Tanzania Safari 2020

Moving the office to Tanzania for a month….or so

Many of our friends and clients are working from home right now. Businesses have been disrupted, jobs have been threatened and  life is difficult. It was difficult for us as well, our travel business literally stopped overnight. We have great bookings for so many of you, but only in 2021/2022. As tine went on, we came to realise that more and more people  needed a break.  People were prepared to take responsibibty, get insurance and travel. As you can read below, we came to Tanzania to see if it was ok, to find out, and to break new ground. The safari has not been easy.  Breakdowns,  tiring long drives between locations, cooking in the rain, and dust. We are on a budget and cannot afford deluxe lodges, we camp and stay in cheap guest houses (like the one in Mpanda that I am writing this from). But we feel we are doing the right thing. Here is why: 

Francisca and I have been in Tanzania since the middle of October. Many of you have been following us on facebook or our blog: Karamanju.com .We have been on Safari in Tanzania our own landrover, driving thousands of kilometres from Dar es Salaam to Bagamoyo, Korogwe, Arusha, Lake Natron, the Serengeti, Mwanza, Kigoma, Gombe Stream, and now south to Mpanda and Katavi. You could be forgiven for thinking that we are on the trip of a lifetime. Far from it, we have simply moved the office from South Wales to the back of a 90 Landrover.

You see, we were getting news that Tanzania had been largely unafected by Covid-19.  This was not just our safari travel suppliers saying this,  but western medical professionals based in the country.  You, our friends and clients have always been a highly educated and adventurous group of people. That is why we are friends with so many of you. You will travel, if you know what the risks are, and you believe the risks are manageable.

We had to put our money where our mouth was.

Tanzania had a brief flirt with covid and then opened up to tourism. The nation was accepting flights and clients without covid testing. People  started to ask questions to which we had no clear answers. We therefore decided we had to put our money where our mouth was, get on an aircraft, and see what Tanzania was like. So much of our business is Tanzania. We had to know, was Tanzania safe, was Tanzania still worth visiting, and more importantly was it feasable. (had the safari operations all shut?).

I wont lie, we were slightly nervous when we got onto the Ethiopian Airlines aircraft, but after 5 hours we were in Addis Ababa, and soon after that we were in Kilimanjaro.  As soon as we landed we felt completely at home. After a couple of days liasing with our friends at the Matembezi company, we flew to Zanzibar for some admin, We then flew back to Dar es Salaam and  picked up our landrover. The ride was not easy, after years of sitting it needed a new cylinder head (in Dar es Salaam) and new bearings (in Arusha). We picked up our photographer friend Sara Jenner and set off north to Lake Natron. After two days in the barren but beautiful place we continued. You can read the whole story here.

As the journey progressed, we saw the migration, soon after that we visited Gombe stream and now we are destined for Katavi and Ruaha national park.

Fly to Tanzania for Unbeatable Value and Safety

As we write this, we have been in Tanzania for just over a month. We have been blown away by the changes since we were last here. The once impassable tracks, are now proper graded earth roads. There is now good tarmac on some of the more remote district roads, trains run on time and often, Air Tanzania, the national airline operates all over the country in brand new Dash 8-Q400’s. The national parks are extremely well run and efficient. Tanzania Safari lodges are open, and a small number of hardened western tourists are here, seeing the great migration from their own private safari car. No one wears a mask, no one seems to be sick. We are not scientists, but we know what we see. Tanzania is eminentyly safer than any country in Europe or the USA. If you want to come on safari, then now is the time, while the numbers are low, the infrastructure is new and the people are desperate for good tourism to restart. Good tourism means tourism that puts money back into society, not just in the hands of a capitaist few.

So now is the time, take responsiblity for your own actions, get on a plane and fly to Tanzania. The people are waiting to welcome you.

Contact info@orientafricatravel.com for your tailor made Tanzania Safari Booking.

Tanzania Post Covid Recce

We just landed in Arusha in Tanzania. We are here to make sure that lodges we deal with are all open and doing well. We need to make sure that the dive centres are maintaining international standards of safety and maintenance. We had been told that Tanzania was barely affected by Covid-19 and that the nation was open for business. What we did not expect was what we found.

