From the sky of an almost empty Savannah, we spot three herds of elephants running across Mozambique’s once war-torn plains. As always when moving from the city to the wilderness, it is the emptiness that excites me – Africa at her most serene and minimalist. But the open vista has never been like this. 15 years of civil war tore apart one of the densest wildlife populations in Africa, and now, 25 years later, the megafauna is slowly getting back on track. Unlike our previous trips to Africa, though, this time we are not looking for the Big Five. We travel in Mozambique in search of what lies beneath the surface. As our chopper turns from the Bush to the Beach, I’m seduced by 2,500 Km of a dramatic and untouched coastline. And then I’m convinced this journey is all about the ocean.
I have always been unable to resist taking new challenges. Although I’ve had quite a lot experience, diving in different sites in Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, East Timor and Maldives, I got particularly excited ever since I read about the Pinnacles reef. Located 4 km offshore and 12 Km from Ponta do Ouro, in Southern Mozambique, the Pinnacles rise off the ocean floor from 50m to 29m. It acts as an oasis drawing fish to the area, attracting large numbers of different species of sharks. It’s considered one of the best destinations on earth for diving with the most aggressive sharks in the world.
It’s 6:30 am on my second day in Ponta do Ouro. Max, my better half, and I help to launch our dinghy from the beach into the sea. Isaac, our dive instructor from White Pearl, is inside the boat, coordinating the launch along with a tractor that pulls the dinghy on the trailer right to the water’s edge. We push. And push. And push. Until the boat turns right around, pointing into the waves. We are now heading to the open Ocean. There are no other boats around the corner. It’s rough, it’s vast, it’s unpredictable.
As I get ready to dive in, my exhilaration turns to despair. The sea below looks gorgeous and dangerous: it’s running to big waves, and although there was never a shark attack to humans here, we could clearly expect a bull shark to appear any minute. I try not to think about what could happen, nor the length of the indemnity form I’ve signed. I’m an experienced diver. The pinnacles site, however, requires more: one has to be skilled enough to dive down to 40 meters deep, cope with strong currents and meet aggressive creatures.
We are now in the realm of the unknown. There is no feeling like staring into the blue depths of the sea – at 40 meters deep, the blue is even bluer. The reefs are pristine and have escaped the rise in temperature that has caused widespread coral bleaching in other parts of the Indian Ocean. As we reach the pinnacles, we are immediately surrounded by a school of four-meter long bull sharks. They swim in my direction, and I’m aware of how exposed I am; how, despite all the experience in the world, it’s hard to control my breath – something so essential for divers. I manage my hysteria and take pleasure in watching these wild animals in their wild home. The sharks are a powerful reminder of what is threatened and deserves our protection.
Ever since I started writing, I’ve become more aware of the riches and troubles of the places I visit. Embarking on a diving trip gives me a new twist to the “immersive” sea-travel experience that helps me to understand – and spread – what is going on in our Oceans. My journey continues in Tofo, a small beach town in Inhambane Province, Southeastern Mozambique. Tofo has long been legendary on the diving circuit, as it’s located in the only known destination worldwide where divers can regularly dive with both species of reef and giant mantas.
Not surprisingly, it’s here, in Tofo, the headquarters of the Marine Mega Fauna Foundation, whose work led to the recognition of a new giant species of manta ray in 2008 – one of the largest described in the past 50 years. Their inspiring work attracts biologists and volunteers from all over the world to this corner of Mozambique and encourages divers and travelers to get beneath the surface of issues that threaten the Oceans.
I do nothing but scuba dive during my five days in Tofo. Like in Ponta do Ouro, here, in Tofo, we don’t have the luxury of just stepping off a dock onto the boat and gently setting sail. I get used to the roughness of the dinghy launch from the beach. I also get used to deep diving. I come to Tofo to swim with giants in the first place. I’m excited to meet these gentles until my expectations are punctured by the very means that threaten their survival. I do not encounter even one giant manta during my dives. The corals are beautiful, though, and turtles are everywhere. But I come here to dive with giants. I hear from locals it’s been long since they’ve spotted giant mantas the last time. I’m terrified by how the effects of irresponsible fishing and environment negligence are in our face.
