Friday, August 25, 2017

Egypt - The land of ancient mysteries, Pyramids and glorious underwater corals

The red sea - One of the top 3 diving locations in the world, renowned for its amazing colourful and lively corals. Egypt - the ancient world, the pyramids, the sphinx and curses. Finally I made it to this country. Egypt has a rather bad reputation amongst travelers because of the many terror attacks, and in general a country that is dangerous. The plane crash 2 years ago in Sharm El Sheikh didn't help the situation. But sometimes the most dangerous place is possibly the safest place?? Intrigued and attracted by the lure of the world class diving (so they say) and to see the pyramids, one of the 7 wonders of the world! Plus, it's super duper cheap to go there now! Especially the diving! The resorts in Sharm El Sheikh are so cheap you cannot believe it!
View from Pyramid Loft Rooftop
 
We decided to start our trip in Cairo for the pyramids. Booked ourselves into Pyramid Loft, which is literally a homestay right outside the pyramids. You get a view of the pyramids from the rooftop! It was amazing! For US$30/night for a room, it is not exactly cheap (considering we paid just a little over that for a Marriott resort in Sharm including breakfast and dinner). It takes about 1 hour to get there from the airport (Tip: Get yourself a taxi from the airport and bargain for 150 Egyptian pound instead of booking a car with Pyramid Loft.)
 
Get up early to visit the Pyramids. You will be there almost without any crowd and the feeling is pretty amazing! To our surprise, there was hardly any tourists. You could really feel the impact of the political situation and terror attacks on the tourism industry. It's 80 Egyptian pound to get in. Note: Beware of anyone who tries to help you and saying they're only trying to help. There is no free lunch in the world and especially so in Giza - they always ask for money for any small thing they try to help you with. So if anyone says "I can bring you there" or "I can take picture for you", reject otherwise be prepared to pay them for their kindness. And 2 EUR is apparently not enough for their kindness. You'll also be hounded by camel/horse riders for the entire duration you are in the pyramids - it is inevitable but eventually you will take on a camel ride. Because let's just say it is worth it. It is one of those things you just have to do when you're there. Take a camel ride to the top of one of the dunes to take some really good pictures. The official government rate is 100 Egyptian pounds for a simple camel ride. Make sure you agree on the price before you hop onto one.
Camel ride
 
This little guy kept calling me Shakira Shakira to get me to buy his stuff
 
It was quite aw-inspiring to see the pyramids but to be honest, it didn't quite blow my mind away. We both felt like wow pyramids, but after a bit it was more like "yea, the pyramids". It was definitely great to see them but wouldn't say it was the best thing! I think part of it was because the experience itself when you are there inside kind of ruined it a bit, with all the hounders and "tour guide" trying to hassle you for money and services. The ticket includes going into one of the smaller underground tomb - which kinda gives you an idea of what's it like inside the pyramid. Suggest you go into one of those first before deciding if you want to spend 200 Egyptian pounds to go inside the big pyramid. Didn't find it too spectacular inside the small one but maybe the big pyramid is more awesome? Either way we did not go in. Remember that it is free to enter the small ones, so if some random guy sitting outside asks for money, don't give! It happened to us and really it is preposterous if you think about it!
 
We pretty much spent half a day walking around. Note for dressing in Cairo - for ladies, it is advised to dress more conservatively - top with sleeves (doesn't have to be long sleeve) and pants past your knees, if you do not want unwanted attention from Egyptian men. We did a river cruise along the Nile with Pyramid Loft, paid US$15 each for the cruise including dinner. When we arrived on the boat, we thought we were being scammed! Because it did not look like we were on the Nile river and the boat did not seem to be moving at all! Then the performances started and we realized the boat was actually moving! But by that time, it was dark and you couldn't see much of the river except for the few lights along the coast. Dinner was not fantastic (buffet style) and apparently drinks are NOT included (but due to miscommunication, we did not realize that). Wouldn't recommend doing this river cruise at all. If you wanted to do a Nile River cruise, do one during the day and pretty sure you can board a local boat for a lot cheaper.
Nile River
 
There isn't much of a night life if you stay in Giza. Where we were there are a few restaurants that you can visit but otherwise that was it. There's a really good breakfast place around the corner - ask at Pyramid Loft. Typical Egyptian fare - of falafel, pita bread and many other spread. 1 pita with 2 fillings costs you 6 Egyptian pound - can't get any cheaper than that. We didn't have any problems with our tummy eating that!
Donkeys eating rubbish

Cows sharing the road with cars

Cairo isn't big on waste disposal
 
Our 2nd day was spent walking into the city center and exploring a bit of the city. Would not advice trying to walk into the city but we were trying to get some steps in so we walked for a very long time! You can use the public transport - take a mini van to the Giza train station and take the train. I'm pretty impressed with the train system in Cairo - pretty efficient and a great way to get around the city! And it only costs 2 Egyptian pounds! We visited the Coptic area first - that was kinda nice but nothing much going on. Then we took the train to a station near to the bazaar and continued walking from there. The thing about the train system is it is not in English, which makes navigation difficult. Best to download an offline map to figure out which are the stations and figure your way out from the map in the train. The bazaar was nice, with a lot of stalls selling different things, spices and souvenirs. Heading back we took the train to Giza and then the van - we got this tip from a random guy in the train who overheard our conversation. He was also the one who told us about the taxi rate to the airport. We were pleasantly surprised by how helpful Egyptians are! Especially after our experience in the pyramids the day before. We concluded that the real Egyptians are in Cairo and not in Giza - those in Giza are like mosquitoes, trying to suck the blood out of tourists for survival but there are in fact helpful Egyptians around.
 
