5.32 am. Too early. I hear the footsteps of Emeliano making his way down the passage to wake me up. Two sugars is my request but this seems to fall on deaf ears.
After a phenomenal stay in Mozambique, it’s time to head home. I’m booked on the 7am flight to Johannesburg, connecting to Durban later in the day. I drag myself out of bed and rush off to Maputo’s airport.
It had all started with a phone call from Rob Allen two months previously:
“I’m heading to Milli Bangalala to stay with my old diving buddy Theo, would you like to come and film?” I thought long and hard for about two seconds and agreed.
Rob picked me up at 3:30am and after a quick stop to pick up Chris, we were on our way to the Kosi Bay border to experience the tropical paradise that is Mozambique.
Milli Bangalala is situated a mere 100km north of Mozambique’s southern border. Why then, was it then going to take us three hours from the border to drive there? After a quick border crossing, we hit the main road north and it soon became very apparent why the trip was going to take so long and why it had to be done in a 4 wheel drive.
The first 20m of road was paved in broken up concrete and then it was onto what can only be described as beach sand with open grassland on either side. Luckily for us, there had not been much rain and the roads were fairly hard. Rob managed to navigate most of the way without letting the tyre pressure down, although he kept commenting that as soon as he found a place to pull over he would, as the fuel consumption was being greatly increased driving with hard tyres.
Two and a half hours later, when we were nearing our destination, we finally found a spot to pull over. Not to deflate the tyres though, but to deal with a “Mozambican speed bump”: namely a tortoise that had found its way into the road (don’t let these guys urinate on you by the way, you will not enjoy it).
So with half a tank of fuel and the tyres still at full pressure (and Chris banished to the back smelling of tortoise urine) we pressed on.
Having never been to Milli (as it is fondly referred to) I was not sure what to expect, but nothing prepared me for the first sighting of the Milli Bay. As we made our way out of the last bit of forest and over the hills we were greeted by the most breathtaking view of thick green coastal forest fronted by white sands, crystal clear blue water and dead flat seas.
Milli campsite is situated in a pristine coastal forest that teems with life – from raiding monkeys to an array of birds, insects, scorpions and some monstrous huntsman spiders. The upper campsites are a little cooler as they get a better breeze than the lower ones. But the lower sites are better situated in relation to the launch area. Camping is based on a first come first serve basis, so it’s a good idea to have the local helper’s numbers to book you a good campsite prior to arriving.
The launch area and beach are situated slightly north of the camping area, in a sheltered bay with the typical rock outcrop running diagonally out to sea protecting the bay and providing a fairly easy launch.
When coming to Milli, you need to take pretty much everything with you. There is a fresh water well, but it is not advisable to drink from it. A generator and a freezer are essential, especially if you want to keep your catch frozen.
After meeting up with Theo and his wife Angela who had arrived an hour or two before us, we went about setting up camp. The important thing here is finding decent fl at ground, putting up lots of cover and plenty of ground sheets to keep the sand pit away from your living space.
Chris and I were tasked with setting up the shelter for our eating area. We made a bit of a balls up, but luckily Rob came to the rescue, re-arranging everything and made the camp a little less dangerous by simplifying our array of ropes and pulley systems. It was at this time that we realised that while we had arrived with lots of food, we had no cooking utensils or gas cookers.
After a short discussion we decided it was time to make friends with our neighbours, as there is only so much sushi you can eat on one dive trip. We then spent the afternoon relaxing, before retiring to our tents full of the anticipation that is always associated with the first night of a spearfishing trip.
Now, I’ve been on some pretty hectic spearfishing trips with some keen spearfishermen in the past, but this trip had a distinctly different feel to it. This was quickly confirmed on our first morning, waking up to perfect conditions but still only making our way onto the water by 8am. The late start was quickly blamed on Theo who lives in Johannesburg and apparently had not had a decent sleep in since his last holiday.
After suiting up and making our way through the coastal forest we soon had Theo’s boat in the water and we were off. The main goal of this trip was for Chris and myself to do some filming together, and also get some footage for a video segment on an upcoming spearfishing dvd. For me it was a great opportunity to have another cameraman in the water with me to get some extra angles and to also show people what we get up to while filming the African Spearfishing diaries dvds.
Our first stop was Milli Pinacles, and after finding the bait fish and deploying our marker buoy, we slipped over the side into what can only be described as heavenly crystal water. The majority of the dive spots at Milli are within a few kilometres of the launch site and the reefs are generally beach rock and coral reefs running parallel to the shore with nice structured areas coming up from flat reef.
