I woke up early in Zavora to try and get in on the morning dives if they were happening. I’d been told to go to the dive shop at 7am, but it was more than an hour before anyone showed up. I had some breakfast overlooking the ocean while I waited. The ocean looked much calmer than it had the night before.
Eventually, folks started showing up at the dive shop, including the South African tour guide who’d recommended Zavora to me, and a friendly dutch couple who were coming diving. Also joining were three marine biologists (one intern) that made up the local organization Marine Action Research (MAR). After a brief orientation, we loaded our gear into a medium-sized inflatable zodiac and headed to the beach, where we pushed and pulled the craft through the sand the last few meters before it was afloat. The rough weather had largely abated, and we took to the calm seas to follow the GPS to our first dive site.
It’d been the better part of a year since I’d been down underwater, but the skills flowed back effortlessly. Visibility was low (2.5 meters), the water was cold as hell, and currents made graceful navigation impossible for me, but it didn’t matter. Two massive sea turtles slowly glided across my field of vision within the first five minutes. Through the murky water, I caught my first glimpse of an ethereal manta ray gliding by in the distance. A school of massive barracuda swarmed past. A second dive provided vistas of endless craggy coral so packed full of enormous lobsters that they seemed to wave their long thin tentacles seemed to wave out of every visible surface.
I chatted up the other divers, and the lot of us made plans to stop by the lodge next door to my own for pizza later that eve. We got back around noon and after a shower and change of clothes, I wandered down the long sandy road to the nearby village with no real plans or direction. An army of locals wandered past in both directions as I crossed the verdant path.
The town center was a wide spot in the sand sparsely thronged with wooden shacks inviting commerce. Dozens of people hung out in the shade or milled around socializing. As I passed what seemed to be the general store — a small window cut into a wooden shack — I was greeted by an old man drinking a beer. We chatted for a minute before I decided to buy a beer from the window and take a seat next to him. When he finished his beer, I gave him half of mine. When I finished mine, he bought another and gave me half of his. From the shady porch edge that was our vantage, the tiny town buzzed with activity, with many errant gazes catching my own.
I finished up the second half a beer and headed back towards home. A random kid heading the same direction as me traded passes kicking dried up fruit and rocks for about a kilometer, laughing when the lopsided detritus hooked off into the surrounding farmland. After some downtime in my room, I once again set off on foot (to avoid the fool’s game of riding through the piles of sand) to join my fellow divers at the lodge next door for dinner.
We laughed, ate and drank into the night, joined by a rotating crew of friendly family members of the lodge’s owners. I avoided the 20 minute walk home in the dark with a much appreciated ride from the MAR researchers.
I once again fell asleep to wind and waves, and woke up to a beautiful sunrise over the ocean. I packed my things before heading to breakfast clad in my swimsuit, ready for a last couple dives before heading north to the popular tourist destination Tofo Beach. The ocean was substantially choppier as we made our way to our first dive: the Rio Sainas shipwreck. A new diver had joined the crew and was my buddy… but by the time I’d lowered myself down the line to the ship, he was nowhere to be found in the murky water. I signaled the divemaster who seemed thoroughly unperturbed. I explored solo feeling a mixture of confidence and worry. When we resurfaced, we found out the rough ride in had made my buddy seasick, and he lay green against the pontoons as we headed for a reef named “Area 51.”
Area 51 was freezing cold and felt like the entire ocean was being sloshed back and forth in a huge bowl. It was all I could do to avoid being pummeled wholesale against the walls of the reefs. But the struggle was worth every minute of cold, murky, effort, as dozens upon dozens of gigantic ethereal shapes waves and soared by; we were in the middle of a vast school of manta rays, and it turned out I had no idea what a manta ray really is.
Many 12 feet long or bigger, these car-sized animals gracefully and silently slid through the water close enough to touch. Their huge grinning and gaping mouths looked cartoonish below their intelligent eyes, which would look directly into my own, regarding me kindly and curiously as they passed. To be acknowledged by a creature so big nearly stopped my heart. Struggling to stay put, I hardly left the spot I landed in, content to spin round-and-round, in complete shock and awe of the gentle giants flying all around me.