There is a sound and light show happening every night at the pyramids for about 170 Egyptian pounds. Not sure if it's totally worth it, but you can actually see or even hear the narrated stories from the rooftop of the Pyramid loft. We were actually thinking of going but in the end, we decided against it and I think that was a good decision. It was not much different than seeing the pyramids during the day - just with lights at night.
View from our room in Sindbad
 
On our 3rd day we flew to Sharm El Sheikh and took the car transfer to Dahab. We booked our stay with Sindbad Camp for 20€ a night in an upstairs double room with the view of the sea (airconditioned). Sindbad Camp would be a really perfect location for backpackers and people to just laze around and meet people. It has a very laidback vibe. Also Dahab is less conservative, meaning you can walk around in shorts and sleeveless tops, or bikinis. Unfortunately when we arrived, there was a lack of backpackers so we didn't meet many people. Dahab is really more of a backpackers haven - it has that vibe and things are all so much cheaper. There are loads of tourist centers organizing trips out into the desserts and dive centers. You can also have a walk along the promenade which comes alive at night - filled with lots of restaurants selling seafood to tourists. We avoided these restaurants because they are in general targeting tourists and selling at much higher prices and also we heard that they fish in and around Dahab which by right is illegal. By word of mouth for a hippie couple, we discovered Yum Yum - a cheap local Egyptian stall which sells really good local food. The falafel was one of the best we've had! And the condiments were really tasty. We ordered almost everything they had on the first night - way too much but everything was just so delicious!
Yum Yum Restaurant
 

Enjoying my dinner at Yum Yum
Free divers training
 
We arranged our next day with Khaled with his dive shop Dahab Dive center. Khaled is a nice guy, introduced by the owner of Sindbad camp. We made a mistake on the first day by booking ourselves with the dive center beside Sindbad (Ian even handed over his Dive License), and after meeting with Khaled, we were sold on Khaled. It was then a rather tense and difficult task of cancelling our booking and trying to get Ian's license back. To be honest, Khaled was just more interesting when he discussed the diving itinerary and climbing - of course being cheaper is a plus point. We started our first dive at the Canyon and the 2nd at the blue hole. The blue hole dive was pretty awesome. It started with basically a vertical drop to 25/30m where you go head first and then come out to a pretty amazing wall, then swimming through into the blue hole where you see all the free divers training. It was 2 good dives! The water is about 25 degrees C, and I was basically shivering half way through the dive. It didn't help that the temperature difference is huge (10 degrees). After our dives, we went for some climbing (we paid US$30 each including equipment). Khaled is starting out his own climbing group (check out the facebook page Dahab Rock Climbing). It was my first climbing session and it was not easy climbing the dessert mountains. There was not that much grip compared to normal mountain climbing which made it a lot more difficult for me but I made it - we did 2 climbs in total, with Ian taking the lead for both climbs. I was so proud of myself for completing the climbs.
Climbing

Superwoman!
Blue Hole - Mecca of free diving
Entry to the blue hole dive
Next day we booked an entire day of diving at the Ras Abu Golum national park. It involved driving to the Blue Hole and taking a short boat ride to the island. You could also take a camel ride instead but would take you longer. The day included 3 dives and very simple Bedouin Lunch. After the 1st day of diving, I was rather disappointed at the lack of marine life in Dahab - all we saw were small (extremely small fish) and some rather dead corals. The dives in the national park was no different. Although we did see a lot more fish, they were baby fish, so small you'll miss them if you blink! Apparently, the Bedouin tribes are given free range to fish in the ocean hence the lack of good sized fish in the ocean. The 3rd dive was the best, we entered the water and were greeted by stingless jellyfish! They were amazing and filled up the sea surface! So apparently Bedouin has no idea you can eat jellyfish - we told one of the boys who was going to tell his dad, so maybe next year you wouldn't see jellyfish anymore! In this dive, we also saw a HUGE fish - grouper I think, which was surprisingly because how was it possible that this fish was not hunted yet?? We also saw a seahorse which was pretty awesome! On our way back, I drove the boat!!
Love playing with jellyfish that doesn't sting

Doing the high Five, deep dive

With the seahorse

Went for something non-Egyptian that night (was a little tired of falafels and pita after 4 days of it). This Italian place (Dai Pescatori) was recommended by some free dive instructor as the best Italian restaurant. When we arrived, the lady in charge was truly very much Italian and she was raving about her food - how everything is super fresh and home made and everything was very very delicious. Got our hopes so high up that eventually we fell so deep down to the ground. Probably is the best Italian restaurant because it's the only one in Dahab! To be honest, it was NOT spectacular. We had bruschetta, pizza and pasta. She raved about all the 3 options but they were just blah. When we arrived, a Chinese tourist was begging for the steak, literally drooling when she walked in and asked "is there steak today". Pretty sure she would have walked away if the answer was NO. Maybe the steak was fantastic, couldn't tell but what we ordered was not that great.

