Claiming a sand bar island as your own, floating in the lukewarm cerulean waters of the Indian Ocean, and indulging in pastéis de nata, freshly-caught King Prawns drenched in garlic butter sauce, washed down with 2M beer are reasons enough to visit Mozambique’s seaside town of Vilankulo, which is found within Vilanculos district.
Dugongs. These so-called ladies of the sea (from the Malay word duyung) are probably one of the most popular reasons to travel (and dive) along Mozambique’s 2 500-kilometre coastline and particularly around Vilanculos.
So, I was determined, as a newly qualified PADI scuba diver, with only a few dives under my weight belt – in the Seychelles, Mauritius and Reunion Island – to do a full-day excursion along Two Mile Reef with Odyssea Dive in search of these plump, ever-elusive herbivorous marine mammals that hold so much intrigue.
The coral reefs stretch along the Bazaruto Archipelago, where sand banks, shallow bays and seagrass meadows make for ideal grazing conditions for these sea cows. With their fluked, dolphin-like tail and down-turned snout, we’re told that they are more closely related to elephants than other marine mammals. The other drawcard is a large variety of tropical reef fish, such as surgeon, parrot, trigger and angel, as well as seven kinds of rays, reef sharks, turtles and moray eels.
It’s as our small group of six divers are lazing about Bazaruto Island during our pre-packed lunch stop – surveying the views from the sand dunes, wallowing in the inland shallows that are created at high tide, snorkelling and walking along the golden beach – that our dive instructor comes running. We only hear one word of what he says, “Dugong!” Everything else is dropped. And forgotten. We tumble back into the boat and head past the rock pools in the direction of the dugong. The water gently bobs us about. Each of us, peer into the cerulean depths and at the water ahead. In all directions. But as easily as it was spotted, it just as easily disappeared.
We prepare for our second dive, invigorated with the hope that we may see it within the water. As we ascend, we’re determined to dive these waters again, perhaps then we’ll have better luck.
We return to the mainland along with the fishing dhows. The beach near Odyssea Dive is lined with sails of various colours on one side and hungry customers on the other.
Barefoot women wrapped in capulanas bring colourful plastic buckets and beer crates to be filled with handfuls of fish. Gleeful children splash through the water as they race to pick up the fish that slip into the water. The catch is spilled out onto the beach sand and separated according to fish variety and size. Customers circle, vying with their voices to be helped first. The women fill customers’ plastic bags. They are taken to the pot-bellied dhow owner, who weighs them using a hand scale. Fistfuls of fish are either added to the plastic bags or thrown back onto the sand heap. Money exchanges hands. The fish are sold whole or gutted and cleaned – ready for the barbeque. On the drive back to town, we see salted fish, drying from road signs and wooden poles. This is the definition of fresh – from sea to grill to plate.
For those who want to reel in their own on a catch-and-release basis, big game fishing happens aboard the 29-foot Nova cat or the 25-foot Magnum cat with Big Blue. Vilanculos mornings start with casting baits and lures from the beachfront, while afternoons are reserved for the fighting chair. Black marlin bite in spring, between mid-September and mid-December. Though there are also other fish species to go after including Sailfish and Giant Trevally. While Tuna, Dorado, Billfish, Rock cod and Jobfish are caught between reef systems.
Truth be told, Meruschka, Dee and myself preferred sipping sparkling wine on the secluded beach of a small sand bank island that disappears and appears with the tides. It’s the perfect vantage point to watch dhows – and time – go by. Days aboard the Catsonova – Bahia Mar’s 44-foot-long motorised catamaran yacht – include floating past sand bars, reading a page turner beneath a parasol, while keeping an eye out for dolphins and taking a dip in the waters before a gourmet picnic lunch. The yacht can be chartered for a full day of island hopping between Paradise, Margaruque, Benguerra and Bazaruto islands. Or it can be anchored off their shores overnight.
Sunset brings with it sundowners and seafood feasts of baked crayfish, coconut prawn curry and calamari steaks along the beachfront. Before it starts all over again tomorrow.
