Our Once-in-a-Lifetime Diving Trip through Africa: Notes from the Road

We are a young couple, Charlotte (Charlie) Grahame and Mark Durham, both aged 27, leaving at the beginning of summer to begin a several months-long adventure to bring the underwater wonders of the East African coast from South Africa to Egypt to adventure seekers and diving enthusiasts.

For the first time, cyber addicts will be able to dive underwater along the East African Coast. Armchair explorers will be able to follow our progress and use it as an information database to plan their own adventures. We will be providing updates as we go along detailing information about dive sites and the flora and fauna we encounter.

As we go along, we will also be completing an Ocean Vigil marine survey. This is an ongoing survey for all sea-users to help record the state of the world’s oceans. It is run by the Marine Conservation Society, a charity dedicated to the protection of the marine environment.

 

End of May

We’re off at long last. As you read this, we are well on the way to Durban, South Africa enjoying the comforts of Winter Wave. We’re due to arrive in Durban sometime beginning September. We’ll update once we’ve orientated ourselves and christened our wetsuits a few times.

 

June

The Sardine Run occurs in June when the sardines head north from the Cape. Miles upon miles of shoals of sardines meet about 40km south of Kwazulu Natal Border. These shoals eventually break out and travel north, hugging the Natal coastline. Right on the tails of these shoals are, the predators; Humpback Whales, Bottlenose and Common Dolphins, Sharks, Turtles, Game fish, and a host of Marine Birds: White Chinned Petrels, Cape Gannets, Storm Petrels and Albatross to name a few. Call us slightly deranged if you like but we are aiming to dive with the sardines and hope to catch the action on camera for the site.

As we were in the area waiting for the Sardine Run to kick off, Swinny from Aliwal Dive Charters invited us for a few dips to check out diving conditions. Although the water was supposed to be cleaner at this time of year, we hit a bad weekend. Vis was down and compared to the dives with the Ragged Tooth Sharks last September (see below), the few dives we did this time were a little disappointing. We are assured however that the sea conditions and visibility in winter is usually much better. Our advice if you dived at this time of year would be to either concentrate on the wrecks as the clearer waters and calmer seas are perfect for wreck exploration; or use your dive to get close to the reef and search for little life such as nudibranches, anemones, lionfish, moray eels and rays. As we weren’t looking for raggies this time it gave us ample opportunity to thoroughly look around the swim-throughs, caves and overhangs of the Shoal.

Also, whale watching! The waters surrounding Southern Africa boast 40 different kinds of marine mammal. Boat based whale and dolphin watching is fast becoming one of South Africa’s most popular tourist industries. Humpbacks are the most frequently seen in Kwazulu Natal.

The Humpback Whales move North from Antarctica to mate and breed in the warmer waters of Southern Mozambique before beginning their return journey south in late August. Between May and September, Humpbacks can be seen close to shore along the Natal coastline.

 

July

After leaving Margate and Protea Banks pretty much disappointed, we received an email from African Dive Adventures bragging about the 300 Hammerheads they’d been diving with 3 weeks later…….. We just had to come back.

This time the ocean was on our side. We did 10 dives mainly on the Southern Pinnacles and our regular dive buddies were 2 meter Zambezi Sharks, schools of adult Scalloped Hammerheads and large Shovelnosed Rays (some call them Guitar or Sand Sharks). A large Manta Ray surprised us on one dive and Mark just happened to be in the right place to take this lovely shot of it during it’s 10 second inspection of us.

Protea Banks lie approximately 8km offshore from Shelly Beach, near Margate. Only Advanced Divers should attempt diving here as the reef begins at 30 meters. If you’re fit it helps as the currents can be strong at times. Stretching over 10km, the area for diving is concentrated on the higher pinnacles (Northern and Southern) which cover approximately 3km.

Protea Banks is not yet a protected area or Marine Reserve. The numbers of sharks that visit this area have been tremendous but they’re apparently on a decline. Likely causes are mainly the long liners and the finning trade (Sharks Fin Soup); other contributors are the Shark nets placed by the Natal Sharks Board to create safe bathing; Gamefishing – a very popular sport in this area. While diving Protea, we heard the latest ‘tough guy’ story of a champion spearfisherman who proudly bragged about his shooting 5 adult Zambezi Sharks with a powerhead (spears that explode on impact) because they were eating all ‘his’ fish. They did not stand a chance. This is apparently an illegal practice but in order to convict, you must catch someone in the act. Keep your eyes peeled and camera at the ready.

