Monday 18 May 2009

Alex learns to dive on Likoma

i really should have tried scuba diving before. my mum comes from the south of france and my holidays there were very nautical - swimming, snorkelling, sailing, windsurfing, water-skiing etc. my grandfather and uncle are unbelievably experienced aquanauts, having run their own boats (including a 40ft yacht), free-dived to extraordinary depths and fished for england. well, france.

so when i found out that Likoma was one of the cheapest places to learn it didn't take too much convincing. i loved Likoma, by the way, not just because of the diving, but because the hills are covered in what i can only describe as alpine meadow, which i found really bizarre on a tropical island in southern africa. apparently it's because the island was completely deforested (for firewood) by refugees years ago. there is some regeneration going on at the north of the island now. but i found it really surreal to wander over the island through long grass, with little blue and purple flowers and tons of butterflies. my two favourite environments - alpine and water - rolled into one.

it's a completely safe place - crime does NOT EXIST here. in africa you get used to people telling you not to wander around at night pretty much everywhere you go (whether it's entirely justified or not), so it was very refreshing to be completely free to do as we chose on Likoma. people are very friendly and will always stop for a polite chat. adults will hardly ever beg here, although the kids chance it now and again. depending on the time of day and the route you choose, you can be mobbed by little kids, desperate to hold of your hand and accompany you for just a short way.

the island's infrastructure is pretty damn good, considering how cut off the place is. nearly everywhere has access to electricity (till 10pm anyway) and running water - although these are fairly recent developments, admittedly - and the village houses are bigger and better built than on the mainland. people seem to have it good on Likoma. conditions aren't ideal for agriculture however (due to the sandy soil and lack of manure), so some stuff has to be shipped from the mainland, making certain things expensive or hard to find. there is a plentiful supply of fish in the lake, although that too can be hard to find sometimes (go figure). during mango season it must really be like paradise on Likoma but.

the island is about 12 miles by 5 miles, so pretty tiny. from the highest point (about 700m, - the water level is at 490m altitude anyway) you can see all over the island. Likoma is only 7km from the Mozambique coast - which looks awesome by the way, hills adorned by thick forest, hardly any habitation at all. a couple of groups from our backpackers, Mango Drift, made the trip to Cobue in Mozambique by kayak. without visas i might add.

Mango Drift and its staff are completely lovely. it's a remote, half-km beach in a bay on the south west corner of the island. loads of mango and baobab ("upside-down") trees. you can hardly see the bar and the cabins from the water, because of the way it's been built. Josh and Becky, a young British couple, have just taken over the place and it suits them down to the ground, even though they are far more experienced divers than guest house managers. they are naturals, doing a great job and we wish them every success. T and I were living on about 11 UK pounds a day each, and eating (and boozing) well. blazing hot most days, it was, and only rained once during the night. it's a really, really chilled place - hammocks, games of Bao, swimming ... and diving!

the first time i breathed (brothe?) underwater it was ok - just like snorkelling really. but then my mask started leaking and the exercises we had to do complicated matters somewhat. clear my mask, by breathing out through my nose, you say? i've just got used to breathing in and out through my mouth exclusively, and now you want me to breathe out of my nose and then go back to sucking air through my mouth? i had a bit of a spack attack, i don't mind telling you. i wasn't sure i was going to be able to do my first real dive, i was really quite nervous. but about half way through the first 34 min dive i relaxed - and Josh said he saw my posture and buoyancy improve suddenly - and that was it. completely hooked.

i did 11 dives in two and a half weeks (we kept deciding to stay on), and passed my PADI Advanced. it cost me about 360 quid and now i can dive to 30m anywhere in the world. i did a night dive and a deep dive and i definitely wanna go deeper than 30m. it's VERY cool down there. the visibility in the lake is excellent and it's fresh water, which means it's easier on your eyes and your gear. the lake is full of cichlids, the fastest evolving genera of fish in the world. they're generally quite small and very colourful and there are loads of different types. some are mouth-breeders, meaning the mum rears and protects her young in her mouth - i saw it, it's mad. tiny little mini-mums, dozens of them, shooting into her mouth when we came near. the only bigger stuff (apart from crocs, which we didn't see) are the kampango (catfish). Becky was really quite shocked by a massive one that jumped out from between some rocks on a dive once - i have to admit i laughed - it was over a metre long and she almost made the 'shark' sign.

there are also impressive rock formations round the islands we dived (dove?), 30m walls and drop-offs to 80m depth. i loved it, loved it, loved it. thanks to Josh and Becky for giving me a great start in diving. i can highly recommend it. right now, i feel like i want to do it a lot more, maybe become a Divemaster or instructor one day. seems like a pretty good way of life to me.

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