Southern Africa - South African Diary by Robert Mackenzie
Wednesday July 11th 2001
I'd decided that I wanted to do some cage diving with Great White Sharks. Two obvious places are South Africa and Australia. South Africa is closer, so how do I go about finding out and how much will it cost? Oh, and do any of my diving buddies want to go too ?
The next few weeks
First thing I did was put a posting on a couple of Diving website forums requesting any info people had. It wasn't long before the e-mails were coming in with websites to look at, people to contact, time of year to go etc.. With these, standard holiday brochures and the results of searches on the Internet I found around 6 or 7 holiday companies in South Africa that looked like they could help.
Now I had to decide what I wanted to do. I could go through the long tedious self-question and answer process for you but in the end I decided that South Africa was a long way to go. This meant the flight wouldn't be cheap, so I was going to do as much as possible while I was there. I wanted to do the cage diving, "normal" diving and a bit of safari.
With the info I got, mainly from the net, I drew up a month by month calendar and detailed what happened in every month eg, viz bad, poor weather, who could go when, good chance of shark activity etc. In the end I decided on August. The chance of a Great White sighting was good, it was Ragged Tooth Shark mating season, the weather would be neither too hot nor too cold, Whales were migrating along the coast toward the Indian Ocean, and the 4 people who were really up for being a bit of shark bait could all spare the time.
But, to do what I wanted I needed to do the cage diving on the South West Coast, the normal warm water diving on the South East coast and the safari inland over towards the east and due to family commitment I wanted to try to fit it all into about 10-12 days. Oh yes, and I wasn't a lottery winner either so it had to be a decent price.
Right, so I'm left with two. One of the Companies, DiveSouth I got a real good vibe about. They would tailor-make a trip to wherever I wanted, for however many people I wanted and gave me some contacts in the UK who had previously done their trips.
So this was the plan:
Day 1 fly to Cape Town, South Africa
Day 2 Arrive and go to accommodation
Day 3 Cage Diving
Day 4 Cage diving
Day 5 Fly to Durban
Day 6 Dive Protea Banks/Aliwal Shoal
Day 7 Dive Protea Banks/Aliwal Shoal
Day 8 Dive Protea Banks/Aliwal Shoal
Day 9 Dive Protea Banks/Aliwal Shoal
Day10 Drive to Game Reserve
Day 11 Safari
Day 12 Safari
Day 13 Fly home
And this is what happened
Thursday 15th Aug 2002
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.
Friday 16th Aug
The first two days of the trip would be spent without the people from Dive South, before we met them on Monday. In the meantime they had organised absolutely everything for us and were only a phone call away as they were coming down from Sodwana bay with some other trippers.
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-united 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.
Saturday 17th Aug
The Cage diving was out of a town called Gaansbai and we stayed at a B&B called De Kelders in a small town just before Gaansbai called De Kelders
A nice starter to the day that was to be our first day's 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, Phillip, 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 and take you to the bingo. As it turns out we had to wait about 11/2 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 demeanor 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 letting the shark just 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 successful, 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.
Sunday 18th Aug
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 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 metres. 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 !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Monday 19th Aug
Drive to Cape Town. Fly to Durban.
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. Karin & Reon own the Company. Karin tends to do the organising type stuff and most of the cooking etc while Reon does most of the doing stuff. He's an experienced diver and knows loads about underwater life, safari life etc. A walking, talking guidebook.
I'd met Reon about a year before when he did a presentation to our diving club (Corby & District Subaqua Club (www.cadsac.co.uk) and he must see hundreds of faces in his job but as soon as he saw me he recognised me "Ah Robert, finally you have made it to South Africa. You won't be disappointed" and a big all-knowing smile that I would get used to seeing.
I hadn't been disappointed so far but the rest of the trip had to be pretty good to match the first few days.
I wasn't disappointed.
Tuesday 20th Aug
Sometimes going to bed isn't really going to bed, you're there for such a short time that 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 do 2 dives on Protea Banks. Diving is done with African Dive Advetures (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 an ear infection that meant that he was unable to dive for the week.
The boat launch and return has to be seen, or rather done, to be believed. It gets deep enough fairly quickly so after all the divers jump on (ladies first!) 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 times, going airborne as you have to punch straight through the waves. We were blessed with relatively calm seas. Nothing you would attempt to launch a boat through in the UK but to the Skipper it was peanuts !
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, a 5mm 2piece wetsuit I found was fine, 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. They just gently swim around, weaving in and out and between everybody, cruising along, confident in the knowledge that even though they are strangely beautiful creatures with the temperament of a Labrador, they are still sharks none-the-less.
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 it's full throttle until you, literally, hit the beach. The boat goes as far up the beach as it's speed will take it before settling at 45 degrees.
The second dive was on the Southern Pinnacles. We were warned that there might not be any sharks and unfortunately there weren't. All the usual reef fish and coral and a couple of big Potato Bass. Right at the end of the dive a Remora 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.
"So how was your first day at Protea ?" Reon asked with that knowing smile. "Not bad" I said sarcastically. I am beginning to see why he has that smile. He knows how good the diving is and ultimately how good the whole trip will be and by the end of trip you'll can do nothing but smile knowingly as well.
Wednesday 21st Aug
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. On the journey back we encountered 3 humpback whales. Legally you are not allowed to get within 30 meters of the whales so you shut of the engine and just drift along and 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. So you do the cage diving with Great Whites but open water diving with Bull and Tiger sharks that are responsible for more human attacks and are more unpredictable. Strange that.
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 per sq. meter.
Thursday 22nd Aug
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 hear the click of dolphins and the sound of whales singing. Fantastic. The only disappointment was the viz which was around 5 meters.
All the reef fish, big moray eels and the biggest 3 legged turtle I have ever seen ! 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.
Friday 23rd Aug
Yet another 5am start and another 2 dives on Aliwal Shaol.
The first dive had the usual reef fish, turtle, eels etc. 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 the now obligatory reef fish and 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.
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
Saturday 24th Aug
A lie-in - woohoo !! 7:30am !. Travel to Umfolozi-hluhluwe game reserve today.
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.
This area is designated a medium risk malaria zone. We took Malarone anti-malarial tablets. They are the most expensive but are supposed to have the least side-affects. We stopped taking them on 25th as we didn't see a single mosquito. It's just too cold for them this time of year.
Sunday 25th Aug
Back to the 5am starts ! Game drives start at 6am. Africa opens early !!!!!!!
Within ten minutes of leaving the camp we spot 2 elephants, but only just. 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.
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, so a long earned rest.
The temperature is around 25?C, some of the rivers have dried up as they are experiencing there driest dry season for a long time,
The night drive begins at 6pm. Africa also goes to bed early.
Available at the evening restaurant buffet was Ostrich neck and nyala stew - both of which were almost totally unlike chicken.
Monday 26th Aug.
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".
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.
During the night drive we see all the usual accompaniment of animals. We are also very lucky tonight as we have a leopard walk across the road right in front of us and into the bush.
Tuesday 27th Aug
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.
Robert McKenzie - Author of this report
www.cadsac.co.uk - my local BSAC club website
www.divesouth.co.za - Holiday Company
www.hermanus.co.za/accom/dekeldersbb - B&B at De Kelders near Gaansbai
www.cybercraft.co.za/dive - Diving at Protea Banks
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.