Surface-side, my ignorance was clear. Though happy to see the things, everyone else was thoroughly aware that gigantic rays were a thing, and even told me that these were small ones — 3-4 meters — with big ones reaching up to 7+ meters (24 feet)! I rode the high through the choppy waves back to Zavora, feeling like I’d just discovered some fantastic new alien race, and content to be alone in the feeling.
The magic feeling didn’t last too long as I geared up next to my bike, perched high on a sand dune and with nearly an hour of slow, hot, painful riding ahead to reach the tarmac. I slid down the dune to the sandy road below, fishtailing like an overloaded clown car. In the blazing heat of the mid-day sun, I navigated the long road to the main Mozambican north-south artery.
I rejoined my northward path. Traffic was moderate but omnipresent, along with the accouterments of civilization. Women in homemade multicolored dresses with large loads of branches, water, and charcoal criss-crossed the roadway. A shocking number of children darted to and fro. Desolation seemed a fleeting memory after Namibia and parts of South Africa. I turned off the main road and onto a small paved road that passed through the city of Inhambane en route to Tofo.
Hentie back in Richard’s Bay had put me in touch with his ex-wife and her lodge in Barra, a quieter beach town nextdoor to Tofo, and I headed towards there, following a fork a few kilometers away from both towns. Eventually, I reached a turnoff to the road to the Barra Lighthouse, which had a number of lodges including my original destination. The road was deep loose sand heading off into the hills. I balked; I just wasn’t willing to fight more crazy sand roads that day. I made the off-the-cuff decision to say “fuck it” and looked up a nice looking hostel called Mozambeat in Tofo and turned tail back to the fork in the road.
I rode the 10km to Tofo and was once again presented with a steep sandy approach. Part of me died inside, but the place was dramatically closer, so I sucked it up and abused my clutch up into the dunes. Locals on tiny Chinese bikes flew by skimming the surface of the sand. I plowed deep ruts in the loose stuff sliding through ever meter with sweat and determination. I came upon a funky walled oasis covered in art measurable relief. Here was Mozambeat.
Around a large outdoor area thronged with palm trees were picnic tables and a pool. Around the edges of the compound were about 10 small tin-roofed buildings named after music artists like Kool and the Gang. Stylized paintings adorned the walls. A large two-story structure with few walls, tables, chill-out space, and a bar completed the ensemble. I checked in there to the only dorm building, filled with a dozen bunk beds, in the compound.
The buzz at Mozambeat was around a fashion show (and associated party) to take place that afternoon, except they were also subject to (and surprised by) the same power cut I’d caught in Zavora. Things got interesting when the generator was kicked on, and proceeded to spit out 400 volts of AC power, triggering a small haze of magic smoke from around the property. Such situations are where Africa really shines, as in the short couple hours before the event began, a replacement generator and sound system was sourced and the show went on.
A parade of local and foreign “models” strutting and dancing in the sun commenced to a DJ’s westernized musical tastes. Multicolored robes, dresses, shirts, shorts, hats, etc. went by one by one and two by two. While the festivities commenced, I began to meet my fellow residents, an eclectic and international collection of folks who would eventually end up comprising my crew for the next nine days of fabulous beach life in Tofo, sucked in by an unstoppable natural and social gravity of the place.
Things started off pretty easy. Other than fashion and fried electronics, the first night passed mostly uneventfully. The next day I walked the kilometer from Mozambeat to the town of Tofo, situated along the beach. The town itself was a cute and small collection of low-rise buildings, shabeens, and market stalls. Villagers carried fish and tourist sundries to and fro. Hotels and restaurants dotted the sizable beach. I enjoyed a cheap lunch along with my trusty kindle and watched life pass me by. Mozambeat’s internet had been fried in the great generator power surge, so after lunch I passed through the swirling ranks of touts on the beach to a fancy spot called Casa Barry prominently advertising free WiFi for a beer and to update my podcasts. Amazingly, it worked remarkably well by African standards. In the late afternoon, I trudged back to my hostel and spent the evening chilling out and making friends, a perfect end to a thoroughly relaxing day.