Tourists are landing in Tanzania

Our Ethiopian Airlines Dreamliner was full. That means packed. There were a couple of middle seats free and that was it. The food was hot and good. We had a choice of wines and a choice of main course meal, in this covid-infested world. Sure all passengers and crew wore masks, but it was like a fully normal flight. The passengers were not traders going home, but tourists. We bumped into tourists from France, Britain and Austria. They were going scuba diving, and sea kayaking and snorkelling. The Aircraft landed in the island paradise of Zanzibar and around 120 tourists got off.

Tanzania Safari tours have re-started.

After a short break, the Boeing 787 took off again and overflew the Pemba Channel  towards Kilimanjaro. We passed over the dark brown earth of Africa and landed at the delightful small airport at Kilimanjaro. We were through immigration with tourist visas in the blink of an eye. The Tanzania immigration service were efficient, polite and very reasonable. (they even allowed some French lad out to get money to pay for his visa). We were some of the first through immigration, and yet our bags beat us. The handling team were super impressive.

But what blew us away were the 100 plus tourists who disembarked and got into a series of safari cars. There were not one big group for I saw cars from quite a few operators.  “how long have the planes been coming full” I asked our driver Hussein.

“For the last month. It was bad, but now the tourists are coming on every flight. We are still nowhere near full, but it is great to have these new numbers”.

A full dreamliner every two days does not mean a season, but it means that tourism in Tanzania has restarted with a vengeance. If you want to book your tailor made Tanzania Safari of a lifetime, then do it now before Tanzania becomes busy again. Beat the crowds, get the best price and book now.

File photo of lions that I took in the Ngorongoro crater in 1998.

Turkish airlines has announced that it will be recomencing flights on the 7th of June. International flights will recommence on the 10th of June. The UK  is being served from Antalya and Istanbul. 

All of this bodes well for the global traveller, as this shows confidence in the world situation. Nations are going from strength to strength in dealing with the Corona Virus, and thus far Turkey has coped extremely well, and tourism is important to Turkey.  

This is not the end, but this is the begining of the end. So now is the time to plan that tailor made tour of Turkey. By the end of the summer we should have some normality and excellent holidays being operated in Turkey.  By the winter safari season, we think that Africa will be buzzing with travellers, photographers, divers and explorers. 


We don’t want you to book now, but please do send us your enquiries and we will do the best to fashion you your own tailor made itinerary. And as soon as the siuation is clearer? You can book your Turkish Airlines flight to your dream destination. 

 

 

The Corona Virus and resulting travel bans have hit all travel and tourism businesses. Over the past few weeks there have been conversations about travel trade bodies lobbying the UK Government to suspend or ammend the UK Package Travel Regulations to ease the cashflow issues of some of their members. As you will have read on the news, some (often large) companies have cashflow issues, and are laying off staff in order to survive.

At African and Oriental Ltd. we keep your money in an account until just before you are about to go on holiday.We only pay out small deposits prior to this. Our financial position is sound, and your money is secure.

We learned, in our 22 years operated in India & Africa, that disasters, political issues and total stoppages of air travel come from time to time. So we are well adjusted to dealing with such testing times. We will get through this, and we will keep you on your adventures.

We will be abiding by the UK’s Package Travel Regulations 1992.

 

Equipment Supplied by Mike's Dive StoreMike Calder was always good to me. He supplied my first ever dive centre when no one else would. He had this motto: Come to Mike’s For the “The best advice and the right price”. He treated everyone as his no 1 customer and built his business on bonhommie and quality service. Both of which were seriously missing in British Retailing in the 1990’s. His death from cancer threw me for six. A big man in the British Diving world (and I mean big at 6’4”!) was gone. Steve Brown, his super competent manager bought the business from Mike’s family and continued the tradition. He was also good to me. He continued to supply me in Africa and now, he helps our clients directly in the UK. Steve moved with the time, and built the online side of the business. Mike’s Waterfront Warehouse, was a warehouse again- shipping to clients all over the world. Steve could not do it alone, and has a wonderful backroom team of advisers, packers and shippers. They are all seriously brilliant. I would say that Mike’s Dive Store is the very best dive shop in Europe.
 
And in case you think that’s a big statement, it is with great pleasure that I can announce that Steve and his team have won the Diver : Dive Retailer of the year award. 

Mike’s Dive Store is official supplier to our Antarctic expedition, providing dry suits, cold water regulators and all sorts of other other excellent kit. So if you would like to grab something for one of our holidays (it does not have to be the Antarctic) then go ahead, follow the link and use the discount code Diveshow10 to get 10% off their already competitive pricing! 
 
