Ten minutes of dullness, then - wait a minute, this is good! A dive pattern soon emerged when John Liddiard visited the laidback Mafia Islands in Tanzania, before moving on to exotic Zanzibar
AS THE LAND ROVER BUMPS AND JOLTS ALONG A DIRT ROAD that is little more than a collection of pot-holes with aggressive ridges of packed dirt in-between, Shaena, one of the tour operators, assures me that this is nothing compared to some African roads. I relax and go with the flow. It's a bit like riding a camel, though the motion is a lot less regular. Driving is officially on the left. Our driver plays hopscotch to whichever side of the road is more benevolent as and when. Other traffic consists mostly of locals on black bicycles, sticking to the smoother ridges along the centre of the road, and the occasional battered truck bumping through the holes. It is only 15 miles from Mafia Island's airstrip to the Kinasi resort but the journey takes 40 minutes. The fruit-juice cocktail is more than welcome. One advantage of an overnight flight is that I have time to dive this afternoon. Shown to my very own thatched cottage, unpacking of dive kit and camera preparation takes longer than usual, as I am distracted by the laidback atmosphere. I am beckoned by comfortable chairs on the veranda, then by the four-poster bed, then by the hammock strung across the corner, but know that if I settle down I may never get up in time to dive. I am 10 minutes into the dive before I start to enjoy it. This is partly because the flight has brought on a bit of a cold, partly because the reef is initially a little barren. I am thinking that this is often true of sites described as 'coral gardens' when I realise that it's getting quite good. I don't think it's a sudden transition, but that's how I perceive it. King Neptune has given the coral a fresh coat of paint, pulled a few thousand extra fish out of cold storage and dumped them right in front of me. Dense shoals of red and silver bigeye, soldierfish and yellow and blue-striped snapper cover the reef. It seems there is hardly room left for the smaller anthias and damselfish to fit into the gaps. It is little surprise that every other coral head is a busy cleaning station, with resident families of wrasse maintaining a good flow of business. Halfway through the dive we cross a plain of rubble and seagrass beds to Kinasi Wall and head back the other way. Visibility improves from a grainy 10m to a less grainy 15m or so. Lagoon visibility is one of the penalties we pay for such dense fish life, but there are so many fish it doesn't detract from the dive. Having soon blown a film on these shoals and the occasional diversion of singletons like a moray eel, a porcupine pufferfish and a variety of grouper, I turn to the other reef life. There are a fair number of nudibranchs and flatworms, all brightly coloured and sometimes difficult to distinguish, featherstars, shrimps, spiny lobsters and other hole-dwelling critters.
Next day brings a brisk start to catch the tide and get outside the lagoon of Chole Bay. In tropical locations tides are generally of no consequence but in Tanzania they have a good 4m range at springs and dives must be planned accordingly. The dhow exits the lagoon just after low tide, going against the now-incoming current but avoiding the tidal race that forms on an outgoing tide. Once outside the lagoon and the no-take area of the marine reserve, dive guide Moyes sets up his fishing rod and soon pulls in a fair-sized barracuda. Catch secured below deck, the fishing tackle is put away and Moyes explains that one is enough for him to split with the boatmen and feed their families this evening. Half an hour further north and we are at Jina Wall. From the reef crest a fore-reef gently slopes to 10m, followed by a wall to 25m, then barely sloping sand. The first 10 minutes are again sparse before the dive gets good. The shoals aren't quite as dense as in Chole Bay, but there are plenty of fish. Most striking is the number of large grouper. A marine-biologist friend once told me that a healthy population of big predators such as grouper is a good indication of a healthy reef, and the Chole Bay area has been a marine reserve since 1995, largely thanks to five years of survey work and management planning by the Frontier project. The afternoon dive is back inside Chole Bay at a site called Middle Maui. Yet again, 10 minutes pass before we get to the best corals and fish life. Having played with the big shoals of fish for a while, I explore the rubble at the base of the reef, finding pairs of dartfish, garden eels, a blue-spotted stingray and a mantis shrimp which scuttles into its burrow. In a patch of seagrass, Moyes points out a leaf-fish and a tiny ghost pipefish. Apart from the group of tour operators with whom I'm travelling, the other guests at Kinasi are all couples, attracted by the seclusion and simplicity. Most are chilling out on Mafia Island for a few days following inland safaris. Those who have come directly to Kinasi are all repeat visitors. Moyes' colleague Audi does the rounds every evening and no-one escapes his enthusiasm for a free snorkel lesson or a try-dive in the pool the next day. Those who aren't diving soon sign up for sailing, picnic and snorkelling outings on the other dhow.