 

August

Learnt several valuable lessons today. Plan, plan an alternative and plan a back up option. Fill up the jerry cans with fuel and take enough cash. Today was a weird day, travelling through the near Twilight Zone of the Transkei. Road signs disappeared as soon as we entered the region known as the Wild Coast. Such a beautiful but alien landscape, it felt as if we were in the middle of a film set. Planning to drive for 300km, it ended up as 500km as we missed our turn off as well as our back up route. For 9 hours (yes, our vehicle likes to take her time uphill), we drove past awesome rolling hills, some lush with Sugar Cane, some barren and charred, many littered with car wrecks. The sun was fading fast and due to our miscalculations, our only option was to keep driving into the dark. Words of advice from everyone we’d met kept ringing in our ears “Don’t, whatever you do, drive through the Transkei at night”.

Over the past decade, towards the end of the apartheid era, the Transkei, birthplace of Nelson Mandela, has gained a reputation as a violent region in which to travel. This was not only confirmed by the masses of car wreckages along the road, but on a couple of occasions during the course of one day, we felt more than a little threatened and utterly unwelcome when we stopped to buy food and diesel in the towns en-route. Yes perhaps we were just having a bad day and met the wrong people. Our aim of these words are not to dissuade anyone from visiting the region, just to warn against doing what we did. Instead, plan each day’s travel thoroughly.

Charlie was frantically scrabbling through the Guidebook to try and find an alternative destination once we knew our plans had backfired. We finally rocked up at Gonubie Caravan Park at about 9pm with no cash and hardly any fuel left in the tank. A right couple of fools having missed some spectacular sights and driven like fury to get over the border.

Our original plan was to spend a couple of nights in Dwesa Nature Reserve which is apparently a stunning hiking and potential diving area along the Wild Coast, and I’m sure that if planned well you can thoroughly enjoy the coastal resorts of the Transkei. It is recommended, however that you take a 4×4 as the roads leading to the coast are apparently pot hole ridden and unsurfaced. Also ensure you do your vehicle checks before entering the region. You really wouldn’t want a break down here. No photos this time around as we felt that flashing around a Nikon or Sony was none too clever!

 

September

Our first week aboard WinterWave couldn’t have been better…. By day, we relaxed on the pool deck, splashed around in the pool, sunbathed on the bow while Whales and Dolphins came to say hello. Using the swimming pool as a testing ground for our Scubapro equipment, we also took the opportunity to offer trial scuba dives to willing crew members. Cruising down the West African Coast was such a good idea. So glad we’re here. We were looking forward to crossing the Equator where we could test out Coreolis’ Theory in the bathroom sink (because we’re sad tourists) and of course look for the Southern Cross.

Chief Cook – Hans, kept hinting that there is an initiation for those who have never crossed the Equator. Something about King Neptune… I don’t know. We assumed, wrongly, that as passengers, we would be looked after well. So we relaxed.

We crossed, the evening of 29th August. No drama. No storm. No flash of light. No Keel Hauling. No ship turning upside down. In fact, the only odd thing all evening was that it was freezing. The hottest place in the world and it was damn cold. So where was the initiation ceremony? Phew. Got away with it….

At around 4pm the following day, Mark and I were handcuffed, arrested and thrown into a locked cell by 2 inebriated, red-cheeked men dressed in sheets and seaweed. Strange. During the course of the next 30minutes, other uninitiated crew were thrown into the cell with us. Our warden at first seemed to take pity on us and gave us a beer each. We later realized that this was not in fact very friendly at all if you consider the foul mixtures that were to be forced down our gullets later on. I was first to be dragged away, leaving Mark to only wonder what was being done to me…….. And we thought the Swedes were a friendly bunch…At least we weren’t charged or held for long.

 

October

Finally, we arrived in Durban, and after enjoying the company of various officials and agents, we drove Our vehicle south from Durban just in time for our first dive with the outspoken and inspirational campaigner on marine issues, Andy Cobb.

Andy has been diving for over 20 years and in that time has amassed an impressive wealth of knowledge. We joined his shark course and really felt privileged to listen to a man so committed and passionate about the fundamental conservation questions facing South Africa and the world.

The course focused on biological structure of the shark, the demise of the shark through fishing, the unnecessary fear of a misinformed public, the etiquette of diving with sharks and of course the dives with the sharks themselves.

We will not give away the course information as we feel it needs to come from Andy himself. See what he has to offer with regard to awareness courses and organized trips from foreign countries. This is the sort of instruction that dive education is all about.

One of the many messages that Andy Cobb, along with several other operations in the Natal area, is trying to get across is that we, as divers, must behave responsibly and know exactly what disastrous effect we can have on the marine environment. Unfortunately, some transient guides and dive-charters do not have that local knowledge and passion for the protection of ocean life and do not see far enough into the future to recognize that the sustainability of marine resources is vital for diving tourism.

Leave a Reply