Mermaid in the Making in Mozambique – Freediving with Hanli Prinsloo

“Dur dum, dur dum…” The two opening bars of the theme tune to Jaws reverberate in my head. This is not the best melody to have in my mind, as I jump into the waters of the Indian Ocean, in Mozambique. Together with my fellow students, I am about to take a week’s course in freediving, led by South African freediving champion Hanli Prinsloo – aided by the rest of the I Am Water team.

When I think of freediving, I think of the movie The Big Blue, featuring one of my favourite actors, Jean Reno. The freedom he had as he dived down into the deep blue waters, without the need of a scuba tank, always appealed to me. Now, with my very own dive mask and flippers – no, “fins”, as I keep being reminded to call them – I am about to explore The Big Blue for myself. I am about to become a mermaid. Perhaps not a particularly graceful mermaid, but a mermaid nonetheless.


Holding onto a buoy, I put my head into the blue waters, and then I hear it again: “…dur dum, dur dum…” This time, though, the throbbing theme tune is more appropriate, as I look down and see a bull shark swimming deep below. Its gentleness and the way it glides through the water beneath me takes away the fear. Scared thoughts of sharks and freediving with them melt away as it glides peacefully off into the deep.

Beth, one of Hanli’s team and, in my mind, a professional mermaid, starts to explain the techniques required for a rope dive, as well as the importance of equalisation. Holding onto the rope, she slowly pulls herself down in a sloth-like motion. Sinking deeper into the water, she equalises after each movement. Upon reaching the bottom of the rope – today set at five metres – she slowly makes her way back to the top.

Now, it’s my turn. Again she runs through the process: take it slow, equalise each time, tuck your chin in if you can’t equalise, just look at the rope, reach the bottom, turn back and take it slow back up to the top. Slowly, and not as elegantly as Beth, I start pulling myself down.

It is amazing how quickly I forget what I have just been told once I’m underwater. Thankfully, the professional mermaid is not far away – swimming down beside me, showing me what to do. I almost reach the bottom of the rope, but my equalisation is not working as I would hope and my ears are hurting. Somewhat panicked, I swim my way back to the top.

Taking a few moments to relax and catch my breath, I try again. Taking a big deep breath, I fill my lungs with air from the bottom to the top, and anywhere else if may fit in. Slowly and carefully, I pull myself down in the sloth-like motion, getting ever closer to the bottom. Finally, with one last pull, I make it to the bottom of the five-metre rope. Beth is by my side the whole way. With a gentle flip of my fins, I start making my way back to the top, feeling as if my inner mermaid is about to be released.

Over the course of the next few days, each morning starts out on the buoy, with the rope dropping a few metres deeper each time. After three days, I comfortably make it down to 10 metres on one breath. I even have a bit of time to look around, taking in the stillness of the ocean around me.

After each session on the rope, we head off in search of bottlenose dolphins. On finding a pod, Hanli and her team assess how they are behaving, to see if they will welcome us into their world. We are soon all in the water, swimming and diving into the depths below, accompanied by these wonderful creatures.

It is amazing how the dolphins swim all around us. They flit under us, before gliding overhead as we dive below them. They seem just as interested in us as we are in them. Under the water, I can hear the clicks and squeaks they make, talking amongst themselves and, I presume, to us.

On my final dive with the dolphins, I start thinking about the countless safaris I have been on. In a safari vehicle or even walking in the bush, I have always felt like an outsider. But when freediving, I feel part of the underwater world around me. Perhaps with freediving, for a moment, I do become a mermaid, welcomed into the world beneath the waves.

Talk to our Mozambique Travel Experts to start planning your freediving with dolphins holiday, call us on 01285 601 753  or email inspire@steppestravel.com.


The laughter of dolphins in Mozambique with Hanli Prinsloo

Sitting in the shaded bliss of Tartaruga camp, cooled by the breeze, the sound of the surf rushing and crashing along miles of empty beach, I reflect on achieving one of life’s ambitions – swimming with wild dolphins.  The whole experience had been sublime, beyond my wildest expectations, and in no small part because I did so in the company and confidence of a world-renowned free-diver.

I was in Ponta do Oura in southernmost Mozambique. The tarred roads of South Africa were replaced by the sands of Mozambique, the tension of South Africa substituted for the laid-back charms of Mozambique. With its small local cafés, sandy roads and friendly markets, Ponta was both barefoot and beguiling.

We met at the small but excellent Dolphin Centre for an eighteen minute video briefing that was thorough and insightful. Duly briefed, we were transported to the deserted beach on the back of a trailer. The boat was launched with an effort – its weight on the beach considerable but once in the water it found its buoyancy. The unerring eye of Johann, our Swedish skipper, picked a line through the rolling waves and we zoomed out across the surf.

