|IT WAS LIKE AN AMPHIBIOUS ASSAULT, a D-Day landing, but speeded-up in the style of a time-lapse movie. We thrust our feet into the straps fixed to the hull floor and grasped the grab-lines with the sort of determination only those about to do something they consider extremely dangerous can muster.
John, not very tall and slightly bandy-legged, stood at the big red RIBs console, right hand on the twin throttles and the other feverishly wrestling the wheel as he hunted among the waves for the right one. We heeled one way, then another, as he weaved among the white plumes of water, turning and looking across his shoulder from time to time, making the best judgment he could of a suitable peak that we could ride.
We knew hed made his choice when he turned hard to starboard and gunned the twin outboards, climbing the big red boat up on to the crest of his chosen wave.
The sea dropped away below us and our grips tightened. I glanced around at the various hard objects within the boat that could end up shooting towards my head. The vessel flew forward with all the visible intent of a manned missile, only we were shooting across the surf, and heading for what looked like a rather uncompromising shoreline.
Mind that hotel, I muttered under my breath.
Hold on! he shouted. It was a shout that was surplus to requirements, as we hurtled towards that sandy shore.
I gripped my heavy camera kit and braced my legs for the impact. We came to a sickening standstill, high and dry on Tofos white sandy beach.
I had wondered how we would get back when we launched the big RIB into that same surf a few hours earlier. At that point, we had all held onto the RIB, pointing it out into the breaking waves and walking it forward a few metres at a time on Johns command, waiting for that moment when he felt he could jump aboard and fire up the engines.
Breaking waves that were deemed unsuitable crashed over the bow of the boat, washing any loose kit down the deck and flushing away those of us not strong enough to hold on, or without the presence of mind to momentarily ride up with the boat. That was the moment when we all had to heave ourselves over the tubes and in. A heartbeat of hesitation risked you getting left behind.
Meanwhile, we hung on for dear life. Several times I found myself washed under as my grip on the boat faltered under the stresses of an impossible force.
I was ever mindful of the devastating effect of the hard hull crashing down onto any wayward limb. It was a tough way to start a dive. Even once in the boat, we still had to punch our way out through more incoming breakers.
On one occasion I managed to smash my face down on to my own tank valve, as we dipped into an unseen trough and came to an abrupt if abbreviated halt. You should have been here last week. It was flat calm then, I was told.
It was a long and arduous ride, the 10 miles out to Manta Reef. On the way, Andrea took the risk of breaking open the housing to her Nikon in the sea spray. She had to. One of the control linkages had fallen off because of the severe shaking it had sustained.
It was a serene moment, gratefully received, when the howling outboards were suddenly silenced as an announcement of our arrival.
Just as we were contemplating which tank belonged to which diver, Roy, our effusive Chicago-born host from the Moz Experience, sent us into a panic to find our fins and snorkels as a massive fin broke the surface next to the boat.
Whale shark! he hollered, before leaping into the water with a splash sufficient to send whatever it was on its way to the depths.
There was a plan to drop most of the divers with their guides in at the southern point, but I had asked to go directly to the mantas cleaning-station, where these large creatures queue up for the services of small cleanerfish. John was diving and, alas, no-one had told the African coxn who had taken the helm. Hed simply circled and dropped Roy and me on top of those first in.
It proved a long and tedious swim against the current to our final destination, across rocks scoured clean by the force of the ocean. There was no pretty coral reef to distract us from our mission to see the big stuff. Only the sight of a gargantuan manta ray hovering out there in the gloom brightened our route.
Suddenly a host of mobulae joined us, small manta-like rays that darted past in numbers approaching hundreds.
Tantalisingly, they kept their distance and my camera refused to focus on them, preferring to sharpen up on the planktonic soup in which we were diving. Plankton may be a problem for photographers but it is why these waters sustain such a large population of plankton-eaters, such as mantas and whale sharks.
I kept trying, but in the low light levels associated with the tropical storm now raging above, there was no hope unless I could get closer. Massed ranks of silvery-sided batfish proved more obliging. It wasnt perfect, but you could say it had been a promising first dive off the coast of Mozambique.
Then there was the ride back, with its voluntary high-speed impact with the beach as the highlight.
Crashing the boat up to the beach off the crest of an obliging wave is a typically South African way of doing things. One wonders how the hull and tubes of the RIB could sustain such violent use, and John, owner of Tofo Scuba, confessed that he never kept a boat for more than two years.
I wondered how many unsuspecting Afrikaner RIB-owners found that the boat they had bought for such a good price mysteriously fell to pieces shortly after they took delivery.
Even once the surf had settled to a more tolerable level, we still approached the beach as if we were invading rather than returning from a relaxing dive. It added a degree of excitement, but I wouldnt recommend it for anyone of a nervous disposition.
