Dive Trip Log, South Africa 15th August – 27th August
This was no Boating accident……………….
This was no Red Sea Trip……………………
As the famous travelling philosopher Thomas Cook once said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”, so a journey of six thousand miles begins with trying to pack diving gear and two weeks worth of clothes and stay under the measly 23 kg baggage allowance. So as Robert, Pat & Dave approach BA check-in at Heathrow we are all confident in the knowledge that we have more than 23 kg each. We are also totally unable to idly pervert the laws of maths or physics and try to make our combined total less than 69 kg. As we check in together the clerk insists on weighing each individual bag and writes downs the weight, totals it up, and confidently informs us that as we have 76 kg of luggage, we are well within the allowance and would we like a window or an aisle seat ? She must have been a graduate of one of those University degrees like Humanities or Philosophy or one of those other subjects that stresses mathematics in the same way that cigarette companies stress the health benefits of smoking.
After an extremely bumpy 12 hour plane journey we arrive in Cape Town to meet Paul, the 4th member of our party who had flown out 2 days earlier. As expected we were completely successful in not finding him for 2 hours after we arrived. Once re-untied we all jumped into the hire car and drove up to Table Mountain. At the top of the road is a cable car, which can take you all the way to the top. It was, unfortunately, closed for 2 weeks for maintenance. It is possible to walk the rest of the way, as we found out from Chris, a northern lad from Leeds who was also on the tour and had walked (or climbed depending on your definition of walking) to the top the previous day. Notwithstanding, the view from where we were was magnificent. You can see the whole of Cape Town, Robbens Island (where Nelson Mandella was imprisoned) and out to the Atlantic. It is also well worth driving on past the cable car station to the end of the road as the vista changes with almost every corner. A trip down to the horrible tourist trap that is the Victoria & Alfred docks. A sprawling mass of shops that, overall, bears an uncanny resemblance to the Liverpool docks. Cape Town itself was very much like Birmingham but with the added bonus of a shoe shine. If the view from Table Mountain was good, the two hour drive from Cape Town to Gaansbai offered more spectacular views of the mountainous and rugged West South African countryside.
We stayed at a B&B called De Kelders in a small town just before Gaansbai. http://www.hermanus.co.za/accom/dekeldersbb . Our hosts, Alet & Gerhard, were very nice and extremely helpful. As we arrived last night Chris and Neil, another participant on the tour, regaled us with stories of breaching Southern Wright Whales, which were visible from the bedroom window. As dawn broke we accepted their stories as true. The B&B is situated at the top of the beach over looking the Southern Atlantic where Southern Wright Whales were clearly visible and close to shore as they migrate along the coast towards the Indian Ocean. In fact, Neil, Pat & Dave said that they were awoken by the sound of the whales, they were that close! A nice starter to the day that was to be our first days cage diving with great white sharks. There are currently 8 companies that do cage diving from Gaansbai. This will soon be reduced to 5 when new licences are issued. We did our cage diving with “The White Shark Diving Company” (www.sharkcagediving.co.za ). The 20 minute trip to Dyer Island is a little choppy and the wind dictates which side of the island you will anchor. So the captain, Piet Smal, anchored up on the eastern side of the island and Coenie, the shark man, began his routine. In goes the chum, in goes the cage, out comes the long wait. While waiting for the sharks he gives a full briefing about what to do and what to expect. Sometimes, in a trip that lasts 4-6 hours you won’t see a single shark, others times they are queuing up to give you their phone number. As it turns out we had to wait about 1 ½ hours for our first shark. Words cannot really describe the feeling you get as you see your first Great White glide past the boat. It circled a couple of times and then left. You can’t always guarantee what the shark will do. Some turn up and then disappear, some turn up and stick around. Even the ones that stick around are not necessarily sharks that you will be able to get in the cage to see. It has to have a particular attitude e.g. interested but not overly aggressive or easily scared off. It is the actions and demeanour of the individual shark that determines whether the cage is a viable option or not. A couple of nice specimens arrived and disappeared but alas today was not the day when we would get into the cage. Later, some more sharks arrived that were more enthusiastic so Coenie gave us all some surface displays. When dragging the bait out the back of the boat you have the option of either just letting the shark not have the bait, just teasing him to get him to go where you want him to go, or letting him take it and seeing the mass of white water and the fight between Coenie pulling the bait out of the water with shark attached as it tries, and is invariably succeeds, to take a big chunk from the bait. Seeing the fight, or more importantly the thrashing 12 ft shark from only 3ft away is quite an experience. In a perverse kind of way Robert was not too disappointed with no cage action today, feeling a little fragile after the previous nights excess of wine, beer, Jack Daniels and the almost inevitable regurgitation of same. Back at the B&B and the Whales are having a merry old time breaching while the sun sets over the mountains.