As I struggle with my disappointment, a 9-meter long whale shark emerges with no warning in the surface near the boat where I take a rest in between my dives. I realize Africa never lets me down. It’s not been long ago since I encountered the largest fish in the ocean in Australia. But now he is 9-meter long. The largest creature I’ve ever seen in the wild. I immediately jump in the water with my mask and snorkel. We swim alongside for almost 40 minutes. I’m exhausted, but I can’t get enough of him.
From that moment on, I’ve been on high alert at all times. But it’s only on our last day in Tofo, when we hire a boat to track whale sharks that we have the most compelling – and unexpected – experience of all. I have my mask on. Soon after we launch the boat from the beach, we spot the first shark. We join him in the water for a short swim. Five minutes later, we spot the second one. As we enjoy the encounter, I hear some noise coming from the boat. “There are other three sharks next to you!”, Yells the skipper. We turn around and suddenly we are surrounded by three whale sharks. At that moment, a manta ray also joins us for a swim. We spot nine whale sharks, one reef manta and two dolphins all at once. I’m exhilarated.
Most of the travelers going to African countries still focus on safaris – either in the ocean or in the Savannah – where one has extraordinary moments with the wildlife, but little contact with local people. To me, however, as much I love staring the nature and these incredible animals in their real light, the Africans are what fascinates me the most about Africa. This is what travel is about, after all: listening, talking and discovering new perspectives. I leave the cozy Baia Sonambula, where we are staying, and go for a walk at the market in Tofo. I watch the children playing and dancing. I talk to three boys standing next to me. They are amazed as I speak their language. I feel connected to them somehow. In a country undergoing extreme poverty, the people are deeply hospitable. Mozambicans laugh from the belly. I see happiness in their eyes.
I would have loved to have spoken to the fishermen I’ve come across in Benguera, though. Probably they were as stressed about their money and families as anyone else, but their life seemed so tranquil and rooted in such an ancient tradition that I felt they must have come to terms with time in a way I never had. Eight miles off the southern coast of Mozambique, in the Bazaruto archipelago, it feels like a forgotten place. I’m staying at Azura: one of the only two hotels on the island. Man and wilderness in harmony – the most natural thing in the world. Here the ocean turns into a clear turquoise underlaid with the dark stain of sand bars and coral reefs. The landscape is close to paradise. There are dunes, freshwater lakes with crocodiles and meadows of sea grass savannah grassland. Flamingos are regular visitors, and so are the horses rescued from Zimbabwe. It’s one of the few places in the world where one can “water horse-ride” into an untouched Ocean.
Flying over some of the remote islands of Mozambique. Beneath us, the boats slip away, getting smaller and smaller, until they look like insects on the blue water. From the sky, as we leave the Island, I think about the way most of us know Mozambique: by the dark years of civil war. Then, I think, In spite of everything, there is still untamed beauty on our planet. Mozambique has proved me wrong: It’s not only about the ocean, but also about a sense of hope and new beginnings.
We traveled to Mozambique from October 31st to November 12th, 2016. We flew from Johannesburg to Maputo and from there, we took a fantastic helicopter flight over the Maputo Special Reserve and the Ponta do Ouro Marine Reserve to Ponta Mamoli. Stayed at the White Pearl Resort that provides accommodation, meals and diving excursions to the Pinnacles. Three days later, we flew back to Maputo via helicopter for a stopover at the Polana Serena Hotel. Then, we flew to Inhambane, and after a short drive, we arrived in Tofo, where we stayed at the beautiful Baia Sonambula guest house. In Tofo, we dived every day with Peri-Peri divers. Five days later, we flew to Vilanculos, where we took another helicopter flight to Benguera Island. We stayed at Azura Retreats, a resort that offers full-board accommodation and world- class service.