Monday, January 07, 2008

Tofo and Back Underwater

So at 5:30am I’m at Base, looking for the shuttle. My guidebook says buses always run on time in Mozambique. Not today they don’t. In fact I was there 15 minutes early, but after about an hour wait, the bus finally turns up. With me are a Dutch couple and a German guy, so our 20 seater is relatively empty, and we assume that we’ll be moved on to a big bus somewhere, especially as we pull up at Fatima’s and find another 23 or so people wanting to board. The issue is not just the numbers of people, it’s bags - this bus has no space for luggage on top, underneath, anywhere. There are three large surfboards amongst the backpacks and other big bags.


The local solution is to pile bags up in the back row of seats, losing 5 seats, then to string a rope across a couple of window frames, across the bus, and wedge the boards on top. Needless to say that if the driver at any time decided to brake hard, a row or two of people in front of the boards were either going to be decapitated or suffer severe injuries. The bus was packed like a sardine tin, especially as we had to squeeze the people who would have occupied the last row into all of the others. I had zero legroom, always a nice prospect for a 7 hour journey. How ridiculous that I’m paying double the cost of the local bus for this! We get away eventually at about 7am, bumping down the main road running N-S in Mozi, the EN1, including a particularly eventful set of potholes just after Xai Xai which cause all vehicles to swerve dangerously back and forth across the road to avoid them, hopefully keeping an eye on on-coming traffic.

Potholes and total lack of road near Xai Xai

Service stations

We pass the great Limpopo River, which flows through Botswana and Zimbabwe before emptying into the Indian Ocean here in Mozambique.

The Limpopo River

Along the road are dotted villages, almost all built in the traditional way, with round wooden walls and a thatched roof. I presume the majority of civilisation is close to this road, given that most people are walking for their transport, or cycling. There don’t seem to be many motorbikes. These small houses are more or less continuous all the way up to Vilhanculo, where it starts to get less developed.

We arrive in the afternoon in Inhambane, my destination. Inhambane is a colonial town which LP describes as charming and sleepy. It’s one of Mozi’s oldest settlements, and has some interesting buildings, but again, is so run down as to spoil it.

Most on the bus are going on to Tofo, but I get out, take my bags, and walk round town, first to Pensao Pachasa, the recommended spot in my book, where there is no space, and they’re not very helpful. They point to some other places which I can’t find. It’s too hot to be lugging my full pack round in this heat. I end up back at the Bus Terminal, stressed and wondering what to do. The other side of the market, I am pointed to a Fatima Backpackers truck, who ask me if I want a lift. I hesitate, thinking I should check if they have availability before going along. I get through to Fatima herself, who tells me they have space today, but tomorrow are full. It’ll do for now!

In the truck, on the way to Tofo, I meet a nice bunch who are here on a kind of reunion – they used to work here four years ago. Mix of English, Canadian and others. Arriving in Fatima’s Nest, I march up the sand to the bar, and have a Manica beer whilst waiting to be checked in to my dorm room, which is quite big – must be 20 people or so in one large chalet, and unfortunately not very airy. Back at the bar, I order dinner of fresh calamari, before continuing on the beers, getting me into the usual trouble!

Next morning, I have an argument with Fatima, which results in the “probably no space at the inn” being downgraded to “fairly certain..”, so I take my bag and leave, walking out on to the beach. I’m not sure what to do, so first to Tofo Scuba dive shop, if nothing else, just to dump my pack. With hindsight – Fatima’s in general I would not recommend. I’ve had bad experiences with both of their sites now. They seem to be capitalising on being the best known backpackers. Their Maputo outlet is really dirty and run down, and their beachside “nest” here is noisy and the chalets are poorly ventilated, so it’s rather uncomfortable at night, plus it has allegedly been the host to several thefts – although there is perimeter security, they let anyone in and out, and there’s no security on the rooms.

Incidentally, the day I write this, the people staying in Fatima’s are all in a bad mood and resolving to leave as last night the loud music went on until dawn, apparently being turned up even louder at 5:30am! I think it’s no coincidence that Fatima herself doesn’t live anywhere near the place. Unless you’re extremely into “party hostels”, I don’t recommend either outlet. Plus Fatima herself can be obnoxious and unreasonable, as she was with me, and who wants to give money to someone like that?

