This is a long one yo, so buckle up.
We drove on to Zavora, about 90km south of Tofo, after an amazing two days in Barra. We hired a chapa in Tofo to drive there, and split into two groups. A chapa is the size of a small minibus, and is reasonably comfortable if you’re under 5’6″ and therefore not in danger of cracking your skull every time you hit one of the numerous potholes or sandy ridges on the roads and tracks here. I’m the size of a hobbit, so I quite enjoy the occasional chapa ride. We stopped in the nearby town to buy supplies for the next few days, which included the biggest watermelon I’ve ever seen in my life, and set off.
It was absolutely baking, so we had the windows down and were rolling along quite happily for an hour or so, watching the landscape flash past, when I suddenly felt something spray onto my shoulder, next to the open window. A few short seconds later, we had pulled over on to the side of the road – we had broken down. The 4×4 with the rest of the MMF team pulled up behind us. Naturally, all the menfolk gathered round the bonnet of the chapa, stroking their chins and looking very serious, occasionally offering up phrases like “could be a spark plug”, “it’s definitely clutch fluid” and “shall I call my dad, he’s good with cars”. None of them had a clue what was wrong with it, but there was wild speculation aplenty which made for entertaining viewing.
CORRECTION: An outraged Andrew would like to point out that he knew exactly what was wrong with the chapa, he just didn’t have the required tools to fix it.
Someone flagged down a bus, and the driver kindly got out and had a look at the car. Hilariously it took us forever to even work out how to open the bonnet, before eventually realising the engine was located under the passenger seat. Where else would you put an engine?
CORRECTION: An outraged Andrew would like to point out that he knew exactly where the engine was.
Long story short – the nice man diagnosed a broken radiator
valve hose – I think – and managed to repair it. The spray that had hit me through the window was radiator fluid water, and we were lucky the chapa hadn’t overheated and burst into flames – again, I think. I’m ashamed of how little I know about cars, given that I’ve driven since the age of 17 and have bought three cars since then.
We were soon on our merry way again, and
despite the temperature gauge permanently pointing to red, we had no more mechanical problems. We reached Zavora just in time for sunset, and, as is our custom, set off along the beach for a walk, beers in hand, to watch the sun go down. The beach was beautiful, very desolate and rugged.
Sadly, we came across a dead manta ray on the sand, evidently a result of by-catch. Unsustainable and irresponsible fishing methods is something that MMF is working really hard to combat, and to see this beautiful ocean giant lying there really emphasised to all of us I think, that there is a hell of a fight ahead of us. It was a sombre group that walked back to our cottages, mulling over what we had just seen. The scientists in the group went back to the manta that evening, to collect photos and tissue samples.
Meanwhile we started cooking dinner, a delicious veggie curry and some kind of sausage concoction to appease the carnivores. The accommodation was a far cry from what we had left behind in Barra – the gas rings worked only intermittently, the oven didn’t work at all, and there were a fair few uninvited many legged guests scuttling around. It was definitely rustic…
The next morning we were up bright and early to go diving. I was super nervous, but the group has a lot of very experienced divers in it, which was reassuring. I extracted promises from each of them that they would bring me back alive, with all limbs intact. We climbed onto a trailer towed by a tractor to get down to the beach and the boat, and were soon speeding across the waves en route to our dive site: Witches Hat! It was a beautiful sunny day, and after a while my nerves were whipped away and I started to look forward to the dive. I buddied with Michelle, a very experienced diver and dive master, and she knew I was nervous and slightly incompetent and promised to look after me.