“Do you want to try and find dolphins straight away? Or do you want to do some freediving first of all?” Hanli asked.

Against my better judgement we chose the latter – how often do you get to enjoy the tuition of a world champion, someone who is a master of their craft and gets to depths that few terrestrial mortals dream of. Hanli Prinsloo is a champion freediver now ocean conservationist – she has her own foundation I AM WATER.

We don our fins and masks and slip into the water. Hanli’s entry is sylphlike, mine more ungainly. Once in the water such differences are only exemplified.

She swims with a freedom and grace that is a delight to watch. No hurried movements, no wasted energy, just composed, measured and wonderfully economic in her movement.

We all hang on to a yellow buoy as Hanli tries to condense days of training into a matter of minutes. The nub is that it is about breathing properly and relaxing the body.

After a few minutes breathing coaching, I dive. Left hand pulling on the line, right hand squeezing my nose. I am concentrating, trying hard to remember my instructions. Every movement conscious and deliberate. I am not relaxed. I am expending energy. Depressingly quickly, I run out of breath and race back to the light and air of the surface.

“You had problems equalising?”

I nod with beginner’s embarrassment.

“It sounds counter-intuitive but it helps if you keep your chin close to your chest.”

Hanli was not wrong and at my next attempt, I dive unencumbered by pressure in my ears. I am impressed by how deep I am. I make the mistake of looking back from whence I had come. Alarm. I panic and rush back to the surface, my lungs gasping furiously for air.

After several dives, I learned to relax and once I had done so it was curiously calming. I wanted to go longer and deeper. Yes my competitive spirit was in part a driving force but it was more the tranquillity of the deep.

Whilst freediving was a magical moment, it was the hors d’oeuvre before the main course of swimming with bottlenose dolphins. Hanli had explained to us that whilst there are a number of transient pods there were also a couple of resident pods in this area. She talked us through their different behaviours from sleeping to reproduction, from feeding to play.

She was animated whilst talking about the dolphins. Clearly in love with their curiosity and playfulness. Yet never ready to take advantage of the dolphins’ openness – she was adamant that in no way were we to force them to interact with us and certainly never to touch the dolphins.

“Dolphins,” cries Johann and we follow his outstretched arm to see a small pod of dolphins breaking the surface, their dorsal fins and backs arched in a languid movement.

“Time to see our ‘dolfriends’,” Hanli exclaims excitedly.

We slip into the water, trying to make as minimal noise and splash as possible. I put my head under the water and already Hanli is many metres below me, moving effortlessly. And then I see them, silhouetted against the sand a number of dolphins slowly on the move.

A couple of things strike me. Firstly, they are much bigger than they appeared from the boat – underwater I appreciate their full size and that they are at least as long as me, a couple of metres. Their grace and élan. Their differing shades of grey. That Hanli sings to the dolphins and in doing so they surround her siren-like.

In spite of Hanli’s best efforts, this pod was not for playing and we keep up with them for a while and then leave them to their own devices. Or rather they pick up the pace and leave us in their wake. We clamber back into the boat euphoric and continue our search for other dolphins. We all chatter excitedly as we reflect on what just has been and in hope of might what come.

A number of minutes later, Johann spots another pod. Whilst nothing in wildlife is guaranteed, not least given our cavalier guardianship of our planet, the waters of southern Mozambique are dolphin rich. We take the plunge once more with great anticipation.

The odds are more evenly matched. Three dolphins and three of us. The dolphins take up the challenge and swim and circle us in playful glee. In trio, they spin effortlessly around me, watching me all the time. They twist, turn and tantalise, swimming no more than a couple of feet from me. The thrill, the privilege. One looks up at me and we have a visceral eye contact for several seconds. Another swims up to my mask, almost kissing me inquisitively before racing away to come circling back for another look.

They spiral around revealing a lighter underbelly. On another I see what Hanli later tells me are freckles. One picks up a cuttlefish, another picks up a piece of seaweed. Throughout they are clicking in constant chattering communication.

Nearly an hour later I haul myself back into the boat laughing deliriously.

Talk to our Mozambique Travel Experts to start planning your freediving with dolphins holiday, call us on 01285 601 753  or email inspire@steppestravel.com.


24 hours in Maputo

I imagined Maputo to be like most African cities – gritty, crowded and disorganised. Instead I was met with Mediterranean-style architecture, a waterside setting and wide avenues lined with jacaranda trees. I was grateful for the space and air: after a three-hour delay coming in from Vilanculous, I was hot and wet with sweat.

The next day, I got lost in Maputo’s beauty, in the company of my guide. She took me to the century-old cream-and-green train station building, with its old-fashioned clock-face and graceful arches. I watched the city fill up — there are no car park permits; instead the street kids are paid to look after the vehicles — and stopped by the old Cathedral de Nossa Senhora da, which dominates the original part of the city, the baixa (pronounced bye-shuh) next to the port.