A morning dive outside the lagoon, return to Kinasi for lunch, then an afternoon dive on one of the many reefs inside Chole Bay is the usual pattern, weather and tides permitting. Each dive is followed by homemade chocolate cake. Diving both areas is fairly easy and enjoyable, and always features huge shoals of fish. I am beginning to think that starting the dive 10 minutes before the good bit is all part of the plan when we dive outside again at Dindini Wall. This time we dive straight into the good bit. So far the grouper have been skittish and difficult to stalk, but here an enormous potato bass takes enough interest in me that I have to back off to get the entire fish in a picture. One flash of my strobe spooks it and I'm back to stalking. Meanwhile a small green turtle flaps past and shoals of trevally swim between us. A few minutes later, a tuna streaks past. Aware that the onward flight will be in an un-pressurised cabin and despite the 24-hour interval, for my last dive I stay mostly on top of the reef. Elbowing through the usual walls of fish, the surprise bonus is a marbled electric ray flapping around, looking for a clear patch of sand in which to bury itself. I am reminded of an encounter with one in the Red Sea many years ago, when I went so close that it zapped me - twice. This time I stay well clear while taking pictures. The Coastal Aviation flight from Mafia to Dar es Salaam leaves an hour early. The passengers are there, the plane is there, the runway is empty, so our pilot takes off. It does us little good. In Dar es Salaam the last passenger turns up with five minutes to spare, so we just have a longer wait for our onward flight to Zanzibar. On the flight from Mafia I have a good view of the delta of the Rufiji river, a maze of meandering channels and mangroves that stretches over miles of coastline. It was in one of these channels that the German cruiser and commerce raider Kšnigsberg holed up when cornered by the Royal Navy early in World War One. The navy patrolled offshore for almost a year before a pair of shallow-draught river gunboats towed out specially from the Mediterranean managed to engage the Kšnigsberg in a gun duel and sink it. Even then the Königsberg's ghosts continued to be a nuisance. Although badly damaged and resting on the bottom of the river, the wreck was still in German-held territory. The crew managed to salvage many of the guns and built improvised field carriages, serving as artillery with the German East African army till 1918. There is nothing left for divers, but it's a good wreck story and was dramatised in the book and film Shout at the Devil.
Zanzibar is far more developed than Mafia. Its architecture reflects its colourful history, from Arab slave and spice traders through to Dutch and British colonialism, Soviet concrete and modern resort hotels, all intermingled with traditional African thatch. The roads are mostly paved, though still with the odd pothole. There is enough unpaved road in the usual condition. Our transfer to the Blue Bay Resort on the seaward side of the island is in the air-conditioned comfort of a Toyota minibus.
Next morning the tide is out, The inshore water is too shallow for the dive boat, which is moored by a channel through the reef about half a mile south. Dive kit and passengers are ferried along the shore in the tender. Some of us elect to walk along the beach while the loading proceeds. At 8am it is a pleasant stroll in the breeze and the sun is not too hot yet. The main dive sites are all offshore at Mnemba Atoll, north-east of Zanzibar and about 40 minutes away with the boat planing. I get to dive with Karl, manager of the One Ocean dive centre and also an enthusiastic photographer. We both take our cameras and it's a treat for me to dive with someone who understands exactly what I want. The boat arrives at the southern tip of Mnemba Atoll close to low tide. A ring of reef is just showing through the surf, stretching off to the north as far as I can see. The only permanent land is Mnemba Island, little more than a large sandbank held together by mangroves a little way up the Zanzibar side of the atoll. Karl and I drift southwards with the current at Kichwani, a section of reef on the Zanzibar side leading to the southernmost tip of the atoll. Coral is a low series of spurs running out from an almost continuous shallow reef until they disappear in sloping sand at 25-30m. It is possible to go deeper, but only if you're fascinated by sandy slopes. I drift south at just below 20m, where the relief of the coral is steepest and where the big shoals of fish seem to hang out. The predominant species are similar to those outside the lagoon at Mafia Island, a variety of bigeye, soldierfish, snapper and trevally, with more solitary wrasse, parrotfish, butterflyfish and small grouper closer to the reef. Visibility is a comfortable 25m. As we drift on towards the point and ascend slightly, the balance of fish changes. I am surprised by the number and variety of trunkfish and pufferfish here.
The dive pattern here is the two-tank boat trip more typical of tropical resorts, with dives separated by a short surface interval and copious fresh fruit. Mnemba Island is a major turtle nesting site and turtles regularly hang out on the reefs close to the island. Within the first few minutes at Junction, Karl points out a medium-sized green turtle resting on a patch of coral. I approach slowly from downcurrent, backing off if it looks edgy, not boxing it in. After a few repetitions the turtle accepts me. I spend 15 minutes in its company until it rises slowly from the reef and ambles past me, heading up for a breath of air. Back at the beach, the tide is high enough for the boat to land in front of the dive centre, in time for lunch and whatever afternoon activities are on offer. I settle for a hammock, a book, and a stroll along the beach just before sunset. With many top-end resorts to provide customers, endless beach stalls sell souvenirs, particularly highly stylised tinga-tinga oil paintings depicting in bright colours native groups and wildlife, though oddly I find only one depicting marine life. Next morning the current at Mnemba is storming along. I get to do both Fish Basket and Aquarium in one dive with no effort. This pair of sites runs across the front of Mnemba Island with alternating patches of reef and sand. I soon lose count of the turtles we pass, one carrying an enormously fat remora almost as big as itself. Perhaps it had been left behind by a whale shark. Whale-shark season is March-October. In mid-November I am just too late, a disappointment magnified by some of Karl's prints on display in the dive centre. I am struck by the contrast of whale shark above shallow white sand. This 5-6m individual had spent over an hour circling the dive boat in early October. October and early November is also the season for humpback whales. I don't see any, but we do pass dolphins on the way to and from Mnemba Atoll each day.