Lucky too that Tofo has miles of virtually unoccupied soft white sand on which to do it.
Getting to Tofo itself had proved something of an exciting ride. I had landed in Joburg in South Africa and, although it is possible fly on to Mozambique over the Kruger National Park, it seemed a shame to miss seeing some terrestrial wildlife. They also say that you get a better feeling for a country if you cross its border by road, but I had not appreciated that it was going to be a 600-mile journey, some of it over less than perfect roads in one of the poorest countries on Earth.
Roy, together with his chic and cheeky young Czech wife Lucie, is in business with Bruno, the South African-born son of a Kruger Park ranger. Bruno is the more taciturn member of the partnership. Unlike Roy, he doesnt try to talk up what they have to offer. Its a holiday combining the advantages of a wildlife safari in South Africa with an adventure in very different Mozambique, including diving at Tofo. They call this the Moz Experience.
The weather in Tofo is ever-changing. Its either tropical sunshine, or rain that falls in Biblical proportions. I stayed at the Casa Barry, soon to be renamed Manta Lodge, a beach-front resort. I had use of a very African-style timber and cane chalet that was spacious, though verging on the basic.
But the high thatched roof kept out the deluge that one night threatened to keep me awake under my mosquito net, such was the startling nature of the thunder and lightning that accompanied the downpour. The electricity supply proved reliable, though I had taken the precaution of buying adaptors for the curiously old-fashioned 15A round-pin plugs they use in southern Africa.
Tofo is not camera-friendly. The fine white sand from those magnificent beaches gets into everything. It was a nightmare to strip and clean the underwater camera gear after every dive, but there was no alternative. It gets into every orifice and clogs up all the O-rings.
Every evening found me nervously sliding each O-ring through my fingers, searching for that tell-tale gritty feel. If you are a serious underwater photographer, take a head-mounted torch to help with this vital procedure.
I was surprised at the number of foreign tourists I met in such an out-of-the-way place. Nearly all the dive centre staff were Brits or European. It was surreal to watch an emotion-laden Champions League Final between Liverpool and AC Milan in a straw hut. Liverpool won after a shaky first half, and those who came from the North-west went down with a mysterious illness the next day.
It seems that many people who go out to South Africa gravitate to Mozambique to seek a more real African experience.
Back at Manta Reef, I waited patiently at the cleaning station, determined to be there when the mantas showed. They didnt. I washed back and forth in the surge, along with a lionfish that seemed to have adopted me. When I was nearly out of time, Roy beckoned me down to a cave where he had found a monstrous loggerhead turtle slumbering.
I struggled in the cave, un-nerved by the twin facts that I was starting to get into long deco-stops, and that my new-found friend the lionfish had decided to join me in the restricted space. I decided to abandon the opportunity to get a better picture than the first one I took, and headed out and up.
Each day we fought the surf to launch the RIB. Each time the boat was swamped before we were able to get beyond the breaking waves, but we made it out to a nearby site called Giants Castle, and others that were as much as an hours run away, even at 30 knots.
Giants Castle is an inauspicious-looking place with a long, flat, featureless table of rock and a short wall to an equally rocky seabed. However, I dropped down to where a young German girl diver pointed to a weedy scorpionfish. All three of us washed to and fro in the massive surge, even though we were at 30m. No-one else had seen it, and the group moved off in the gloom like the Ninth Legion disappearing into the mist.
Visibility can vary from as little as 1m to as much as 20m on a daily basis. The reduced level of plankton during the week I was there probably explained the glut of manta ray no-shows Ð that or the surge.
I grabbed a couple of frames of the weedy scorpionfish and headed after the others. We had been briefed that to lose our dive guide with the buoyline would mean a lonely time at the surface in the heaving waves and a chance of not being found. It concentrates the mind.
I caught up as they gathered round a small indent in the wall. Paulo, the buoy-man, was pointing, but no-one seemed able to see the object of his gesticulations. It was a large, standard-design scorpionfish lying on a sponge.
It was a delicate shade of pink and it posed lethargically. I was drawn away to a honeycomb moray eel, gulping water through its mouth while being attended to by a couple of large cleaner shrimps. They always make obliging sitters for underwater portraits.
The dive was at between 28-30m and the group had been told to ascend to 15m or shallower after 20 minutes bottom time. Paulo and I intended to stay below with the reel, as we were using nitrox 32 and could stay no-stop diving for quite a few minutes more. The dive plan for the others seemed to be abandoned when a large school of jacks with a few trevally outriders turned up, a shimmering silver mass.
I swam out into the blue and grabbed some images before I spotted a potato cod. It seemed friendly and didnt hurry away. Paulo, with the SMB, had also seen it and helpfully swam to the far side of it, giving me the best chance of a picture. By now the others had got the message and were hovering in the blue above our heads.
