Wolfgang E. Grulke - All Rights Reserved
town of Pemba, in northern Mozambique, is about halfway between the horn of
Africa and Africa's southern shores, at about the same latitude as the northern
tip of Madagascar and the Comoros islands. The coast between Pemba and Zanzibar
more than 500 kilometres to the north is sometimes referred to as Africa's
'Coral Coast'. Adjoining this coast is a maze of islands, isolated from
civilisation by natural barriers and lack of human development. Their names are
a mixture of African and Portuguese origin, Quipaco, Quisiva, Mefunvo, Nangamba,
Quilaluia, Sengar, Quirimba, Ibo and Matemo. Frequently they are fringed by
coral reefs on one side and extensive sand and mud flats and mangrove swamps on
the other. A few of the islands have clearings that serve as primitive landing
strips for small aircraft, but most
can only be reached by landing a dinghy on the beach.
is a small war-ravaged coastal town situated on a promontory, Ponto Romero, that
separates the Bay of Porto Amelia from Wimbe Bay and the open sea.
It has a basic little-used harbour whose main activities centre around
the export of marble from mines far inland. The civil war that has torn
Mozambique apart for the past two decades has left its mark on Pemba, physically
and economically. Travel to and in the area is difficult and never safe. The
magnificent coral reefs that lay forgotten off its coast during the war years
drew us there, inexorably.
a four-hour flight from Johannesburg to Pemba. The only practical way of getting
our group plus all our diving and photographic equipment and provisions there
was to charter a plane. We planned to land at the once-pretty coastal resort of
Beira, about half-way to Pemba, to clear Mozambique customs and complete
immigration formalities. We were all escaping from stress-filled business
environments and were ready for some relaxation. On landing at Beira any
semblance of holiday mood was immediately dispelled.
realised that we must have landed right in the middle of a set for the movie
MASH. Along the sides of airport runways were several crashed and disabled
Russian MIG jet fighters, in various states of dismemberment. The arrival and
departure areas of the airport building exuded an aura of decay and absolute
neglect that only extreme poverty can create. What was left of the restaurant,
had also seen better days. A room that once must have provided comfortable
seating and meals for about 150 clients now looked like a long-deserted army
barracks. The few tables and chairs that remained were only there because they
were too dilapidated to be worth stealing.
huge kitchen, extremely well equipped for the mid-1950's, lay unused. A meal was
being cooked over an open fire on the roof of the airport building. Today, the
local beer was unavailable. Warm cans of Castle (South Africa's standard brew)
were produced from a cardboard box under the counter. The glasses appeared to be
of Russian origin and had that look that I thought only extremely old and
well-worn Coke bottles could achieve. It reminded me of cafes in the suburbs of
Cairo where I was served orange juice in such 'pre-owned' containers. We decided
to drink straight out of the cans.
staff on attendance at the airport clearly all worked for what was left of the
current government and attended to us with all the vague disinterested charm
that comes with years of experience in consciously ignoring your customers. They
ensured that if we did nothing else, we would fill in those unintelligible and
(to us) illogical immigration forms with absolute accuracy. Clearly all visitors
were expected to bring their own pens as there were none available in the
country. Oh yes, please won't you leave the pens here for our children. A nice
idea, but what do we do when we pass through here again on our way home? We kept
our pens in case of that eventuality.
our Mitsubishi whined its way back into the African sky. From the air we could
see brown fingers of silt from the Zambesi flowing into the sea, colouring the
water off Beira's once-sought-after beaches a designer beige and staining the
sea far out into the Mozambique current. The river itself was the colour of pale
plane ride from Beira to Pemba was another two hours. The coast was starting to
look really interesting. Patches of bright blue water signaled the presence of
shallow coral reefs all along the coast.
our plane dropped through scattered cumulus clouds the huge expanse of the Bay
of Porto Amelia lay in front of us. The town of Pemba, formerly known as Porto
Amelia, lay slumped against the promontory jutting out into the Bay, like a
sleepy unkempt dog. Even from the air it was possible to detect the general air
of decay and neglect that characterised what was left of a first-world
infrastructure that the Portuguese colonials established in the first half of
was in sharp contrast to the first impression of the sea, which was crisp and
clear, a rich mixture of the colours of coral sand and coral reef veiled in warm
azure clear water. As the plane dropped lower a school of dolphins completed the
idyllic impression of a tropical sea at its most alluring. I simply could not
wait to put my face into that heavenly water
so-called airport brought me down to reality. This was Beira all over again,
except this time without the sophistication. Thankfully the general state of
disrepair did not extend to the runway. The buildings were definitely '20th
century disrepair renaissance', like some grotesque ruins artfully sculpted out
of what I'm sure started out as quite sensible architecture. All it needed was
Indiana Jones. Was I to be he?
from the airport to our lodgings was intimate, as we and our excessive luggage
were bundled into a surprisingly brand new Toyata mini-bus designed to carry
half our number. Our satisfaction with the ride would be inversely proportional
to its length. It was thankfully short.
