Preparing to launch into the breakers off Barra peninsula.

STEVE IS SMILING. Yesterday the hull of a dive boat slammed into his head in heavy surf.
And earlier this morning he looked like a cross between a teenager with chronic acne and a cooked lobster, thanks to ravenous mosquitoes and sun attacking his skin.
But thats not why hes smiling - obviously. Today is Steves 38th birthday, and he has just climbed into the boat after swimming with his first-ever whale shark.
Along the eastern face of the Barra Peninsula, near the town of Tofu in Mozambique, is a hotspot for the planets largest fish. They come to feed in the plankton-rich waters and are joined by their cousins, the manta rays.
These are two of Africas underwater big boys, and I was determined to see them, plus the Big 5 most dangerous animals in the bush - elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard and rhino.
For the best chance of that I had gone to a specialist. Safari Diver, as its name suggests, organises dive and safari trips.
The diving was in the oceanic waters off Mozambique, and the safari in northern South Africa.

MASSIVE IN MOZAMBIQUE
MASSIVE CREATURES COME with a massive risk - weather. Meteorological fronts can kick up a big swell, and they did. The first two days saw waves that made boat-launching tricky at times.
And with a big sea come currents.
As I dropped into the water above a site called The Office, it was clear why the divemaster insisted on a negative entry.
Faff around on the surface and you may as well climb back aboard. The current was running like a Jack Russell to a dropped sausage.
Mind you, it did bring out the pelagic fish. A huge shoal of jack were enjoying the aquatic blow, and filled the water column over the rocks.
The reefs off Mozambique are used to rough weather and are not the classic fringing variety, more like coral lumps growing on rocky undulating seabed.
I discovered that when I looked around and saw - well, not much. The dive group I was supposed to stick with had gone. My preoccupation with the jacks and reef structure had got me lost.
Luckily Barra Lodge Dive Centre insists that every diver carry an SMB, and use it. It also asks lost divers to surface immediately.
Spend a minute searching, and the next person you see may be speaking Malagasy, the language of Madagascar. This was my first dive. I figured getting lost would be bad form, so I surfaced.
The surf was just too rough for a second boat dive, but as long as the tide times are right, all is not lost.
Barra Lodge has an ace up its sleeve in the lagoon at the end of the peninsula. The water beyond the mangrove stand is shallow, warm and murky, but it is also Mozambiques critter site, and hardly dived.
The dive was relaxed and, filled with all kinds of juvenile fish and small critters, awesome, but thats another story. Back to the big boys.
After a day of no big action the weather started to calm, the currents subsided and the swells dropped. On our way to Giants Castle we glimpsed a young whale shark, but it disappeared before we could get our gear together.
On the dive the manta cleaning station remained empty, yet the rest of the dive was lovely, with good levels of fish life and interesting topography.
Still, this wasnt what many divers had come to see.
Heading back, our hearts lifted as the divemaster called out: Whale shark! Everyone came to life, grabbed masks and fins and, as we approached and the engine was switched off, slipped into the water. The shark wasnt enormous and it wasnt hanging around either, but it was our first, and it put that huge smile on Steves face.
The next day we packed enough gear and two tanks each and went to Manta Reef - the best dive site in the region. Often current-washed, it faces the open ocean and is a popular cleaning station.
There are three or so cleaning areas on top of the reef flat, but a huge variety and number of fish congregate around the sides in nooks and overhangs.
Snapper and bigeye squirrelfish form the basis for many of the larger shoals, but there are also several large grouper and plenty of trumpetfish, goatfish, angels and butterflyfish.
It is strict policy here not disturb the manta rays during cleaning but unfortunately, as everywhere in diving, there are some who do not respect this and rush onto the platforms.
The mantas simply take fright and go, which spoils the experience for everyone. I know mantas. They are gregarious and inquisitive elasmobranchs which, once comfortable that a diver is not a threat, will approach and investigate, but it takes time.
Stay calm and low to the reef top (the reef is rocky and has little live coral on the flat tops) and they will often approach. Rush in and you may get close but the encounter will be brief and will annoy everyone else.
A diver from another group found this out when my guide saw him charge across a sponge-covered rock towards a manta which was about to start cleaning.