After not getting in the cage yesterday we were determined to get in the bloody thing today, shark or no shark. As it turned out we needn’t have worried. Same drill as yesterday but this time, as the wind has changed direction, and we have left shore a little bit earlier while the sea is a bit calmer, we anchor on the western side where Coenie tells us that they always appear to have more success. Also, we are the only boat there, the other 5 or 6 boats anchoring on the eastern side again. This time a shark turns up after ten minutes and within a couple of passes Coenie tells us to get our wet suits on as this was a shark he could work with. Seeing the shark on the surface is exhilarating enough but to be in the water with it is just the dogs do-da’s !!!!! By pulling the bait in, the sharks come close enough to touch. So close. Such an emotionless face. Such a beautiful creature. So powerful. So graceful. So awe-inspiring. Water temp is around 15 – 17 c and we were told that while we were in the water, if there were sharks there we wouldn’t feel the cold. Damn Right !! It does get cold once you’re out of the water waiting for your next turn in the cage so take a hat and a fleece and a waterproof/windproof jacket or be prepared to keep getting in an out of a wet wetsuit. We all had around 3 sessions in the cage (about 20 minutes a session) with a couple of different sharks. At one point there were 2 sharks at the same time. Viz was about 8 – 10 meters. To finish off the day we had some good surface action as the last shark of the day was allowed to take the bait.
What a day !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Travelling day. Drive to Cape Town – Fly to Durban. Let me get this straight. You are not allowed to take any sharp implements on the plane in your hand luggage and then they go and give you a steel knife to eat your dinner !. Go figure. Met at the airport by Peter of Dive South and driven to our accommodation for the next 4 days, The Ellingham Estate at Rocky Bay near Scotburgh south of Durban. A closed, fenced, guarded complex of 2 bedroom self catering chalets. There would, however, be no self-catering involved as all the cooking from here on in would be done by our hosts from Dive South ( www.divesouth.co.za ), Karin, Reon, Peter & Joke.
Sometimes going to bed isn’t really going to bed, it’s just an excuse to take your clothes off before the sun comes up again. A hearty meal, a few beers and a late night before we have to get up at 5am this morning to leave the camp by 6am for the 40min drive to Margate where we are to dive Protea Banks. Diving is done with African Dive Adventures ( www.cybercraft.co.za/dive ) with Roland Mauz as our dive guide. Reon from Dive South is usually the guide for his clients but he picked up a mysterious ear infection that mysteriously meant that he was unable to dive for the week. Mysterious that ! The boat launch and return has to be seen, or rather done, to be believed. The boat, in our case a 7m RIB, sits on a 2-part trailer. The main bottom support frame with a second frame on top that the boats sits on and, as it turns out, actually tilts. So, the trailer is lowered down the ramp to the beach where the retaining straps are loosened and the trailer tilted to allow the boat to slide onto the beach via 2 large air filled rubber tubes. The observant among you will now notice that firstly, the boat is now actually on the beach rather than in the sea and that, secondly, it’s also facing the wrong way, stern to sea. At this point the 10 or so divers drag the boat around (with all the kit on board) to face the right way. No problem. Those observant readers will now notice that, although we are now facing the right way we are actually still on the beach. So now the boat is dragged to the sea. It gets deep enough fairly quickly so after all the divers jump on it is now time to negotiate the launch through the surf. At this point, despite being divers and wearing wetsuits etc, you have to wear a life jacket in case you get thrown overboard. The boat has to negotiate the in-coming waves, dodging and weaving and, at time, going airborne as you have to punch straight through the waves. Once clear of the breakers it’s life jackets off and full steam ahead to the dive site. In the winter/spring, as we are now, the northern pinnacles are the better dive while the Southern pinnacles are better in the summer. There is invariably a current and today it is a light one, only 1 knot. The dive had some of the warm water reef fish and coral you would expect (water temp was about 20 c, viz around 20 meters). A fair few sharks teeth could be found in the first “cave” while in the second “cave” could be found the teeth’s previous owners – Ragged Tooth Sharks (called Raggies by the locals). So called because of their ……….errrr ragged teeth !! Totally harmless to divers but sharks none the less. 2 -3 meters in length. Very graceful. Quite docile if you don’t get to close and corner them and with a big ugly mouth that the ragged teeth stick out from. The job of the dive guide is not one to envy…….having to look after up to 12 divers all at once in a current while carrying an SMB. If a diver gets separated from the group it is easy for them to surface and get lost in the swell, not seen by the boat who is looking for the SMB, and swept down to the Antarctic. For the return back to the harbour it’s not a case of pulling up along side a jetty and calmly taking the kit off. Oh no! It’s life jackets back on and then after getting through the biggest of the waves its full throttle until you hit the beach, and I do literally mean hit the beach. The boat goes as far up the beach as its speed will take it before settling at 45 degrees in the sand. The second dive was on the Southern Pinnacles. We were warned that there might not be any sharks and there wasn’t. All the usual reef fish and coral and a couple of big Potato Bass. Right at the end of the dive a Ramora swam towards us. It is a fish that attaches itself to sharks for the ride and for the scraps. This one was around 3ft long so it may well have been attached to a very big shark in the vicinity somewhere. Pat was unable to dive today so, despite being a lifeguard and knowing better she decided to go for a snorkel. Whereupon a wave removed her mask & snorkel and deposited her on a nice rock that took a nice lump of skin off the top of her finger. Tsk tsk!!
