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: http://youtu.be/_WcVVGTJMmA
Jaime and Lisa in the cage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oq9foAzSnQQ 

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)

A lekker reunion


In the summer of 2006 I was introduced to a culture I never knew existed. Whilst living in London an American friend had befriended a colleague who invited us to a South African bar in Leytonstone called Zulus (now unfortunately the Red Lion). It seemed like nearly every South African in London flocked to East London where they could bunch up 12 people in a 3 person flat and pay cheap rent – so Zulus was perfectly situated.

Zulus was a hole in the wall where Afrikaans from across London would meet regularly, braii (BBQ) next to the sand volleyball courts out the back, and sip on Savanna’s. Downstairs was a pub decorated in African trinkets with zebra fabric and wooden statues. Upstairs the club got too rowdy for my liking. At Zulus, you’re more likely to hear Afrikaans spoken over English. And it became our world.

From there slowly but shortly my close friends and I became dear friends with a household of South Africans. There were 6 guys and 3 girls living in poorly reputed Forest Gate in East London, and about 45 minutes west on the Tube sat our sad dwelling otherwise known as the Crack House on the cusp of posh Maida Vale and decrepit Kilburn Park. We were similarly 5 girls and 3 boys shacked up into 4 bedrooms.

Nearly every weekend we made the trip east, or vise versa, and became immersed in their South African customs. Days were spent laying in the sun, braiiing over wood boards in the backyard and learning how to say Afrikaans sayings like Hoe gaan dit? and lekker. At night, it was off to Zulus where we would be a select few American girls trying our Afrikaans out on foreign boys and dancing the traditional, ballroom-esque dance of langarming. Other weekends a handful of them would shack up at ours, bodies sprawled out on couch cushions haphazardly on the floor after hosting our traditions of an American BBQ with red Solo cups and beer pong.

Christmas 2006 was my first Christmas away from home. Although sad to be away from friends and family, my best friend Emily and I couldn’t have had a better second option spending Christmas in Forest Gate amongst a plethora of South Africans who cooked us a traditional feast before heading off to Zulus and dancing the night away. Just 5 months later our Visa’s had expired and we had to head back to the States. Saying goodbye to our colleagues and closest American friends was hard, but saying goodbye to the South Africans was equally as depressing. We swore one day we’d make it to South Africa to see them again and experience their culture in their own country.

Prior to meeting them I had encountered a few South African whilst living in London in 2003 and Scotland in 2005, but experiencing the Afrikaans culture was very new to me. Friends and family at home curiously questioned when I told them about my new friends whether they were black or white. The ignorance of white African’s living in Africa was not assumed. Do they make clicking noises when they speak? I had never before heard of Apartheid – how is it that us Americans have been so sheltered from far-off monumental global affairs? I don’t recall my high-school history class going into detail about Nelson Mandela and the race struggle that is still so apparent today.

Since returning from London, both myself and my good friend Jaime have ventured overseas nearly every year continuing our travel legacies. This past November was the year, and Jaime and I prepared for our trip to South Africa. With only 16 days to make the most of an enormous country we planned and detailed our route. We’d spend a handful of days in the cosmopolitan of Cape Town, where mountains and sea create a unique city like none I’ve experienced anywhere before. From there, we’d drive to the wine lands to meet up with our old friends the boys, before road tripping the Garden Route on the Eastern Cape and ending with a 4 day safari in Sabi Sands and Kruger National Park.

Prior to arriving I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was told Johannesburg was a dangerous city, ranked 50 on the global scale and even walking around during the day was unadvisable, so we chose not to spend time there.  A ranking of 50 is bad, but my college city of Baltimore is rated worse. Carjacking and mugging is common in general apparently, and the police are corrupt. You’re better off paying off a cop to avoid a night in the slammer then facing what’s on the other side.