Atlantis Hotel is situated on the shore of spectacular Wimbe Bay. At high tide
the arc of beach is of crisp white sands dotted with coconut palms and baobabs.
At low tide the tips of a rocky reef very close to shore peek out of the clear
water. The Atlantis Hotel itself looked more like the Atlantis Building Site.
Central to the complex was the original old two-storey restaurant building,
adorned by an unattractive roof garden. On one side of this stretched about ten
newly-constructed bungalows. In front of each bungalow heaps of brown earth had
been dumped to become the basis for a lawn sometime in future. A few clumps of
lawn had been planted as well as a few creepers alongside the bungalows. The
rich brown earth looked a great deal less attractive than the coral sand a few
metres beyond. The small bungalows themselves were pretty spartan, no hot water,
drinking water in a bucket under the sink, a small (necessary) fridge and hard
beds. We tried to remember that we were after all in darkest terrorist-infected
Africa, surrounded by the most abject poverty.
fact that Babu, the manager/owner, had it got it to this stage of development at
all was something of a local miracle. Everywhere we went, children (we ended up
calling them 'land urchins', as opposed to those in the sea) tried to sell us
seashells. Although illegal (only licensed dealers may sell shells and you can
only export shells accompanied by a government permit) this seemed to be one way
to generate a little income from the few tourists around. There was precious
little else to buy that hadn't already been imported from South Africa. Even the
local brewery stopped functioning shortly after the Portuguese departed and the
only beer available was from South Africa.
was limited in its variety, but what there was was often excellent. Breakfasts
mostly consisted of bland omelets and fries, lunch and dinner of a selection of
fish, prawns, crayfish and, always, fries. Apart from a few prized tomatoes,
vegetables were scarce. Butter was sometimes available if you knew how to ask
for it. The local bread was excellent. The fresh fish was always superb, cooked
over an open fire in the kitchen. How the cook survived in that kitchen when
even outside the tropical heat was unbearable, was beyond me.
meals were had outside on the large verandah in front of the Atlantis
restaurant. Under the palm trees there was usually some shade and at night under
the stars there was often a pleasant breeze.
typical underwater terrain immediately off the beach on the reef flats consists
of large expanses of sand interrupted by expansive beds of grass. There are
isolated rock and coral formations within a few metres of the sandy beach, and
further out the scattered coral clumps become closer together. Approximately 100
to 500 metres from the beach one particular dark tubular coral often dominates
the complete sub-strate to the exclusion of almost every other type of coral. At
this point there is typically a drop-off down to more than 100 metres depth. The
entire drop-off often appears to be covered in this same dark monotonous tubular
coral with very little evidence of life either during the day or during our many
night dives. By contrast the coral heads in the sandy shallows harbour a
magnificent variety of small coral fish and invertebrates. The rocky reefs just
off the beach are filled with a rich cross-section of tropical Indo-Pacific reef
life, all accessible in just a few metres of water by donning a mask and
simple wooden fishing boat with a tiny outboard motor was our modest but
effective transport out to the reef under the guidance of an Italian couple of
allegedly experienced divers. They had clearly gone 'tropo', an affliction
common in the tropics as a result of too much sun and too little stimulation.
They treated each dive with the interest, imagination and animation of bored
East German government bureaucrats. Information could easily be prised out of
them with a large crowbar. After the third day we were diving without them.
Every new spot we found was a surprise and we were no longer subject to bouts of
the eastern side of Wimbe bay we photographed a few really unusual small fish
including the rare leaf scorpion Taenianotus
triacanthus. Across the bay, at Ponta Said Ali, we encountered the black and
blue variety of the ribbon eel Rhinomuraena
quaesita. The most disappointing part of this underwater experience near the
inhabited areas of the coastline was the complete lack of any of the larger
common reef fish. It appears as if all the reef fish larger than 5 centimetres
in length have been taken by the local fishermen as they walk the reef spanning
large fine nets between them. This is a relentless process that continues day
and night and is perhaps an understandable necessity for a hungry people whose
ecological awareness features very low down their hierarchy of needs. We once
got our propellers caught in one of these nets at night and only then realised
that there was a person attached to each end of the net. They hadn't made a
single sound throughout this incident!
beds of stag horn coral (Acropora sp.) make
effective hiding places for some exotic juvenile reef fish. Underneath large
rocks we found many juvenile emperor angelfish Pomacanthus imperator, as well as juvenile triggerfish and
butterflyfish, although we did not see a single adult in all the time we spent
in this particular area.
some disappointments there were two highlights to our diving at Pemba: soft
corals and night diving.