It was another easy morning, after which I packed some water and my laptop and headed to Casa Barry to work on my blog. Greeting me there was the friendly dutch diving couple from Zavora! I hung out and got some work done before more hardcore relaxation back at the hostel. The group in my dorm had reached a sort of stasis, and it had started to feel like I had a real social group. It made it feel like I wasn’t just a traveler passing through, and as certain light drama passed through, it actually made me feel more like I was home instead of homeless.
Finally, it was time to get some diving in. Unlike Zavora, there were a handful of diving outfits in Tofo, but Peri Peri came recommended, and I got a discount through Mozambeat. I got picked up in the morning and after a briefing, I once again headed to sea on an inflatable zodiac. Visibility was better than Zavora had been, and there were loads of eels and unicorn fish. The second dive had strong currents, but I was basically able to just relax on the side of a reef wall and be gently swept past it by the current, feeling like I was in some incredible and soundless underwater IMAX movie.
Our second ascent wasn’t quite like the first. The group of divers had become separated and ended up in two smaller groups. We surfaced to the open ocean, with no boat in sight. Bobbing in the substantive waves with our 3-foot inflatable marker poking up we waited. 10 minutes passed with no sign of our craft.
The mid-day sun beat down. I could feel my skin burning, but had no access to sunscreen. My initial amusement had passed, but I felt no panic, nor did the four others with me. We were certain we’d be found, but as the minutes ticked by, it wasn’t clear how long it would take. Twice, we caught sight of the boat speeding around in the distance. Twice it was heading the wrong direction, searching for our buoy, which wasn’t quite tall enough to poke out above the waves. The shore taunted us, visible yet over a kilometer away. Several times, the wind carried the sound of the twin outboard motors in the distance, but with no discernible direction.
After a full 20 minutes, the boat finally appeared. The captain was visibly agitated by having lost us, and the girlfriend of one of the divers with us, herself new to diving, was in tears, fearing he’d been lost at sea. We hopped back on board, quietly relieved it was over. I covered myself in sunscreen. When we returned, the owner of the dive shop made a point of telling me “this has never happened.” I headed back to Mozambeat and had an easy night in anticipation of another morning of diving, hopefully with slightly less surface-side excitement. I’d get my wish on that last part, but realize I’d been too specific in my desires.
The next morning started off much like the previous. The ocean was substantially more rough, with my stomach complaining slightly as we headed out to sea. The rough water had churned up far more sediment, and visibility was down to around 4 meters, but it was still a pleasant dive with lots of big and interesting fish.
We braved more rough water to our second dive site. As we did our equipment check, I joked about how I had 210 bar, slightly more than the expected amount. We entered the water and I descended into to the ocean floor. Visibility was extremely limited, and the current was extremely strong. I was breathing heavily and feeling stressed trying to stay with the group. Something felt awry, but I wasn’t present enough to be able to identify it. Suddenly, the divemaster appeared in front of me, his eyes wide and shocked. He swam directly up to me holding out his spare octopus. I took it, but hesitated before putting it in my mouth. In those intervening moments, I looked down at my own air pressure meter and discovered over a quarter of my air supply was gone in just our ~3 minute descent. I put the octopus in my mouth, linked hands with the divemaster and we began to ascend again. We hung out at a safety stop for 5 minutes. I was still confused about what was going on, but a check of my air pressure before we did our final ascent showed that I was fully devoid of air supply.
Surface-side, a quick check showed that the o-ring on my tank had shifted underwater and was dumping my air directly into the ocean. To my fellow divers, this was apparent, but I’d been completely oblivious. Despite the episode being out of my hands, I felt somehow responsible for everyone’s aborted dives. Ultimately, the group decided to go ahead and move to another less hectic dive spot for a final dive, with one of the researchers opting out and giving me her tank. The last dive involved swimming underwater through an arch made of fish-lined reef and went blissfully without incident.
Back at the shop, everyone had already heard the story and were talking about the guy who’d been lost at sea and had his air tank dump its contents in two consecutive days. I found the owner to settle my debts, content to give diving a rest for awhile after all the excitement. He once again told me “This has never happened!” It seemed to mean less the second time, even though I didn’t fault him or his outfit.