We did a positive entry into the water, and began our descent, Michelle staying by my side like the good buddy she is. We reached the bottom, about 16 metres down, and waited for the rest of the group. We were a big group, about 14 of us, so it took a while and I got pretty chilly. Unfortunately, the visibility was terrible, barely 4m, and with so many of us all trying to keep the dive leader in sight, it all got a bit chaotic. I was focusing solely on keeping Michelle’s yellow fins firmly in my sights, and she pointed out lots of different types of fish to me. I’m trying to learn as many of the fish signs as possible – obviously you can’t talk under water so you sign to each other instead if you see something cool. Our only slight buddy blip was when Michelle touched her forehead with the side of her hand and gestured forwards, which I misread as a sign for a shark. I whirled round, panicking and trying to peer through the gloom for signs of Jaws zooming towards me, before realising – when she asked me if I was OK – that what she had actually been saying was, “let’s move on”. I felt *slightly* embarrassed, but at least the poor vis meant no one could see me blushing.
We ascended, and everyone agreed that while it had been fun to go out as a big team, it had been a pretty unsuccessful dive, with the poor vis and the overcrowding. So the next day we split up: the more experienced divers headed out for a deep dive together, and the Open Water divers went out on another shallow dive, this time to a site called Vasco’s Reef. I buddied up with Lauren, who was as anxious and as new to diving as me, and we sat on the boat on the way out occasionally catching the other’s eye and gulping nervously. The dive went better than the previous day’s, though the vis wasn’t much improved. It felt calmer with fewer people, and we tailed the dive leader closely. We saw similar fishes to the previous dive, but being such a new diver, I was concentrating more on my technique and survival than looking for nudibranchs – which, by the way, are pretty awesome technicolour sea slugs.
When we were back on the boat, one of our number was looking pretty green around the gills, and in dire need of dry land and a place to puke. Being the kind, considerate buddies we are, we then asked the skipper to take us further away from land because Caty had spotted some spray which looked like it might be coming from a whale blow hole. There were still a few humpback whales in the area, but it was the end of the season for them to be here, so to spot one would be amazing. Poor Fred looked like Christmas had just been cancelled, but the rest of us were too excited to be that sympathetic. Sorry, Fred. We went flying over the waves towards the spray, the skipper killed the engine, and we waited.
Incredibly, the huge, broad back of a humpback suddenly curved out of the water, followed by a tail fluke. Then, even more thrillingly, a humpback calf breached beside the adult, right in front of us. It was absolutely bloody magical. We followed them from a safe distance for about 20 minutes, watching the calf breaching and slapping his tail fluke, while his mum swam alongside him, blowing spray up and slapping her tail into the water (lobtailing). She didn’t breach, but we saw enough of her body to determine that she was pretty enormous. It was incredible, and I felt so privileged to be there watching these majestic animals on part of their route to the cold waters of the Antarctic.
The afternoon and evening passed very pleasantly, with sundowners and football on the beach until it was really too dark to see the ball anymore – all fun and games until I got thrown in the sea in a frankly illegal tackle. We lit a bonfire on the beach while the braii got going, and whiled away a beautiful evening under an incredible starry sky, watching the shooting stars. One of the guys here is great on the guitar, so he played for us and we attempted to sing along, falling back onto old favourites that most of us knew most of the words to, like Don’t Look Back in Anger, Sitting On the Dock of the Bay and Under the Bridge. It was a really lovely evening, probably my happiest evening in Africa so far.
We were sitting round the fire in the dark, talking and listening to the guitar when a group of kids started creeping towards us, obviously thinking they were being super stealthy in the way that children think they are when in fact they’re making enough noise to wake the dead. Just as they got about 10ft away from us, Josh (MMF COO) suddenly leapt to his feet and chased them, roaring and growling at them as they ran shrieking into the darkness. It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. This happened a few more times, until we were all on our feet, tearing about chasing the kids around the beach in the pitch dark, pretending to be monsters and zombies each time they crept up on us. They were absolutely delighted – as were we.
The Open Water divers – me, Lauren, Caty and Fred – agreed that we probably wouldn’t bother diving the next day, as the vis had been so poor and we hadn’t seen anything that we’d hadn’t already seen in Tofo. Diving isn’t cheap, so to have paid for 2 dives and not seen much and with such bad visibility was a bit disappointing. However, over a braii (cooking an absolutely enormous tuna) and sundowners that evening the rest of the team persuaded us to try it once more. They had done a wreck dive and a deep dive, and had seen a manta ray, albeit fleetingly, and were keen to spot another one, so we agreed to come along.
