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.
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.

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.


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.


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.

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