corals are related to the familiar reef-building hard corals and are sometimes
mistaken for a kind of underwater flower. They are in fact not flowers but
animals, like the hard or stony corals. Whereas hard corals secrete a hard
skeleton in which the coral polyp lives, in soft corals the skeleton takes the
form of minute calcareous spicules loosely embedded in their elaborate 'flower
corals often thrive in areas where the hard coral colonies on a reef are
degenerating. Here at Pemba the soft coral community (Order Alcyonacea) has developed an abundance and diversity unlike any we
have ever seen before. On the eastern side of Wimbe Bay, near Ponta Maunhane,
are soft coral gardens that left us speechless. The variety of corals and colors
was spell-binding. In about 15 metres of water there is a terrain of
coral-encrusted rocks and pinnacles on a sandy bottom. The rocks are alive with
the pink, blue and green pastel colours of soft corals that seem to have taken
over every spot of available space. The profusion, variety and density of this
coral growth is quite unique. Their bright colours advertise the fact that many
amongst them have potent stinging cells. Despite this adequate protection and
although much of their bulk is made up of a watery jelly-like substance and
their nutritious value must be amongst the lowest of any animal group, they are
preyed on by various fish. We believe that because the locals have almost
totally denuded the large reef fish, the soft corals have been given a unique
opportunity to flourish. This spectacular display has most likely been
facilitated by the almost total eradication of the corals' natural predators.
Could this outstanding natural beauty been created by very unnatural human
the cause, we believe that the soft corals of Pemba represent some of the
world's best examples of this kind of coral reef terrain. In addition, the
record of the coral fauna from the east coast of Africa is far from complete,
with new discoveries being recorded every few months.
Diving at night was another extraordinary experience here. While the daytime reef inhabitants have been largely eaten, the nighttime world has escaped much of this human terrorism. On many dives at night we saw an astounding array of invertebrates, echinoderms, hermit crabs and crayfish that in their daytime hiding places escape the keen eyes of the fishermen.
dives in full daylight the reef can appear peaceful, even sleepy, and give no
clue to the activity that can occur during the brief periods of dusk and dawn.
During the day Squirrel and Soldier fish appear to cower under dark ledges, shy
and lethargic. Coral polyps are
tightly squeezed into their hard coral cups, to emerge only at night when the
concentration of zooplankton in the water is at its highest. Everything can
appear highly structured and predictable. As
the two shifts overlap, for an hour or so at dusk and dawn, there occurs a
frenzy of activity that is seldom seen by divers.
subdued light gives a unique setting for opportunistic predators to prey on
those reef citizens just waking up and on those returning to their nighttime
refuges. Normally sluggish Scorpion
fish and Rockcod become increasingly active in the twilight.
Nocturnal Bigeye that may form large schools for protection during the
day and are rarely seen out alone become ferocious lone hunters at this time.
In the frenzy of change, predators add an anxiety to the reef that is
after sunset the reef returns quickly to a new peaceful rhythm for the night,
with new unwritten rules and routines, and a new team of players.
The frenzy, anxiety and stress appear to subdue in minutes.
Many molluscs, starfish and sea urchins rarely seen during the day become
bold, purposeful players on the reef's night stage.
Moray eels venture out into the open from their lairs while lobster and
crayfish stride languidly across sandy bottoms.
urchins inch their way out from under coral ledges to prowl the dark reefs in
search of food. On night dives we
have seen many urchin species new to us and some new to science.
Their poisonous spines sometimes just plain and sometimes elaborate, like
beautiful table legs delicately turned in a Victorian furniture manufactory.
We have found urchins such as the beautifully luminescent Echinothrix calamaris on bare expanses of sand hundreds of metres
away from the nearest coral sanctuary. Quite a walk in urchin terms!
Helmet shells rise out of the sand like ghouls in Michael Jackson's 'Thriller'. Believing themselves to be safe under the cover of darkness they stand out like jewels on the white coral sand in the beam of our torches.
it's not just the underwater world that was full of surprises. On some of the
smaller outlying islands jewels littered the beaches. Natural jewels, the
discarded homes of the order Mollusca.
Along the high tide mark, for as far as the eye can see, were piles of the most
beautiful shells. Harps, conchs, cowries and murex shells. Amongst these we
found some incredibly fragile and rare bubble shells. This was a veritable shell
of the islands along the 'Coral Coast' are not all you might expect. Some are
far from the typical sand-and-palm-tree paradigm and offer more history than you
might be prepared for.
is one such island. Situated about xxx kilometres north of Pemba, it was only to
be our stop-off to the island of Matemo further north. Instead what we found
turned out to be worth a considerable amount of attention and a veritable time
the late 1800's, as result of the new railway line from Barberton to Lebombo and
on to Lourenco Marques, several shipping lines expanded their activities along
the Mozambique coast. The Union Company added Delagoa Bay and Ibo to their list
of destinations and the Donald Currie line was running regular mail steamers
from Natal to Mozambique Island and Ibo.