Well done from all of us to Steve and the team.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

Antarctica

 

                                                           

ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION Nov 30 2019

Join us for an exclusive and unique opportunity to dive the Antarctic summer. All Antarctic Scuba Diving trips are in the Antarctic Autumn. We have persuaded Oceanwide expeditions to lay on diving in their summer expedition.

The best time to visit the Antarctic is in the height of the Antarctic summer. This gives you the best chance to have good weather. It is also the penguin breeding/gestation season, and makes for the best all round experiences for divers and non divers alike. This is the signature trip that takes in South Georgia and the Falklands and Antarctica. We will not be running this trip for a good many years to come.

2 DIVE SPACES SUDDENLY AVAILABLE AGAIN!!!!

Previously full, we received word last night that one of our Antarctic Divers has had to pull out for personal reasons. Upon enquiry, we found out that the entire sailing is full to capacity.  So we got on the phone to our co-expedition leader Jeff and asked his advice. He said he too had a dive cancellation. So, unbelievably, we have two berths available, Please see the prices below.

Are you that adventurous person who was hoping to join us, but we were full? Now you can, this is your once in a lifetime chance to dive the white continent in summer.

EXPEDITION FEES

CABINQuadruple PortholeTriple PortholeTwin Porthole               Twin WindowTwin DeluxeSuperior
NON DIVER$12,750$13,900$15,350$16,100$17,200$ 18,400
DIVER$13,950$15,150$16,600$17,350$18,450$19,650

 

Prices include: Expedition PLA24, diving tanks and weights, all shipboard guiding fees, all meals on board the vessel. Two dives per day on diving days (at the discretion of the dive leader.)

Not Included: flights, airport transfers, hotels, dive gear rental,  departure taxes, alcoholic drinks, soft drinks, personal expenses, food on shore (except breakfast) land based tours, dive equipment, dive and travel insurance (mandatory), clothing hire.

EXPEDITION ROUTE

We will depart from Ushuaia, Argentina aboard the ice-strengthened M/V Plancius to the world famous Falkland Islands. Steeped in history, this British Outpost is home to much wildlife and great diving. The vessel will then set sail again to the jewel of the journey, the British Antarctic Territory of South Georgia. This is a unique part of the earth which is only accessible by ship. We will spend our largest time bloc here before proceeding on to the South Orkney Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. We then pass into the South Shetlands for a final glance at the 10,000ft high peaks before steaming home to Ushuaia through the Drake Passage.

CONTACT : info@orientafrica.com WhatsApp: +447736872259

 

ST HELENAScott Bennett is possibly the world’s most thorough dive journalist. He is so attentive to detail, and places a high value on his time. He is one of the most honest and meticulous journos out there and will report nothing without experiencing it himself or having three confirmed sources back up what he hears. Scott has written numerous African Articles for us, investigated resorts and been on safari with us. He sometimes sees things differently to us, but we love his brutal honesty. So we were very excited when we asked him to visit St Helena Island. We were slightly less excited when he said no. He was simply too busy and wanted to be near his elderly family. Reasons we simply could not say no to. Well, reasons that everyone except Raf could accept. Raf went into overdrive, badgering Scott to get out of his comfort zone in Ontario (That’s in Canada for the Americans amongst us- not Ont CA. ) and get over to Africa.

 

The badgering finally paid off and Scott made his way over to Johannesburg and the magical island of St Helena. And lets be brutally honest about this, St Helena is magical. It is amazing, it is wonderful, it is unique, it is a must visit, and yes it is a rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Astonishingly it is also British. St Helena must be the one part of the greater British Emire that is still amazing. Unlike the British Isles which are in suicidal financial or cultural meltdown due to the mess of leaving (or not) the EU. St Helena chuggs on, being amazing, with lovely wonderful people who welcome the 35 tourists who arrive per week (In season).

So leaving Brexit (or not) firmly behind us, have a read of a Canadian’s point of view of:

St Helena, the most magical, the most amazing and the most wonderful British Island:

 

The MV Odyssey is, quite simply the best live aboard dive vessel in Chuuk. (truk lagoon)

Is it finally time to dive Truk Lagoon

A few years ago, we organised a dive expedition to Papua New Guinea (PNG). Our northernmost point of diving was the paradise island of Lissenung. This island is tiny, with small wooden huts in some trees on the beach. Everything in Lissenung is on the beach and has tree cover. It really is that small. Apart from the plethora of fish, coral and nudibranchs, what really got our attention, was the detritus of world war two. The harbour in front of Kavieng had a Catalina on the bottom along with an array of Japanese metal equipment.