In the meantime, one of my new dorm friends, a devilishly good-looking South African surfer who, aside from his accent, seemed straight out of the Santa Cruz surfing scene passed along an invite to a braai (bbq) at someone’s house. He insisted it was fine if the rest of us crashed the party, to which we demurred, and followed him a half kilometer from the hostel to a beautiful gated compound with a couple buildings, a nice braai, and a perfect outdoor hangout spot. Our hosts were a Zimbabwean (by way of South Africa) mother/daughter pair with a couple of the daughter’s friends, to which we added a handful of foreign faces. They were super friendly, and we enjoyed an incredible meal, heaps of beer, and a new card game they taught us. I was more reserved than usual, aware that my friends and I had largely showed up unannounced and crashed their party.
We were invited back the next night (and more-or-less every night after), and overwhelmed by their generosity, began to feel like a proper member of their group. I was incredibly amused to learn the girls had found me initially intimidating, going so far as to inform me that they thought I had “resting bitch face.” Who knew? In the coming days, our group (hostel-dwellers and extended Zim/SA family) played bar trivia (we were ahead on questions, but lost on the last part of the competition over weaving a roof tile out of palm… turns out not everyone knows what a Geiger Counter is), and had another fantastic braai in which we bought a whole barracuda from a fisherman at the beach.
At the end of my stay, after making a ton of great new friends, Peri Peri Divers had an event at Mozambeat for three folks who’d just completed their divemaster certification. Besides a big party (where pretty much everyone dressed as Batman), there was what apparently is the internationally standard initiation for new divemasters: a Snorkel Test. For a snorkel test, a receptacle (in our case, most of a large plastic bottle) is attached to a snorkel then filled with some foul alcoholic concoction. Because this was Peri Peri Divers (peri-peri is roughly equivalent to “chili” in Mozambique), the concoction involved beer, hard liquor, and hot sauce, along with unnamed other ingredients. This foul brew is then poured in large quantities into the snorkel of our aspiring and be-masked divemasters. Hilarity and bacchanalia ensued (watch the video here), and even my MAR marine biologist friends drove up from Zavora to hang out!
I’d originally planned to leave the morning after the party, but that was definitely not in the cards. I woke up in the dorm to a disaster area, and a collective hangover. I booked in an additional night, with a far more relaxing opportunity for my goodbyes. Also, my Aussie friend Corey had, by now, finished his advanced rangering course, and was once again inbound to meet up. After 9 days of Tofo, and with many of my friends moving on, I knew I had to carry on, so I set my sights on the next nice beach town up the road, and headed to Vilanculos the next morning.
There’s no such thing as an entirely uneventful ride in Mozambique, and this day was no exception. Riding down through the sand started off relatively easy, and the road to Inhambane was mostly uneventful, but the highway eventually terminated in large “men at work” signs with the entire road shut down. The detour took me down a progression of crazier and crazier sand roads past lines of staring locals and tin shacks. There was no signage, and before long I was thoroughly lost, but after nearly 30 minutes of unexpected off-roading, managed to follow cardinal directions to the main road.
Once back on the main road, things were as easy as ever, passing village after village, with hundreds of children and dozens of adults meandering every which way on the shoulders, or staring from shady vantages beneath the few large trees still standing. 330km later, I pulled into my hostel, the Complexo Alemanha, around 4:30pm. At less than $5USD for a night (including a tasty breakfast), it was the cheapest accommodation to date. Corey was a few hundred kilometers behind me, but decided to push through the night to catch up, skipping Tofo entirely. I spent the evening eating strange matapa (cassava leaf) pizza and practicing my Spanish with the only other (Spanish) guests at the hostel. Corey checked in in the evening down the road at a guesthouse ran by a friend of his.
In the morning, I chatted with the hostel owner, a friendly old German who told me I was overpaying for my room because of Booking.com. He told me the price should only be ~$3.75USD a night without their fees, then passed on a nuanced rant about the shitty Chinese-made roads, which he described as having been built to last only long enough to extract the mineral resources they were targeting. Given the state of the roads I’d seen, this seemed quite plausible.
I packed up and headed down the road to where Corey was staying, in a nicer beach-side dorm room thronged with palm trees. It was a joyous reunion. We decided to spend another night in Vilanculos before continuing north, especially given the beating Corey had given himself the day before, and so I moved into his dorm. From there, we hit the beach.
