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may 8th, 2004 -> diving mozambique

Mozambique had never been on the itinerary. But when we saw a slick DVD of the diving near Tofo Beach, we had to go. Neither of us had ever seen a manta ray before, and the waters near Tofo were full of them. I had wanted to spend three weeks in Namibia; we spent two. I had wanted to spend five weeks in South Africa; we spent four. That gave us enough time to rush into Mozambique, dive for a few days, and get back to Johannesburg in time to catch our flight back to Sydney.

We caught the Intercape Mainliner bus from Johannesburg to the Maputo. The bus was half-full and quite comfortable. Six hours later we were at the border. The South African side of the border was clean and orderly. The Mozambiquan side was chaotic and inefficient. The hillside above the border was covered with wood and tin shacks; black market moneychangers shouted over the roar of diesel engines. We had crossed back into the Third World. Strangely, the madness put a smile on my face. Our bus was delayed for half an hour by a man trying to bring in boxes of headscarves for Muslim women. Customs officials had seen the Arabic script on the boxes; it was downhill from there. I felt sorry for the poor guy.

I had expected the road conditions to deteriorate once inside Mozambique, but the highway was excellent. Maputo is the closest port for northwestern South Africa; I suspected that South African money had played a major role in the highway’s construction and maintenance. An hour later, we were in Maputo, capital of Mozambique. We passed through nasty slums on the outskirts of town, but the city itself was actually quite pleasant. It was dirty and run-down, but it had class. There were palm trees everywhere. We saw old Portuguese colonial buildings with red-tile roofs, and the baroque roof of the train station. There were excellent bakeries and a selection of good restaurants.

We had met an interesting Japanese woman on the bus. Akiyo had lived in Maputo for two years, and was researching the movement of Mozambiquan laborers into South Africa. Mozambiquans had played a major role in the development of South Africa’s mining industry. Whenever local black labor became too difficult to manage or too expensive, the big mining companies looked to the north, where cheap labor was readily available. Even today, the disembarkation card for Mozambique has a special box to check if you are a miner. We met Akiyo for dinner at a seafood restaurant that evening. “So this is your first time in Latin Africa?” she asked. I hadn’t really thought of it before.

We stayed at Fatima’s Place, a popular backpacker hostel recommended to us by other travelers. We found out that Fatima herself was leaving the next morning for her other hostel at Tofo Beach, and there was room for us. We were ecstatic. After a month driving our own vehicle in South Africa, neither of us were excited about climbing onto a public bus at 6 am for the eight-hour journey. Fatima drove at a speed that bordered on supersonic; chain-smoking all the way. Despite a very late start from Maputo, a long lunch near Xai-xai, and the running over of a small dog, we arrived into Tofo just after nightfall.

Our plan had been to stay at another hostel, but we were exhausted and decided to stay at Fatima’s Nest. The manager at Fatima’s was a dreadlocked American who spoke Portuguese with a Californian accent. We stayed in a funky little reed-walled bungalow on a thinly vegetated dune just above the beach. The sound of waves put us to sleep each night. Dino’s Restaurant, just down the beach, served incredible barbecued fish and played great music. Everyone was there at night. Nori ran into some people she had met in Zanzibar several months ago. Tofo was a remarkable place.

I was nervous about diving so deep. I have not had great luck diving over the past few years. A grave mistake nearly cost me my life in Papua New Guinea. I had a regulator free-flow in the Philippines. To my relief, the staff at Diversity Scuba were professional and conservative. They didn’t let me dive Manta Reef until I had finished a short course on Deep Diving. They double-checked all our equipment, and gave careful briefings. The only thing they couldn’t control was the boat launch – a white-knuckle experience as our Zodiac plowed through crashing waves and slammed into the troughs behind. It took nearly 45 punishing minutes to get to Manta Reef.

At 25 meters (about 80 feet) deep, we saw a large number of rays, which I assumed to be mantas. They were beautiful and graceful; any apprehension I had about the depth vanished when I saw these amazing creatures. Then I turned around. Gliding over the lip of a coral shelf was a massive black and white form, an underwater version of the alien spacecraft in H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.” Mantas! My eyes widened and I had to force myself to keep breathing. I had no idea how large manta rays were. Their finspan can reach 8 meters (26 feet) across. There were two of them. They swooped and soared around the divers, letting us see their white undersides up close. They were the most incredible things I had ever seen underwater. On my last dive (Nori was ill with tick-bite fever), we saw two sets of five mantas, swimming in a circle that I dubbed the ‘Manta-go-round.’ I’m not British, but if I were, I could have only called it ‘magic.’

On the way to Manta Reef, we spotted a whale shark near the surface. We donned our masks and fins quickly and dropped into the water. Nori and I had seen whale sharks in Kenya, but the novelty had not faded. They are spectacular creatures. Over the next three days we would swim with several whale sharks, culminating in a very close encounter. It was end of our dive at The Gallery. We were doing our “safety stop” at 5 meters, when the dive master spotted the shark. We finned quickly to catch it, and were rewarded with a swim-by that brought the great beast within a few feet of us. The whale shark was curious; it circled us twice, forcing me to swim furiously away from its gaping mouth.

Tofo Beach will never look the way it did when we visited it. The diving may never be as good again. Things are changing fast in Mozambique. South African investors and developers have begun to see the potential of the tropical getaway just across the border. Money was flowing in. Resorts were springing up all along the coast. While traveling in South Africa, we met many people who told us that they were keen to visit Mozambique before it was “spoiled” by commercialization; most seemed unaware of the irony. Mozambiquans, quite naturally, resented the influx. “They [South Africans] treat the Mozambiqans like shit!” complained Fatima. It was the familiar story of a regional economic powerhouse turning a nearby banana republic into its playground: like Americans in Costa Rica or Australians in Bali.