One night in the sultry heat, we asked Dietmar, (the owner of Lissenung Island resort) why this was the case. He pointed to a map on the Bamboo wall of the dining hut.

“Kavieng is exactly 500 nautical miles south of Truk. It is the northernmost airfield in New Guinea. If you look at Truk’s location you will see that it was the natural supply base for the Japanese navy. They could carry on to Saipan and then Japan.”

The forgotten sleepy lagoon in Truk has since become the premier wreck dive site in the world.

Of course we should have remembered our history books, but the Japanese supplied their New Guinea Army through Kavieng. And when they were under attack by the allied forces, they fought off attack after attack from Kavieng. The tactical, technological superiority and professionalism of the US forces prevailed and the Japanese were defeated across the pacific. Peace eventually prevailed. But what got me thinking was Truk. What was so special about Truk and the Japanese supply chain? This forgotten lagoon in the middle of nowhere was turned into a major dive site. The fascination continued and I found myself reading more and more about Operation Hailstorm. Everyone says that the US navy were after the warships, but when you read the history of the defeat of Japan it is obvious that the US had a dual policy of blockade and fight. The US submarine fleet kept Japan completely isolated at the end of the war, and the 1 million Japanese soldiers in China were powerless to defend their homeland, as every ship which put to sea was sunk. The sinking of the Japanese merchant marine fleet in Truk Lagoon effectively neutralised thousands of soldiers on small islands around the pacific. The US forces could then ignore islands at will, and attack those that they chose.

 Truk was on my radar but not really on it, because I thought that I would never get there. All of my visits to Micronesia had been to Yap and Palau, and perhaps I was interested more in life than death. But a chance meeting at the DEMA dive show changed all of that. One day Maria the owner of Kosrae Pacific Tree Lodge took the empty space next to us on the show.   After three days of chatting and drinking coffee in between meetings, she invited us to come and see her lodge and dive centre. The easiest way to Kosrae was via Truk. So I found myself planning to visit Kosrae. But standing next to me, was my friend Cliff of the Truk Odyssey.

“If you visit Kosrae, you would be very welcome to see the Odyssey” he said. And the brain started to work on expanding the Trip.

“If you go to Truk I would like to come with you” said a voice behind me.

Stevie Macleod the owner of the Workshop at Al Boom divers (Dubai) had overheard.

“And I think I know a couple of others who might wish to join us. You see the wrecks of Truk are not still wrecks, they are also vibrant reefs full of fish. Diane would love this.

Doug Bennett the owner of Reef Encounters International (Japan) strolled over.

“Hey Raf, if you go to Truk, then I want to come too with Maggie” .

I sat down and took out my notebook and started to write down names. After a few minutes, I had a think and turned to Cliff. 

“Cliff when do you have a whole boat available? I think if this continues I might need the whole boat”. Cliff beamed from ear to ear, his kind invitation to an agent to inspect his boat, had morphed into a massive booking in five minutes.

“Hey who flies to Truk?” said Stevie?

“Well we use Air Niugini” Is said to him.

“Well you can add that on for me”.

We all packed our bags and flew back to our respective nations around the world. Everyone else got to run their dive centre or workshop. I, on the other hand, found myself at my desk ringing Air Niugini and asking for fares to Truk from Manila and Singapore with a Port Moresby (Hoskins) stopover. Since this all came about, we have packed our bags a few more times, and I have seen the inside of a few aircraft. Turkey, Indonesia, the Antarctic, ST Helena, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania are all lined up before we will eventually board that aircraft to Truk, but it is now only 13 months away, and we are almost able to book flights. Now all I just need to head down to Mike’s Dive Store for that 3mm suit and some replacement fins and I will be ready.

The Wrecks of truk have become reefs now full of life

And you dear reader? Would you like to join us? We only have three spaces left, so you would be welcome. We will be in Truk from 22-29 August 2020. We will be at Walindi Plantation the week after that, and if anyone lasts that long, we will have a glass of bubbles in Cairns or Singapore after that. Ping me an email at Info@orientafrica.com and I’ll send you some details.

