My luck has turned as I’ve travelled north from Port Louis. The Seychelles is everything that Mauritius wasn’t. It’s sunny and gorgeous and enticing. The hotels are equally luxurious, if not more so, though tending more to boutique and it’s even more expensive.
First, a catamaran ferry from Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles, (on Mahé), to Praslin, the second largest island in the Seychelles archipelago (some of the hundred or so islands are teeny). The Seychelles was first claimed by the French, who were made to surrender the islands to the British in 1812. The Seychelles became independent in 1976 (having been part of Mauritius until 1906), but many people still speak English.
Historically, Praslin was the most important pirate hideaway in the area, but is now renowned for its exquisite beaches, featuring regularly on best in the world lists. (See my list.) Anse Georgette and Anse Lazio, deemed to be the best, are both palm fringed and decorated with huge, beautifully shaped granite boulders. I hop on a hired bicycle to get there. The island is only seven miles long. This is the smallest country in Africa, by area.
Praslin’s rugged, jungle-covered interior is home to Praslin National Park, which encompasses Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must-see, the only place in the world where the world’s heaviest nut, the Coco de Mer, grows in the wild. You can’t really see them growing on the trees, but there are collections of the huge nuts laid out - the largest weigh fifteen kilos. They’re buttock shaped and more than a little grotesque.
Even more appealing is La Digue islet, reached by yet another ferry and toured on another hire bike. Cars were banned here until recently and are still heavily discouraged. This is where the beaches that feature on all the posters are found. This sea-side picture perfect coral island is dotted with more enormous striated granite boulders, guarding stretches of unspoiled white sand at Anse Source d'Argent. Palm trees bend artistically. It’s definitely a little patch of paradise.
I take a boat trip to Cousin Island from Praslin. In 1968 BirdLife International bought this coconut plantation and stripped back the trees to create a nature reserve and save the almost extinct Seychelles warbler. The island now hosts over 300,000 nesting seabirds of seven species. The noddies (present from May to September) have the best name. Wedge-tailed shearwaters arrive when the noddies are gone. Year-round breeders include white and bridled terns, white-tailed tropicbirds, Audubon's shearwaters, frigatebirds (soaring overhead as they do), waders and herons. The stars of the show are the fluffy snowballs that are tern chicks. There are also giant tortoises and some great snorkelling in the marine reserve. (Esmeralda the world’s heaviest tortoise lives on the northern most part of the archipelago,, Bird Island).)
The ambience might have picked up, since I got to the Seychelles, but the company hasn’t. Nearly everyone I meet is romantically entwined and not interested in a gooseberry. I’ve already established that nearly all the couples on this trip are indeed on their honeymoon. The women have spent the whole of the journey talking about their weddings and comparing dresses, while the men look on smiling indulgently. Except for two guys sitting together at the end of the lunch table who I haven’t spoken to so far. ‘Don’t tell me you’re on your honey moon too?’ I inquire.
‘Not yet,’ they reply. ' Next year’.
Back on Mahé, the largest island of the Seychelles. Morne Seychellois National Park takes up around a fifth of the island, and houses mountains rising abruptly from an iridescent forest. Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles, is where most of the population live. It's still minuscule, and has a market, a clocktower, a courthouse and a clocktower. There's another marine park - Sainte Anne - calling for another catamaran cruise, hopping between islets for the snorkelling.
There’s time for yet more beautiful beach exploration and lounging. One road loops almost, but not quite round the perimeter of Mahé, grazing the sandy bays. Petite Anse, both pristine and isolated is yet another beach touted as best in the world. I’m still eating dinner on my own, but the tiniest cutest lizard in the world is keeping me company.
From Kruger National Park over the border to Chokwe in Mozambique. And the tour has deteriorated somewhat. The jeeps have jolted over what must be the worst roads in Africa, and that’s saying something. The ruts seem to be feet deep and we’ve threatened to tip right over, on more than one occasion. Our esteemed leader’s preferred method of driving is full-on throttle. A sports bra is a necessity.
Stopping to view game, he understands - some of the time. He doesn’t always see it. Culture not so much. ‘You want to look at a village? Why? They’re not very nice’. It’s true the people are poor, but we’re not in a position to make informed judgements about the village experience for ourselves. The camera lens is in distinct danger, as I try and balance it against the jeep window, as we career past the little huts. I secure more fuzzy pictures of mud and trees, to add to my collection. The villagers aren’t exactly waving us in, but there haven’t been any friendly overtures made on our part either.
The voyage of Vasco da Gama in 1498 marked the arrival of the Portuguese, in Mozambique and subsequent Portuguese colonisation. This lasted four centuries - Mozambique became independent in 1975. Portuguese is still the official language of the country. After only two years of independence, the country descended into an intense and protracted civil war lasting until 1992. Since 2001, Mozambique has been thriving, with growing exports of coal and natural gas, but this is still one of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in the world. Half the people in Mozambique are under-17 and more than half the women have their first child before they are 19.
Despite this, Mozambique is known as 'The Land of Smiling People'.
Skirting the edges of the national capital, Maputo, the roads lined with street markets and more typical villages, round wooden huts with palm roofs. The bay on which Maputo stands was first settled as a fishing village by ancient Tsonga people. It was named Lourenço Marques, after the Portuguese navigator. The modern (but now dilapidated) city that developed was based around a Portuguese fort. Post Mozambican independence, this port city became the national capital and was renamed Maputo, after a local Tsonga chief.
Along the coast to Inhambane, which Vasco da Gama named, Terra de Boa Gente or 'Land of the Good People'. There's a port city, but also beautiful beaches, great reefs and excellent large marine life. We’re told that this region is one of the best diving and snorkelling spots in the world – with manta rays, reef sharks and in season humpback whales and whale sharks. The fishing boats are as picturesque as it gets, with curved masts and colourful sails fashioned out of grain sacks.