even before this, Ibo was a cultured enclave of Portuguese colonialism along the
coral coast of Mozambique. What we saw when visited were just ruins of ruins but
the underlying charm took you right back to those proud days.
could have pushed back the clock a hundred years or more we would have seen a
fashionable colonnaded main street bustling with people, horse-drawn carriages
and animated chatter. Outside the modest white church a funeral would have been
in progress with the townsfolk clustered around a beautifully carved open wooden
hearse, adorned with the sweet flowers of the frangipani. The procession would
move to a pretty walled cemetery a few hundred metres out of town. A tiny power
station had pride of place in the middle of town, on the main street.
today, the verandahs and their columns had crumbled, the main street was just a
wide dusty track and persistent tropical creepers had taken over the brickwork.
The wrought-iron gate to the cemetery was hanging loosely off a single torn
hinge. A few remaining memorial mementos to the departed were forlorn; metal
corners badly rusted, crystal vases shattered. Ibo had been deserted by the
people who created it and its culture. Ibo was in the process of returning to
the soul of Africa. Despite the neglect the class and beauty of a bygone age
shone through. These were proud ruins. The largest building in town flew the
Frelimo flag. We were asked not to photograph it for security reasons. I guess
they feared we would send Sol Kerzner over to turn the whole island into Prawn
City. A kind of desert island Disneyland with lunches and dinners in Main Street
Ibo and automated rides through the abundant mangrove swamps. He'd probably make
a huge success of it. Successful but perhaps not desirable. Ibo was a unique
surprise whose vivid memories live with me still.
Lessons of the Islands
trips around the islands brought out aspects of 'African Time' that I had
forgotten and needed to relearn.
boat scheduled to take us on our trip to Matemo was ready to leave when we
arrived at the appointed time. Ready, except for one small accident of nature.
The low tide had left the trawler high and dry 50 metres up the beach. This was
apparently 'no problem' as within five hours the tide would have risen far
enough to float her off. Simple arithmetic told us that a five hour delay is not
easy to factor into a day-trip when another three hours would be taken up by the
journey there and back. No one could understand our anxiety.
are boats and boats. Boats with engines in this part of the world tend to fall
most naturally into the category of Primitive-Oil-stained-Fishing-Trawlers (POFT).
One more oil-stained and primitive than the next. To us it was surprising that
they could transverse the 50 or so kilometres that we would usually attempt. To
the Oil-stained-Captains a trip right across the Indian Ocean would not have
phased them. We would typically arrive back impregnated by diesel fumes, green,
oil-stained and relieved. Inevitably it would end up being more than a day
relaxing in the sun. Crocodile Dundee would have been proud of us.
here does not seem to be important. It was not unusual for an Italian
Oil-stained-Captain to be talking at full speed to a local speaking at full
speed to us in Portuguese. We of course spoke neither Italian or Portuguese,
only English and German. We were the only ones who never seemed to know what was
going on. Everyone else used language only as an entertainment to pass the time
while they were communicating by some higher means indiscernible to us.
lesson learnt concerned the things with which we adorn ourselves. It was
interesting to me how impressive powder-blue mask and matching fins could look
on a Grand Cayman dive boat, and how pointless it all seemed here, with no one
to appreciate the finer points of diving fashion. It's the same syndrome as the
tree falling in the forest with no one there to hear it. This thought struck me
as I was wading ashore with 20 kilograms of diving fashion on my head to a
dumbfounded reception from the island's 15 or so indigenous people who had not
been visited by an 'outsider' in more than a year, and would not know a dayglo
pink regulator from a close-up lens. It makes you think. It made me worry about
Thoughts on Pemba and the Coral Coast
paradox of Pemba is one that is repeated up and down the length of Mozambique.
the one hand, and especially above water, man's influence had been extremely
visible and mostly negative. Despite this I feel one must commend man on his
ingenuity of sustaining life even at the expense of denuding the marine
environment. Without this food source the huge famine rate would undoubtedly
still be higher. The war, poverty, greed and destruction of the environment both
above and below the water are lessons we need to remember but I wish we hadn't
the other hand, we found so much beauty underwater, and so much of it completely
untouched, even if we did have to go deeper or at night in order to find it. It
shows the strength of an ecosystem to survive man's intrusion and maintain a
magnificent balance despite our worst efforts.
destructive civil war, an unfavourable political climate and the absence of any
kind of tourist infrastructure have kept visitors away and prevented the kind of
destruction caused by too much attention. The same factors however have created
an environment in which the ecology cannot be their major concern. Although in
the end this very same ecology may turn out to be Mozambique's socio-economic
saviour, eco-tourism may be its own worst enemy.
is the on-going paradox of Mozambique. One it will struggle to escape.