What’s the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?

- Henry David Thoreau


Adventure Travel

May 26, 2017

Finding Barefoot Paradise on Mafia Island – Part 2

In search of the remote and unique, Sarah Kingdom discovered a scuba divers’ utopia with some of the world’s richest reefs, an incredible diversity of tropical fish—and even a rogue gang of hippos!.


Sarah Kingdom

For Part 1 of Sarah’s (not so simple) journey to get to the ominously named Mafia Island, head here.

Given its location and the presence of the marine park, it’s fairly obvious that the bulk of activities on Mafia Island are centered on or around the water. Most of the outstanding dive sites in Mafia lie within Chole Bay, a vast circular enclave of over 50km², off the South-East coast of the island, where the water depth ranges from 5-27m and there is a tremendous variety of coral, fish and other marine species.

“A definite snorkelling highlight of Mafia is the whale sharks.” Photo by Simon Pierce / Mafia Island Diving

With the tides, Chole Bay empties and refills every six hours and it is this continuous exchange of water that has kept the bay a haven and protected the coral from damage and coral bleaching by the El Nino which obliterated corals in other parts of the Indian Ocean in 1998. Over 50 genera of coral, more than 460 species of fish and five different species of turtles have been recorded in the waters around Chole Bay. There are excellent examples of giant table corals, delicate sea fans, whip corals, and huge stands of blue-tipped staghorn corals, large predatory fish and turtles are common and are surprisingly unruffled by the appearance approaching divers.

Photo by Simon Pierce / Mafia Island Diving

I learned to scuba dive many years ago, but it had been a long time since I had last dived. We are not talking brass diving helmet and lead boots times, but still long enough ago that I felt I had quite probably forgotten most of what I had once known. A trip to Mafia however, would not be complete, without visiting its underwater world. Fortunately I was able to do a quick refresher course and given the green light to don wetsuit and tank. We managed three truly beautiful dives, all inside Chole Bay, and saw an incredible array of various fish, corals, and other sea life.

From the minute we boarded the traditional wooden jahazi/boat to head out to the dive site we knew we were in for a treat. The captain cut the engine and unfurled the sail with an enormous seahorse emblazoned on it. Our multilingual dive instructor talked us through some last minute instructions and then we lay back, in the sun, on some thoughtfully positioned, enormous deck cushions and sailed our way out to the reef. Everything about diving on Mafia is fabulous, from the boat ride out to the dive site, to the amazing experience that waited for us beneath the surface of the water. Stingrays to barracudas, giant clams to tiny anemone fish, trigger fish, angel fish, butterfly fish, trumpet fish, star fish, vibrantly coloured corals and enigmatic turtles, right down to the minute colourful nudibranchs and leaf fish, I could go on… we saw it all.  

Different to the scuba, but just as spectacular, was the snorkelling in Chole Bay.  It was hard to believe how much there was to see just below the surface of the water, with only a mask, snorkel and fins. A deep breath and some vigorous kicking and it was easy to go down and investigate lobsters hiding between rocks and sea urchins bristling between soft corals. Everywhere I looked there were vibrant, shimmering fish darting about; a mesmerising display of colour and movement passing before your eyes as you drifted past.

A definite snorkeling highlight of Mafia is the whale sharks, and if you are there at the right time, October to February being the best, you can swim with these gentle giants just a few hundred metres off shore. There are only a handful of places in the world where whale sharks are known to visit all year round, and Mafia is one of them (though spotting a whale shark out of the prime season is rare). Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, maturing at about 30 years old, often living into their 60s and known to reach sizes of up to 14m. Swimming with them is a truly awesome experience. Whale sharks are generally solitary animals, however aggregations are found in several locations around the world including Mafia. The sharks come to Mafia to feed on zooplankton and the eggs and larvae of breeding fish and crabs. The World Conservation Union lists whale sharks as ‘vulnerable’ and at a high risk of extinction in the foreseeable future and the WWF has been funding a whale shark research programme on Mafia since 2012.