Nothing to shout about bruschetta

Home made dough vegetarian pizza - maybe it's the Italian pizza dough I don't like but didn't like this one either

Probably the best dish out of the 3, but also felt like a normal pasta
 
 
The next day we went for a dessert trip out into the white canyon, small coloured canyon and oasis. You can find such trips in any of the agencies along the promenade. They are being offered at about 450 Egyptian pounds each for the full day tour. Ours included also sandboarding, for which you usually have to pay extra for the rental. But in the end I think we managed to bargain it down to include it in the package so 900 Egyptian pounds for the 2 of us including 2 sandboards.  We had a private tour, just us the Bedouin guide and the driver. One thing that amazes us is basically how liberal people are in that part of Egypt. The dessert trip was amazing! It was a rather long drive to the dessert, about 1hour, and we arrived at the white canyon first. I would recommend bring a light weight scarf to cover yourself from the scorching sun. The white canyon was really amazing and beautiful, almost like the Zion park if you've been, with meandering canyons, slotted canyons. We spent quite some time there just taking in the scenery. We also walked quite a bit (maybe more than an hour) to our lunch stop - a village near the oasis. It was pretty brutal under the hot sun so keep well hydrated.
 
Climbing down to the white canyon
 
Mushroom top


Coloured canyon

Crawling under white canyon


My Egyptian look


White canyon
 
Our lunch was a very simple vegetarian Bedouin lunch again. After 2 days, I've grown to know a Bedouin lunch means potatoes, a salad and heaps of rice. And always with Bedouin sweet tea - not my cup of tea because it is extremely sweet. Pretty sure they put more sugar than tea in it. After lunch, we drove to the small coloured canyon. The real big coloured canyon is closed for visit due to conflicts, so we can only go to the small coloured canyon. It is really beautiful with all the different colours in the sand stones. Similar to white canyon but with colours. This is much smaller than the white canyon. After our tour, we drove to the sandboarding area. Nobody was there and it looked quite menacing - the height and the amount of sand. We got 2 sandboards and tried sandboarding. It was really hard work because you had to walk up the sand to get to some height and start sandboarding down. After 3 tries, I got really tired of walking up! You spent 15mins trying to walk up and the fun is over in 5 seconds! I really liked it. Fell a couple of times but eventually I think I got the hang of it. Ian was trying to do some tricks on sand but of course he could do it because he knows how to snowboard!
 

Sandboarding

 

Our last dinner in Dahab was spent at Yum Yum once again! Still the best dinner place. Dahab is a really nice place to spend some time in. It is really cheap and you can possibly spend a week here doing different activities - climbing, diving, hiking, biking, even windsurfing! We were there for only 4 days but we had fun while we were there. The next day we left and tried to hitchhike our way to Sharm El Sheikh. We started walking to the main road and after some time, we managed to flag down a car who offered to drive us! Mohammed is the driver and at first he offered to drive us to his home which is close to Sharm. He doesn't speak much English but we communicated. He works in the tourism industry and speak Italian (because Italians were the biggest group of tourists in the past). Apparently hitchhiking is frowned upon in Egypt as police is afraid tourists might get cheated so locals are not allowed to pick up tourists for no reason. We also got invited to his home for tea! Mohammed was doing Ramadan so he couldn't drink but he made sure we got some tea to drink and we also met his kids. It was a really nice experience and to truly experience the kindness of the Bedouin people. In the end, he actually offered to drive us all the way to Sharm El Sheikh for no returns! As a gesture of our appreciation, we gave him our remaining mangoes (it was such a pity because those mangoes were delicious) and dates.
 

Mohammed and his family
 
Finally we arrived in Sharm, where we will start our dives. The town is seriously rather dead, and the plane crash 2 years ago truly affected tourism. The coast is filled with huge resorts and you could imagine 3 years ago, they would be filled with tons and tons of tourists and super crowded. Now, most of them are empty and you don't see anyone sunbathing on the beach. We booked our stay with Marriott for less than US$40 per room including breakfast and dinner at the hotel (it's the Ramadan special rate). The resort is amazing! It has a really good pool and also private beach. We actually did not have dinner at the hotel even though it was free! We went to an Indian restaurant 5 mins walk from the hotel - not so great, would not recommend it. We started our dives the next day with Mr Diver, which is stationed right beside Marriott hotel. It is a really small establishment, and one of the cheapest dive centers there. We booked the 6 dive package which was US$157 and extra US$15 a day for equipment. Lunch is included in the package. In general Sharm El Sheikh is a little more expensive than Dahab, but still not expensive diving packages compared to rest of the world! That is the effect of the unfortunate situation they are in at the moment.
School of fish gets me excited like yeah!! Shark Reef @ Ras Mohammed

One day a boat full of toilet bowls decided to ship wreck here! Sometimes you need to take a dump while diving

 


 
 
Our first day of diving was at Ras Mohammed National Park. People rave about this Park and we were proper excited about our dives. Unfortunately we were on the boat with 2 other groups of non-divers which did not help with selecting good dive sites (I guess that comes with going with a small establishment). The first dive was a bit crap - it was canyon dive. The 2nd dive we went to Shark Reef which was the best dive site in Ras Mohammed. We saw loads of fish, 2 eagle rays, barracudas and much better corals. I can now understand why people rave about the corals in Red Sea. They are really really alive and the best I've ever seen! To me, the water was very cold there about 23 degrees C, and I only had on a shortie. Wrong choice! Also, because of the salt content I had to go with 5kg of weight (probably could have done with 4kg). The last dive was the worst and didn't make us feel any better.
 