All images courtesy of Truk Odyssey- as we have not been there yet!

There is no finer diver liveaboard in Micronesia than the Truk Odyssey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ice is a bit close to dive here, but the scenery is stunning

Antarctic Cold Weather Gear

As the time to dive in the Antarctic gets closer and closer, we need to sort out dive equipment. We need two of many things and one of others. It really is no joke this diving in the cold business, indeed just being in the cold needs special gear. Most of us who live in Europe and enjoy an active lifestyle have waterproof trousers, a waterproof jacket and thermal underwear. If you don’t mountain warehouse has cheap trousers (£30) and good cheap merino wool underwear. Everyone owns a fleece, and you might need two. A buffalo shirt or a merino wool top is very useful as a mid layer, and a Norwegian army shirt is great as the layer above the thermals. For an outer jacket, I used an Arktis Avenger Jacket, which was way too heavy, but in all honestly I will take a long Keela next time, (which Keela are making for me now). Some people have down jackets or outer thermal jackets such as snugpak or Helikon. Both work fine, with snugpak possibly having the edge. But you don’t need Gucci equipment, you need clothing that works. The name tag means nothing.  we saw people with Berghaus, Mountain Equipment, Arcteryx and even one lad with an old fashioned oilskin.  On your feet, good wool socks from bridgedale or three pairs of Royal Navy Arctic socks from silvermans for £10 will do the job. In short, you need a good baselayer (thermal top), waterproof trousers and a few mid layers. A dry bag rucksack for going ashore is also very useful. Boots are provided by the expedition people.

All sorts of equipment can be used by landing Antarctic passengers, just so long as it works

Antarctic Dive Expedition Equipment

Diving in the Antarctic is diving a long way from home. You will need all your own gear, and a small amount of spare kit and a good “save the dive kit”. For if your scuiba set stops working on day one, you are “off games” for the rest of the expedition.

Again you do not need the most expensive dive equipment out there. You need reliable equipment that works. You need two regulators, a dry suit, and undersuit and a bcd. A good hood, a few pairs of gloves, mask fins snorkel and some spare hoses. We chose the aqualung core, as it is the cheapest cold water regulator available in the UK. (and we needed to buy two per person!)  Any working BCD will do,  I have a dive rite, Cisca has a scubapro. You will also need a basic computer such as an aladin 2G and you must have a watch. All of us dive with momentum watches.  We found the best value and the easiest to read was the Momentum Torpedo, made in Canada with a Japanese quartz movement these are ultra reliable.

You will also need under garments for your dry suit. We use Weezle under suits made by snugpak, the best British Sleeping bag company. Weezle went the extra mile for us, sending suits to be sized and then returned until we found the right sizes. They can be found at the US DEMA dive show if you want to meet them. (we also exhibit at the DEMA show)

With reference to the drysuit, we chose the excellent value Typhoon crushed Neoprene suit which cost around £650. This was made to measure by typhoon as I am an odd size. The whole process, from regulators to drysuits, fins, bladders, masks and even momentum watches, was managed by Mike’s dive store. Indeed Cisca was lucky enough to get  an off the shelf Typhoon. Mike’s dive store was so cheap compared to US and Canadian stores that many people on our Antarctic diving expedition decided to come to Mike’s and buy their kit. Godwin flew in from Toronto to get his dry suit made for him.  Other members bought other kit and we ordered bulk and had it shipped to our HQ in wales.

Steve Brown, the owner of Mike’s Dive Store, and his team were so helpful to us. Nothing was too much trouble for them. We asked for equipment that was not stocked and they got it delivered to us.  After the initial meetings, we simply bought everything online. This was remarkably easy, and as the orders increased,  we appointed Mike’s dive store, the official supplier to African and Oriental Antarctic Dive Expeditions. Steve gave us a single point of contact, and we were able to take advantage of his already excellent pricing. So if you are on our expedition and you need kit, we can get it for you, or put you in touch with Mikes’.

The MV Ortelius, one of the best Antarctic dive platforms afloat. We only use oceanwide and their vessels as they are the best.

