Disappointing movements in the dhow

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August 27th 2009
Published: November 4th 2009
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Magaruque Island
Unfortunately whale shark season finished several months back, and my interest in diving near Vilankulos wanes as soon as I hear that news. However S and I investigate an overnight dhow "safari" leaving the following day - it offers a night of camping on one of the islands of the Bazaruto Archipelago, plus snorkelling and walking, with transport being in a traditional dhow (with the main propulsion provided by a non-traditional outboard). It's expensive (not appreciably less than my land-based safaris in Kenya and Tanzania) but holds the promise of seeing interesting sealife including whales and dugongs.

Our other companions are four thirty-something San Franciscans on a world tour after having been made redundant. They're inclusive in that admirable American way, and seem to be reliving some of their college days going by the cooler of beer that forms most of their luggage.

It's only a small dhow but we have two crew members in addition to the skipper. I'd been amused to read in the safari company's blurb that their skippers "all speak English, Spanish, and Portuguese, and moreover ... there's a medical kit on board", as though the need for a medical kit was more likely than the need for a trilingual skipper. As it turns out, he says little anyway so once more I do an African tour where historical, cultural, and zoological information is lacking.

The dhow itself is basic - the crew sit at the back, separated from the customer part of the (wooden) boat by a safety regulation-flouting firebox in which the cooking is done, and we spread out in the fore part under a sunshade that has only a partial effect at the sun's morning angle. The cross-planks have "Tips" painted unsubtly on them.

It's certainly an excellent start to the two days, with the sea breeze tempering the heat, and our propeller creating lazy, sparkling swells in the clear, shallow water. The Vilankulos shoreline is a multitude of palm trees, and the sky's clouds are reflected mirage-like on the sea's surface.

We hit Bangue Island at midday, where I'm disappointed to find we're going to spend the rest of the day and the night. In other words, this first day will include no snorkelling at all. The island is uninhabited by anything bar skittish crabs and swathes of dying jellyfish. Apart from a slightly elevated scrubby interior and
Sand ridgesSand ridgesSand ridges

Bangue Island
a few dead trees, there are no features of note, other than the expanding and receding shoreline as the tides continually reshape the coast. In particular there is no shade at all.

The American guys are in their element - tops off, beers out, and a pack of cards a background activity to much shooting of shit. S has a sesta. I lather on the sunscreen and plod round the island, baking slowly.

Nightfall sees the temperature plummet and the day's cooling breeze becomes a bitter and searching one. Having specifically asked about nighttime conditions when booking the safari, and been told they were nothing extreme, it's irritating that we're all cold and have to huddle close to the fire. I'm further annoyed that there are only three tents - again, I'd specifically asked if everyone would have their own tent and been told yes. Since I barely know S, and my feet stink, sharing with her is not an option so I bed down outside. The day has been one where exposure to the sun has been pretty much constant and I can already feel a couple of spots on my ankles and feet that I missed

Bangue Island
with sunscreen. Though there are no mossies here, there are plenty of small cockroaches, which tickle me through a broken night's sleep.

We rise at dawn and clutch warming cups of coffee to ourselves. It's cold, windy and overcast, and jumping in the sea holds little appeal. For the rest of the day, I unearth cockroaches from my clothes and bag in bewildering quantities.

We'll be doing our snorkelling at another island so, after breakfast, we pile into the dhow and set off. It's choppy and our progress against the slight swell produces occasional dousings in a cold spray. Further evidence of how shallow the water is comes when we run aground on a sand bar. There's a scary moment when a wave hits us broadside on and we tilt over alarmingly, but the next second we're back in deeper sea.

Weather conditions are scarcely different when we moor off Magaruque Island, which is inhabited (containing at least one lodge) and possesses considerably more character than Bangue. The skipper tells us we can walk around the island, then have lunch and a snorkel before heading home.

Everyone is fervently hoping that there is a massive change in the weather, and that happens about thirty minutes into our walk when the sun breaks through in blazing fashion. I shed all my layers bar the bare minimum and it's a positive sign that the snorkelling gods have decided to smile on us. We complete the circuit of the island, and I note that the crabs here are considerably tamer, often waiting until you're just metres away before they scuttle back into their holes.