Healthy corals
 
We went for dinner at the Old Market at El Masrien. It is one of the cheap very local and authentic places in the Old Market if you want good food. We really liked all the starters and dips and the lady's fingers were really good! We decided to get some hibiscus tea leaves here (should have gotten them in Dahab but we didn't) and ended up being conned by one of the sellers and paying 4 times the price! In the end, to our surprise, the seller agreed to give us our money back and we bought the tea from another place for 25 Egyptian pound for 100g. And we thought that was quite expensive for 100g, but turns out it is a lot more expensive outside of Egypt! We actually regretted not getting more! The market is kind of a nice place to walk around and see things, if you want to buy something, make sure to bargain real hard because they always start with much higher prices for tourists.
A grand mosque at the old market

@ El Masrien

This would be our last full on Egyptian meal
 
The next day was our free day - so we just lazed around the beach, went to the supermarket and bought some dates, roasted corns. Didn't do anything much. For dinner, we decided to try the small Japanese sushi place below the Indian restaurant. It was empty but the day before we saw people eating there so we decided to give it a try. They had a lot of different sushi roll options which was pretty amazing given how empty the place was! We ordered 4 different half rolls and tuna tataki. Amazingly, they were pretty good for Egyptian standards!! The tuna was also very fresh and tasty! I hate to think they fish them out of the national park but the fish was really fresh! And cheap as well. Our meal plus 2 drinks and 2 miso soup came up to be about 400 Egyptian pounds - really decent for sushi. And we would come back the next night for more sushi!!
I can't believe sushi in Egypt is good!

Sushi galore

 
Our final day of diving was out at Tiran Island, supposedly the best dive sites! As usual, it was just the two of us from Mr Diver and we joined another boat (of super experienced divers) out to sea. That was surely a good sign because it means we would go to some of the best sites there! We met up with our dive guide, different from the first day and waited to board the much bigger boat. I've got to say I have much respect for these dive guides. They were all on Ramadan and they did not eat or drink at all the entire day even after all those diving! Our first dive was amazing! Jackson Reef - the moment we went down, we saw the most amazing corals ever! So alive and vibrant you can't believe it! The other 2 dives were also pretty good (last dive was kind of the worst until we saw a baby manta when we surfaced) but I can honestly say - if you go to Sharm El Sheikh, make sure you dive Tiran! After all that diving, my conclusion is if corals are what you're after, you'll not get it wrong in Red Sea/Sharm El Sheikh. It truly has the best corals I've ever seen! But unfortunately marine life is lacking big time. I was so amazed when I saw the most beautiful corals ever but after 10mins of seeing the same healthy colourful amazing corals, I got a bit bored and was waiting for more action in terms of pelagic swimming past, surprising me. I need fish, and loads of them, the occasion big surprise of a huge stingray, or manta ray, or huge school of fish, some reef sharks would have done the job. But didn't really see much of those in this trip. One of the dive masters also commented that the amount of fish he has seen over the past 10 years decreases each time. The huge drop in tourism also did not help as our dive master told us they/people started fishing in the national park for food because they had no income. The place is very dependent on tourism and without the tourists, they had nothing.
Everyone got so excited when they see ONE turtle. Only saw 1 turtle the entire trip



This little cutie swam past us near the pier!
 
We had some pretty awesome time in Egypt. Unfortunately we did not meet as many people as we had hoped to because the place was seriously lacking in tourists/travellers but we did meet some great people who helped us along the way. It would be a little difficult as a single backpacker because of the lack of other single backpackers to meet along the way, and potentially could get a little boring. As a female traveler, Egypt is not necessarily the most female friendly country. If you travel as a single female, it is possible but just be aware of your surroundings and when in doubt, dress more conservatively. And Sharm El Sheikh, although very cheap now, would still be a little expensive to budget backpackers because they do not have budget accommodations for single travelers. That said, you could always base yourself in Dahab and go on diving trips from there as they do organize diving trips to Ras Mohammed and maybe even Tiran if you ask! If you have the time, do try to do the Thistlegorm wreck dive. A lot of people raved about this wreck dive as one of the best in the world! It'll cost you US$80 from Dahab (way cheaper than from Sharm) but the downside is that you have to start travelling in the wee hours of the early morning (apparently at 4am) to travel down south and hop onto the boat to Thistlegorm. Apparently there is only 1 boat going per day as they limit the number of divers to the site. A typical itinerary from Dahab would include 2 dives at Thistlegorm (where you get to penetrate the wreck on the 2nd dive) and 1 dive at Ras Mohammed. I'm glad we went to Egypt now - with much less tourists you get to see a lot more of the places. But it is also quite sad to see how deep down they have fallen and how all the once almighty resorts and beaches are deserted or closed. We only stopped at Cairo, did not go down through to Luxor but we did hear pretty amazing things about Luxor, that could be worth a visit!
 
