Two years after the end of the war in Mozambique, the country began to be opened up once more and in 1994 a South African diving company negotiated a deal to set up a diving school in Ponta do Ouro, a town in the extreme south of Mozambique, on the Mozambique Channel in the Indian Ocean, south of Maputo and just north of the border with South Africa.
Today it is a well known holiday destination, renowned for its beach, its dolphins and for its offshore diving and deep-sea fishing. At that time, a friend and I were lucky enough to be invited for the Easter weekend as part of the very first scuba diving exploration of the area.
We drove six hours through the night from Johannesburg to get to the border in time for its 6am opening. When we eventually arrived very tired and grumpy, we still had to wait ages for them to open the ‘customs office’, with the only facilities being a ‘long drop’ toilet in a corrugated iron hut!
Facilities at the border post!
We were informed by a somewhat officious official that our car (a low slung BMW loaded to the gunnels with tents, food, wine etc, in fact, everything we would need for our long weekend), would not be allowed across the border, so we had to unpack everything and reload onto the 4x4 Land Rover that eventually came to fetch us.
The drive to Ponta de Oura was an education in itself; houses, pock-marked with bullet holes, villages reduced to rubble, shredded trees and vegetation, all reminders of a recent and an extremely brutal 16 year civil war between the guerrilla forces of the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique) otherwise known as FRELIMO, and the rebel group FRENAMO which ended in 1992.
It was explained to us in no uncertain terms never to stray from the main road (more of a dirt track really!) due to the very real possibility of being blown up by land mines!
Beware of landmines
When we got to the beach, however, the hazardous road trip had certainly been worthwhile. No-one had been there for years and it was like setting foot on a desert island; pristine white sand and clear blue seas, teeming with fish, (a scuba divers paradise) — truly the most amazing place.
Some enterprising local had set up a broken-down caravan on the sand and was selling fresh peri-peri prawns cooked over a brazier.
“We pitched our camp just off the beach, under some palm trees.”
We pitched our camp just off the beach, under some palm trees. Of course there were no toilet facilities so we had to wash in the sea and do the necessary in a hole dug nearby so as not to venture into the bush in case of the dreaded landmines!
The diving team launched their catamaran off the shore and we all spent hours in the water every day marveling at the enormous variety of fish which, as a result of remaining undisturbed for so many years, were more curious than afraid of us strange humans.
The headland at Ponta de Oura
We braaied fresh bream and succulent seafood every night, under a full moon, drinking many bottles of Portuguese Vinho Verde wines, swapping stories of daring do in other wild African seas.
Now, as with so many other scatterlings living far from Africa, that Easter weekend remains a most treasured memory.
Today Ponta do Ouro has been developed into yet another seaside tourist resort, full of hotels and villas and holiday makers.
In January 2016, Mozambique and the international community celebrated an important achievement, which was the culmination of a post-war success story. The southern African nation was declared landmine-free, after two decades of work to get rid of the explosives. Close to 171,000 landmines from 1,100 minefields were removed, according to the Halo Trust, a British charity that led the clearance.
It’s interesting to note, that as well as traditional approaches to mine removal such as manual de-miners with metal detectors etc., a unique technique was deployed using mine detection rats to help speed up operations as they detect only explosive material (TNT) and ignore harmless scrap metal. One HeroRAT can check an area of 200m² in about 20 minutes – a task that would take a conventional de-miner up to four days…!