Monday, February 1, 2010

La Navidad de las Dugongos

- January 6, 2010 -

Being from Michigan I’m a firm believer that Christmas should never be associated with words like “tropical paradise”, “coral reefs”, or “death by pineapple”. But being so close to the equator and so far from home and family this Christmas, I was forced to make compromises… Thus with the prospect of snow angels thousands of miles away, I settled for second best: traveling with four other Zambia PCVs down to Vilankulo, Mozambique to celebrate the Holidays on the ocean.

Being naïve newbie volunteers, we decided to make the trip overland, via the Zambian border at Katete. But this being Southern Africa, traveling is never as innocent or as simple as it would seem. By the time we made it, five full days and 17 vehicles later, we realized the wisdom of those who flew. On one leg of the trip we got stuck in the rain while sitting in the bed of a pickup truck. Another leg found us standing on top of our luggage for 14 hours on a double-booked coach bus fighting constantly with angry, pushy, over-crowded Mozambiquans (Mozos for short???). Still another ride involved cramming 24 people, 20 bags of luggage, a dozen crates of empty beer bottles, five sacks of beans, and a chicken onto a tiny pickup truck. We discovered that outside of the main roads (like the Great East & North Roads out of Lusaka), there is so little traffic that we really didn’t have much of a choice of transport; either take the overloaded coach bus today, or wait and hope that tomorrow’s coach bus has a bit more room. Long story short, getting there sucked.

Hitching down to Lusaka - this was the easy part where I still had room to take pictures

Fortunately, Vilankulo was the perfect place to recover from such an arduous journey. With palm-lined beaches, warm turquoise water, and a hostel right next to it all, swimming became at least a thrice-daily activity. Vilankulo is famous for its 4+ meter tide differences, so the beachfront always looked different than the last time you swam there (this also meant that no matter how high up the beach we placed our stuff, we would inevitably end up scrambling to keep it dry). We also took a trip in a dhow, a simple-yet-remarkably-effective Arabic sailing vessel, out to the nearby Bazaruto Archipelago to go snorkeling on a pair of incredible coral reefs. Through the crystal clear water we must have seen 40-50 species of tropical fish - groupers, puffers, angelfish, clownfish, parrotfish, a couple of barracudas off in the distance, and even a lionfish. Not to mention the coral itself came in all colors and patterns. On the other side of the reefs, world-class deep sea fishing kept us well-fed with red snapper, tuna, and kingfish (it was a common sight to see the local fisherman walking around selling 30lb red snappers fresh out of the water). Unfortunately we never caught a glimpse of Vilankulo’s most famous aquatic animal: the dugong. This nearly extinct cousin of the manatee is so rare that it’s attained nearly mythical status - although photos grace the cover of nearly every tourist brochure and people walk around sporting “Equipo Dugongo” (“Team Dugong”) t-shirts, even most locals have never seen one in person. Yet Vilankulo remains one of the last dugong-inhabited areas in the world.

Our little hostel chalet and the surrounding beach - not a bad place to set up shop for a week!

The insane four-meter tide difference turned ocean into desert and left many a boat beached for several hours at a time

But aside from the snorkeling, swimming, and seafood, I really just enjoyed hanging out with the other volunteers, getting to know them a bit better - we get precious little time to spend with volunteers from other provinces. Thus sitting under the pavilion eating pineapples, playing vicious games of Phase 10, and blasting Christmas music was the perfect change-of-pace from the humdrum of Northern Province village life. We also took some time to explore the town of Vilankulo itself, which despite its status as a top tourist destination remains a *very* African city: lots of dirt roads, vacant lots, walled compounds with broken glass set on top, gravity-fed plumbing everywhere, unreliable electricity, and a big central market containing an impressive variety of crafts and citenges. And during our explorations we somehow managed to befriend every dog in the entire town - had a giant gaggle of them following us everywhere - much to the dismay of our hostel’s gate-keeper. By far the most notable canine was a cute little puppy named Dent, who accidentally killed a duckling while trying to entice it to play, and whose punishment (dealt out by our evil hostel worker nemesis) was to get a brick thrown at his head. Fortunately he survived, though he had a baseball-sized goose egg on his head and still seemed a bit wobbly when we left.

Our dhow trip out to the Bazaruto Islands

After watching New Years fireworks from the beach, however, we started off on our long trek home. Tired of overcrowded pickup trucks and double-booked coach buses, we decided to take minibuses the entire way to the Zambian border. This proved to be a bit faster and a whole lot less eventful. A couple days later I was back at my site, ready to squeeze some work in before heading to In-Service Training the middle of January. All in all our trip to Mozambique was a great experience, but next time I think I’ll fly!


  1. Sounds like an AMAZING trip (but I am very happy you chose an easier way to return)!!
    Never, ever, ever hesitate to treat yourself to a little comfort. Goodness knows you deserve it.
    Keep seeking those beaches when you get some time off. Believe me, snow and ice over Christmas is something you can take a year or two missing out on.......
    Stay strong, Mark Loehrke

  2. Sounds like a wonderful trip. :-) Too bad you didn't see any dugongs, that would've been pretty amazing.

  3. Nice pic's. Glad you got some respite from the rain and mud & reacquainted yourself with CLEAN water and fresh fish.