And in Egypt, everything is about bargaining, except for maybe accommodation and restaurants. We practically bargained everything in Dahab, even the diving prices with Khaled! Taxis in Cairo needs lots of patience to bargain down to the right price, and especially in the markets, put your best bargaining face forward and do not be ashamed!
 
Also, we were there in the midst of Ramadan. Basically the 3rd day of our trip was the start of Ramadan. Initially we were worried that a lot of activities would be stopped because of that but Dahab and Sharm being touristy spots, they were still operating full time during this period! And it is a lot better because you spend the whole day out doing stuff and at night, the town is full of live because the locals are out eating and drinking. To us, it seems like business as usual when we were there as shops were still open and we were able to do the things we set out to do. Our guides (both Khaled and the Bedouin guide) were not fasting as they were out servicing tourists. So it goes to show you don't have to avoid Egypt during Ramadan, especially the touristic areas.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

This is Africa

Another new continent, 2 more countries added to my travel list. Africa - the motherland. A lot is "known" but still many to uncover.
Mesmerizing
 
This Is Africa.
 
Always wanted to visit Africa but have been lured by other places which are closer to home and easy to get to. Now that I'm living on the other continent, it's not exactly close but hey at least the time difference is minimal. Why Africa? The Safari and the beach. Mozambique was the main reason why I made the trip this time - I was instantly attracted by pictures of the white sandy beach, calm sea and warm sun posted by Hugo - a great, funny Spaniard who is also a great, funny dive and kite surf instructor. And the fact that you can kite surf there (when there is wind). So me being me, I was immediately hooked. Of course, what's the point of flying to Africa without a safari trip? That is where Kruger National Park fit in. And so begun my 2 weeks adventure - didn't really plan much, just booked the safari and hostel in Mozambique and off I went. With no idea if I'm going to make it on the bus from Nelspruit to Mozambique - but This Is Africa, anything is possible.
 
I had an interesting flight to Johannesburg. Because I was trying to get rid of some frequent flyer miles, I booked a hell of a flight route from Amsterdam via Istanbul and Uganda to Johannesburg. Whatever to save some pennies. In Uganda, those ground staff (they obviously do not know the rules) insisted that I got a yellow fever injection because otherwise I'll be deported from Johannesburg. Being tired, lack of sleep and just plainly shocked and unsure if that is true, I went ahead and got an injection at the airport. FYI - it is NOT TRUE! Do not believe these people! Unless you come from High risk areas, you do not need yellow fever injection. Anyway, this lady took me for a walk to the transit area even after I told her I was on another flight. Took me back down and on the way ask me for money. Pfft. For doing her job? I was tired but I was not going to give you money for causing me trouble. And to think she wanted USD10 for doing nothing - which she said was small money. After all that trouble, I got on my plan and got to Johannesburg.





Soweto
Johannesburg - it's a city that tourists would not fall in love with at first sight. Unless you have a local to bring you around to see the real Johannesburg, what you will see are the big shopping malls, and nothing much to do. I did the bus tour and saw the "must-sees" in Jo'Burg but personally didn't think much of the city. I'm sure there are true gems in the city, I just didn't get to experience it.

Mother Hyena with her baby - they look so cute when they're young

Pissing elephant. Notice its 5th leg?





My private tent
Next morning, I set off for my safari (3d2n) with Outlook Safari - ZAR5450 including pickup and drop off from Jo'Burg. The pickup and transfer were very professional and on time. There were 3 other guys in the same group and we joined the other people who had already started the safari before us. The tents were adequate though pretty stuffy if you closed it but we had 1 each to ourselves. Our first safari was arranged by the national park - sunset safari and we saw quite a number of animals - was a good one but really cold. Not sure if it was because of the super weird day - that day started with 15C weather and rainy - suggest to bring a jacket for the night drives. The dinner spread was decent and probably adequate - was totally cleaned out by the end. And wine is included in the package - which was why we finished 8 bottles amongst 6 of us.
Giraffe crossing the road
Retired buffalo - because it cannot keep up with the herd
Wild dog!!! Rare sighting
 
Next morning, we started at 6am with the morning drive. This drive was done by the Outlook Safari guys. The day started slowly but got more interesting. We saw almost all the big 5 except leopards. It was a good drive! Breakfast followed and a small nap before our afternoon safari started. The deal with the Safari includes 2 morning drives, 1 sunset drive and 1 afternoon drive for the 3 days. Personally I think 3 days is good enough because the itinerary is the same everyday and if you've already seen the big animals, it'll just be the same everyday after. After a while, it gets a little boring - up at 5am, head for a 3hour drive, back, go out again - Repeat mode.
 