AND OH MY WORD I’M SO GLAD WE DID.
Again we split into our two groups, but diving the same site, Area 51. We dropped the other group first, watching them do a negative entry beneath the waves. Then, as we were getting our equipment on, we saw a manta ray glide past our boat. Amazing. We couldn’t get in the water fast enough! We descended to a beautiful reef, with visibility as far as the eye could see. It was a very shallow dive, averaging about 10m depth, but there was so much to see that it didn’t matter at all. Plus, as it was so shallow the sunlight penetrated the reef to a degree that I hadn’t yet experienced, and the fish and reef seemed so much more colourful in the crystal clear waters. The dive leader pointed out lots of fish, including moray eels, lion fish, scorpion fish and angelfish.
Then, he swam into a cave – the rest of us hung back, not at all keen on following. He reappeared, and waved us towards him, gesturing that there was something big and exciting in there. I’m conditioned to obey orders so I followed immediately, not realising that the others were still hanging back. I swam into the cave, and the dive leader pointed to the exciting thing he had seen, and my heart stopped. A huge shark lay on the sea bed, apparently having a snooze. I think I froze for about 15 seconds, nodded and made the OK sign at him and swam as fast as I could out of the cave. Lauren had followed me in, having waited to see if I survived, and I practically pushed her out of my way in my haste to escape. She saw the shark and reacted similarly.
We had exited the cave at the other end, and pootled about, waiting for the rest to come through past the shark. I spotted a huge moray eel, and tried to sign to Lauren, but she had no idea what I was doing so I gave up and we carried on exploring the reef. The others appeared, and we all nodded and okayed each other excitedly, all of us relieved to have escaped the cave with our lives. The dive leader then headed on over a drop off, and again waved to us excitedly. We followed his pointing finger, and saw our SECOND shark! A gorgeous white tip reef shark was swimming along, minding his own business. It was amazing.
We then swam back onto the reef, and the dive leader swam under a ledge. No sooner had he ducked his head in than a green turtle came shooting out, swimming past us with a comically bewildered look on his face. And as if that wasn’t enough, a shadow suddenly loomed over us and we looked up to see a huge manta ray circling over us. As I gazed upwards I started to ascend – I think I had forgotten to breathe for about a minute in all the excitement so my lungs were full of air. The manta turned towards me, huge mouth open, and my first idiotic thought was: oh Jesus it’s going to swallow me. I descended as fast as I could so as not to be in his way, and we hovered for a few minutes, watching this huge, graceful animal glide through the water just a few metres from us, devouring plankton. We saw two more manta rays on this dive, closer to us and for longer than I could have dreamed possible.
Shortly afterwards the other group joined us on the reef, and they were led over to the cave to see the sleeping shark. The other shark, the turtle and the manta rays had gone by that point, but there were still a lot of beautiful fish around. After a few minutes I realised I had no idea where my buddy was, and had a slight panic, but when I had conveyed this to the dive leader, he signed that she was low on air and had ascended with the sweeper, and had definitely not been eaten by a shark.
When we ascended and climbed back onto the boat, we were all absolutely delighted with what we had seen – the other group had also seen a white tip shark and a manta ray. It was a perfect dive, and it suddenly occurred to me that maybe I might love diving after all.
We got back and I ate three peanut butter sandwiches, one straight after the other, which was probably the most delicious lunch I’ve ever eaten. There’s something about seawater that makes your appetite go into overdrive. We then packed up to head back to Tofo late in the afternoon, still buzzing from the amazing dive that morning. The accommodation may not have been up to much, especially after the luxury of Barra, but the beauty and majesty of the animals we had dived and the loveliness of the evenings spent with awesome people means Zavora will always hold a very special place in my heart and mind.