Its a problem in Mozambique that all the good dive sites seem to be so deep. Tofo Scuba doesnt like visiting divers doing deco-stops and, even with nitrox, that tends to limit dive times to 20 or 30 minutes. With such large sea-swells they are concerned about losing divers on the surface, so they insist that all divers ascend the same SMB line, and discourage independent shooting of delayed SMBs. Long boat rides and short dives are the order of the day.
I cheated as usual, but then, I was buddied by the SMB-reel holder, who was also on nitrox. We made our way up to 18m to do a two-minute deep stop, which appeared to bring my three different computers, from Finland, Switzerland and Japan, into line.
Paulo slowly wound in the line, and we crept upwards. By now the other divers were back in the boat, and we surfaced to an explosive sea. Both of us were pretty slick at getting out of our kit and into the boat, and Id hardly had time to get my feet into the straps when we were off again.
It adds a new meaning to the expression a following sea when youre hurtling straight towards the shore with a wall of white water at your back. We hit the sandy beach and came to a sickening halt. Before we had time to check that we were all in one piece, that wall of water, now a thick soup of foam and sand, crashed over the transom and swamped the boat. As usual.
The water made the boat so heavy that we had to unload the tanks before the Toyota 4x4 had any chance of dragging it up and away from the danger zone. The image of that beach-front hotel rearing up at 30 knots will live with me. The whole process is too exhausting to allow more than two dives in a day to be done.
Andrea Marshall, 26, was born in California. After passing through UCLA, she is now a PhD candidate under the auspices of Queensland University, Australia. She sees herself as something of an elasmobranch specialist, studying sharks and rays, and she runs Tofos Manta Research Centre.
For a time she worked for Tom Campbell, the natural history film-maker, but white shark research drew her to South Africa. A short visit to Mozambique made her switch to mantas. She wrote her PhD proposal after only six dives, as she reckoned she had seen so many. Her mum, back in the USA, was not impressed about her only child now living in a straw hut!
Andrea told me that she was always challenged, sometimes afraid, but never bored. She gets a lot of satisfaction from simply getting through the day, because working in Mozambique has proved a logistical nightmare.
Her film is sent to South Africa for processing and all her research samples have to go there, or even to Australia.
Halfway through what she intends to be a five-year tenure, Andreas work is part-funded by the Saudi-based Save Our Seas (SOS) Foundation. The sheikh who funds it was instrumental in getting the Evolution rebreather developed, and Andrea would dearly love one for her diving.
She is building a new hut for her database, and a separate wet laboratory. So far she has identified 314 mantas by their ventral markings, naming each one using a system based on a sort of ink-blot test.
This led to one being called Bill Clinton (dont ask!) and another Cindy Crawford.
Andrea has also started acoustic tagging but is hoping for financing for satellite tagging to discover whether the mantas are local or pelagic. She has found that 70-80% of those seen at Manta Reef have injuries inflicted by large sharks, yet divers never see sharks there. This is strange, as many mantas display recently inflicted wounds that still gush blood.
She asked me to tell anyone doing whale shark research about Mozambique. She says they see so many there that on one 10 mile journey between Tofo and Manta Reef, they spotted 37 in the water.
I must have visited on the wrong week!
|Looking forward to an exhilarating RIB-ride to the first dive site. |
|Air divers waited at 5m for Paulo to slowly wind in the line |
|The African sun punches through the planktonic soup |
|A scorpionfish, |
|a honeycomb moray, |
|another scorpionfish, this time of the weedy variety. |
|A large potato grouper. |
|Squirrelfish and a shoal of blue-lined snapper |
GETTING THERE:Nationwide Airlines, formerly South Africas internal airline, now has a 767-300ER aircraft and offers three flights a week to and from London Gatwick. Its an 11-hour flight to Johannesburg. The Executive Plus class option offers reclining business-class seats and 30kg of checked luggage allowance, with an extra 8kg free for divers.
DIVING: Tofo Scuba (www.tofoscuba.com) is a PADI dive centre. Nitrox is not generally available.
ACCOMMODATION: Manta Lodge (www.casabarry.com). A wide range of international cuisine is available in Tofos restaurants.
WHEN TO GO: October to April.Take a 3-5mm wetsuit with hood.
COST: John Bantin travelled at the invitation of Dive Worldwide (0845 130 6980, www.diveworldwide.com). A 10-day Moz Experience trip via South Africa, with two single-day visits to the Kruger National Park included, costs£1599 plus airline tax.
MONEY: Mozambiques is the only accepted currency. Change from South African rand at the border. Credit cards are not accepted and there are no cash machines.
HEALTH: Malarone is recommended as a precaution against malaria. There are no recompression facilities.
COMMUNICATIONS: You will need a Mozambique SIM card for your cell-phone. Tofo has an Internet café .
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.mozambiquehc.org.uk
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