Boats out to the sharks are able to move quietly and visitors can hop in and snorkel to get a closer, underwater, look at the gentle giants. The locals call the whale sharks Papa Shilingi; ‘papa’ meaning shark and ‘shilingi’ meaning coins, because the bodies of these beautiful creatures look like they are studded with coins. Whale Sharks are in fact identified by their individual ‘spot patterns’ which are much like human fingerprints in that no two are the same. Tourists spotting whale sharks are encouraged to upload photos and sighting information to the WWF website, to help track the animals.

Photo by Simon Pierce / Mafia Island Diving

In the unlikely event that you do eventually tire of the underwater world of Mafia, or perhaps have just become a little too waterlogged, then there is an abundance of things to do on dry land. Another organisation involved with wildlife preservation in the archipelago is Sea Sense, who have been working in partnership with local communities to promote and protect marine turtles (green and hawksbill) by training local villagers in conservation, and employing them to monitor and protect turtles who nest on the islands.

Sea turtles have been nesting on Tanzanian beaches for over 150 million years and between June and September it is possible to see this amazing phenomenon for yourself. We took a 30 minute ride in a traditional wooden boat to Juani Island, where we moored at the base of some of the biggest and most beautiful baobab trees I have ever seen. We walked across the island, through dense rainforest, to the eastern beach where we witnessed, and counted, 87 newly hatched baby turtles make their instinctive and somewhat erratic scramble from the white sandy beach to the warm Indian Ocean Waters. As they reached the water’s edge some of the waves proved a formidable obstacle and a number of the babies were, quite literally, swept off their feet and deposited, on their backs, further up the beach and had to try again. By this stage a couple of the hatchlings were clearly having second thoughts and halfway to the water’s edge they turned around and tried to head back to the nest. It was very tempting to reach out a helping hand and save them the ordeal, but it is strictly forbidden to touch or interfere with them in any way. Eventually they came to their senses and we felt like proud parents at a school athletics day as they finally reached the water and disappeared. On average only one in every thousand of these babies will survive to adulthood, but those who do, will return to the waters around the islands to mate and the females will lay their eggs on the very same beach where they hatched 30 years earlier.

Since Sea Sense set up operations in 2001 over 2,100 turtle nests have been protected and 140,000 hatchlings have safely reached the sea.

Photo by Simon Pierce / Mafia Island Diving

Located between Juani Island and Mafia Island is tiny Chole Island. Chole is a fertile island with a population of about 1,000. Its inhabitants make their living from boat building, fishing and some limited farming. You reach the island via a ten or fifteen minute trip on a traditional wooden boat and you can do a short walk around the island, through the villages. Living, as I do, in rural Zambia, a walking tour of the village was not particularly unique for me but there were a number of sites to see, one of which was the trees full of Comoros fruit bats (flying foxes) excitedly chattering and squabbling, as they started to wake up before their nightly foray to forage for food. The other interesting thing we came across on the island was a selection of ancient ruins, some Arabic and stretching back as far as the 12th century and some much more recent German ruins from the 19th century. These ruins hint at a past that stretches back to early Omani slave trading days. Nature has reclaimed much of the ruins and many of the walls are now smothered with dense foliage, overgrown with giant figs and in danger of disappearing under plants that have grown from seeds dropped by bird many years ago. It was interesting also, to catch a glimpse of Tanzanian island village life, and see some of the traditional wooden boats, called jahazis and ngalawas, being built.  

Hippos may well be a common sight in Africa, but they are not at all what you expect to find on a tropical island. Nevertheless a rogue gang of reclusive and seldom spotted hippos can, in fact, be spotted in a network of lagoons the north western part of Mafia Island.  Nobody knows for sure how they got there, but the best theory behind their presence on the island is that they washed over during floods, from the Rufiji Delta on mainland Tanzania. The waters between Mafia and the mainland are relatively shallow, in the grand scheme of things, and believed to have been even shallower in the past, making this ‘flood water’ theory plausible.  The first record of hippos on the island comes from the late 1800s, and today there are still a handful of them. Years of inevitable inter-breeding in a small population and probable malnutrition have led some to some suggestions that these are pygmy hippos, but there has been no research to back this theory up and it seems pretty unlikely… most likely they are simply inbred and hungry!

