- Feature Writer: Lisa Vecchio
- Contemplating life (Courtesy of Jaime)
Sitting on the edge of the small boat, I kept my gaze in front of me on the clear turquoise water. Every few minutes or so I’d hear a shout to “look left” or “get down, look far right,” but it wasn’t intended for me. At least not just yet. Despite taking seasick tablets both the evening before and that very morning, I used all of my concentration to ignore the swaying of the boat from the rough sea. I knew my turn would be coming soon but in the meantime I took notice of what the others did; watching with precision to ensure I knew what I was getting myself into. Before I knew it the skipper called out “Group 5 suit up.”
That was our queue and Jaime and I walked over to one of the ship assistants who handed us a soggy wet suit. I slowly peeled off my shirt and shorts down to my bathing suit. One foot at a time, into the heavy wet costume, until I was I zipped up to my neck looking like a bloated seal. Just perfect, I looked like shark bait.
After leaving the wine lands Jaime and I began a 5 day road trip from Cape Town up to Port Elizabeth. The majority of our destinations were planned along the Garden Route but first we had to make a quick pit stop along the Western Cape to partake in this jaw-dropping, adrenaline rushing mission. Known for being one of the most scenic drives in all of Africa, what was meant to be a relaxing road trip – driving stretches of road sandwiched between mammoth, breathtaking mountains on our left, and a drastic landscape of the Indian Ocean to our right – turned into what I like to call “Adventure Town SA.” Even the baboons showed up again to cause some traffic jams on the semi-vacant highway.
Our first drive was about 2 hours from Paarl to the famous whale-watching seaside town of Hermanus. A cute little downtown comprised of a market in the middle of the historic Old Harbor selling African mementos like jewelry paintings and wooden carvings. Restaurants lined the side-streets with a variety of cuisines, but everyone specialized in fresh seafood. Jaime and I lunched at Burgundy right on the waterfront, sipping crisp South African white wine, each of us wrapped up in a warm blanket to fight off the ocean breeze.
All along the harbor tourists stood out facing the ocean, binoculars glued to their eyes and fingers on the shutter waiting to catch a glimpse of the Southern Right Whales making their journey south. We were lucky that they were still there at the end of November, just the final countdown of their migration before moving on, however I guess we could consider ourselves unlucky that we saw diddly squat despite our best efforts.
Our accommodation in Hermanus was by far the best B&B we stayed at on our quick road trip. 16 Reasons Guesthouse was a small 5 bedroom property that just opened the month before. Owners Ken and Gay from Johannesburg are now spending their retirement entertaining the likes of holiday makers in a beautiful, simple setting of clean white bungalows, a small shallow pool and complimentary breakfast made to order. The homemade muesli with yogurt and honey was by far the best breakfast treat I’ve had in a long while. Ken recommended Jaime and I hit up the local Gecko Bar that evening in the New Harbor, where we sat amongst the townies sipping pints and playing rummy. I would recommend anyone visiting in Hermanus stay at 16 Reasons Guesthouse.
The next morning we drove 45 minutes north to Kleinbaai to meet Shark Lady Adventures for our Great White cage dive. Gulp. We walked into the headquarters just in time to hear a group of Americans, who would also be joining our dive, make jokes about Texans. We slowly inched our way into the group but shyly kept to the back debating whether we should speak up and defend Jaime’s home State.
After being called up to bat and putting on our wetsuits, I approached the edge of the boat and took a handful of deep breaths. We went through the safety briefing prior to heading out to sea and I can rest assured that all precautions have been implemented. A metal cage which can fit 4 people leans against the side of the boat. The metal bars criss-cross and leave about a foot wide opening between each set of bars – big enough to put your hand or foot through, but small enough to restrict a shark’s face. Inside the outer cage is a set of bars at chest level, and another bar about two feet under where my feet stop floating. Between those bars and the outer cage is foam cushioning to keep the cage afloat, but only on the very top.
I’m the last one to climb in and I can feel panic setting in. I now officially look like a bloated seal having a seizure. Once I’m submerged all I have to do is say the word and they’ll assist me – that is as long as there isn’t a shark just in front of the cage! I face my fear and get in the water as they shut the metal bars over our heads. My hands clasp the chest-level bar and they have us do a test. As we’re just wearing eye masks, we’re meant to hold our breaths, grabbing onto the top bar while hooking our feet under the lower one. That is meant to keep us weighed down as we survey the water for the sharks. I couldn’t reach the lower bar with my feet so just had to make do, taking caution that none of my limbs accidently float out of the holes in the cage. We raised our heads out of the water after a few seconds and gave the clear that we were all okay. Then it’s time to start for real!
The skipper stands out on a small plank and throws a giant baited fish head out to the sea in front of us. As we’re the last group to go, just 3 of us out of the 19 on the boat, the sharks already have the hang of it. Before we know it he’s yelling “down now, to your left”, and a massive Great White sails by our faces protected by the cage bars. Now that was exhilarating! After a few minutes in the water I completely regain my calm and start to enjoy the experience. These creatures are actually quite calm; not at all the man eating Jaws I had always envisioned. In between shark visitors, we casually float with our heads out of the water, our feet treading in the open sea. Looking out I see a dark shadow approaching then massive teeth flaring towards us as the shark jumps out of the water to snatch the fish head. I let out a huge, “ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” Now that is what I call frightening.
As we carried on for about 20 minutes in the water the sea began to change as the day grew later. Unfortunately for us, it changed for the worse and visibility got really poor. At times sharks were nearly up against the cage, but all I could see was a massive grey blob. I think if the visibility were better it would have been a whole lot more intimidating to look one of those big guys in the eye.
I don’t normally go in the ocean. In fact, I have a pretty strict rule of “not past the knees.” I mean, I live in Sharkville, Australia for crying out loud. But before Australia even, South Africa is the shark capital of the world. That day I conquered one of my worst fears. And would you believe me if I told you I’d do it again?
Shark Lady Adventures provided warm soup and bread for the tour group after we returned to land. The 19 of us sat around sipping our soup and watching the video and photos from the days adventure. After we left I was feeling pumped with adrenaline from my recent accomplishment and decided it was time to keep it alive. I turned to Jaime and said, “I think it’s my turn to drive, let me give her a spin around the block.” Yup, after 6 years of not driving and never have driven on the left hand side of the road my shark diving adventure had given me the confidence to get behind the wheel.
Just as suspected it was like riding a bike. I began our longest leg of our trip to Mossel Bay, where the Garden Route begins. The landscape was unsuspecting, going from serene mountain ranges to rolling hills. I felt like I could have been in middle America as bales of hay and tumbleweeds went by. The trickiest part of all was managing South African driving. We’d be stuck behind a truck going 80 in a 120 kilometer zone at the same time being passed by a car going 170, all while dodging the random people who walk the highways testing their luck. Just before we approached the lacklustre town of Mossel Bay I saw my first Zebra and Springbok. I was definitely looking forward to seeing where the next few days on our road trip would lead us.