Rats hunt mines while whale sharks bask in Tofo, Mozambique

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      When I think about my time in Mozambique, I picture an African rat the size of a rabbit, with testicles to match. It has a pointy nose and long whiskers that twitch as it scurries and sniffs along the length of a grassy field.

      Two trainers keep pace with the rat, watching its movements closely, each holding an end of a thin leash that loops through a harness strapped to the furry, and surprisingly charming, little guy.

      Suddenly the rat stops, grooms its whiskers, and scratches frantically at the dirt.

      “He’s found one!” says one of the trainers to the several tourists watching.

      The rat has just located a land mine.

      Rats and land mines aren’t generally what people look for in a vacation destination, but Mozambique offers much more. A long, skinny country in southeastern Africa, Mozambique is well suited to sun and sea lovers.

      Tofo, the beach haven I visited while travelling in Africa in February, is a funky vacation spot midway along the country’s shore. Along with the usual charms of Africa—giggling children and colourfully dressed women carrying heavy loads on their heads—Tofo is popular with tourists for its relaxed yet party atmosphere, and its exceptional scuba diving.

      Dennis Adams, a local hostel owner, is hoping it will also one day be popular for its land-mine-detecting rats.

      “People would come and see the rats work in the field with the trainers,” Adams told me as I watched the rats in action. A South African who moved to Mozambique eight years ago, Adams is impressed with the rats’ capabilities, and thinks they would make a fantastic tourist attraction. “We could sell T-shirts, and the tourists could have their photos taken with them,” he explained.

      The rats are part of a nonprofit project run by a Belgian group dedicated to developing demining technologies. Thousands of land mines are buried in Mozambique’s soil, left over from the country’s bloody civil war, which ended with a peace accord in 1992. If Adams has his way, the training centre will be open to the public, with the entrance fee going toward fundraising for the project.

      Mozambique is not untouched by tourism, but it’s still mellow. However, things are getting busier. “Mozambique has blossomed in the last three years,” Adams said. “Millions of dollars have been invested,” he continued, adding that most of the tourists are South African.

      Mark Whaley, a Brit who runs one of the local dive shops, told me that in the last year, an entire section of Tofo’s beach has been developed, and that the government is trying to make it easier for foreigners to invest.

      For now, though, it’s not the rats but Mozambique’s diverse marine life, corals, and practically pristine reefs that are the big draw. In Tofo in particular, people come for the manta rays and whale sharks.

      Smooth and spotted, white on grey, with a wide, flat mouth, the average whale shark is over seven metres long. The massive animals—the biggest fish species in the world—spend most of their day cruising solo just a few feet below the warm ocean surface. Although their size can be intimidating, whale sharks are vegetarians and pose no danger to humans.

      I have my basic PADI scuba diving licence, but it had been about 10 years since I’d last done a dive. The happy-go-lucky expats who worked at the dive shop across from my hostel strongly encouraged me to take a refresher course so that I could explore the deep blue sea. But even snorkellers are almost guaranteed to spot a whale shark if they take the two-hour boat excursion, so I wimped out and opted to snorkel instead.

      In the afternoon on my second day in Tofo, after paying $50, I jumped in a big yellow boat with about 10 other tourists, one local guide, and two British ones. Within 20 minutes, we were in the water, frantically kicking our fins, chasing a manta ray the size of a double bed. Half an hour later, we were following a whale shark in the same frenzied fashion.

      One of the guides had found the animals by spotting their shadows in the water.

      I knew whale sharks were harmless, yet I was still nervous. That is, until a Norwegian in our group stripped off his swim trunks and swam au naturel for the rest of our adventure. His boldness had me laughing bubbles, and nudged my fear into exhilaration.

      Still adjusting to the time change, I woke up at five the next morning. From my hostel, I strolled to the end of the beach, where close to 50 simple, boxy wooden boats rested, painted red, yellow, blue, and green. I’d been told that if I arrived early enough, I could watch the local fishermen paddle out to sea.

      Half an hour later, two fishermen in their 20s arrived. In their skimpy underwear, they spent the next 30 minutes or so throwing nets into the surf to catch small silver fish to be used as bait.

      Droves of men soon appeared with fishing rods slung over their shoulders. Many wore the standard castaway outfit: knee-length cutoffs, no shirt, and a straw hat. Chatting and teasing each other mercilessly, they tied on the bait, preparing for the day. When I motioned with my camera, they simply gave relaxed grins and directed their laughter at the victims of my lens.

      By 6:30, they had all disappeared in groups of two or three, rowing their boats over the choppy waves and around a rocky bend into the rising sun.

      Later that morning, close to noon, the laughter of young boys replaced that of the fishermen. Six boys with skinny legs and perfect white teeth played in the water. After a frantic splashing fight, they darted onto the beach and rolled in the sand, covering their bodies completely except for their mouths and eyes.

      Two other boys joined me on my towel, each with a handful of bracelets for sale. I wasn’t impressed by their wares as much as their sales tactics.

      In confident English, they introduced themselves as Mango Duck and Grand Tomato. The younger of the two eventually let his real name slip. It was Alberto—a Portuguese name, influenced by the country’s colonizers.

      “Why do you call yourself Grand Tomato, Alberto?” I asked.

      “It’s good for business, miss,” he replied.

      We spent the next hour talking about their school and their families, and, as in many developing countries, the children seemed wise beyond their years, despite their lighthearted attitudes.

      One last time, they tried to convince me to buy their merchandise. Instead, I gave them my pens, which they’d been ogling.

      They ran away giggling, shouting, “Don’t forget us!”

      I haven’t.

      Access: The writer travelled in Africa with the support of the Canadian International Development Agency and the Jack Webster Foundation in order to research and write about development issues. Canadians usually fly to Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, via London and South Africa. The closest city to Tofo, a 20-minute drive away, is Inhambane. You can fly to Inhambane from Maputo for about $200, or take a bumpy seven-hour bus ride for about $10.

      Tofo’s peak tourist times are November, December, March, and May through July. Its official diving seasons are the same as the tourist seasons, though it’s considered a year-round diving destination. You’re most likely to spot a whale shark between October and March, but sightings happen year-round.