The best time to visit Vilanculos
Vilanculos can be visited all year round, thanks to its tropical weather. Though note that its gets really hot and humid in the spring and summertime from November to February, with January being the hottest month. It is most likely to rain between November and April, with December being the wettest month. Between June and August you can expect temperatures between 20-25 degrees, while August is the coolest and driest month. We visited over the New Year period and it was hot and humid – the perfect excuse to spend lots of time in the water and by the swimming pool.
How to get to Vilanculos
There are numerous ways to get to and from Vilanculos depending on budget and the amount of time you have on your hands. If you’re coming from South Africa, taking a bus is a cheaper option, though it requires spending a night in Maputo and takes two days. While flying is the fastest but most expensive option.
Meru and I took a Greyhound bus from Park City Transit Centre, Johannesburg Station at 08:15 to the Maputo bus station (Avenida Karl Marx), which arrived at around 16:00. The bus goes via Lebombo Border Post. Be sure that you have your passport and visa (if you require one) in order before you get there. After spending a night in Maputo, we took an early morning bus from Maputo to Vilanculos. It took the whole day and stopped many times along the way. This bus was less luxurious than our Greyhound bus with no aircon, chickens on board, and people jumping on to sell us snacks and ice-cream.
I flew back to Johannesburg (O.R Tambo International Airport) with Airlink from Vilankulo Airport. Though much more expensive, the flight only took an hour. And I see that Lam is also offering flights now.
Where to stay in Vilanculos
Meru and I stayed with our friend Dee at her place in Vila La Mar, a self-catering thatched just off the beach, with a swimming pool and braai area. The parking area has 24-hour security. We paid a visit to Bahia Mar for breakfast, some chills by the infinity pool and Dee’s photography exhibition. This boutique hotel looks out onto the Indian Ocean from its wooden deck. We also visited Dee’s friends who own Casa Rex boutique hotel, a lovely hilltop property with a swimming pool and views over the ocean. There are numerous AirBnb options, that start from as little as $10/night and average at around $45/night, with the more expensive ones hovering around $100/night and upwards of $300/night. You can choose from beach bungalows to apartments or private houses and villas. There are also a number of guest houses and standalone houses to rent.
Where to eat in Vilanculos
If you’re looking to buy fresh seafood, straight off the boat then head to the beach near Odyssea Dive from around 16:00 onwards. The local market sells dried fish, which you can find by their smell. Casbah Restaurant and Beach Bar can’t be rivaled for their location on the beach and serve up hearty Mozambican seafood fare and 2M beers. Vegan, detox and weightloss meals can be found at Bahia Mar’s restaurant.
The Bazaruto Archipelago
Vilanculos is the springboard to the Bazaruto Archipelago of six islands off its coastline. It can be visited on a day trip or overnight. The largest island at 12 000 hectares is Bazaruto. From here you can visit Pansy Island, go scuba diving and snokelling, do a sunrise horse-back outride and take a day trip to Dolphin Bay in search of the resident flock of flamingos. The five-star Anantara Resort and Spa on Bazaruto is what tropical island holidays are made of – private, thatched beach villas, sundowner dhow cruises, beachfront banquets by candle and starlight, massages and spa treatments, as well as panoramic views of the bay from the hilltop. Because there are only a selected number of guests on the island, at times it seems as though you have it all to yourself.
Medical facilities in Vilanculos
Vilanculos is fairly remote – one of the reasons you probably want to visit, which might make you worry about medical facilities available. It’s always a good idea to travel with medical insurance.
The private Netcare Nhamacunda Clinic was opened in 2016. There’s a GP and dentist, as well as pathology and radiology services, including 911 ambulance services and a 24-hour emergency room. It was clean and the staff were helpful and friendly, when I paid a visit thinking I might have had Malaria.
Visit your general practitioner before travelling as Vilanculos is a malaria area. Bring insect repellent, citronella candles as well as long sleeved shirts and trousers. Most accommodation options have mosquito nets and window mesh.
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This article appeared in the January Fastjet’s Places Magazine as part of my work as a freelance writer.