Another 5am start. Back to Protea Banks and the Northern pinnacles. This time the current was running at about 3 knots – a nice ride by all accounts. Raggies were there again. The dive was videoed by Lloyd of Crystal clear Video Productions (+44 (0)833488116 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting +44 (0)833488116 end_of_the_skype_highlighting) who did a very good job. A very steady hand and knows all the right places to look. On the journey back we encountered 3 humpback whales. Legally you are not allowed to get within 30 meters of the whales but if they come closer to you then count yourself lucky. After the disappointing Southern pinnacles yesterday we decided to do the Northern pinnacles again for the second dive. Raggies were still there. A huge (easily 5ft) eagle ray just at the end of the dive and just at the edge of vision a 4 meter Zambesi (bull) shark cruising in mid water. Those who have dived the Red Sea will be familiar with the life & topography etc (except, of course, the number of resident sharks) though the profusion of fish life is less concentrated in a small area. After this we were taken to Oribi Gorge. A spectacular place. The view down the gorge is amazing. They also have the highest swing jump and highest commercial abseil in the world. Paul decided to do the swing jump. English is a very beautiful and descriptive language. The use of onomatopoeia and assonance could paint a picture that Monet would have been proud of. “Oh you F**king B**tard” was heard from Paul as he leapt off the waterfall. I guess that’s as good a descriptive account of the sensation of free falling 100 meters as any.
What time is it ? 5am ? Must be time to get up then. Today we are diving Aliwal Shoal from a town called Umkomaas. 1st dive was a wreck called The Produce. Carrying molasses it hit the shoal in 1974 travelling from Durban and sank as it tried to limp back to port. Now in 3 parts we dived the stern section. This was fish soup !!! There were fish everywhere. Lionfish, glassfish, wrasse, bass, stonefish, goldfish everything ! On top of that throughout the whole dive you could the click of dolphins and sound whales singing. Fantastic. The only disappointment was the viz which was around 5 meters. There is a paper mill in Umkomaas which sporadically discharges its pulp waste into the sea which it had done a day or two previous. This in addition to the direction of the current brought the silt from the river too. Poor Dave incurred a back injury picking up his shoes but soldiered on to complete the days diving. 2nd dive was on the shoal itself. Viz was a lot better at 15 meters as the current had taken all the sh*t closer to the shore. The water temperature was strange. As you went about the dive there were weird pockets of cold and very warm water. Not your normal thermo clines. It was very strange. All the reef fish, big moray eels and the biggest 3 legged turtle I have ever seen! Well, the fact that it had 3 legs (or should that be fins) makes it a fairly unusual turtle in any case, but it would have been the biggest 4 legged turtle I had ever seen if it had four legs. The fact that it only had 3 legs was just one of those things. 2 or 3 huge blue spotted rays were spotted. Much bigger than their Red Sea namesake. Then off to “Croc World”, a crocodile farm that can have over 10,000 crocs at any one time being breed for their skins and the meat. If there’s an animal alive there must be a way of exploiting it for profit somehow! Following the evening “brai” (the South African equivalent of a BBQ but more elaborate. It’s not just burgers and sausages, it’s the whole meal!) the entertainment consisted of drinking the local fire water. A clear alcohol distilled form Sweetcorn that has a kick the size of a couple of size 14 steel capped DM’s. Taking a shot of this stuff is like being hit round the back of the head with a slice of lemon wrapped round a large brick inside a soft cushion. After the drinking bit came the fire-breathing bit. I swear you could use that stuff to run a car. Those of that persuasion partook of crocodile meat for the evening meal. Very much like chicken apparently, only tougher.