MY TIME CAME ON THE SECOND DIVE on this reef. Mozambiques coral reefs can differ from one dive to the next, and what turns up may be surprising. As we approached the manta cleaning station,
I glanced up and saw a huge shape moving above us.
It was a small whale shark - my first seen on scuba rather than snorkel. It was a brief encounter, but kick-arse all the same!
The manta station was empty, but we stopped for a bit. Just as our group was getting bored and breaking up, I saw a dark shape moving towards the reef flat.
The manta came from the north, drifted down and stopped over a bare patch of reef. Mantas need to keep moving, so basically this one had to hold its breath while a throng of fish rose from the reef to pick over its large body, removing loose skin, parasites and dirt.
A clean doesnt last too long. The ray moves off gently or explodes away if a little rascal called a false cleaner wrasse takes a bite that hurts. Generally, however, it will make a big loop and return a few minutes later, after the fish equivalent of taking a breath.
I got to within a minute of a deco-stop and decided to surface rather than wait for the rays return, but it flew in below as the tiny current carried me across the cleaning station.
On the way back, all eyes scanned the surface for the shadow of a whale shark and we soon came across one, its outline just visible as it cruised the shallows.
The sharks feed along the Indian Ocean coastline of Africa each summer and are seen from Sodwana in South Africa to Mafia Island in Tanzania, with a large concentration feeding just off the beaches of Mozambique.
This female was not huge at around 6m long but cruised and didnt mind the sudden intrusion of five snorkellers.
We stayed with her for a while before she left us trailing . We returned to the boat, which motored in front of her again. As we dropped in, I swam into her path and stopped to wait for the shadow to appear.
The water ahead darkened and the shark appeared but, seeing me, veered off slightly. I cursed, but then she turned. She came at me, diving slightly to pass beneath me only at the last moment. I got as flat to the surface as possible to avoid being clumped by the massive dorsal fin, and Im not sure how but it missed.
I was too taken aback to keep up with her, and returned to the boat with a smile you wouldnt believe.
To bastardise an old saying, a diver tired of whale sharks is tired of life.
Mind you, if youre bored with life, jump into the sea with a whale shark and youll be beaming with delight.

WITH AFRICAS TWO BIG marine animals came a plethora of smaller ones. Mozambique is not a classic coral-reef destination but the marine life is prolific and colourful, everything from nudibranchs to large shoals of pelagics.
The whale sharks and mantas ticked off my list, so it was time to head inland for the big five...