Rob did his customary first stint on the boat while Theo, Chris and I set about putting the flashers down and slowly drifting south over our mark. We were soon greeted by large shoals of Bludgers and Yellowtail Kingfish.
It quickly became evident that we where not the only hunters patrolling the reef. Hammerheads, Duskies and Long Nose Blackfin Sharks made regular appearances to take a look at our flashers.
More prevalent than the sharks however, were the vast quantities of Potato Bass that surrounded each fish concentration. It only took a dive to the bottom for them to come in close and pretty much follow your every move. I soon got the feeling that these Potatoes had seen spearo’s before and knew exactly what was soon to happen. I have heard guys talking about how Potatoes are much more of a threat than sharks, but as I had never really had any major encounters apart from the occasional interest shown at a struggling fish, I was not too concerned.
After drifting for fifteen or twenty minutes, I found three nice coral bommies holding fish, including a shoal of 5 Harry Hotlips, with one large fish of over 10kg. I used the first dive to just get some good footage of the fish. On the second dive, I hit the bottom at 26m with Chris levelling off at about 20m to get a good wide shot. I watched as the shoal of Harry Hotlips headed my way. The big one was at the back and took a little longer to come in close. The perfect opportunity presented itself for a kill shot… but seeing movement in the corner of my eye, I hesitated. To my right was a huge 90kg Potato Bass and two smaller ones watching my every move.
I quickly realised that if I didn’t stone the fish, we could have some serious problems. On my fourth dive down of the day, two months since my last dive, I didn’t feel like trying to fight a fish out of a cave at 30m while being harassed by some big Potato Bass. I held the shot and headed for the surface.
Chris and I decided that with another five days of diving ahead of us, we’d mark the spot and come back when we were feeling a little stronger. After a bit of diving, Chris and I both started having problems and realised we’d given ourselves “lung squeeze”. This was my first experience of this condition, and felt much like the burning sensation in your lungs after a hard run. Diving down to 15m was alright, but as soon as I went over the 20m mark, my throat would fill with liquid from the burst alveoli. A rather strange and unpleasant feeling.
We decide to take it easy and head back to the camp shortly afterwards as not to ruin the rest of our dive trip by pushing our injured lungs.
The following morning was a carbon copy of the previous day, with a slow civilised rise at 7.30am before heading out onto a perfect sea. We went north to a reef not far off shore and soon started seeing a lot of Couta. The visibility had dropped slightly, but this seemed to bring the fish in even closer and we were seeing fish on nearly every dive. Rob and Theo were diving on the flashers while I drifted a little up current with my camera, keen to get some close ups on these free swimming Couta.
Filming Couta is much like shooting them, except that you seem to be able to get in much closer, possibly because you don’t have a spear gun extending out towards them. I levelled out at 8m and it was not long before a nice 15 kg fish came cruising in. He gave me a good shot swimming straight at me before turning away. I started a slow chase, being careful not to spook him.
One thing I have learnt from chasing Couta while filming, is that when it looks like the fish is swimming away from or parallel to you and you are not gaining ground, a great trick is to alter your course slightly away from the fish. More often than not, the fish senses that you are no longer following him and changes course, sometimes coming closer for another look. Another trick if you are on the same level as the fish and chasing it from behind, is to drop deeper below the fish. The fish will lose sight of you, and either slow down or turn to get a better look at you. I altered my course and as expected, the fish turned, giving me another great filming opportunity.
The other highlight for me as a cameraman on that day was spending half an hour following a jellyfish around while getting some great shots of him and the band of critters living within his stinging tentacles.
It is not often that I have another cameraman in the water and this was the perfect time to experiment. I wanted a shot of someone shooting a Couta towards me, without getting shot myself of course.
Chris and I tried to set up the shot on numerous dives, but eventually had to give up as the fish just did not want to cooperate. When working in the ocean not much can be planned and the awareness of your surroundings is of utmost importance. Knowing where each diver around you is, and who’s likely to dive next and what you think they are likely to do when diving next is key to capturing exciting video footage. One of the hardest things to do when working with different divers is changing the way you usually dive to fit in with how they dive in order to get the shots you need.
A little while and a some decent footage later, I turned for the surface after getting some shots of a shoal of Sea Pike and a large Kaakaap, and noticed a Couta swimming above me. I saw Chris diving down on the fish from the surface with his camera and soon realised that by pure chance we were going to get the exact shot we had been trying to set up earlier. The fish let me come right in on him and I put a perfect shot in the middle of his body. He didn’t put up much of a fi ght, but more importantly, we had some great footage from two angles and hopefully we had the shot we wanted. We couldn’t wait to get back to camp to check it out.