All in all had a good time with the Safari. On leaving I requested to be dropped off in Nelspruit bus station (they did that without charge) and tried to find a bus that will take me to Maputo without a visa. Unless you're from South Africa and African countries (google for more specifics), you need a visa to entry Mozambique. I couldn't get one done before as the consulate is not in Netherlands, so I had to get it at the border. There has been a lot of talks on the Internet about who can or cannot get a border visa or how difficult it is to get one - personal experience Not Difficult. Do note that usually the big buses (like City or Greyhound) do not let you board their buses all the way to Maputo if you do not already have a visa because they do not wait for you at the border. You could ask for a ticket just to the border and pray that you get your visa before the bus leaves. I did just that - to Lebombo (325 R), ran to get my visa (70USD) and got on the bus again (30R to Maputo). Although there were a few more people who had to do the same but they bought the ticket all the way to Maputo. In the end, the bus waited for us as their luggage were still on the bus. But just to be on the safe side, I wouldn't recommend leaving your bags in the bus in case you're the only one. The visa process was pretty straightforward - the officers are really slow but you just fill in the form, take a photo, pay and you get it. No questions asked. They didn't even ask to see proof of my accommodation or flight details. Still, have them on hand in case.

Note: Highly recommend Greyhound bus to the other buses - they are a lot more professional and comfortable. No price difference as far as I know.
 
Took me close to 5h to get into Maputo and then straight to Fatima's. Fatima's is like THE BACKPACKERS' place in Maputo. Everyone stays there. Or rather everyone who is going to Tofo stays there. It's a decent hostel, though during high season, the price is ridiculously high for the quality - USD14 per night. It is not expensive, but you would expect cheaper - of course during the low season it is a lot cheaper. They have free WiFi after 7pm till morning.
 
It is here I met the 2 most important people in my entire trip - "Excellent" Dancer Englishman Ian and Chilean-who lives in Cape Town and has a South African passport- Javiera aka Mother Teresa. This night sealed our fates for the entire trip and we became inseparable ever since (couldn't get rid of each other!).

I did not spend any time in Maputo - it was always just a stopping point for my adventure. I arrived in the evening, went out for dinner and back to sleep, getting ready for the next day adventure. Couldn't say anything about Maputo but from what I've heard, the review is mixed. It doesn't have much going on for itself - apparently the train station is a highlight. I wouldn't recommend more than a day in Maputo I guess. Not much of a city person and I don't think Maputo has much in terms of tourist attractions. However, there are small beach side places or islands you can get to from Maputo.

Packed like sardines still managed a great welfie!
The next day everyone in the hostel took the shuttle to Tofo Fatima's - 900 meticals - at 4am. Fatima's offers a direct shuttle between Maputo and Tofo (stopping at Fatima's). This is the most convenient means of travel. Usually the shuttle would still stop at Maputo bus station to pick up more passengers, but this being the peak period - the shuttles (2 came) were totally packed like sardines! The journey took 8hours - for reasons we have no idea because the distance is not that far (about 300km) and we were pretty sure the driver was driving at 80km/h. Although it was very uncomfortable, the people were all fun and nice and we had a good time (trying to sleep but couldn't because my seat was not hinged).
 

Tofo Beach
Stepping into Tofo - we were greeted by extreme heat and of course the blue blue sea and beautiful beach in front of Fatima's. Fatima's at Tofo is a good place for single travelers or travelers wanting to meet people. It has a pretty good vibe - a nice restaurant and terrace to chill out and free WiFi throughout the day (if you can hook onto it). Fatima herself is a feisty woman but kind at heart - get into her good books and she's an angel! Tofo is beautiful with long stretch of beach (walk further and you'll find Tofino which is even quieter). Lining the coast you have all the small resorts ("resort" is a big word), huts and guesthouses for the tourists. To me I feel like that area is primarily for tourists - the restaurants, the market, the accommodations and dive centers. It does have a nice vibe and very easy to walk around. The main beach area right out front from Fatima's is awesome. If you walk to the right end pass the dunes you get to Tofino which is a lot more deserted. To the left end (about 20mins away) Barra beach which I've been told is really beautiful as well. The nearest ATM is a 5-10min ride away at the gas station so make sure you have as much cash as you can, else take a tuk tuk or the bus to the gas station.
 
We spent the day swimming by the sea. The water is very refreshing and the waves HUGE! Swimming is almost impossible because of the waves but playing in the water is really fun because of the waves. We met a group of 4 South Africans and had a good short chat with them - we would see them again and again the next few days because Tofo is a small world and everyone comes to Fatima's. It is also here in Tofo that I met a Dutch couple who live in Utrecht and about 2km from me! What a coincidence!