SOUTH AFRICAS BIG BOYS
HEADING TO MADIKWE GAME RESERVE, I was met at the rough airstrip and driven to Buffalo Ridge Lodge, with a short stop to watch a male lion guarding the recent catch of a kudu.
Not a bad sighting after being in the bush for about 10 minutes. Ive been a wildlife photographer since I was 11, and this was my first wild lion. One of the Big 5 down, four to go.
The lodge operated a game drive in the morning and one in the evening, which I joined at around 5pm.
The open-top Land Rover headed into the 75,000-hectare reserve, which is home to elephant, rhino, lion, giraffe, buffalo, leopard, wild dog and cheetah among others.
We soon reached a small hill and a herd of elephants in the thick bush. Branches cracked and we heard the low rumbling vocalisations as they communicated. Glimpses of ears flapping or a trunk waving were all we could see as the herd stayed feeding within the scrub. So we continued and crested the hill to be confronted by a large bull elephant beside the track.
Im not sure who was more surprised. He looked down on us rather crossly, sniffing and working out whether we were dangerous or not but, correctly surmising that he could squash us like ants, he crossed the road and wandered off, leaving us in awe.
Next morning, I got up before the sun. The game drive leaves as the sky is painted orange and pink. This was a big-cat search, and I soon found myself sitting almost within touching distance of a lion with a mouth big enough to engulf my head, had I been stupid enough to get out of the Land Rover.
The animals are used to seeing the 4x4s, and as long as the silhouette is not broken by people moving around, they treat it as a piece of the landscape.
The lion was a part of a small pride, fat and sleepy from yesterdays kudu. They looked harmless in that state but anything that can bring down an antelope the size of a Transit gets my respect.
Next, I moved across the park to another lodge, Thakadu River Camp. A hammerhead stork flew from the river as we headed into the reserve. The light seemed to fade fast that evening, which was perhaps why we startled a white rhino.
He took off out of the bush, snorting and stamping before we even knew he was there.
The next morning we watched a cheetah drink at a waterhole and continued into an area of dust bowls to find a male rhino with a small harem of two females.
I think our approach cramped his style, and like a drunken chav in an Essex nightclub, he charged us.
He stopped short, kicked the earth and snorted, confirming that this was living, breathing and wild Africa. No zoo or safari park can come close for excitement.
With three of the Big 5 ticked off, I moved to Leopard Hills in the Sabi Sands private game reserve. We didnt manage to locate a leopard until almost dark - a female sleeping in a tree, her cub a little way away. She looked so peaceful, so in command of her environment and, once awake, so damn stunning.
Next morning I came across the leopards antithesis, an old rogue buffalo. These large cows are among
the most dangerous and unpredictable creatures in Africa, and this one was old, battered and had a cataract in one eye. It looked the personification of evil, and stared as the Land Rover approached.
Even evil can be impressive - I could have watched the beast for hours.
Along with the Big 5 we saw giraffe, springbok and zebra, birds of prey and, at the other end of the scale, praying mantis and dung beetles.
The safari, while hectic because I visited three lodges in as many days, makes a fantastic finish to a dive trip.
I had thought safaris werent really for me, as the animals seem so familiar. How wrong I was. Mozambiques diving and South Africas safari was a perfect combination and would give anyone a reason to smile, birthday or not.


Divernet
Grouper
Grouper
bigeye
bigeye squirrelfish
Number
Number one on Gavin Parsons wishlist was a whale shark...
...and
...and this was his other underwater target, the manta ray
lionfish
lionfish
and
and moray eel, two of the smaller creatures in the lagoon critter site
Happy
Happy divers back from another big animal encounter.
Big
Big beasts three, four and five - lion,
elephant
elephant
and
and rhinoceros.
Number
Number six - a leopard sleeping in a tree.
Last
Last of the magnificent seven, a diabolical-looking buffalo.
Gavin
Gavin Parsons

FACTFILE

FLIGHTS: South African Airlines flies to Johannesburg daily from London Heathrow, www.flysaa.com. Head across the city to Lanseria airport to fly direct to Inhambane, Mozambique. British visitors to South Africa get a tourist visa automatically. Mozambique visas can be obtained from the embassy in London for around 40 or bought on arrival. There is a small terminal at Johannesburg airport for internal flights, with Federal Air flights to various safari lodges.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Mozambique: Barra Lodge Resort has accommodation, dive centre, restaurants and bars and is about to be modernised and expanded. The dive centre is exceptionally well run, says Gavin Parsons, with good hire gear and staff experienced in oceanic diving and long-distance whale shark-spotting.
WHEN TO GO: Year-round, though there is a risk of typhoons in Mozambique in February. Water 22-28°C.
money Metical in Mozambique, rand in South Africa.
PRICES: Safari Diver specialises in combined diving and wildlife-watching trips to Africa, www.safaridiver.co.uk. Gavin Parsons went on a multi-lodge trip, but many divers opt for a single safari location before or after the diving.
A 14-night package cost of £2086 covers return flights from London to Johannesburg, Joburg to Madikwe Game Reserve return and Joburg to Inhambane; transfers; accommodation based on two sharing, with four nights full board at Buffalo Ridge Safari Lodge, nine nights with breakfast and dinner at Barra Lodge, Inhambane and one night B&B at the Airport Sun Hotel, Joburg; a 12-dive package and game drives.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Mozambique: mozambiquetourism.co.za; South African Tourism 0870 1550044, southafrica.net