Yes, I know the credits already rolled on the ‘epic adventure’. That said, why should a little thing like work get in the way? So what do you do when your new employer gives you a short stay of execution before starting your next job? Well, if you’re me, you go to Mozambique, Africa, in search of whale sharks.
I weighed-up a lot of options for this period of time, including jaunts to India or Nepal, trekking in Patagonia, tombraiding in Cambodia, and the great American coast-to-coast road trip in a car the size of a tank. However, when all the variables weighed in (time, cost, visa requirements, reluctance to drive on the wrong side of the road etc), the trip was pretty much self-selecting.
So what exactly is it? Well, it’s actually a volunteer project, working at a whale shark conservation and research centre. For the next 3 weeks i’ll be spending my time diving and snorkelling, observing the sharks and other marine life and recording their behaviours for research purposes. It’s also humpback whale migration season, which means whale-watching. Basically I get to spend 3 weeks as a wannabe marine biologist. Oh, and I get certified to dive while i’m at it.
I flew with South African Airways via Johannesburg, and thanks to my buddy Murphy again I spent almost 11 hours sitting behind two small children and next to a girl with a stinking cold. Wondering how long it will be before I go down with that.
To be fair to SAA they were pretty efficient, and both outbound and connecting flats departed on time. I arrived in a warm and sticky Maputo at lunchtime, having departed at 9pm the previous evening. On arrival I expected to be met by a coordinator, and loitered around arrivals looking for the ‘i to i guy’, Half an hour later there’s no sign of him, and i was starting to worry. I had no idea where I was supposed to go if he didn’t turn up, and furthermore, I had no cell service. At all.
Having been landed for over an hour and still with no sign of the coordinator, ‘worried’ was starting to give way to ‘pissed off’. Finally I presented myself at the tourist information desk and begged for help; thankfully the lovely lady there let me use her phone to call my contact, since ‘pay phone’ doesn’t seem to be a recognised concept here. My relief at having managed to get in touch with someone who knew who I was was short-lived, since he was in Inhambane (around 600km away), and therefore wouldn’t be coming to the airport to collect me. I was instructed to get a taxi to ‘Fatima’s Place’ which, as it turns out, is one of the most popular backpacker hostels in Maputo. I was given a bed and a mosquito net, and advised that the bus for Tofo was leaving the following morning – at 5am. Expected duration of the bus ride – 8hrs. Give or take.
I busied myself with the essentials, finding beer, and something to eat that wasn’t served in a silver foil container. Having made the acquaintance of some other travellers from Toronto and Amsterdam, the three of us headed off in search of something edible. There wasn’t much open around the hostel, and we ended up taking a detour through a local market. Since it wasn’t looking good for an alternative, we stopped to eat at one of the market stalls where local people were sitting on plastic garden chairs, eating unidentifiable soup. The soup was actually pretty good, although I have absolutely no idea what it was even after having eaten it. Probably best that way.
The sun had disappeared, and the wind was up. Apparently that’s normal for the time of year, although disturbing for me since it means rough water. Did I mention that I get boat sick? Could make those dive boat trips interesting! By now I was wearing a long dress with a sweater over it, and trousers under it. It wasn’t supposed to be cold, damn it!
It’s interesting that a measure of how developed a country is these days seems to be the availability of internet and wifi services. On that basis, this place is pretty remote. Wifi is almost non-existent, so our only contact with the outside world is through the local internet cafes. That afternoon we decided to visit our nearest, which was actually crammed-in to the upper floor of a pizza restaurant. After dashing off a couple of brief emails to our parents informing them of our ‘still alive’ status, we migrated downstairs for some pretty passable pizza where we were joined by another guy from the hostel – a Brazilian, who spoke the local lingo. This proved to be a Godsend on the way home when we were stopped by two police officers, demanding to see our documents. Well guess who wasn’t carrying their passport? Oh yeah.
My new Brazilian acquaintance was negotiating with the police on my behalf, and translating the results. The situation, in a nutshell, was that I was now expected to go with them to the police station and pay a fine. This despite the fact that my passport and visa were in the hostel, a two minute walk away. Apparently going to get it was not an option. They were, however, prepared to accept 1000 Meticals (the local currency) to let me go on my merry way. Since the fine at the station would be 10,000 Meticals, and since I am not above bribing corrupt policemen when they are standing between me and either my bed or a hot meal, I figured it was a good deal. 1000 Mets lighter, I eventually got back to the hostel. I climbed wearily into bed and, just as I was about to turn my torch out, a mosquito drifted through the beam of light. This prompted a twenty minute ‘search and destroy’ mission, since I wasn’t going to sleep as long as the tiny vampire was trapped inside my mosquito net with me.
