21 February 2006

Visit Ponta Mamoli in Mozambique with Monty Halls

Cross north over the border of South Africa into Mozambique and there is a point where the road ends and the adventure begins.

The smooth ribbon of baking-hot, black tarmac gives way almost immediately to a sand track, a physical representation of the yawning financial gulf between the two countries. On the South African side your exit routine is completed in an air-conditioned office and recorded on a shiny computer. A short walk takes you through the border, where your entry visa to Mozambique is stamped in a wooden hut by a man wielding a rubber stamp beneath a creaking ceiling fan.

As you drive along the first few miles of sand track, it is worth reflecting that only a few years ago this stretch of road would have been a very dangerous place indeed. For decades Mozambique was a truly troubled country, wreaked by a civil war that destroyed communities and laid waste the nation’s industries. Finally, in the early Nineties the madness stopped, and now there is a sense of optimism in the air as tourists return to one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the world.

As I revved my way past alarmed-looking residents of the huts that lined the route, hoping to beat the setting sun to my destination, I saw ahead of me a majestic dune rolling to a wide sweep of beach. The sun was hovering just above the crest, showing the first hint of the deep red of a classic African sunset. This was too good an opportunity to miss, and I pulled the vehicle over, reaching for my camera.

Walking a little way off the track, I stood and watched the lower edge of the sun sinking into the dune, being absorbed by the horizon. So overwhelmed was I by the visual signals I was receiving, that, unfortunately, I was choosing to ignore the powerful nasal ones that were arriving with increasing potency. It was only when I dragged my gaze away from the spectacle of the sunset that I looked down and became aware of alarmingly large amounts of toilet paper on the ground around me. I was standing in the midst of a huge communal toilet – in flip-flops!

In the fading light I attempted to ‘Riverdance’ my way out of trouble, skipping my way back to the vehicle. My flip-flops were gingerly removed and draped over the aerial, and the rest of the drive completed with my head sticking out of the side window, driving with one hand and trying not to think about anything below shin level.

I arrived at the camp at the resort at Ponta Mamoli in complete darkness, to be greeted by a small man carrying a lantern. There are times for protocol, and times to walk wordlessly past someone and dunk your feet in the sea – I decided this was a time for the latter, and emerged considerably later to let him lead me to my chalet above the beach, where I crashed into bed.

I was woken by the sun streaming through the shutters, and the unmistakable sound of big surf crashing on an open beach. I stepped out of my villa, and before me lay a broad, white beach, stretching far into the distance to the north and ending in a cupped bay, topped by a green headland a few hundred yards to the south.

This stretch of coastline south of Maputo is the most convenient from which to access Mozambique directly from South Africa, and I had been assured that it was one of the busier regions of the country in terms of visitors from the south. The real wilderness was said to be in the far north of the country – but for now this would do me very nicely. The beach was broad and wild, and a glance at a map the previous day had shown me that it stretched more than 60 miles from where I was standing. Huge rollers raised their glassy shoulders as they charged at the beach – set after set running parallel to the beach as far as the eye could see. No footprints broke the clear line of the sandy foreshore, and as I inhaled, I could smell salt and heat and earth – it was like opening a bottle marked ‘Africa’ and taking a huge breath.

I was on a mission to dive with the local bass, thumping great monsters which have a presence that is all their own. Bass in this part of the world could not be more of a contrast to bass off the coast of the UK. The difference between the two pretty much personifies the difference between England and Africa. Our bass is a silver bar that reaches a couple of feet in length – respectable enough, and a fine sight for those lucky enough to see one. The African version is the size of a small hatchback, with an eye like a baseball and a mouth like the lid of a wheelie bin. By whatever name it is known, all I knew was that I wanted to see one – a big one, close up, today!

An hour later I was thundering over the clear blue water behind the surf line, hanging onto the lines strung along the hull of Ponta Mamoli’s splendid RIB. There seems to be a simple theory to the RIBs out here – take a medium-sized boat and put a rather large engine on it, enough to hurtle it through big surf like a rubber dart. Then put another big engine alongside the first one for good measure and good fun. I don’t care who you are or how seriously you take your diving, as you skim over the tops of clear Indian Ocean waves, with the outboards bellowing and the sun on your back, if you don’t end up smiling like an idiot then you don’t have a soul.

The RIB slowed a short distance from the headland and we swiftly kitted up and rolled into the warm water, led by Ponta Mamoli dive centre manager Kevin Collins. The characteristic of the reefs in this region seems to be low areas of coral interspersed with overhangs, small craters and caves. This is an uninterrupted stretch of coastline and as such, the currents can really barrel a diver along, creating quite a ride as the water undulates down into hollow and up over ridge. After enjoying this roller coaster for a few minutes, Kevin indicated that we should drop towards the sea floor, leading by example as he banked towards a low ridge of coral and tucked in behind it.

Following suit, I found myself lying on a flat, sandy area with the reef stretching away on either side, with the main coral head in front of me. What was also directly in front of me was one of the largest lionfish I have ever seen – eighteen inches of bristling fins. Moving back a few inches, I saw the fish relax slightly, its fins moving back into the ‘just passing the time of day’ position, as opposed to the ‘one more inch pal and you’re going to have a very emotional afternoon’ position.

Kevin tapped me on the shoulder and pointed up at what I thought was a small freighter passing overhead. The freighter then turned towards me, opened its mouth, and revealed itself to be a massive bass!

Whenever confronted by a large animal in the wild, the modern man in us all thrills at the encounter – such events being something of increasing rarity nowadays. The primaeval man then leans forward and taps us on the shoulder with a knotty club, and politely asks us if this thing can eat us, and if so, should we both run?

Obviously the prospect of being bitten by a huge bass is remote to say the least, but nonetheless this is a top predator on the reef – something a great many divers forget when they pet and feed big groupers around the world. The bass was now hovering in front of me, inspecting me in stereo vision, and presenting me with a lower lip the size of a car tyre that stopped about three inches from my own. A slight gape revealed hundreds of serrated rows of tiny backward-facing teeth, a fiendishly fine piece of design meaning that anything inhaled into that cavernous maw will not get out. Kevin had told me stories of divers trying to feed bass who had the skin stripped off their unwary hands. The great fish sculled slowly backwards, and drifted along the coral ridge, occasionally circling back to me for another quick once-over.

These big bass are one of the truly dominant predators on these reefs, and Kevin had told me stories of watching them bulldoze into a pack of feeding sharks to snatch tidbits, confident that their bulk and brawn would win over speed and stealth. This was reflected very much in the confidence of this magnificent animal as I swam alongside, its shadow passing over the reef below, master of its own watery domain.

The sun was once again dipping low over the dunes behind Ponta Mamoli as we raced back towards the beach, and the lights of the lodge glowed as another day on this great, wild strip of coastline drew to a close. Should you want to step off the beaten track, experience a heady mix of tranquillity on dry land and exhilarating diving offshore, then Ponta Mamoli should certainly be the next entry in your logbook.

By Monty Halls

Source: www.divemagazine.co.uk


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