. On to plan C which was to come back across the border into South Africa and head for Botswana.