All good things must come to an end sadly, and after six magical days on Mafia it was time to leave. As we headed to the airport we were already planning our return. Mafia is one of the most unique and perfect destinations you will ever find, with some of the richest reefs in the world and an unparalleled variety of corals and incredible diversity of tropical fish. The sand is white, the water is warm, the people are friendly and welcoming, but best of all Mafia is perfect for solitude, nature and complete relaxation.

For Sarah’s recommendations on where to stay on Mafia Island, read Part 1.

Feature image by Simon Pierce / Mafia Island Diving

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Sep 21, 2018

Suru Fest: India’s Growing Climbing Festival

Two weeks of sending in the remote Suru Valley: From 300 boulder problems to alpine rock climbing in the uncharted Himalayan giants.


I don’t usually attend festivals, but the Suru Fest had been on my list for as long as I had heard of it. So in late August this year, I spent a week and a half in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir, climbing and bouldering with some of India’s best climbers, as well as a host of international adventurers. This year’s event was the third, and possibly most successful instalment since its inception in 2016.

The festival is the brainchild of Suhail Kakpori and Jamyang “Jammy” Tenzing, ‘Indian Climbing’s Exploring Boulderer’ previously covered by The Outdoor Journal. Jammy organized the first Suru Fest with a small crew of dedicated and passionate Ladakh-based rock climbers, which has now grown into a sustainable, sponsored event attracting climbers from all over the world.

While the idea is to unite the climbers from all across the globe, it is a festival premised on celebrating the power of youth and adventure. It’s held annually from late August until the first week of September and is a force that brings both athletes and creatives together to create inspiring content.

This year’s festival was sponsored by Tata Motors, an Indian multinational conglomerate with hundreds of well-known brands and properties, including Jaguar Land Rover. Eight 2018 Tata Hexa SUVs were made available to move climbers around from place to place, in this remote and wild part of the world. One of the Hexas also waited for us in Leh, but we were waiting for our dog Maurice – we’d flown in, but Maurice was being driven up to Leh from Delhi (about 48 hours by road). We had to wait for him and delay our early morning departure, and eventually get one of the many shared cabs that ply these mountain roads – pretty much the de facto method of getting around in Ladakh.

It was late in the day by the time Maurice arrived in Leh, and Tenzing got us a shared cab for Suru, near Kargil, several hours west of Leh. We then drove through one of the most picturesque landscapes in India. The road is very well paved for the most part of the journey, which isn’t usually the case in and around the Himalayas. The thought of being at the Suru Fest hadn’t quite settled in yet – perhaps I simply didn’t know what to expect. This was my first climbing festival and all I knew was that I was going to spend a week climbing and exploring the valley.

Unlike Leh and its location on the trans-Himalayan plateau, which comprises of high altitude arid desert, Suru is green, with agricultural activity. We reached Barsoo, a small village in Suru close to midnight. Upon entering the campsite, I was shown my way to a 3-man GIPFEL tent – a new, Indian outdoor gear make and the 2018 Suru Fest’s climbing equipment partner. In the morning I woke up to a sweeping view of the scenic valley that surrounded our campground. We had a pre-bouldering yoga session scheduled first thing in the morning, before breakfast… Talk about a flying start to the adventure! Following the session, we had breakfast and went exploring the climbing areas. “Most of the rocks here have been climbed, graded and documented. The topography to this area is also well underway” Jamyang told us. There are about 6 dedicated climbing areas in Suru and 300 problems with grades varying from 5C to 8A+.  The Suru tribe has and is fully invested in expanding the scope of climbing in Ladakh and also across India.

Amongst the few known Indian athletes and some elite climbers, Suru also hosted three IFMGA guides, two of which were from Georgia and one from the United States. The Georgians rigged their first sports route on a highball near the shore of the boulder-choked Suru river; their first in the himalayas. Sunny Jamshedji was another important addition to the festival whose tryst with trad-climbing has taken him across 20 US states over 22 years. I had heard of him through Prerna, who went climbing with him in Dhauj. The festival certainly couldn’t have asked for more experienced company.