Back at the boat, there's time to fit in a quick snorkel before lunch. A drop-off just a few metres from the shore provides a convenient spot for viewing the sealife, and a gentle current along it means you can pretty much just float. There are plenty of parrot fish and I also see a Moorish Idol - interesting but hardly spectacular.

Lunch consists of calamari in such large chunks that I initially mistake it for potato slices, and afterwards the crew indicates that they want to leave shortly. We all insist on another snorkel but that ends up being the sum total of our snorkelling - less than an hour in two days, in an area where the sealife is the supposed highlight. Neither S nor I are impressed.

The journey back to Vilankulos sees the sail - made from an old tent - being pressed into service, but it's to augment the engine rather than replace it. Part way back we stop at an oyster bed so that one of the crew can gather some for an end-of-safari snack. It's comical seeing him wading only waist-deep when we're kilometres from land. Back on the dhow he shucks the oysters with practised ease and we all watch as the unfortunate occupants cringe in a pool of lemon juice, little knowing that life is about to get even worse.

Back in Vilankulos, the hot showers of Baobab Beach highlight my sunburnt patches and, through the pain, I can foresee some quality skin-peeling sessions in the near future.

Dull but possibly useful info
i. I did an overnight safari with Dolphin Dhow, paying $85 per day (less than their normal rate as there were already four people booked onto it). They apparently have some special arrangement with the police and parks authority that means they can camp on Bangue Island in defiance of the law. The food was seafood (ecept for the bizarre egg/tomato/onion/meat concoction served for breakfast), it was good, and there was always enough of it. Bottled water was available all the time.
ii. I wasn't enormously impressed with the itinerary or the information I was given by the safari company owners. Firstly, just one hour of snorkelling in two days is ridiculous given the sealife is the main draw in the archipelago. Secondly, Bangue Island is no great shakes. Thirdly, it's bloody cold. Fourthly, you don't get your own tent (and the cockroach menace at night is a further non-recommendation). Fifthly, the snorkelling equipment isn't in great condition - at least two of the masks leaked. The upshot of all this is that I would recommend that you don't waste your time doing the camping option, plus you should not use Dolphin Dhow as they were rather misleading. I would suggest finding a day trip with another company that has maximum snorkelling time.
iii. Having said that, the safaris offered by ANY of the companies are all massively overpriced, which is no doubt due to there being minimal competition. I can't see how at least half of the price isn't pure profit.

Additional photos below
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Bangue IslandBangue Island
Bangue Island

Interesting topography not included
Our vesselOur vessel
Our vessel

Bangue Island
The landingThe landing
The landing

Bangue Island
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Sand dollar

Bangue Island
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Still life

Bangue Island
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Messy doorstep

Bangue Island

20th March 2010

I'm not going to comment on the trip... Only on 2 things! weird that they had told you that whale shark season was finished as June, July and August are THE y months where we can meet them. Not very often though and not that close to the bay but on Bazaruto and Two Mile Reef we have a few chances. And we had plenty of whales last august, there right on the reef. As far as prices are concerned, the explanation is pretty simple... the taxes to have a legal business here are very high. Besides the normal VAT and profit taxes, we have to pay a lot in licences and annual visits of our operations. And this reflects on the "customers" price. Too bad you didn't choose a trip that would have brought you to Two Mile Reef. I can promise you would have had a wonderful snorkeling or diving experience and you would have never forgotten the island and the stunning views you get from the top of the dune. if you ever happen to come back, try this one!
3rd June 2010

Bribery & Corruption
I loved the following comment: "They apparently have some special arrangement with the police and parks authority that means they can camp on Bangue Island in defiance of the law." Being wilfully naive can always get you places, I suppose...
3rd August 2010

Dhow Safaris
The town is not up to much but the islands are very special. i went to Magaruque Island with Dolphin Dhows, I was not too impressed when i arrived at the office I think it was the owner who was screaming at the crew, he was quite unpleasant when we arrived at his office, however the trip was wonderful, but the snorkelling equipment was dirty and I wished I had brought my own. Another time I would have checked out what other companies had to offer, it was a disappointing experience. In all my years of travelling I have never met someone so rude as Junior of Dolphin Dhows.

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