Friends @ Tofo
The local delicacy is called Matapa - Mozambiquecan curry made of ground (cashew) nuts, cassava leaves and coconut milk. You can have it plain or with fish/crabs/prawns. And it's served with rice. For 300 meticals, it's a reasonable priced meal. The best Matapa we had was in Tofo on the first night. Can't remember the name but it's by the beach near the market where you can also sit on mats instead of chairs.
Matapa Yum Yum

Bunny Chow - go to this Indian Restaurant right outside Fatima's! They have a really small menu but the taste is really great!
Next morning I booked myself on a 2-dive trip with Tofo Scuba. Being told Tofo is a good diving destination, I was of course really excited - to the point I forgot to bring the correct battery for my underwater camera! If you stay with Fatima's, you get a 30% discount with Tofo Scuba which makes it the cheapest dive center. Normal price would be around 3400 meticals for 2 dives inclusive of equipment. Unfortunately, I was disappointed with the 2 dives I did. Maybe it was the weather or just pure bad luck - we didn't actually see much at Manta Point and Sherwood Forest. Maybe I've been spoilt by the waters of South East Asia - at Manta Point I really didn't see much except for 1 turtle. At Sherwood Forest, we dropped down to small school of fish and we stayed right there for the entire dive of 30minutes. It was much better than the first dive, but that school of fish is not the best school I've seen. And for 30 minutes, we just stayed there! The dives were all deep (30m) so bottom time was short for non nitrox divers. All dives are close so you  just depart from the shore for each dive with a bumper boat - the most fun part was when they beach the boat.

Party like there's no tomorrow
There was a Tofo Ocean Fest at Fatima's between 28 Dec to 2 Jan 2017 and we were right there in the midst of it. The party started at 9pm and continued all the way to next day 4-6 am. One Gin & Tonic followed by another, and before long, we were all on the dance floor jamming to the music. It was an unexpected fun night, made even more memorable and funny by the awesome display of Ian's special dance moves. He's not called "Excellent" for no reason. Because of our penchant for partying, we missed the morning Ocean Safari in search of whale sharks. And the afternoon one. Bummer!
Well deserved seafood lunch after a failed Ocean Safari. This restaurant is beside Peri Peri Divers. Good food but be prepared to wait!
 
Went out for Ocean Safari on New Year's Eve with Peri Peri Divers (you get a 15% discount for no reason, ended up paying 2700 meticals) but unfortunately didn't see anything. Snorkelling was also no good there. Tofo has the most number of whale sharks - so this is the place to be if you want to spot a whale shark. Apparently about 40% of the total whale shark population! According to the marine biologist, June/July is the season though many people assumed it is Nov - March.

Before the tequila, chilling with the local kids
NYE was a fun night! We started the night with an awesome dinner at a local place near the market - you get lobster meal for 400 meticals! Then headed to the market to see the locals party with our own bought tequila and tonic. Right before the clock struck 12, we headed back to Fatima's for the countdown and more dancing! It was a crazy but fun night - a lot of dancing, laughter, fun and drinking. Definitely a night to remember!

Mother Teresa (Javiera) and her disciples. She never fails to attract crowds of locals towards her
No one leaves on New Year's Day. I was initially booked till 31st and heading to Vilankulos, but that's the beauty of travelling and meeting people who plays a part in your life and plans - plans change and you go with the flow. So there I was still in Tofo on 1st of 2017 hanging out with these amazing people and doing nothing (well we went swimming again).

These people - Miss them
 
We decided to try the Ocean Safari one last time - you get a free safari if you didn't see the whale sharks! However, despite the incredibly good weather, we still didn't see anything. Not even dolphins. But all good things must come to an end, and that was our last day in Tofo. We managed to convince Javiera to go up north to Vilankulos with us and the 3 musketeers continued. We had a really fun time travelling from Tofo to Vilankulos, starting with an "exciting" tuk-tuk ride and almost being scammed to take an incredibly expensive boat and getting a ride from a really nice lady from port to Vilankulos. The journey involves a trip to Inhambane port (you can take a bus for 20 meticals from Tofo market to Inhambane and walk to the port), take a public boat to Maxixe (really really slow boat for 10 meticals), and another bus to Vilankulos (usually it is 300 meticals for a 4hour ride but they are likely to overcharge foreigners). The chapa stops at 4pm so if you arrive after, be prepared to hitchhike or pay for a taxi.


Before the tuk tuk fell apart everyone was all smiles

Our (mis)adventures in the tuk tuk
 
 

Then the tuk tuk began to fall apart

How many people in this small boat
Hitching to Vilanculos

By the time we arrived, everyone was exhausted. And finally I met Hugo! Big guy still looked the same, guess diving and kiting keeps you youthful! I stayed in his awesome big house (which he shares with another dive instructor) in my own private room. He's on couchsurf as well, so if you can convince him to host you, have a look at his profile! The house is on a good location overlooking the sea and you will get your own room with mozzie net and fan! Unfortunately my friends had to stay in Baobab Beach Backpackers. This is also a really nice place to meet travelers - they have a nice chill out area out front and overlooking the beach. The WiFi is not reliable at all though.

Life of the local fishermen
Vilankulos is quite different from Tofo. It is a much bigger town where the locals live together with the guesthouses for tourists. You can see the villagers and houses as you walk along the street, getting greeted by the locals all the time. It feels more local because of this. In the center, there is a huge market - a white building which you have to walk through to discover the wonders - Like Narnia! A maze of colours, food and clothings. This is very authentic and they would not scam. The sellers don't speak English so the prices would be the right price. Don't get entangled with any English speaking helpers as they'll like charge you a higher price. Portuguese is actually quite important. Fortunately, we have Javiera to help us - she speaks Spanish and they say Spanish and Portuguese are same same (go figure!). The sea there is very shallow - you can walk for miles and not even get submerged in the water! Also because it is shallow, it is much warmer than in Tofo.