The History of Mike’s Dive Store and Raf

There is history between me and Mike’s Dive Store. The first owner of Mikes’ dive store was good man called Mike Calder, I bought my first regulator from him in 1992 alongside a Mares 7mm suit that was impossible to get into. When I got into the diving business, he helped me set up my dive shop in India in 1995. No one else in the UK would give a discount for export trade. No manufacturer or distributor would sell me a regulator (or 10) for less than recommended retail.  Mike Calder thought this was asinine; and was unconventional! So crates of Seaquest BCD’s, technisub fins and Spiro Club regulators, left his warehouse in Twickenham and went to Heathrow airport. Mike literally put me on the dive map and I never forgot it.  He then supplied me with cylinders and ancillary kit when I worked in Africa from 1999-2017. Mike passed away way too early in 2006.  I missed his funeral as I was in Indonesia. The store carried on, and Mike’s son agreed to sell the store to Steve Brown as Steve had so much passion for diving, and more importantly the drive to keep the business going through the financial crisis. The connection between me and Mikes’ continued, as I knew Steve from when he was the Skipper of the MV Kiswani diving in Tanzania. After we sold our dive shop, Steve and I stayed in touch, and I bought a few items here and there.  But it was this Antarctic Dive Expedition that brought back the old relationship of our needing tons of gear for our team.  We are so proud to be dealing with team at Mike’s Dive Store. I for one will never forget the kindness that Big Mike Calder showed me in 1995, and appointing Steve and his awesome team as official suppliers to our expedition is our way of thanking Mike and Steve for always helping us.

Antarctica
The Lamaire Channel

In order to join an Antarctic Dive expedition, or to simply visit the Antarctic email Raf on info@orientafrica.com

I was first put into the idea of diving the Mesoamerican American reef by Mike Alt back when we lived on Pemba Island, in Tanzania. Mike had had enough of Zanzibar and wanted to do something different. So he called up, jumped on a propeller plane and then walked into our dive lodge on Pemba Island. He took one look at the place and instantly booked a week’s diving. Mike was taken by something that we did that kept him coming back year after year. We became friends and he in turn invited us to come to Xcalak. Getting to his tiny part of the Mesoamerican reef involved a 5 hour drive from Cancun airport, the final part being down a dusty track. We dived the southern reefs of Mexico with Javier Salas of XTC dive centre.

We would sometimes stop for our surface interval in the lagoon between Mexico and Belize. But that really is a different story, and you can read more about our dives with Mike and Javier here: https://www.travelblog.org/North-America/blog-757829.html
Back at his house, with a stunning bottle of Argentinean red open, I asked mike what made him so interested in the reef that ran from Cozumel in the north, down the Yucatan peninsula, through Belize and down to Honduras. I had always known it as the Belize Barrier reef, but I was wrong. Mike explained that in the 1980’s he had read a National Geographic magazine about an expedition by NOAA down the reef to the Chinchorro Banks. The Mesoamerican reef comes close to the shore in some locations and has some outer banks. The Chinchorro banks were the outer reefs opposite the village of Xcalak, which ironically had the reef within swimming distance of the shore. Mike was a professional doctor but he might as well have been a professional diver. He stopped logging his dives at 1000, when he was in his thirties.

His fascination with the reef was compelling, and over many chats in the intense heat of the Mexican night, we discussed Mexico as it was in the 1970’s the ‘80s and finally into the 1990’s. Mexico and her underwater world had something very special to offer. Year after year we dived the Mesoamerican reef with Mike and Javier, learning each individual cave and dive site better and better. But life caught up with us all. We sold our dive shop in Tanzania to concentrate on being the best small dive and safari tour operator in Britain. Mike grew tired of the heat and moved to Chiapas state in central Mexico. Javier was kind enough to invite us down to stay with him and dive, but it did not seem the same without Mike. He in turn never returned to Tanzania without us.

It was a chance meeting with Paul Flower of Dressel divers who put the Mesoamerican reef back on the agenda. He suggested we dive with him. Last year on our way to San Cristobal De La Casas, we stopped off in heavily commercialised Playa Del Carmen. Paul arranged for us to dive the reef in front of the hotel. I did not have high hopes, but was very surprised to find the diving as diverse and pleasant as anywhere on the reef. What it lacked was the underwater landscape of Xcalak. Buoyed with such good diving, Paul suggested that we visit his centre in Cozumel. After some thought we agreed and asked around if anyone would be keen on joining us. Eleven months and a small group later, we found ourselves looking out of the window of an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-800 over impenetrable bush while descending into Cancun Airport. Cancun has a bad name, perhaps given to it by the visiting all inclusive American sun tourists. But they do it a disservice. Cancun’s centre has a certain concrete charm to it, with friendly people and excellent restaurants. But this did not really feel like Mexico. We stayed in the excellent and cheap hotel Amontilado, which had some impeccably behaved Russian group guests and a few other nationalities. It was a far cry from the all inclusive beach monstrosities. Every bad side brings a good, and the infrastructure of the northern Yucatan is excellent. The next morning, we bussed down to Playa del Carmen with Adam and Maya (two friends) . There we painlessly boarded a rather modern looking catamaran and thundered off across the Caribbean sea to the island on the horizon.