With blacks as the majority they rule the country. But did that mean we necessarily should have something to fear? Many acquaintances we met along our travels were bitter – with the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) program stating that those disadvantaged by Apartheid are given preference for jobs before a white person – our friends fled to London in their 20s claiming there was no work and earning the pound allowed for a solid sum to send home to their families. In South Africa, a black person is black, a mixed person is colored, and Indians and some Chinese are classified under this rule. Saying your black or white isn’t taboo. You don’t look over your shoulder wondering if someone overheard and thinks you’re being racist. It is reality and government decisions are based on race. With that said, many question current policy leaders.

The reality for us then constituted, what is safe? Are we supposed to tip toe around and fear everything and everyone? What happened to giving the benefit of the doubt first, and judging second? This was a topic Jaime and I discussed in detail every night before we went to bed. Even locals say they fear walking the streets. Is this all a bit of paranoia or is it really as bad as they say?

Amongst the various travelers we met on our journey, from a middle-aged Afrikaans couple, to Irish sweethearts, a young South African miner to random people on the street – it was always a topic of conversation. “Two young white girls like you have to be careful.” “Don’t stop for anyone, lock your doors every time you get in the car, and hide the GPS.” “Take a taxi, even though its two blocks, always take a taxi.” Ultimatley, we opted for better safe than sorry. But I still question, is that a way to live? We felt it from the bottom of the country all the way to the top. In the end however, the people we met from tour operators to restaurant owners to taxi drivers to people in bars, the South Africans provided a warm and interesting experience.

Cape Point

L&J and Cape Point

On our fourth day we rented a car in Cape Town and headed to Cape Point, one of the most southerly points in Africa. I let Jaime do the driving at the onset and played navigator often providing friendly reminders about being on the other side of the road despite the GPS as we headed south. By the time we reached Cape Point the fog and rain had cleared and we hiked to the top of the lighthouse, weary of the Beware of Baboon signs sticking out from the bush. The guys had warned us to leave early, the 3 of them calling throughout the day pressing how horrific Cape Town traffic could be. But at this point, we were already late.

South African Baboons

Baboons!

Driving out from the Cape Point lighthouse traffic was a stand still. Would you believe it? Baboons! A truck was stopped just two cars ahead and had baboons hanging off its passenger side. Others aimlessly walked in the road, then scurried into the bush with a baby clinging to its chest. We sat there for about 15 minutes, snapping photos and admiring the vulgar, aggressive animals. Yup, we were definitely going to be late.

Finally, hours later we arrived at our old friend Cedric’s house in Paarl, situated in the center of the beautiful wine lands. Standing in the driveway awaiting our arrival with a beer in his hand, I nearly cried when he picked me up and spun me around. “I know you like beers,” he said, and we went inside.

After a bit of catching up, we were desperately late arriving to the braii at Jacques after 8 pm. Then again, we were on South African time. Being with Ced and his wife Althea, Jacques and Felicity and their new daughter Mackenzie, and Derek and his girlfriend felt like old times in London. We sat for hours reminiscing about the these times – each of us remembering different stories in a variety of detail. I even thanked them for speaking English with us around, as it is their second language. By the time the braii got going, and man do South Africans like their meat, it was after 10 pm on a Tuesday night. They say South Africa comes second to Argentina when it comes to meat consumption.

south african friends

Old friends, good times

Since leaving London at some point over the past 6 years we’ve all grown up a bit, but it still was as if none of the important stuff had changed. The guys are all married now, in their mid-thirties, and Jaime and I despite our cubicle-life, Ced’s right, we do like beers.

Paarl winelands

Paarl winelands

The following morning Ced and Althea took the day off of work to tour us around the wine region. From Paarl to Stellenbosch we took our time sampling wine and cheese from 4 different wineries, while Ced kindly did the driving. I was delighted to be introduced to pinotage, a South African red staple, which a bottle from Rhebokskloof Estate had to come with me.

snoek

Snoek!

That evening, we sat around the braii in the front yard as Ced cooked the snoek, a common fish found in the southern hemisphere and we had another late dinner relaxing in the summer breeze. The next morning, saying good bye was sad, it all went so fast. From here on out we were on our own in South Africa again, and Jaime and I began our road trip on the Garden Route, just her and I on the open road.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts on Cape Town, the Garden Route, and our African Safari.

Good Hope FM

Road tripping to Good Hope FM