At camp I had already set up my “office”. It’s pretty cool when you can sit and edit footage in the middle of coastal forest. The footage of the Couta was just what we’d wanted, so we decided it was time to celebrate with a cold beer.
The next morning we decided to head south to a spot that a friend had told us about, and with a name like “Hot Spot”, we could only expect good things. Hot Spot is in about 16 to 18m dropping onto sand and covers a fairly small area.
As we got in we saw some really nice Blood Snappers and after one or two dives, Chris and I decided to set up a two camera shot of us getting a large one.
The plan was for me to dive down with a camera mounted to my gun and Chris would dive with his camera to get the second angle. After one good dive and lining up of some Blood Snappers over the sand but not taking a shot, I decided to head deeper to a ledge above a nice long cave. I lay on the ledge and was watching a shoal of four fish, which were in mid water and taking a keen interest in Chris. Chris was getting some good footage of them and I was hoping that as he descended further, I could get a shot at one of the fish in the shoal. I heard Chris shout and he pointed out another shoal that were coming in from behind and literally swam right in front of me.
I lined up on a fish and stoned him. I made my way up the line and put my hand over to grab the fish by the gills. This is when all hell broke loose and before I knew it I was wrestling to get my hand out of the mouth of a 100kg Potato Bass. The Potato had been watching me the whole time and as soon as I had shot the fish he came in for a free meal.
I did not see him coming as he came from beneath me and swung around so that he could swallow the fish head first. As he grabbed the fish, my hand was trapped between the blood snapper’s gill plate and the Potato’s teeth.
He pulled to swim away as I pulled to get my hand back and for a short moment found ourselves in a stale mate as neither of us could go anywhere. After one or two attempts to release my hand, I had to grab the upper jaw of his huge gaping mouth and finally had enough leverage to tear my hand loose. With that, the Potato turned and headed back to his cave with the Blood Snapper and my reel gun in tow.
As I headed for the surface, I had time to inspect my hand. There were open tears in my glove and I was pouring with blood. Chris and I were in a bit of a state of disbelief as we hit the surface and he came over to inspect the damage. As we saw later from the footage, the adrenaline must have been pumping, my hand was shaking and I was a little speechless.
You never quite know how you are going to react when something like this happens. Luckily I was totally calm when I looked down and saw the Potato Bass attached to my hand, or I could very easily freaked out and had a nasty if not fatal accident. My survival instinct definitely kicked in. I knew that I could not panic and just needed to get my hand back.
We headed back over to the spot and could see the Potato sitting on the sand outside his cave with my reel gun still attached to him as he swam slowly around on the sand.
With cameras recording, Chris and I headed back towards the bottom and as I got closer the Potato ducked under the ledge and my line came free from the gun. I headed into the cave to get some closer shots of the culprit who, now with a full belly, was acting a lot more sheepish than earlier. Chris was getting the second angle from above and saw the tail of the potato reversing out the cave as I moved in. When I looked up, I saw that the shoal of Blood Snappers were giving Chris the perfect shot, which of course he proceeded to take. He stoned a Blood Snapper right above the cave with our aggressive friend in it. We had a good chuckle when we hit the surface. Clearly, Chris had forgotten all about the incident that had just happened and could just not pass up the opportunity to shoot another good fish.
We carried on diving for another few hours but could not wait to return to camp to make sure we had captured all the action on film. It turned out that the footage was epic, with both Chris and I capturing the Potato coming in for his meal and getting my hand at the same time. Milli is a truly wonderful experience with great spearfishing and I am sure to be back to do some more filming and maybe to visit my friend the Potato Bass on Hot Spot. As Rob and Chris geared up for another day of spearfishing at Milli, it was time for me to head to Maputo with my good friend Emilano, to get the last remaining shots needed to finish Maputo Madness (volume 3 of the African Spearfishing Diaries).
All good things have to come to an end and after another two days of diving in Maputo, it was time to head home. As the plane made its final approach to OR Tambo, I could only refl ect on the excitement of the past 10 days and the fact that we had caught all the action on film for everyone to see.
Be sure to catch all the action of Maputo Madness in volume 3 of the African Spearfishing Diaries and keep an eye out for the Potato having a go at me. For more info and to follow The African spearfishing Diaries, check us out on www.apneaproductions.com or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Till next time happy spearfishing and beware of those Potato Bass – they are not as friendly as all the scuba divers seem to think they are.