Approaching Mozambique, I wondered aloud whether it would be much different on the other side of the border. We very quickly found out that the answer is yes.
The roads in Northern Kwa-Zulu Natal are not the greatest, but they are tarred and generally signposted. That is decidedly not the case in Southern Mozambique. Immediately after driving out of the border post, we were met with sandy tracks heading off into three directions. There were no signs and our sense of direction was completely thrown off looking out at the desolate sandy dunes.
As we sat for a minute pondering which road to take we happened to see a Mozambican man called Armando who was looking for a ride to Ponta Do Ouro. Seeing that he had very limited options of transport to town, and knowing we could use his local sense of direction, we offered him a lift. It was a very wise decision as he directed us through the warren of sand tracks that carry you over dunes, past small villages and finally deposit you into the relative civilization of Ponta Do Ouro.
Driving on these sandy tracks was a completely new experience. You bounce and slide over holes and around sandy corners, almost as if you have been possessed by a rally car driver. Speed is your friend for getting through the thick sand patches, but it’s your enemy as you hit the ruts and holes scattered throughout. Being novices on the sand, we decided it was better to bounce and make it, than to gingerly find our way through and get stuck in deep sand. A word to anyone heading to this region – four wheel drive is a necessity, not a luxury!
The sand tracks were a perfect symbol for the wonderful remoteness of this region. Nestled between the South Africa border, the Indian Ocean and lots of open scrubland, the far southern portion of Mozambique exists almost exclusively as a tourist destination for South Africans. The sandy soil doesn’t support much agriculture and it is too far removed from Maputo to benefit from the economic growth that oil and gas is bringing to the capital city. It’s a quiet corner of the world, perfect for divers and those looking for a deserted stretch of beach hidden behind the ever present vegetated dunes.
Tourists from South Africa flock over the border on school holidays and long weekends, stopping on their way at the last town before the border to stock up on supplies and petrol. The border is about as sleepy as they come. In fact it makes Maseru Bridge in Lesotho look positively modern and efficient. There is one building on the South Africa side and two pre-fabricated trailers on the Mozambican side, the latter in which things get a bit interesting.
Needing a visa, but certainly not having access to a Mozambican Embassy in Lesotho, we arrived at the border expecting to pay the fee and get through. They weren’t overly keen on getting up to provide us a visa, but when we mentioned we lived in Lesotho they seemed resigned to providing us with the full page colour printed visa, complete with our photograph.
Next was the ‘importation’ of our car. This doesn’t cost, but does require original documents showing car ownership. We only have emailed printouts so we had to creatively, but legally, work out a solution. No money changed hands and we didn’t pull any special privileges, but eventually we got our papers signed and purchased the required third party insurance before heading on our way.
The border is perfectly indicative of the pace of life in this part of the country – slow and relaxed. Driving away from the ‘bustling’ centre of Ponta do Ouro towards Ponta Malongane, we knew we had found the right place to stay as we entered the canopy of trees lining the dunes.
We stayed in a wonderful self-catering resort called Tartaruga Maritima which has seven luxury tents nestled deep in the vegetation. Walkways of local mahogany connect the tents to the beach, fire pit and wonderfully large and bright lapa. This communal kitchen/bar/seating area is set up to provide a sweeping view of the ocean. It is fully stocked and if we had stayed longer or been more prepared, it would have been an ideal place to enjoy a glass of wine while making dinner in the early evening.
A big draw here is the marine wildlife. Migratory whales, nesting sea turtles and resident dolphins all provide unique wildlife viewing opportunities. Having come at the wrong time for whales or turtles, we definitely wanted to experience dolphins up close and personal. There are several companies that lead dolphin encounters out into the bay on dive boats but we signed ourselves up with the original company, Dolphin Center Research.
Angie was our guide, a South African who came to Ponta twenty years ago, swam with dolphins and never looked back. She gave us an extensive introduction to the dolphins of Ponta, the necessary conservation work being done and the ongoing threats to our world’s oceans. Extremely insightful and full of information about the entire impacted eco-system, we finished feeling a profound love for the ocean’s wildlife, and a desire to stop eating seafood!
Soon we found ourselves down on the beach, pushing the boat out into the waves and then doing the hard launch through the surf and out into the wonderfully blue water. Birds swooped down catching their morning breakfast of small fish while everyone in the boat kept their eyes peeled for dolphin fins breaching the water. The view from the sea of the dunes and houses dotting the coast line was pretty fantastic, but you dared not take your eyes off the water for too long, lest you miss a flashing fin rising above the swell.
We were lucky to find a small pod of dolphins who swam around our boat as we all prepared our fins and masks to enter the water. It was a magical experience to watch the three dolphins navigate around and between us all. The ease and elegance of their movements were fantastic to see under water, in their environment.
As we were calm and non-threatening, they were perfectly happy to swim near us for several minutes, and even came close enough to touch, though this we refrained from doing at the behest of Angie. It was a great experience, with the only downfall that it was short lived and that there wasn’t a larger pod to interact with. Still, it was wildlife on their terms and we were just grateful to see it up close and personal.
When not swimming with dolphins, we soaked up the atmosphere as much as possible. As we enjoyed dinners at the local bar/restaurant with the sun setting over an inland lake and the sounds of a guitar filling the air, it was easy to feel a million miles away from everywhere.
The local village market was perfect for wandering in and out of the stalls, enjoying the wood carvings and even learning the local bead game. I had some beginners’ luck and may or may not have defeated the local champion!
The entire couple of days were perfectly relaxed, with no real sense of time pressure. It is a place that encourages you to disconnect, to wander the deserted beaches and to enjoy time with one another. Our only complaint was that we should’ve planned to stay longer!