Meanwhile, I lucked out when Luke Smithwick, an IFMGA guide and a prolific American climber with over 50 unclimbed Himalayan six-thousanders to his name, lead me up on my first multi-pitch trad climb. We did three pitches and an FA of a 5.6 route we named, “The Windy Novice”. As an inexperienced climber who is just getting started, I couldn’t have been more stoked. There are inherent risks involved in trad; you often expect your partner to have some kind of real rock experience before taking him out on a big Himalayan slab climb. Nonetheless, this was something I had been looking forward to for some time and I am glad to have made the experience with Luke, who mentored and lead me up the wall.

Luke on top of the Windy Novice. Photo: Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

“Alpine rock climbing (no snow/ice) in the Himalayas is like climbing alpine rock anywhere in the world with just one caveat. Everything is much bigger than you think! The approaches are longer. The areas are mostly virgins, so there is very little to no information on the approach, route or descent. One has to figure things out themselves on the go. Places like Suru and Miyar have thousands of feet of alpine granite to explore, so if you are willing to do this sort of climbing, then this is an alpine paradise…”,  said Sunny when I asked about his thoughts on climbing in Suru.

Suru Fest is the first of its kind in India. While it constitutes of a demographic representing only a fraction of the population, it is a catalyst in that it suggests a much-needed deviation from the norm. We have long awaited the arrival of a culture that collectively underlines individualism and vigorously captures the spirit of the times. Suru does just that and does it with grace.

“I was particularly happy to send two projects which I was not able to execute last time even though I tried really hard. This is a great measure of progress which one doesn’t get in the gym because the routes there are reset frequently. I was also content to push my personal limits on a 7m highball. Besides the superb quality of the rock and the lines as well as the great weather I love that Suru Fest brings together an amazing crowd of people who share the passion for the outdoors and climbing. Honestly, I first and foremost came to see my friends in India.”, said Svenja Von Jan, a climber and a friend from Germany who also attended the festival last year in 2016.

Svenja Von Jan. Photo: Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

Svenja and I had met a few years ago in Himachal Pradesh in this quiet little village called, Kalga. Back then, I was exploring Parvati Valley in the Kullu district and had become obsessed with this particular mountain, which I hope to climb some day. It was also in Kalga, where I had my first hands-on experience while climbing a highball. We had found this high mossy boulder and were able to put up a few lines. She was strong back then and has undeniably grown stronger since then. So watching her try some hard moves in Suru was inspiring to say the least.

The mountain range that I aspire to climb in Parvati Valley. Photo: Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

When you’re surrounded with experienced climbers you will only improve. The novelty of Suru is that it exposed me to some fine climbing along with some fine climbers. I was particularly drawn to this rock with some interesting looking features, referred to as the Green Mamba, a 7C+ problem. It took Adarsh Singh, a professional athlete, two to three attempts before topping out. I also saw Viraj Sose, who’d climbed Ecstasy Tree, a sick bulging 7C highball in Hampi: a boulder high enough to send chills down your spine.

The Slab. Photo: Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

Looking back on that slab, I still remember the ease with which Luke loosened me up for the climb. “You know what this is?”, he asked me, while holding out a nut tool. “Mhm, I have used it once or twice”, I said with every ounce of confidence I could gather. On our first pitch, while sitting on a ledge, I heard him say “Off Belay”. “Belay off,” I said and started paying out the rope. I had well familiarized myself with the jargon before we started off. On the second pitch, we stood leaning back on the rope with the weight of our bodies distributed equally over a three point anchor system. It took me a while to register that. “This can hold the weight of a big truck”, said Luke reassuringly. Now, closer than ever to the last pitch, the wind had picked up a bit and I felt a wave of euphoria sweeping over me. I then turned to look in the other direction and immediately spotted the Georgians glued to a big vertical wall, it was cinematic! Shortly after topping out, I calmed myself down and caught hold of my breath. “So much to celebrate discomfort,” I sighed.

Now, as I write this from the flat, smoggy and hot environs of Delhi, having returned sooner than I had wanted, I’m looking forward to returning to the high mountains, attending the festival next year and further honing my skills.

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