Tofo Scuba

Map of the area with dive sites

Tofo Scuba is a ten minute walk round the beach.

Inside, I meet the manager, Steve, who is English, easy going, and strangely looks familiar – he thinks the same about me, though we can’t place it. It does seem to me that all the best dive shops are always run by the English (no bias allowed in Samuel Crawley’s blogs, you understand). As he rightly points out, I haven’t dived for a while (6 months), so rather than going in deep, I should start with a shallow dive to get my fins back. This dive, the following morning, is “Simon’s Town”. I notice the dive schedule for the following day is really full – they have about a dozen or more dives going out, and they’re all busy – there are too many South Africans here, the whole town is flooded with them until the 3rd January, when there will be a mass exodus and the place will be quiet again.

From Tofo, I walk further along the beach to Bamboozi, the other famous backpackers.

Interestingly, I’d read up on the web about both of these, and the descriptions were quite accurate. Bamboozi is more family oriented, and more full of South Africans, many of whom are camping, often with 4x4s, and whole braais brought with them. Fatima’s is more international, and more of a party place. The bar restaurant at Bamboozi is in a fantastic spot, perched high up on a sand dune, or rather the “cliffs” behind the beach. They send me down to the reception which is at the back, next to the road. The two girls there don’t seem to know yet whether there’ll be space, but I get positive vibes from them. They want me back in two hours, when they’ll know either way.

This done, I need cash. Are there any ATMs in Tofo? No. You need to go to Inhambane, which is a complete nuisance really as there’s no other reason to have to go there – one can do all one’s shopping in Tofo village. I take a chapa to town, and chat with Frank, a German chap, on the way. He gives me a tip of a backpackers in Vilhanculos which may have space. In town, the bank queues are unbelievable. First I come across “Millennium BIM”, which has an enormous queue, so I head across town to Banco Austral (aka Barclays). On the way I spot BCI Formentini, who give me a card communication error. I head on to Austral, wait a while, the queue doesn’t even move one step forwards in 10 minutes. What is wrong with Mozambicanos? Why do they take so long at the ATM? Is there some sort of Tetris game built in if you answer Portuguese as your language selection?

Anyway, I give up with Austral and head back to Millennium, only to find the people I spoke to there have moved forwards a step or two in the last 15 minutes. This is also no good, so I head back to Austral again, where the queue is slightly smaller, even if moving at roughly the same rate. Once there I get impatient again (!), and decide that I will give BCI one more shot, as they had another ATM machine, and if not, well I’ll just go without food and come back another time. Finally the other machine gives me a different random error message, at least not comms failure, so I discover by gradually dropping my request that 2000M is the appropriate amount it was holding back for me. Not a metical more! This is about 40 quid.

The local bus (instead of chapa, thought I’d try) back takes 1 ½ hours! What a joke! It took forever to fill, but I kept thinking “they’ll leave now, I’ve waited so long”, then when it finally did move, it crawls along, stopping every few yards where we go through this rigmarole of the conductor and driver checking the ticket that they’ve already sold you to make sure you haven’t over-travelled or been overlooked by the conductor. Obviously some people drop their tickets then get into a big debate etc. And half the floor is stacked up with fruit, crates of coke and fanta, and all sorts of miscellaneous sacks. Kinda funny that the conductor had a rant at a mother for letting her child sit in its own seat, he was pointing to the regulations concerning allowed numbers of seated and standing passengers, as if they pay any attention to this here!!

With not enough time to sort out my accommodation, I head straight to the dive shop, where everyone is getting their kit together. I’m a bit nervous, not having done this for a while. Mostly I just don’t want to make a silly newbie error. I make a good start when my second air supply starts blasting air out – I went to shut off the main valve to the tank, but the correct thing to do is just to place one’s finger in the mouthpiece, and it stops. Simple, eh?

The pre-dive briefing is good, and I am buddied with one of the divemasters, the sweeper, who follows the group making sure no one gets left behind. Rahim in this case, a French chap. Little did I realise that this wouldn’t really work in my favour. In the briefing they explained that we would be doing a negative dive, a concept I hadn’t heard of before. This is where one completely deflates the BCD before entering in the water, and swimming straight down. More on this later. We walk down to the boat which is on the sand next to the water. As a group, and with some local help, we turn the boat around, then drag it out into the water. It’s quite choppy, and as boys aren’t allowed to jump in until the boat is deep enough to start the engines, we’re being thrown about a bit by the time we heave ourselves in and set off to the dive site.