Yet another 5am start and another 2 dives on Aliwal Shaol. Instead of the alarm waking us, the sound of Dave crashing to the floor woke us all up. No screams. Just the sound of soft flesh on a hard floor with miscellaneous bits of furniture following him. His back was very painful today so he spent the day with a chiropractor rather than diving. The last couple of days have been very calm, relatively speaking, and the launches have been very smooth. The first dive had the usual reef fish, turtle, eels etc. Consistent warm water temperature today too. Someone must have left the heaters on last night. One of the Raggies didn’t actually have a dorsal fin. The area, and Protea banks too, is a very popular fishing spot and when the more despicable and unscrupulous boat owners and fisherman catch a shark they have been know to cut the fin off for shark fin soup and then throw the still living shark back. If it survives it is a very lucky shark, relatively speaking of course. For the second dive we had a pod of dolphins with us as we went to the dive site. The dive had sharks etc and on the ride back we came within 20 meters (they swam towards us, obviously) of Humpback whales. What a way to finish the trips diving. Most people have heard about the crime in S. Africa and in some places it’s true but to go to an ATM and to see it guarded by an armed guard, and as you look around all the local features are specifically designed with spikes etc so that groups or individuals can’t just “hang around” is really strange. Off to the Natal Sharks board to do the “Shark Speciality Course” – a course to teach you all about the biology, anatomy and physiology of the shark. Now, it’s a strange but applaudible custom, that on payday the staff take the afternoon off and today was payday. But such is Reon’s organisational skills that he got them to keep the place open especially for us !! An evening spent eating, drinking, singing and playing Dam busters with a 19 year old female Deacon from Pretoria !
A lie-in today – woohoo !! 7:30am !. Travel to Umfolozi-Hluhluwe (don’t ask me how it is pronounced we were practising it for days) game reserve today. On the way to the game reserve we stop for a boat trip on Lake St Lucia. It used to be a delta but now nature has cut it off from the sea so, as the rivers continually flow into it, it is slowly becoming a fresh water lake. It is, on average, about 1 meter deep and there are Zambesi sharks in the lake, trapped from when it got cut off, so we asked if the lake could be dived. “Wouldn’t be much point”, Reon said, “you wouldn’t enjoy it. The viz is bad and the croc’s would have you for diner”. OK then. The boat trip had crocodiles, Fish Eagles, Kingfisher, Goliath Heron’s and what Paul had been waiting for, Hippo’s – and lots of them. Then off to the game reserve. Within 30 minutes of entering we saw 2 rare Reedbucks, herds of impala & nyala, wildebeest, Buffalo, Zebra, Warthog, White Rhino and 10 – 12 Giraffe just standing in the middle of the road. A little further on there are over 100 baboons marching along the road in single file. After the last dive we said to Reon “Can you top that ?” “I’ll do my best,” he says. Not a bad start. Our accommodation is in Hilltop Camp – not a camp at all, but a luxurious self-catering chalet type arrangement. As we sit on the balcony it is so quiet. No commotion, no voices, no cars, no city noises – just what can only be described as “The Sound of Africa”. The only thing that breaks the trance like state it puts you is the tag-team wrestling going on, on the wall between the Gecko Lizards.
Back to the 5am starts ! Game drives start at 6am. Africa opens early !!!!!!! Just before meeting us for the diving Reon had been in the reserve with another group and had spent the whole of the last day desperately trying to find elephants. Within ten minutes of leaving the camp we spot 2 elephants, but only just. You wouldn’t think it would be so difficult to spot these huge animals – they are only within 20 meters of the roadside but they were only noticed out of the corner of Paul’s eye. This is dry season too, when the vegetation is at its thinnest. As the drive continues we see more impala, nyala, giraffe, zebra, etc. We learn the difference between Black & White Rhino dung, which is a lot more helpful than you’d think. Down in the valley a lot of vehicles had stopped to watch a herd of wildebeest that had a white rhino and her calf in tow. Not an especially rare sight but it turns out that there are also 4 lions in the vicinity following the rhino. Unfortunately, even with binoculars, we didn’t see them. Now if God is so clever why didn’t he give us extra super sensory, zoom and see-thru-the-undergrowth™ vision ? eh ? Out on a game walk that morning were Neil & Chris who had an encounter with a very hard looking hyena who, if he worked as a bouncer somewhere, would have had no qualms in turning away Mike Tyson for wearing trainers and for looking a bit girly. Back to the camp, a 4-course breakfast and we’re finished by 9:30. It’s only 9:30 and it feels like the day is half over already. But we take advantage, as it’s the only day of the trip where we actually have nothing to do and nowhere to be – a rest. The temperature is around 25c, some of the rivers have dried up as they are experiencing there driest dry season for a long time. You can’t survive outside without sunglasses, the weather forecast said it’s going to turn cold in Cape Town – only 19c.This is winter !?!?!? Under the balcony are 2 Red Dukers chomping away at the undergrowth. The night drive begins at 6pm. Not only does Africa get up early it also likes to go to bed early too. All the usual animals were present. There was also an Owl perched in the middle of the road. What is it with being on the road ? All this wilderness to live in and they want to be on the road – mind you, we shouldn’t complain, makes them so much easier to spot. Available at the evening restaurant buffet was Ostrich neck and nyala stew – both of which were almost totally unlike chicken.
