When I booked the trip, I decided to pay extra for a single room, rather than sharing a dormitory at Fatima’s Backpacker Hostel. I was disappointed. The single room was dark and dingy, smelling of stale marijuana, with bare concrete brick walls and one energy saving light bulb. Suddenly, the unisex dorm seemed more attractive, but luckily, my room key didn’t work, so I was upgraded to a pleasant, airy room with an ocean view and a double bed. I even had my own verandah with two deckchairs and a hammock.
The bathroom was cramped. There was a saloon-type door, which couldn’t open fully because it hit the basin. And sitting down on the toilet was tricky as you had to tuck your legs under the sink. There were two unlabelled shower taps on the wall, but turning one didn’t work. The shower stream was prostatic, but at least it didn’t wet the toilet paper. The walls were decorated with what my mother would call “boudy”, random bits of crockery, cemented into an abstract mosaic.
The floor of my room was smooth brick. I had two fans and a mosquito net, some wicker furniture and a bedside light. There were some sepia photographs on the wall, showing Portuguese children gambolling in the waves on the beach, the Nautica Club, an old Chinese general trading store and a view of the main street in Inhambane from the cemetery. Compared to the first room, it was luxurious.
The evening meal was fish and chips. The fish was small, bony and deep-fried. There was very little flesh on it. The chips were pale and flaccid. The salad looked nice but concealed a dead fly. At least, it looked dead. I turned in early as the rest of the party wanted to party. My room wasn’t far enough away from the sound system, and the bass kept pounding away until midnight.
I woke up at 5:30am with the sun streaming through the window. Dawn was just before 5am. I walked along the beach, past the headland and took in the panorama. It was picturesque, deserted, undeveloped and lovely. There was hardly any plastic detritus; the sand was so clean it squeaked as I walked over it.
The weather forecast was poor for the end of the week, so Liquid Dive Adventures advised us to take our Ocean Safari today. We, sorted out mask, snorkel and fins, then listened to the briefing. The ancient tractor hauled the zodiac inflatable boat down to the sea. I was amused by the botched wooden housing around the tractor’s engine, presumably to protect it from seawater. The team launched the boat, turned it to face the open sea and we walked it into deep water. Scrambling aboard was more difficult than it looked. We hooked our feet under the loops on the floor of the zodiac, grabbed the lanyards at the side of the boat, and the captain manoeuvred us through the breakers. As the sea became calmer, he gunned the engine and we shot off across the waves. It was more terrifying than Alton Towers.
We were searching for whale sharks, manta rays, humpback whales and dolphins. The dolphins found us first and started playing around the boat. This is unusual behaviour for Tofo dolphins; they usually tease humans by swimming away as soon as we enter the water. We all jumped in and were surrounded by 15-20 adults. They were curious and snaked past us less than two metres away. If you stayed quiet and held your breath, you could hear them clicking and squeaking.
Occasionally, a dolphin would dive down deep into the dark blue, out of sight for a few seconds and then come screaming back to the surface, trailing a cloud of exhaust – dolphin shit. It was truly magical. Even when you had to swim through the cloud. Some of our minders had Go-Pro waterproof cameras and they recorded all the action.
We moved on to look for whale sharks, feeling that our luck was in. We saw a single humpback whale on the horizon, but it was the end of the season for them. Most had already departed for the Antarctic Ocean. Our captain scanned the surface of the sea looking for subtle nuances of shadow and light which might indicate a whale shark, but despite combing their usual feeding grounds, we saw nothing. There had been no sightings since the end of September, so we were out of luck.
In tourist literature, Tofo has been described as the “Mecca of Whale Sharks”. But as it gets more popular, the whale sharks move away to quieter areas. The holiday period of December 2014 was so busy with boats and jet skis that no whale sharks at all were seen in January 2015.
After about three hours, we returned to Tofo. The captain eased past the outer breakers and idled the twin Mercury engines, waiting for a suitable wave to ride to beach the boat. He told us to hang on and then opened the throttle. We hit the beach so fast that the boat left the sea. It was exhilarating.
The next morning, I was up at dawn and walked along the beach to Barra for three hours. I met a few spear fishermen on the beach, a crab and several skitty sandpipers. It was beautiful and serene.
I couldn’t help but be disappointed by not seeing a whale shark. This was the sole purpose of my trip, so I arranged for another Ocean Safari three days later. No luck then, either. There was no point in moping about miserably; the trick to happiness is to celebrate the good things, to concentrate on the positives. The cloud’s silver lining was the pod of dolphins.