But the weather isn’t kind and it isn’t really beach weather. We do get to see the whales and dolphins (they’re in season), but it’s a choppy ride and using a camera in our inflatable is life threatening. All the photos are blurred and most of them seem to have missed the whales entirely. Or there's an odd fin poking into a corner. Snorkelling is off.
We’ve latterly also discovered that the tour hasn’t exactly been planned ahead. We arrive at one ‘hotel’ to find that it’s disappeared.
‘It used to be here just here I'm sure,’ exclaims our Great Leader.
‘Oh that went in the hurricane last year,’ the locals inform us.
Tofo, on the renowned Barra Beach area was historically a small coastal fishing village. It's now a major (well fairly, this is Mozambique) international tourism centre, popular with South Africans in holiday time. It's also popular with the Portuguese. Portuguese is the national language, as this was a Portuguese colony, but only half of the population currently speak the language. Tofo has a small vegetable and African market, four diving centres, heaps of bars and restaurants and several lodges offering accommodation, from backpackers to five star luxury.
I’ve booked a single room, and it's an understatement to say I'm disappointed, when I’m allocated a shabby dormitory style dwelling, replete with cobwebs. Enough is enough. I’ve already spotted the over-water bungalows a mile or so up the peninsula at Flamingo Bay and I sign off tour for several eminently comfortable days. The local tour guide is amenable. He whisks me back and forth on the back of his motor scooter, making suggestions along the way as to how I might like to spend the rest of my time. I pretend I haven’t heard. It’s a restful break. Though my postcards never make it home. I was probably too trusting in handing them to the hotel receptionist, along with the money for the stamps.
Vilankulo (or Vilanculos) is the Mozambican capital of water sports. It is named after local tribal chief Gamela Vilankulo Mukoke, Some of the "bairros" (suburbs) are also named after his sons. There are all grades of hotels, because there is yet another wonderful beach here. But the main attraction is its proximity to the Bazaruto Archipelago - a group of six islands, with more gorgeous sand and reef: it comprises the islands of Bazaruto, Benguerra, Magaruque, Banque, Santa Carolina and Shell.
Next stop Mauritius.
I'm on a jeep trip with an 'adventure tour company', travelling from Johannesburg to Kruger Park and then Mozambique. Flying into Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa. In fact, it is one of the largest urban areas in the world - a megacity. Jo'burg is not one of the three capitals of South Africa, but it is known as The Gold City . It literally was founded on gold, discovered on the Witwatersrand in 1886. It has expanded to include neighbouring cities, such as Soweto, the black township famous for the riots during apartheid and the home of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.
Poverty is still rife and Johannesburg has a reputation for very high crime levels. The violence is rarely in the tourist areas, but we are still warned not to go into the city. Instead, we are put up in a cute little B & B on the outskirts. It is just up the road from Gold Reef City and the casino - the main entertainment on offer here. And I did get to see the city, a very time ago, when I visited and went down a gold mine. (It was a long drop).
From Jo'burg we pick up The Panorama Region - waterfalls, caves, forests, the Sabie River Gorge and the majestic Blyde River Canyon. It is up to 800 metres deep, carved out of nearly 26 (or 50 depending on who you believe) kilometres red sandstone and dolomite. It was formed over aeons of time, after the ancient super continent, Gondwanaland, split in two and Madagascar and Antarctica broke free from Africa some 200 million years ago. The weight of the surrounding shallow sea tilted it upwards to form the Drakensberg Mountains. The sediments were built up around them in what was then the sea.
Again, depending on which list you use it’s possibly the third largest canyon in the world. Whatever, it’s breath-taking. As usual various landmarks have been given names that are occasionally appropriate. One group of rounded peaks are aptly named The Three Rondavels or The Chief and His Three Wives. Close to the Rondavels on the Drakensberg escarpment is a viewpoint, 700 metres up. This one is called God's Window. Next up, the Bourke's Luck Potholes. These almost perfect circles look as if they have been punched out of the rock to serve as whirlpools.
There's also a 'Crazy Bungee Jump'. The sign says No Refunds.
Kruger National Park It’s August and the dry winter season, so the park is parched, brown and arid. I’ve been told it’s a good time to visit, as you can see the animals more easily. This region of Africa has some of the highest concentrations of wildlife on the continent, although it’s a huge park, with several large rivers. Kruger is bounded by the (great grey green greasy ) Limpopo River (to the north) and the Crocodile River. There are plenty of watery vistas to enjoy and to support the wildlife.
We start off camping by the Sabie (or Sand) River. I've already been on the Olifants River in Western Cape. This flows through the park. It eventually catches up with the Limpopo, to form a tributary and here we're camping by the scenic Letaba, which is also a tributary of the Olifants.
We bag four of the Big Five: lion, elephant (plenty of these), Cape buffalo and leopard. I’m very happy with this. I’ve seen rhino several times before but leopard is more elusive. There’s a bit of dispute as to whether it is indeed leopard hiding at some distance in the grass, but the markings on the photographs prove the case. There’s also cheetah (and a very cute cub, with a furry ruff), hippo and abundant plains antelopes, (nyala, bush buck, impala) small-spotted genet, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest and baboons. My favourite bird is the lilac breasted roller.
It’s not the best organised tour I’ve ever been on. Our park accommodation is basic, with a shared toilet block and showers (tiny mongooses skittering around) and there's also some camping involved (!) The tour leader, a Jo’burg man is a little gung ho. But our driver is a nice guy and he’s good at spotting the wildlife.
(And read more about South Africa here.)
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