Another 5am start as we are on a game walk this morning. Russell is our guide and he has a fully loaded rifle over his shoulder. His briefing consists of “If you are charged by a rhino run to the nearest tree and climb up it”. White rhino are relatively docile, don’t bother them and they won’t bother you. On the other hand, Black rhino are very aggressive and will charge you for no other reason than because they are rhinos and they can. They are, however, quite rare and if we do see one we will be lucky and don’t worry, everything will be fine. Ok then. As we walk along he finds piles of rhino dung and nonchalantly breaks them up in his hands as he explains the difference. A pile of white rhino dung about 6ft by 6ft and probably a couple of feet deep marks its territory and as the owner of said dung pile appears, we courteously move out of its way. Well, it’s only fair; it is their path after all. About an 1 ½ in to the walk we find another rhino. Russell takes us a bit closer then stops. He starts ducking and diving, bobbing and weaving, jumping from foot to foot trying to get a look at the rhino. At this point the rhino looks up sniffs the air and realises we are there. At this point Russell notices that it is a black rhino, which then starts to walk towards us. At this point we are all looking around for the nearest tree which just happens to be at least 500 yards away with the rhino about 100 yards away. He directs us rather quickly to move up and across the hill. The rhino also appears to follow this instruction and breaks into a slow trot towards us. So here we are, in the middle of the bush, a safe tree a long way away, with a black rhino showing far too much interest for comfort, but we have a guide with a loaded rifle so everything will be ok. What does Russell do ? Throws a stone at it!! A fist size stone thrown 40 yards like an arrow straight at the rhino’s head and falling 10 yards short. The rhino turns around and scuppers up to the top of the other hill and turns around to look for us. “They’ve got very poor eyesight” Russell says “so just stand still and look like a tree!” Once all is safe, we slowly move off up the hill. “I couldn’t shot it” he said, “they’re worth far too much money for that!”. Two minutes after being blessed with this rare sighting we accidentally stumble onto another rhino. Hid amongst the bush it is only about 30 – 40 yards away and wouldn’t you know, it’s another black rhino !! This one hasn’t seen us and we are downwind so we retreat to a safe distance and take some pictures. Russell hasn’t seen a black rhino for 5 months and today he gets 2 in 5 minutes ! The afternoon was a visit to a Zulu village. A sort of living museum dedicated to preserving and educating others about traditional Zulu Culture. We (try) to learn some Zulu greetings and we see traditional weaving, braiding, medicine man, spear making etc. Our guide explains that woman send their men love letters via a small beaded weaving. She shows us one with beads woven to about a 2 inch square with a white background and 3 red diamonds with smaller black diamonds inside. She explains the white signifies the purity of love, the red means that the heart bleeds for love and the black means that it will cost 11 cows to marry the girl. Just before the Zulu singing/dancing show at the end we get to taste Zulu beer. It is tradition that the Zulu drinks anything before handing it to you to show that it is not poisonous. This they do, but judging by the joking and the laughter as they offer it, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were saying “Yeah, there’s a reason it tastes slightly salty mate”. A very yeasty, milky, almost salty brew with about 3 – 4 % alcohol. Something of an acquired taste I think. The dancing is great – almost spiritual. During the night drive we see all the usual accompaniment of animals. Our guide, Alan, shows us how to recognise hyena poo. It’s white because of all the calcium because the hyena eats all the bones of its kill. Also, when you break it up (what is with guides handling all this animal poo?) it has lots of hairs matted in it. So that’s where all that white dog sh*t went to that you used to see as kids but you just don’t see anymore. We are also very lucky tonight as we have a leopard walk across the road right in front of us and into the bush.
A final lie in before we start the long journey home. From the time we left Hilltop camp to the time we reached home was 27 hours. Everything we’ve seen and done in the last 12 days seems so long ago but it is something that none of us will ever forget. A big thank you to Karin & Reon for being such great hosts and a big hello to Neil & Chris for helping to make it so much fun. And a special hello to Manuel, a German who totally dispelled all stereotypes about Germans!.