We spent very little time in Cozumel town, but the town itself looked majestic. Low white buildings, small shop houses and polite people abounded. We climbed into a taxi and puttered off to our hotel in the south. Dressel Divers use the iberostar chain, and while all inclusive is not my thing, the iberostar was full of divers. It also had excellent food buffets with tons of vegetables and healthy options. The coffee was appalling and there was no hot water to make tea, but apart from that it was great.
Upon arrival I co-ordinated with Maddy, the dive manager. “I promise you none of us will misbehave, none of my team will pull off some form of stunt dive, but please do not give us a divenazi- as a guide.”

Maddy was rather taken aback by my direct nature, but she got to grips with our madness and assigned us Omar, a Christian Mexican of Lebanese descent. Omar was quite simply brilliant. He knew what to say, how much to say, and how to treat us. We in turn behaved impeccably and gave him no trouble. The only bad boy was me, when I lagged slightly behind and below the group, but Omar was patient and I finned like hell to catch up. (having a camera is no fun sometimes). Omar had a girlfriend called Anna, who was a very different dive guide. She was blessed with mixed groups of Americans and handled them so well. She was charming and delightful, but I was rather glad that I was allowed to slack off by Omar, I was sure she’d have made me and Cisca keep up!

In addition to all this, Paul was happy for me to run a NAUI nitrox course for three of the team and a NAUI advanced course for two of our former peace corps volunteers. I have always loved training, especially advanced training, and it was a privilege to be able to teach Nikki, Kyle and Adam. What was interesting was the difference in buoyancy control between a NAUI trained diver (by my former staff) and a PADI open water diver. I will not lie, the NAUI diver was superb, and the PADI diver, with very similar experience (he was her husband) was not quite as perfect. Lets leave it at that!

The diving in Cozumel was like no other. It did not have many steep walls in the conventional sense of the word, but it had a series of pinnacles with massive fans, and swim throughs. The diving was very similar to Mtwara in southern Tanzania, with the tops of the reef being at 50-70ft and the pinnacles going down to 40 metres before a very steep sloping bottom descended into the blue. We were all diving on 30-33% nitrox, and so even with my computer set to a partial pressure of 1.4 the thing started bleeping at 118ft. I am far more bothered by nitrogen absorption than by oxygen toxicity, and many of my dives were deep, I kept glancing at my analogue depth gauge and momentum torpedo watch. The bezel was especially useful for the half stops, and long safety stops that I did. Without going into detail, I have studied decompression theory and various tables. I am a firm believer that the half stop and two safety stops at 27ft and 18ft are the best insurance policy, But that is a subject matter for another blog.

The words above barely touch on the stunning beauty of Cozumel. There were some underwater grass fields, but these had a plethora of nurse sharks, giant fans and coral heads and below 90ft, some very steep walls. The diving was unbelievably good and great value.

Every evening at sunset, most of the American guests would go inside to shower and prepare for dinner. We the ex-Africa mob would shower the salt off well before and make our way to the wooden jetty. There we would gather on the end of the jetty watching the sun disappear and then shed rays on the massive cumuli nimbus clouds. All too soon the week was over. It was time to check out of the hotel and take the ferry back to the mainland, Nikki and Kyle flew back to Boise Idaho, while the rest of us went pyramid bashing.
Three days after that we had to split up again. Francisca and I flew to Chiapas, Uwe and Laura flew to Portugal Singapore respectively while Adam and Maya took their time to take in more pyramids.

Days later I found myself sitting on a pavement at 7000ft, watching the world go by, snapping the occasional black and white photo with my Nikon FM2. The world of Cozumel and the Mesoamerican reef seemed so far away. But perhaps a return might be in order?

It goes without saying that we organise dive tours to Xcalak and Cozumel