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BENGUERA
ISLAND

Text and photographs by Roberto Rinaldi


ETERNAL AFRICAN HAPPINESS

The coast that stretches northward, without interruptions, from the cold waters of South Africa to the corals of the Red Sea is lined by miles and miles of desert and beautiful beaches and is exposed to the mood of the big ocean. Here, in the southern African continent, facing the southernmost tip of the island of Madagascar, the small world of the Barzaruto archipelago dots the sea.

We took off from Johannesburg and flew towards the archipelago onboard a small propeller airplane to discover the islands. We are now flying over five islands, five enormous sand patches, the contours of which merge with the seawater, as if undecided on whether to be part of the reign of the sea or of the dry land. As the tide rises and flows, it seems like drawing ochre promontories or endless sand strips on the sea surface or like painting in bright light blue the stretches of shallow water that are just a few inches deep.

From the plane, we see five islands rimmed by beaches, protected against the fury of the sea by high sand dunes that stretch for miles and miles, covered by lush green tropical vegetation. Approximately 2,500 persons live in the archipelago and most of them are concentrated in the biggest island of Barzaruto (64 sqmi). Benguera, the second largest, is our final destination. Benguera is sandy, like all the other islands of the archipelago; it is similar to Corsica, with a finger-like sandy promontory that stretches out inside a lagoon, which continuously changes color with the ebb and flow of the tide. Since 1971, all islands are part of the "Barzaruto Archipelago Conservation Project" and it is easy to understand why a natural park was created in such a nice environment. The Park may be fully enjoyed by whoever decides to spend one's vacation in one of the few and simple lodges that lie on the beautiful and solitary beaches. We are staying at the Benguera Lodge, a simple hotel, hidden amid the trees near the beach, with a dozen wooden thatched bungalows around the main cottage, which serves as lobby and restaurant. The sounds of the forest, the cries of the birds and the roaring sound of the nearby waves surround the lodge.

As soon as we arrive, we understand that the long white sandy beach is the center of the island's life. We walk along the beach waterline for miles and during our long walk we come across villages, thick flocks of birds that fly away and thousands of crabs that rapidly hide in the sand as we approach. Further on, we meet a group of local inhabitants busily working around a boat. The tide helped them to take the boat to shore. The hull needed maintenance and they are working on it with different tools; with the flames of burning branches they are trying to turn the planking watertight before the next rise of the tide. Locals use these big boats, with Bermudan sails and flat hull, to sail among the sandy fingers of land. Together, first they stretch the long fishing nets and then pull them from the beach as Italian fishermen do on trawlers. The nets are long and the job is tiring and lengthy. Families work together: the stronger men are in the water, with the rope in their hands, the wives with their youngest child sleeping inside a scarf tied on their backs, help on the beach and the children arrange the rope as it is recovered. At last the net closes up, most of it lies on the beach and inside there are the agonizing throbbing fish. They are small coral fish that will be given to the villagers to be put in the sun to dry. Fishing is one of the main subsistence staples for the local inhabitants. Occasionally, they succeed in fishing big dugongs that still live in the shallow and protected waters of the archipelago. When we want to dive near the outermost coral reef and we sail on the swift villagers' boat to reach the open sea, we happen to see some dugongs but, unfortunately, it is never near enough to be able to admire this beautiful creature. In the stretches of water surrounding the sandbars that lie between the beach and the coral reef there are very strong currents caused by the tide. These areas are the ideal place for fishing and this is why the lodge is especially equipped with fishing gear. Trolling and fly-fishing are the most common activities and sailfish are yearned preys, but not the only ones. Smaller fish that require less sporty fishing are very common.

Diving is also very enjoyable. The most interesting diving spot is the "two miles reef": a strip of corals, interrupted by gaps, with an inner and an outer area. Here, the water is never crystal clear but this section of the Benguera coral reef teems with life and diving is strongly suggested. No special technical ability is needed to dive in these waters and very interesting discoveries may be done. Contrary to one's expectations, it is possible to see, at the limits of visibility, the profile of sharks and to play with stingrays half buried in the sand. Outside the coral reef, the small but numerous alcyonarians have striking colors, while inside, colonies of sea anemones fraught with clown fish cover tens of square feet of seabed. Among the corals, diving experts can identify the mimetic crocodile fish and the astonishing leaf fish that lay immobile to catch the preys that pass by. In this small strip of African continent, days elapse by diving, walking on the sand and fishing: this way of life convinces the visitor that Africa cannot disappoint.

USEFUL TIPS

Benguera is well connected with Johannesburg. It is the ideal place for resting after a tiring safari in the South African parks. The airline Metavia connects the two airports with small airplanes. The Lodge offers top-quality housing, food and an excellent choice of South African wines. In addition to boat trips in the archipelago and to jeep tours on the Benguera sand dunes, the Lodge is provided with the right equipment for fishing and diving.

For further information and reservations, contact: Giver Viaggi e Crociere, Via Maragliano 15, 16121 Genoa, Italy, tel. +39-010-593241, fax +39-010-581217.