Becoming shark bait

Contemplating life (Courtesy of Jaime)

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.

Trying to blend in(courtesy of Jaime)

Trying to blend in(courtesy of Jaime)

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 jewellery, 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. 

Taking notes during lunch at Burgundy (Courtesy of Jaime)

Taking notes during lunch at Burgundy (Courtesy of Jaime)

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.

Shark Lady Adventures

Shark Lady Adventures

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.

Great White Cage Diving

Into the cage!

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!

We were even closer than this at times (Courtesy of Jaime)

We were even closer than this at times (Courtesy of Jaime)

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.

Quick 10 second You Tube videos of the sharks and us in the cage
Baiting the shark:
Jaime and Lisa in the cage: 

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?

Us in our glory afterwards! (Courtesy of Jaime)

Us in our glory afterwards! (Courtesy of Jaime)

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.

The open road (Courtesy of Jaime)

The open road (Courtesy of Jaime)

Road Tripping

On September 26, 2012 my New Jersey state driver license expired. For months leading up to this day anxiety had been seeping in.  I doubt I’ll ever drive again, I thought.

It began back in 2006. Yes, I know, 6 whole years ago! I cleaned out the interior of my Hyundai Elantra hatchback, parked it at the top of the drive, locked the doors and barley looked back. Mere hours later I was on a plane to London where I’d live for the next 12 months. Public transport became my haven. It felt like nearly every other weekend I was catching a bus at 4 am to a remote airport to fly a budget airline to a random European city where I would hop on a train to get downtown where Id ride a ferry down the river to admire the views and then walk back to my hostel. Yes, public transportation very much so became my haven.

Salzburg Airport

Arriving at Salzburg Airport in 2006

I returned to the US in April 2007 and took my good old hatchback for a few spins around southern New Jersey while painfully interviewing for jobs. But just one month later I relocated up north, and became one of them city folk. A Car! What car? All I heard amongst the sirens and horn beeps was hassle.

City parking meant street cleaning on the 4th day at 3rd hour of the week each month. And who wants to move their car every week? Or drive around the block 15 times until your head explodes and you start imagining that your car is smaller than it really is and maybe, just maybe it will fit in between the yellow lines very close to the fire hydrant but really, what are the chances they’ll need to use it today? But it doesn’t fit anyway. No way I say. See you for good Hyundai Elantra.

So I got a bike. And I loved it. And I rode it to work every day. Up the hills, on the sidewalks, to the bars, and safely locked it out front of the gate next to my brownstone’s stoop. And nearly every other weekend for someone’s birthday, engagement, shower, wedding, fiesta, just because I’m your friend/related to you I was on the Bolt Bus traveling from 34th and 8th in Manhattan to the parking lot of Red Lobster outside the Cherry Hill Mall. It costs $12, has leather seats and free Wi-Fi, and beats battling my own personal road rage. Back in town though I took the subway, and cabs, and my own two feet when not on bicycle. And it worked. For four whole years.

Beach Cruiser Bike

My sweet cruiser

Then in May 2011 I arrived in Brisbane. And I said again, a car, no way! Not me…I haven’t driven in years. You don’t want me driving on the other side of the road anyway. So I take two buses to work. It takes 30 minutes, but if I walk home it takes 45. I also take the train, rarely the ferry, and too often a much overpriced cab. And it seems to go okay.

Why Not Street Brisbane

Why Not Street Bus Stop, West End, Brisbane

But then September 26 started approaching. I searched high and low the New Jersey DMV’s website and it seemed impossible to get a license renewed when living abroad on a foreign visa. So then then I thought I’d renew it when back in the States last, but then I realized I’m ‘technically’ now a resident of Pennsylvania, and that’s a whole other piece of sticky red tape. So, I came to terms with the fact that I may never drive in the foreseeable future. Or at least, in order to do so I may actually have to take the driver’s test again. Gulp.

Who knew though, apparently the people who informed me did, that getting a Queensland driver license was as simple as pie? It’s okay that I haven’t driven in 6 years, and have never driven on the left hand side of the road, and cannot drive a manual car. I walked into their Department of Transport, handed over my passport and nearly expired New Jersey license, paid $250 for a 5 year licence, and wallah! I am still a licensed driver for the next 5 years now under an Australian driver’s license. But, you’re not allowed to smile. They’re very strict about this one element of it.

Next week the true test comes into to play. I’m traveling to South Africa, have a reservation booked for Avis rent-a-car and will be road tripping the Garden Route from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth with a friend. A friend, who very similarly moved to London in 2006 (pictured with me at the Salzburg airport in fact), and has been living in Manhattan ever since. What I’m getting at is that we’re in the same boat. The good news is they say it’s just like riding a bike, something I’m proud to say I am very good at!

Stay tuned to hear all about it…