 
 
Vilanculos

View from the dive shop
Things to do in Vilankulos are diving, island hopping, kitesurfing or just do nothing! There is only 1 dive center within the main area - Oddessea and the diving is usually at 2-mile rock. Diving is not cheap - USD130 for 2 dives including equipment and lunch (only 2 sandwiches). Island hopping is recommended! There are a lot of islands around Vilankulos - so you could be doing island hopping for days! They should do an island hopping camping trip to cover all or most of the islands in 2 or 3 days and camping on islands - that would be awesome! We signed up for the Bazaruto island trip (USD60) including a good cooked lunch.

Bazaruto

On top of the dunes

 
Bazaruto - The highlight of Vilankulos. It is basically a sand dune island and it is amazingly beautiful! When the tide is low, you can see sand banks around Bazaruto. Make sure you  have flip flops because the sand is scorching hot in the afternoon. Walk up to the top of the sand dune - the view is very rewarding! Bring a board if you have because I'm pretty sure sandboarding is real fun! We didn't have a board, so we rolled and ran down the dunes. We also went for 45 minutes of snorkeling - much better marine life compared to Tofo. Not the most amazing snorkeling but at least there was much more to see. After a good lunch, we proceeded to another sand dune island Benguerra Island - Also a beautiful island but much flatter. Flamingo island was next on the list but you are not able to get close to these beautiful creatures as it may scare them away - that was a low point.

One of my favourite shots of me. Thanks photographer Jones


 
 
3 musketeers on top of Bazaruto
 
Rolling down the sand dunes
 
 
Classic location for a handstand

2 local places which we went to for dinner - Zita's and Leopoldina - pretty good though personally I didn't think Leopoldina was too cheap. We went to Zita's with 16 people which made it a bit more difficult to judge the quality of food as the kitchen was probably overloaded with the quantity - you could go there with a small group of people and order ala carte - we did it buffet style (was 400 meticals per pax without drinks).  Didn't think the food in Vilankulos was better than in Tofo though.
 
We had 3 different types of Matapa at this local restaurant Complexo Alemanha.
Matapa 1
 
Matapa 2
 
Matapa 3
 
Shashuka I had at Leopoldina

The diving was ok - much better than Tofo but I wouldn't say blown away. Visibility is always an issue just because but also means you get to see more. We had no current that day so pelagics say bye bye! We visited Bazaruto again for an hour - this time was much better as the day trip tours were gone. We had the sand dune to ourselves!!
Devil's rays

We bade our dear Javiera good bye this night as she will leave us for Maputo and home the next day. It was a teary and heart felt good bye (no tears were shed). We had a wonderful time goofing around and teasing her and it wouldn't be the same without her. The 3 musketeers became 2, but we'll still soldier on for another day.
Ice cream for 10 mtc
 




Friday was again a free and easy day - wanted to go for kite surfing but the wind conditions were not kind to us. We went in search of ice cream (it's a small shack close to the market where you get an ice cream for 10 meticals!), then swam in the sea and chill. Ian, the ever adventurous, took up the challenge to climb up the coconut tree and got us free coconuts. Of course under the supervision of Pedro (this guy we met a couple days earlier by the same beach and area). It was hard work and there were times when I thought he was not going to make it but he did. Sweet sweet coconut for a hard day at work! My last night in Mozambique was spent without much fanfare - it was meant to be sad because I was leaving paradise for cool, gloomy Netherlands. We ate at a local restaurant and basically spent the whole night playing True or Dare and downing countless bottles of beers. Was a good night to end a fantastic trip - I mean seeing Mr Ian Jones dancing again? Priceless.
Climbing the coconut tree

 

Proof of the effort. With Pedro
 

Mozambique's next top model


A small hiccup created a tense morning on my day of departure but crisis averted eventually. Saying good bye was hard - I was not looking forward to going back to -2C. But life is as such. Ian moved on with his Mozambique adventure while mine stopped there and then. I said good bye to my great host Hugo and boarded the plane of no return.
Mozambiqucan boys

This trip had been awesome - people I've met and knew were great! Thomas, Themba, the 4 South African boys (whose names I can't remember too well), Sunil and all of the people on the bus from Fatima's and at Fatima's. Good company and conversations, food was good (all that I wanted after 8 months in Netherlands) and a lot of great adventures and laughter. The locals were in general very nice people - although at times the pestering is tiring. Mozambique was a little more expensive than my naïve view of Africa, especially Vilankulos. By that I mean for travelers/tourists - you'll be able to get cheap food by the local ways and the seafood we got in Tofo was not expensive by our standard. Accommodation wise, we had expected a little cheaper but again, this is by comparison and maybe due to the high season. Doing activities in Vilankulos was pretty expensive - island trips are USD60, diving USD130 - could be due to the distance and the lack of competition or demand to drive the price down. Comparatively, I prefer the beach in Tofo - more beautiful and more suited for chilling. The ocean was also more fun to play in. Swimming is more suited for Vilankulos because of the shallow water and no waves. That being said, Vilankulos is still a very beautiful place to visit! And probably has a lot to offer in terms of local culture and places to find/look out for.