P is for Paradise – Paradisical (there is such a word now) Pomene. The feeling of paradise washes over me under the clear blue sky, as I glide past the flock of pink flamingos with their upside down heads gracing one of the sandbars in the gin clear water of the Pomene estuary. I’d been here before, many years ago when I was lucky enough to be a founding explorer on reefs only frequented by fisherman and spearos. In those days I wasn’t an underwater photographer and hadn’t been able to capture paradise on film, and so I find myself back in central Mozambique to see if paradise remained and was still as perfect as in my memories, in this day and age of cellphones , diary mania and credit crises.
Text and Images by Andrew Woodburn
Picture looking down off the boat into 50m of water and seeing the pinnacles you’re headed for, clearly on the bottom. We backwards roll and I turn , exhale and freefall into indigo blue picking up the pinnacles above which I identify the shapes of eagle rays and large bass moving in formation and so get jolted into the frenzy of preparing the camera so that by the time I reach them I can record their presence. This is 3 sisters (3 deep pinnacles off the northern end of deep Zambia shoal) which in my opinion has to be the premier pinnacle dive in Southern Africa. These are no gentle bumps like deep pinnacle off the Pontos (southern Mozambique’s well known dive destinations) but distinct structures rising from 48m at their base and topping off at 30m covered in black coral. The green coral trees release clouds of goldies, coachmen and reef fish which provide the attraction for hunting pelagic game fish and larger marine species such as manta arriving for cleaning. I think I’ve been the first diver to slot the keyhole at 35m , a nearly closed hole in the reef between the first sister and the second which will be impossible if a strong current is running. The dive is over all too quickly since diving at 35m destroys my bottom time and forces me up so as to avoid decompression penalties. Ascending from 35m I can clearly see the boat on the surface, ripples diffracting the cloud patterns in the sky above and red fang trigger fish silhouetted in the midwater. Since we are so far from the Pomene estuary (20km) it’s ideal for double tank dives and so we snorkel on shallow Zambia (6m deep in the middle of the ocean) where sailfish swims past the boat its sail distinctive above the surface. We select the Trojan dive site for a second shallower and more traditional reef dive which runs along the inside edge of Zambia shoal meeting sand at 24m and rising up to 15m giving wonderful amphitheatres of reef structure. I loved finding turtles, bass and shoaling fish which provided my immersion into their world on their reef. For the first time ever I found a large plate coral with a coral tree growing right out the centre of it graced by an obliging bass for a great photo. The reef itself is named after a piece of structure which when viewed side on resembles a horse’s head. I was enthralled by my days diving and excitedly shared the experiences that evening while my wife, Clara and I washed the sun down with cold 2M beers on the stunning pool deck outside the bar. Little did I know, that wasn’t all Pomene had to provide.
Waking up after a comfortable night’s sleep in our tent I peeked out to see the ocean not a hundred meters away in the pleasant morning light with not a breath of wind on the water. We launched out the river mouth again and headed to sites off the old Pomene hotel which sits in ruins a top the “Barra falsa” point, not used since the 1970s and still a bone of contention between prospective investors for refurbishing, and the Mozambique government who are demanding a hefty fee in US dollars for the development rights (We visited the ruins one afternoon and saw the blowholes in action). As we arrived we circled the dive site and I was lucky enough to free dive the legendary Playstation reef to test for current and visibility. On my descent I was greeted by a mature gray reef shark of over 2m at 12m down. What an honour since on most well dived reefs these creatures are normally absent and on some days this particular set of reefs can be un-divable with ultra strong currents (think stronger than Aliwal shoal on a bad day) and bad visibility due to their sitting off a major point. Pomene Playstation is a 5star reef with fantastic features including a mini cave network, large reef structure with deep cracks, sandy fish filled arena, overhangs, swim thru’s and a manta cleaning station on the south side visited by reef fish and hunting game fish continuously. At 24m it’s a good intermediate dive site providing world class diving with enough bottom time to enjoy a 60min dive allowing us to cover most of the reef. After I surface from this dive I just can’t wait to do it again, it’s almost too much to absorb in one experience and if we are lucky we also get whale shark interaction which congregate off the Pomene point. On this day due to clam conditions I get a second double tank treat and added “Steps” to the dive sightseeing tour. Steps is fascinating since I’m sure it adds credibility to the theory that ancient civilizations cut rock from sites that are now subterranean in order to build great wonders of the world. Drifting along in the current I fly over multiple 90 degree cuts in rock layers just too geometrically perfect to be natural. I don’t know, go dive it for yourself to decide. The fissures and blocks are now home to moray eels galore and on the deep areas impressive vertical walls stack up from 36m towards the surface.