She took me downtown to the red-light district. This was where some of the scenes of the movie The Blood Diamond were made, starring diCaprio, where I saw women loiter on corners. We drove to the Municipal Market that was selling all sorts of vegetables, fruits and nuts; we paused by fishmongers and got stuck in traffic jams of yellow-and-green taxis. Every minute, I felt the vibrancy of the everyday.

19th Century Iron House, Maputo, Mozambique

And then an evening at Gil Vicente — a downtown bar in a gorgeous art deco building where I listened to live jazz and ate piri piri chicken shot through with the flavours that give Maputo its spice: Arab, African, Portuguese. As I turned in for the night, I looked at my ticket out to Johannesburg the next day. How short-sighted of me to have kept my Maputo visit to just 24 hours. I was only just beginning to uncover her riches, including, bizarrely, an extraordinary natural history museum holding the foetuses of elephants.

There’s nowhere else quite like Maputo — and Africa is the continent I know best in the world.


Memories of Mozambique

I am not usually a patron of small African curio shops but I have to say that the coffee shop come curio bookstore in the internal terminal of Dar Es Salaam airport serves some of the best coffee and sells a grand selection of books that you just wouldn’t find in your local Waterstone’s.

It could have also just been the fact that it was Africa and the coffee always tastes better in Africa, the fish is fresher, the grass is greener and the sea is definitely bluer off the coast of northern Mozambique. And not to mention the sand, white as chalk, hot underfoot and clean – Lawrence of Arabia clean. The Casuarinas conduct a symphony in the bright sunshine and the waves lap gently in rhythm.

If that is what you are looking for on your next holiday, you’ll do very well to start in Northern Mozambique. Imagine the Maldives without any tourists, only a lazy dhow sailing past your room, the distant splash of a whales’ tail. Of course you can see people if you want to, not many really but there will be someone to mix up your cocktail or take you to their favourite diving or snorkelling spot. Someone to help you with your dive course. Someone wonderful to cook you some famous LM (Lorenzo Marques) prawns – Portuguese style which you suck lazily as you watch the sun literally sink into the azure sea.

Vamizi, Matemo, Guludo, Mejumbe, Quilalea and Londo. All these lovely island get-aways will offer some individual take on the pristine archipelago which was spared of so much heartbreaking destruction that the mainland of Mozambique had to endure.

Understandably now the islands are the first to rise out of the ashes and be targeted by tourism. Hopefully this peaceful invasion will ensure some sustainability. The marine parks already have attracted much attention and it seems that for now the researchers are the ones who are setting the boundaries.

One has to remember however that this is still Africa. Our charter flight was delayed due to human misdirection, you had to close your room to ensure the monkeys didn’t get in, you may have to wade through the mud to your boat and you will always get wet on a sea transfer. That’s just Africa.

However that same charm oozes out of every crevice on the island of Ibo where you walk the same dusty streets that the Arabs used to walk when pepper and salt were precious commodities. You may pass a team of glamorous archaeologists from America digging up a homestead where a sharp stone was the most treasured tool in the house.

A the sun shines in England my lasting impression of Northern Mozambique, is the brightness of the sun and the warmth of the nights, the salt in the air and the peace.


Elephant swimming in the sea at Nuarro

The elephants in Mozambique have, in the past been hunted and chased out of their habitat. Their homes have been destroyed in the long history of war.

This unusual site happened at Nuarro Luxury Eco lodge this week is a great indication of how far Mozambique has progressed after the devastation of war.

The wildlife is returning to and re-establishing itself in Mozambique. The staff and guests were amazed to see that an elephant (possibly a single bull elephant) had taken to the sea for a swim. I have often seen lions, rhino and other wildlife on the beaches of Africa but never an elephant. The elephant was content and relaxed, happy to be watched and enjoying a bath in the sea!


Scuba Diving at Nuarro Luxury Eco Lodge

Nuarro Luxury Eco Lodge is an ideal place to scuba dive – whether you are a learner or an experienced diver, there is something for everyone.

For beginners it offers diver entry from the shore, with a gradual slope towards the wall of the continental shelf. The shelf edge is teaming with stunning fish and beautiful coral.

Further along from the Nanatha Point there is a wall that runs for the complete circumference of the Baixo. This has somewhere in the region of 15km of wall diving and an endless amount of dive sites. One of the great advantage of diving at Nuarro is that only lodge divers will be on the reefs. So, you get the whole reef to yourself and dive times are usually dictated by air supply and not the need to get back for the next boat of divers. Best of all, it’s still pioneering stuff – we believe that there are still exciting reefs to be discovered!