For a second dive, the sea is calm enough and the current in the right direction to drift along the seaward side of the atoll at Kokota. The slope on this side is very gentle, with the reef breaking up onto a sandy slope at 15m. My intention had been to concentrate on the large variety of trunkfish and pufferfish in the shallows but I am soon distracted by 30 or more reef squid. Even on a calm day there's quite a strong surge. I am washed left and right above the reef as the waves pile into the shallows. I take advantage by finding sheltered spots and letting it wash the fish past me - much easier than having to stalk them. Our group moves from the air-conditioned luxury of the Blue Bay Resort to the smaller, more basic and secluded Matemwe Beach Village some 12 miles along the coast. Diving is still with One Ocean, which operates a traditional dhow to Mnemba Atoll. I had seen it at the dive sites the previous day, though don't get to dive from it as Karl has set up a treat for my last day of diving. One Ocean has a third centre an hour's drive away in Stone Town, and among the islands and reefs peppering the harbour approaches Zanzibar has a few wrecks. The main wrecks are the cable-laying ship Great Northern, well broken in 12m, an ex-Royal Navy supply lighter intact in 30m, and the steam dredger Pelican, partially intact in 40m. Under water I can hardly see the bow of the lighter for sweepers and fusiliers. General visibility of 10m drops to zero among the fish. Further aft, the metalwork is covered in sponges and white whip corals, with the comic zig-zag faces of clams in-between. Above the port quarter, 10 or so large silver sweetlips circle between meals at the local sweeper take-away. We finish with a shallow reef dive in visibility of only a few metres. The diving on this mainland side of Zanzibar is meant to be lower visibility, but this is unusually poor. The reef is a dense mass of branching and leafed corals and grey damselfish. Again I lose track of the number of turtles resting on the reef, my film gone by the time I find one lying on a patch of staghorn coral, as though sleeping on a bed of nails. My final surprise comes with the flight home. We are aboard, the Swiss Air MD11 is ready - so it leaves 20 minutes early.
John Liddiard's picturesque cottage on Mafia
snorkelling off Mnemba Island, Zanzibar
soldierfish above the reef, Mafia Island
glassfish swirl out of the way of dive guide Moyes
a ball of tiny catfish
A coral hind hides beneath a shoal of blue-striped snapper, with a shoal of soldierfish in the background
red snapper share an overhang with sweepers and glassfish
marbled electric ray
Tanzanian dive guide Moyes waited until he was outside the marine conservation area to catch this barracuda - it would feed the boatmen and their families
sweepers pack into a dense wall on the bow of the Royal Navy lighter
GETTING THERE: Swiss Air via Zurich to Dar es Salaam. Domestic flights in Tanzania with Coastal Aviation. Visas cost US $50 on arrival and must be paid for in dollars. DIVING: Mafia - Kinasi Resort,£40 per day. Zanzibar - Blue Bay Resort,£222 for a 10-dive/five-day package; Matemwe Beach Village,£186 for a 10-dive/five-day package. Basic underwater cameras can be hired, but take your own film as local supplies and processing are not reliable. ACCOMODATION: Mafia - thatched cottages at Kinasi Resort. Zanzibar - air-conditioned 4 star hotel at Blue Bay Resort; thatched bungalows at Matemwe Beach Village. All rooms had fans and mosquito nets. WHEN TO GO: October-March is best for diving, May-October offers the best weather. January-March can be very hot and humid. Heavy rains come in March and April, lesser rains from October to mid-December. Water temperature: 25°C or higher. HEALTH: This coastline is a high malaria risk area, so take precautions. John Liddiard used bug repellent liberally and came home with just one small sandfly bite! CURRENCY: Tanzanian shilling, about 1400 to£1. Change cash or traveller's cheques at Dar es Salaam airport for the best rates. Credit cards are not generally accepted and ATMs are rare. COST: A one-week package including domestic flights: Kinasi Resort£456, Blue Bay Resort£366, Matemwe Beach Village£355. International flights cost from about£450. Adding on a typical one-week safari,£895. Prices vary with season. All arrangements were made by Travellers Choice (01865 375787, www.travellers-choice.co.uk). FURTHER INFORMATION: Rove Africa, www.roveafrica.com. Kinasi Resort, www.mafiaisland.com. One Ocean Dive Centre, www.zanzibaroneocean.com. Blue Bay Resort, www.bluebayzanzibar.com. Frontier, www.frontierprojects.ac.uk.