Getting back from the dives I had pretty much thought that diving here couldn’t really get much better till that evening talking with Joe and Natalie the managers and Dave and Jill the Barra Resort owners I learned a little secret. I was informed that Neville Ayliff the Sodwana legend , fish life guru and diver extraordinaire was becoming part of the team at Pomene later in the year and would bring with him his wealth of experience, fishy facts and diving leadership that was a crucial part of developing Sodwana into the diving destination it has become. I’m sure Neville will have years of work ahead of him to do more exploration in this region. In addition the resort has built an artificial reef in the estuary just off the dive centre where seahorses abound and macro critters dominate in the sea grass. Not to be outdone by my experiences so far Joe also showed me photos from 2006 of dugong in the estuary mouth which had me scanning the water on every exit and entrance from the river from then on.
Pomene lodge occupies a unique spit of beach separating natural mangrove forests and a freshwater estuary which feeds around the spit into the Indian Ocean through a tidal estuary. In fact the spit probably doesn’t get more than 2m above high tide at any place and during the devastating cyclones in past years, has lead to knee deep waves washing through the reception door and out past the pool into the estuary. At any one time while walking on the spit I am able to see the aquamarine ocean out one eye across the squeaky white sand beach and out the other eye the reflections off the estuary in different stages of tidal flux. This place presents a sensory overload to me, with visuals representing travel brochure images of coconut palms, blue sea and white sand, warm tropical breezes cooling the sun’s rays on my skin, the waves from the ocean crashing in my ears and the smell of untainted air.
This paradiscal environment delivers feelings of peace, space and makes me feel like the only person on the planet. Pomene has traditionally been known as a secret fishing destination and over the last few years more and more diving has been done exploring and identifying awesome reefs. Not only does Pomene has two of Southern Africa’s best reef dives but will soon be home to one of Southern Africa’s best known dive personalities and a- fishianardos…Neville Ayliff, I’m not sure it gets better than this.
This ideal location is unique in that it provides a delicate mix of the olden day’s sodwana camping atmosphere, but even better since you get to camp with the beach as your front door step. Each campsite comes with a fresh water tap, braai facilities and electrical point. Most sites have thatched barracas which can accommodate fridges and all your camping tables/ food and are fitted with lights for the evening. This destination offers basic to beyond expectation -camping, self catering group chalets and top end water chalets, all backed up by a professional dive operation. The self catering chalets offer 6 and 8 sleeper options in large rustic thatch lodges which although basic still bring the sea straight to your door step. Each self cater chalet is serviced with bedding, cutlery, crockery a freezer and mosquito nets. The chalets range from ocean view to sunset and the den a grouping of four double rooms en-suite. I even met some fisherman who had driven from Port Elizabeth to Pomene towing a boat, that’s about 4 days of dedication each way.
But that’s not all, the pride and glory of the resort are the Water chalets, and our room became affectionately referred to by my wife as the “water palace”. Double rooms en-suite , built Mozambique style on stilts with reed roofs serviced by raised walkways are an architectural feature facing out west over the lagoon. Our room had an almighty double bed within a billowing mosquito net covered with fresh sheets and an airy duvet. Power points for charging the camera gear and a balcony with the most brilliant sunset vista over the estuary and private stairs down to the squeaky white sand covered by tidal waves running up between the stilts at high tide.
Pomene also provides family activities including Horse riding, quad bike adventures, sunset cruises, fly-fishing, shore fishing and offshore fishing on the famous Zambia banks. We met friendly travelers and divers in this off beat corner of Mozambique and enjoyed the finest fish caught that day and prawns from the restaurant at reasonable prices after enjoying cold 2M on the deck. This was a great adventure providing a delicate mix of paradise supported by some of the more necessary amenities such as power (generator driven from 8-12 and 4-10pm) hot water showers, a small shop and even a satellite tv for those important rugby matches or soap operas but far enough away not to be intrusive. The central lodge area also provides a pool table, bar area and rim flow fresh water swimming pool. So I’d recommend saddling up the 4*4 (yep you need a 4 wheel drive to get through the last 2 hours of beach sand track) turn north at Maputo and keep on going till Masinga (approximately 700km) before falling off tarmac, or fly in directly from Jhb South Africa via Inhambane . Pomene Lodge is part of the Barra Resorts group supported by the same infrastructure that services the Barra lodge and Flamingo Bay Hotels in Inhambane.
So since the trip was planned to experience the diving at this far flung piece of paradise let’s cut to the chase. I think that Pomene is blessed with two of the best dives in the Southern Africa. Three sisters the leading pinnacle dive and Pomene Playstation a spectacular site competing with the best I’ve seen worldwide. In short this piece of paradise will definitely be on my must visit list again and I’ll be salivating at the thought of what Neville will find and add to the already abundant selection of world class diving.