We wandered around town, picked up some threadlocker for Corey, sunscreen for me, a bag of delicious mangoes, and finally managed to purchase a 500ml tetrapak of a fantastic substance that had caught my curiosity from the first time: Lord Gin! This devilish juice box of 43% alcohol proudly proclaims it was made “according to the Old Tradition.” It makes very few other claims, including its origin. Given its cost ($1.50USD per 500ml), I presume it crawled from the drunken pits of hell, driven by a hatred of decency and sobriety so pure (much purer than its 43% alcohol content) that it managed to make it all the way to the idyllic beaches of Mozambique. I do love the box’s design, though…
In the morning, Corey and I decided to continue on from Vilanculos. In an effort to make some time, we went the 20km to the main highway before looking for gas, and finding out there was none for over 100km, had to turn back to fill our tanks. The conditions of the highway immediately deteriorated as we headed north. The potholes went from an occasional nuisance to a way of life, often stretching entirely across the road, and continuing unabated for huge stretches. It was often faster to leave the roadway entirely and take to the dirt shoulder, but even then, giant lumps and bumps sent the bikes and us careening up, down, and around.
Traffic was light-to-moderate, but slow and dangerous. Oncoming vehicles, in particular heavy semi trucks, would swerve across the entire roadway in an attempt to avoid potholes. Knowing we were more nimble, they’d nonchalantly enter our lane of travel at the last minute, driving us from relatively flat land into huge dips, some large enough to swallow one of our bikes whole. Passing vehicles was similarly rife with peril, with the slow vehicles meandering unfettered through the totality of the roadway, usually picking the path we’d otherwise want. The scenery became an increasing tangle of dense jungle interspersed with trees.
We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant, where our order took the standard amount of time: nearly 2 hours from being seated to receiving food. We passed through numerous small towns, stopping for gas and to survey the wares from an army of entrepreneurs who’d chase after passing buses hoisting their wares to window-level or carrying them on their heads. When no bus was around, they’d swarm us with a substantially different concept of personal space than I’m used to, only to scramble off when another bus passed by. Much of Mozambique has more kids than classroom space. To accommodate the sea of children, schools run shifts three times a day. Armies of students flooding in all directions appeared at intervals along the roadside, often taking up large swaths of the roadway.
We passed the “Live” river, where we were charged double the price listed for motorcycles (the price for a car). It cost around 15 cents. Military soldiers there asked us some questions to seem like they were interested in more than money or drinks, which they asked for.
As evening approached, we pulled up to the town of Muxungue, a small crossroad and truck stop. We decided to stop for the night. Our first attempt involved following a sign on the highway down a series of dirt roads to a gated motel with folks tearing apart a large truck in the mud parking lot. Someone went off to fetch someone for us to talk to. A well-dressed man approached speaking decent English. He told us rooms cost an absurdly large sum of money, but confusingly, that they were fully booked for the night. Then he insisted on showing us one of the rooms that wasn’t available, despite that for the price we’d have never dreamed of staying there. He gave us vague directions to another spot on the main road.
With some effort, we found a Muslim restaurant with an attached guesthouse in the back. Corey stayed by the bikes as I checked out the accommodations. They were bleak: a pair of stained twin beds in a dirty room, a bathroom with no door and no running water, just buckets pre-filled for washing and bathing. The price, however, was right up our alley, and for a bit over $5, we checked in for the night, which involved removing our panniers to navigate through a small gate, around some narrow corners and under clothelines with drying sheets and towels to a safe spot by our room.
On the way into town, we’d passed nearly a dozen shabeens, so once settled, we backtracked on foot to find one. The first few we passed were blasting music so loud we couldn’t even get close. We eventually settled on one that was only mildly-ear-splittingly loud. We had a beer before finding another restaurant, in what would be a string of them, selling the same selection of buffet-style dishes ran by Somalis. Afterwards, we went to another shabeen where we ended up locked in long and interesting conversations with locals. One friendly truck driver I was talking to insisted on buying me a beer, and then set off on his motorcycle to pick up his Zimbabwean wife to introduce us. I managed to buy her a drink before he could stop me.
We ended the night later than expected and passed out in surprising quiet, given our location in the thick of the bustling main road, and otherwise modest and insect-ridden surroundings.