The next morning, after the crappiest night’s sleep i’ve had in a while, I was outside my room at 5am and piling into a car with three others to catch the bus to Tofo. The bus system is interesting – basically, they wait until they are full to beyond capacity before they leave, so we didn’t get underway until getting on for 7am. What followed was a somewhat uncomfortable 8hr bus ride, and we arrived in Tofo stiff, hot, and with absolutely no clue where we were supposed to go. Thankfully, our coordinator was waiting for us at the end of the line to transfer us to the ‘All Out Africa’ volunteer house.
The volunteer house itself is built in traditional style – that is to say, wooden beams, palm roofs and mosquito nets. However, we also have the luxury of a fully-equipped kitchen and hot water. There are about twelve volunteers here, ranging in age from 18 to 34 (yes, that makes me the resident ‘vintage bintage’). We have a number of ‘Gap Yahs’ here, but they’re all good kids and really helpful since most of them have been here for weeks already. We’re all girls save one – Liam, age 18 – ultimately I was unable to resist asking him if he actually asks for a ‘Harry Styles’ when he goes to the hairdresser. I’m honestly not sure whether he took it as a compliment or not.
First task – unpack mosquito net and seal-off sleeping area. Turns out that the shitty mosquito net I brought with me doesn’t cover the bed. Thank you Mountain Warehouse. Thankfully, I was able to borrow one from one of my roomies, who was organised enough to have a spare. Second task – orientation. One of the coordinators walked us around Tofo, pointing out the places we needed to know, namely, the bars, internet cafe, beach and dive centre. This didn’t take long, since Tofo is tiny. Third task – project briefing, where it was explained to us what we would be doing during our conservation project, what was happening with our diving training, and ‘The Fish Test’. One element of the marine conservation project is the identification of different species of reef fish. There are 60 that we need to learn, and there is a test. To be able to identify fish for research purposes on the reef, you need to pass The Fish Test with 90 per cent. Easier said than done, when half of them look exactly the bloody same!! Even if you are able to identify them on paper, identifying the bastards down in the depths is another kettle of fish, so to speak. Good luck with that, then. Happily, both Dory (Palet Surgeon) and Scar (Moorish Idol) from ‘Finding Nemo’ are on the test, so no-one’s going to get ‘nil points’. I don’t think that I can be trusted to reliably identify fish. The day ended with a home-cooked meal, and an extremely early night.
The next morning, we were off to Inhambane, the nearest big town. Our objectives were to acquire cash, sim cards, supermarket goodies, and get lunch at a traditional market. Well, the bus ride was hilarious – i’ll never complain about how packed London busses get ever again. Lunch was awesome, although the piri piri sauce here is a LOT hotter than the stuff you get from Nandos, and it was a solid hour before my face regained its normal colouring. I left the supermarket with beer, Dairy Milk (regular and bubbly), and a tub of chocolate spread, which on closer analysis turned out to be chocolate peanut butter, and was inedible (to me at least). Returning home, it was time for more lectures pertaining to our conservation project, and a run through the 60 fish and their ‘distinguishing’ characteristics. I still have no hope. To be fair, if it’s hard for me it’s even harder for those for whom English is not their first language. If I had 60 fish to learn whose names were ‘Ein Hornsenfish’ or similar, I don’t think i’d even try. The Ein Hornsenfish doesn’t exist by the way, but if we should discover a new species, that’s what we’re calling him. I made myself a cup of peppermint tea and sat down to relax. The peppermint tea tasted absolutely revolting and not remotely of peppermint. I was about to tip it away when I glanced at the box and realised it was green tea rather than peppermint. On that basis, it tasted absolutely fine.
Wednesday morning and we newbies (that is, those of us who are not PADI qualified) are in the classroom for a day of theory. The entire syllabus, pumped into us in one day. By 5pm, my brain felt as though it was going to explode. Any L&D professional worth their salt will tell you that the approach is a little flawed, at least if you expect the individuals to retain the information past tomorrow. Still, pass the exam tomorrow, drown next week. At least i’ll be floating belly-up next to a manta ray. Hopefully. At this point I was optimistic and planning to push straight on to my Advanced PADI, since I have to do the deep water stuff on top of my Open Water anyway. Seems like a waste not to. Obviously, it requires me not to drown next week …