Dive 1: Simon’s Town

Dive Site Details:
Distance to Travel: 7km from Tofo Beach. Approximately a 20-minute boat ride.

Depth: 14 - 18 meters

Max: 18 meters

Bottom Time: 40 minutes

Topography: Large chimneys of rock with an amazing amount of holes and gullies running outwards in all directions. A great dive when visibility is good, with large shoals of game fish swimming overhead.

Degree of Difficulty: A perfect dive site for those just starting out or wanting a long slow and relaxing dive with lots to see.

Visibility: Ranges from 10m to 30m

General: An intriguing reef with varying topography, home to many game fish and also often spotted on this reef is the Whale Shark.

I should remind the reader at this stage that I was feeling somewhat sub-par before this trip – having consumed much of the local Manica beer the night before, plus a plate of chips doused in fiery Peri Peri sauce. As we smashed our way through the huge swell rolling in from the South West, I resolve to have no more beer this evening. Once we’re all ready and in position, the site located with GPS, then we all roll backwards off the boat simultaneously, 12 people all hitting each other, fins in faces etc. It’s not pretty and I don’t know why they do it. Their excuse is strong surface currents, but this simply isn’t true. Sure there are currents, but nothing that’s going to be a disaster if you get in, adjust your mask and buoyancy before descending.

Simon’s Town is in fact a not very impressive dive site. Furthermore, my mask keeps leaking – another issue with negative dives when using rented equipment, you don’t identify these problems before you’re down at the bottom where there’s nothing one can do about it. Rahim is busy managing the tail end of the group, spending no time as my buddy except when I get bored and stray off a few metres to look at some coral, he reigns me in and tells me I should be sticking with my buddy! Cheeky sod. Worse to come, towards the end of the dive, he disappeared. What do I do, I wander? He is my buddy, so I should go through the lost buddy routine, but on the other hand he’s an instructor, am I supposed to be worrying about him? I find the dive leader, tell him I’ve lost my buddy, and he tells me he’s already gone up with some others, I should stay down. Great, thanks for letting me know, “buddy”! Not impressive!

We did however see a ray, a geometric moray eel, and some beautiful intricate blue coral, so all was not completely bad!

Back in the boat, I feel quite queasy though it’s resolved when someone hands out lolly pops! After undoing all my equipment, I march over to to Bamboozi, only to be told that there is no space. What do I do now? Just then, the woman decides to check with her colleague. Oh actually there is space, there’s an entire chalet you can have. Or there’s a dorm room bed. And how long can I stay? As long as you like!!! So why didn’t you know about this thirty seconds ago. It would seem that Bamboozi is a somewhat chaotic place. I’m put in a chalet called “The Bottom Hut”, which is a mini-dorm of three beds.

I later find out that they’d put the Spanish girl (Begonia?) in there and promised to let her have it alone! So I’m sharing with her and a Malaysian Chinese girl (Sally). Resisting my urges, I invite her to collect my pack from Tofo Scuba, as she expressed an interest in diving.

Tofo Scuba’s boats parked up

For a while in the evening, I read Tilman up at the bar, until the sun has well-and-truly set. Taking Tilman, I set off down the road to Dino’s for dinner. It’s pitch black, and takes about 20 minutes to walk. Dino’s is more bar and less restaurant-like than I expected. Nevertheless, their pizzas are truly delicious, with a fresh very thin base and flavoursome toppings. It does take forever though, as presumably my order is lost. On my way back along the dark sandy street, I came across frogs making loud noises, and what I thought initially was a local with a torch turned out to be fireflies, and, now looking for them, I realised that there were dozens across the field I was passing.

Hitting the sack, I sleep nice and early after yesterday’s shenanigans. Waking up early, I realise that my mozzie net is full of mosquitos! The horror! I’ve been eaten alive! In the heart of MALARIA country!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hiya Sam. Kvansa told me about your blog when I chatted with him yesterday. Quite an interesting read, even though I haven't yet managed to read a lot of it. I hope you keep having fun on your trip and that you get home safely. I will definitely start to check this log regularly now, even though I am somewhat envious. :) Or maybe even because I am envious. Happy travelling.

Marc (the big one)