Big Bus Country

Therell be another one along in a minute. A diver photographs a giant potato bass (known locally as a big bus because of the number of passengers it attracts) off the coast of Mozambique. Gavin Anderson went there out of season, but found the marine life still plentiful.

Nobody spoke as we crossed the border. The trip to Ponta Malongane had been thrown together at short notice and we had no idea what lay ahead. Would we have the luxury of electricity and running water Would we be sleeping under the stars We felt we were heading into the unknown...

Southern Mozambique was once a popular holiday destination but 15 years of civil war took their toll and today it has few visitors. In 1992, with the war over, it was listed as the worlds poorest country and only now is it starting to recover.
As we drove off the beaten track we passed a Russian tank lying abandoned at the side of the road. Hours later, after bribing our way through the last armed checkpoint with a can of soda, we reached our destination.
The resort lay hidden in thick bush along a stretch of some of the countrys most beautiful coastline. Loggerhead turtles are known to haul themselves up on to the beach here in early summer to lay their eggs in enormous holes, oblivious to the camp only a few metres away. Our worries about the facilities at Ponta Malongane dive camp were unfounded. The nearby town of Ponta do Ouro, once a bustling resort, is a ghost town with no running water or electricity. But the resort itself had everything we could ask for, including satellite television in a beautifully restored bar. All rooms have en suite bathrooms, a fridge and some even have cooking facilities.
The beaches and surrounding hills are stunning, with numerous lakes and pans inhabited by hippo and crocodiles. The Maputo Elephant Reserve is within easy driving distance to the north. Vervet monkeys are so common in the camp that they can become a nuisance. And to the east lies the Indian Ocean.
Diving was organised from RIBs, which we launched from the beach. This proved to be quite an experience. Special footholds were provided to give divers an extra grip in rough seas, and to hold on to when the boats were revved at full speed through the surf back on to the beach. Our visit was in winter and we found that the wind tended to pick up during the day. To make sure we got a couple of dives in while conditions were good, we set off each morning just after sunrise. Our gear was loaded on to the boats at the dive camp near the main accommodation area and taken to the waters edge by tractor. Before heading off, our dive guide Murray would draw a dive plan in the sand.
Most of the reefs lie in pristine condition close to shore, and many are still unexplored. We were told that whale sharks, whales and dolphins are abundant during the summer, between November and April. The water temperature can reach as high as 28*C and never drops below 20*C . Although we were out of season, we saw plenty of dolphins in the four days we spent there, and on one occasion almost collided with two magnificent humpback whales.
One of the best dive sites is the Pinnacles. It comprises a flat ridge at 35m along an ancient line of sand dunes, with small patches of reef where large numbers of shark congregate. Apparently, ten species were recorded in one week last year, including hammerhead, tiger, Zambezi, bull leopard, silvertip, nurse, dusky, blacktip, whitetip and whale shark. This is not a dive for the faint-hearted; but even the most hardened of divers come away mesmerised. Anyone keen on photography should dive the Three Sisters, a series of rocky outcrops festooned in soft corals at around 22m to 24m. There is usually a steady current, so the most common route is to drop on to the largest outcrop and let the current take you to the other two. Adult emperor angels, coral groupers and shoals of sweepers mingle in the little overhangs, while overhead swim great shoals of pencilled surgeonfish, yellow butterfly fish and brilliantly coloured Moorish idols.
Huge shoals of orange anthias sway in and out of the colourful soft corals while honeycomb moray eels peek out from holes in the coral gap. We found a lovely archway with a large swimthrough completely covered in orange cup coral.
On the smaller but most scenic and colourful pinnacle, huge potato bass were lurking. They are known as big buses because of the way they attract passengers, including juvenile yellow jack and golden kingfish.
On another dive we went to Bass City, named after a number of incredibly inquisitive potato bass. The site is a series of rocky outcrops at 20m, covered in sponges and coral, and separated by white sand. The effect is of a perfect amphitheatre where the big bass like to show off.
Here we found lionfish, moray eels and sweepers. It was the first time I had ever seen sweepers shoaling on top of the reef, completely exposed to their predators. Perhaps it was because the pelagics were not around in force at that time of year.
We saw several species of stingray, including an electric ray brilliantly camouflaged in the sand. Hiding under the rocky ledges we found octopus and a surprising variety of shrimps and prawns. As the dive progressed, it became obvious that our dive guide had a special relationship with one of the bass, known affectionately as Bert. Bert allowed Murray to stroke and tease him. To our surprise, Bert even stayed put while Murray forced its mouth wide open! How often do you see that

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE:
ACCOMMODATION : Ponta Malongane offers basic two-bedroom huts for less than $30 a night. Four and six-bedroom chalets cost between $85 and $120 a unit per night..
DIVING : A five-dive package at Ponta Malongane costs $110 and a single dive $25..
OTHER DIVE SITES TO NOTE : Waynes World, a massive archway at 27m; Texas, a shallow reef with plenty of shoaling fish and marine life including large clams, cowries and nudibranchs; Kevs Ledge, boasting hawksbill turtles. There are no wrecks. Health: Sun block and mosquito repellents are essential. This is a high-risk area for malaria in summer. Visas cost around£20 from the Mozambique Embassy, London (tel. 0171 383 3800). Booking: Contact John Schauer at Laguna Seafari (tel. 27 83 300 0600; fax 27 838 300 0600).


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